Photos: left, David Armstrong; right, from David Grossman: the author’s son Uri, who was killed last year in the Israel-Lebanon war.
via NYTimes Magazine:
Writing in the Dark
By DAVID GROSSMAN
Published: May 13, 2007
[...] Because of the perpetual — and all-too-real — fear of being hurt, or of death, or of unbearable loss, or even of “mere” humiliation, each and every one of us, the conflict’s citizens, its prisoners, trim down our own vivacity, our internal mental and cognitive diapason, ever enveloping ourselves with protective layers, which end up suffocating us.
Kafka’s mouse is right: when the predator is closing in on you, the world does indeed become increasingly narrow. So does the language that describes it. From my experience I can say that the language with which the citizens of a sustained conflict describe their predicament becomes progressively shallower the longer the conflict endures. Language gradually becomes a sequence of clichés and slogans. This begins with the language created by the institutions that manage the conflict directly — the army, the police, the different government ministries; it quickly filters down to the mass media that are reporting about the conflict, germinating an even more cunning language that aims to tell its target audience the story easiest for digestion; and this process ultimately seeps into the private, intimate language of the conflict’s citizens, even if they deny it.
Actually, this process is all too understandable: after all, the natural riches of human language, and their ability to touch on the finest and most delicate nuances and strings of existence, can hurt deeply in such circumstances, because they remind us of the bountiful reality of which we are being robbed, of its true complexity, of its subtleties. And the more this state of affairs goes on, and as the language used to describe this state of affairs grows shallower, public discourse dwindles further. What remain are the fixed and banal mutual accusations among enemies, or among political adversaries within the same country. What remain are the clichés we use for describing our enemy and ourselves; the clichés that are, ultimately, a collection of superstitions and crude generalizations, in which we capture ourselves and entrap our enemies. The world is, indeed, growing increasingly narrow.
My thoughts relate not only to the conflict in the Middle East. Across the world today, billions of people face a “predicament” of one type or other, in which personal existence and values, liberty and identity are under threat, to some extent. Almost all of us have a “predicament” of our own, a curse of our own. We all feel — or can intuit — how our special “predicament” can rapidly turn into a trap that would take away our freedom, the sense of home our country provides, our private language, our free will.
In this reality we authors and poets write. In Israel and Palestine, Chechnya and Sudan, in New York and in Congo. Sometimes, during my workday, after several hours’ writing, I lift my head up and think — right now, at this very moment, another writer whom I don’t even know sits, in Damascus or Tehran, in Kigali or in Belfast, just like me, practicing this peculiar, Don-Quixote-like craft of creation, within a reality that contains so much violence and estrangement, indifference and diminution. Here, I have a distant ally who doesn’t even know me, but together we weave this intangible cobweb, which nevertheless has tremendous power, a world-changing and world-creating power, the power of making the dumb speak and the power of tikkun, or correction, in the deep sense it has in kabbalah.
As for me, in recent years, in the fiction that I wrote, I almost intentionally turned my back on the immediate, fiery reality of my country, the reality of the latest news bulletin. I had written books about this reality before, and in articles and essays and interviews, I never stopped writing about it, and never stopped trying to understand it. I participated in dozens of protests, in international peace initiatives. I met my neighbors — some of whom were my enemies — at every opportunity that I deemed to offer a chance for dialogue. And yet, out of a conscious decision, and almost out of protest, I did not write about these disaster zones in my literature.
Why? Because I wanted to write about other things, equally important, which do not enjoy people’s complete attentiveness as the nearly eternal war thunders.
I wrote about the furious jealousy of a man for his wife, about homeless children on the streets of Jerusalem, about a man and a woman who establish a private, hermetic language of their own within a delusional bubble of love. I wrote about the solitude of Samson, the biblical hero, and about the intricate relations between women and their mothers, and, in general, between parents and their children.
About four years ago, when my second-oldest son, Uri, was to join the army, I could no longer follow my recent ways. A sense of urgency and alarm washed over me, leaving me restless. I then began writing a novel that treats directly the bleak reality in which I live. A novel that depicts how external violence and the cruelty of the general political and military reality penetrate the tender and vulnerable tissue of a single family, ultimately tearing it asunder.
“As soon as one writes,” Natalia Ginzburg says, “one miraculously ignores the current circumstances of one’s life, yet our happiness or misery leads us to write in a certain way. When we are happy, our imagination is more dominant. When miserable, the power of our memory takes over.”
It is hard to talk about yourself. I will only say what I can at this point, and from the location where I sit.
I write. In wake of the death of my son Uri last summer in the war between Israel and Lebanon, the awareness of what happened has sunk into every cell of mine. The power of memory is indeed enormous and heavy, and at times has a paralyzing quality to it. Nevertheless, the act of writing itself at this time creates for me a type of “space,” a mental territory that I’ve never experienced before, where death is not only the absolute and one-dimensional negation of life. [read full article]