Is Ignorance Bliss? Elie Wiesel was victim to one of the most tragic and horrific incidents of the twentieth century, the Holocaust. He was one of few lucky ones who escaped the camps alive, while his family was part of millions who were not so lucky. Years after that, he became a journalist and eventually was convinced to finally write about his experiences with the Holocaust. The result became one of his most famously publicized works.
The book, Night (English translation version), only represented the beginning of a flourishing career as a political activist and novelist. He came to the United States and continued writing about his life and political ideologies, and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986 for works that diligently argued for ending oppression, hatred, and racism. Such themes are the underlying basis of his message in his speech The Perils of Indifference.
The horrors he faced as a boy forged the man that would go on to write all of these magnificent works; the neglect and ignorance of those events that occurred during the Holocaust influenced and inspired him to warn people of the dangerous woes of indifference. Lecturing an audience for any extended period of time is never an ideal way to convey one’s message effectively. As an experienced and successful novelist, Wiesel was well aware that if he wanted to get people to really understand what he meant when he said “Indifference, after all, is more dangerous than anger or hatred. , he couldn’t just talk at his audience, he had to ask questions to engage them. However, questions don’t have to require answers, and in a speech as passionate and carefully articulated as this one, a Q & A every thirty seconds would drown out his point among all of the redundant tangents the conversation could take off in. Instead, Wiesel took the approach of using the figurative devices of asking rhetorical questions and setting up allusions to make his argument relatable, understandable, reliable, and most importantly: agreeable.
The use of rhetorical questions in this speech differs from what many people use on a day to day basis -usually to promote sarcasm or imply one must be immensely dense to not understand a point. Here, Wiesel uses the device to get his audience to participate in his argument as well as hear it. By asking themselves the very questions he asks, audiences are apt to reach the very conclusions that Wiesel’s has. Two types of rhetorical questions used by Wiesel most often are either unanswerable or suggestive. For example, “How is one to explain their indifference? or “Why didn’t he [FDR] allow these refugees [Jews] to disembark [back to the Nazis]? ” are unanswerable. Questions that don’t have an answer allow for people to make their own assumptions. If guidelines have been set prior to these questions, an audiences’ conclusions are likely to further support his argument. To this day, no one knows what influenced FDR to make certain decisions, but based on Wiesel’s persistent argument, it can be presumed that indifference played a major role in some of FDR’s decisions.
Another type of rhetorical question that Wiesel used were “suggestive” questions. There were many instances were Wiesel would insert long chains of rhetorical questions one right after the other. Though risky or even overwhelming, these questions made the direction of his argument easier to control. On the first page when he asks about indifference, he enters this chain of rhetorical questions: “What are its courses and inescapable consequences? Is it a philosophy? Is a philosophy of indifference conceivable?
Can one possibly view indifference as a virtue? Is it necessary at times to practice it simply to keep one’s sanity, live normally, enjoy a fine meal and a glass of wine, as the world around us experiences harrowing upheavals? ”. The first rhetorical question is responded to with his next idea: Is it a philosophy? He assumes it is, then from there the idea of indifference is inferred as ubiquitous. The pattern of assuming each questions with a new question continues.
Rhetorical questions that are suggestive enhance Wiesel’s position, and this injection forces the audience to come to Wiesel’s conclusion, while still feeling as though the conclusion is their own. Allusion is another literary device used to Wiesel’s advantage in this argument. Wiesel uses allusions to make his rhetorical questions as effective as possible. Initially, if Wiesel was to go on and on about indifference in general, the audience might be less engaged. However, Wiesel inserts multiple types of allusions to make his point relatable to the lives f his audience. For instance, when he talks about how “It is so much easier to look away from the victims” when referencing “behind the black gates of Auschwitz” and “the most tragic of all prisoners”, since the Holocaust is a universally accepted tragedy, indifference is related to that event, and is therefore conceived as a trait with demonic properties. By establishing the allusion that reinforces how terrible the Holocaust was, the rhetorical question regarding why FDR did not take more action became much more influential.
Additionally, Wiesel incorporated more vague references, such as a “political prisoner in his cell, the hungry children, the homeless refugees-”. Wiesel infers that ignoring such tragedies and remaining unresponsive is both evil and indifferent. Then by displaying indifference in many kinds of scenarios, going to this extent allows Wiesel to create effectiveness with his allusions. His goal is to have the audience establish their own connections and inferences, which he does through creating relative allusions, then asking relevant rhetorical questions.
Of course there were other literary elements in this speech that made Wiesel’s argument all that more effective. His use of powerful diction -such as “betray”, “abandon”, “suffering” “anger”- all promotes the same intense and powerful tone, and he sporadicly uses anaphora to extend the passion in his message such as instances where he says “You fight it, You denounce it. You disarm it. ” or “They no longer felt pain, hunger thirst. They feared nothing. They felt nothing. They were dead and did not know it. ”. Lastly, Wiesel interjects himself into the speech in the beginning as he recounts himself as a small boy in the midst of a struggle.
Then once more at the end, he retells that brief anecdote, and uses the idea of his childhood still accompanying him as a metaphor for how events that had transpired during his childhood: How the past he has carried with him to this day and is what has made him into the novelist the audience sees before them. Wiesel certainly makes it clear through his prominent uses of rhetorical questions and allusion that indifference creates a threat to the humanity everyone possesses somewhere within, and uses examples of his time in Auschwitz as an example of what damaging and painful effects indifference can inflict upon others.
Even when he says, “Do we hear their pleas? Do we feel their pain, their agony? Every minute one of them dies of diseases, violence, famine. Some of them -so many of them- could be saved. ” However, Wiesel doesn’t let the indifference that affected his childhood so heavily deny who he is, and what he cares about. That is why he is able to make many more speeches, construct many more arguments, and make many more advancements of movements, that can be just as effective as this speech. He does it so flawlessly with his ability to combine the fervency derived from his past and the skills he has obtained throughout his career as a great novelist.
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