Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Literature, history and conflict

I found this fascinating interview with the Israeli novelist, David Grossman, on Normblog. Grossman is a writer whom I admire and I found his latest novel, To the End of the Land, memorable and haunting. Its structure is irregular, it does not offer any type of conclusive ending, instead it is a picture of relationships on a journey, falling through space and time. It is a meditation on ordinary lives shaped by conflict, uneasily escaping from and reconciling with reality by turn.

Norm highlights the concluding paragraph:
There is something in literature so contrary to the general dimension of war. War is all about effacing the other and self-effacement; it’s all about generalizations and sweeping definitions and demonizations. Writing is about specifying individuals, being very attentive to them and caring for them. It insists on nuances.
 This is interesting enough, but, I was drawn to something he said earlier:
We live in a very violent region, which makes people react sometimes in a terrible way ... We are all prisoners and imprisoned. The difficulty of being a human being, being a mentsch even, in such an inhumane and anti-mentsch reality, it’s an environment that is so poisoned with hatred and fears and prejudices and racism that one fights hard in order not to surrender to [these poisons]. It is so tempting to surrender to this way of thinking: demonizing the other, idealizing ourselves, believing the other understands only the language of power and therefore we have to, against our will of course, treat them only with vigor—all of these unbearable ways of seeing reality, which in a way are realizing themselves, it’s a kind of self-fulfilling way of looking at the world.

...It’s not only an abstract thought here; it’s very practical. People are challenged to make sharp, immediate decisions in order to stay alive, especially when they serve in the army. All these extreme dilemmas, which are really dilemmas for Greek tragedies, they are our daily bread, ours and the Palestinians. It is so hard to mitigate all these contrary urges and pressures and yearnings to remain human. Sometimes I compare it to walking in the middle of a huge storm with only one candle in your hand. How do you keep it lit? How do you protect it?
The importance of history as a discipline stands out, developing a narrative that expresses and explains the collective experience of both peoples. On all sides it is assailed by pseudo-history as propaganda, selecting and distorting to support one side or another, to provide a narrative that comforts prejudice, feeds contempt and breeds hatred.

But the drama of conflict, the instinct for survival, the choices that each individual makes with all the consequences that flow from them, what has the historian to say? Yes, it is possible to write about ironies, coincidences, misunderstandings; but fear and grief, or, what Grossman builds his novel on, the absolute terror of the possibility of grief? It is there that we need our artists, maybe walking hand-in-hand with historians, for what they can do is explain the reality of individual experience. Both explore a different dimension of truth and, at its best, history is a profoundly literary subject.

Does it make a difference? Here is the conclusion of Alexander Solzhenitsyn's 1970 Nobel Prize Lecture:
We shall be told: what can literature possibly do against the ruthless onslaught of open violence? But let us not forget that violence does not live alone and is not capable of living alone: it is necessarily interwoven with falsehood. Between them lies the most intimate, the deepest of natural bonds. Violence finds its only refuge in falsehood, falsehood its only support in violence. Any man who has once acclaimed violence as his METHOD must inexorably choose falsehood as his PRINCIPLE. At its birth violence acts openly and even with pride. But no sooner does it become strong, firmly established, than it senses the rarefaction of the air around it and it cannot continue to exist without descending into a fog of lies, clothing them in sweet talk. It does not always, not necessarily, openly throttle the throat, more often it demands from its subjects only an oath of allegiance to falsehood, only complicity in falsehood.

And the simple step of a simple courageous man is not to partake in falsehood, not to support false actions! Let THAT enter the world, let it even reign in the world - but not with my help. But writers and artists can achieve more: they can CONQUER FALSEHOOD! In the struggle with falsehood art always did win and it always does win! Openly, irrefutably for everyone! Falsehood can hold out against much in this world, but not against art.
Grossman is more cautious:
Stories today cannot change reality; they unfortunately cannot change the world. Literature doesn’t have representatives in power centers, or financial markets, or parliament, or army headquarters. But maybe it can help us so that this world cannot change us.
If Solzhenitsyn is too bombastic, Grossman is too bashful. Totalitarian regimes have long understood that they need to suppress art in favour of kitsch, one of the great achievements of humanity is that they have always failed.

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