Doriel, a European expatriate living in New York, suffers from a profound sense of desperation and loss. His mother, a member of the Resistance, survived World War II only to die in an accident, together with his father, soon after. Doriel was a child during the war, and his knowledge of the Holocaust is largely limited to what he finds in movies, newsreels, and books–but it is enough. Doriel’s parents and their secrets haunt him, leaving him filled with longing but unable to experience the most basic joys in life. He plunges into an intense study of Judaism, but instead of finding solace, he comes to believe that he is possessed by a dybbuk.
Surrounded by ghosts, spurred on by demons, Doriel finally turns to Dr. Thérèse Goldschmidt, a psychoanalyst who finds herself particularly intrigued by her patient. The two enter into an uneasy relationship based on exchange: of dreams, histories, and secrets. Despite Doriel’s initial resistance, Dr. Goldschmidt helps to bring him to a crossroads–and to a shocking denouement.
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Elie Wiesel is the author of more than forty books, including his unforgettable international best sellers Night and A Beggar in Jerusalem, winner of the Prix Médicis. He has been awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the United States Congressional Gold Medal, and the French Legion of Honor with the rank of Grand Cross. In 1986, he received the Nobel Peace Prize. He is Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities and University Professor at Boston University.
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She has dark eyes and the smile of a frightened child. I searched for her all my life. Was it she who saved me from the silent death that characterizes resignation to solitude? And from madness in its terminal phase, terminal as we refer to cancer when incurable? Yes, the kind of madness in which one can find refuge, if not salvation?
Madness is what I’ll talk to you about—madness burdened with memories and with eyes like everyone else’s, though in my story the eyes are like those of a smiling child trembling with fear.
You’ll ask: Is a madman who knows he’s mad really mad? Or: In a mad world, isn’t the madman who is aware of his madness the only sane person? But let’s not rush ahead. If you had to describe a madman, how would you portray him? As a marblefaced stranger? Smiling but without joy, his nerves on edge; when he goes into a trance, his limbs move about and all his thoughts collide; time and again, he has electrical discharges, not in his brain but in his soul. Do you like this portrait? Let’s continue. How can we talk about madness except by using the specific language of those who carry it within themselves? What if I told you that within each of us, whether in good health or bad, there is a hidden zone, a secret region that opens out onto madness? One misstep, one unfortunate blow of fate, is enough to make us slip or flounder with no hope of ever rising up again. Careless mistakes, an impaired memory or errors of judgment, can provoke a series of falls. It then becomes impossible to make ourselves understood by those we call—rather foolishly—kindred souls. If you will not grant me this, I will have a serious problem, but you must not feel sorry for me. Tears sometimes leave furrows, but never very deep ones—in any case, not deep enough.
There, this is what you have to know for a start.
That said, since I’m eager to tell you everything, you should know that I’ll be telling you this story without any concern for chronology. You’ll be made to discover many different periods of time and many different places in a haphazard fashion. What can I say? The madman’s time is not always the same as the
so-called normal man’s.
For instance, let’s begin this narrative five years ago, in the office of Thérèse Goldschmidt, a healer of souls, well paid—I’ll tell you how well later—thanks to her vast knowledge. She expects to prod me into knowing the dark, innermost recesses of my ego, in order to help me live with myself without my dybbuk, but that’s an assumption to which I plan to return.
Later on I’ll talk to you about Thérèse; I’ll talk about her at length. Inevitable Thérèse, there is no way around her. She’s the one who made me talk. It’s her profession. She spends her life probing the unconscious—that strongbox and trash bin of knowledge and experience, those subterranean archives that can
and must be deciphered—and asking childish or harebrained questions. And in my case, these questions summoned not answers but stories.
Why do people make fun of madmen? Because they upset people? Didn’t Molière mock the hypochondriac? Doesn’t the man who believes he is ill need treatment?
Am I way off the beam? I don’t think I’m completely irrational. Is being mad being disabled? Can one speak of a gana mad desire to dance grened mind, of thought beaten to death, of a mutilated, damned soul? Can one be mad in happiness as in misfortune? Can someone take vows of madness as one takes religious vows, or devotes one’s life to poetry? Can a person slip breathlessly into madness with a slow, muffled tread, as if to avoid disturbing some secret demon feigning absence or asceticism? At times I’m afraid of shutting my eyes, for I see an unreal world with its dead. I open them again and fear has not left me. Madness may just be a sensation resonant with futility: as in Franz K.’s castle, we are waiting on the landing, in front of a closed door, for something that has already happened and will paradoxically happen too late. Am I insane? Thérèse was going to tell me. Does that word bother you? You would rather not use it anymore? I have others to offer you: disturbed, unbalanced, crazy, unhinged, nuts, loony, daft, demented, maladjusted, retarded, half-witted. Am I a paranoiac, a schizophrenic, a hysteric, or a neurotic? Do I just have an ordinary inferiority or guilt complex that a simple antidepressant
could cure? That’s possible. Am I guilty of having freely abused my freedom? Or of having simply lived a life that wasn’t mine by succumbing to the torture of both excessively vague despair and excessively transparent hope—thus, of having survived thanks to my madness, in its various phases and darkest depths? But who is to say whether guilt and madness are compatible or incompatible? And who decides that I’m not entitled to both madness and despair? That madmen are beyond redemption, thus hopelessly condemned, except in the privileged area of art? Van Gogh, before dying, whispered: “Sadness will last forever.” Sadness. No. Madness lasts much longer. Tolstoy said that thinking about the future is the beginning of madness, but Maimonides said the world would be saved by madmen. Which of the two will succeed in guiding me to a different reality?
I thought: Thérèse will help me; she’ll save me. She has a degree. This is her work, her goal, her mission. To rescue by listening, through words. Open doors. Rummage around in the darkness. That’s not easy in my case. She admitted as much. Can madness, like memory, be forced open? Difficult, I’m told. Madness is both beneficial and subversive: it takes a path that constantly changes directions; stumbles as it rises; tells lies while shouting “believe me”; forges ahead while stepping back; aims to please and displease simultaneously; seeks the company of others as a way of sublimating solitude. It searches out the origins of Creation in order to sink into eschatology. Didn’t Kleist, the great mad poet, describe existence as a bridge going from nowhere to nowhere? And, he added, it is hard to live between two nowheres. . .
I remember saying all this to the doctor. I talk to her, talk on, sometimes freely, sometimes at her command, of my mute delusions and fits of rage, managing to tame their violence momentarily. I tell her of my disappointments, my repressed ambitions and lived fantasies, the glow of my proud suns as well as their sudden blinding descents; I reveal some things to her in order to hide other truer and more intimate things, those that fill my thirsting soul with meaning as well as truth—and I quote Augustine, who said about the Maccabees that men learn how to die for truth! I call up old memories that will be born tomorrow or might never even come to light. But I make no mention of my conscience, within which everything breathes misfortune and illness. I can wait, she says, to reassure me. Sooner or later, we’ll get there. Later for whom? For the aging man that I am, who, like a beggar invited to the feast of the gods, implores the future for the alms of a few years?
He remembers, yes, the patient remembers. As a child, he feared being abducted by thieves. And one night, in a waking dream no doubt, the abduction did take place. Strangers broke into his bedroom; a tall, mustached man and a heavy-breasted woman lifted him up. He wanted to cry out for help, but no sound came from his throat. A second later, he found himself a mad desire to dance under thick blankets, in a wagon pulled by two frenzied horses. And the heavy-breasted woman said to him: “It is not you we are taking away, but years off your life; we’ll sell them at the market.”
Another dream, given the therapist loves dreams: I’m traveling by plane. The captain announces that due to mechanical problems, he has to make a sea landing. Cries of anguish inside the aircraft. A child bursts into tears. His mother can’t pacify him. Stroke of luck: the aircraft lands on an island. A jubilant crowd welcomes us with strange dances. Speeches are made that no one understands. A woman tries to lead me away; her bloodstained eyes blot out her face; I resist. I say to myself: she’s a witch or she’s mad, stark raving mad; mad as a hatter; they’re all mad. I’m right. Law doesn’t rule here; madness does. It has seized power. I look for the aircraft; it has disappeared, sunk into the sea. The pilot? Gone as well, along with the passengers, possibly tortured, punished, sacrificed. And all of them strangers. I didn’t exchange a single word with them. And what if it was a conspiracy? And they had set this trap for me? The woman says: “We’re in the theater, we’re putting on a play about madness. It’s a world overrun by madness. Everyone has a part. And so do you. You can choose: you can be the executioner or the condemned man.” Overcome with panic, breathing with difficulty, I cry out: “I refuse, do you hear? I refuse.” The woman insists. She calls for help. A bare-chested maniac grabs me by the hair. He yells: “You’re in our country, so obey! If you don’t, you’ll wake up beheaded!” I reply: “No, it’s my dream and you’re all in it; I have the right to drive you out.”
And the dreamer woke up in a sweat.
Why these nightmares, Doctor? Dreams, that famous product of and guide to the unconscious, that’s your area of predilection; here you find your bearings as you do in your bedroom. Please explain: Why, when I shut my eyes, do I always have the feeling of being in hostile territory?
Another dream: I’m a child again and I hear a voice that says: “You see that road; it will lead you to God. Run, my boy, run. God is waiting for you at the far end!&#...
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