Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Death

Howker's Isaac Campion is a first person account of the death of Isaac's much-loved older brother and surrogate father Daniel and the subsequent disintegration of the family as a result. This death is the single most important event in Isaac's life and is remembered by him, more than 80 years later, in vivid detail. “April 17th 1901. That is the day of our Dan's death...That day's fixed in my mind like a picture. Do you know something? I can even smell that day...” From this, we can are able to gauge the extent of the impact of Daniel's death on Isaac, even before he spells it out.

The funeral is dwelt on in detail. Isaac describes the solemnity of the ceremony, with the family dressed in mourning and all the neighbours coming to pay their last respects. Death, in those days, was an event, and treated accordingly. Isaac was scathing about the modern fashion of pretending everything is normal to save everybody from embarassment.“Everyone could see you were grieving and so nobody was pretending that everything was normal, you follow me? Because life in a family is not routine when the eldest son dies, or when any of the family die.” The ceremony itself and the outward indications of mourning, seem to be as important as the grieving process itself. Here, we can see that death was acknowledged and grief respected.

Howker also dwells on the economic and emotional impact of Daniel's death. As Daniel helped his father with the horses, Isaac will now have to drop out of school to do so. Daniel's death also brings into sharp relief the discord between Isaac and Samuel. Daniel, easygoing and self-assured, had always acted as a buffer between the two. Now he is gone, Isaac is subjected to the full extent of his father's brutality. As for Samuel , he is unable to grieve for his son in a normal way. Eaten up by anger and hate, he plots revenge and murder, exposing himself to his younger son, in the process, as the weak person he really is. This culminates firstly in Isaac standing up to his father and then in his leaving the farm for America with his favourite uncle. He does not return to England until after his father is dead. Although his 96-year old self understands and forgives his father, it is clear that his younger self never did. He ran away from an image of what he could be, and in doing so, broke the vicious cycle of violence, passed down from generation to generation in his family.

While Isaac Campion only pretends to be autobiographical, Night actually is. It is Elie Wiesel's account of his experiences at the death camps of Auschwitz and Buchenwald and in part a psychological study of what happens to human beings when they are placed in unrelenting spiritual, emotional and physical deprivation. While at the beginning Elie feels the full impact of the deaths he witnesses, the sheer horror of the situation hardens him and blunts his feelings. Eventually he simply records the deaths in an almost dispassionate manner, having lost his faith in both God and humanity.

When Elie, the hitherto mystic Jew, starts to lose his faith in God, he is left with bitterness. It resounds through his “prayers”. The long, slow process of deterioration starts the day he arrives at Auschwitz. He witnesses children and babies being thrown into the flames of the terrible crematorium. Later that night he lays awake contemplating what he saw and bidding goodbye to his soul. “Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever. Never shall I forget the nocturnal silence which deprived me for all eternity, of the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things even if I am condemned to live as long as God himself. Never.” He is angered by the poor prisoners who cling to their faith in the midst of their afflictions and while they pray, he stands aside cold, proud and angry, condemning rather than praising:“I was the accuser and God the accused. My eyes were open and I was alone – terribly alone in a world without God and without man. Without love or mercy I had ceased to be anything but ashes, yet I felt myself to be stronger than the Almighty to whom my life had been tied for so long. I stood amid the praying congregation, observing it like a stranger.” He does not fast on Yom Kippur, the day of Atonement, as a further act of rebellion. In giving up his faith, Elie gave up a major part of himself. The resultant void swallowed up everything else, including his love for his father, the most important person in his life. In the end he manages to keep his life but he lost his soul. As Ora Avni pointed out, Night is a negative Bildungsroman, in which the character does not end up, as expected, fit for life in society, but one of the living dead, unfit for life as defined by his community.

The book also documents the slow death of Elie’s love for his father. When he starts out at the camp, his father means everything to him. Gradually, however, the inhuman conditions drain his love away. He feels only irritation when his father “provokes” a beating. He watches the sons around him either kill their fathers or abandon them to die, and prays to a God he no longer believes in that he will not do the same. In the end, however, he does. When his father becomes ill, Elie watches an officer deal his father a violent blow with a truncheon and shatter his skull, not daring to interfere or offer relief. Finally, when his father is removed from the camp for the crematorium, Elie can feel nothing but relief. “There were no prayers on his grave. No candles were lit to his memory. His last word was my name. A summons to which I did not respond. I did not weep and it pained me that I could not weep. But I had no more tears. And, in the depths of my being, in the recesses of my weakened conscience, could I have searched it, I might have found something like – free at last!” Some time after he is liberated he manages to find a mirror. He has not seen himself since he was in the Jewish ghetto. “From the depths of the mirror, a corpse gazed back at me. The look in his eyes, as they stared into mine, has never left me.”

The two books differ greatly in their treatment of death. Isaac Campion is more of a personal, family narrative. Daniel's death, while grisly, is purely accidental. It is treated with respect and the family grieves accordingly. As for Night, a proper grieving is not possible as too many have been wiped out. Elie, who has been stripped of feeling, is unable to mourn his father. There is no proper funeral and no prayers for the dead. While Isaac is able to find some form of resolution after his brother's death, Elie is condemned to hollow despair. He is betrayed by his God and he in turn abandons his father. It is something he will have to live with for the rest of his life. As he no longer possesses faith in a higher power, he cannot look to it for forgiveness. As he has stated repeatedly, Holocaust survivors live in a nightmare world that can never be understood.

2 comments:

stretch td said...

"Night" is 1 of those books that moved me like no other. For anyone who wants to understand the Holocaust, there is no better source.

Jenn said...

Wow. I am amazed you read that long rambly essay. Yes, it is. I wish I hadn't chosen it to do an essay on though. That required reading and re-reading. And it's kind of like having a grenade explode inside you. Slowly. I wonder if you have read any poetry by Paul Celan?