February 22, 2020

Amos Oz and the Politics of Hebrew

“”A few days ago I was walking in Jerusalem, and in one alley . . . I sensed, there was, the smell of wet fabrics after an ironing,” the Israeli novelist Amos Oz once said in an interview. It was “a mixture of the smells of singed cloth, and steam, and a warm dampness; and a bit of the smell of the material, and it’s also a very domestic smell. And I now need so many words to falteringly relate to you this thing, with which you would be familiar instantly.” Oz, who died in December of last year, and who was one of the most prominent writers of modern Hebrew, was preoccupied throughout his life by the limitations of language: its slipperiness, its inability to fully convey meaning. The written word, he often argued, could only ever be a low-fidelity reproduction of the fullness of being; any text was ultimately humbled by the reality that it sought to represent.

After Oz’s death, the Israeli Public Broadcasting Corporation, known as Kan, released a number of radio interviews with him from its archives. The earliest, conducted from his room in Kibbutz Hulda, in 1964, took place not long before the publication of his first book, “Where the Jackals Howl”; the last is from the months before his death. It is uncanny how much the twenty-five-year-old Oz sounds like the seventy-nine-year-old Oz: as articulate and as resolute, almost oracular, in his tone. When you listen to the interviews in sequence, your initial awe at his easy eloquence wears off a bit with the repetition, sometimes word-for-word, of some of his insights. Words, he said in 1975, and again, in 1978, are esek bish, a mess—a cluttered affair that fogs up meaning even as it tries to get it across. But the repetitions also point to his fixation, verging on obsession, with the impossibility of capturing in writing what it was that he wanted to communicate.

For Oz, stories were an attempt to impose order on a world that has none—not so different, he thought, from Paleolithic cave paintings, in which prehistoric artists stilled wild beasts, giving themselves an illusion of control over nature. Still, Oz argued, the most primal human experiences transcend words: “Humans come into the world crying, make love moaning, die sighing,” he said in the 1978 interview. “When you need to communicate these things with words, it’s hard. . . . Some things get lost. You need to trust the reader, to some extent, to produce from the words that which is beyond words.” In her essay collection “Upstream,” the poet Mary Oliver observed that “Writing is neither vibrant life nor docile artifact but a text that would put all its money on the hope of suggestion.” A bet, as Oz put it, that different people will find beauty in the same contours.”

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