Elie Wiesel, the Nobel laureate, renowned author, and Auschwitz survivor has died at the age of 87. In an interview with Commonweal from 1986, Wiesel discusses his writing process, his love for—and distance from—Indian mysticism, and how he views his role as a messenger. However, the main thread throughout the interview is the nature of pain and suffering.

The interview begins with asking Wiesel whether he resonates with a suggestion made by  Beethoven’s biographer: that the composer’s creative genius was born from suffering. Wiesel answers in the affirmative. “Maybe it is impossible to create without pain. ...It is impossible to write out of happiness.”

Wiesel extends this line of thinking toward the impulse to pray. Even a prayer of gratitude like “Thank you, God, for not giving me pain," is remembering pain while thanking God that it wasn’t given. “The pain is there,” he says. “If not, you would not be able to conjure it.” Here, perhaps Wiesel is suggesting that art and prayer are stirred by longing, and maybe it is suffering that fuels longing most effectively.

The connection between prayer and longing also appears in his book Night, as Wiesel records a conversation with Moishe the Beadle. Wiesel and Moishe discuss why Wiesel cries when he prays. What is happening in prayer, and why bother? In something like a conclusion, Moishe says, “I pray to the God within me for the strength to ask Him the right questions.” Throughout his work, and this interview, Wiesel places himself in that open-ended position. And pain seems to make that insistence on finding meaning, on asking the right questions, imperative.

Why might that be? In the interview, Wiesel insists “I am free to choose my own suffering. But I am not free to consent to someone else's suffering.” So, in investigating the horrors of his own experience, he is not confessing or sharing. He is on a hunt, driven by the impossibility of other people’s suffering:

“I want to prevent people from suffering. I don't speak about my suffering. Suffering is something personal and discreet. Also, I know it will never leave me. I don't want it to leave me. It would be a betrayal. How can I leave that pain? All I can try to do is to make something out of that pain, to find a meaning to it and share that meaning.”


Read the whole interview here.

Maria Bowler is the former assistant digital editor of Commonweal. 

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