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A story about Virginia Tech

April 16, 2010

In my third year as an undergraduate at Virginia Tech, when I was 21, I met Elie Wiesel.  I was chosen to be part of a small group of students who met him for a private discussion/question-and-answer session during Holocaust Awareness week (which ends today, by the way).  It was a tremendously powerful moment for me; the second-most powerful experience I had while at Virginia Tech.

I’ve been thinking today about Elie Wiesel, and in particular about the quote shown below.  This passage comes from a lecture he gave at Northwestern University in 1977, where he was asked to speak on the subject of “The Holocaust as Literary Inspiration”.  What’s remarkable to me is how clearly you can sense his bristling anger at the presumptuousness of the requested topic:

And now a few words about the literature of the Holocaust, or about literary inspiration.  There is no such thing, not with Auschwitz in the equation.  “The Holocaust as Literary Inspiration” is a contradiction in terms.  As in everything else, Auschwitz negates all systems, destroys all doctrines.  … A novel about Treblinka is either not a novel or not about Treblinka.  A novel about Majdanek is about blasphemy.  Is blasphemy.  Treblinka means death, absolute death, death of language and of hope, death of trust and of inspiration.  … How can one write a novel about the Holocaust? … Furthermore, how can one convince himself without feeling guilty that he may use such events for literary purposes?  Wouldn’t that mean, then, that Treblinka and Belzec, Ponar and Babi Yar all ended in fantasy, in words, in beauty, that it was simply a matter of literature?


I don’t mean to compare the April 16, 2007 shootings at Virginia Tech to the Holocaust; that would be ridiculous.  Probably nothing should ever be compared to the Holocaust.  What I mean to say is that I find it particularly difficult to write about what happened that day in Blacksburg, Virginia.  But at the same time I feel a strange compulsion to share the stories about my years at Virginia Tech, and about my experiences surrounding that particularly difficult time.

Consequently, I have decided to institute a new tradition at Gravity and Levity.  Once a year, on April 16, I will write a post that tells a story from my time at Virginia Tech.  It is perhaps a silly departure from the normal theme and tone of this blog; feel free to skip past it.  But this is my outlet for writing to the world, and so I will post it here.




At Virginia Tech I was a student of the poet Nikki Giovanni; I like to think that I can call her my friend.  In the spring of 2007 I was enrolled in her advanced poetry class (she wrote a poem about us: ENGL 4714, CRN 16937), which was scheduled to meet on Monday, April 16.  Of course, we didn’t end up meeting until one week later, and I can remember the strange atmosphere in the classroom as we gathered around the room’s large, central table.

It was an awkward moment, and we dealt with it awkwardly, making small talk for an hour or so.  I remember that I had written something but was unwilling to share it (Nikki, if you’re out there, I finally posted it here), so I just held the paper in my hands, below the table, for the entire three-hour class period.  The guy sitting next to me (whom I’ll call “Mike” because I don’t remember his name and in my memory he looks like a “Mike”) had a piece of paper, too.  But, having more courage than me (or something), he eventually brought out his paper and said to the professor “I actually do have a poem.  I showed it to my friends this last week, and a bunch of them said that it really helped them, so I was thinking I could share it here.”  And then he read his poem.

It was absolutely the worst poem I have ever heard.  It was sappy and self-satisfied and full of disgusting platitudes.  It implored the reader in the most obvious terms to not feel depressed or hopeless or angry, but to take strength from the sense of community that has brought us together and the bonds that unite us as we cope with our tragic loss and the understanding that we now have of the preciousness of life and blah blah blah…

I remember sitting there next to Mike as he read this poem and being absolutely furious.  The more he read, and the more he implored me to find hope in my sorrow, the stronger grew my urge to stand up and punch him in his goddamned fat face.  I was literally trembling with rage.  There are probably only a handful of times in my life that I have been so angry.  I was unreasonably, primally angry.

Of course, in the end I didn’t do Mike any bodily harm.  I didn’t storm out of the room, and I didn’t even venture to offer an opinion on his loathsome poem (I may have wanted to punch Mike in the face, but I didn’t want to hurt his feelings).  But I still remember very clearly how angry his poem made me, and when I recall that moment I can still feel some of that same anger.  It isn’t a good feeling.

But if I had been calm and articulate at that moment, as I heard his terrible poem, I suppose that what I would have wanted to say to Mike is that the shootings at Virginia Tech on April 16, 2007 were a bad thing.  They were only bad.  They were not a blessing in disguise, they were not an opportunity for us to come together as a community, and they were not a way for us to learn to appreciate life and its brevity.  They were death: the death of 33 people in a particularly violent and horrific way.


In a sense, this is a ridiculous story.  It is ridiculous and unreasonable that to this day the only anger I have about the shootings at Virginia Tech is reserved for people who say “everything happens for a reason”.  But it is nonetheless true, and my only goal on this particular day is to share a true story about my time at Virginia Tech.


8 Comments leave one →
  1. April 16, 2010 6:52 pm

    It is very hard to face how purely Bad things can be. We look for ways to dilute that, to turn away from it. To a certain extent, this is optimism: into every life a little rain must fall, and, if we get handed lemons, those who make lemonade live happier lives and perhaps even more successful ones.

    But what if it’s not a little rain but a whole tsunami? What if we face the fact that the innocents who fall are likely not somewhere up above, drinking cream and dancing, and even if they are, they’re still stolen from those who need them below?

    As Elie says, there can be a death of hope. It’s almost impossible to go on without it.

  2. Arend permalink
    April 17, 2010 10:25 am

    Wiesel’s quote expresses my feelings exactly about the movie La Vita e Bella (Roberto Benigni). Quite a few of my friends found it moving, powerful, etc. I was just angry.

  3. Joshua Zucker permalink
    April 18, 2010 5:00 pm

    Wonderful post, thanks.

    “Everything happens for a reason” is a pretty horrible thing to say; thanks for having the courage to express your anger about this kind of approach.

  4. Jack permalink
    September 6, 2013 1:36 am

    Despite your dissension with Mike about the shootings have a meaning or purpose, I think, at the heart of it all, that both views hold to the core value that human life is inviolable. Mike and his cohorts attempt to stump for the sanctity of life by constructing a meaning-making narrative that will show, in the words of Abraham Lincoln, “that these dead shall not have died in vain.”

    On the other hand, you (and others) highlight the inviolability of human life by pointing out that no narrative is worth the destruction of a human being. That is, human beings are not allowed to suffer miserably and die simply so we can sit around in a room and think warm, fuzzy thoughts.

    While I would never attempt to dissuade you from that position (because I think you have a very valid point), I think you may have missed the underlying feelings that caused Mike and others to respond the way that they did. It is difficult for human beings to face the darkest things in life head-on, especially things like gratuitous death and suffering. There are three responses we can have: 1. We can face the evil head on for what it is (as you do) and then, over time, continue with our lives as we perhaps think less and less of the evil, but still remember it. 2. We can think about the evil so much that it overwhelms us, resulting either in despair or extreme misanthropy. or 3. We can dismiss or minimize the evil by constructing a narrative or utilizing platitudes of comfort. And while I understand how option #3 is totally nauseating to you, keep in mind that these people are doing their best (as you are) to respond to a pointless, senseless,horrible situation without succumbing to hopelessness or despair.


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