UK paperback


Unspeak from ‘the Territories’

I have just read the excellent new collection of essays by David Grossman, Writing in the Dark. The first essay is called “Books that Have Read Me” (2002, available online here), and had I known of its existence while writing Unspeak I would surely have cited the following passage:

When a country or a society ?nds itself — no matter for what reasons — in a prolonged state of incongruity between its founding values and its political circumstances, a rift can emerge between the society and its identity, between the society and its “inner voice.” The more complex and contradictory the situation becomes and the more the society has to compromise in order to contain all its disparities, the more it creates a different system for itself, an ad hoc system of norms, of “emergency values,” keeping double books of its identity.

I am not saying anything new here. Those who live in such a reality, as we do in Israel, will ?nd it easy to understand how fears consolidate ideals around themselves, how needs become values, and how a subjective world-view and a self-image that is wholly unsuited to reality can materialize. A special kind of language then begins to emerge, one that is usually a manipulation on the part of those who wish to prolong the distorted situation. It is a language of words intended not to describe reality but to obfuscate it, to allay it. It depicts a reality that does not exist, an imaginary state constructed by wishful thinking, while large and complex elements of the actual reality remain wordless, in the hope that they will somehow fade away and vanish. In such conditions one of our most dubious talents arises: the talent for passivity, for self-erasure, for reducing the inner surface of our soul lest it get hurt. In other words, the talent for being a victim. […]

[In 1987] I was working as a newscaster on the Kol Israel radio news. I was given dozens, if not hundreds, of items to read that sounded something like this: “A local youth was killed during disturbances in the Territories.” Notice the shrewdness of the sentence: “disturbances” — as if there were some order or normative state in the Territories that was brie?y disturbed; “in the Territories” — we would never expressly say “the Occupied Territories”; “youth” — this youth might have been a three-year-old boy, and of course he never had a name; “local” — so as not to say “Palestinian,” which would imply someone with a clear national identity; and above all, note the verb “was killed” — no one killed him. It would have been almost intolerable to admit that our hands spilled this blood, and so he “was killed.” (Sometimes the passive voice is the last refuge of the patriot.)

  1. 1  Paul C  December 4, 2008, 11:05 pm 

    I am not ashamed to say that I have a major literary crush on Grossman. In a Hemingwayesque manly manner, of course.

    However it’s been brought to my attention that the cover of the book has been ripped off from Nigel Warburton’s “The Basics of Essay Writing”.

    Life gives with one hand and takes away with the other, even when it comes to essay collections.

  2. 2  Steven  December 4, 2008, 11:14 pm 

    I think it’s a bit petulant of Warburton to give Grossman’s book a one-star review on Amazon for that reason, though. (There is a credit on Warburton’s inside flap that reads “Jacket photograph: © Corbis”, so it just looks like they chose that stock photo without realising someone else had already used it for a cover.)

  3. 3  Paul C  December 4, 2008, 11:17 pm 

    Well I kind of agree (and left a comment to that effect) but he gets a pass because I enjoy the Philosophy Bites series. I assume that I’ll be giving Grossman 5 stars once I’ve read the book.

  4. 4  abb1  December 5, 2008, 9:41 pm 

    There is no incongruity. Founding values of an ethnicity-based state are perfectly consistent with the political circumstances. The values drive the politics and the language is obfuscating both, trying to reconcile them with modern laws of humanity and dictates of public conscience.

  5. 5  abb1  December 5, 2008, 10:12 pm 

    Interesting, though, as I reread this quote it does seem to be excellently written indeed, with a Nabokovian twist. Deriding that dubious “talent for being a victim” – while simultaneously posing as victim of these sad circumstances the “society ?nds itself” in (not the society’s fault, obviously).

  6. 6  geoff  December 6, 2008, 7:35 am 

    I’ve stuck it on my wish list a Amazon. Incidentally over here CA and US there’s no change for a cover controversy:

  7. 7  capella  December 10, 2008, 2:20 am 

    “When a country or a society ?nds itself — no matter for what reasons — in a prolonged state of incongruity between its founding values and its political circumstances, a rift can emerge between the society and its identity, between the society and its ‘inner voice’.”
    At first, I thought he was referring to the USA. The present rift between its founding values and current reality is enormous. The USA and Israel obviously share an identity problem – maybe it’s the contradiction between the founding values and the plight of the original inhabitants who have been disenfranchised.

  8. 8  Guano  December 10, 2008, 3:16 pm 

    The South African media in the 80s had a lot of this kind of thing. “Our boys on the border” meant the army, which was not on the border: it was inside Angola two borders north of South Africa.

  9. 9  richard  December 10, 2008, 4:43 pm 

    the original inhabitants who have been disenfranchised

    It’s just that in the US there are waves and waves of these original inhabitants – Native Americans hardly figure in political discourse, but Solid Churchgoing Midwesterners (TM) are quite capable of feeling disenfranchised, and so is every other group you can name. Everyone feels like they embody the original spirit of America and that the country has turned away from them.

    I worry, though, about the essentialism of arguments that appeal to a society’s “inner voice,” as though that were unitary. Both the US and Israel are countries of immigrants, with multiple interests and hangups. I don’t think it should be a surprise that the project of nationalism has some problems in each.

  10. 10  abb1  December 10, 2008, 8:18 pm 

    The present rift between its founding values and current reality is enormous.

    I don’t detect any such rift in America either. The main American founding value is freedom to pursue your personal interests, and I think it’s still there, compare to other places. Probably still one of the best countries to open a business, to compete, to expand – to prosper, if that’s what you want. And if the result is not always pretty, that’s not because the values have been betrayed somehow; on the contrary, it’s a logical result of implementing them.

  11. 11  meatwork  January 14, 2009, 10:37 pm 

    FTR, cover image is 42-16665571 at It’s royalty free, [Ah, royalty-free! We dream of that, here in the landownunder]which means that neither author (nor their publishers) has exclusive rights to the image and Warburton is completely out of line. On top of this, Grossman as the author would have had next to no input into the cover design, as Warburton well knows.

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