--The following are fragments from Paulina Reiter's interview with Amos Oz which appeared in the Polish weekly “Wysokie Obcasy”.
Paulina Reiter: In A Tale of Love and Darkness you describe how your father explained the meanings of words to you. Could you do the same for me and explain what love is?
Amos Oz: Love is not as sweet as it appears when we are young. Love combines extreme sacrifice with extreme egoism. The urges to sacrifice oneself for and to possess one’s beloved are contained simultaneously within us- -to dominate and be dominated.
We always pay for love with part of our freedom. I was prepared to pay this price, because I was never crazy about my own freedom, but at the same time, I tried not to be a zealot about love.
What about the word, “love” in Hebrew. Doesn’t it contain the word “to give”?
Of course, the Hebrew word, ahav -- which is the root of the word ahava, or “love” -- means “to give.” But is love simply giving? I am not so sure. I can certainly say that the highest level of sexuality that I have experienced is the kind of sex in which giving is taking, and taking is giving. It is extremely rare and has nothing to do with what we recognize as a market exchange. Instead, it builds on the feeling that giving pleasure is an enormous pleasure in and of itself.
Can you tell me the story of your relationship?
Well, maybe part of it. I arrived at Kibbutz Hulda from Jerusalem when I was fourteen years old -- a city boy, slim, pale, short, not too attractive, very introverted, insanely timid, and completely shy when it came to girls. I had had a puritanical upbringing and attended a religious boys’ school. Girls were like aliens to me.
But we had so much in common with these aliens! We were around 13, or 14 years old, and raging with hormones. We were mean to the girls because they had a treasure that we desired, but they didn’t want to share it with us. “They are cruel, and heartless,” we thought.“Why are they so stingy?”
Of course, we didn’t think at all about the fact that those few who did share their treasure with the boys were immediately called the worst names, and excluded from the world, marriage, and friendship. We didn’t realize that we put these girls in an impossible situation. If they didn’t give up their treasure, they were monsters, but if they did share it, they were still monsters.
Nily was the prettiest girl in our class. She was surrounded by a circle of admirers, suitors, and friends. She laughed, joked, danced, sang -- all of this dazzled me like the sun. But we don’t dare look at the sun, let alone fantasize about traveling to it.
So, in the first few years on the kibbutz, I sometimes shared my poems with Nily. I wrote meager sentimental verses. I wanted to see if they entertained her, and, sometimes, it worked. I treated these verses gifts laid before a goddess. I didn’t show them to anyone else, and rarely did we even talk to each other. She was generous, so from time to time she addressed a few words to me, or gave me a smile. She had a very democratic attitude, and approached everyone that way, not just me. I did not feel exceptional. Today she says that I was, but I still don’t believe her.
For me, this was a revelation. I never suspected that Nily could like someone like me. Today I know that she was attracted to the fact that I was different from all the others, like a creature from another planet. I was her alien.
How did you evolve from sometimes talking to touching?
At that time I was attracted to almost all women, regardless of their age. It was a time of fire, and turmoil, but I was afraid of women. I was never afraid of Nily, however. She was remote, and unapproachable, but never frightening. A rather long time passed before I understood that I was not afraid of her because she gave me a certain sense of safety. And this sense of safety was the basis of the self-confidence that grew in us, and gave way to a form of permissiveness: “Yes, of course, you can touch.”
Hannah writes in the first lines of your book, My Michael: “I am writing this because when I was young I was full of the power of loving, and now that power of loving is dying. I don’t want to die.”*
I am not sure how well I remember the opening of this novel. Fifty years have passed since I wrote it. I was a little more than twenty years old then, and I was positive that I knew everything about women, so I wrote a book from the perspective of a woman. Today, I don’t know that I would be so bold.
Hannah establishes a certain opposition between love and death. I know that people who have never loved and who don’t love anyone, are half dead. They may become luminaries, find success in their fields, grow rich and famous, or prosper sexually, but they will be half dead.
Another thing is the loss of this power of loving.
The universal principle that rules the world is erosion. Everything succumbs to it - - objects, plants, our bodies. Emotion succumbs equally to erosion if it is not ready to be engaged at all times. You have to constantly feed the flame.
Hannah does not realize that it is necessary to add oil to the flame to keep the fire from burning out.
What does this require, this daily investment?
Attention. Curiosity. The skill of listening. You know, that’s a rare thing. People don’t listen, especially men.
If my wife has a new shawl, I acknowledge it. Some say that this is childish, inessential, who cares—new shawl, old shawl? Maybe these are little things, but they have great meaning.
It is one thing to fall to one’s knees and declare, “I love you, and I always will love you.” It is genuinely harder to make this daily investment of attention.
As I understand from what you’ve said, it’s not enough to be interested. There also needs to be a fascinating person on the receiving end. I believe you’ve said that Nily is a beautiful continent to explore.
Yes. I am lucky that Nily is full of surprises. Even today she manages to shock me. She suddenly becomes sad, when I completely didn’t expect that something would make her sad; happy at a moment when it seems to me that there is no reason for it. She becomes excited about something that I didn’t notice, that may arouse her, and suddenly bored with something that I thought would interest her.
That voyage across an unknown continent continues, and I still don’t know every corner of this land, and I hope it will be that way until the end.
How does love change over time?
It changes when children come. The birth of a child changes everything. In the first place, if you are a father, you may feel hurt. It’s irritating when you had all the attention for yourself, and suddenly must share it with some other screaming person. So an element of jealousy appears because, as I said earlier, love has its own element of possessiveness. But with time, a child becomes more familiar, and you discover that this entity is not really foreign. It is part you and part your spouse. And suddenly your curiosity turns toward him, asking “what is this little creature?” And you have another continent to explore. This time, you do it together. So all at once, Nily and I, together, travelled hand and hand across another continent.
I often read in interviews with psychologists, that desire must die in a relationship, and that this is a very difficult moment.
I’ve read about that. Maybe it is true statistically, but I am not interested in statistics. I’m not very interested in psychology or sociology.
Instead, I am interested in various forms of being unhappy, including erotic misfortune. Very often this misfortune is connected with a lack of imagination, unrealistic expectations, childish ideas, or the attempt to break some kind of record. These are the great enemies of family life and human sexuality.
In love, one encounters the generosity and curiosity of another person, and many elements that I won’t try to name.
(Nily Oz walks into the room)
We were just talking about love.
NILY: People often ask us how we’ve managed to stay together so long. Our marriage -- it was clear from the very beginning -- has been a great success. We cared for each other very much.
Amos and I have an agreement. When we were children, before we met, Israel’s War of Independence was happening. Amos was in Jerusalem and suffered terribly from hunger. I lived in the kibbutz, where there was food, but no money for clothing or heat. I suffered so much from the freezing cold that I remember it even today. So, when we got married, I said, “Amos, from this day forward, I promise you that you will never be hungry, and you promise me that I will never freeze.”
AMOS: And in truth it happened, that Nily is hungry, and I am freezing…
NILY: No, no, no! Amos, don’t joke around.
AMOS: And there is one more thing that I promised you, to convince you to marry me - - the deciding factor, in my opinion. You tell her.
NILY: Amos promised that there would never be a day when I wouldn’t laugh.
Amos Oz is Israel’s most widely read writer, essayist, and columnist. He began writing at Kibbutz Hulda where he met his future wife, Nily. His novels include My Michael, To Know a Woman, Judas, and the autobiographical Tale of Love and Darkness. In November 2018, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt is publishing his collection of essays, Dear Zealots: Letters from a Divided Land, translated by Jessica Cohen.
*My Michael by Amos Oz translated from the Hebrew by Nicholas de Lange in collaboration with the author (New York: Knopf, 1972).
--translated from the Polish by David Goldfarb