I am thinking of a story I heard a few years ago frommy friend Odette, a writer and a survivor of the holocaust. Along withmany others who crowd the bed of a large truck, she tells me, thesurrealist poet Robert Desnos is being taken away from the barracks ofthe concentration camp where he has been held prisoner. Leaving thebarracks, the mood is somber; everyone knows the truck is headed for thegas chambers. And when the truck arrives no one can speak at all; eventhe guards fall silent. But this silence is soon interrupted by anenergetic man, who jumps into the line and grabs one of the condemned.Improbable as it is, Odette told me, Desnos reads the man's palm.
Oh, he says, I see you have a very long lifeline. And you are going tohave three children. He is exuberant. And his excitement is contagious.First one man, then another, offers up his hand, and the prediction isfor longevity, more children, abundant joy.
As Desnos reads more palms, not only does the mood of the prisonerschange but that of the guards too. How can one explain it? Perhaps theelement of surprise has planted a shadow of doubt in their minds. If theytold themselves these deaths were inevitable, this no longer seemsinarguable. They are in any case so disoriented by this sudden change ofmood among those they are about to kill that they are unable to gothrough with the executions. So all the men, along with Desnos, arepacked back onto the truck and taken back to the barracks. Desnos hassaved his own life and the lives of others by using his imagination. Because I am seized by the same despair as my contemporaries, forseveral days this story poses a question in my mind. Can the imaginationsave us? Robert Desnos was famous for his belief in the imagination. Hebelieved it could transform society. And what a wild leap this was, atthe mouth of the gas chambers, to imagine a long life! In his mind hesimply stepped outside the world as it was created by the SS.
In the interest of realism, this story must be accompanied by another.Desnos did not survive the camps. He died of typhus a few days after theliberation. His death was one among millions, men, women, and childrenwho died despite countless creative acts of survival and the deepestlongings to live.
In considering what is possible for the future one must be careful notto slide into denial. Imagination can so easily be trapped by the wishto escape painful facts and unbearable conclusions. The New Age ideathat one can wish oneself out of any circumstance, disease, or badfortune is not only sadly disrespectful toward suffering, it is also, inthe end, dangerous if escape replaces awareness.
But there are other dangers. What is called "realism" can lead to a kindof paralysis of action and a state of mind that has relinquished desirealtogether. Especially now, when the political terrain seems sounnavigable, the impulse is toward cynicism. For months before the WorldConference of Women met in Beijing, an informal debate circulated amongwomen in the United States. Alongside the serious questions of China'sviolations of human rights, another question was posed. Why should wemeet at all? What good will it do?
What is required now is balance. In the paucity of clear promise, onemust somehow walk a tightrope, stepping lightly on a thin line drawnbetween cynicism and escape, planting the feet with awareness butpreserving all the while enough playfulness to meet fear. For those whowent to the conference in Beijing, though, something momentous occurred.In the creation of a different arena, defined in different ways by womenfrom all over the world, another possible world began to exist, if eventemporarily, and this has nurtured desire and imagination.
One might say that human societies have two boundaries. One boundary isdrawn by the requirements of the natural world and the other by thecollective imagination. The dominant philosophies of Western societieshave pitted imagination against nature. The effects of this dualism uponnature are devastatingly clear. But the effects on the human imaginationare also terrible. Dividing the mind from the body, sensuality,experience creates small and tortured thought from which frenetic,soulless, and destructive societies have been born.
In the harsh world of the concentration camp, whose regime was designedto crush both body and spirit, how was it possible for Desnos to keepthe larger possibilities of life alive in his mind? I find the thread ofan answer in the lines of one of his poems:
Having said having done
What pleases me
I go right I go left
And I love the marigold.