On Tuesday Nov. 17 I had the distinct pleasure of seeing/hearing Elie Wiesel (b.1928) lecture at Wilkes University. Wiesel's lecture was part of an ongoing series entitled the Outstanding Leader's Forum. Other speakers have included Madeline Albright, Colin Powell and Rudy Giuliani . Wiesel is a Holocaust survivor (Auschwitz, Buchenwald) and a Nobel Laureate. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986 for his humanitarian and activist work. He has over 50 novels to his credit with a new work of fiction entitled A Mad Desire to Dance due out in Feb. 2010. His best work is probably Night which details his experiences in the concentration camps.
Wiesel spoke sitting down at a wooden table that was situated on a tan Oriental rug. He spoke into the microphone on the table often waving his hands about on either sides of the mic to help make his point. It appeared that he also had a sheaf/sheet(s) of notes that he carried onstage and then placed on the the table to his right hand side but he did not refer to them at any time during the evening.
It is difficult to gauge the impact of these type(s) of events where there is a large bunch/group of fairly diverse people coming together by the purchasing a ticket to see/hear one individual speak, followed by clapping and departure. One wonders how effective this approach is or what the actual purpose, for those attending, of such an event is.
Seeing Wiesel was awesome. However, I posit, b/c of easy access to media that has enabled the history to be the present longer, it is very easy to lose the appreciation of the group encounter of an individual. This does fall into Scruton's category of "the purposeless encounter of/with an unconsumable object". There is/was no consumeristic benefit for the audience in listening Wiesel, in fact we paid to listen to him. No t-shirts were sold, no bumper stickers were available though programs were given out. The only artifact that carries from this particular encounter is my four pages of notes and my memory. (Since the notes are not a transcription they are artifacts themselves being greatly removed from their original context and in my fairly terrible handwriting, esp. in the situation of trying to keep up w/ Wiesel w/o a pause button.)
So why do we as people have the interest in going to see individuals like Wiesel? Do we go for inspiration, for the cult of celebrity, so that we are seen by others? Does it matter why anyone else goes or does it matter only if I go? Is it Wiesel's accomplishments which are many and laudatory, his erudition and knowledge what attracts us (or any audience) to him. To borrow form Benjamin, is there still belief that the physical speaker carries an aura that is not possible perceive outside of the moment of its occurrence? B/c we have read his books?
The other question then is what are/were we hoping to receive/achieve? Is it the ability to tell grandchildren/children "I saw/heard Wiesel" (historiography). I can click here and see multiple instances of Wiesel speaking.
Wiesel recounted that some time after the camps he was asked how he managed to keep his sanity. He said "It is learning. I teach because I want(ed) to learn. The privilege of the human is to learn from creation both about the created being and the C/creator. Learning never stops." It is tempting then to argue that going to see Wiesel is to continue the learning process by encountering another human being (an 'other'). It is tempting then to tack on as well the fact that this is someone who had survived one of the most horrific experiences of humanity's recent history and has redeemed/transformed that experience to story and work with other people. This is a powerful thing and demands respect. However perhaps it is enough just that Wiesel represents an instance of 'the other'.
Wiesel spoke on the importance of learning and passion and the necessity for the combination of both, calling for their continuation in the active survival of compassionate humanity. Approximately halfway through his lecture, Wiesel stated that "...the enemy has more imagination then the victim. He (the victim) did not imagine Auschwitz, but the enemy did. B/c we did not imagine it, we were not ready." In order to to be able to imagine something like Auschwitz we need to be able to think another's thoughts against our own. Scruton also suggests that "We have knowledge of the facts and knowledge of the means but no knowledge of the ends." Perhaps this is because we have lack the imagination and thus the means of asking the question of "What is...?"This requires intelligence/intuition which can only result from the committed learner, continuing to invest in the exploration of questions not for solipsistic ends but for the sharing of that experience even if that experience is only through an sixty minute lecture or is expanded out to 50 novels.
"Do we ask the right questions? That is the question." ~Elie Wiesel