A Sensitive Finger On the Pulse of Politics

Books

By Joel Streicker

Published May 06, 2009, issue of May 15, 2009.
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Writing in the Dark: Essays on Literature and Politics
By David Grossman, translated by Jessica Cohen
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 144 pages. $18.00.

In the wake of the Israeli elections and their policy ramifications, reading this essay collection, which is composed mostly of material written in the past couple of years, occasioned a certain vertigo: Little progress on peace with the Palestinians has been made since the last collection of Grossman’s political essays, “Oslo: Ten Years After,” appeared five years ago. Now, 15 years after Oslo and two and a half years after the death of Grossman’s son in the disastrous Second Lebanon War, Grossman’s voice calling for peace sounds even more desperate, the reality even further from the dream. Which makes this book either delusional or indispensable, depending on your political point of view.

Grossman’s diagnosis of Israel’s political situation will be familiar to readers of his previous books, or to those of the recent works of Bernard Avishai and Avraham Burg. What sets the book apart, aside from the elegance of the writing, is the connection Grossman makes between literature and politics. While some essays focus on politics, others on literature and some on both, taken as a whole they argue that the liberating possibilities of literature and politics drink from the same deep well of humanism.

In the essay “The Desire To Be Gisella,” Grossman writes that we all naturally fear the Other, and want to protect ourselves from him because in his dark impulses, we recognize our own. Living in Israel, “a disaster zone” beset by “existential anxiety” and knowledge of “the daily availability of death,” exacerbates this natural tendency. Israelis live in “a reduced state of humanity” — clenched, perpetually braced for the next blow, mistrustful of others. Writing is a rebellion against this state of affairs, Grossman argues. Literature involves the struggle to comprehend the Other and even, perhaps especially, the enemy. Seeing ourselves through the enemy’s eyes obliges us to view the world as a more complex place and to appraise both it and ourselves more realistically.

Politics may look to literature, but the essays that deal more exclusively with literature also circle back to its political implications. The opening chapter contains an engaging discussion of how discovering the works (in translation) of Sholom Aleichem as a boy in the 1960s was a homecoming — revealing the world that his father had abandoned as a youth, a world that was destroyed in the Shoah. At the time, Israelis were trying to forget the pain of the Shoah and were eager to erase or downplay their connection to the recent Eastern European past. Telling is Grossman’s intuitive understanding that his joy in vicariously living shtetl life must be kept secret.

Grossman’s description of his discovery of the Shoah’s significance is heartbreaking:

It struck me all at once. Suddenly. The six million, the murdered, the victims, the ‘Holocaust martyrs,’ all those terms were in fact my people. They were Mottel and Tevye and Shimele Soroker and Chavaleh and Stempenyu and Lily and Shimek. On the burning asphalt of the Beit Hakerem school, the shtetl was suddenly taken from me.

His conclusion is heartening:

Each encounter with the text brought home to me again the enormity of the loss, but somehow also made it a little more tolerable. Today I know at ten I discovered that books are the place in the world where both the thing and the loss of it can co-exist.

For Grossman, writing provides a means of countering the “arbitrariness of an external force that violently invades the life of one person.” If only in a small way, it affords a way of “unfreezing” one’s self from fear and despair: In describing an individual character’s subjective experience of those external forces, he “can give my own private names and definitions to states that had seemed frozen, eternal, monolithic, decreed from above or from below.”

Grossman argues that Israelis’ language is deformed by fear. According to Grossman, the psychological and political toll of the occupation has resulted in a deadening of the soul, “a talent for passivity, a talent for self-erasure, for reducing the inner surface of our soul lest it get hurt. In other words, the talent for being a victim.” Israelis have accordingly adapted their language to preserve the self-image of victimhood, leading to “monstrosities of language” that mask injustice. Faced with the conditions in a Palestinian refugee camp while gathering material for his nonfiction work “The Yellow Wind,” Grossman writes that he encountered a reality that he “lacked the words to describe.” For the first time in years, he felt “that consciousness, in any situation, is always free to choose to face reality in a different, new way. That writing about reality is the simplest way to not be a victim.” We have come full circle: For Grossman, writing is an individual activity that is also a political act because it opens the writer — and the reader, Grossman stresses — to apprehending reality in a new light.

Grossman is passionate, eloquent and compelling in his critique of Israeli society and his belief in the liberating possibilities of literature and a politics willing to confront reality as it is, not as it wishes it to be. Language in general, and literature in particular, is the meeting point of the collective and the individual, and a fulcrum that the latter can use to shift public attitudes and, ultimately, national policy. Grossman’s ideas about what a changed society would look like are less developed, and he is, perhaps wisely, silent on the question of how the Palestinians would respond to the openness that he urges upon Israel’s citizens and politicians. Yet, the generosity of his vision — in these essays, as well as in his fiction — remains as necessary now as it was when he began to articulate it many years ago.

Joel Streicker is a critic and translator living in San Francisco.


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