The Wizard of Israel: Amos Oz, Beauty, and Evil
By Samuel Hux (July 2018)
Le Gong, Jan Frans DeBoever, 1936
I seem to think a lot about (as well as of) the Israeli novelist Amos Oz. A couple of years ago, in an essay on the historical ignorance of liberal critics of Israel (“Israel and the Critics,” NER, April 2016), I found Oz’s book-length essay from 1983, In the Land of Israel. Reading this essay was profoundly instructive. Nothing I have read on the Jewish state is better. I recently saw the 2015 movie A Tale of Love and Darkness, based on his childhood memoir of 2002, starring Natalie Portman as his mother. Oz is an extraordinarily well-rewarded writer with more than thirty literary awards and counting, so he needs no recognition from me. But I want to give it nonetheless.
His more recent novels show no decline in artistry (unlike what happens to some writers, Norman Mailer for instance, whose work after The Naked and the Dead revealed a steady falling-off no matter the consistent ambition and self-regard), but I want to think about a couple of Oz’s early books, one of them especially, because I fear they might be lost to public regard, semi-forgotten, ignored given so many Ozian wonders to contemplate. And because, not incidentally, they raise some questions I spent a great deal of time contemplating over several years teaching a course in aesthetics, philosophy of art.
is their proper balance?
Should there be such a balance? George Santayana in his The Sense of Beauty drew an analogy between the two philosophic disciplines of aesthetics and ethics—the first about beauty and the second about moral behavior, arguing in his thoroughly charming way that they imply one another, are in a sense one and the same thing expressed in alternate fashion. John Keats’s “truth is beauty, beauty truth” comes to mind. As does Plato’s basic belief that only the Good is truly Beautiful.
The question is raised again for me by Oz’s Unto Death (1971), a collection of two novellas, “Crusade” and “Late Love.” Here are two more “mythic dramas” in some way close to outrageous, in which evil is treated with brooding delicacy and the good speaks with sullen awkwardness: two “mythic confrontations” with the nature of anti-Semitism, its mystery. I don’t mean mystery in the sense of “what’s the answer?” but in a rather more awesome sense: tragic, primordial, sickly sacramental . . . Truly it is hard to say—but one experiences it in the reading, especially of “Crusade,” the more masterful of the two. And one learns something of the moral force an author may achieve through the momentary suspension of just anger and through the “inappropriate” beauty and gracefulness with which evil is contemplated.
sabras, his lectures at the kibbutzim attended only by the old and powerless. The committee wants him to retire. But who then will take up his mission with equal fervor? He refuses, he lectures the reader, he dreams of Israeli tanks roaring across Europe, leveling the Nazis, driving the Russians into panic—fantastic retroactive and preventive vengeance. But it’s all impotence, as he knows—a mad quirk. He will retire; the cultural bureau will surely give him a little office where he can do a little translating, the office facing the sea—which he will scan. “I shall always be on guard . . . After all, it is only out of love that I . . .’’ Oz allows Unger to narrate his story; indeed, the narration is the story: a voice speaking its anguish. Unger whines, mocks himself: his temper is bad, his gums rotten, his breath foul. He is, inescapably, repulsive physically as he is monomaniacal mentally. Oz takes the risk that the reader will sift truth from the sick narrator, mark the monomania as response to real danger.
The narrator of “Crusade,” when you try to fix upon him, is even stranger, elusive. He occasionally seems a kind of historian: he has access to Claude’s “journal,” which he alternately quotes and paraphrases. Then he seems to have been there, one of the Christians: we rode, we rested, we feared. Then he is there but not of them: unseen, a spy, a thief of consciousness. Is he, one occasionally wonders, the undiscovered Jew? But where- and whatever he is, his tone is remarkably restrained, checked, not undone by what he describes. “They began to beat the Jew at noon. Toward evening they branded him with red-hot irons. Then they soused him in salt water . . . and crushed his testicles, as Claude had read in one of the books when he was a boy . . . As the twilight came on they put out both of his eyes, and then, he opened his mouth and asked them whether, if he showed them the place the treasure was buried, they would kill him instantly, and Claude Crookback gave his word.”
In “Crusade” a camp-follower sobs over the body of a murdered Jew (that night she will empty his peddler’s sack). Claude, “overcome with a terrible compassion,” walks with the woman, comforts her with soft words and religious sentiments. When, later, a trapped Jewess despairingly hurls her child at the encircling crusaders and rolls in the dust as if in convulsions, “Claude Crookback struggled with all his might to suppress the sobs rising in his throat. A blind, feverish urge almost forced him to fall to the ground in the dust like her and be trampled on by the soles of her feet . . . Hot tears ran down his beard as he put this she-wolf out of her misery with a short, sharp blow.”
Now, Unger is clearly ironic about “Dmitri.” But Oz treats his crusaders with only the barest irony, with as little contempt as humanly possible, consistently with something surprisingly like tenderness. The horror of the crusaders’ acts is not disguised, not even moderated. But through a remarkable discipline of the imagination Oz suppresses outrage, collapses “the Jew” into the stranger-which-is-ourselves, and, brooding over both self and stranger, orchestrates a symphony of destructive terror and suffering with—as I’ve tried to show—a kind of stunning grace.
How is one to take this? My God! Am I being asked once again to indulge the fetid tripe about sympathy for the poor-oppressor-who-is-as-victimized-as-his-victim? Isn’t there a practice of empathy which is positively evil, a sentimental travesty of moral compassion? Such impatience is understandable and justified in some cases: one’s impatience for instance with the tourist at Auschwitz, slowly raising his eyes above the scene, gaze of profound revelation, the commemorated dead all forgotten now as he swells with self-congratulation and the grandeur of his trivial compassion, muttering “Pity . . . pity the poor monster!”
For what I have called a “tenderness” in the tone is really, I think, the residue of anguish. Faced with a human insanity apparently beyond the touch of reason, outrage spends itself for a moment so that one can only speak softly. And that soft-speaking is the most painful thing about “Crusade”: mark of the author’s depth, eloquent approximation of the heart’s fatigue.
Samuel Hux is Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at York College of the City University of New York. He has published in Dissent, The New Republic, Saturday Review, Moment, Antioch Review, Commonweal, New Oxford Review, Midstream, Commentary, Modern Age, Worldview, The New Criterion and many others.
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