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A Thousand Darknesses

In a post that I wrote more than two years ago about the anthology of interviews and essays The Emergence of Memory: Conversations with W.G. Sebald, I said that Ruth Franklin’s essay Rings of Smoke, from The New Republic, “is the outstanding one by a country mile. She discusses most of Sebald’s books and quickly gets to the heart of each one. She is also capable, as [editor Lynne Sharon] Schwartz puts it, of assessing ‘the risks involved in what she sees as Sebald’s aestheticizing of collective disaster.’”  Franklin is Senior Editor at The New Republic and a frequent book reviewer.  Her review of Sebald’s On the Natural History of Destruction for Slate handled that odd volume with great intelligence, I thought.  So I am really looking forward to her forthcoming book A Thousand Darknesses: Truth and Lies in Holocaust Literature (Oxford University Press, fall 2010), which will deal with Sebald, Elie Wiesel, Primo Levi, Imre Kertesz.

For what it is worth, the phrase that Franklin is using for her forthcoming book title  – a thousand darknesses – has some curious prior usages.  Without saying how she came by the phrase, Franklin herself originally used it as the title for her in-depth 2006 review of Elie Wiesel’s Night, a review written for The New Republic on the occasion of what turned out to be a somewhat controversial new translation by Marion Wiesel, the author’s wife.   I can find several possible sources (including a line in a poem by Paul Celan that I cannot locate).  First, there is the unattributed Islamic quotation “To light a single candle is better than to sit and complain about a thousand darknesses.”

But for purposes of referring to the Holocaust, a more apt usage is found in James Stephens’ tale The Story of Tuan Mac Cairill, from his 1920 book Irish Fairy Tales.

The night came, and with it a thousand darknesses fell from the screeching sky. Not a round-eyed creature of the night might pierce an inch of that multiplied gloom. Not a creature dared creep or stand. For a great wind strode the world lashing its league-long whips in cracks of thunder, and singing to itself,now in a world-wide yell, now in an ear- dizzying hum and buzz;or with a long snarl and whine it hovered over the world searching for life to destroy.

One of Arthur Rackham’s illustrations for Irish Fairy Tales, 1920

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Terry, the Celan passage is from his speech accepting the Bremen Literature Prize, which he gave in 1958: “Only one thing remained reachable, close and secure amid all losses: language. Yes, language. In spite of everything, it remained secure against loss. But it had to go through its own lack of answers, through terrifying silence, through the thousand darknesses of murderous speech. It went through.” (I copied that from a website, I don’t know who translated it, and I don’t have the German with me as I am not at home right now, but that is the source.)

    February 3, 2010
  2. The reference to Stephens is interesting. However, the link to Celan seems the more likely genesis. Regarding Stephens’ usage, it should be remembered that ‘1000’ is frequently used in the Irish language (the word is ‘míle’)for emphasis and in greetings, exclamations and the like. For example ‘Welcome’ in Irish is ‘céad míle fáilte’, literally a ‘hundred thousand welcomes’, while ‘Thank You’ is ‘Go raibh míle maith agat’, or literally ‘May you have a thousand kindnesses’.

    February 3, 2010

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