A Mad Desire to Dance: A Novel
By Elie Wiesel (Translated from the French by Catherine Temerson)
Alfred A. Knopf
Reviewed by S. L. Weis
In his latest work, Wiesel invites us to consider many things, chief among them, the nature of madness. Is the man who mutters to himself in the street mad? Or is it the man who can’t suppress overwhelming emotions, who distances himself from painful memories by projecting them onto fictitious characters? Or is it the rest of us who rush through our neatly structured lives so as not to become too mesmerized by the bottomless well of all that we stand to lose?
The story is told through the alternating narratives of two main characters, Doriel Waldman and Dr. Thérèse Goldschmidt, Waldman’s psychotherapist. Waldman is a 60 year-old holocaust survivor pursued by memories that haunt him like evil spirits (dybbuks). The story is told in alternating first-person points of view, predominantly from Waldman’s perspective, interspersed with “notes” from Dr. Goldschmidt.
Waldman was a child when the war ended. His mother, a blond with a false Aryan identity card, leaves to fight with the resistance. He and his father spend their days beneath the subfloor of a barn and their nights crouched in the attic of an increasingly hostile landlord. Though they survive the war, his parents die shortly thereafter in a car accident and he is sent to live with an uncle in Brooklyn. Eventually, Waldman receives a large bequest, large enough that he need never work again. Through this presumed act of kindness, Waldman is deprived of even the gift of necessity; the daily rhythm that anesthetizes by distraction. Instead, Waldman lives a peripatetic existence, having brief and unsatisfying encounters with other people, in whom he holds out hope for a spiritual connection.
Goldschmidt’s narrative is really less a clinical account than a window into her own life, little of which is fully explicated. In some instances, it serves only to describe how her relationship to Waldman is affecting her marriage. The result is not particularly convincing, in part because the psychological tension between Waldman and Goldschmidt is never fully developed; it flares and grows cold, but rarely are the sources of tension fully explored. The result feels at times haphazard. The reader is left confused about exactly why it is that Waldman is so disturbing to Goldschmidt whose occasional narratives are a plot device the author uses to shed a more structured and objective light on the central character.
A Mad Desire to Dance employs madness as both theme and structure. Madness as a concept is discussed extensively but never defined. It is revealed implicitly through Waldman’s narrative as an inability to control emotion, to clearly distinguish the real from the fantastical, and to simultaneously both suppress painful memories/ideas and to face them. Wiesel’s treatment of madness encapsulates all of this as well as the higher-order social structures that foster genocide and intolerance.
However, madness as structure is not an easy narrative form. The narrative does not progress through the usual sequence of conflict-resolution, but swirls and surges in interwoven, fragmentary snippets, some real some mystical. The effect is pointillist. If one stands back far enough, a pattern emerges. The picture is of a life half-lived, half dreamed, by man so broken and wounded by childhood loss that he is beyond both human fellowship and the linearity of time.
It would be impossible to delve into all of the other themes this book touches upon: God, divine and human love, the morality of sex, Freudian psychology, Zionism, Kabalism. It is a rich tapestry of ideas and frustratingly underdeveloped yet poignant stories which emerge from the gloom of the character’s musings on spirituality and relationships, brutality, family and friendships. The effect is too much and yet, not quite enough; too many themes insufficiently examined.
However, though the effect may be occasionally frustrating, what this book conjures is a near-perfect specimen of the person he envisioned. Waldman is a man impelled by half-digested terrors that drive him through an emotional desert, brushing against and being repelled by people, randomly casting about to find the places that touch but don’t wound. This child who didn’t literally die of his grief is in later life unable to find a way out of his emotional exile. Instead, he fills his with life half-hearted religious devotion and reaches for things that he thinks are correct to want, only to find that he doesn’t want them. He is impetuous and filled with repressed sexual fantasies of women, some of whom he suspects don’t even exist. He lives as a shadowy observer, watching and even role-playing as a participant, picking up and discarding people, in search of a person whose own sadness mirrors his own (“the girl with the dark eyes and the smile of a frightened child”). In short: a soul mate.
The true beauty of the story lies is in its intense contemplation of the issues that touch all humanity; charity in the face of unfathomable cruelty and how one is born into this world essentially alone, but must find salvation through attachments, even if it means risking disappointment and loss.