'No room for truth': on the precariousness of life and narrative in The Last of the Just

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Author: Josh Cohen
Date: Spring 2014
From: European Judaism(Vol. 47, Issue 1)
Publisher: Berghahn Books, Inc.
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 4,545 words
Lexile Measure: 1420L

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Abstract

This article explores Andre Schwarz-Bart's famous novel, The Last of the Just, as the expression of twin crises in literary and religious representation. Ernie Levy's words, 'there is no room for truth here', spoken on the transport to Auschwitz as he cradles and comforts a dying child with stories of an idyllic afterlife, become the point of departure for a reading of the novel in terms of the loss of just this 'room for truth'. The article considers the novel's reimagining of the legend of the Lamed Vav in the light of Gershom Scholem's criticism that Schwarz-Bart compromises the legend's 'moral anarchy' before casting the novel in the light of Freud's remarks on traumatic dreams in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, as well as Emmanuel Levinas' ideas on 'useless suffering'. The last part of the article reads the novel's anguished theological motifs alongside Paul Celan's poem 'Psalm'.

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'Madame ... there is no room for truth here' (366). (1) Thus Ernie Levy's response to the enraged reproach of the doctor on the transport to Auschwitz, 'How can you tell them it's only a dream?' The children dying in the fetid, freezing, corpse-strewn car grope desperately for the comfort of Ernie's reassurance that they are approaching the 'Kingdom of Israel', where 'the sun never sets, and you can eat anything that comes to mind.... Happiness and joy will come to you, and pain and lamentation will flee' (365). The doctor's response to Ernie closes the sub-chapter. 'Then you don't believe what you're saying? Not at all?', she asks rhetorically before releasing 'a short, terrified, demented laugh' (366).

The movement of this brief and terrible exchange is entropic. It begins with a redemptive fantasy offered to bind the terrifying incoherence of the dying child's inner experience, to offer it the comforts of some rudimentary narrative shape. It ends with the doctor's 'short, terrified, demented laugh'; that is, with the wordless noise of meaning itself falling into the abyss. Between the reassuring story and the demented laugh, the already precarious binding of mind and spirit decisively falls away.

Perhaps this is an implicit representation of the predicament of the novel itself. Its narrative vehicle, after all, is a religious legend which imagines thirty-six Just Men as the fragile membrane barely separating the world from its own collapse. The doctor's demented laugh is the sound of this membrane dissolving, of the mind losing the binding force that holds it together. Meaning and coherence in the Auschwitz railcar are possible only in the form a fanciful, brazenly fabricated children's story.

What Gershom Scholem calls the 'anarchic morality' of the original conception of the hidden Just Men is linked, I think, to this fragility. Scholem, however, is rather sceptical of the novel's use of the legend. 'The hidden just man', he writes, '--if he is anything at all--is your neighbour and mine whose true nature we can never fathom' (Scholem 1995: 256). Justice, in this conception, has no determinate place or embodiment. It is not so much...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A363791556