Tragedy, Farce, and a Trial: A Literary Analysis of The Trial of God (Part 4)

Part 3

How does this set of ideas has any relation to The Trial of God? As described earlier, there is a chorus and distinct dialogue in the vein of the Greek style, but style alone does not account for Nietzsche’s philosophical treatment. Since Wiesel believes in YHWH, the God of Judaism, this certainly changes the motive behind his use of tragedy, but nonetheless the Apollonian and Dionysian modes have application here. What one can see in Wiesel’s works is the paradoxical – how can one speak against God and still believe in God? Why can those who state, in no uncertain terms, that they believe in God not be able to defend that same God? As Berish says, “I lived as a Jew, and it is as a Jew that I shall die – and it is as a Jew that, with my last breath, I shall shout my protest to God! And because the end is near, I shall shout louder! Because the end is near, I’ll tell him He’s more guilty than ever!”1 Why does Wiesel attempt to relate the experience of the Holocaust, even though he knows he will fail? These elements of paradox, attempting to communicate the ineffable feelings of human experience through literary forms and writing, remains a key element of Wiesel’s fiction.

Thus, The Trial of God represents this attempt to synthesize Wiesel’s Appolonian mode in trying to communicate the essential elements of God, humanity, and the universe, as well as the human experience of God, humanity, and the universe in the Dionysian mode. Two examples, one of the former and one of the latter, will make this clear. One can imagine that Wiesel’s dialogue can be an Apollonian device; many of the characters speak not as real people, but as archetype of philosophical ideas. Berish, for example, represents the Job figure of the story – his argument against God’s injustice rings with similar indictments to Job. Sam, the defendant, is similar to Job’s three friends, who seeks to defend God from his accusers. Mendel is a wise old man whose experience in life gives him the sense that hasty conclusions and actions (like Berish’s accusations) are not productive; it is better to observe than to conclude.2 However, with Berish’s remarks, he smiles when Berish refuses to forgive God, although he does not display his approval forthrightly.3 Yankel, the laughing supplanter, simply makes a joke out of everything; in this sense, his response to God’s injustice is laughter and mischievousness in the face of absurdity. Avremel, the professional tummler, simply remains melancholic throughout the play as his response. In the case of these five men, their personality remains the same throughout the play when they are themselves and not in the Purimschpiel. In this sense, both sides are simply representations of certain ideas; no Jewish person in the play loses their faith in God through their experiences of the pogroms; they simply respond in different ways to that experience.

On the other hand, the Dionysian mode is expressed both through the ideas of the play itself and the rejection of Sam’s answers to God’s accusers. No one expects an answer from a trial of God. God will not suddenly appear in a great theophany to punish his accusers or bless his defenders; in accordance with Wiesel’s experience of God (as far as can be divined through his writings), His silence exists in the face of adversity. Sam’s responses simply miss the point: logical and rational answers are illusory and safe; concrete answers are fake, and objectivity has no place. The experience of God can only be described as indescribable; human experience simply is not translatable from one person to another without something lost in translation. God cannot be given in words but in experiences, ones that the characters try to describe. Berish, before the first pogrom, describes God as if he were being touched by the deity himself; one can get a glimpse of that experience in writing, but nothing more.4 What of Berish’s experience of Hanna’s rape? Can logic and reason bridge the gap to explain – why this? Thus, this experiential model is extremely reminiscent of the Dionysian mode’s emphasis on experience and engagement with the rest of humanity – Wiesel certainly tries to get at this experience, these human relations, and thoughts during these experiences, but he provides only a glimpse of full engagement with the world. Thus, The Trial of God provides an opportunity to represent this experience directly that might not come as clearly in his fiction. The actors must breath life into these characters, and thus infuse them with reality rather than illusion.

Nietzsche’s analysis does not accord with Wiesel on every point, as Nietzsche holds onto the idea of a “great person” that Aristotle expressed. Wiesel’s characters are ideas, yes, but they are also people with real struggles and real thoughts. No heroic person stands up to rectify these situations; humans must endure these struggles, with or without God’s help. Arthur Miller, the author of Death of a Salesman, sees the situation in a different light; as his work emphasized the tragedy of the common man, his views share something in common with Wiesel’s characters.

In ‘Tragedy and the Common Man,” Arthur Miller outlines his understanding of tragedy. In the past, tragedy was relegated to those of the upper class – one might think of Oedipus Rex or Macbeth as nobles and great persons who succumbed to their fatal mistakes. In this conception, the modern day cannot have a tragedy, for such heroic men or women simply do not exist in a relatively “classless” society. To dispel this myth, Miller deconstructs the element of tragedy into its barest essentials. Firstly, modern psychology should make plain that the same mental processes ascribed to the lowly are also ascribed to heroes – society no longer can cite men as “superior”, especially in America.5 Secondly, the real tragic element in tragedies is not necessarily the situation but the personality and actions of the protagonists. In Miller’s words, “As a general rule, to which there may be exceptions unknown to me, I think the tragic feeling is evoked in us when we are in the presence of a character who is ready to lay down his life, if need be, to secure one thing–his sense of personal dignity. From Orestes to Hamlet, Medea to Macbeth, the underlying struggle is that of the individual attempting to gain his “rightful” position in his society.”6 To realize that there is an injustice makes the protagonist resolve his/herself to be judged rightly in society’s eyes, to regain that sense of fairness which was snatched from their grasp. In other words, personal dignity remains the reason for tragic events

Thus, to regain this dignity, the character cannot merely act passively and remain calm; he or she must react against the challenge to his/her human dignity.7 Sudden events causes a person to see reality as it really is, to be shaken by what he/she sees, and then react to that problem.8 In terms of tragedy, the mistake of the protagonist is the reaction against attacks on personal human dignity. Thus, ideas of rank or nobility are irrelevant to the tragic form; they are window dressing, as it were, for the true formulation of tragedy. Violations of justice relating to rank, for example, simply do not exist in the modern world.9 The fear and horror of dignity’s displacement resonates universally: “The quality in such plays that does shake us, however, derives from the underlying fear of being displaced, the disaster inherent in being torn away from our chosen image of what and who we are in this world. Among us today this fear is as strong, and perhaps stronger, than it ever was. In fact, it is the common man who knows this fear best.”10


1Elie Wiesel, The Trial of God, trans. Marion Wiesel (New York: Schocken Books, 1979), 156.

2Elie Wiesel, The Trial of God, xxiii.

3Elie Wiesel, The Trial of God, 156..

4Elie Wiesel, The Trial of God, 45.

5Arthur Miller, “Tragedy and the Common Man,” The Theater Essays of Arthur Miller, eds. Steve R. Centola and Robert A. Martin (New York: De Capo Press, 1996), 3.

6Arthur Miller, “Tragedy and the Common Man,” 4.

7Arthur Miller, “Tragedy and the Common Man,” 4.

8Arthur Miller, “Tragedy and the Common Man,” 4.

9Arthur Miller, “Tragedy and the Common Man,” 5.

10Arthur Miller, “Tragedy and the Common Man,” 5.

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.