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Making Manifest

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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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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 – maybe because to write such a moral and artistic masterpiece exhausts the resources of the creator. And in The Last of the Just he distilled a thousand years of Jewish suffering into a single fiction. Beginning with a pogrom in York in the twelfth century, he follows the story of thirty-six Just Men of Jewish legend. He tells us:
According to this tradition the world reposes upon thirty-six Just Men, the Lamed-waf, indistinguishable from simple mortals; often they do not recognize themselves. But if even one of them were lacking, the sufferings of mankind would poison even the souls of the new-born, and humanity would suffocate with a single cry. For the Lamed-waf are the hearts of the world multiplied, into which all our griefs are poured, as into one receptacle.
The last of the Just Men is Ernie Levy, who is delivered to Auschwitz in 1943 with his betrothed, Golda, and a band of children he has been protecting. In the final scene they are taken to a huge bath-house where they are met by a moustached and apparently benevolent member of the SS. He tells them that nothing painful is going to happen to them. But they have to be disinfected to prevent contagious diseases. He points to the coat hooks along the wall on which they are to hang their clothes. Each of them has a number. Remember your number, he tells them, so you can reclaim your clothes when you’ve had your shower. Then they are given cakes of stony soap and told to strip.
Golda begged Ernie not to look at her, and he went through the sliding door of the second room with his eyes closed, led by the young woman, and by the children, whose soft hands clung to his naked thigh; there, under the shower-heads embedded in the ceiling, in the blue light of screened bulbs glowing in the recesses of the concrete walls, Jewish men and women, children and patriarchs, were huddled together; his eyes still closed, he felt the pressure of the last packets of flesh that the SS men were clubbing now into the gas chamber; and his eyes still closed, he knew that the lights had been extinguished on the living . . . And when the first waves of ‘Zyklon B’ gas billowed among the sweating bodies, drifting towards the squirming carpet of children’s heads, Ernie freed himself from the girl’s mute embrace and leaned out into the darkness towards the children invisible even at his knees, and shouted, with all the gentleness and all the strength of his soul, ‘Breathe deeply, my lambs, and quickly!’
When I first read those words I paused, and again the old question asserted itself. Where was God when the Zyklon B gas drifted down on that squirming carpet of children’s heads? That was the doubt Good Friday always raised in me. And here it was again. None of the theologians I had read answered it or even seemed to understand the anger that prompted it. They blamed it on free will. God loved us so much that he had renounced his power to compel us and had given us freedom to use well or badly. Though it broke his heart to see how constantly we abused it, he would not revoke his dangerous gift. But in the end we would understand how necessary all that pain was and all would be well again. Thus spake the theologians. And Ivan Karamazov in another great novel flattened them like a house of cards.
Imagine that you yourself are building the edifice of human destiny with the object of making people happy in the finale, of giving them peace and rest at the last, but for that you must inevitably and unavoidably torture just one tiny creature, that same child who was beating her chest with her little fist, and you raise your edifice on the foundation of her unrequited tears – would you agree to be architect on such conditions? And can you admit the idea that the people for whom you are building would agree to accept their happiness on the unjustified blood of a tortured child, and having accepted it, to remain forever happy?
Like Ivan Karamazov, André Schwarz-Bart rejected the God of the theologians. But he also knew it left the great question unanswered:
If God did not exist . . . he wondered, where does all the suffering go? And . . . he cried out, in a sob that ripped through the darkness of the workshop: It gets lost, oh my God, it gets lost!
Except that in his novel the suffering was not lost. It was given a voice. And as the gas descended it spoke into the silence of God:
first as a stream, then a cascade, then an irrepressible, majestic torrent, the poem which, through the smoke of fires and above the funeral pyres of history, the Jews – who for two thousand years never bore arms and never had either missionary empires or coloured slaves – the old love poem which the Jews traced in letters of blood on the earth’s hard crust unfurled in the gas chamber, surrounded it, dominated its dark, abysmal sneer . . . SHEMA ISRAEL ADONAI ELOHENU ADONAI EH’OTH . . . Hear O Israel, the Eternal our God, the Eternal is One.
The gift André Schwarz-Bart gave me as a preacher trying to address the world’s endless Good Friday was to recognize that though the Church’s official theology would rarely help me, good art always would. And it was W. H. Auden who showed me why. He expressed it in his poem on the death of W. B. Yeats.
. . . Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry. Now Ireland has her madness and her weather still, For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives In the valley of its making . . . A way of happening, a mouth.
Like poetry, honest preaching may make nothing happen, but it can give pain a mouth. It can bear witness; give testimony; set the truth down. In the chapel in the Garden of Gethsemane in Jerusalem there used to be a sign aimed at tour guides who broke the silence of that place of sorrow. NO EXPLANATIONS IN CHURCH. It’s still the best advice.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 57 © Richard Holloway 2018


About the contributor

Richard Holloway’s book, Waiting for the Last Bus, is published by Canongate.

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