Elie Wiesel: Jewish, Literary, and Moral Perspectives

By Steven T. Katz; Alan Rosen | Go to book overview

9
LOT’S WIFE AND “A PLEA FOR THE DEAD”
COMMEMORATION, MEMORY, AND SHAME

NANCY HARROWITZ

THE BIBLICAL CHARACTER of Lot’s wife, paralyzed into a pillar of salt, has fascinated readers, theologians, artists and critics alike for millennia. Her story has had very long legs indeed, as her fate has repeatedly been used as a cautionary tale, especially in Christian literature, to warn women against defiance and to promote the idea of obedience and compliance. The reason for her forbidden glance back at the destruction of Sodom has been attributed, often with strange and entirely unwarranted certitude, to various conflicting motives, such as a need to look back to where her sons in law were perishing, nostalgia for her happy family life in Sodom, disobedience for its own sake, and so on.1 As Martin Harries has remarked:

Her punishment suggests the potentially self-destructive nature of retrospection,
as if looking backward posed dangers to the self, as if to look backward were in it-
self a form of masochism. This opaque narrative simply passes over the question of
motive, and that very opacity, it seems has inspired speculations about her motives.
Some of this speculation, in its dogmatic certainty, does not even recognize that it
is speculation.2

In modern times, the “name” of Lot’s wife still appears as an organizing metaphor: in Harries’s Forgetting Lot’s Wife: On Destructive Spectatorship, he looks at the employment of the figure of Lot’s wife in literature and the visual arts as a contemporary response to devastation. Harries describes the vast repetition and rewriting of her story and the story of her family’s destiny that has occurred across the arts: for example, an early modern painting by Lucas Van Leyden that portrays overt lasciviousness on the part of Lot toward his daughters (the biblical text indicates no such attitude, as he is described as cognitively incapacitated, but evidently not impotent, from inebriation).3

The fascination with looking back as transgressive behavior appears in other wellknown stories as well: most famously, in the Orpheus episode where looking back also has significant and disastrous consequences, in that case a question of boundaries that

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