Legends of Our Time
Elie Wiesel An Unpublished 1957 Essay Translated from Yiddish by Chana Pollack.
Once more, I find myself ready to hit the road. My suitcase is packed, typewriter ready, and my heart is open to new experiences, fresh encounters, brand-new tales.
You, my reader, and I are turning together the pages of this dusty photo album, where I’ve noted both humorous and tragic moments of unique individuals that had I not met, my life would have been that much poorer. Let’s proceed, so that I may tell you some more true yet fantastic stories about people whose lives are not as gray as ours.
My editor’s telegram arrived this morning. “Get going!” the cable ordered, at which point a feeling of inner peace spread within me. Since my accident last July [Editors note: a car struck and seriously injured Wiesel in New York in 1956], I’ve hardly left my hotel room, not to mention New York. I could hardly wait to once again feed my wanderlust. A few years ago, when I was in India, I had a conversation with a holy Yogi who 30 years ago had sworn an oath not to move from his seated position. I traveled 10 hours by plane to meet him. The lore surrounding his oathtaking intrigued me. I wanted to find out what force kept him planted in his one spot and, on the other hand, what drives me endlessly from one place to the other — from one country to another.
We talked for several hours, and as I bade him farewell he shared this parable with me:
“Close your eyes and imagine yourself alone in the desert, surrounded by sand, sand and more
Every life is full of legends. You just need to open your eyes and be able to see them, or to see them in just the right light.
sand. You’re thirsty and there’s no water. What to do? You keep moving forward. Another hour. Another day or two. You have no other option but to keep on going. And as you move on, you’re even more tortured by thirst. It’s as though flames are charging through your veins. It seems a conflagration has broken out in your brain. Your throat is parched and your tongue is swollen.
There’s no water, and you reach a breaking point. You’re in crisis from all the agony, and begin hallucinating that water is everywhere and the sand has disappeared. There’s not even any sky, only water. You imagine you’re bathing in it, swimming and laughing in water — and you’re thrilled. Your troubles have disappeared. And you move on until you arrive at an oasis. And there you see a green tree with a spring at its base. And you stand still next to it, peering at your own face as it’s reflected back. You fall on your knees, bending across the spring as though you’re the first man created on earth, using your tongue to moisten your lips with real water.”
I feel most at home whenever I find myself between heaven and earth, on the border or, to cite W. Somerset Maugham, “at the razor’s edge.” I frequently ask myself this: Why am I so delighted when I say goodbye to close friends and set out to acquaint myself with the unfettered stranger (and sometimes the strange unfettered) folks?
I don’t know why.
Each individual has the right to his own obsession, his personal ‘“hobby.” One is a stamp collector, another loves getting drunk, a third plays cards. As for myself, I love seeking out legends.
And not all legends are rooted in ancient times. Legends are born daily. You meet people like these whenever you live outside conventional norms.
I flip through my photo album, observing Francois’s [French editor Francois Wahl’s] long, narrow face. His great-great grandfather was the famous Rabbi Saul Wahl, but when we met he had no idea of his Jewish lineage. His parents had converted when he was 6 months old. They never told him the truth about his own Yiddishkeit, and had even attempted to have him enter the priesthood. Later on, when he uncovered his own secret, he was beside himself. He wanted to return to Judaism, and in a short while he became one of the leaders of the Israeli Underground movement in Europe.
[Rav Mordechai] Shushani is another example. If there is a genius, it’s him, with his steel-trap mind, and the sharpest comprehension abilities I’ve ever encountered. Fluent in 30 languages, he’s mastered cultures and whole bodies of knowledge. He carries himself so mysteriously, so much like a kabbalist.
Nobody knew his name or where he lived, or how he supported himself. He would suddenly, unexpectedly, knock at my door and stay for six or seven hours. During those hours he’d uncover the hidden meaning of certain concepts, the hidden souls of simple words. I don’t know where he is anymore. Friends from Paris write me that he’s in Israel. If that’s true, I’ll go find him now. I’ve got a few questions. But let’s not get off topic.
I suppose I could meet up with Francois and Shoshani, were I to lead a quiet, normal life — get up at 7 daily, get to work by 8, lunch around noon, home by 6 and in bed by 11. I’m happy to be packing my bag. The French have a saying, “Adventure awaits at every street corner.” Clearly adventure can be found. Enthusiasm and attunement for the mysteries of life are also possible from home.
And truly, every life is full of secrets and legends. You just need to open your eyes and be able to see them, or to see them in just the right light.
Searching for legends while remaining at home is a difficult and sometimes thankless task. I lack the energy. Not everyone can endure drinking water from a spring and maintaining a crystallike consciousness. It’s easier constructing worlds atop desert sands. It’s easier to write than to leaf through pages of an album.
For the time being, I close it. Maybe we’ll revisit the album someday with fresh eyes, but for now, I’m heading out. If I should happen upon new legends, I’ll share the tales. Meanwhile, be well.