Review: Metaphor and Memory by Cynthia Ozick Print E-mail

ozick(Pembroke Magazine Number 23, 1991)

Heart to Heart

For Cynthia Ozick essays are the houses of ideas, not the doorway to her personal experience. Consequently, in this collection of some thirty essays and reviews from the 1980s, she writes about herself only sketchily: She grew up in the Bronx speaking Yiddish and English; she fell prey to a few ethnic-hating schoomarms who lessoned out the oi sounds from her Bronx-cum-Jewish brogue; and at seventeen, she she kew she would devote her life to writing "literature."

Judging by her much lauded, complexly textured fiction—three novels and four story collections—her devotion (and talent) has produced some excellent work. Read the recent "A Shawl," the haunting story of a mother and her two daughters interned in a concentration camp and the shawl's nourishing power over their living and dying. The story is about self-disclosure and religious strength, subjects common to her fiction, and about Jews whose faith manifests itself struggling with annihilation or the temptations of secular life.

This collection is chiefly about Jewish authors, mostly storytellers of high purpose like Ozick, and the literary traditions that guide them. Two main themes recur. First is her frustration over the absence of any critical autocrats in contemporary letters, a Matthew Arnold or Lionel Trilling whose judgments she feels once gave a moral center to the development of English literature. Her second concern is with the contemporary Jewish writer who must stitch the threads of the Hebrew, Yiddish, and English tongues into one multi-cultural, multi-national fabric that can be identified, world-wide, as Jewish. Ozick believes in the historical hegemony of Jewish literature, from the Book of Ruth to Primo Levi, and she bases much of her passionate criticism on the precepts of Jewish authors who wrote in times much more difficult than our own.

Most of her attacks against contemporary literature emerge from her desire to live in the world of the nineteenth-century novelist. A "hapless pre-modern," she feels that we have lost the 1830-1930 reign of fiction as judge-and-jury, with writers making plots to test the conscience of their characters. She writes admiring essays on the best of this breed, those writers unafraid to believe in causes, as journalists (Dreiser), as stylists (James), as critics (Cyril Connolly). Today she sees writers who have lost a sense of mission in their work: they're too career-conscious, greedy for degrees or agents, advocating that "literature is what I say it is," their antennae for any religious persuasion short-circuited on Pop Culture. Ozick labels it fluff, her Postmodern—uninspired, unnavigated by the divine, a literature "thoroughly democratic." She complains in "The Muse, Postmodern and Homeless," that postmodern characters are wholly unscrupulous: "You can't trust them even to stay dead."

Ozick does write about a few contemporaries: Wm. Gaddis, J.M. Coetzee, Bellow and Calvino. But they are given fond, brief introductions, not deep scrutiny. Her dismissal of minimalism is to the point: ". . . among fiction writers, the fossilized Hemingway legacy hangs on, after all this time, strangely and uselessly prestigious." I know Ozick is not estranged from contemporary life. Recently she published a powerful letter in Harpers, refusing an invitation to visit Germany and take part in any Holocaust conference, saying that such a study was a German responsibility, not a Jewish one.

But her estrangement from contemporary work appears more complicated than mere disapproval. In fact Ozick treads lightly on the "democratic meliorism" of North American writers; her major critical feeling about American literary culture is ambivalence. On one hand she recognizes that America has allowed her and other Jewish writers much influence and freedom. But she seems tired of such freedom, stranded by a democratic marketplace that publishes everything without any moral leverage over editors except that which sells. Although Ozick is less authoritarian than Allan Bloom, her uncompromising position on morality is often undefined, projecting ideas we all do not share. She overlooks class and gender differences when holding up the purity of nineteenth-century literary standards. Joseph Conrad and Henry James—two of her favorites—I find to be more different than alike in their ethical concerns. She says nothing of today's critics like Joseph Epstein or Nadine Gordimer, or James Baldwin a generation ago, all of whom have had keen, clear consciences. Ozick further claims that though today we are "luckily without a samizdat" we need more "outsiderness and marginality," suggesting a literary culture which may only be vibrant under a dictatorship, something like Eastern Europe before the Fall of 1989. She seems to want the influence a marginalized Jewish writer wields yet to publish freely and widely in a state that has room for both the small and large press.

While the Jewish writer's marginality has allowed many a forum for dissent in the U.S., this is not true for Jewish writers elsewhere. Hence Ozick's other main concern--whither Jewish literature in a hostile, Jew-marginalizing world. Three essays here stand out from a dozen or so on this topic: "Sholem Aleichem's Revolution," "Bialik's Hint," and "Ruth." These pieces brilliantly analyze what a Jewish writer's duty is to the "survival and continuity" of the Jews.

"Jewish history," she writes, "is overwhelmingly intellectual history," and language is its blood. The language of Judaism is Hebrew, "scripture, liturgy, daily prayer; serious life...serious learning," and the two tongues of its exile are Yiddish and English. Yiddish is the disreputable voice, "temporary, make-do," albeit "unsavory" to many Jews because "it wasn't Hebrew." In Ozick's long essay on Aleichem, she raises his Yiddish stories, in particular "Tevye the Diaryman," to the level of high imaginative art, arguing that his irony has been lost in translation and thus the stories have been undervalued as mere fiddling-on-the-roof folk art. "That the sophisticated chronicler of a society in transition should be misconstrued as a genial rustic is something worse than a literary embarrassment."

Since the Diaspora it has been the moral weight of Jewish stories that have contributed most to "Judaizing" the world. Jewish literature was "that which dared to introduce into the purely imaginative the elements of judgment and interpretation," because it recorded the oppression against, and the assimilation of, the Outsider in the world. When their language was "Englished," that is when the King James Bible brought Jewish stories into English, the result helped generate the great moral tone of the nineteenth-century writers—Emerson, Dickens, and George Eliot each tapped the spiritual keg of the Jewish holy books Ozick attests. For contemporary Jewish writers she sees their purpose to make sense of living a "second hell," "post-Auschwitz." If their fiction is not strictly moral, it is not Jewish.

In the essay "Metaphor and Memory" she says all Jewish writers are able to use language cleverly because their scholarly and imaginative work has often helped them resist oppression. The roots of such facility lie in remembering "thirty generations of slavery in Egypt" through metaphor--scripture, fiction, fable, chant. "We [humankind] have built every idea of moral civilization on [memory]," sparked by one sentence from the Book of Ruth: "Love they neighbor as thyself . . . a glorious, civilizing, unifying sentence, an exhortation of consummate moral beauty."

Ozick's essays are for the "familiar hearts of strangers." Not all of us would agree that Jewish writers are necessarily God's moral scribes. But I am convinced that the Jews' continuity and endurance contains lessons for all people which Ozick's polemical criticism in turn perpetuates. Ethnic memory is her best profile, and that tradition, her tradition, becomes her.