The American philosopher Arthur Danto described the human animal as an ens representans, a being that represents the world back to itself. And we can’t help doing it. Give a small girl a crayon and a sheet of paper and she’ll draw her mummy and daddy and the cat on the mat before the fireplace. Listen to people on the bus going home from work and they’ll be telling their day over again to their friends. All the glories of human art and creativity flow from this compulsion to represent or describe or call back all the worlds we experience. And some have the capacity for representing the world to an almost miraculous degree. We call them artists and we say of them what Beckett said of Joyce, that what he wrote was not about something, it was that something itself. Great art makes its subject so manifest that we can enter and experience it for ourselves. And sometimes it breaks the heart.
I have been breaking my heart over and over again by a constant reading of a novel that is a distillation of the world’s sorrow. I read it first when I was a 44-year-old priest facing another Good Friday with nothing left to say. Suffering is the dilemma that confronts the honest preacher on Good Friday. Suffering and God! For how do they go together? Whatever direction you take you hit a wall. If there is no God, what becomes of all that pain? But if God does exist, how can he endure the sorrow of a single child?
That’s the anguish I was wrestling with in 1977 when I picked up The Last of the Just by André Schwarz-Bart. It had won the Prix Goncourt when it was published in France in 1959, but this was the Penguin Modern Classics edition, translated by Stephen Becker. Reading it changed how I thought about suffering. Not because it solved the dilemma I was wrestling with, but because it expressed it to an unbearable degree. It proved to me that the work of the preacher, like the work of the artist, was not to explain but to reveal. Not to tell but to show. Schwarz-Bart’s novel was not about the Holocaust. It was the Holocaust. And to read it was to enter not only the ancient travail of the Jews, but also the depthless cruelty of the so-called religion of love that had caused it.
Like Jews everywhere for the last two thousand years, the Schwarz-Bart family had kept their suitcases packed ready for the next expulsion. In 1924 they moved from Poland to France – where André was born in 1928 – in order to keep ahead of the terror that was stirring. But it caught up with them in 1941 when André’s parents and two brothers were deported to Auschwitz and died there. Alone in the world at 15, André evaded capture, joined the French Resistance and fought back against the horror that had engulfed his people. He survived the war and died in Guadeloupe in 2006. Like Harper Lee of To Kill a Mockingbird, he is remembered for a single novel – ma
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