Illuminating language (II)


In literary reviews ‘Everything is illuminated’ by Jonathan Safran Foer is often praised for its richness in tone and genre. It is both ironic and serious and it shows multiple elements from different genres: it is a Bildungsroman, a magical realistic story, the story of a road trip, the story between friends, a letter correspondence. This richness does not exhaust itself by the simple accumulation of different text forms and styles, but in a utilization of these text forms that allows a going ‘beyond’ (the expected; the postmodern).

This is best shown, I think, by the exceptional title ‘Everything is illuminated’, which displays (as well as Foer’s second novel ‘Extremely loud and incredibly close’) a fascination with intensity. The title implies that there’s not ‘just’ illumination, in terms of solving a kind mystery, no, everything is illuminated – without restriction. This intensity is further strengthened by the overall effect of the title, which can be described as an oscillation between different meanings and semantics.

The title reveals an irritating ambivalence. On the one hand, the term ‘illumination’ is used incorrectly by Alex, one of the main protagonists of the novel, an Ukrainian tourist guide whose English is self-taught. Whenever he uses it, one could think of several synonyms that would be more fitting (explain, show, clarify). Also, the word is used in two chapter titles which reveal stories that occurred during WW II and which are both connected to secrets.

From this use one could conclude that the title refers to the unraveling of a mystery. In this case, this is linked to the main plot of the novel – the search of the figure Jonathan Safran Foer for his grandfather’s past – that leads eventually to an ‘illumination’, to the solving of a puzzle. But this is just one side of it.

‘Illuminated’ also means ‘lit with bright lights’ and is associated with decorative lighting. This positive meaning is completely negated and turned around in the novel, because this word is used when a synagogue is burned down by the Nazis: ‘[…] it illuminated those who were not in the synagogue those who were not going to die […]’.[1] Those who are illuminated, are those who survived the massacre and are furthermore partially guilty of the victims inside the synagogue: They were forced by the Nazis to identify the Jews in their town who were only then put in the synagogue. So in this case, the lights are accusing lights, proof of their guilt.

This double meaning is more than just that. Since it displays such contrary elements, but not necessarily opposing elements – language joke and bitter reality – its effect is quite disturbing, even unsettling. One could apply the word ‘oscillation’[2] here, an oscillation between different meanings, that in this case offers (or even forces) a way to the ‘beyond’. This oscillation exists not only between two elements, a third element is introduced which underlines that this oscillation is not a balanced one, an equally divided one but much more complicated. This third element is the use of the words ‘dark’ and ‘darkness’.

When the main protagonists finally find the town they are looking for so long – Trachimbrod – these words are used repeatedly. Of the town Trachimbrod – the place of the massacre – almost nothing is left and it seems, even if they had arrived by daylight, there still would be not much to see:

‘Tell him it is because it is so dark,‘ Grandfather said to me, ‘and that we could see more if it was not dark’. ‘It is so dark’, I told him. ‘No’, she said, ‘this is all that you could see. It is always like this, always dark.’[3]

The remnants of the town are the past that Alex’s grandfathers tries desperately to forget, because it is the place of a massacre he has witnessed and the birthplace of his enormous guilt. About this bitter truth the main protagonists learn in complete darkness. Alex and Jonathan – the grandson of a guilty survivor and the grandson of an escaped Jew – are lying in the grass after they heard the gruesome story, when suddenly darkness becomes the only possibility to see light: ‘Because it was so dark, we could see many of the stars.’[4] Illumination, here, is only perceivable when one opens up to darkness.

That everything is clear and evident before your eyes, like the novel’s title suggests, can also mean that it is too bright, too clear and therefore too brutal, because knowledge in this case can be a burden. It is the knowledge of the survivor who never left the place of the illuminating synagogue, paralyzed by his guilt and therefore traumatized. The novel will show, that it is in the darkness where the grandfather’s illumination will take place, eventually.

One has to go beyond the concept of an epistemological illumination, since it only leads into identifying perpetrator and victim, but does not solve or clarify anything. In Foer`s novel illumination is an inner clarity that is more based on affects than on facts. At the end of the novel Alex`s grandfather seems to have found this inner freedom, that kind of illumination that works outside the epistemological realm. Although he can explain the deeds he has committed during WW II, they still make no sense to him. He had to sacrifice a Jewish friend, he was forced to, he explains to Jonathan and Alex, and all the same this rationalization fails. In the end, he has betrayed this friend and he will never forgive himself. But a final act which is a true and emotional action rather than a logical explanation provides him with relief. He decides to commit suicide and says right before ‘I am complete with happiness […]’.[5]

Following the ambivalent meaning of the title, it has opened our eyes for different kinds of illumination, in fact, has shed light on the character of illumination, by questioning the use of (complete) rational knowledge, pointing out the burden of clarity. This forced us to go beyond this meaning and look for an intensity that is reached in a non-rational way, one that is, against intuition, positioned in the realm of darkness. At first, fittingly, the novel seems to end with both meanings.  One the one hand we have darkness and lack of knowledge and on the other hand light and truth: ‘I will walk without noise, and I will open the door in darkness and I will’[6].  Yet we already know that Alex’s grandfather is dead and that his grandson’s life  has changed. We already know that illumination has indeed taken place.

[1] Jonathan Safran (2002): Everything is illuminated, London: Penguin Books, p. 251

[2] See: Vermeulen, Tim and Robin van den Akker (2010): Notes on Metamodernism, Journal of Aesthetics & Culture, Vol. 2, 2010 DOI: 10.3402/jac.v2i0.5677

[3] Foer (2002:184)

[4] ibid., 190

[5] ibid., 276

[6] ibid., 276

Image:; by sinemabed