My poor friend Jen. Confronted with the task of writing several papers simultaneously as she enters the endgame of her undergraduate years, we chatted a bit about a four-page assignment she has due, a reflection on a self-selected theme from Elie Wiesel’s Night.
Night is a short but powerful book, telling the story of Wiesel’s experience as a boy in the Nazi death camps. Several major themes pervade the the author’s historical narrative — the love between fathers and sons, the depth of man’s inhumanity to man, the courage to remain human in the face of certain death, the mercy of the afflicted.
Wiesel, of course, did not escape the camps unscathed. Perhaps no one could. But Wiesel did something significant — he wrote. His story, now a staple of American classrooms, is a reminder to us all of the depths of human depravity, but also of the moral heroism that so many of the afflicted were able to summon.
It’s said that time heals all wounds, yet many of the survivors of the camps emerged with hopelessly shattered souls. Some killed themselves in the years following their liberation; others withdrew, numbing themselves with alcohol or withdrawing from full participation in the human experience. No, mere time is not enough; there must be something more — something cathartic, to allow a person to reconcile how such evil could exist, and how a victim of that evil could survive while so many loved ones did not.
For Wiesel, writing helped him to tame the demons within. Telling his story contributed to his coping with the horrific experience of his youth; in fact, in his introduction, he said that he felt a duty to write, because allowing the dead to sleep in silence would be tantamount to killing them again.
One theme of Night, then, that receives perhaps too little attention, is the value — the necessity — of a cathartic release after emotional trauma. Contemporary theories about grieving suggest that most people usually move along a well-defined continuum of reactions to an emotionally disruptive experience. Consider a terminal cancer diagnosis: First, we deny the that we really do have a fatal illness. Then, we become angry. Next, we try to bargain — usually with God, but it depends. Then, we get depressed, until we finally accept our fate and then, with that acceptance, embrace the inevitable with serenity.
A nice theory, in its way, but it treats emotional wounds as if they were a paper-cut: Simply follow a five-step process for cleaning the injury, and all will be well eventually. But death camps do not inflict emotional paper-cuts; they slice at a person’s heart and soul, causing damage so deep that the band-aid of “acceptance” cannot bring healing. Something more is needed.
That “more” is an act of atonement, of re-balancing, of signaling one’s defiance to the soul-defining power of the original injury. Wiesel’s catharsis came through writing; he served as a witness to evil, and to the power of love to overcome that evil even in the darkest of hours.
But what is it about writing that is so powerful?
Perhaps it’s the durability of the written word. Knowing that we are communicating a story or an argument or an idea that will persist long after we ourselves are gone, is an act of will that, in its way, makes us immortal, and makes our story a permanent part of the human narrative. It’s the ultimate trump card against the transience of abject evil.
Perhaps it’s the value of thinking through one’s ideas, of refining a message and understanding what that message means to the writer and to his audience.
Perhaps it’s the unique way that the writing process forces us to confront, and eventually to slay, our demons.
In any case, writing has a unique power to heal. And what works for Wiesel can work for the rest of us, even when the traumas we experience pale in comparison to surviving a death camp.