Monday, November 15, 2010

The power of the written word, via Grossman

Because the man's brilliant. And because I can't seem to stop my brain from automatically linking back to that which he's put into words so well. It is amazing, isn't it, when someone is able to fit words so perfectly to that which we've been thinking. ...I'm absurdly envious of this man's talent. Unspeakably appreciative, but envious nonetheless. One person insisted that I read this essay collection, and I feel the need to share the recommendation.

David Grossman, Writing in the Dark:

"To me, writing, the writing of literature, is partly an act of protest and defiance, and even rebellion, against this fear - against the temptation to entrench myself, to set up an almost imperceptible barrier, one that is friendly and courteous but very effective, between myself and others, and ultimately between me and myself.
...The more I write, the more I feel the force of the other urge, which collaborates and completes the first one: the desire to know the Other from within him. To feel what it means to be another person. To be able to touch, if only for a moment, the blaze that burns within another human being."

"I write, and I give my most private and intimate names to an external, unknown world. In some sense, I make it mine. So do I return from a land of exile and alienation - I come home. I change, just slightly, what previously seemed unchangeable. Even when I describe the cruelest arbitrariness that determines my fate - whether man-made or preordained - I suddenly find in it new subtleties and nuances. I find that simply writing about the arbitrariness lets me move freely in its presence. That the very fact of standing up against the arbitrariness gives me freedom - perhaps the only freedom man has against any kind of arbitrariness - the freedom to articulate the tragedy of my situation in my own words. The freedom to articulate myself differently, freshly, against the unbending dictates of arbitrariness that threaten to bind me and pin me down."

"In this world I have described, literature has no influential representatives in the centers of power, and I find it difficult to believe that literature can change it. But it can offer different ways to live in it. To live with an internal rhythm and an internal continuity that fulfill our emotional and spiritual needs far more than what is violently imposed upon us by the external systems."

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Step 1: Realize; Step 2: React; Step 3: Encourage change

Confession: today, I spent a small chunk of my life flipping through photos of the recent wedding of Vivek Oberoi. I blame both boredom and curiosity, an undeniable love of Bollywood, the draw of Indian culture, and the distracting yet engrossing powers of the internet.

While flipping through the abundance of Khans, Kumars, and Kapoors, I gave nods of admiration to the artistry of various saris (recalling having once worn one myself, truth be told - please ignore that awkwardness that is my shirt; we were testing it out pre-occasion) and half-jokingly decided that I wanted to be a wealthy Indian, if only for the sake of indulging in such things and, of course, an abundance of samosas, naan, and aloo parathas. The thought was a fleeting one, not simply because I lack the utter materialism such a desire would require, but more upon consideration of one of the worst moments in my time spent in Ghana last summer.

Being that the capital of Accra overlooks the Equator from its seat on the coast, Ghana lacks seasons beyond "wet" and "noticeably less wet"... well, ok, "rainy" and "dry." Further, being that it is also a developing country with correspondingly limited infrastructure, handling such seasons is difficult, limited, and wholly inadequate. West African flooding is notoriously destructive - something I, unfortunately, got a small taste of during my stay. That is, I got a taste of it in the increased difficulties of attempting to navigate the roads (totally ruling out any unnecessary travel more than once), and I got a taste of it as Mr. Agyare, his son Kofi, and I slowly drove towards the Accra Mall for an evening at the movies, upon Mr. Agyare's suggestion.

As we made our way down the highway, many walked along the side of the road, some stood awaiting tro-tros (taxi-like transportation in the form of large, over-occupied vans), and others set off across the sodden fields in a shortcut of necessity. It didn't take much to note that a dirt road running parallel to the highway had been totally flooded, the former site of a bridge now yielding to a raging river, with crowds of people on either side. The flooding would ultimately hit national, region, and global news, as thousands of homes across West Africa were ravished by the rains and torrents. 

I don't think I'll ever be able to forget the sinking feeling in my stomach as I looked on helplessly, the overwhelming sense of guilt as we drove by them in one of the most advanced vehicles I've ever found myself in. My thoughts cried for us to pull over and help them, or just commiserate with them - because what could I do to help them just then? ...I have no idea, but it didn't prevent me from feeling sick to my stomach.

Lately, it seems that many things have tied back to a passage from Grossman's Writing in the Dark, which I referenced earlier. Again, he's put into words an unfortunate but thought-provoking point:
"It seems that most of us manage to lead a life of almost total indifference to the suffering of entire nations, near and far, and to the distress of hundreds of millions of human beings who are poor and hungry and weak and sick, whether in our own countries or in other parts of the world. We are capable of developing apathy and alienation toward the suffering of the foreigners who come to work for us, and toward the misery of people under occupation - ours, and others' - and toward the anguish of billions of people living under any kind of dictatorship or enslavement. With wonderful ease we create the necessary mechanisms to separate ourselves from the suffering of others."

For this reason, if for no other, I'm painfully well aware that, frankly, being wealthy in India is something I wouldn't wish on myself - does that sound odd? Of course, one could do a great lot of good towards development organizations and charity work, etc etc (though this certainly can and has been done without riches, as well, to some extent)... but I know myself enough to know that I'd be stricken with guilt in the very knowledge that I was so well off in the midst of abject poverty and homelessness. My trouble isn't with capitalism, though, nor is it with the unavoidable forces of nature that may wreak such havoc upon those ill-equipped. My trouble's with just how large that gap is in the distribution of wealth and, perhaps more so, the concern and genuine fear that there are so many troubles in the world beyond my ability to fix. 

I was struck with the same stomach-sickening feeling as I realized all the more that even my coworkers still saw me first and foremost as a white person - even if that was to remark in surprise how humbled they were by the fact that a white woman could be so rooted and kind, understanding, etc. Where they meant to compliment, they upset. As I spoke with my friend Kofi about it later that evening, he asked, rather rhetorically, what I could do about it - "it" being the racism still so horrendously prevalent, the self-abasement that so sickened me. He, understandably, advised me not to upset myself over something it seems I can do so frustratingly little to change, no matter how hard I might try or protest it. My answer, however, remains the same - if everyone thought that way, so easily allowing for the status quo under the assumption that they are incapable of improving it, nothing would ever change, would it? Change for the better, that is.

Potential ways to help, beyond raising awareness, giving time, food, blood, etc:
Variety of Ways to Donate to Pakistan Flood Relief
American Red Cross
local organizations, food pantries, churches, etc.
Keeping on top of things and getting suggestions from the likes of
Country-specific organizations like the Association for India's Development (of which I'm proud to call myself a voting volunteer - had to get that plug in there somewhere)

...and the list goes on.  Other ideas? Please do share. :)

Thursday, November 11, 2010

A glimmer of "the Other"

We've all heard that the eyes are the window into the soul... trite, I know. But the idea... the idea is a terrifying one if we stop to think about it, isn't it? That someone might be capable of looking straight into us - straight through us? Terrifying.

Frankly, my mind has been all over the place for the past two weeks or so (thus the lack of posts is more due to too many thoughts than lack thereof) - research for this, that, and that, writing for this class and that class, working here, editing there, contacting this person about an internship, sending my editorial to that person, the inevitable personal items that can be both entertaining and troubling, but always thought-provoking... etc. Tonight's whirl of thoughts, however, had little to do with my life and much to do with the consideration of another.

This evening, I set aside the piles of books (of which there are now eight covering my desk- piles, that is) and walked a few blocks to the Carlisle Theater for a showing of "Lebanon," a much acclaimed 2009 Israeli movie, directed by Samuel Maoz, about the 1982 war in Lebanon. As though the subject matter weren't weighty enough, the entirety of the film takes place in a tank. Inspiration for my attendance: general interest in the topic (also recommended: "Waltz with Bashir"), and the panel discussion to follow it, featuring one of my favorite profs and advisor, who was serving with the IDF at the time.

As one would expect, the film was intense and thought-provoking. In fact, it'd be relatively easy to rattle on about it and the backdrop of it, historical facts and controversies, etc... but somehow that did not turn out to be the most thought-provoking feature of the evening. No, instead, it was finding myself watching a movie about the war in Lebanon while sitting beside a veteran of that very war. I'd come to the theater on my own, grabbed a seat at the end of a row, and did some low-key fiddling while waiting for the start of the movie; not long into the fiddling, however, I was greeted and joined, with a volunteered accompanying but brief comment of nerves and the danger of the film's being so close to home for a man who'd spent his fair share of time in an Israeli tank in Lebanon.

Backtrack to last Thursday, end of class, when I was pulled aside for a quick chat - to lend me a book, as it turns out. An amazing book. A book so intriguing I nearly ran into several people and a table as I walked from place to place with my nose stuck in it, eyes devouring the pages in front of me. David Grossman, Writing in the Dark: Essays on Literature and Politics.* What my professor had failed to warn me about, however - or chose not to - was the intense... well, the humanity of it. The intensely personal, the soul-digging, the looking-straight-through-you.

"We human beings are uneasy about what truly occurs deep inside the Other, even if that Other is someone we love. And perhaps it is more than unease; perhaps it is an actual fear of the mysterious, nonverbal, unprocessed core, that which cannot be subjected to any social taming, to any refinement, politeness, or tact; that which is instinctive, wild, and chaotic, not at all politically correct. It is dreamlike and nightmarish, radical and exposed, sexual and unbridled, at least according to the social-order definitions that prevail among "civilized" people (whatever that term may mean). It is mad and sometimes cruel, often animalistic, for good or for bad. It is, if you will, the magma, the primordial, blazing material that bubbles inside every person simply because he is human, simply because he is an intersection of so many forces, instincts, longings, and urges. It is a magma that usually, among sane people - even the most tempestuous - hardens and cools when it comes into contact with air, when it encounters other human beings, or the confines of reality, and then it becomes part of "normative" social fiber."

I could read it time and again (and did). ...but get to the point, Kate. As to the matter of the film, you should see for yourself. I should warn you, however - it is one of those things that may leave you with a certain expression on your face, if you get to thinking about it. More specifically: after whispered comments and explanatory side notes throughout the film, this increasingly intriguing character (everyone is, when you get down to it) stood up, joined the small panel at the front of the theater, and proceeded to give a [somewhat typically] matter-of-fact perspective - what was realistic about it, what was unrealistic about it, etc. If one was watching closely, though... if one was watching closely, they'd have noticed a pause before the spiel, a slight staring down at an empty seat while thoughts whirled, unspoken.

Every once in while, we are lucky (lucky?) enough to catch a glimpse of another person. Something as seemingly simple as meeting eyes for a moment, and that person has suddenly become more real - more vulnerable. Quick, look away; avert your gaze, you both risk seeing more than either bargained for. How intriguing, though... how intriguing.

To revert to Grossman: "I wish to clarify again that the primary urge that motivates and engenders writing, in my view, is the writer's desire to invent and tell a story, and to know himself. But the more I write, the more I feel the force of the other urge, which collaborates with and completes the first one: the desire to know the Other from within him. To feel what it means to be another person. To be able to touch, if only for a moment, the blaze that burns within another human being." 

...but it's not just writing that inspires this, is it? Sometimes, it can seem to come from the smallest of things, the quickest of moments. One thought, one word, one look, and it's a glimpse into something infinitely larger than ourselves - and frighteningly so.

*One essay from the book, adapted from Grossman's Arthur Miller Freedom to Write Lecture in 2007, may be easily found online, courtesy of the NYT: