Thursday, October 2, 2014

Case Study No. 1613: Sholom Weiss

Sophie's Choice - Audiobook - Excerpt Chapter Four
Sophie's Choice
Author: William Styron
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In the book Sophie's Choice, which takes place soon after World War II, Sophie has immigrated to America after having been in a Nazi concentration camp. She has discovered the poetry of Emily Dickinson in an English-language class, and she comes to the library to take out a poetry book. Sophie has misunderstood the name of the poet to be Emil Dickens, but she was quite elated by her professor's reading of the poetry:


Sophie's terror over the encounter with the librarian relates to her previous experiences at the hands of the Nazis. Yet this analogy fits with little dissonance within the structures of the discourse of fear. Sophie is portrayed as feeling powerless in the face of the librarians's authority and is unable to control her feelings of helplessness and shame. The librarian does not attempt to ask Sophie to clarify her request, but assumes that she is ignorant. He chooses to publicly humiliate Sophie, in a manner similar to Mary's tirade and humiliation of the young man in Party Girl and the physical violence and killing of users in the Librarian. These portrayals are exaggerated for the purposes of comic effect, but the contours of the discourse of fear are at their most exposed in such examples. Beyond the fear of humiliation by the librarian, there stands what might be considered the ultimate manifestation of the discourse of fear: the Library Policeman.



Another momentous occasion in the chapter is the events leading up to her first introduction to Nathan. While still feeling ill, Sophie took the subway to the Brooklyn College library to find a poem that her English teacher, Mr. Youngstein had read to her in one of their classes. One specific verse had intrigued her, and she wanted to read more about this poet. Upon arriving at the front desk, the librarian, Sholom Weiss was completely rude and insensitive when she had asked about a particular poet. Mr. Weiss had yelled at Sophie, being ridiculous and arrogant beyond belief. Sophie eventually fainted as the event had shaken her up, and woke to a man yelling at Mr. Weiss for his cruel behavior. This man was Nathan, and he stood up for her, seeing the whole situation that occured. From that moment on, they would become friends, best friends and in the end lovers.



But the incredible emotion evaporated swiftly. It was gone by the time she entered the library, and long before she encountered the librarian behind the desk - a Nazi. No, of course he was not a Nazi, not only because the black-and-white engraved nameplate identified him as Mr. Sholom Weiss but because - well, what would a Nazi be doing apportioning volume after volume of the earth's humane wisdom at the Brooklyn College library? But Sholom Weiss, a pallid dour thirtyish man with aggressive horn-rims and a green eyeshade, was such a startling double of every heavy, unbending, mirthless German bureaucrat and demi-monster she had known in years past that she had the weird sense that she had been thrust back into the Warsaw of the occupation. And it was doubtless this moment of deja vu, this rush of identification, that caused her to become so quickly and helplessly unstrung. Feeling suffocatingly weak and ill again, she asked Sholom Weiss in a diffident voice where the catalogue file would be in which she might find listed the works of the nineteenth-century American poet Emil Dickens.

"In the catalogue room, first door to the left," muttered Weiss, unsmiling, then after a long pause added, "But you won't find any such listing."

"Won't find any such listing?" Sophie echoed him, puzzled. Following a moment's silence, she said, "Could you tell me why?"

"Charles Dickens is an English writer. There is no American poet by the name of Dickens." The voice was so sharp and hostile as to be like an incision.

Swept with sudden nausea, light-headed and with a perilous tingling moving across her limbs like the faint prickling of a multitude of needles, Sophie watched with dispassionate curiosity as Sholom Weiss's face, sullenly inflexible in its graven unpleasantness, seemed to float away ever so slightly from the neck and the confining collar. I feel so terribly sick, she said to herself as if to some invisible, solicitous doctor, but managed to choke out to the librarian, "I'm sure there is an American poet Dickens." Thinking then that those lines, those reverberant lines with their miniature, sorrowing music of mortality and time, would be as familiar to an American librarian as anything, as household objects are, or a patriotic anthem, or one's own flesh, Sophie felt her lips part to say, Because I could not stop for Death ... She was hideously nauseated. And she failed to realize that in the intervening seconds there had registered somewhere in the precincts of Sholom Weiss's unmagnanimous brain her stupid contradiction of him, and its insolence. Before she could utter the line, she heard his voice rise against every library decree of silence and cause a distant, shadowy turning of heads. A hoarse rasping whisper - querulous, poisoned with needless ill will - his retort was freighted with all the churlish indignation of petty power. "Listen, I told you," the voice said, "there is no such a person! You want me to draw you a picture! I am telling you, do you hear me!"

Sholom Weiss may easily have thought that he had slain her with language. For when Sophie woke up some moments later from the dead faint into which she had slumped to the floor, his words still ricocheted crazily about in her mind and she realized dimly that she had fallen into a swoon just at the instant he had finished yelling at her. But everything now had gone topsy-turvy, disjointed, and she barely knew where she was. The library, yes, certainly, that was where she was, but she seemed to be reclining awkwardly on a sort of couch or window seat not from the desk in front of which she had collapsed, and she was so weak, and a disgusting odor flooded the air around her, a sour smell she could not identify until, slowly, feeling the wet stain down the front of her blouse, she became aware that she had thrown up her last meal. A damp carapace of vomit drenched her breast like foul mud.

But even as she absorbed this knowledge she moved her head listlessly, conscious of something else, a voice, a man's voice, orotund, powerful, raging at the half-cowering and perspiring figure whose back was to her but whom she dimly recognized by the green eyeshade gone askew on his brow as Sholom Weiss. And something stern and commanding and consummately outraged in the voice of the man, whom she could barely see from her vantage point, caused an odd and pleasant chill to course up her back even as she reclined there in her feeble, prostrate helplessness. "I don't know who you are, Weiss, but you've got bad manners. I heard every fucking word you said to her, I was standing right here!" he roared. "And I heard every intolerably rude and ugly thing you said to that girl. Couldn't you tell she was a foreigner, you fucking little momzer you, you shmuck!" A small crowd had gathered around and Sophie saw the librarian quiver as if he were being buffeted by savage winds. "You're a kike, Weiss, a kike, the kind of mean little creep that gives Jews a bad name. That girl, that nice and lovely girl there with a little trouble with the language, asks you a perfectly decent question and you treat her like some piece of shit walked in. I ought to break your fucking skull! You got about as much business around books as a plumber!" Suddenly, to her drowsy astonishment, Sophie saw the man yank Weiss's eyeshade down around his windpipe, where it dangled like a useless celluloid appendage. "You nasty little putz," the voice said, full of contempt and revulsion, "you're enough to make anyone puke!"

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