I was intrigued by John’s reference to Elie Wiesel’s heartbreaking memoir, Night. I pulled out my own copy of this haunting book the other day and began thumbing through it. I had initially read it about half a year ago, and simply could not put it down, having finished it in just two days. If you have not read this book yet, I assure you, there is good reason it carries Oprah’s book club seal!
After skimming through the pages, I was struck by a particular passage found on p. 9 of Mr. Wiesel’s preface:
“Convinced that this period in history would be judged one day, I knew that I must bear witness. I also knew that, while I had many things to say, I did not have the words to say them. Painfully aware of my limitations, I watched helplessly as language became an obstacle… I would pause at every sentence, and start over and over again. I would conjure up other verbs, other images, other silent cries. It still was not right. But what exactly was “it”? “It” was something elusive, darkly shrouded for fear of being unsurped, profaned. All the dictionary had to offer seemed meager, pale, lifeless. Was there a way to describe the last journey in sealed cattle cars, the last voyage toward the unknown? Or the discovery of a demented and glacial universe where to be inhuman was human, where disciplined, educated men in uniform came to kill, and innocent children and weary old men came to die? Or the countless separations on a single fiery night, the tearing apart of entire families, entire communities? Or, incredibly, the vanishing of a beautiful, well-behaved little Jewish girl with golden hair and a sad smile, murdered with her mother the very night of her arrival? How was one to speak of them without trembling and a heart broken for all eternity?”
As I was reading this, it became apparent to me that there were similarities in a message John gave during his commencement speech at Hobart and William Smith Colleges:
“From a man named Sabri, I learned the frustrating limits of our language, the limits even of the pictures we are told can be worth a thousand words. I met him in Banda Aceh, Indonesia, after the tsunami. I could not find a way to tell his story the way it deserved to be told and it still haunts me. I met him in a crowded camp, carrying a wrinkled photo of a little girl with brown hair and big brown eyes. Her name was Deira, two years and seven months old. Sabri kept saying it was his fault. He grabbed his infant daughter when everything started to move, but couldn’t make it across the room in time. Deira and her mother were swept away by the water. He recovered his wife’s body and buried her. And for 16 days walked camp to camp looking for his little girl. He kept approaching people and unfolding the wrinkled picture, kept saying she was wearing a yellow dress. That she liked fruit. Kept saying it was his fault. I could see the pain of thousands in the eyes of this one man, but I couldn’t find the words to do it justice. I guess another lesson there is no matter how hard you try, some days – at work and in life – you will fail. Those days hurt.”
Both these men are trying to paint a picture with words on a canvas made with the fiber of unspeakable tragedy. Mr. Weisel bears witness to man-made horror, John bears witness to an event spawned by nature. Yet what they both have to say about the difficulties and limitations in retelling these stories is very powerful indeed.
I can’t imagine ever having to soak in such nightmares with the eyes, ears, nose, mouth and with touch. But as both Mr. Weisel and John convey to readers, horrors of this magnitude go beyond what can be perceived with mere words, mere descriptions of the five senses.
“It”, in essence, is sense-less.