at the Present Time
from Under This Blazing Light
(Adapted from a 1974 publication)
No, I do not believe there is any such thing as a “kibbutz literature.” There are poems and books that have a kibbutz setting, and there are poets and writers who live in a kibbutz, but the kibbutz has not inspired any “mutation” of Hebrew literature.
For myself, I am better off, for various reasons, living in a kibbutz than I could be elsewhere, even if kibbutz life exacts its price from me.
If I lived in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv, it is very doubtful whether I would manage to elude the grip of the “literary world,” in which writers and academics and critics and poets sit around discussing each other.
Not that this phenomenon is without a certain attraction, it is just that life (as they say) is too short, and if you shut yourself away in “literary circles” you miss something.
People sometimes ask me, both here in Israel and abroad, if Hulda isn’t too small for me, and so on. They quiz me about parochial atmosphere, et cetera. They wonder how I cope with wanderlust and the urge for adventure that they imagine writers feel more keenly than other people. But the urge does not necessarily put on its traveling clothes; it can be satisfied by local gossip, by peering obliquely at the lives of different people.
Here I know a very large number of people, about three hundred. I know them at close range, in the way that you can know someone after twenty years in the same place. I can see genetics at work: fathers and sons, uncles and cousins, combinations of chromosomes and the vagaries of fate. If I lived in London, Tel Aviv, Paris, I could never get to know three hundred people so intimately. Not the “literary milieu,” not intellectual or academic or artistic circles, but different people: women, men, old folk, toddlers.
Of course I am not forgetting the price. The price is that a lot of different people also know me, perhaps rather better than I could wish.
However, I limit this nuisance by means of a number of stratagems (not too clever or improper) that I shall not go into here. (Or anywhere else, for that matter.)
I look around and I see a social system that, for all its disadvantages, is the least bad, the least unkind, that I have seen anywhere. And I have seen a few, because I was born and grew up in Jerusalem, in different surroundings from those of the kibbutz people, and I have spent several periods of time in other places. The kibbutz is the only attempt in modern times to separate labor from material reward, and this attempt is, in Martin Buber’s phrase, “an exemplary non-failure.” In my opinion this is an accurate definition. The kibbutz is the only attempt to establish a collective society, without compulsion, without repression, and without bloodshed or brainwashing. It is also, in retrospect, a unique attempt, for better or for worse, to reconstruct or revive the extended family?—?that clan where brothers and nephews, grandmothers and aunts, in-laws, distant relations, relations of relations, all live close together?—?the loss of which may turn out to be the greatest loss in modern life. It is a phenomenon that carries its own price tag: suffocation, inquisitiveness, depression, petty jealousies, the various pressures of convention, and so forth. But at times of great personal distress, at times of bereavement, illness, or old age, loneliness in the kibbutz turns out to be less harsh than the loneliness of big cities, where you are surrounded by crowds of strangers, where your actions and feelings have no worth and your joys have no meaning and sometimes even your life and death leave no trace.
In a kibbutz, when you are hurt the whole community reacts like a single organism. It is hurt with you. When you hurt someone else, the whole kibbutz can feel hurt. Of course, within this intimacy bad characteristics also thrive, whether in disguise or out in the open: self-righteousness, insensitivity, enviousness, jealousy, and narrow-mindedness. And yet, they are all part of you and you are part of the kibbutz. Flesh of its flesh. And this is all before we have even begun to talk about values, principles, beliefs, everything that I believe in and that the kibbutz offers a certain chance of achieving.
It is a good thing that the kibbutz did not have a founding father, a prophet or bearded guru who could be made into a wall poster or whose teaching could be blindly quoted. And it is a good thing that there has never been any sacred text that the kibbutz has had to live by. If the kibbutz had had a founding prophet, or a law code like the Shulhan Arukh, then it would surely not have survived beyond a single generation. Because the human condition in its continuity and its perversity is complex enough to shatter any scheme and to confound any “systematic” system.
The secret of the survival of the kibbutz into a second and third and now a fourth generation, as against the collapse of all modern communes by the end of the first generation if not sooner, lies in its secret adaptability. I say “secret adaptability,” because the kibbutz likes to pretend that it is not adaptable but consistent, and that all the changes are nothing but legitimate interpretations of rigid fundamental principles. Which is true and at the same time false. It is true that there are some fundamental principles, or, it would be more accurate to say, “fundamental feelings,” that are absolutely nonnegotiable. But there is a growing realistic recognition, especially in recent years, that not everything can be explained, that the world is not composed of pairs of problems and solutions that social order can join together in appropriate couples like a matchmaker. There are more problems in the world than solutions. I must stress that I do not mean that there are many unsolved problems at the moment, but that in the nature of things there are more problems in the world than solutions. Conflict, generally speaking, is not resolved, it gradually subsides, or it doesn’t, and you live with it, and the flesh that has been pierced by a painful splinter grows back over it and covers it up. This truth the kibbutz has begun to learn in recent years. It is becoming less fanatical, less dogmatic, it is a society that is learning the wisdom, indulgence, and patience of age. It is not that I am untroubled or happy at the sight of such developments?—?I am simply pleased to see how the kibbutz has learned to react calmly, patiently, almost shrewdly, to exceptions and oddities, to changing times and tastes, as if it has whispered to itself: “So be it for the time being; now let’s wait and see.”
If I had to choose between kibbutz life as it was in the twenties, thirties, and forties and as it is now I would choose the present. Indeed, I would run for my life from the spirit of those days, despite all the much debated “erosion” and “decline.” Not because of the material comfort (which has blessed psychological and social consequences, apart from the well-known damage that resulted from it), but particularly on account of the increased wisdom and tolerance. Some of the veterans have been sounding alarm bells for years and decades about imminent collapse, whereas I sense in fact a certain increase of self-confidence and inner strength from which come the tolerance and indulgence and also, not least, the ability to laugh at oneself.