“To our joy or to our misery, the contingencies of reality have a great influence on what we write,” says Natalia Ginzburg in her book 'It’s Hard to Talk About Yourself,' in the chapter in which she discusses her life and her writing in the wake of personal disaster.
It is hard to talk about yourself, and so before I describe my current writing experience, at this time in my life, I wish to make a few observations about the impact that a disaster, a traumatic situation, has on an entire society, an entire people.
I immediately recall the words of the mouse in Kafka’s short story 'A Little Fable.' The mouse who, as the trap closes on him, and the cat looms behind, says, “Alas . . . the world is growing narrower every day.”
Indeed, after many years of living in the extreme and violent reality of a political, military and religious conflict, I can report, sadly, that Kafka’s mouse was right: the world is, indeed, growing increasingly narrow, increasingly diminished, with every day that goes by.
And I can also tell you about the void that is growing ever so slowly between the individual human being and the external, violent and chaotic situation within which he lives. The situation that dictates his life to him in each and every aspect.
And this void never remains empty. It is filled rapidly — with apathy, with cynicism and, more than anything else, with despair: the despair that fuels distorted situations, allowing them to persist on and on, in some cases even for generations.
Despair of the possibility of ever changing the prevailing state of affairs, of ever being redeemed from it.
And the despair that is deeper still — despair of what this distorted situation exposes, finally, in each and every one of us.
And I feel the heavy toll that I, and the people I know and see around me, pay for this ongoing state of war. The shrinking of the “surface area” of the soul that comes in contact with the bloody and menacing world out there. The limiting of one’s ability and willingness to identify, even a little, with the pain of others; the suspension of moral judgment. The despair most of us experience of possibly understanding our own true thoughts in a state of affairs that is so terrifying and deceptive and complex, both morally and practically. Hence, you become convinced, I might be better off not thinking and opt not to know perhaps I’m better off leaving the task of thinking and doing and establishing moral norms in the hands of those who might “know better.”
Most of all, I’m better off not feeling too much — at least until this shall pass. And if it doesn’t, at least I relieved my suffering somewhat, I developed a useful numbness, I protected myself as best I could with the help of a bit of indifference, a bit of sublimation, a bit of intended blindness and large doses of self-anesthetization.
In other words: 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.
Grossman. 'I write. I imagine. The act of imagining in itself enlivens me'
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.
Writers know that when we write, we feel the world move; it is flexible, crammed with possibilities. It certainly isn’t frozen. Wherever human existence permeates, there is no freezing and no paralysis, and actually, there is no status quo. Even if we sometimes err to think that there is a status quo; even if some are very keen to have us believe that a status quo exists. When I write, even now, the world is not closing in on me, and it does not grow ever so narrow: it also makes gestures of opening up toward a future prospect.
I write. I imagine. The act of imagining in itself enlivens me. I am not frozen and paralyzed before the predator. I invent characters. At times I feel as if I am digging up people from the ice in which reality enshrouded them, but maybe, more than anything else, it is myself that I am now digging up.
I write. I feel the wealth of possibilities inherent in any human situation. I sense my ability to choose between them. The sweetness of liberty, which I believed that I had already lost. I indulge in the richness of true, personal, intimate language. I recall the delight of natural, full breathing when I manage to escape the claustrophobia of slogan and cliché. Suddenly I begin to breathe with both lungs.
I write, and I feel how the correct and precise use of words is sometimes like a remedy to an illness. Like a contraption for purifying the air, I breathe in and exhale the murkiness and manipulations of linguistic scoundrels and language rapists of all shades and colors. I write and I feel how the tenderness and intimacy I maintain with language, with its different layers, its eroticism and humor and soul, give me back the person I used to be, me, before my self became nationalized and confiscated by the conflict, by governments and armies, by despair and tragedy.
I write. I relieve myself of one of the dubious and distinctive capacities created by the state of war in which I live — the capacity to be an enemy and an enemy only. I do my best not to shield myself from the just claims and sufferings of my enemy. Nor from the tragedy and entanglement of his own life. Nor from his errors or crimes or from the knowledge of what I myself am doing to him. Nor, finally, from the surprising similarities I find between him and me.
All of a sudden I am not condemned to this absolute, fallacious and suffocating dichotomy — this inhumane choice to “be victim or aggressor,” without having any third, more humane alternative. When I write, I can be a human being whose parts have natural and vital passages between them; a human who is able to feel close to his enemies’ sufferings and to acknowledge his just claims without relinquishing a grain of his own identity.
Sometimes when I write, I can recall what we all felt in Israel, for one singular moment, when the airplane of the Egyptian president Anwar Sadat landed in Tel Aviv 30 years ago, after decades of war between the two nations: then, all of a sudden, we discovered how heavy is the load we carry all our lives — the load of enmity and fear and suspicion. The load of permanent guard duty, the heavy burden of being an enemy, at all times.
And what a delight it was, to remove for one moment the mighty armor of suspicion, hate and stereotype.
It was a delight that was almost terrifying — to stand naked, pure almost, and witness a human face emerge from the one-dimensional vision with which we observed each other for years.
I write. I give intimate private names to an external and foreign world. In a sense, I make it mine. In a sense, I return from feeling exiled and foreign to feeling at home. By doing so, I am already making a small change in what appeared to me earlier as unchangeable. Also, when I describe the impermeable arbitrariness that signs my destiny — arbitrariness at the hands of a human being, or arbitrariness at the hands of fate — I suddenly discover new nuances, subtleties. I discover that the mere act of writing about arbitrariness allows me to feel a freedom of movement in relation to it. That by merely facing up to arbitrariness I am granted freedom — maybe the only freedom a man may have against any arbitrariness: the freedom to put your tragedy into your own words. The freedom to express yourself differently, innovatively, before that which threatens to chain and bind one to arbitrariness and its limited, fossilizing definitions.
And I write also about that which cannot be brought back. And about that which is inconsolable. Then, too, in a manner I still find inexplicable, the circumstances of my life do not close in on me in a way that would leave me paralyzed. Many times every day, as I sit at my desk, I touch on grief and loss like one touching electricity with his bare hands, and yet I do not die. I cannot grasp how this miracle works.
Maybe once I finish writing this novel, I will try to understand. Not now. It is too early.
And I write the life of my land, Israel. The land that is tortured, frantic, drugged by an overdose of history, excessive emotions that cannot be contained by any human capacity, extreme events and tragedies, enormous anxiety and paralyzing sobriety, too much memory, failed hopes and the circumstances of a fate unique among all nations: an existence that sometimes appears to be a story of mythical proportions, a story that is “larger than life” to the point that something seems to have gone wrong with the relation it bears to life itself. A country that has become tired of the possibility of ever leading the standard, normal life of a country among countries, a nation among nations.
We writers go through times of despair and times of self-devaluation. Our work is in essence the work of deconstructing personality, of doing away with some of the most effective human-defense mechanisms. We treat, voluntarily, the harshest, ugliest and also rawest materials of the soul. Our work leads us time and again to acknowledge our shortcomings, as both humans and artists.
And yet, and this is the great mystery and the alchemy of our actions: In a sense, as soon as we lay our hand on the pen, or the computer keyboard, we already cease to be the helpless victims of whatever it was that enslaved and diminished us before we began to write. Not the slaves of our predicament nor of our private anxieties; not of the “official narrative” of our country, nor of fate itself.
We write. The world is not closing in on us. How fortunate we are. The world is not growing increasingly narrow.
This essay was adapted from the Arthur Miller Freedom to Write Lecture, which Grossman delivered at PEN’s World Voices Festival on April 29, 2007. It was translated from the Hebrew by Orr Scharf.