I’ve returned home, and it’s been interesting. I read Irving’s book, I watched the DVD from the 2006 seminar a couple of times, now I’m reading Olga’s book. In my first year of teaching I used to go to Barnes and Noble a lot and read entire books while I was there. I told my students I did this and they accused me of stealing because I wasn’t paying for the books. In this way, on Sunday, I read Jewish Literacy by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin and Day by Elie Wiesel. Jewish Literacy was read because of my determination to come to some working order of the identity of Jewishness; I (and we) might be satisfied with ambiguity, but I don’t think my 8th graders will be. And on a side note: I don’t think acceptance of all will come when we become ignorant of our identities, but when we come to celebrate the uniqueness of our identities (GO SUE!). Day was read because it was there, and I hadn’t read it yet. It is an amazing book; the writing reminded me of two of my favorite authors: Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre. When me and my college buddies discovered The Stranger we never knew someone so intelligent and so dead could describe absurd existence with so few words; it always took us a long time to try to explain anything. I’m quite sure Wiesel is not an existentialist, but his despondency in Day is so complete that I’m sure I’ve only encountered it in Camus and Sartre (and maybe Chuck Palahniuk, but maybe I don’t read widely enough). I took notes as I read, both of the actual words Wiesel used (in my opinion it is his best work I’ve read) and my responses to his words.
Just at the end of the six o’clock hour I read this: “I wanted to get rid of all the filth that was in me and graft it onto her pupils and her lips, which were so pure, so innocent, so beautiful. I bared my soul. My most contemptible thoughts and desires, my most painful betrayals, my vaguest lies, I tore them from inside me and placed them in front of her, like an impure offering, so she could see them and smell their stench.”
According to my journal, at 7:02 pm, this was my response: I want to eat glass. I want to pound car hoods and scream and cry – no weep. I want to bleed a thousand times over and walk through crowds of witnesses with questioning eyes and jaws hung open out of horror. I am a murdered, an adulterer, and a thief. I don’t know how to wake up in the morning. The only thing I want is to hate myself even more. And now my eyes wander, imagining: smiles and laughter, family, and happiness.
In his “Preface” to The Myth of Sysiphus, Camus writes: “The fundamental subject of ‘The Myth of Sysiphus’ is this: it is legitimate and necessary to wonder whether life has a meaning; therefore it is legitimate to meet the problem of suicide face to face. The answer, underlying and appearing through the paradoxes which cover it, is this: even if one does not believe in God, suicide is not legitimate. . . . Although ‘The Myth of Sysiphus’ poses mortal problems, it sums itself up for me as a lucid invitation to live and to create, in the very midst of the desert.”
Somehow, in all the absurdity, Camus found a way to be encouraged by bleakness; this is the greatest difference between him and Wiesel. Camus relished the absurd life; Wiesel was pushed into it. In the “Preface” to Day, Wiesel explains that he had to change a few specifics to fictionalize his encounter with the cab in New York; he really didn’t see the cab, so his accident wasn’t a suicide attempt. Still, in his story, it had to be faced. In Night he was the messenger of death, witnessing the murder of his family and his people, and walking away a corpse. In Dawn he brought death to the doorstep of his enemy. In Day, he faced self-imposed death, and discovered “to be and not to be. . . . That man lives while dying, that he represents death to the living.”