A Mother's Kisses

Amos Oz's newest work is a tale of destiny - his own.

Mordechai Shalev
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Mordechai Shalev

It is indisputable that Amos Oz's "A Tale of Love and Darkness" (Keter) is blessed with tremendous sweep. It is only necessary to read it. With respect to the power of its sweep, it has few competitors in Hebrew prose and is worthy of special mention in world prose. What allowed Amos Oz this great and mature achievement was, in part, leaving aside the usual modes of the fictional story and reconnecting with the modes of the biblical story - sometimes with respect to brevity and concision, but mostly because of the seemingly almost complete blending of literature and history, literature and biography, and even literature and geography. All these fertilize one another in the framework of what is definitely the story of a destiny.

Is it necessary to prove that "A Tale of Love and Darkness," at the center of which is the boy hero in the figure of Amos Oz, is a tale of destiny? "A phenomenon! A boy who swallows here not only books but entire shelves!" Of his father, he says, a few pages later, "ever since I was little he insisted on calling me: his honor. His majesty. His highness" and much, much more.

Behind the cute irony lies of course utter seriousness, almost along the lines of "before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee; and before thou camest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee" (Jeremiah 1:5). And there was also his mother, who "in the kitchen would tell me stories of wonders and horrors and ghosts, similar perhaps to the tales that the widow Aase would tell Peer Gynt the boy on winter nights. And my father, in his way, was Jon Gynt, Peer's father, no less than my mother was Aase: Peer, you were born to greatness / Peer, you will be a great man!"

These are but a few of the many prophecies of the destiny, the encouragement but also the isolation of which "A Tale of Love and Darkness" is full. Oz remembers with great force from his childhood not only what his parents told him, or even intellectuals and writers, but also just plain heroes, such as the fighter in the War of Independence who went by the nickname of Garibaldi, no less, to show you that the child had a destiny not only in the literary realm: "Garibaldi himself gave me a pat on the neck and a sidelong glance. I am writing here the exact words he said to me: `Very good. Perhaps we will yet hear about you.' Word for word. Fifty-three years have elapsed since then. And to this day I have not forgotten."

Those who didn't forget

And it is not only Amos Oz who has not forgotten. His old friend, older than he by many years, Shimon Peres - and this, too, I am not, heaven forbid, saying ironically - has also not forgotten. Very often Shimon Peres himself (outside the book, of course, though he is also mentioned in it) has taken the trouble to remind us that it was from Amos Oz that he got some of his most brilliant policy ideas, such as the idea of giving Yasser Arafat a hand and throwing him a life-belt when he is floundering and about to drown - the idea that ultimately led to the Oslo agreement and paved Arafat's way to a Nobel Prize, the White House and Gaza.

He, Peres, even proposed appointing Oz as a government minister and on one occasion even as prime minister, which in a trice sends us straight back thousands of years to the strongest story of destiny in the entire Bible, which is also about a boy who had dreams and ideas and ultimately became a minister and a prime minister and even for real, if not more - the story of destiny that Tolstoy also thought was the best story in all of world literature.

Indeed, not only Amos Oz and Shimon Peres have not forgotten. Joseph, too, did not forget: "And Joseph remembered the dreams which he dreamed of them!" (Genesis 42:9). And even Joseph's father did not forget: "And his father observed the saying" (Genesis 37:11). Yet both Joseph's father and Oz's, despite all their differences, did not hesitate to scold their destined sons when they saw fit, for reasons of education and destiny.

And, indeed, even in the destiny story of Oz's wonderful grandfather on his mother's side, which constitutes a very important link in the author's own tale of destiny, there are direct references to the Joseph story. "The one with this princess came up from a very high mountain! Just like in that story, with Joseph the righteous in Egypt and what's her name? Mrs. Potiphar? No?" This is what is told to Oz by his mother's sister about her father, that is, his grandfather. But what are these Josephian and Potipharian analogies as compared to the implicit and repressed Josephian and Potipharian analogies that hide behind Oz's own story?

Upon reaching the beginnings of his sexual maturity - and, in fact, his first pubescent sexual experiences with himself and himself alone - his young, beautiful, anarchist and delicate mother, who was unsatisfied and did not achieve her destiny either with his father or anywhere else, and who as a mother could not but sense her son's first signs of maturation, began to pay sudden nocturnal visits to the bed of her only, special and destined son, under his blankets, in her nightgown, thereby consciously or unconsciously putting him to a Potiphar's wife test harder than Joseph's test.

Far-reaching implications

The extracts I will cite here have not, heaven forbid, been selected as a sensation or as gossip, as any reader of Hebrew has been invited by Amos Oz to read them in their entirety in his excellent best-seller. Rather, I offer them as organic parts of a first-rate story of destiny that has far-reaching implications for the situation in Israel as a whole and the Israeli elites in particular.

"She came barefoot to my room and lifted the blanket and lay down beside me in her nightgown and kissed me until I woke up. When I woke up she asked me in a whisper, into my ear, whether I agreed that we would whisper together a bit tonight?"

The son does not respond and he does nothing and he says nothing so that they do not whisper together at all and she is the only whisperer. Into his ear she whispers the legend of Pandora, the hidden moral of which that night, hidden perhaps even from her, is that her son did well not to answer her and all credit is due him for rejecting the terrible gift she is offering him - that is, herself and her flesh - that is Pandora, who is none but Fanya, and both women are beautiful and intelligent and horribly dangerous to themselves and to others. In this way, the mother warns her son against herself and saves him from her hands.

However, on a second nocturnal visit, "a bit before midnight" - she is again in his bed and under his covers. "She covered us both over our heads and embraced me from behind and whispered to me not to wake up." One time, she hugs him and kisses him until he wakes up, and one time she whispers to him not to wake up, knowing full well that he is wide awake, awake and masturbating, as he himself, who first thought that it was his father, tells us: "I was very scared and hastened to bend my knees and squeeze them together so that he would not notice what it was that had caused me not to be asleep: If he sees, I will die on the spot."

The timing between possible incest and possible masturbation - which Oz has shaped artistically and carefully - very much strengthens the terrible experience that the young man of destiny, who is confronted with a test, must face. This is an experience that in several terrible aspects, as noted, is far worse than that faced by the greatest hero of a destiny story, Joseph.

Through both her visits, if there is an element of seduction here, whether conscious or not, on the part of the lonely mother - the boy destined for greatness passes the terrible test. During these two visits, in an intentional contrast calculated in advance, both to the Greek myth and to the biblical story of the Garden of Eden, but with great congruence to the Joseph story - he does not repeat the mistake of the human race and he does not open Pandora's box or eat of the Tree of Knowledge, and in this is a kind of great cosmic amends for the primal sin; amends made in the Land of Israel and with the return of the Jewish people to it. This, too, is a huge cosmic repair, according to several sources in Judaism.

Therapeutic message

The original sin, both in the version of Pandora and the version of Eve, who is also the first woman(!), is what opened the store of terrible curses, first and foremost the curse of death, from which the human race suffers to this day, both according to Jewish civilization and according to Greek civilization. Both awaited the hero who would make amends - and here he comes! This means that the little chauvinist from Kerem Avraham is neither little nor a chauvinist, and his Jewish message and his human message are one and the same, as commanded by his great-grandfather, who had on his door the slogan "Judaism and humanism," and which Oz does not stop scorning throughout the entire book. And yet here, he secretly fulfills this philosophy from beginning to end.

The fact that the hero does not return his mother's embraces or kisses at all causes her, during her subsequent nocturnal visits, to restrain her "wooing" and to lie down only on a mattress beside his bed. Withstanding the temptation reaches its peak when after a few nights, he simply flees from her, from Pandora-Fanya-Eve and Potiphar's wife, into the other room.

This element of flight, which is heavily stressed and repeated in the story of Potiphar's wife (Genesis 39) is also expressed in "A Tale of Love and Darkness," as Oz refers to it again and again at every subsequent opportunity. This flight may be seen not only in the text but also in the painting by Pablo Picasso on the book's cover. In the context of the story, the boy in the painting is seeking refuge from his mother with his father. Look at the picture again.

Withstanding the temptation is essential but fatal. Essential - with respect to the story of the destiny, both in its Joseph version and in its Pandora version - but fatal with respect to the destiny story in its therapeutic version! Alongside conscious or unconscious elements of incest that form an integral part of astounding stories of destiny in Judaism and for other nations, the determining elements toward the end of "A Tale of Love and Darkness" are the distress signals and the cries for help that the miserable and sick mother sends out to her son on the brink of her suicide and his maturation - which are simultaneous.

The rite of passage to maturity must also be undergone by the hero of the destiny story in life itself, and not only in the synagogue. Like Joseph, the destined hero of Oz's book does withstand successfully and heroically the moral-erotic test, and the Pandoric-mythic test, but he disgracefully fails the therapeutic test. Passing this test should have been not only the rejection of his mother but also her salvation. Her suicide occurs in part because of her rejection, both the presumptive rejection by the father and the definite rejection by the son.


Here it must be made perfectly clear: By any normal human criterion this boy-hero - and, if you like, Amos Oz - comes out as clean and pure as the driven snow in his behavior with his mother. No one could have demanded of him that he do more than what he had done, or not to have failed the test of a suicide that was not known in advance and which also adults, and even psychologists and psychiatrists, fail frequently, though not always, not to mention a boy who has not yet reached his 13th year and was engaged over his head with himself in the first crises of adolescence.

Nevertheless, clandestinely, and only between the lines, Amos Oz constructs a very forceful literary-destiny accusation against himself, which in the third person may be reconstructed more or less like this: As a young and brilliant adolescent, regarding the extent of his interests and reading, education and intuition, he is more mature than many adults. His destiny is above all to guess what is about to happen, as he had already done when he had to "fulfill the role of the Delphic Python," "the court prophet," "way beyond his age!", and often with great success, as in the story of his early childhood when, for example, he announced several months before the War of Independence: "In a little while there will be a war in Jerusalem and we will defeat them all!"

However, with all due respect to his mother, and indeed on the brink of his adolescence, the boy revealed, according to Oz and quite contrary to his talents, blindness and total helplessness with respect to what was about to happen. Not only did he fail to pass the test, but he also totally ignored the possibility of the talk and the amends his young and gifted mother offered him time and again when, like most suicidal people, she looked for ways not only to commit suicide but also to prevent the suicide! Alongside her nocturnal "wooings," the mother also set in motion wooings by daylight that could have been infinitely more constructive and fruitful: "She looked so pretty and in such good taste that morning in that woolen sweater in nautical colors, in her pale skirt, her nylon stockings with the seam down the back and her high-heeled shoes that as we walked down the street strangers turned their heads to look at her. She carried her coat folded over one arm, and she twined her other arm in mine as we walked: `You will be my cavalier today.'"

All this is, naturally, said in jest, but the repeated intertwining of their arms, at her active initiative, of course - he keeps mentioning every several lines: "When we got close to downtown she again intertwined her arm in mine"; "arm in arm, we walked past the building"; "arm in arm my mother and I walked in the rain." However, when she tries to get to what is really bothering her - again he rejects her, and this time it is not a rejection that is a withstanding of temptation, but rather a rejection that is not a withstanding of the test - despite his stereotypical and repeated question "Are you all right, Mother?" from which he draws no conclusions:

"`Good,' I said. Because I wanted her to stop talking about things that did not concern me and for us to talk about other things." To the next hints she throws at him, which are a thread he could have caught to try to rescue her from her loneliness and ease her distress - he does not respond at all. "What would you think of a little brother or sister?"

The motif of fertility and the motif of pregnancy are very well connected to the motif of the rain ceaselessly falling on them without them opening the umbrella as they walk arm in arm in such great harmony, and tie up well with the next bit: "One day, when you get married and have a family, I implore you not to take my marriage with your father as a model."

Imagine, for example, that to her question about a little brother or sister, this boy, in an attempt to meet her at least halfway in her terrible condition, he had answered in great, even if feigned, excitement, and whether or not he wanted a sibling: "Yes, yes, I'd like that - go ahead - It will be good for all of us ..." - and this on the assumption that it was just one of the possibilities she had opened to him to rescue herself from the shocking emptiness in which she was living. Perhaps this emptiness is itself the result of the alienation from the natural wish of a woman for whom an only son, however brilliant, is not enough, whether because she wants a daughter or simply another child, and is afraid that this would be bad for her only and destined son, whose destiny would seem to demand that he grow up alone.

Fortune-telling son

To bring the nightmare of suicide back to its hidden source, the blocking of which is also the source of the perversion of incest - is the mission that Amos Oz unconsciously imposes on himself in "A Tale of Love and Darkness" - and he does not succeed at it. About this, he should have spoken with her and with his father in the street, in the cafe and in the restaurant to which his mother invited them that day, in an attempt to prevent her suicide. After all, ever since he was a very small child, his father and his mother had expected of him that he would be their oracle, their "court prophet," their fortune-teller and their problem-solver. And indeed the classical destined hero, Joseph, knew not only how to withstand temptation, but also how to interpret dreams and to rescue people and families as a result of these interpretations!

No wonder then that the hero with the great destiny suffers from tremendous guilt feelings, mostly unconscious, at having been completely insensitive to his mother's hints and to the possibility she had offered him to help her. Or to help others who would help her, possibilities that were not requited and even rejected.

These terrible guilt feelings toward his mother are the main cause of what happened before the subsequent wars - the Sinai Campaign and the Six-Day War. Oz internalized the image of his mother so much so that he identified with her completely, both by turning himself into a female character in "My Michael," Hannah Gonen, who is shaped very much in the image of his mother, and by almost completely identifying with the enemy, with the Arab twins Aziz and Khalil, who try to destroy her.

What then is his mother's suicide in this respect if not the continuation of the project of the enemy who tried to destroy her, who tried with all its might to commit the perfect genocide, as Oz writes explicitly in his book, on her and her family, and all of Kerem Avraham, and all of Jerusalem and all of the Jewish Land of Israel - and did not succeed?

And it was after she had come out of the terrible siege - during which everyone in her environment had crowded for months on end into the terrible stench, the noise and the thirst of her basement apartment, and after her life and the lives of her family had been saved - that she went and did to herself what the enemies had not succeeded in doing to her, and killed herself. And she killed herself nowhere else but in the room where Yigal Yadin, Yisrael Galili and others had run the War of Independence until it was won, as if she wanted to invalidate their victory, at least insofar as it depended on her. And this is exactly what she had done long before then, after she had been attacked by her own repulsive mother, for no reason at all, with terrible cruelty.

This was observed by the hidden boy, Amos Oz himself: "And my mother, who did not know that I was peeping, suddenly rose from her chair and began to punish herself, slapping herself on both cheeks and tearing her hair out and taking a hanger and beating herself on her head and her back until tears came to her eyes." And what is even more important: "And I, too - in the gap between the wall and the cupboard began to cry and to bite the palms of both my hands hard, again and again, until painful bite-clocks appeared on them." And this is exactly the way he would behave at the Takhkemoni School. After his enemies among his schoolmates beat him up and tortured him, he would beat himself and torture himself in front of them.

And is this not exactly the way a large part of the Israeli elites - not all of them, heaven forbid, and recently not even most of them - behave when after every attack on Israel, they flagellate themselves and punish themselves and do to themselves what the enemies had wanted to do to them and failed to do, to the point of suicide?

In this respect, "A Tale of Love and Darkness" should be entitled as "Suicide as a Metaphor," because there is nothing as exemplary as Amos Oz's deceased mother, beautiful and intelligent and suicidal as the result of guilt feelings, and who hated those who loved her and who identified to the bottom of her soul with her enemies, like Hannah Gonen. But this, of course, is only a very partial aspect of the subject that needs to be linked again with the beginning of our discussion in order to get to the bottom of it.



Automatic approval of subscriber comments.
From $1 for the first month

Already signed up? LOG IN


בנימין נתניהו השקת ספר

Netanyahu’s Israel Is About to Slam the Door on the Diaspora

עדי שטרן

Head of Israel’s Top Art Academy Leads a Quiet Revolution

Charles Lindbergh addressing an America First Committee rally on October 3, 1941.

Ken Burns’ Brilliant ‘The U.S. and the Holocaust’ Has Only One Problem

Skyscrapers in Ramat Gan and Tel Aviv.

Israel May Have Caught the Worst American Disease, New Research Shows

ג'אמיל דקוור

Why the Head of ACLU’s Human Rights Program Has Regrets About Emigrating From Israel


Netanyahu’s Election Win Dealt a Grievous Blow to Judaism