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Interview  Amos Oz
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"Living in the Shadow of Death"

Amos Oz in conversation with Michael March

Amos Oz "The war is on, but here things are quiet so far (but everyone's walking around carrying a gas mask in a box). We will be staying in Arad today, so feel free to phone me at 4.30 pm (our time) today. (I think it will be 3.30 pm your time).

Best, Amos.

Fax received on Thursday, 20 March at 10.43 am.

At this moment, at the start of another war, you are at home in Israel. So where does this story begin?

One of the mistakes or errors of people who hope to win this war is the assumption that the story has a beginning and will, hopefully, have an ending. It doesn't have a beginning and will not have a happy ending, perhaps no ending at all. It is going to evolve into the next story and the next story and the next.

Rolled out like a fine Persian rug, your work contains a mosaic of conflicting definitions, deeply reminiscent of Camus' counsel: "neither victim nor executioner".

Any comparison with Camus flatters me because he has been very close to my heart since I was a teenager and sensed an immediate feeling of kinship, not just a Mediterranean kinship, but also a skeptical kinship and a humble kinship. It's never my business to write about good guys and bad guys. I write sometimes about good and evil, but never about good guys and bad guys.

Is there a political kinship between your positions?

Very much indeed. Both Camus and myself harbour great suspicions about all forms of radicalism, suspecting that any form of radicalism represents fanaticism. We both share an extreme skepticism with regard to the complexities of human nature and the inability of any individual to change radically or to be completely reborn. Hence, my fascination with Camus' caution concerning any exclamation mark.

Heraclitus claimed that the "natural state of man is war", with side bets taken along the way by Hobbes and Hemingway. Is the origin of the species war?

Human beings are dangerous creatures. By way of an awareness of their own death, they can become very dangerous. Also, there is ambition in human beings, ambition to change other people. Much of the terrible things people are doing to one another originate from the will to change the other, to save someone else's soul. To change someone, in order to improve them.

Many Jewish writers embrace the sacredness of the word as a sacred law. The book as a living memory in which to live. Is this an escape from reality or a constant for the writer?

I wouldn't call the word sacred. I've never treated any book as sacred. The only thing that I regard as sacred is life, a human life. But yes, I think that language is my real home. I'm more at home in language than in any country. In my case, it's the Hebrew language.

E.M. Cioran said that "every book is a postponed suicide". Is every war an unread book?

Every war is a failure, even if it ends in what is often described as a victory, every war is failure. This I can tell you from personal experience. I have seen it twice in my life at close range, from the battlefield in sixty-seven and in seventy-three, and I tell you the worst thing is to loose a war, but it is almost as bad to win. It's a failure either way.

Like your panther in the basement, are we "living in the shadow of death"?

We are apparently the only species, the only creatures, who know that they are going to die. This gives us a tremendous strength and also tremendous responsibility, because each time we kill someone or even impose pain on someone else, we know what we are doing. We know what pain is. We know what we do when we inflict pain on others. And therefore we are responsible for what we are doing each time we inflict pain on other people.

For Primo Levi, the writer was a voice of memory. Is the writer a voice of conscience?

I wish I could agree. Throughout history there have been writers who have lent their voices to the most terrible tyrants, to the most terrible fanatics, and to the most terrible extremists. So I wish I could simply say yes, the writers are the voice of conscience and the voice of memory. But unfortunately, they might become the voice of almost anything.

And they might believe their own voice.

Yes, and they might loose their own voice and, even worse, they might sin their voices, for dachas, prestige, recognition, and for money. So I am far from idealizing the writer as being a superior example of the human species.

Prophets are more famous through their false predictions than what they actually say. Why have you been called the prophet of modern Israel?

I've never regarded myself a as prophet. I regard myself as a meaningful citizen, active citizen, conscientious citizen, also warring citizen, but certainly not as a prophet.

Is this the onset of perpetual war?

Sometimes war is the only thing that saves your life from a murderer. Or saves your life from a robber. But war can never change other people's hearts and minds.

For the past six months we have been preparing for war. Who has prepared us and why we are in this war?

Arrogance and self-righteousness. You hear the voice of Saddam Hussein and you notice his vocabulary. This morning he said: "We will humiliate our enemies." Whereas George Bush constantly speaks about evil. In his speeches, every fifth word is evil. Now if you live in a world of good and evil, or if you live in a world where your sole purpose is to humiliate, you end up like two straight hoodlums, two drunken hoodlums. Though Bush and Hussein are not on the same level, they both represent a measure of self-righteousness and arrogance.

In the second installment of the Divine Comedy where would they be placed?

There are not enough levels in Dante's inferno. I am a great believer in the need to grade evil, to grade error, to grade misdeeds, and they are not on the same level.

Do they share any similar purposes?

Arrogance and self-righteousness. Not the same purposes, but the same vanities

Norman Mailer now shares Gore Vidal's view that the American dream has aspired to empire.

The paradox is that Saddam Hussein, along with other militant Islamists, are dreaming of nothing else. They also share the desire of creating or reviving an Islamic empire. The desire to control the world is a childish desire, a very childish desire. Every desire to control the world or to straighten others contains a certain grain of fanaticism. It's the nature of fanatics to always want to change others.

To fan the flames.

I can tell you one thing. I am a great believer in the teaspoon. I think every human being has a teaspoon. And when we see a huge fire, it's our business to fill our teaspoons with water and to throw it on the flames.

Is the Israel - Palestine conflict solely concerned with "real estate"?

Essentially there are two nations, two peoples, both claim a very small country, smaller than the Czech Republic, as their one and only home, and they both are right. There is no other country in the world which Palestinian Arabs can call home. The only country they can call home is Palestine. There is no other country in the world which Israeli Jews can call home, but Israel. And both are right, both have no other home. Unfortunately, they cannot share it like a happy family, they have to divide it, until it will be detached into a two-family unit.

In an age where stupidity has replaced ignorance, why aren't we satisfied with our fundamental pessimism?

People claim that all ideologies are dead, but this is not true. There is one prevailing ideology that seems to be at work almost everywhere: shameless egotism, or selfishness. People have always been selfish, but selfishness as an ideology, selfishness as both an economic and political system worn on lapels - this is new. And I am against it, because it is a dead end road.

As an act of betrayal?

Of course. You can only commit a betrayal if you love somebody. In this case, yourself.

You noted that "hatred continues forever. And what is the conclusion"?

I am one of those people who humbly accept that there are more questions than answers. This one I cannot answer.

© Michael March, 2003

Last modification of this page: 21st March 2003, 13:41

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