Writing in the Dark
By David Grossman
Translated by Jessica Cohen
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
131 pages; $18
Every so often, an alienated Israeli intellectual will indulge in a fierce denunciation of his own country, an overheated outburst about how his homeland has lost its moral compass. Yeshayahu Leibowitz (who gave us the term Judeo-Nazi) was well practiced in such heavy-handed hyperbole, as were Meron Benvenisti, and, more recently, Avraham Burg.
A slim new book of five essays by David Grossman, one of the country's more prominent writers, offers the latest example. The book serves up a cocktail in which sweet literary rumination mixes somewhat uneasily with sour political cri de coeur.
The first displays Grossman's customary eloquence, as in his moving account of how, at age eight, in the Jerusalem of the early 1960s, his father handed him Sholem Aleichem's Adventures of Mottel, the Cantor's Son. Enthralled, the child read everything of Sholem Aleichem's that existed in Hebrew, opening himself to an imaginative world of robbers and tailors, melamdim and matchmakers. Grossman describes how he began to conduct a dialogue with a vanished world of shtetl-dwellers. From then on, he reports, he has found in books "the place in the world where both the thing and the loss of it can coexist."
With unusual insight, Grossman also renders interpretations of his own novels. In the process, he displays the deep diasporic sensibility that distinguishes him from the colleagues with whom he is most often compared, Amos Oz and A.B. Yehoshua. He describes his novel See Under: Love, for instance, as an attempt both to describe Jewish life in an Israeli language, and to write about Israel in a Diaspora idiom. And he discusses his affinities with the Polish-Jewish writer Bruno Schulz.
Most movingly, however, Grossman conveys a sense of writing as a way of life. When he writes here of the death of his son Uri in the Second Lebanon War, we cannot but appreciate with him the healing capacity of words.
In the second and more dominant part of this book's admixture, however, the tone sours, for it becomes overwhelmingly clear that Grossman is a man pained - even disgusted - by his country. In essays based on addresses delivered in Paris, New York, Berlin and at the 2006 Yitzhak Rabin memorial rally, he reveals a despair that seems to have deepened since the second intifada and the death of his son.
Beset by an "incongruity between its founding values and its political circumstances," Grossman writes, Israel has suffered a "rapid decline into coldness and real cruelty toward the weak, the poor and the suffering." Nor is the country comfortable in its democratic skin. Israelis have yet to internalize democratic values, he says, "both because they came to Israel from countries that never knew democracy and because it is impossible for a state to maintain true democracy while simultaneously upholding a regime of occupation and oppression." In fact, acts of hostility and violence, Grossman says, "have become an integral part of our being as a nation and as a society."
Marked by an "excessive admiration of power," the Israeli ethos mistakes fears for ideals and needs for values. Clenched by those fears, "much of daily life in Israel now occurs in the pre-cultural, primitive, animalistic regions of terror."
Here the cadence quickens, and Grossman reaches his crescendo. He fears "that after decades of spending most of our energies, our thoughts and attention and inventiveness, our blood and our life and our financial means, on protecting our external borders, fortifying and safeguarding them more and more - after all this, we may be very close to becoming a suit of armor that no longer contains a knight, no longer contains a human."
At its best, then, Grossman's Israel is but "a clumsy and awkward imitation of Western countries." At its worst, which is more often, it is a "disaster zone," a "tortured country," "a nation whose intimate and permanent interlocutor is death."
Grossman's grim catalog - and the way of thinking it usefully distills - points toward some pressing political truths.
There is of course 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 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.
Stendhal once compared introducing politics in a novel to firing a pistol in the middle of a concert. There is something vulgar about it. But Writing in the Dark illustrates the opposite kind of vulgarity. In literature, as Grossman says, the desire to "know the Other from within him - even if that Other is our enemy" is a valuable imperative. In politics, however, a first duty is to make the elemental distinction between your own virtues and your all-too-real enemies' vices. If David Grossman's latest book is any indication, some Israeli intellectuals - to their detriment and to ours - have not yet learned how.
The writer, an editorialist for The Jerusalem Post, has contributed reviews to <.i>Haaretz, Commentary, the American Scholar and The Wall Street Journal.