The dead you can save

Elie Wiesel
A new translation from the French by Marion Wiesel
Hill and Wang, 2006 [orig. Les Éditions de Minuit, 1958]

I remember … A young Jewish boy discovered the Kingdom of Night. … And now the boy is turning to me. “Tell me,” he asks, “what have you done with my future, what have you done with your life?” (118)

Night is Wiesel’s answer to the question he puts forward in the voice of his younger self here, in the Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech he gave in 1986 (reprinted in the Hill and Wang edition). The question is also a demand, issued to posterity by all those who have been through the night, to remember that chilling black moment in the history of humanity, to keep the story alive, never to let the voice that the night once seems to have utterly consumed sink into silence.

Night, more precisely perhaps, is a centrepiece, a core and constant reference point in Wiesel’s task of answering the question, of responding to the call to be remembered. “If in my lifetime I was to write only one book, this would be the one” (vii), Wiesel writes in the Preface to the new translation (from French by his wife, Marion Wiesel). It is not the whole of it; it cannot be. Wiesel himself must revisit it over and over again (though Night led to Dawn, and to Day). Neither can the reader read it through once and be done with it. For the question which Wiesel raises and addresses in this book cannot be answered, settled, resolved, once and for all. The work of response—the task of recollecting, mourning, understanding, and just possibly, hoping—is interminable.

That is how it has to be, how it might just as well be. For, first, if Night were at the end of the day no more than a source of information about a historical event, why would one have to acquire that information through this book? After all, today we all know the story; it is well-woven in most history curricula, and widely available in books, films, monuments, sites, and other cultural products. Granted the psychological appeal of Wiesel’s first-hand, memoirist narrative, if learning what happened were the point, a more objective, comprehensive narrative might be preferable to Wiesel’s fragmentary, confessional style that blurs the border between fiction and non-fiction.

But no: one does not read Night in order to answer a question, but rather to raise one, to join in the voice of the author who raised it as a means to survive; the man whose life turned upon the life of this question; the man whose life, therefore, continues on as long as others, following him, keep the question heard.

And the question is less what than why: why any or all of this, why go on, and why go on asking this question? It has no final answer; it therefore must be raised again and again. Having read Night, one has not answered a question; one has only begun asking it. For Wiesel as well as for his reader, finishing the book is not the end of it; it is an occasion for our first response.

Wiesel’s faith, whose wavering, whose gradual exhaustion, is perhaps the most compelling and challenging element in his narrative, consists in asking questions. Wiesel speaks of Moishe, his childhood mentor:

Man comes close to God through the questions he asks Him, he liked to say. …
“And why do you pray, Moishe?” I asked him.
“I pray to the God within me for the strength to ask Him the real questions.” (5)

Moishe tells Eliezer also that, even if God replies, we cannot understand the replies. As I said, this might just as well be so, if, as again Moishe insists, “every question possessed a power that was lost in the answer” (5), if, in other words, questions that are finally and decisively answerable fail because of that to get to the heart of the matter, the inscrutable mystery of reality. What matters is to see, and to recognise what we so brutally lies in front of our eyes as a question that needs to be heard, forever unresolved—a question that begs us to respond. Thus the Kingdom of Night will always be with us, haunting us like the shadow of our own bodies.

Why, however, keep asking questions, especially if we know that we will not be able to put them to rest, to leave them behind? Whence the authority of the imploration to be remembered; whence the obligatoriness of the imperative to remember? The connection between life of faith and relentless raising of questions on which I remarked above suggests the reason: in raising the unanswerable question, in sustaining the voice of enquiry and prayer, and in thus never ceasing to address ever unapproachable and still somehow irreproachable God, we keep alive those who have perished, having been through the night; we join in their life of faith, and give to them what we owe them as fellow human beings; we respect their humanity. We must remember, for to fail to do so is to wrong the dead: “to forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time” (xv).

It is worth noting that this way of thinking is quite alien to what I suspect is the Weltanschauung currently predominant and largely unchallenged among the majority of modern moral philosophers. I have in mind the assumption (how many of us are so much as conscious of it as such?) that the beneficiary of the moral good that we can do must at least be a sentient being, that is, a living thing. Morality is about giving, fairly and effectively, the greatest possible amount of good (pleasurable, rewarding, fulfilling, etc.) life to those who might enjoy it, that is, those whose overall “quality of life” might be changed for the better, because they have some life ahead of them.

But from this essentially exclusively forward-looking perspective, it really does not make sense to speak of doing good to the dead—those whose lives have ended, and therefore cannot be improved. There is consequently no room for the idea of moral obligation to the dead, the idea of what we morally ought to do for the sake of the dead.

What, more specifically, of the imperative to remember? The said modern moral philosopher must locate the moral point of this in the consequences of remembering that might benefit the living. Now, remembering the night cannot be pleasant; looking hard at the irremovable dark stain in our history demonstrating the depth of evil of which humanity is capable cannot have consequences that are good in the sense of making us feel good. Sooner or later, then, the philosopher would be forced to conclude that we must remember the atrocities lest we repeat them—as if remembering what Night asks us to remember is good ultimately in the same kind of sense in which it is good for a child to remember some past experience of hurting himself, because it makes him behave more carefully; in a word, it is advantageous. There is nothing specially morally significant in remembering; if one could learn to behave carefully without having to injure oneself once, that would be preferable.

Given what I have been saying, however, we ought to be able to see how this view misses the point, and in a rather vulgar way. The idea of moral obligation to respect humanity, of the dead as well as of the living, has fallen out of the picture. The modern moral philosopher would say that Night teaches us a lesson; reading it enable us to do good better, for the sake of those presently alive and those who will come. In affirming this he ignores the dead; he forgets them, and he betrays them. Wiesel himself evidently knows better. The dead, insofar as they were human, continue to be morally significant; one can wrong them long after their death. The moral obligation to remember them, the life they led, the death they suffered, the question they raised, continues to bind all subsequent generations. We can never finally right the wrong they suffered; because of that, however, we can, and ought, always to try—to remember. That is how to save the dead, by respecting their humanity. Thus Wiesel continues the passage in his speech that I began by quoting:

I tell him that I have tried. That I have tried to keep memory alive, that I have tried to fight those who would forget. Because if we forget, we are guilty, we are accomplices. (118)

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