by Bill Marx
“Writing in the Dark”
By David Grossman. Translated from the Hebrew by Jessica Cohen
Farrar, Straus Giroux, 131 pages, $18
In this stirring but slim collection essays on the intersection of politics and literature by celebrated Israeli novelist David (“See Under: Love,” “Her Body Knows”) Grossman, issues of war and peace, individual vision and mass delusion, nationalistic self-love and self-loathing often come down to the choice of words. The book serves as a useful reminder that, in a country mired in crisis, serious writers must take on the Orwellian responsibility of cleansing away linguistic pollution, the immoral debris of rote response.
An outspoken activist and advocate for ‘relinquishing the Territories and ending the Occupation,’ Grossman insists that the signs of Israel’s moral decay are evident in the emergence of “a special kind of language” that is “usually a manipulation on the part of those who wish to prolong the distorted situation. It is a language of words intended not to describe reality but to obfuscate it, to allay it.” The six prose pieces in “Writing in the Dark” suggest that by offering “the right language” literature deepens and complicates a culture’s bedrock perceptions of reality and possibility.
Three of the volume’s essays touch on the impulses that drive an imaginative response to atrophied language. Grossman looks at the dreamlike strategies in his own fiction as well as offering disappointingly brief glances at the autobiographical influences of writers such as Bruno Schultz and Sholem Aleichem. Grossman says his novels are not about exercises in didacticism; instead, his stories are rooted in the creative urge to feel “the sweetness of liberty, which I thought I had lost” as well as provide a way to escape from the dire “claustrophobia of slogans and cliches.” The creative act is a kind of liberating magician’s trick in which the writer miraculously sheds worn masks and words – he is no longer a victim caught in an intolerable situation.
Interestingly, the author says writing non-fiction offers some of the same rewards as fiction: it makes Grossman feel as if he is “reclaiming parts of myself that the prolonged conflict had expropriated or turned into ‘closed military zones.’” Leaden language deadens the souls of individuals and countries, leading to the author’s passionate conclusion that writing literature “is partly an act of protest and defiance, and even rebellion, against this fear – 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.”
Images of imprisonment – external and internal – reverberate throughout the collection. Grossman often poses Israel’s ‘official’ prison house of language, which he describes as a self-idealizing rhetoric driven by fear and anxiety, against a more private, rich, and supple language that undermines calcified attitudes by tapping “the soul of literature. The freedom to think differently, to see things differently. And this includes seeing the enemy differently.”
Three pieces in the collection deal more directly with political issues, though they dwell on with the same vision of an Israel whose cultural responses are hardening, its spiritual resources weakening dangerously: “We know that prolonged existence in a state of hostility, which leads us to act more stringently, more suspiciously, in a crueler and more “military” manner, slowly kills something within our souls and finally hardens like an internal mask of death over our consciousness, our volition, our language, and our simple, natural happiness.” The latter charge is contained in a controversial speech Grossman gave after the death of his twenty-one-year old son, Uri, who was killed during the last weekend of the 2006 Lebanon war. At a Tel Aviv rally in memory of the assassinated premiere Yitzhak Rabin, Grossman claims that “there is no king in Israel … our leadership is hollow. Both the political and military leadership.” A year later, Grossman ignited headlines by not shaking the hand of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert at a prestigious awards ceremony.
Grossman’s sensible call for imaginative empathy in the face of “a situation whose essence and methodology consist entirely of dehumanization” sometimes settles into a round-up of grand-sounding pieties that contradict his demand that language do more than guard against “the fear of fear.” His implied division of his homeland into forces of good and evil invites the charge that his demands for openness may ossify into stereotype as well. A recent review by Benjamin Balint in “The Jerusalem Post” of “Writing in the Dark” posits that while Grossman is on firm ground when he talks about creating empathy “with the Other” in literary matters, his ventures into political matters open him up to charges of “vulgarity”:
“There is something to be said for a voice of conscience that urges us to strip away the layers of indifference and detachment that dull us to the suffering of others and to recover our moral sensitivities. But neither David Grossman’s shrill self-condemnation, which sounds so close to the condemnations regularly heard from Israel’s self-declared enemies, nor the stale tradition which it continues, supplies that voice. The reason for this is twofold. First excessive political pessimism is as much a mark of escapism as Pollyannaish optimism. Second, self-examination ceases to edify the moment it crosses into self-disgust. Self-laceration is not a form of self-knowledge.”
Balint willfully misreads “Writing in the Dark” as an exercise in masochism, a self-indulgent wallow in the painful gap between Israel’s ideals and its behavior. Grossman’s bleak assessment of the state of his country’s soul not only pushes his angst deeper, but energizes his belief that literature must offer flickers of utopian possibility, that the artful refreshment of language serves as an invaluable counterweight to the rhetoric of stasis. Grossman is gloomy, but he is still searching for the right words to describe his country’s bedeviled condition. Given the horrific drubbing language is taking in America’s war on terror, our writers should be challenged and inspired by his example.