2016-06-30
Even in the grimmest of circumstances, a shift in perspective can create startling change.

I am thinking of a story I heard a few years ago from my friend Odette, a writer and a survivor of the holocaust. Along with many others who crowd the bed of a large truck, she tells me, the surrealist poet Robert Desnos is being taken away from the barracks of the concentration camp where he has been held prisoner. Leaving the barracks, the mood is somber; everyone knows the truck is headed for the gas chambers. And when the truck arrives no one can speak at all; even the guards fall silent. But this silence is soon interrupted by an energetic 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 to have three children. He is exuberant. And his excitement is contagious. First one man, then another, offers up his hand, and the prediction is for longevity, more children, abundant joy.

As Desnos reads more palms, not only does the mood of the prisoners change but that of the guards too. How can one explain it? Perhaps the element of surprise has planted a shadow of doubt in their minds. If they told themselves these deaths were inevitable, this no longer seems inarguable. They are in any case so disoriented by this sudden change of mood among those they are about to kill that they are unable to go through with the executions. So all the men, along with Desnos, are packed back onto the truck and taken back to the barracks. Desnos has saved his own life and the lives of others by using his imagination. Because I am seized by the same despair as my contemporaries, for several days this story poses a question in my mind. Can the imagination save us? Robert Desnos was famous for his belief in the imagination. He believed it could transform society. And what a wild leap this was, at the mouth of the gas chambers, to imagine a long life! In his mind he simply 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 the liberation. His death was one among millions, men, women, and children who died despite countless creative acts of survival and the deepest longings to live.

In considering what is possible for the future one must be careful not to slide into denial. Imagination can so easily be trapped by the wish to escape painful facts and unbearable conclusions. The New Age idea that one can wish oneself out of any circumstance, disease, or bad fortune is not only sadly disrespectful toward suffering, it is also, in the end, dangerous if escape replaces awareness.

But there are other dangers. What is called "realism" can lead to a kind of paralysis of action and a state of mind that has relinquished desire altogether. Especially now, when the political terrain seems so unnavigable, the impulse is toward cynicism. For months before the World Conference of Women met in Beijing, an informal debate circulated among women in the United States. Alongside the serious questions of China's violations of human rights, another question was posed. Why should we meet at all? What good will it do?

What is required now is balance. In the paucity of clear promise, one must somehow walk a tightrope, stepping lightly on a thin line drawn between cynicism and escape, planting the feet with awareness but preserving all the while enough playfulness to meet fear. For those who went to the conference in Beijing, though, something momentous occurred. In the creation of a different arena, defined in different ways by women from all over the world, another possible world began to exist, if even temporarily, and this has nurtured desire and imagination.

One might say that human societies have two boundaries. One boundary is drawn by the requirements of the natural world and the other by the collective imagination. The dominant philosophies of Western societies have pitted imagination against nature. The effects of this dualism upon nature are devastatingly clear. But the effects on the human imagination are 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 designed to crush both body and spirit, how was it possible for Desnos to keep the larger possibilities of life alive in his mind? I find the thread of an 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.

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