Shortly after he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, Elie Wiesel was interviewed in a program at The Marian Miner Cook Athenaeum at Claremont McKenna College in California by Harry James Cargas. The director of the Athenaeum, Professor John Roth, who himself has published a book on Wiesel (A Consuming Fire) arranged the dialogue, which covered a wide range of subject matter. What follows deals with Wiesel as author:
Henry James Cargas: J.W.N. Sullivan has written a well-respected biography of Beethoven which says that the composer would not have been the great musical force he is without having suffered as he did. Does the same apply to you?
Elie Wiesel: Maybe it is impossible to create without pain. A French poet, Alfred de Musset, said that every man is a child; pain is his teacher. It is impossible to write out of happiness. You can pray with happiness, but then that prayer itself—because you feel the need to pray—involves a pain which may not be yours; it invokes the pain that is not there. What is a prayer of this kind? It is a prayer of gratitude saying, "Thank you, God, for not giving me pain." Yet in saying so, the pain is there. If not, you would not be able to conjure it.
So, yes, literature and pain are inherently linked to one another, intrinsically part of one another. However, had I not gone through certain experiences, I would have written, but other things. I would have written religious material; I would have written a commentary on the Bible, which I had done anyway, before the war. I would have written commentaries on the Talmud; I would have remained in the totally religious domain. But never would I have written a novel, or essays of these kinds: for human rights or for the sake of other victims.
Pain is essential. Often I cannot avoid it.Therefore all one can do is redeem it; and the only way to redeem it is through literature, art, poetry, music.
HJC: Can you by doing this, in some way help redeem the pain of others?
EW: ''Redeem the pain of others'' is too presumptuous for me to say. But what I would like to do is to shed light on the pain of others. Since I rarely speak about my own pain, except in my first book Night, I would like to speak about people I don't even know, who are suffering. All those prisoners in their prisons; all those old people in their old-age homes; the hungry; the Colombian earthquake victims in the mud. Because we are dealing with literature, we have a certain imagination; we try to imagine their pain. So I am taking the torchlight and am turning it to their tale. Can my pain prevent them from suffering? I wish it could. But it cannot. Everyone, in his or her own destiny, has a certain relationship with pain. We must curtail it, as best we can. Or at least we must say: that person suffers unjustly; all suffering is unjust.
HJC: Let's talk a little about your routine. Do you try to write daily a certain amount of time or a certain amount of words?
EW: Writing should not be routine; writing should actually be the opposite of procedural because [otherwise] the written word would become a routine word. However, there is a discipline. I still write my books first of all in longhand, which I know is anachronistic to many.Then, when I have my manuscript finished, more or less, I type it myself, with two fingers. I type fast with two fingers. And then when it's ready, I reread, recorrect, and retype it. Everything is my own work. I do not give it to secretaries or to typists.
Usually I get up early every morning and from 6:00 to 10:00 I write. The rest of the time I study and prepare my work or I do other things. But four hours a day are exclusively devoted to writing. Often it's not good. Very often I don't keep one page of these four hours of fiction. Nevertheless, the next day I come back, take back a page and write it again, twenty times, thirty times. The methods vary. At times, I keep a page. If I feel it doesn't move, I keep the page and write it again and again and again. I am not exaggerating; I could write the same page thirty, forty times. And the fortieth time, all of a sudden I feel the block is removed and I continue. And if not, I will do it forty-one times. There are other occasions—mainly nonfiction, essays—when if I feel there is a block, I continue nevertheless because I have to develop the idea. I say to myself I will come back to it when I finish the whole book.
HJC: Do you spend all four hours writing or is some of the time creating mentally?
EW: Same thing, creating mentally and writing. I think while writing, and I listen to music when I write. I need the musical background. Classical music. I'm behind the times. I'm still with Baroque music, Gregorian chant, the requiems, and with the quartets of Beethoven and Brahms. That is what I need for the climate, for the surroundings, for the landscape: the music. And when I write, if it's there—we call it the shekinah (the presence of God)—the shekinah is on your fingers, or on your lips, inspiration is there and there is no problem.
HJC: When do you fit in the book reviews or an article for the New York Times? ls that a part of these four hours?
EW: Oh no, it's separate. The four hours are mainly fiction. The non-fiction is later on. For the non-fiction I need a lot of research. For my book on the Bible, or the Talmud or Hassidism, there's a lot of research. It's difficult to jump up, to find the proper book, proper text or source, then copy it and analyze it. When you write fiction you cannot do that; you must stay in one place. The only time I get up is to change the record on the record player. But non-fiction is afterwards. I work a lot, some sixteen hours a day.
HJC: Something that intrigues me about you which has not been explored is this: when you were a student at the Sorbonne you spent a year in India in absolute silence. Would you care to discuss the kind of impact which that year had on you?
EW: The impact came before. I wanted to write a comparative study on asceticism, meaning "voluntary suffering." For obvious reasons. I belong to a tradition, to a people, to a time, that was haunted by suffering. So I wanted to go to the end of that mystery: What is the mystery of suffering? My idea was to write a comparative study of the subject in Judaism, in Christianity, and Buddhism. At that time it was easy for me to travel because I was extremely poor. I was working as a journalist for an Israeli paper in Paris, and my salary at the highest was fifty dollars a month. At the end of the month I always had palpitations; I didn't know how to pay my rent. Even after the war, I was often hungry. But that's part of the romantic condition of a student. To be a student in Paris and not be hungry is wrong. So I had my share of hunger.
I decided to go to India, because as a journalist I could get free passage on certain ships and planes and I got a free passage to India. There I felt at home because I knew the Indian culture very well; that is why I wanted to go there. This was a time when I used to know much of the Upanishads and the Vedas and the Gitas almost by heart. I cannot tell you the attachment I felt to those texts. They are sacred texts, beautiful texts, mystical texts in their splendor. I felt I would go there and I would love it. In the beginning it was true; I loved my being there. The problem was to travel in India. I didn't have money. But one day I met, in a hotel, together with a diplomat friend of mine, a man to whom I was introduced as a young student from Paris. This Indian was a Parsec—of a special caste, the most successful caste in India. We spoke and he couldn't understand how a European would know so much about Indian mysticism. When I told him that I was a Jew, on top of that, he was totally flabbergasted. How could a Jew understand so much about Indian mysticism? So I explained to him the sources we had in common, that all mystical traditions have really the same source. Religions are separate but mysticism is always uniting. As I talked to him and explained to him, he became friendly and then he gave me a special card. He said, "I know you are a student and you are poor, and so forth, and you have to go around India. I am the owner of Air India. Whenever you need to go somewhere, take a plane on this card." Which I did. And not only that: whenever I was hungry, I took a plane. I went around India, from ashram to ashram. I met many people and I studied their customs.
Then, honestly, I realized that I will never understand India. I come from a tradition which is so different that I could never be a Hindu; I could never be a Buddhist, because they are so different. I am not judging, I hope you understand. I am too much in awe of every religious tradition, especially of those which to us Jews did not mean suffering but esoteric experiences. We never suffered because of Buddhists. So I was much in awe of that tradition, yet I felt it was not for me.
I'll tell you why. At one point I was walking with people in Calcutta. You know India is so poor, people are in the streets in the hundreds, in the thousands. Countless are crippled and they move on their little wheelchairs which they themselves fabricate; the whole thing is like a nightmare. Yet, when I walked with somebody there who was a German, he didn't even see the suffering; he was so accustomed to it. And there is the Indian philosophy where suffering is not something bad, because it helps the soul ascend to a higher degree; I couldn't take that. The indifference to suffering is something that I could not tolerate. Therefore, after a while, I left. And I came to the conclusion that I am free to choose my own suffering. But I am not free to consent to someone else's suffering. Therefore, I left India. I still love to teach the Indian texts occasionally, and surely I read them, but I am no longer as infatuated with them as I used to be then, for this specific reason.
HJC: Does your writing in some way help you to purge your pain?
EW: You know I don't speak about my pain. My pain is something that doesn't need to be purged. 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. But not share the pain. If, as a result of my writing, you share my pain, then I would fail. I don't want you to have pain. I want you to get the meaning of the pain, not the pain.
HJC: You chose not to write for a long period of time after the Auschwitz experience. What caused you finally to decide that you would write?
EW: I knew I would write after ten years. That [Auschwitz] was in 1945. When the ten years were up, by coincidence, I met Francois Mauriac who was so helpful to me. But why I decided not to write [earlier] is simply because I was suspicious of words. I still am. Byalic, a Hebrew poet, said, "Words are like prostitutes; they give themselves to anyone." And I didn't want to be used, or to use, or to misuse, or to be misused by words. I felt ten years is a mystical number, so I wanted to wait for ten years.
HJC: Irving Halperin, who teaches at San Francisco State University, wrote a book entitled, Messengers from the Dead, a volume of criticism about Holocaust literature. There's a chapter devoted to your work, as you know. Do you want to say something about the responsibility that you have taken on as a messenger?
EW: Not only I, but everyone who was there, sooner or later, to a certain degree, feels that he or she was a messenger sent back. Why? I'll give you a practical example. Those of you who read Night may remember that the last week in Buchenwald was a difficult, despairing, senseless, absurd week. The Americans were coming closer, so the Germans decided to evacuate the camp. There were 80,000 in the camp and they were going to evacuate 10,000 every day. In the beginning, they started with the Jews, and then everybody. Most of those who left were killed, either on the way, or on the trains: starved or shot. To leave meant death.
For some reason that had nothing to do with me because I am not a courageous person, I am not a person of initiative, I lived. I have never done anything to stay alive. I am not the type. I am not a sportsman. I am not strong. Logically, I should have been the first to die because I was always sick when I was a child. And I was always afraid of beatings. I didn't do anything. But really by chance ….I'm not saying by miracle because if I were to say miracle that would mean that God performed a miracle for me and chose not to perform miracles for so many others, so I refuse the word miracle in this context. By chance, I always happened to be in the eleven thousandth. Sometimes I was maybe thirty to forty people away from the gate. Waiting for the gate. The gate was open, people were going. But they had to let out only 10,000, then they'd stop. And I'm very often haunted by the person who was the ten thousandth. And if I had been the ten thousandth, maybe he would be sitting here in my place.
So who is that ten thousandth? This is really what I feel: since I can't bring him back, I must try to speak for him. I cannot speak for all. I have no right to speak for all. No one has the right to speak for all. But for that unique young man, whom I don't know, never knew, who simply left because he happened to be there. If somebody had pushed me forward, I would have run forward and I would have been the ten thousandth. In this sense, I accept the term messenger. That means that I choose to be his messenger because he, I hope, now is my messenger.
[For more interviews from Commonweal, see our full list.]