Not With a Whimper

The words Grossman uttered at Rabin's memorial about 'hollow leadership' will continue to reverberate.

David Grossman did not shy away from taking a public stand on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process (or rather the lack of it), even before the last Lebanese war. But when he addressed the tens of thousands of people at the 11th memorial event of the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, on November 4th, he spoke also as a father who had lost his son in the last days of this ill-fated war.

He was very much aware of it, and that is why he preceded his direct appeal to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert by saying: "Mr. Prime Minister, I am not saying these words out of feelings of rage or revenge. I have waited long enough to avoid responding on impulse. You will not be able to dismiss my words tonight by saying a grieving man cannot be judged. Certainly I am grieving, but I am more pained than angry. This country and what you and your friends are doing to it pains me."

One day the arrogant voices, who claim Grossman was out of line by castigating the prime minister for his policies, while the latter cannot respond, because you don't argue with bereaved parents, will fade away. The prime minister did quote a bereaved father who sided with his policies in one of his speeches during the war, but on the whole, bereaved families are expected to bear their grief in dignified silence. But the words Grossman uttered that evening about "hollow leadership" will continue to reverberate. The advantage poets have over other mortals is not their ability to "show us the way," but their gift of finding the right words to address reality; words that were once sent into the ether will keep resonating in the sound boxes of human minds.

For some time now these self-appointed and elected leaders will look at themselves in the mirror and will have to ask themselves: "Am I hollow?" Some will feel inclined to put the question, a rhetorical one in their view, to the public. It is a fair assumption that like Shimon Peres, who asked his party members: "Am I a loser?", they will hear a thundering "Yes!"

The Hebrew word for "hollow" is "halul" and it shares the root with "halal," used nowadays when speaking about soldiers who gave their lives in Israeli wars, "hilul," desecration, and "halal," space. But without intending to - to the best of my knowledge - Grossman was echoing T.S. Eliot's poem "The Hollow Men." This is the way words work.

Eliot wrote his poem in 1925, and, according to the accepted view, it reflects upon Eliot's skepticism about the men of his time - Europe after World War One -, the posterity, and society as a whole. The epigrams preceding the poem point the reader to Joseph Conrads' "Heart of Darkness" and to Guy Fawkes (whose day is November 5th, a strange coincidence), and Eliot readers will easily identify the allusions to Dante and Christian symbolism.

But apart from that, the poem simply says: "We are the hollow men / We are the stuffed men / Shape without form, shade without color / Paralyzed force, gesture without motion." Grossman spoke about Israeli force that proved weak in combat. The third part of the poem could be interpreted as being written about this land of ours: "This is the dead land / This is cactus land / Here the stone images / Are raised, here they receive / The supplication of a dead man's hand / Under the twinkle of a fading star. // Is it like this / In death's other kingdom / Waking alone / At the hour when we are / Trembling with tenderness / Lips that would kiss / Form prayers to broken stone."

Grossman spoke about "anxiety and intimidation" filling up the "empty shell" of Israeli leadership, about the lack of an original or vital idea in the sound box of their soul, of "reacting feverishly to moves forced upon [them] by others." Eliot writes about the shadow that falls "Between the idea / And the reality / Between the motion / And the act / Between the conception / And the creation / Between the emotion / And the response."

Grossman, who spoke in 2006, a mere day before Haaretz's headline, "IDF preparing for another conflict by next summer," concluded his words by saying, as if almost forcing himself to find an upbeat note on an otherwise bleak speech: "From where I stand right now, I beseech, I call on all those who listen, the young who came back from the war, who know they are the ones to be called upon to pay the price of the next war, on citizens, Jew and Arab, people on the right and the left, the secular, the religious: Stop for a moment, take a look into the abyss. Think of how close we are to losing all that we have created here. Ask yourselves if this is not the time to get a grip, to break free of this paralysis, to finally claim the lives we deserve to live."

Eliot's poem ends with one of the most quoted lines of 20th century poetry: "This is the way the world ends / This is the way the world ends / This is the way the world ends / Not with a bang but a whimper." He wrote 13 years before World War II. Today we have a good reason to fear that it will end in a bang, not a whimper.