Writing in the Dark: Essays on Literature and Politics
US: Aug 2009
Against the Status Quo
Pronouncing a book ‘important’ elicits both joy and sobriety—joy that an author has so vividly and wisely addressed vital issues of the day, and sobriety that the issue, the conflict, the threat, and the human costs are so real and urgent that we are in dire need of a voice to address them.
David Grossman’s collection of essays, Writing in the Dark, is important. The Israeli author of See Under: Love and the controversial non-fiction work The Yellow Wind among others, Grossman has become known as a political activist and a voice of reason and reconciliation in Israel, along with A.B. Yehoshua and Amos Oz. His fiction is not bound by the rigors of political haranguing, and neither is his non-fiction reduced to abstraction and polemics.
In clear prose translated from the Hebrew by Jessica Cohen, the first three essays in Writing in the Dark discuss the sources, methodologies and uses of literature in a world disinterested by its own suffering, while the last three essays, all speeches, are more explicitly sociopolitical. Such a basic description does an injustice to Grossman’s weaving of the personal and the political, the private and the public, into a vision that is both pragmatic and thoughtful—ingredients crucial to any lasting peace.
Writing begins the rebellion against victimhood, against the closing in of the traps of violence and war: if there’s a single thesis to Grossman’s book, that’s it. Grossman draws on Kafka’s exquisite metaphor of pain and suffering, the mouse in his “A Little Fable” who watches the trap close in around him and thinks, “Alas, the world grows smaller every day.” Hopes are reduced, the possibility of change fades, and the worth of one’s own life and that of the enemy is eroded. In fact, one learns how to function as an enemy, and never as reconciliatory. These are the dangers which literature and political activism can battle.
On Writing: Tanks and Fables
In “Books That Have Read Me”, Grossman reflects on the books of his youth, mainly the six-volume oeuvre of Sholem Aleichem, which introduced him to a Hebrew world as vital as his daily realities and, crucially, taught him the first lesson of politics: words matter. As he says about his own character, Aron Kleinfeld from The Book of Intimate Grammar, Grossman realized that he could “no longer use words as others [did]—indiscriminately, indifferently, inarticulately.” In short, the opposite of the “public, general, nationalized idiom.”
This idiom creates the illusion of nameless victims—Grossman recounts reading passive-voiced accounts of deaths on the radio—and disempowered humanity. Novels resist and may even destroy that illusion, he suggests, emphasizing instead “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”.
Note the benefit for the writer, not just the reader. These first three essays—“Books That Have Read Me”, “The Desire to Be Gisella”, and “Writing in the Dark”—are some of the finest contemporary musings on the writing process I’ve come across in recent years. Grossman explores the motives that drive one to write, and in “Gisella” he celebrates our innate curiosity in breaking down the barrier between self and Other. Most aspects of culture, Grossman argues, teach us to resist this urge, but writing fulfills our wonder.
For an example the accomplished author draws again from his own work, this time from See Under: Love and the character Gisella, short of stature, for whom Grossman imagined a special treadle pedal must have been built for her Singer sewing machine. Years later, he’s nearly forgotten this seemingly obscure fact until reminded by a conversation with a bus driver. In his essay, Gisella’s “small space, the size of one foot pedal” represents both literary truth and the awareness of the “otherness of the Other… the differentiation of this Other from myself”, which produces compassion by enlarging one’s own imagination. Envisioning Gisella’s tiny foot and her modest need for a custom-made pedal so she can complete her work, we cannot allow Gisella to become a nameless, faceless statistic.
Like most of these essays, “The Desire to Be Gisella” is recursive; claims are established, put on hold, refuted interrogated, and re-established in a loose, contemplative structure. And yet Grossman never shies from the clear statement, certainly not in “The Desire to Be Gisella” where he describes writing as “an act of protest and defiance, and even rebellion… against the temptation to entrench myself, to set up an almost imperceptible barrier, one that is friendly and courteous but very effective, between myself and others, and ultimately between me and myself”.
Quoting Sartre’s famous proclamation that a writer is a “free man addressing free men” and thus “has only one subject—freedom”, Grossman sums up the irony of his position as writer living in Israel: the writer’s freedom is constantly threatened, as is his audience’s—by tanks and gunfire and long-range missiles—and yet freedom remains “the soul of literature”, and literature the cry in spite of, an act of rebellion against the manacles of society, and a revelation of our ultimately free nature. In other words, the way things ought to be.
On Grief and Politics in Israel: Touching Electricity
“Writing in the Dark” and the book’s final essay, “Yitzhak Rabin Memorial Rally”, form the touchstones of the collection, the places where Grossman’s beliefs about writing meet their political ramifications in settings, and concerning subjects, which are intensely personal. Grossman’s role in Israeli politics is complicated in a way that ordinary people may find familiar; disturbed by his own government’s tactics within its borders, he remains a believer in state and project of Israel, going so far as the argue the literal and figurative benefits of strong borders.
In the summer of 2006, after Hezbollah initiated cross-border attacks from Jordan with the support of Iran, Grossman supported the initial Israeli response, knowing full well that his second son, Uri, would be caught up in the country’s military response. The day after Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert agreed to launch a full-scale ground invasion, Grossman joined Yehoshua and Oz to call for a cease-fire, an increasingly available option, urging Olmert to seek peace instead of war. Olmert persisted and a few days later, Uri Grossman was dead.
Months passed before David Grossman delivered his stinging rebuke in the “Yitzhak Rabin Memorial Rally” speech. Recognizing that his son’s death provides him “no special privileges in the public discourse”, Grossman nonetheless directly challenges Olmert—who was in attendance as the speech was delivered—and claims that “facing death and loss” has enabled him, as it enables any of us, “to distinguish between… what can be obtained and what cannot. Between reality and fantasy.”
Ongoing war and notions of victory over the Palestinians, these are the true fantasies. “Just as there is a war of no choice,” says Grossman, “there is also a peace of no choice… We have no choice, and they have no choice. And a peace of no choice should be pursued with the same determination and creativity with which one goes to a war of no choice.” Realistically calling for the inevitable creation of a Palestinian state, Grossman will anger some readers, perhaps, but better they see the futility he so concisely describes, the death and destruction on both sides which will continue without some kind of compromise.
Five months later, in New York to deliver the Arthur Miller Freedom to Write Lecture at the PEN American Center, Grossman says somberly that “the consciousness of the disaster that befell me upon the death of my son Uri in the Second Lebanon War now permeates every minute of my life.” And yet writing, even in the dark, provides hope.
“Many times a day, as I sit at my writing desk,” Grossman reflects, “I touch sorrow and loss like someone touching electricity with bare hands, yet it does not kill me. I do not understand how this miracle has come to pass.” This is Grossman at his most stirring, his prose measured yet emotional, graceful without glossing over the edges of its grief.
Western readers will find numerous observations about politics, rhetoric, mass culture and individual resistance in Grossman’s essays which ring true for their own culture. I’m not sure I’ve come across a better description of contemporary America than this, from “Books That Have Read Me”:
When a country or society finds itself—no matter for what reasons—in a prolonged state of incongruity between its founding values and its political circumstances, a rift can emerge between the society and its identity, between the society and its ‘inner voice’.
The rift between the original promises of American culture and its political reality—the rift inherent in its history and its idealistic language—provokes in the reader an empathy with the war-torn Israel, no matter one’s position on Judaism, Christianity, or Islam. And Israel is torn. In “Writing in the Dark,” Grossman calls it “a tortured country, drugged to the point of overdose by history, by emotions beyond what humans can contain, by an extreme excess of events and tragedy…”.
Exhausted, embittered, the Israel Grossman depicts cannot trust its rare advances toward peace, trapped “in a state of existential anxiety” wherein “even a new challenge, a new chance, a new hope, is often perceived as a threat to stability, even if that stability is a fairly dismal one…”. This passage appears in “Contemplations on Peace”, an essay that provides most explicitly his thoughts on the continuing problems of the Occupation.
Rather than delve into the methodologies, an omission some will find frustrating, Grossman unearths and reexamines motivations. Motivations, he suggests over and over, which are misplaced, dishonest, and narrow-minded, especially on the extremes, where militants ruin what opportunity there is for consensus among moderate Israelis and Palestinians alike.
Ultimately this collection is an argument against the status quo, whether it be our daily ignorance and distance from the Other, or the passive, defeatist stasis in Israeli politics. Grossman’s clarity and humanity set these essays apart from other polemics, making Writing in the Dark a wise and rare book.
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