What does freedom mean to a person who is not free? What is the meaning of life in this situation? Editor Rami Saari looks at these questions in this piece, written for PIW, on Dvora Amir’s poem ‘How Many Windows Does a Person Need’
The answer to the question “How many?” is usually much simpler than the answer to the question “Why?” (In Hebrew, these questions, “kama?” and “lama?” respectively, look like twin sisters, and only the colors of the ribbons in their hair are different, for they bear the identical, rhyming syllable ‘ma’, the heart of the question, itself meaning “what?”). The answer to the question “Why?” is almost always different from what we know when we ask. In contrast, the answer to the question “How many?” requires the ability to think and calculate mathematically. That is, in order to answer the question “How many?” it is enough to be technically inclined. But in Dvora Amir’s poetry, “Why” is always included in “How many?” and it is clear that mathematical knowledge alone will not suffice to answer a question like “how many windows does a person need to open himself?”
Dvora Amir’s question at the opening of the poem relates to the essence of freedom and to its relativity as well as to the significance of life without it. The poet alludes to literary and biblical figures in order to give concrete form to the condition of imprisonment within a small space in the most desperate circumstances; Captain Nemo in a submarine and the prophet Jonah in the belly of the whale are each prisoner of a watery jail, but they are also captives of the circumstances of their lives. Amir’s poem reminds me, surprisingly, of a third figure of our universal reality, a contemporary figure and not one from literature: Saddam Hussein, who emerged from a horrible childhood to life in luxurious palaces, who was responsible for the murder of many people and in the end finished his political career not “among various creatures of the sea,” but definitely “in a trap”.
Amir’s poetry reminds us too that life continues even under nearly impossible conditions, and maintains importance even then. The meaning of life is life itself. Knowing it may not be consoling, as the Polish poet Ewa Lipska wrote in an excellent poem from 1978 which opens with these shocking words: “The flood didn’t save me,/ even though I lay on the ground” and ending in a sober, unexpected way:
The end of the world didn’t save me
because it didn’t have time.
Nothing saved me.
I AM ALIVE.
Although there isn’t always an answer to the question “Why?”, it is clear that people want to know what they are living for. The answer may seem insufficient, but we live simply in order to do so. How many windows does a person need to open himself? There is a well-known answer to this question, in a song that also asks “How many?” –
The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind, the answer is blowing in the wind.