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Against Indifference

Posted Nov 22 2011 10:40am

Like all great questions, he said, it has no answer.
This was Elie Wiesel, last night, at Boston University. A lecture titled, "Reflections on Good and Evil."
He began his talk not by greeting the audience, nor by thanking the rabbi who introduced him, nor with any sort of preamble at all, but in direct, not to say startling, fashion, with a two-pronged crowbar of a question: Is what is moral always good? Is what is immoral always evil?
In other words he opened by cracking us open a little. Readying us for his talk with a necessary, not unkindly bit of trepanning. Or as Emily Dickinson would have it, with a kind of poem. ("If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off," she wrote, "I know that is poetry.")

All conversations about morality ought to begin on a tilt-a-whirl. The only sound starting point from which to venture forth being one that admits no absolute, no true north, no fundamental gravitational ground zero. Rather: a multitude of orientation points, an ever shifting, revolving world, and a floor that drops out when you least expect it.
How difficult and beautiful. How beautiful because difficult; because the feeling of one's skull lifting off always includes a kind of brilliant, bracing cold; because growing is never not painful, not shivery and fearsome and sublime.
I meant to write about what he said, and I find myself instead setting down words about feeling. I am talking about his talk and yet the language I am using mostly fails to address its content, describing instead the sensations it delivered.

It is the morning after. Already I and my friend who invited me to go have been consulting with each other, trying to salvage the words, the phrases, the bits and pieces we remember searingly but imperfectly. We have been alternately texting and calling each other up: What did he say about the blind person's conception of God? What was that word he used, before he said, "Then I am the problem," was it "alien?" Was it, "If I see the other as unalterably alien, then I am the problem"?
We remember how we feel more precisely than we remember the words themselves.
We learn that on this coming Sunday night the talk will be broadcast on the radio; there will be a podcast, maybe even a transcript; in time we will be able to revisit the words, copy them down, study them in black and white.
For now what we have is the feeling of the tops of our heads taken off.
We have the feeling.
We have feeling.

Elie Wiesel's great struggle is against indifference. He has said
The opposite of love is not hate, it's indifference. The opposite of beauty is not ugliness, it's indifference.
Feeling is the tool that fights indifference. All literature - all stories, all language, all words - are useful - are moral - only in the proportion that they engender feeling.
How full, how fat I am this morning with feeling. I give thanks for that.
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