Elie Wiesel and Worthy Remembrance

by Mark Chmiel

See, Wiesel has often made this claim quite explicit:  I am above politics, my message is so precious and pure it cannot afford to be sullied by compromise. Such is the transcendent dignity of the murdered Jews of whom I am their delegate and spokesman.  My task is to show, au contraire,  how and why he’s (unconsciously?) political, that is to say, not as independent as he thinks he is, not as distant and detached and free from the determinations of the “political” as he would like to think.  For to reap the symbolic profits that he has himself reaped, he has had to cover a lot of distance in the move from a space of  relative in cognito to one of major publicity and prestige.  And yet, I need to attend to the subtleties involved in his case, because he is often quite deliberately political in the case of Sanctuary for example, even if he in the same case contradicts himself.

Another issue worth investigating  is whether by his own efforts, Wiesel has assisted in the process of transforming the Holocaust from a perennial warning to a political fashion statement [which affords him plenty of symbolic profits, and which he himself already denied in his memoir about “capital”].

Also, something else that occurs to me here is the whole issue of censorship, not just Wiesel’s obvious self-censorship and his more subtle forms, but also that of his Christian allies:  did Harry Cargas or Bob Brown find anything odd or problematic in Reagan’s consecration of Wiesel, or did they simply join in the applause for this just recognition of  a just man by a just President?

What Bourdieu and Haacke often stress is how artists and intellectuals  are complicit in symbolic domination; I think here of Wiesel’s dialogues with the very conservative Cardinal O’Connor (who undoubtedly has the “right” line on the State of Israel) and Mitterand (their book I ought to start reading).  My own work is to illuminate more the doxa in which Wiesel can be so canonized and in which some memories are deemed symbolically and practically worthy while others can be consigned to the insignificant periphery. Obviously these are the troublesome, vexing, morally demanding memories of those who have suffered  at the hands of the US or our allies (how about a museum on the national mall commemorating the crimes committed by US support in Central America throughout the 1980s?).

–notes for dissertation, spring 1996, after reading Pierre Bourdieu & Hans Haacke, Free Exchange

Elie Wiesel, before he became an icon; 1967