January 16, 2019

Elie Wiesel — the Jew who taught us melancholy

Of all the contributions Eli Wiesel made to humanity as a global humanitarian, prolific author, Nobel laureate, proud Zionist, Judaic professor and Holocaust memoirist, maybe the least-talked about is his embracing of melancholy.

It’s rare to see a laughing picture of Wiesel, who died on July 2 at the age of 87. There was a dark sobriety, a certain drama, that never seemed to leave his face. It wasn’t depression—which can paralyze the soul— but more the signs of a lingering melancholy that he carried with him everywhere he went.

Did that melancholy nourish his drive?

“There is a long history of Western thought associating melancholy and genius,” poet and essayist Carina del Valle Schorske writes in the philosophy journal The Point. “We have van Gogh with his severed ear. We have Montaigne confessing, ‘It was a melancholy humor…which first put into my head this raving concern with writing.’ We have Nina Simone and Kurt Cobain, Theolonious Monk and David Foster Wallace.

“We have the stubborn conviction that all of these artists produced the work not in spite of, but somehow because of, their suffering.”

Wiesel’s suffering led him to a bout of suicidal temptation. In a 1983 profile in The New York Times, Sam Freedman recounted how several noted Holocaust writers had purged their memories by committing suicide.

“Wiesel himself has contemplated it,” Freedman wrote. “He recalls two instances in the early 1950s, both times standing alone beside the railing of ships at sea.”

What saved his life, Freedman wrote, was “the obsession to write, and thereby to testify.”

Wiesel told him: “My temptation [for suicide] was before I had begun to write. Never since. I had not given my testament. And that was a compelling reason—not to live but to survive.”

Great men can channel their darkness into greatness. Abraham Lincoln, who buried two children, channeled his melancholy into the transcendent causes of keeping his country united and ending slavery.

Wiesel’s cause, above all, was testimony—testimony of the darkest kind.

“Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever,” he wrote in “Night.” “Never shall I forget that nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live.”

But what do you do with such darkness when you become a global rock star, when kings, presidents and popes cherish your presence, when you’re a celebrity in a world that worships fame?

Maybe this explains why Wiesel clung so tightly to his melancholy. It was his way of telling the world, “Don’t think that all this adoration will change me. Don’t think I am forgetting for one instant who I am or why I’m here. Don’t think I don’t realize how much more needs to be done.”

Once he had committed to combatting darkness, Wiesel’s public melancholy became his armor, an armor that would protect him from the temptations of modern celebrity.

But if melancholy was his armor, words were his weapon. This wasn’t a coincidence. Wiesel read avidly the works of word warriors — from Albert Camus to the Chassidic masters — so he was deeply in tune with the power of language.

“Write so that the words become a burning scar,” he wrote to a family friend and former student, Menachem Rozensaft, who tells about it in Tablet.

The very term “burning scar” suggests the intensity of Wiesel’s drive. It wasn’t enough to leave a scar — the scar must also continue to burn.

Very few of us carry the darkness that Wiesel carried, but we all have our own scars, our own suffering, our own need for testimony.

Wiesel’s public melancholy may have been his way of telling us not to run away from our darkness, from any darkness, in search of fleeting happiness. Maybe he was telling us to honor the truth of our own melancholy, to allow it to nourish us, to trust that it might take us to a more creative and authentic place.

Of all the burning scars that Wiesel left us, this is the one I will remember the most.

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.