If you are the sort that reads Playboy for the articles, a 1973 essay by Alfred Kazin might have caught your eye. Titled “The Writer as Political Crazy: Truth, Beauty, Totalitarianism and Other Sublime Things,” the piece takes on a curious conundrum: Why do so many writers, artful and astute, turn crazy when writing about politics? Kazin offers a gallery of rogues that includes both men of the right—Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, D.H. Lawrence—and of the left, like Jean Genet, all moved to madness when confronting the vagaries of political action.
But, Kazin argues, we shouldn’t be surprised: Writers, the sort of cats who see the world with all its vivid intricacies, and who are accustomed to winning our praise for delivering precise and moving portraits of life, may be forgiven for assuming that they can do with political ideas what they do with words. That is to say, let us not be surprised that the same Ezra Pound who so vividly described the scene in a Paris Metro station—“The apparition of these faces in the crowd;/ Petals on a wet, black bough”—also, in his infamous World War II broadcasts from Fascist Italy, imagined the Jews as belligerent profiteers and President Franklin D. Roosevelt as biologically inferior to Aryans.
Why do we forgive our writers their feats of folly? Because we believe, like Shelley, that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world,” and because we take Pound at his word that he and his colleagues are the antennae of the race. We not only forgive our writers their political transgressions, but, for the most part, we celebrate them; the writer as political crazy is the writer we’ve come to expect.
Yet as the essayist Eliot Weinberger noted in “The Arts and the War in Iraq,” having come of age with neither existential nor economic crises to guide their upbringing, many of our writers, even the finest among them, have come to see their art as a sterile, commercial pursuit, one largely uninterested in the making of meaning. This is why we no longer have Robert Lowells, Dwight Macdonalds, Norman Mailers, Allen Ginsbergs, politically and morally committed in life as well as in art. Can you imagine Jonathan Franzen trying to levitate the Pentagon in protest of the Iraq War? Or Nicole Krauss leading a march of thousands on the National Mall in support of, say, immigration reform? In lieu of the armies of the night, we’ve settled for the solitary individuals of the late afternoon, polite and clever and opinionated and terribly disengaged. Weinberger correctly observes that “the Cheney-Bush II era has not produced a single poem, song, novel, or artwork that has caught the popular imagination as a condemnation or an epitome of the times.”
Out of such dire straits, American intellectuals eager to once again huddle around a thriving and politically active vanguard of writers may consider looking to Israel for comfort. There, it seems, the writer is king. In 2006, for example, the novelist David Grossman, having recently lost his son in the Lebanon War, thundered to a crowd of tens of thousands gathered in Tel Aviv, accusing the government of lacking a vision and losing its way. Grossman is also sporadically present in the weekly demonstrations against the questionably legal expropriation of Arab homes in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah.
Together with his close friends, the novelists Amos Oz and A.B. Yehoshua, Grossman frequently writes open letters to Israel’s political elite, publishes political tracts in newspapers, and infuses his novels with what the critic Susan Willis termed portents of the real. His most recent book, To the End of the Land, features a mother embarking on a prolonged hike, adamant in her belief that her soldier son will be safe so long as those army officials whose job it is to notify parents that their children have died in action can’t find her at home. Praising both Grossman’s work as a novelist and as an activist, the Frankfurt Book Fair awarded him its prestigious Peace Prize earlier this year and applauded him as “a symbol of the peace movement” in Israel.
The designation was intended as a laurel, but it is more poignant as a statement of fact. Together with his two prominent colleagues, Grossman is very much a symbol of the Israeli peace movement, a movement as earnest as it is ineffective. But even as the peace movement fades, the three writers who are so closely identified with its efforts gather encomiums from fellow writers and critics the world over. The praise, alas, is undeserved.
To understand this contentious statement—Grossman, in particular, is a secular saint of sorts among many literati in Europe and the United States—let us revisit the moment, late in 2007, when the novelist was awarded the Israeli prime minister’s Emet Prize for Arts, Science and Culture. Having expressed his strong criticism of then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in his Tel Aviv speech the year before, the novelist told the ceremony’s organizers that he would accept the prize but would not shake Olmert’s hand. The prime minister was informed, and remained seated when Grossman claimed the prize. Asked later why he didn’t shake Olmert’s hand, Grossman replied, “for obvious reasons.”
The Israeli media reveled in this scrap of theater, but, examined on its own merit, Grossman’s bout of disobedience grows pale and small. The man who in 2006 appealed to throngs of demonstrators, who decried “Israel’s quick descent into the heartless, essentially brutal treatment of its poor and suffering,” who spoke out against “this equanimity of the State of Israel in the face of human trafficking or the appalling employment conditions of our foreign workers, which border on slavery, to the deeply ingrained institutionalized racism against the Arab minority,” the best that man could do just a year later was refuse to shake another man’s hand. To sit the whole thing out—as Robert Lowell, for example, did when invited by President Lyndon Johnson to attend the White House Arts Festival in 1965—seemingly never occurred to Grossman. Nor did any other act that would have carried him over the threshold of the nice.
Of course, it would be foolish, even brutal, to expect anyone to become anything they’re not. When I interviewed Grossman on a recent afternoon in his American publishers’ offices—his evening would include an interview with Charlie Rose and a well-attended event with Nicole Krauss at the New York Public Library—the novelist, welcoming and sweet, began with an anecdote by way of warning. It’s the old hasidic tale of Reb Zusya, who, lying on his deathbed, has one more bit of wisdom to impart. When I die, Zusya tells his students, God will not ask me why I wasn’t more like Moses; he’ll ask why I wasn’t more like Zusya.
What the anecdote means to Grossman—what his definition of the ideal writerly self might be—became clear toward the end of the interview. Many floors below, the sun reflected off the Hudson River, and Grossman, as smiling publicists floated in and out of the room, spoke about the way his latest book was received around the world. It stunned him, he said, to hear people in the United States and elsewhere say they hadn’t realized how difficult and sad life in Israel really was. The problem, Grossman added, is that many Israelis hadn’t realized that either.
“Because we don’t understand the price we pay for life in a disaster zone, we don’t do enough to change it,” Grossman said in Hebrew. An author, he argued, “must always remind us that there’s an alternative. If you asked me what’s the thing that propels me to political action, it’s the desire to constantly remind that there’s an alternative, that people won’t think that there’s some sort of divine act that condemns us to kill and be killed, that we’re lords of our fate. We need to massage and revive the frightened and ossified consciousness of Israelis and Palestinians and remind them that they’re not condemned. Our story could be written differently.”
Which brings us back to the same question that plagued Pound and Oppen and nearly anyone who has ever made a living observing the world and committing his or her insights to print: How to rewrite reality?
For Grossman, for Oz, for Yehoshua, the solution is more statements, more letters, more talk. Last week, for example, the three signed a letter in support of an artistic boycott of the newly opened cultural center in the settlement of Ariel. Receiving the Siegfried Unseld Prize in Berlin this September, Oz (who shared the prize with Palestinian professor of philosophy Sari Nusseibeh) delivered a touching speech about the importance of the two-state solution. In October, in Paris, appearing alongside philosopher Alain Finkielkraut and Green politician Daniel Cohn-Bendit in support of a dovish new Jewish lobby, Yehoshua did the same.
Paradoxically, the more celebrated the three authors are in Israel and elsewhere in the world, the more moribund the values on behalf of which they so adamantly speak appear. If politics is an act of imagining better endings to our shared story, Oz and Grossman and Yehoshua aren’t being terribly creative.
Luckily, others in Israel are. For the past few months, for example, Ilana Hammerman, an award-winning translator and editor, has been smuggling Palestinian women and girls out of their besieged villages and towns, taking them for a day out on Tel Aviv’s beach. Most of these women, despite having been born and having lived their entire lives just a few miles away, had never before seen the Mediterranean; their joy at this shard of normal life is great. Hammerman, of course, is breaking the law: In smuggling the women she runs afoul of Israel’s intricate policy of border control, enforced by roadblocks and checkpoints. Yet Hammerman believes that the moral duty of allowing fellow human beings the chance to run barefoot on the beach is paramount. She has inspired scores of Israeli women to follow her example by taking a novel approach to reality: Instead of railing against injustice, she showed her peers what life could look like if we cared enough to perform small acts of kindness to benefit those people that Israelis usually see only as foes.
Even without breaking the law, it’s not difficult to imagine other creative political stories for the three to compose. They could, like playwright Shmuel Hasfari, promote the claim that because the Jewish settlements of the West Bank were never legally annexed by Israel, any measure of cultural activity there—from the selling of books to the performing of plays—should be subject to a foreign licensing agreement; such an act would send a clear message and serve to undermine the legitimacy of settlements, a premise all three authors, to some extent, strongly support. Or they could arrange for forums where real Israelis might meet real Palestinians, an increasingly rare opportunity for both sides these days. Many more alternatives, some more intricate than others, suggest themselves; but Oz, Yehoshua, and Grossman steer clear of the real and stick to the purely symbolic.
This should surprise no close reader of their work. If there is one thing that binds the three’s different styles and sensibilities it is the nearly religious adherence to symbolic structures, grand metaphors from which all meaning is meant to unfurl. Oz’s famous My Michael, for example, tells the tale of a woman married to a kind but unthrilling man—a geologist, in case his connection to the land of Israel was too subtle to grasp—and who sinks into fantasy to escape her anxieties. These fantasies involve Arab twins with whom she had played as a child in Jerusalem. The dreams sometimes get steamy—what else can The Other do than appear naked in our shower and allow us to relieve ourselves of our urges and fears? A woman escaping her fate is, of course, also the subject of Grossman’s latest novel. It is also the theme of Yehoshua’s The Liberated Bride, in which a young woman bolts out of a marriage after one short year and in which her judgmental mother-in-law is a judge and inquisitive father-in-law, the one who refuses to let go of the past, is a historian. There are other books, and other similarities, but, with few exceptions, the following generalization still stands: Oz and Yehoshua and Grossman tell stories of men and women who are wrecked by reality, who try to escape it but can’t, who do their best and discover that their best isn’t enough.
The same could be said about their political sensibilities. Grossman described it best. “It’s not that I think that suddenly Jews and Arabs can walk hand in hand towards the sunset,” he told me. “That’s not the case. But I think there’s a place somewhere in between the Hollywood ending and being tossed into the sea. There is nuance. And that’s where we need to go, to those places where we can have a life that is possible, where we could slowly douse the flames and control the madness, no more.”
But the madness, as artists should know better than most, is often all that there is. The madness starts wars and writes great novels and propels throngs of people to either love or hate their fellow man. And the madness is what we need writers for, because the madness is sublime and without it there is much that matters but not much that can move us.
The direction we move in is, of course, up to the writer’s own conscience, and it hardly dictates allegiance to the left. The poet Yonatan Ratosh, for example, proved better than most that the lyrical was political when he founded his ultra-right-wing Canaanite movement in 1939. Calling for the struggling Jewish state to abandon its religious foundations and return instead to the archaic, pre-biblical, pagan civilization of the region, Ratosh did violence to the carefully constructed prose of his contemporaries; his name, which he gave himself (he was born Uriel Shelach), is a play on the Hebrew verb le’ratesh, to tear apart. He selected as his themes the myths of prehistory, and he wrote lines that were terse and muscular and sounded like the beat of ancient drums.
Although the Canaanite movement was short-lived, it attracted a committed cadre of writers—Benjamin Tammuz, Amos Kenan, Aharon Amir—that went on to shape Israeli culture from the 1950s onward.
A more recent example is Moshe Shamir: Having abandoned his socialist upbringing and becoming one of the standard-bearers of the settler movement, the writer co-founded the right-wing Tehiya party and briefly served as a member of Knesset. His political madness—shortly before Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination, he likened negotiating with the Palestinians to collaborating with the Nazis—echoed his literary sensibilities. His novels were a thunderstorm of short, strong sentences and searing social criticism. He was inspiring as both a legislator and a writer because, politically and aesthetically, he was on fire.
The mission, politically and aesthetically, of Grossman, Yehoshua, and Oz is very different. It is, as Grossman told me, to douse the flames, to control the madness. This is why they produce so much symbolism, and this is why so many of their protagonists are running away from life. The alternative would be to fight like hell and dream up wild, new paths to redemption. As leaders, as writers, Israel’s three most famous writers, unlike several of their less heralded peers on the left and on the right, have failed to do just that. Rather than hail them as paragons, anyone committed to the future of the Israeli peace movement would do well to thank them warmly for their concern and hope for a writer to come along and write a better ending to this mad, mad story.
Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.
Liel Leibovitz is editor at large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One.