Monday, May 14, 2007

David Grossman in the NYTimes

from Writing in the Dark (in Sunday's NY Times Magazine)

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.”

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.

This describes quite well where this nation is headed. Grossman, as an Israeli, has seen a great deal more conflict on his home soil than we have seen, but the telling signs in language are easily visible in our culture as well. He goes on to say:

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.

This concept is more than saying "the world is flat" or "our world is increasingly a local one". No, this is an entirely different phenomenon. This is a self imposed prison. A natural reaction to the environment we live in, but a self imposed situation at that. Books and articles of the sort that propose the flat world idea are an example of the toll sustained conflict takes on language. Grossman is describing a world without creativity and without real feeling -- one in which writers only scratch the surface, where journalist only go along with the politicos and one in which the public listens unquestioningly and fervently to the war machine. This is where we are going.

But I do believe there is hope.

Some of the greatest poetry was written in the dark years of WW1 and WW2- Vietnam led to a great social revolution in the US. Why not again?

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.


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