How to Talk of Hope When Reality Brings So Much Despair

Sometimes putting words together in a new way can create a spark, an expansion of thought. Has this weakened COVID-19's momentum? Of course not, but we've strengthened our immune system a little. David Grossman’s speech at the opening of this month's Frankfurt Book Fair

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An illustration of three men at their computers.
Illustration by Eran Wolkowski.
David Grossman
David Grossman
David Grossman
David Grossman

Sometimes, in the middle of my workday, I look up from the keyboard and think about a writer or two whom I know, writers who are friends of mine, and others with whom I feel an affinity because of their books.

I think of how – like me – they are sitting now at a computer screen, searching for one single, elusive word. Or for a certain personality trait in a character they have yet to decipher. I imagine them drumming their fingers on the desk, making another cup of coffee, or pacing their room in distress because they sense that what they have just written sings a note that is not quite the right one.

I imagine my writer friends, in their homes in New York or Shanghai, in Prague or Tehran, Munich or Gaza. The pandemic rages in their city, perhaps knocks at their own door, but they are entirely focused on tuning themselves – as one tunes an instrument – to achieve precision.

I imagine a sort of invisible web, thin yet strong, being woven by thousands of people – writers and poets – who live in every corner of the world. Some of them have published many books, others are now writing their first story. Most do not even know of the others’ existence, but together they are performing a vital act: a small repair of the overall dissonance, of the great disruption of reality. They are making art.

I am speaking to you from my home outside Jerusalem. When I was asked to speak about hope, I thought: At present, Israel has the highest number of per-capita virus cases in the world. How can I talk of hope when the reality I’m living in brings so much despair?

And then I thought: Being asked to talk about hope is a good thing. Perhaps this is how I may find the strength to act against the gravity of anguish and sadness, which I have felt since COVID-19 entered my life.

Hope, I thought over and over again, trying to awaken it inside me. I called to it, out loud, in Hebrew – perhaps it speaks Hebrew – tikva, tikva. I thought about Israel’s national anthem, which is called “Hatikva” – “the hope” – and speaks of the hope held by Jews for 2,000 years in exile, the hope of one day being able to live in their own country. It was a hope that often kept them alive.

Hope. It is a noun, but it contains a verb that propels it into the future. Always to the future. Always with forward motion.

A woman walks among the Spanish flags placed in memory of coronavirus (COVID-19) victims in Madrid, Spain, Sept. 27, 2020.
A woman walks among the Spanish flags placed in memory of coronavirus (COVID-19) victims in Madrid, Spain, Sept. 27, 2020. Credit: Manu Fernandez,AP

One could look at hope as a sort of “anchor,” cast from a stifled, desperate existence, toward a better, freer future. Toward a reality that does not yet exist, which is made up mostly of wishes. Of imagination. When the anchor is cast, it takes hold of the future, and human beings – sometimes an entire society – begin to pull themselves toward it.

It is an act of optimism: When we cast this imaginary anchor beyond our concrete, arbitrary circumstances, when we dare to hope, we are proving that there is still one place in our soul where we are free. A place that no one has been able to suppress.

And thanks to this enclave of fearlessness, of freedom, in the souls of those who have hope, they know what the reality of freedom looks like. They also know how crucial it is to fight for it.

•••

Today, at the opening of the Frankfurt Book Fair, we – authors and poets, translators, editors, publishers, agents and, no less important, readers – are sadly comparing today’s circumstances with those of previous years, and asking ourselves where we stand in this coronavirus reality. Can we offer a unique contribution to ease the burden? Can we create some sort of “antibody” or “spiritual immunity” to the virus? Do we have anything – one significant thing – that we might hold up against the sense of restriction and erasure brought about by the pandemic?

I believe that this “something” is our power of observation. The way we look at the world. Observation is the core of our art. It is what makes us writers, and it is perhaps what makes us the people we are.

We may not have many other talents. Most writers and poets I know – including myself – are embarrassingly clumsy when it comes to engaging with reality. But we do know how to observe it. You can’t take that away from us.

And there is much to observe, much to put into words. In almost every realm of life, changes happen and will continue to happen. Economic, political, social and cultural systems will collapse or be reshaped, will take on different forms.

David Grossman
David GrossmanCredit: Ofer Vaknin

Millions have lost – or are yet to lose – their livelihoods. In many countries, the middle class will become poor, and the poor will become destitute. Deprivation and perhaps starvation will propel yet more waves of migration.

Changes will probably also occur in relationships between people, in families, in the bonds of friendship and love. In new decisions. New opinions.

Perhaps our proximity to the foundations of existence, our proximity to death, will make people see their lives in a different light once the pandemic is over. Perhaps it will make them insist on the lives they want to live. Refuse to compromise any longer. And perhaps there will be women and men who will discover how meaningful and relevant their relationships are.

But until then, the coronavirus continues its rampage. And as happens whenever the foundations of society are shaken, whenever personal and national security decrease, I am afraid we may witness a surge of nationalism, of religious fundamentalism, of xenophobia and racism, of severe damage to democracy and civil rights.

And we shall observe, and we shall write and document. We shall sound warnings in every place where our language is corrupted, where we are subjected to linguistic and cognitive manipulations. Where our civil rights, and our human rights, are threatened. I say this as a citizen of the world, but also as an Israeli watching the developments in my country with deep concern.

An event like the COVID-19 pandemic comes perhaps once in a century. As fate would have it, this one happened on our watch. It is devastating, and most of us feel helpless. To look straight at it, and at its repercussions, is almost like looking straight at the sun. But many of us have frequently looked into one sun or another, and told of what we saw. That is the nature of our strange profession. We want to look into suns. Into people and processes, relationships and wounds.

We want to look into this era and remember how we were in it. How we withstood it, or did not. Where our fault lines were revealed – as individuals, as societies. In which moments did we find ourselves weaker than we’d thought, and when were we stronger than we’d believed?

We will be witnesses: active, curious witnesses. Trenchant witnesses.

Customers seated in small glasshouses enjoy lunch at the Mediamatic restaurant in Amsterdam, Netherlands, June 1, 2020.
Customers seated in small glasshouses enjoy lunch at the Mediamatic restaurant in Amsterdam, Netherlands, June 1, 2020. Credit: Peter Dejong,AP

The power of artists to face the huge challenge of this pandemic – just as artists face every arbitrary state – results not necessarily from the content of what they create, but from the act of creation. From the sense of human abundance and human depth that a writer feels every time he or she describes a human situation. Abundance and depth, and complexity.

Sometimes – and this is more rare – we also gain a sense of flight, of inspiration. Of freedom.

All these feelings might have faded a little in the past months, in these days of fear and erasure.

In these conditions we should insist on nuances. Revive more and more subtleties – of personality, of relationships, of situations. Of language. We should try to take back what the coronavirus has confiscated. This is something we have the power to do.

Writing – even when it does not engage directly with the pandemic – is our means of resistance. It is how we withstand clichés, empty slogans, indiscriminate statements and generalizations, which pave the way for incitement, prejudice and racism.

A few days ago I heard on the radio that the number of deaths worldwide had “crossed the one-million mark.” I remembered the chilling comment attributed to Stalin: “A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths are a statistic.” These words allude to what we do in our work: We, authors and poets, people of literature, struggle to extricate the drama of the individual, the uniqueness and singularity of the individual, from dead statistics.

How fortunate we are! In a world increasingly shut off in separate “capsules,” a world that is driven by fear to reduce its contact with the outside – in this world we may find a place of richness, of creation.

Sometimes putting words together in a new way can create a spark in our mind: as if two words that have never been combined, which no one before thought to combine, have suddenly found each other and created a surprising expansion of thought and feeling.

Has this act done anything to weaken the momentum of the coronavirus? Of course not. But we have strengthened our immune system a little. We have reminded ourselves of who we used to be before the pandemic. And we have reminded ourselves of how much goodness, and light, the world might have after this nightmare ends.

Before I finish, I would like to share with you a story told by Abraham Sutzkever, one of the greatest Yiddish poets. He was born in 1913, in Belarus. During the Holocaust, he lived in the Vilna Ghetto.

And this is what Sutzkever told of his escape from the ghetto: “I learned the great power of a poem in March of 1944, in the Partisans’ forests, when I had to cross a field of land mines. No one knew where the mines were buried. I saw people torn to shreds. I saw a foolish bird that got too close. Every direction I turned, every place I set my foot, one single movement could mean death.”

“… and I held inside me a melody,” Sutzkever continues, and by “melody” he means poetry, or even a particular poem, “and I walked through the minefield to the rhythm of that melody for a whole kilometer, and I crossed it.”

And then Sutzkever says the following surprising line: “But perhaps you could remind me what the melody was? I do not remember…”

I can picture him smiling slightly, as if to tell us that this melody is always forgotten – that this is its essence. And that we must keep reinventing it, each of us in our own words and our own tune, each through our own struggle. So that for one moment, even in the middle of a minefield, we will not be helpless. We will not be defeated. We will still have hope.

Translated by Jessica Cohen

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