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Reviewed by:
  • Elie Wiesel's Secretive Texts
  • Frederick Garber
Colin Davis. Elie Wiesel's Secretive Texts. Gainesville: UP of Florida, 1994. xiii + 201 pp. No price given.

Davis begins his book with an old and durable issue in Holocaust problematics, the charge of trivializing aimed at those who speak of speech as well as the content of what is spoken. Of course he rejects the [End Page 385] charge: to claim that matters of speaking are not the issues at hand is to miss the essential point that it is only through acts of speaking that the content comes to us. Matters of speaking affect, indeed effect, what we know and do not know of that which seeks to be spoken. Yet perhaps it is even more complex, perhaps the content says not just that it cannot be spoken but that it refuses to be spoken, that it does not want to be told even if it could be told. Those polarities define Davis's reading of the issues: it must be spoken, it cannot be spoken, perhaps we do not want it to be spoken. These are matters not only for the writer but for the reader as well, especially the reader as subsequent writer about Holocaust narratives. The difficulty of writing such narratives fosters and is reflected in the difficulties of writing about them, focusing—as Davis does, as one responsibly has to do-on the problematic of narrative they inevitably reveal. Perhaps we shall come to say, as we take what we have absorbed of recent critical theory and apply it to Holocaust writings, that some of the issues in them are issues in narrative as such, that Holocaust writings reveal what has always, in fact, been so and has rarely, until recently, confessed itself to be so. That suggests how recent theory and writings on the Holocaust take up counterpart issues; suggests, indeed, that recent theory may in part be a response to what events like Shoah have shown about our lives. (Consider the ironies of that coming-together in the case of Paul de Man.) Davis quotes Lyotard's argument, in Heidegger and the Jews, that the only story left is the impossibility of telling the story. That, Lyotard continues, is itself a kind of story-telling, a point Wiesel would agree with but he would also go on to say that it must be told anyway.

This means, for the story, that it solicits interpretation (what it knows must elsewhere be known) but at the same time it rejects, indeed subverts, interpretation. What the story has to tell cannot, finally, be told, perhaps because finally there is nothing to be told: the ultimate disclosure of any Wiesel tale is that it “has nothing to disclose.” Of course it is absurd to use words like “finally” here because the interpreter cannot hope for even a fragment of finality but only for understanding of some of the reasons for inevitable failure. Or, as Davis puts it, interpretation works when it works upon us in the world: “The value of commentary is measured by its provisional success, its action in and on the world, rather than its ultimate and inevitable failure to reveal a single, unambiguous meaning.” That goes for Wiesel's tales as [End Page 386] well as the commentators on those tales: tale and commentary act together in mutual support, together creating a larger “text” that includes them and their successors, working on us in the world through their ambiguities. Of course this sounds like Midrash, one of Davis's basic points. Critics as conservative as Robert Alter have spoken of “a certain indeterminacy of meaning” worked out by ancient Hebrew writers, Midrashic elements that argue for multiple, even contradictory truths. Davis suggests such indeterminacy not only in Wiesel's writing; one can also argue for such truths in the relation of Wiesel's commentators to the object of their study, insofar as such a relation can claim any truths at all (that latter qualification shows how Holocaust writings cannot help but subvert their commentators). Surely we can go even further, picking up Davis's point about the frequency in Wiesel's fiction of motifs...

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pp. 385-387
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