Book Review

20/04/2011 § Leave a comment

Night by Elie Wiesel

I just finished reading Night for the first time, mostly because it was assigned reading for one of my classes.  Even though it’s a relatively short work, it is rather profound in its implications.  Most people are likely familiar with this book (and the holocaust in general), so there is little need to recap the events of the book in detail.  There are, however, three themes deserving of one’s attention.

The first significant theme of the book is that of the denial of inevitable reality.  Moishe, a member of Eliezer’s community, is arrested by the Nazis.  He escapes and returns to warn his compatriots of the horrors he suffered, imploring them to find a way to escape the fate that awaits them at the hand of the Nazis.   Moishe’s pleas go unheeded, of course, since the truth is too appalling to contemplate.  The people of the Jewish community continue to ignore the reality of their situation, right up until some of them are killed at the concentration camps.

This theme is playing out, writ large, across society today.  Economic collapse, and societal collapse alongside it, is all but inevitable at this point.  Those in power have destroyed this economy with redistributionist schemes and fiat money, stacking Ponzi scheme atop Ponzi scheme, and precious few seem to care.  Those who spread the truth about this inevitability are mocked, called crazy, and largely ignored because the truth is just too uncomfortable.  And, like those in Night, the consequences of their willful ignorance will be just as harsh and thorough.

The second major theme of the book focuses on the cruelty of man.  The Nazis were remarkably beastly towards the Jews.  Some prisoners they outright killed with fire and poison.  Others they killed slowly with impossible work and slow starvation.  In addition, the Nazis made false promises in order to stir up false hope, which was used to encourage prisoners to work even harder, since they would think that they would spared or possibly even released.  The Nazis were master sadists, using every trick they could to not only torture their prisoners, but to get their prisoners to torture themselves.

Golding’s Lord of the Flies dwells on this theme as well, as do a couple of Conrad’s works.  In fact, this observation probably prompted Calvin’s theology.  I suppose there is some truth in assuming man’s inherent darkness, for cruelty seems to be an almost knee-jerk behavior from humans, even among the youngest.  The Nazis are often held up as the standard of pitiless cruelty, but the fact of the matter is that this cruelty is seen every day, to varying degrees.  All humans act needlessly cruel to others at some point; the only thing that separates us from Nazis is that we aren’t able to rationalize away as much evil.

The final major theme of the book is how Eliezer loses his faith.  He witnesses horror after horror, including the hanging of a young boy, not to mention countless deaths by maltreatment and mistreatment, fire, and gas chambers.  He witnesses rape, assault, abuse, and mass starvation.  Sympathy is in short supply, as is mercy.  It is easy to see why he would lose faith in God in the midst of all this suffering.

The problem of pain is one that has resurfaced time and again in theology, and the question always seems to remain:  Why does God allow people to suffer?  Why does he allow people to feel pain?

Of course, this question rests on a false, implicit assumption:  Pain and suffering are inherently evil.  Both are simply states of being, neither good nor evil.  They simply are.  Pain is a useful signal, telling the recipient that something is wrong, that something must change.  It would be incredibly cruel to allow someone to get injured without there being some way of feeling pain to let them know that there’s a problem.

But more than that, God must allow man to not only have free will, but to live with the consequences of his decisions.  If man had no free will, he could not choose good or evil.  He would simply exist as an automaton.  But if he is given a choice, at least one option must be good and at least one option must be evil.  In the absence of direct revelation, one would only be able to determine whether a choice was good or evil by observing the results.  Even with direct revelation, though, pain and suffering serve as reinforcements of evil decisions.

At any rate, this sort of thinking doesn’t often cross the mind of a fifteen-year-old, which is how old Eliezer was during his interment at Auschwitz.  This is doubly true when said teenager is at a concentration camp.

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