New Event, New Words, New Genre

I’m reading a powerful book called Night by Elie Wiesel.  No doubt many of you have read this and/or some other award winning book or play by Wiesel.  Though the content is well worth commenting on, I was very intrigued at Wiesel’s search for words to describe the hellish darkness he faced and saw in Nazi concentration camps.  In fact, one reviewer wrote “Wiesel has taken his own anguish and imaginatively metamorphosed it into art.”  Thinking linguistically, in terms of event and its interpretation, it is important to realize that often times an event can and does require a new grammar and genre.  Here are Wiesel’s own words.

“Convinced that this period in history would be judged one day, I knew that I must bear witness.  I also knew that, while I had many things to say, I did not have the words to say them.  Painfully aware of my limitations, I watched helplessly as language became an obstacle.  It became clear that it would be necessary to invent a new language.  But how was one to rehabilitate and transform words betrayed and perverted by the enemy?  Hunger-thirst-fear-transport-selection-fire-chimney: these words all have intrinsic meaning, but in those times, they meant something else.  Writing in my mother tongue – at that point close to extinction – I would pause at every sentence, and start all over again.  I would conjure up other verbs, other images, other silent cries.  It was still not right.  But what exactly was ‘it?’  ‘It’ was something elusive, darkly shrouded for fear of being usurped, profaned.  All the dictionary had to offer seemed meager, pale, lifeless…”

Indeed, Wiesel has done with language what few people have done: in this book, the language is so simple yet so complex that it forces you to read again, usually through the tears of Auschwitz, Buna, Birkenau.

This makes me wrestle over Scripture.  Are the Psalms – or some Psalms – examples of an event followed by a new genre, grammar, language?  How were Ezekiel, Daniel, or John bumping up against the limits of language, struggling for the right words?  Did the human authors of Scripture pause and wrestle over it as they wrote?  Did certain events stretch, tweak, and redefine their grammar, the syntax, the definition?  Did they hesitate to use certain words because, for example, the Babylonians “wrecked” them?  Of course, there are many other such questions, but in summary, books like Night help the reader become sensitive to language in a whole new way.  May we not forget the “humanness” of Scripture!

shane lems

sunnyside wa

4 thoughts on “New Event, New Words, New Genre”

  1. You’re reading a dynamite book. And I think there is no doubt that OT or NT writers struggled to describe something fantastic…beyond comprehension. Good insight, to say the least. That’s why probably some of the best books ever written were written under extreme duress or poverty or pain. You don’t get writing when your life is pampered, luxuriant, self-indulgent…unless you went through some kind of hell. Now, Flannery O’Conner said if you can survive adolescents, you have a lifetime of material. That’s true, but if you endure a nightmare like Auschwitz, you have a nightmare only a handful have experience…and billions more who will never experience. Again, good insight.


  2. Thanks Demian. It is a dynamite book, though in a different sense of the term! I like your statement: “you don’t get writing when…” Thanks again.



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