Monday, May 14, 2007

David Grossman's "Writing in the Dark" essay, NYTimes 05.13.07


David Grossman has a nice essay in the New York Times today. I remember reading something about him at the time of his son's death during the recent fighting in Lebanon. And I remember him being quite well-spoken even then when he was obviously distraught at the loss of his son. I guess he is one of the literary voices for peace in Israel, and a number of people felt that perhaps now that he had lost his son in battle, his views would shift. But he didn't, and if I remember correctly, that was what the original article was about.

I think the current article is very well written in that it explains writing from the position of self-preservation against the onslaught of mind-numbing conflict. He suggests that “the ongoing state of war” creates a “shrinking of the 'surface area' of the soul that comes in contact with the bloody and menacing world out there.” Susan Sontag presented a similar model in regard to the viewing of photographs of tragedy in her book, Regarding the Pain of Others, in which the viewer feels first the shock at the horror depicted, then the call to action to cease the current or prevent any future horror, followed quickly by impotence in the face of the immense inevitability of the institutional perpetrators of horror, and then lapsing finally into the malaise of an apathy ironically inoculated against feeling anything like the original shock ever again. Both Grossman and Sontag understand that the danger here is that conflict and its continuous spectacle of tragedy, rather than preventing future tragedy (i.e. a war to end all wars) make it easier for future tragedy to be perpetrated by “those who might 'know better'” as it serves their interests against our own. As our exposure to conflict increases, our apathy grows, our compliance increases, and those who might lead us find their jobs easier and truth more malleable. We contract. They expand.

The Italian philosopher, Giorgio Agamben, suggests that the model for modern governance is that of a “state of exception” in which the ruling body convinces the polity that the current epoch is unique in its relationship to imminent threat, and as such, special powers should be accorded the ruling body that might not otherwise be accorded in a free and open society. All language is focused on supporting this idea, and the energy of the state is expended, through military action, through legislation, and through the daily rhetoric of those in power, to convince the polity that this state of conflict is continuous and imminent. The cloak in this case is that democracy is held out as the model, while the hidden dagger of fascism slices off individual freedoms one by one. The power of polity is decreased. The power of the ruling body is consolidated and increased.

Grossman offers that writing is the act that reverses this “narrowing” of the world, a phrase he borrows from Kafka's mouse in the short story, “A Little Fable”. Through writing, Grossman says, he can “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 think this is right on. Following from J.M. Coetzee's book, Waiting for the Barbarians, having an enemy and being an enemy are the same form of subjugation, especially if the definition of “enemy” is one handed down to you by “those who might 'know better'” and occupy a position of power over you. Or as President Bush said, “You are either for us or against us,” as statement, when made from a position of power (and therefore as a deadly threat,) is so anaerobic that objectors are reduced to meaningless defenses of their positions like, “I support the troops.”

Grossman, on the other hand, points out that writing allows the writer to escape the subjugation of this false oppositional duality: “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.” Right on.

Part of Jean Amery's argument in his book, At the Mind's Limits, is that the purpose of resistance is resistance, not winning or change. Thus when all else seems lost, resistance is still important - in fact, it is paramount. If one accepts that writing one's conscience is a form of resistance that allows one to “cease to be the helpless victims of whatever it was that enslaved and diminished us,“ then Grossman's ideas about why one must write dovetails nicely with the philosophy that came out of the Holocaust and the determination that it never be allowed to happen again, that we are active, vigilant & aware, “not the slaves of our predicament nor of our private anxieties; not of the 'official narrative' of our country, nor of fate itself.“ In a word, resistant.

“Our private anxieties” and the dislocated behaviors they produce - anti-immigration polemics in a nation of immigrants, intolerant rhetoric in a nation stitched together by tolerance, persecution of difference globally by a country made of diversity - are what make the United States such a polarized and polarizing country right now. If writing can free us, let's get to work.

Finally, I like Grossman's perception that the rhetoric of “predicament“ comes down through society from the military in a way that “ultimately seeps into the private, intimate language of the conflict's citizens, even if they deny it.” In the United States, one need look no farther for a physical manifestation of that phenomenon than the products developed by the military that now appear in everyday society - Humvees, nylon, SPAM, GPS systems, etc. We are more Sparta than Athens I think.

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