David Grossman says more than once in this short piece that it is difficult to write about oneself. Indeed, there is so little substantive content to this piece of writing that this must be considered his central message. Yet Grossman does not seem to have much trouble writing about himself. This paper will provide a rhetorical analysis of Grossman’s self-indulgent article. It will argue that there are two different ways to read it. One is more charitable to Grossman, but the other is more faithful both to reality and to the details of the text.
Grossman writes with a confident and authoritative voice. He clearly expects the reader to be interested in what he has to say, to such an extent that he does not make any initial attempt explain what he is talking about, or why the reader should care about it. The context of his writing is apparently very broad, having something to do with loss, progress, permanence, and strife in the Middle East. His tone is moralistic but vague. One gets the sense that Grossman expects, through this piece of writing, to connect to a few reasonable minds in a chaotic sea of unreasonableness. But one can only speculate about this matter, since the vast majority of the piece is constructed of lamentations and self-pity. Grossman’s subject is apparently the difficulty of talking about oneself, especially amidst all of the alleged chaos. His intended audience, however, is fairly clearly defined. It consists of those who are interested in what he has to say, however little content there may be in what he writes. Furthermore, it is obvious that Grossman’s intended audience is those who share his perspective on recent events in the Middle East. This is a point to which we shall return.
Grossman’s article is, perhaps fittingly, Kafkaesque. It is not until its final lines that he deigns to tell us what he is talking about. He is talking about the various ills of the ongoing state of war, especially in the Middle East. Most importantly, he is talking about the fact that his son, Uri, was killed in what Grossman calls the ‘war’ between Lebanon and Israel. This is certainly a serious matter, not to be mocked. But it is more properly the subject of a eulogy than of an editorial in a prominent publication.
The ostensible occasion for Grossman’s piece of writing is a book by Natalia Ginzburg, entitled ‘It is Hard to Talk about Yourself’. Grossman quotes this book as follows:
As soon as one writes, one miraculously ignores the current circumstances of one’s life, yet our happiness or misery leads us to write in a certain way. When we are happy, our imagination is more dominant. When miserable, the power of our memory takes over (Ginzburg 2003).
This focus is one of the few clues we are given in Grossman’s piece about the context of his writing. Ginzburg was a prominent Jewish author in the latter parts of the 20th century. When Grossman later mentions the ‘war’ between Lebanon and Israel, this clue enables us to figure out what he means to be talking about.
What does Ginzburg mean to be saying in these two sentences? Apparently that it is difficult to transcend—if it takes a miracle to overcome them—one’s current circumstances in writing. And also that one’s imagination is more prominent when one is happy, while one’s memory handles miserable episodes of one’s life.
These points do not seem to me to be particularly deep. It is so easy for Grossman to transcend his current circumstances, as a writer, that we do not learn until very late in his article what he is talking about. And the bits about imagination and memory are best set aside as window-dressing.
Grossman evidently assumes that his readers will share his view of the current situation in the Middle East, in particular his view that Israel is the victim. This is clear from the paragraph in which Grossman describes his past fictional writings, as if the reader should already be familiar with them, as (some of them) taking place ‘on the streets of Jerusalem’. He also quotes uninteresting parts of the Old Testament in his defense.
We come finally to the heart of the matter. It is certainly a tragedy that Grossman’s son was killed. Yet for Grossman to describe the circumstances of his son’s death as occurring amidst the ‘war between Israel and Lebanon’ is, quite frankly, absurd. This so-called ‘war’ is the sole product of Israel’s completely unprovoked aggression in Lebanon, which is itself a product of Israel’s completely unwarranted attempt either to exterminate, or to drive out of historical Palestine all native Palestinians.
Despite the vapidity of Grossman’s article, the reader does learn therein that he buys into the ridiculous fiction that Israel is the victim in the sundry current battles in the Middle East—rather than being the aggressor in nearly every violent confrontation since 1967 (Chomsky 1999). One sometimes hears comparisons between Israel’s current policies and those of Apartheid-ridden South Africa, or indeed National Socialist Germany. One does not have to accept that these comparisons are perfect to see the utter absurdity in the father of a Jewish soldier, killed while illegally and immorally attacking and occupying Lebanon, complaining of the fact of his son’s death, as if it is somehow unjust.
- Chomsky, Noam. Fateful Triangle: The United States, Israel, and the Palestinians. South End Press, 1999.
- Ginzburg, Natalia. Edited by Garboli, Cesare, Ginzbur, Liza, and Quirke, Louise. It’s Hard to Talk about Yourself. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003.
- Grossman, David. “Writing in the Dark.” The New York Times Magazine, May 13. (2007). Online. http://www.nytimes.com/2007/05/13/magazine/13Israel-t.html?_r=1.