|PR 2/ 2002 VOLUME LXIX NUMBER 2|
Cynthia Ozick, Aesthete
In roughly the same way that a playful Benjamin Franklin signed himself "Benjamin Franklin, Printer" and William Faulkner tried to put off his overly solemn critics by dubbing himself "William Faulkner, Farmer," I mean to talk about Cynthia Ozick as "Aesthete." I do this largely because many of Ozicks critics have done her work a considerable disservice by so emphasizing her Jewishness that she often comes off as a rabbi without seminary portfolio, or, worse, by regarding her fiction as little more than an extension of her literary essays. In their defense, this is hardly the first case in which an authors pronouncements are regarded as a road map to interpretation. Henry Jamess "Prefaces," James Joyces schema for Ulysses, and Malcolm Lowrys similar effort for Under the Volcano spring to mind as documents that are ignored at a critics peril, as are the interviews that many contemporary writers grant to journals such as The Paris Review.
In Ozicks case, the liabilities are compounded because she writes about fictionhers as well as that of otherswith such passionate eloquence and deep understanding that a paraphrase here, an extended citation there, makes good critical sense. The rub is that everything that makes fiction . . . well, fiction often gets lost in the process. At their clumsiest, Ozicks critics reduce her fictions to a set of attitudes and orthodoxies, but even when they are more skillful, Ozicks playful, richly textured imagination ends up sounding more formulaic than it is.
By emphasizing Ozicks aestheticism, I have in mind aspects of the modernist tradition, with all the ambivalence and ambiguity that surrounds writers such as Henry James, T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and D. H. Lawrence. Of this large grouping of disparate temperaments, Ozicks high regard for James and Eliot is well known. That there is at least as much repulsion as attraction to these literary giants has not always been included in the stories critics tell about "influence."
What follows, then, are a series of glimpses into Ozicks fiction that concentrate on structure; the shape-and-ring of its well-crafted sentences; the ways that complexity inextricably leads to qualified, often ironic, closures; and, perhaps most of all, the insistence that stories occupy a realm quite different from life. Far too much of contemporary literary criticism operates on very different principles, ones more interested in the litmus tests of race, class, gender, and sexual choice than on the actual story before ones eyes. Thus, a good story confirms preconceptions while a bad one is filled with unpleasant surprises. This is to grab hold of the wrong end of the stick, for what fiction of any consequence does is, first, surprise, and then convince. Granted, this preoccupation is hardly limited to academic critics who seem unable to write a paragraph that does not include terms such as "hegemonic" (nearly always as a modifier for "conspiracy"), "patriarchal," and "privileged"; common readers often suffer from the same sense of specific expectations unfulfilled.
Here, an anecdote attributed to I. B. Singer may be instructive. Somewhere in the mid-1970s, when Singeramazingly, improbablyregularly published his stories in the pages of The New Yorker and was much in demand on the lecture circuit, a Yiddish club in Brooklyn invited him to read one of his stories. "Invited" is probably the wrong word, not only because they lacked the wherewithal to pay him, but also because no heartstring went unpulled. As Singer tells it, the groups president began his pitch this way: "By us, you can read your story in Yiddishto lantzmen [technically, Jews who grew up in the same East European shtetl] who understand. Not like those university types who laugh at the wrong places and make fun of your accent behind your back." "What could I do?" Singer said ruefully. "These are old people"as if he, then in his seventies, was not.
So he took a cab to Brooklyn (paying the fare himself), and arrived to find eight Yiddishists occupying the presidents living room. No doubt the turnout was disappointing, but Singer read a story nonetheless. When he finished, the same president who had been so solicitous abruptly changed his colors: "This is not a good story. This is a shmutzidke [dirty] story, I spit on your story." And that is precisely what he proceeded to do, on the rug beneath Singers feet. A second person was also outraged, but this time because Singers story was not, in his words, "a Zionist story." He also spat, as did each of the others in turn. For some, the story deserved (and received) a spit because it was not "kosher" or because it was not historically accurate or because its Yiddish was not "refined" enough. "Imagine," Singer remarked, "eight people and nine spits!"this because one member spat twice: once because the story was not Orthodox and then because it was a shonda (shame) for the goyim.
To his credit, Singer wasnt rattled. "It cost me thirty dollars in taxi fare to get here," he told them, "and it will also cost me thirty dollars to get home. A clear loss of sixty dollars." (This from a notorious penny-pincher.) "I am now going to give your treasurer forty dollars so that he can run out and buy notepads and ballpoint pens for each of you. Go home and write a story. Then, at your next meeting, youll hear exactly the stories you want. Dont call me." When I relate the anecdote to professional critics who pride themselves, above all else, on their sophistication, they laughwithout quite realizing that they are often as narrow-minded as the folks Singer encountered in Brooklyn. My point is as simple as it is crucial: preconceptions of any sort are the enemies of an engaged reading, and of art. In Ozicks case, she has been spared the ignominy of spits (although one of her novels was the object of an ugly lawsuit), but not the peculiar adulation that talks about an Ozick story in one breath and her "theology" in another. Granted, Ozick has brought much of this grief onto herself, because she has hardly been shy about publishing manifestoeson behalf of "New Yiddish" or liturgical fiction. These essays constitute a paper trail of some importance. The rub is that Ozick has a nasty habit of changing her mind or, put more charitably, of moving into some new imaginative territory just at the point when her critics like to feel that they have a handle on the elements that make her, and her stories, tick.
What remains constant, however, is the artfulness of her art. Whatever else fiction might be, it is not life, even when, at its most accomplished, it provides the illusion of life. Put a slightly different way, serious fiction happens when the real is transmogrified into the Real. How this happens is a question neither writers nor their critics can answer with anything like precision; but at its vital center is surely the imaginationungendered, classless, and willfully ignorant of everything that makes for op-ed opinions rather than stories. Ozicks best fiction strikes us as a case of the imagination freed from the voices, even the Commandments, that govern her life as wife, mother, citizen, defender of Israel, and cultural conservative. In the world her imagination creates, aesthetic principles dictate the endless array of choices a writer must make to end up with characters who are credible and stories that are satisfying.
Still, worries about the interpenetrations of Art and Life continue, especially for those, like Ozick, who cut their teeth on literary modernism. As a New York University undergraduate, Ozick avidly read Partisan Review and dreamed of the day when she, too, might be counted among its contributors. Odd as this sounds now, at a time when the best literature majors yearn to write film scripts or TV sitcoms, it was a fairly widespread phenomenon during the heyday of literary seriousness. To know about Lionel Trilling and Irving Howe, Delmore Schwartz and Philip Rahv, Harold Rosenberg and Clement Greenberg was to feel oneself part of an important cosmopolitan club. Everything that smacked of the parochialwhether it be the restrictions of normative Judaism or the suffocating mundaneness of middle-class Jewish lifewas gleefully chucked for worlds at once more serious, more demanding, and, not least of all, more attractive.
In retrospect, the ethos that once swirled around the Partisan Review crowd turned problematic. Take, for example, the curious alliance between anti-Stalinism and modernist experimentation that defined Partisan Reviews original mission. The case of the late Irving Howe is representative. A committed Trotskyist, he embraced the journals independence from a Communist Party line, just as he felt that modernism represented yet another version of radicalism. The rub came when a sense of common cause no longer seemed as trouble-free as it once was. With the notable exception of James Joyce, most of the high modernist writers one rightly admired for their aestheticsT. S. Eliot, William Butler Yeats, and (most notoriously) Ezra Poundwere drifting steadily, or speeding full bore, toward the hard Right. The same Irving Howe who was extraordinarily sensitive to literary textures was also quite emphatic about the socio-political consequences of art. Thus, when he was asked what he would do if he were a judge for a literary prize (as indeed he sometimes was) and discovered that one of the candidatesand an especially strong one to bootwas a Nazi, he shot back, as only Howe could, "Id throw the book across the room!"
On the other hand, when the same proposition was put to I. B. Singer, he was equally insistentalbeit on the opposite side of the coin: "If this novel turned out to be the best submission, I would vote for it." Given the fractiousness of Yiddish culturesomething that Singer knew with an intimacy that Howe, for all his effort, did notthe remark is less startling than it might seem at first glance. After all, not only had Yiddishists long regarded Singer much less favorably than did his American critics, but there was also a sensenow largely confirmed in the English translation of Shadows on the Hudsonthat he was never entirely comfortable with his public image as the genial grandfather who was, at one and the same time, a chronicler of the preWorld War II shtetl and a man on a first-name basis with dybbuks, demons, and the sexually obsessed. "I would not have been a different writer," Singer often insisted, "if had I been born in Japan." This is because the questions that most mattered to him were as old as the hills on which they were first posed: Why were we born and why must we die? How can God allow us to suffer? And perhaps most important of all, why is humankind often so barbarous, so bloodthirsty?
Art, rather than philosophy and certainly rather than politics, was the best way to explore such riddles, but only if Singer believed himself in the grip of a story only he could tell. In very different ways, Ozick also feels that essential grip, even as she also knows the matter is infinitely more complicated than it probably was for Singer. One wonders which side Ozick might take on the hypothetical question that so separated Howe from Singer. It is easy to imagine her sharing Howes moral stance, just as it is equally easy to imagine her siding with Singer. Or she might simply duck the issue altogether, claiming that hypotheticals, like parlor games, dont interest her.
In 1948, however, there was nothing hypothetical about Pounds nomination for that years Bollingen Prize. Not surprisingly, the New Critic Allen Tate made an eloquent case for poetic accomplishment as the prizes sole criterion while another committee member, Karl Shapiro, fairly boiled with indignation. To reward a fascist sympathizer/traitorand a vicious anti-Semite in the bargainwas more than Shapiro could bear, especially since the very poems that Tate so admired contained a heavy share of Jew baiting. Howe sided with Shapiro, arguing that the wounds of the Holocaust were too raw, too heart cracking, for him to read Pounds anti-Semitic ravings with the disinterest that modernist writer-critics regarded as a badge of honor. Tate responded to the flap by feeling that his honor had been besmirched, and that chivalry demanded that he act. In George Steiners memoir, Errata, he tells of being summoned to Tates apartment and then being asked what the Jewish position on dueling might bethis because Tate was planning to challenge Shapiro to pistols at forty paces.
The conflict between literature and politics still abides, albeit without the clear prose that once characterized literary debate. In this regard, Ozicks essays are an important counterexample, a way of demonstrating that passion need not express itself in heavy-water theory or pretentiousness. But it is her fiction that is at issue here, and three examples are particularly revealing where her practical choices and aesthetic sensibility are concerned. The passages Ive chosen cover a relatively early story ("Envy; or, Yiddish in America," 1969), a novel from what might be called her middle period (The Cannibal Galaxy, 1983), and The Puttermesser Papers (1997), a recent work that cobbles a number of free-standing stories about protagonist Ruth Puttermesser into the look and feel of a novel.
I begin with "Envy; or, Yiddish in America," a story that has lived a controversial life long after its appearance in the pages of Commentary and then between the hard covers of The Pagan Rabbi and Other Stories (1969). Understandably, many critics could not help but feel that the story, poised as it was between eulogies and celebrations about Yiddish, was, at bottom, something of a roman à clef. After all, Yankel Ostrover, the fabulously successfuland much celebratedYiddish storyteller, is clearly based on the public facts of I. B. Singers carefully cultivated persona. And as for Hershele Edelshtein, Ostrovers unrelenting critic, hadnt Ozick based him on Jacob Glatstein, the great Yiddish poet who made no secret of how incompetent and uncharacteristic he thought Singers Yiddish stories were?
Mrs. Glatstein shared her late husbands views and, as keeper of the flame, never forgave Ozick for what she regarded as a spiteful portrait and for the damage she felt it did to his public reputation. Admittedly, the names of character and real-life poet are suspiciously close, and one cannot easily yank Ozick off the hook by pointing out that she was probably far more interested in the linguistic play of "Edelshtein" (in its English translation "refined stone") than she was in making a devastating point about Jacob Glatstein. Ozick, after all, had lovingly translated many of Glatsteins poems and regards him, despite the egos that her story presumably bruised, as arguably the greatest poet that the Yiddish language produced. His fate was to be a major poet in a minor language, a writer (as Glatstein himself liked to quip) who had to know the work of W. H. Auden while also realizing full well that Auden didnt have to know about him. The Edelshtein in Ozicks story is more accurately seen as a composite drawn from dozens upon dozens of aging, virtually unknown Yiddish poets. But even this conjecture is, at best, only half the story, because what one aspect of "Envy" seeks to measure is a poet well short of Glatsteins greatness and yet much better than your average Yiddish hack.
At the heart of the story is Edelshteins poetry rather than his endless fulminations about the decline and fall of Yiddish. For a satirist of Ozicks considerable skill, it is relatively easy to create a character who insists, for example, that so-called Jewish-American writers are ignoramuses: "What do they know," he rails, "I mean of knowledge . . . Yiddish! One word here, one word there. Shickseh on one page, putz on the other, and thats the whole vocabulary. . . . They know ten words for, excuse me, penis, and when it comes to a word for learning, theyre impotent." What must have been much more difficult was tempering Edelshteins rages (many rendered with more than a few hints of Ozicks approval) against the concrete evidence of Edelshteins art. It is one thing to have a Yiddish poet claim that he would be universally acknowledged as a great poet if only he had a translator, and quite another to have readers come to the same conclusion based on the actual lines of his poetry. If Edelshteins poetry were truly remarkable, the effect would tip the story too far in one direction; conversely, if it were so much junk, that, too, would disturb the delicate aesthetic balance of "Envy."
Ozick hits Edelshteins middle-range talent squarely on the head:
edge of the village a little river,
The result asks us to balance the Edelshtein who has made the recoveryor at least the recognitionof Yiddish his "project" against the frustrated poet who craves the public adulation that, in his view, has unfairly fallen into Ostrovers lap. While Ozick has more than a little sympathy for Yiddish, the story also makes it clear that those who confuse fame with art not only delude themselves but also debase the creative process. Ostrover knows the pitfalls of both, and in ways that an Edelshtein never willnot even after he sits in Manhattans 92nd Street YMHA and listens as his nemesis spins out a wicked parable about a would-be writer who, by magic, becomes instantly fluent in one major language after another, only to fail miserably in each of them.
Ostrover is hard, very hard, on his pathetic rival, but that is because he has little patience for the worlds distractions, whether they come as partisan politics or a thick texture of rationalization. What Edelshtein lacks, in a word, is a first-rate imagination, and about this unhappy fact, he can rail at the universe, plunge into despair or, as "Envy" dramatizes, so seamlessly combine the two that readers are not quite sure what to make of him. Is he martyr or shameless manipulator, a writer more sinned against than sinning, or simply a local instance of a universal phenomenonnamely, a will to power that has little to do with the making of art and everything to do with becoming a famous artist?
The Cannibal Galaxy is a richly textured exploration of the mishmash that Jewish pedagogy (however well-meaning) can become in an age of small minds and large gestures toward assimilation. As such, the novel is a sustained exercise in satire, one that began its imaginative life as a New Yorker story ("The Laughter of Akiva," 1980) and then found itself generating even more controversy than that which surrounded "Envy." Soon after "The Laughter of Akiva" was published, Ozick got an unexpectedand surely unwelcomeintroduction to our legal system as it currently operates when somebody feels that he or she has been libeled. In the case at hand, a real-life person saw himself reflected in the unflattering character of Joseph Brill and he was, as they say, not amused. So the offended party sued. If the scenario that subsequently unfolded were not so grim from Ozicks perspectiveat once financially costly and emotionally drainingit might have been nearly as funny as the story itself. But being dragged through the courts was clearly no laughing matter. Nonetheless, Ozicks critics could not help but feel the heavy hand of unintended irony as the sad business of legal action against a Jewish-American writer played itself out. They could easily imagine this happening to the Philip Roth who had been hammered in the Jewish press and from synagogue pulpits ever since the days of Goodbye, Columbus (1959) and Portnoys Complaint (1969), but to Ozick? Unthinkable! After all, hadnt she, almost single-handedly, moved Jewish-American literature from the easy indulgences of ethnicity to something deeper, more profound, more authentically Jewish?
What these assumptions omit, however, is virtually everything that gives Ozicks fiction its remarkable aesthetic punch. True enough, one cannot ignore the allusions that gave "The Laughter of Akiva"and, later, The Cannibal Galaxytheir richly complicated texture of ideas. In this sense, Ozick remains true to her upbringing as a literary modernist. But what radiates at the very core of her fictions about the hapless Joseph Brill are the ways that brilliance is often overlooked by conventional teachers, whether they happen to work in yeshivas, Jewish day schools, or, indeed, anywhere else. Edward Alexanders book about Irving Howe (Irving Howe: Socialist, Critic, Jew) makes it clear that he was a collector of lost causes: democratic socialism, secular Jewishness, and finally what once proudly passed as humanistic criticism. About Ozick, one might say that she is also a collector of sorts, albeit of those moments in her life when she was ignored, underappreciated, jilted, or otherwise disappointed. Satire, thus, becomes a way of tonguing a sore tooth, just as it temporarily relieves that suffering in the sheer joy of crafting sentences crackling with revenge.
Too often, Ozicks solemn (rather than serious) critics miss this crucial point. Instead, they look at The Cannibal Galaxy as if it were a Jewish self-help manual rather than a novel. Granted, it would be a good thing if Ozicks readers, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, were better able navigate their way through her demanding textures, but I would argue that Ozicks fiction stands on its own feet; all one really needs to read The Cannibal Galaxy with both pleasure and profit is to pay attention as her characters announce themselves as candidates for our approval or condemnation. In its original form, "The Laughter of Akiva" was closer to caricature than to fully rounded characterization, but when Ozick (who had by that time fallen in love with the twin stories of Joseph Brill and Hester Liltdespite the legal grief these characters had caused her) widened the canvas, the result was an astonishingly complex novel.
I do not intend to do its sub-themes and side-plots full justice here. Let me concentrate, instead, on what I regard as the novels central metaphor, and the implications it has for my sense of Ozicks art. Not surprisingly, I have in mind the scene in which Hester retells the story of Rabbi Akivas reaction to the destruction of the Temple. When other rabbis see a little fox running in and out of the ruined temple, they are reduced to tears. The response is appropriate, and surely understandable. But it is not necessarily the view that a more aesthetically minded temperament would take. And, indeed, Akivas laughter is a striking instance of an artistic sensibility in action. Because he was able to move past the prophecy of Uriah ("Zion shall be ploughed as a field and Jerusalem shall become heaps") to the more uplifting one of Zechariah ("Yet again shall the streets of Jerusalem be filled with boys and girls playing"), Akivas laughter is at once a recognition of the hope that always lies hidden in the folds of despair and an expression of joy as he thinks about the children who will one day be in his classroom. Like Akiva, Hester Lilt regards pedagogy as a form of salvation, especially if one is able to look past (or beneath) the obvious and to see potential where others see only ruin. As her midrash would have it, pedagogy must learn to predict not from the first text, but from the second. Not from the earliest evidence, but from the latest. To laugh out loud in that very interval which to every reasonable judgment looks to be the most inappropriate.
Granted, Hester is talking as much about her unfairly beleaguered daughter, Beulah, as she is about Rabbi Akiva. Moreover, the novel itself is a better predictor of where the clash between the pedagogies of art and certain brands of religious education ultimately end up. Beulah survives the best (as well as the worst) of Brills Dual Curriculuma yoking of Jewish instruction and secular learning that does little justice to eitherand even manages to find a measure of success, of appreciation, if you will, that had eluded her in America. That this happens through art and in the Paris that had formed the thick-headed Brill is to pack irony upon satirical irony.
Invention is what the imagination, at its best, specializes in; and I would argue that nowhere has Ozick been more inventive, more playful, than in her stories about Ruth Puttermesser. In a recent Internet chat session, something Ozick must have regarded with more than her usual amount of trepidation, she was asked who her favorite, or most detested, icons might bethis, because of a New York Times Magazine special issue, "Heroine Worship: The Age of the Female Icon," in which Ozick had written about Gertrude Stein. Her answer was instructive, especially if one keeps Puttermesser in mind:
Im not going to answer that by naming names but by naming types. Among writers, I most detest those who turn writing into an instrument rather than an end in itself. For instance, writers whose chief goal is power of one sort or another. Whether its power of a political sort or simply the intoxicating power of fame. The kind of writer I most admire is someone who dedicates a life to the art of writing and one day is discovered to be quietly immense.
She went on to cite Chekhov as one example; she might well have mentioned her own career as another, for her remarks about writing that ultimately matters go straight to the heart of what aesthetics is, and does.
In this regard, the (comic) case of Ruth Puttermesser is instructive. The collections opening story"Puttermesser: Her Work History, Her Ancestry, Her Afterlife"introduces us to Ruth Puttermesser, a thirty-four-year-old lawyer with a long history of academic overachievement and a considerably shorter one of successful romantic involvements. In addition, we learn that she has a Jewish face and a modicum of American distrust of it. She resembles no poster she has ever seen. She hates the Breck shampoo girl, so blond and bland and pale-mouthed; she boycots Breck because of the golden-haired posters, all crudely idealized, an American wet dream, in the subway. Puttermessers hair comes in bouncing scallopslayered waves from scalp to tip, like imbricated roofing tile. It is nearly black and has a way of sometimes sticking straight out. Her nose has thick, well-haired, uneven nostrils, the right one noticeably wider than the left. We quickly get the idea: Puttermesser (whose name, in Yiddish, means "butter knife") is something of an American misfit. Not to worry, however, for what Puttermesser might lack in terms of mainstream credentials, she more than makes up for with her Judaic ones:
In bed she studied Hebrew grammar. The permutations of the triple-lettered root elated her: how was it possible that a whole language, hence a whole literature, a civilization even, should rest on the pure presence of three letters of the alphabet? The Hebrew verb, a stunning mechanism: three letters, whichever fated three, could command all possibility simply by a change in their pronunciation, or the addition of a wing-letter fore and aft. Every conceivable utterance blossomed from this trinity.
Including (we learn in "Puttermesser and Xanthippe") the possibility of creating a golem who both aids and complicates her life when sheimprobablybecomes New York Citys mayor. For those who rightly associate Ozick with moral seriousnessand, wrongly, with a certain pinch-facednessthe Puttermesser stories reveal her penchant for the comic, even the anarchistic. Puttermesser is born from Ozicks itch to cut loose, to let the imagination take her where it will. Not since the "Nighttown" section of James Joyces Ulysses has there been such sheer delight in the unbridled, playful imagination. In Joyces case, his schlemielish protagonist, Leopold Bloom, alternates between fantasies of power (at one point he becomes Mayor of the New Bloomusalem) and equally vivid reveries of being exposed, humiliated, utterly pulled down. In a similar vein, Ozicks story turns the conventional scenario of the golem-as-defender into a golem as comical as Frankensteins monster: a character with a will, and sex life, of its own. Puttermessers new-found poweras mayor she wants to turn New York City into a socially progressive paradiseis spoiled by the very creature she created to make this happen.
Granted, Puttermesser is a long-suffering bureaucrat rather than a writer, but the same tendencies that so upset Ozick when she thinks about icons good and bad also apply to her mercurial character. Is there perhaps a certain amount of self-abnegation here? My hunch is that
Puttermesser bears more than a few correspondences to Ozick, especially when we learn how Puttermesser was once fatally attracted to a twenty-two-year-old philosophy student who passionately argued the following proposition:
Once the God of the Jews forbade art in religion, then art was releasedreleased foreverto follow its own spoor. Once art was exempted from idol-making, from religious duty, it could see what it wished, it could record what it liked, it could play and cavort and distortwhat it pleased! And all without obligation to sanctity. Pious obeisance was dismissedunwanted! Excluded! Art was free to be free!
One does not normally think of Ozick as the sort of writer who would easily sign her name to such a manifesto; but I would argue that the freedom of literary artists to go wherever the imagination takes them and to think of the life of Art as the only life that truly matters has become much more attractive to Ozick. As with everything about Ozick and her work, one must allow ample room for nuance, and this is certainly true for the contention that, in the final analysis, she is most accurately written down as an aesthete. Because the term carries a good deal of cultural baggage, Ozick might well prefer the plainer, less troublemaking word "writer." What matters, however, is that her critics dampen their enthusiasm for making facile connections between the pronouncements occasioned by the life she leads as public citizen and committed Jew and the fiction she produces. With regard to the former, one can argue with Ozicks public positions as one will, agreeing (or disagreeing) with her about Israeli politics, certain aspects of contemporary feminism, or the potential danger of much that passes as multiculturalism. However, to twist the title of a Raymond Carver story, what we talk about when we talk about Ozicks fiction is simply the artful ways that her stories and novels are constructed, the rhythms of her sentences, and how their cumulative effects change our livesnot so much because they give us new intellectual positions (although that can happen), but because they give us continuing pleasures. Art cannot promise, or achieve, more than this. But for the right sort of reader, that is entirely sufficient.