David Grossman on the Stories We Tell Ourselves
How they Divide Us, and How They Might Show Us Another Way to Live
This week, Man Booker International Prize-winning Israeli author David Grossman delivered the inaugural address for Brooklyn Public Library (BPL)’s new biannual commissioned public lecture series, Message from the Library, the first of its kind established by a major public library system, that aims to expand the institution’s role as a catalyst for civic discourse. David Grossman’s lecture, translated by Jessica Cohen, follows in full below. For more information on BPL’s expanded literary and cultural programming, please visit www.bklynlibrary.org/bpl-presents.
When I was a young boy, I found it amusing to think that every person who passed me on the street attested to a single moment of love, or at least of passion, that had once occurred between a man and a woman. I imagine I must have known, by then, that not all of us were conceived in pure love. Still, as a romantic and slightly naïve boy, I was excited by the notion that even complete strangers whom I briefly eyed in an anonymous crowd radiated—from within their cold unfamiliarity—the evidence and the memory of a warm, intimate moment, one of tenderness but also of vitality. In so doing, they divulged something that seemed to contradict the detachment and alienation with which they faced the world—and me.
I feel a similar emotion when I stand here, in the Brooklyn Public Library, which houses approximately five million books—an inconceivable number. As we look at the volumes around us, they all appear bound and preserved. Each one has a barcode and a call number indicating its location on the shelves. Each comes with a stern warning about copyright and its violation: “No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods . . . ” So many warnings, caveats and regulations encompass a single book that one begins to wonder if one is even allowed to read it. But after traversing these obstacles, we might wish to recall that every book’s starting point—its inception—was a primordial moment of ideation, of creating something out of nothing. A moment of marveling, perhaps an instant of love or creative libido. Undoubtedly, it was a moment in which a churning deluge of vitality cracked open the membrane of routine and broke through to the world with the vigor of a living creature.
But how is an idea born? How does one create a new artistic, literary or scientific concept? The scientists among us today can surely describe the chemical, neurological and electrical processes that occur in our brain when it produces an idea or a perfectly original and pertinent image. But I imagine that even they will have to admit that this is not enough. That scientific data cannot explain the mystery of creating—of conceiving—a new idea. They cannot elucidate the “small bang” that every artist experiences at the moment of inner pollination.
“Every book’s starting point—its inception—was a primordial moment of ideation, of creating something out of nothing.”
What is occurring when one particular piece of cognitive and sensorial information, out of all the pieces we absorb every second, is identified instantly—almost unequivocally—inside us, as an idea, or even as a story? How do we recognize that this particular combination of facts and sensations, arranged in this particular order, is a permutation we have never known before and may not have even existed before? Somehow, when this new idea erupts inside us, we immediately feel as though it has always had a place in our heart and mind, a space that expected and longed to be filled with this particular idea. Perhaps because it allows us to touch our lives in one more way, with one more nuance. Perhaps because it makes us feel more alive.
There is something else that typifies the creation of a new idea: it arouses in us the desire—the urge—to pass it on, to tell others about it. This, too, might be because we sense that it says something new about the world, about human beings, about ourselves. And because it somehow expands our mind and our soul, stirring an almost erotic sensation of abundance that we want to—and must—share with others.
When a new idea is born inside me, one that I sense straightaway is unique and powerful, I feel the occurrence physically: my heart rate speeds up, a warm, restive feverishness spreads through my body, and I simply have to get up from my chair. I cannot sit for even a moment longer. So I start walking in my study. I walk fast, from the door to the window and back—once, twice, ten times, a hundred. (My wife says she knows when I have a new idea because she sees the skid marks on the rug.) But after a few moments, it’s not enough. I have to get out of the room, out of the house. I cannot be walled in. Every barrier feels suffocating. I walk fast, almost sprinting, to find an open space in nature, on a secluded dirt path near my house or in the woods. (Trees don’t bother me. On the contrary: I like to touch them as I walk, to feel their trunks and branches and leaves. They connect me with something—perhaps with the force of nature that pulsates in them.) On a good-idea day, I walk quite a few miles. It is an urge that is both physical and emotional. I do not understand it, nor do I try to. In those hours of fast walking I am extremely focused, but also slightly “suspended,” hovering in a slumber of sorts, clearing myself out of my own self so that—
So that what? So that I don’t get in the way, I suppose. So that I do not impose the person I am—with all my limitations and fears—on something that is much freer and more primeval. So that I do not obstruct whatever current is flowing through me, that powerful torrent that I may not completely understand but I certainly do feel.
It is a miraculous moment. It offers recompense for the thousands of hours spent rambling and noodling in frustration. For the dozens of clumsy, imprecise drafts, the kind that play a note just next to the right one. The birth of a new idea—or of an image that expands the way we touch our being—can occur in any situation, of course. We might be waiting at the dentist’s office, having a dream, filing our tax receipts, or overhearing a conversation in the coffee shop. It can happen by joining two or three words that, logically and linguistically, were not meant to be together at all, yet when a poet or author places them side by side—acting on inspiration, on impulse, or intuition—a spark is created. When the great Hebrew poet Nathan Alterman described “the moon on a cypress spear,” or when William Shakespeare wrote, “We are such stuff as dreams are made on,” they seemed to cleave the shell of reality in our minds, as well as the shell of the language that describes it, opening them up to each other, and to us. A new movement occurred, bringing with it a flowing sensation of breathing water.
I would like to expound more and more on writing, on creating, on the enormous pleasures to be found in them. But tempting as it is to curl up inside here, deep in the lap of the library, enwrapped and embraced by five million books, we cannot truly escape the influence of the outside world. These days—perhaps more than in many other eras—we seem to be keenly aware of the conflict between inside and outside. Between “the library” as a parable, as a concept, as a place of refinement and subtlety, a place whose essence is the story of the individual, unique human being, and “the world” as a brutal, belligerent, identity-erasing reality.
And what is this “world” now? The world is the Middle East, where a few countries are crumbling into tribal components that mercilessly slaughter each other. The world is a conflict that might deteriorate at any moment into war between the United States and North Korea. The world is Myanmar, whose regime is committing genocide against the Muslim Rohingya. The world is Africa, which for centuries has been unable to rise out of poverty, disease and hunger. The world is Europe, standing frightened and bewildered in the face of terrorism perpetrated by Islamist extremists, and contending with a rising tide of nationalist, neo-Nazi sentiment.
When I was invited to deliver this lecture, I was told: Just tell us what worries you today, what scares you, what makes you happy. Well, what worries me is the way the sated world responds to the hungry, persecuted and exiled world banging on its doors in distress. We already know how things go: waves of refugees and immigrants, often fleeing death, arouse fear and hostility and racism in the countries that begrudgingly take them in. We already know the outcome, yet there seems to be no escape from tripping up on it again and again: the refugees are rarely allowed to partake in the economic, social, and political advantages of membership in the national collective, or to enjoy a sense of belonging. Perhaps this is why they frequently turn to a more attractive and accessible identity component: religion. As minorities adopt more extreme religious identities, they engender more fear, and the nationalist-fascist-racist elements of the host society become stronger. We are already seeing the nationalist-racist erosion in Europe and, on the other hand, the religious-fanatical radicalization among some minority communities.
It is the story of a collision foretold, the story of a tragedy foretold, and it can only be averted through farsighted political vision, a resolute humanistic approach, generosity, wisdom and tolerance. A tall order, in other words. Not only does our world lack the sort of leaders who can prevent this tragedy, but in fact many of them are interested in escalating it, because they know that the prevailing atmosphere of fear, suspicion, and xenophobia will hand them electoral victories.
“What worries me is the way the sated world responds to the hungry, persecuted and exiled world banging on its doors in distress.”
Consider, for example, how Donald Trump paved his way to the White House. Yes, Donald Trump worries me and scares me. I shall say things that have been said before, but perhaps they will take on a special meaning when uttered inside the echo chamber of the library: the library as an idea, as a place that concentrates an almost infinite effort to understand and document and individualize human beings and their exceptionality.
Since his election as President, more and more people around the world, not only in the United States, have felt alien, unwanted, and threatened. There are many reasons for this, not all of which have to do with the US and Trump, of course. But a sense of danger and the fragility of life are on the rise, because the leader of the strongest country in the world keeps setting free dark, radical, subversive, hate-mongering forces.
For hundreds of years, the democratic system has used education, legislation, and instilling values of equality and pluralism to try and create balance, to moderate, to limit the powers, impulses, prejudices, and stereotyping that Donald Trump is now provoking with unbelievable recklessness, as though he does not understand that he is dealing with explosives. When I listen to him, I feel that he is deliberately working to turn me into part of a “mass” of some sort, real or imagined—a faceless, stereotypical mass, the kind that can easily be manipulated and incited against some other faceless “mass.” When Donald Trump speaks—or Tweets—I feel subjected to the harmful radiation of an uninhibited cynic who is fully aware of his mission: to turn human beings not only into a mass, but into a mob.
I have some experience identifying people of this kind—and especially, leaders of this kind. My own prime minister is one of them: Benjamin Netanyahu. He, too, is an expert at manipulating the masses. He, too, is a pro at amassing political power by dividing and inciting, by fanning the flames of fear and recklessness, by sicking different factions against each other. The reality that Netanyahu is shaping for the citizens of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict stems from his profound belief that “we shall live by the sword forever.” We shall live by the sword and die by the sword, and never shall we exit the cycle of blood. Deep in his heart, Netanyahu believes that the occupation, now more than 50 years old, is becoming a “status quo,” to which even the Palestinians—the occupied people—are growing accustomed. But in order to think this way, one has to forget a simple fact: wherever there are human beings, there is no real status quo. Especially where human beings are occupied, humiliated, and denied their fundamental rights.
Jerusalem was and is the capital of the Jewish people and the State of Israel for millennia. In the last centuries in every Jewish home throughout the world people prayed to Jerusalem. In tens of thousands of Jewish homes there was a picture of the western wall and at the Passover seder Jews sang “Next Year in Jerusalem,” even when we were in Jerusalem. So the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital gave validity to something that almost every Jew knows and feels and believes. But in the last decades the question of Jerusalem became a major component of the Israeli- Palestinian conflict and it is intertwined, and inseparable, from the other huge issues that create this conflict. The way to solve the conflict is to make concessions on some issues and achievements on others. You cannot isolate one problem from the others. You can argue that Jerusalem is larger than the other considerations in negotiations, but I think that without having Jerusalem in the equation we shall not have peace and we shall not have life.
Unlike my prime minister, I am certain that the quiet now prevailing in the Occupied Territories is both illusory and temporary. The perverted situation will become more and more densely packed beneath the surface, until it explodes with a force that might surprise not only the Israelis but the Palestinians too. Yet I insist on clinging to the hope for peace, because still, despite everything I have been through, I believe that peace between Israel and its neighbors—above all, the Palestinians—is not only possible but vital, for both sides, and that it must be the primary element of our future existence.
Within the tempest of destruction and mass murder afflicting the Middle East, there is also a tiny window of opportunity. It was opened because states like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the Emirates are apprehensive of Iran, and they also fear radical Islam, both Sunni and Shiite. These states know full well that Israel could be a particularly effective ally against their enemies, and they also understand that a good relationship with Israel could encourage support from the United States. We are not talking about a love of Israel. These countries would probably prefer Israel to never have existed. But now they are able to recognize the advantages it might offer. And another thing: without the support of Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt, the Palestinians will not have the fortitude to sign a peace accord with Israel. The Palestinians need these countries’ blessing in order to make the painful compromises that such an accord will demand. In other words, there is a rare moment here, in which the existential interests of Arab states, moderate Palestinians, and Israel—coincide. Is there someone who will take the decisive step and turn this window of opportunity into reality?
I have no illusions: the chances of peace between Israel and the Palestinians surviving intact in the long term are not great. The hostility and vengefulness among both nations run extremely deep and may hinder any attempt at compromise. Nevertheless, instinctive despair, a priori despair of ever achieving peace, despair as a policy, year after year after year, is an admission of defeat. It leads to apathy and fatalism, which are exactly the anesthetics that enable certain kinds of leaders to do almost anything they wish to their people.
“Wherever there are human beings, there is no real status quo. Especially where human beings are occupied, humiliated, and denied their fundamental rights.”
The way we tell ourselves the story of the conflict, and the way we articulate our prospects of resolving it, also affect our ability to rise above instead of sinking even deeper into it. We often hear about the “clash of narratives” between Israelis and Palestinians. The narrative, in this case, is the official story that a nation recounts about itself through the generations, both internally and outwardly. Narratives, by their nature, have trouble compromising with each other. They affix a particular self-perception and identity, and are presented as absolute, hermetic truths. They are shouted in headlines and phrased in unqualified terms. A “narrative,” ultimately, is a story that has fossilized: a human tale that has turned to stone. And in a place where two fossils, like the Israeli and Palestinian narratives, touch each other—there is no life and no motion. The situation was aptly described by the late Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai, who wrote: “From the place where we are right, flowers will never grow in the spring.”
Anyone who has spent their life writing stories knows: underneath each human tale, another one lies hidden. Sometimes it contradicts the visible layer, while at other times it completes and enriches it. This is true of individual stories, and national stories. We all know people who, over the years, have become trapped inside their own private narrative—their “official” story. Sometimes they are so entombed in the narrative that they cannot see how outdated and fossilized it is, and that it has become a reflex that does not truly describe the complexities of their lives. They cannot see that the narrative is trapped—and is trapping them—in the wounds of the past, the insults of the past.
But it turns out that countries and nations can also get trapped in their narratives, in their official stories, in the wounds and affronts of the past, as well as in the glories of the past—whether true or invented—and the myths on which they raise their children. These founding myths may once have played an important role in constructing the nation’s identity and consciousness, but isn’t it time to see them in a different light?
When I write about relationships between lovers, families, siblings, parents and children, and of course when I write about the Israeli situation or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I try to dissolve, even just a little, the “narrative”—any narrative that is formal, unbending and frozen—so that it will resume being a story. You could say that I “massage” it back into a story about human beings. A living, supple, unhermetic, multifarious, multi-layered story. A story of people who live, who sometimes suffer, sometimes hope, and who fear, doubt, love, and yearn for something better.
So much depends on the story. So much depends on the story we tell, first and foremost, to ourselves. We readers and writers here today—from every gender, race, age, religion and nationality—share a common and special love: the love of the story. We know the wonderment that fills us when we read a good book. Every time a book sweeps us up, every time a whole, multi-layered character enters our lives, we rediscover how every one of us contains so many possibilities of existence, most of which we cannot even describe, yet they exist inside us as silent longings, and sometimes burdens, soul-shadows, until we encounter a book that animates them and gives them a name. (Perhaps it is no coincidence that in Hebrew, the verb for “to publish” literally means “to take out into the light.”)
When we read a good book, we start to feel a slight movement inside us. Something in our rigid, artificial definitions softens when we are touched by a literary character full of life and agility and contradictions. Suddenly—as if hearing a distant melody or a forgotten voice calling our name—we can begin to move with suppleness and vitality between the man we are and the woman we are; between the old man we will be and the child we once were; between the saneness and the madness inside us; and also, between the Israeli I am and the Palestinian I could have been. Suddenly the possibility of a different existence wells up inside us. A different way of being in the world. As we read, we feel the book seeping in to us, melting solid masses inside us, restoring us to our primary, unprocessed, preverbal foundations. That is the moment when the book reads us, and it is the great gift of literature, its liberating power. Like a wolf outside our window at night, standing on a neatly mowed square of lawn, it howls, reaching into the depths of our protected, secured being to wrench out our own wail of longing, of responding, of devotion. That yearning may last only one moment (or only one book), but there is such freedom in the moment when we became a different person, or perhaps quite the opposite—when we became ourselves, in the most profound sense.
For these times of joy and pain, these moments of falling into an abyss followed by moments of pure elation, which I have treasured ever since learning how to read, I bow my head before the books surrounding us, and I say from the depths of my heart: thank you.