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The Jewish-American woman as artist: Cynthia Ozick and the "Paleface" tradition.

A few years ago, on the fiftieth anniversary of Philip Rahv's essay, "Paleface and Redskin," Sanford Pinsker considered the current relevance of the 1939 analysis that became a touchstone critique of American literature. The nature of the literary "split personality" to which Rahv drew attention has become familiar. Simply put, it is a split between the cultivated abstractions of the intellectual and the raw, experiential mode that disdains ideas. The paleface, represented most clearly by Henry James and T. S. Eliot, "continually hankers after religious norms, tending toward a refined estrangement from reality. . . . At his highest level the paleface moves in an exquisite moral atmosphere, at his lowest he is genteel, snobbish, and pedantic." Redskins, in contrast, are writers like Whitman and Twain, men whose "reactions are primarily emotional, spontaneous, and lacking in personal culture." At their best redskins express "the vitality and . . . the aspirations of the people"; at their worst they are "vulgar anti-intellectual|s~, combining aggression with conformity and reverting to the crudest forms of frontier psychology" (Rahv 3-4). Needless to say, both redskins and palefaces are male, white, and Christian.

How may the Jewish-American writer and in particular the female Jewish-American writer be viewed with regard to this dichotomous tradition? As Pinsker points out, Rahv believed that by 1939 the redskins had triumphed, since, after all, their perspective was the native, indigenous one, generated out of a specifically American, non-European culture and psyche. Pinsker argues that what immigrant Jews brought to this culture was a brand of European intellectualism, a texture of ideas and a sense of history ("Philip Rahv's" 480). This infusion of theory and ideas into the redskin (read macho, frontiersman-like, cult-of-experience) tradition creates a new tension that makes itself felt among various works by the same author and also within individual works. Irving Howe sees in Saul Bellow, for example, the achievement of a new American style, as distinct as Hemingway's or Faulkner's: "a mingling of high-flown intellectual bravado with racy-tough street Jewishness, all in a comic rhetoric that keeps turning its head back toward Yiddish even as it keeps racing away from it" (594-95). In a different but analogous way this split between head and heart also characterizes Malamud's The Fixer, whose protagonist, tormented by forces against which he is powerless, and forced to rely solely on his mental resources, rejects the temptation of martyrdom in favor of a commitment to work actively within the historical moment, even if such activity means only stubbornly enduring, that is, insisting on survival without loss of identity. A major irony of the book is that the fixer, Jesus-like in his patient suffering, ultimately achieves a kind of heroism in refusing to forgive and finds satisfaction in a fantasy of vengeance and retribution.

It is Philip Roth, however, who has spoken most directly of the competing claims on the Jewish-American writer. Roth describes his double heritage of (on the one hand) Jake the Snake H., owner of the corner candy store in the world of Roth's Newark childhood, "a middle-aged master of invective and insult, and a repository of lascivious neighborhood gossip" and (on the other hand) Henry James, whose "linguistic tact and moral scrupulosity" ravished Roth during his graduate student days at the University of Chicago. Redskin Jake, like comedian Henny Youngman, "demythologized |Jewish~ yearnings for cultural superiority -- or for superiority through culture" ("On The Great American Novel" 81). For the nice, talented Jewish boy from Newark, paleface James seemed an impossible predecessor (i. e., "the paleface one could never be in a million |or, to be precise, 5,733~ years") (83). Together, Jake and James inevitably produced -- in addition to a severe case of the anxiety of influence -- the hybrid "redface," Roth's characterization of himself, the writer who is comfortable in neither world and therefore "reenacts the argument |between redskin and paleface~ within the body of his own work." The difficulty of defining oneself in terms of traditions antithetical to each other, each only partly one's own, accounts, says Roth, for what he considers the enormous differences among his books, "each book veering sharply away from the one before, as though the author were mortified at having written it as he did and preferred to put as much light as possible between that kind of book and himself" (84).

To what extent is Roth's identity crisis applicable to the case of an equally introspective female writer? Since Philip Roth and Cynthia Ozick are often considered to have defined divergent paths for the Jewish-American novel, and since both have deliberated quite openly on their respective endeavors, it is instructive to compare them. Despite the vast difference between Roth's fiction and Ozick's, one is reminded that Ozick, like Roth, battened on Henry James in her youthful days and was so seduced by his "mandarin" prose that she set out in her early twenties to duplicate James' artistry, ultimately giving birth to her first and only long novel, Trust (now out of print). However, Roth's dual allegiance to redskin Jake and paleface James did not find an analogy in Ozick, whose obsession with writing as an act of idolatry (forbidden by the Second Commandment) has instead posed for her the choice between paleface and nonface. That is, for Ozick the posited contradiction has been between high art and the religious values that transcend art altogether. Roth feels compelled somehow to accommodate Jake the Snake's earthy cynicism and directness with Henry James' cultivated refinement. The virtual impossibility of doing so accounts for what Roth calls his "continuing need for self-analysis and self-justification" (84). Ozick, in contrast, believes that (as she wrote in a sketched self-portrait where the missing facial features should have been) "ego is not interesting" (Interview 174).

I would suggest that this denial of artistic ego marks not a conflict but rather a connection between Ozick as committed Jew and Ozick as feminist. As critics have noted, the argument that the artist attempts to compete with God as creator and that art is therefore morally dangerous pales before the fact of Ozick's perseverance as a writer of consummate creativity. Her insistence on artistic self-effacement, then, has to do with something more than repugnance at idolatry, namely, the otherness of gender. If Roth feels himself to be at some level a cultural pariah because of his suspension between two traditions, one never entirely escapable and one never entirely attainable, Ozick must cope in addition with the feminine mystique, a myth assiduously cultivated by paleface and redskin alike. In denying ego, she is not denying only the chutzpah of the creative act, but also the cultural determinedness of having been born female. Ozick's parable-like story "Virility" crystallizes with sharp comedy her fear of being read as a "woman writer" or, worse, a "woman's writer." Indeed, it was this very fear that caused Ozick to deny any nuance of "femaleness" to the protagonist/narrator of Trust:

I would have to drain my narrator of emotive value of any kind, because I was afraid to be pegged as having written a "woman's" novel. Nothing was more certain to lead to that than a point of view seemingly lodged in a woman, and no one takes a woman's novel seriously. . . . My machine-narrator was there for efficiency only, for flexibility only, for craftiness, for subtlety, but never, never, as a "woman." ("We Are the Crazy Lady" 44)

Ozick's response to the disappointing reception of her first published novel was to remain focused on ideas while experimenting with narrative structure and point of view. She has taken risks in writing stories from the viewpoint of a male character, even when the story (The Cannibal Galaxy, for example) contains an obvious alter ego of herself. (Consider, in contrast, Roth's The Counterlife, where all four lives are clearly projections of the author.) While Ozick's writing often does reflect the struggle to integrate splintered aspects of identity, her concerns are never only with psychology or personality; rather she is driven by a commitment to what she has called "literary seriousness, which is unquestionably a branch of life seriousness" ("Metaphor and Memory" 282).

Given the intellectual nature of her fiction, there can be no doubt that Ozick is in the paleface tradition that focuses on refinement of ideas and the interconnectedness of manners and morals. Indeed, she is often viewed as too intellectual -- willing to sacrifice character development in favor of elaboration of an idea.(1) Those who find fault with her stories view them as detached and abstract and thus unsuccessful in engaging the reader's emotions. Clearly this profound intellectuality and suspicion of sentiment are counter to the stereotype of women's writing, and even to much of the recent writing by feminists. The stereotype we know all too well, but Pinsker provides a powerful reminder when he cites John Crowe Ransom's claim (in "The Poet as Woman") that "A woman lives for love . . . and is indifferent to intellectuality" ("Philip Rahv's" 484-85). Pinsker counters the stereotype by assembling a list of popular female -- and feminist -- writers, such as Alix Kate Shulman, Erica Jong, Marge Piercy, Lisa Alther, Marilyn French, and Toni Morrison, whose works "suggest some of the range and the power of writing by and for women," adding that such writing by women proves that "it is simply no longer true that our most interesting, most radical 'redskins' are always male" (485). One wonders, however, whether such a list has the effect of reinforcing old prejudices regarding writing by women. Would so diverse a group of male writers have been lumped together by virtue of their maleness and their "male" perspective? Moreover, the absence of Ozick, a female paleface writer whose work Pinsker has studied and regards very highly,(2) brings to mind the fear Ozick expressed in 1977 that critics and writers who think that writing by women should also be mainly about women and for women serve only to keep women writers ghettoized:

More and more, there are writers and artists and other masters of imagination who declare themselves freed by voluntary circumscription. "Up till now I was mistaken," they will testify; "I was trying to write like a man. Then I began to write about myself as a daughter, as a lover, as a wife, as a mother, as a woman in relation to other women; as a self. I learned to follow the contours of my emotional life. I began to write out of my femaleness." . . . Artists who insist on defining themselves as "women" artists . . . should not stumble in to the misnomer of calling voluntary circumscription "feminism." . . . Feminism means, has always meant, access to possibilities beyond self-consciousness. . . .polemical self-knowledge is restricted knowledge. . . . Self-discovery is only partial discovery. . . . Self-consciousness -- narcissism, solipsism -- is small nourishment for a writer. ("Literature and the Politics of Sex" 289)

There is no room in Rahv's categories for Ozick because "Real American literature was seen then |i. e., in the 30s~ as clearly a man's game" (Pinsker, "Philip Rahv's" 485) and, despite Pinsker's appreciation of her work, no comfortable slot in his paradigm either, because important contemporary writing by women is defined by its "redskin" character. That is, in its insistence on the specifically female experience, it is the obverse of typical redskin writing by men, which reflects a macho or at least an identifiably masculine perspective (think of Steinbeck, Dos Passos, Hemingway et al.). Ozick's writing appears to defy classification because it is neither "feminine" in the old sense of decorative, delicate, and emotional nor "feminist" in the new sense of confronting and examining what many have come to view as the unique abilities of women.

The anomaly of the female Jewish-American paleface is worth considering. That is, one might well expect those on the social and cultural margin to disdain the elitism and ethnocentrism of the quintessential paleface, T. S. Eliot ("classicist in literature, royalist in politics, and Anglo-Catholic in religion"(3)) in favor of the humane universalism of Whitman ("Of every hue and caste am I, of every rank and religion" |"Song of Myself," verse 16, line 346~). However, a study of Ozick's fiction and essays reveals the nature of her attraction to Eliot and thereby illuminates her paleface characteristics. In an essay commemorating what would have been Eliot's 101st birthday, Ozick, looking in Eliot's work beyond the explicit anti-Semitism she had once tried to ignore and almost forgiving his "backward longing for the medieval hegemony of cathedral spires" ("Eliot at 101" 152), finds a rootedness in tradition and a respect for history that she fears is sadly lacking among contemporary writers. The "historical sense" that Eliot insists upon so emphatically in "Tradition and the Individual Talent" lends itself in a way that he would not have imagined to Ozick's sense of herself as shaping the present through witnessing the past and cultivating the heritage of her ancestors. "Everybody is born into a civilization," she has said, "and if you want to live the life that can best bring you into a sense of being a civilized person, then you have to seize it through your own culture" (Bernstein C21). For Eliot, "the historical sense compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order" ("Tradition" 38). Ozick shares Eliot's sense of the "presentness" of the past, feeling that she "grew up as a witness -- of the Inquisition, of the pogroms, of the Crusades, of the Holocaust, all at once" (Bernstein C15).

A further irony (because Ozick is hardly the sort of writer Eliot envisioned as the inheritor of the literary or cultural tradition he valued) is that the "difficult" nature of Ozick's writing -- her dense and sometimes shocking imagery, her learned allusiveness, her recondite vocabulary, her complex and multi-layered narratives -- provide another link with Eliot, who insisted that modern civilization demands "difficult" poetry:

Our civilization comprehends great variety and complexity, and this variety and complexity, playing upon a refined sensibility, must produce various and complex results. The poet must become more and more comprehensive, more allusive, more indirect, in order to force, to dislocate if necessary, language into his meaning. ("The Metaphysical Poets" 65)

It is precisely the "difficulty" of Ozick's writing that many critics have found off-putting, much as Eliot's readers were stunned by the complexity, apparent disjointedness, and allusiveness of his poems. Like Eliot, Ozick charts new territory by glossing prior texts. In "Bloodshed," the text is Roth's "Eli the Fanatic"; in "Usurpation," the text is Bernard Malamud's "The Silver Crown"; in The Cannibal Galaxy, it is Rabbi Akiva's parable about the destruction of the Temple (as well as an earlier published version of her story, called "The Laughter of Akiva"); in "Rosa," it is a tightly constructed parable of her own, "The Shawl," which she elaborates in midrashic fashion.(4)

Perhaps we don't enjoy this sort of difficulty as much as we used to. Not every reader has appreciated the convoluted layers of Ozick's narratives or been willing to invest in unraveling them the sort of energy that graduate students have lavished on "The Four Quartets." Indeed, one critic peevishly confesses that he could not have provided an intelligible summary of "Usurpation" without the aid of Ozick's explanatory preface (Edwards 32). It may be that the tough intellectual web of Ozick's texts accounts in part for what has been seen as her failure to engage the reader affectively in her narratives. And on this ground too we may draw a parallel with Eliot, whose insistence on the difference between art, on the one hand, and the expression of raw emotion, on the other, shaped several generations of critics and teachers. In addition to providing a defense against neo-feminism (the ideology that promotes feminist discourse by underlining the difference between women's modes of perception and men's), Ozick's wry claim that "ego is not interesting" is a putative descendant of Eliot's declaration that "The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality" ("Tradition" 40).

For both writers the rejection of personality combines with the impulse to develop a sense of self in the context of history to produce themes of displacement and purposefully constructed identity. Eliot fled America to absorb the European experience; Ozick, as a witness to the past, brings the legacy of Europe to America, as do several of her protagonists, who are immigrants. Ozick's writings suggest that she, like Eliot in England, feels like something of a "resident alien" ("Eliot at 101" 154). Critics have taken her to task for not doing what Roth has done, that is, focused on the Jewish-American scene, whether urban northeastern intellectuals or suburbanites aspiring to assimilation. It is notable that even her best-received works, The Cannibal Galaxy and The Shawl, which are set mostly in America, involve displaced or seemingly misplaced protagonists. This is because for Ozick, much more than for Roth, there always looms a clear sense of history, a sense that, in Eliot's words, "involves a perception not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence" ("Tradition" 38). To appreciate the difference between redface Roth and paleface Ozick, one need only consider the following passage from Roth's The Ghost Writer, a phone conversation between aspiring writer Nathan Zuckerman (Roth's alter ego) and his mother regarding a story he has written in which the main characters, who are of course Jewish, are portrayed negatively, much to the chagrin of Nathan's family. A local judge named Wapter, an old family friend, has reviewed the story and written Nathan a lengthy letter in which he compares the young writer to the Nazi propagandists. Nathan, utterly disgusted by Wapter's philistinism and self-righteousness, is implored by his mother to be courteous, humble, and modest. But he is enraged:

"The Big Three, Mama! Streicher, Goebbels, and your son! What about the judge's humility? Where's his modesty?"

"He only meant that what happened to the Jews --"

"In Europe -- not in Newark! We are not the wretched of Belsen! We were not the victims of that crime!"

"But we could be -- in their place we would be. Nathan, violence is nothing new to the Jews, you know that!"

"Ma, you want to see physical violence done to the Jews of Newark, go to the office of the plastic surgeon where the girls get their noses fixed. That's where the Jewish blood flows in Essex county, that's where the blow is delivered -- with a mallet! To their bones -- and to their pride!" (133)

Later that evening, trying to compose an explanatory letter to his father, Zuckerman tells himself that in being misunderstood and condemned by his readers, he is in the tradition of Joyce, Flaubert, and Thomas Wolfe. But then he considers the specter of the Holocaust and the particularity of the Jews, "Of which |Nathan reminds himself~, only some five thousand days past, there had been millions more" (138). Nonetheless, what triumphs is Nathan's anger with the ignorance and shallow hypocrisy that the wealthy judge and his wife represent. Against his fury and his artistic ambitions the murdered millions cannot maintain their emotional hold; nor should they, Roth seems to say. The Holocaust is naturally a specter in Ozick's work too, but Ozick has composed no fictional female counterpart to what Roth called "Nathan Dedalus," his portrait of the cultural angst of the Jewish artist as a young man. It is surely Jake the Snake talking when Roth compares the ovens and gas chambers of Germany and Poland to the plastic surgeon's office in Newark. This technique works brilliantly as satire, but instead of informing the present with the past, it drives a wedge between them, finally justifying a cleavage that Ozick cannot and will not admit. Instead of rending the American artist from the millions of annihilated Europeans, she offers the reader in cadenced and imagistic but curiously detached prose the execution of a small child named Magda in a concentration camp within the full and helpless view of her mother. Here is the last paragraph of "The Shawl":

All at once Magda was swimming through the air. The whole of Magda traveled through loftiness. She looked like a butterfly touching a silver vine. And the moment Magda's feathered round head and her pencil legs and balloonish belly and zigzag arms splashed against the fence, the steel voices went mad in their growling, urging Rosa to run and run to the spot where Magda had fallen from her flight against the electrified fence; but of course Rosa did not obey them. She only stood, because if she ran they would shoot, and if she tried to pick up the sticks of Magda's body they would shoot, and if she let the wolf's screech ascending now through the ladder of her skeleton break out, they would shoot; so she took Magda's shawl and filled her own mouth with it, stuffed it in and stuffed it in, until she was swallowing up the wolf's screech and tasting the cinnamon and almond depth of Magda's saliva; and Rosa drank Magda's shawl until it dried. (10)

In the story "Rosa," which describes the declining years of Magda's mother, an immigrant to America now retired from her Brooklyn antique store and living in Florida, Ozick suggests that while the atrocities of history can neither be evaded nor forgotten, they need not dehumanize us nor lead to despair. As her gentleman friend Persky tells her, "Sometimes a little forgetting is necessary, if you want to get something out of life" (The Shawl 58). There are comic moments in this story, but, consistent with Ozick's earlier work, none of the "comic recklessness" that Roth attributes to his "old mentor, Jake the Snake, the indecent candy-store owner" ("On The Great American Novel" 85). Roth, much more than Ozick, writes directly out of his own experience; as I have suggested, it is the tension between his experience and the tradition he hallows as an artist that makes him that hybrid, the "redface." However, even if Ozick were to create fictions more obviously reflective of her experience, it is doubtful that she would hear the redskin voices that call so loudly to Roth for the simple reason -- and here we have come full circle back to gender -- that Ozick did not hang out at the corner candy store with the Bronx's version of Jake the Snake.

Feeling isolated and alienated in school by virtue of both gender and religion, the child Cynthia turned for solace to books and, as she has revealed in a graceful and moving memoir, sequestered herself in her father's pharmacy and read voraciously.(5) Although formally educated (she wrote her Master's thesis on Henry James), she was, like Eliot, a prodigious autodidact. She was also remarkably ambitious, dedicating many of her early years to the task of writing an enormous, all-encompassing Jamesian novel. It was not until many years later that she learned, through reading Leon Edel's biography, that the sort of novel she had aspired to, James could write only in his advanced years after decades of apprenticeship. Given this early -- and ultimately deeply disappointing -- renunciation of Life for Art, we can hardly be surprised that "comic recklessness" was never Ozick's forte.(6) (In contrast, one may note, renunciation of any kind has never seemed a defining aspect of the life or art of Philip Roth.)

It is reasonable to conjecture that Ozick's early commitment to the discipline of high art is at least partly the defensive response of an intellectual and creative woman to the myth that the culture of Woman is "a culture of busywork and make-believe and distraction" ("Previsions" 275). Ozick reminds us that the appeal of this culture and the power of the myth that perpetuates it should never be underestimated. It is subscribed to by both men and women. Thus, the topic of a talk Ozick once gave at the invitation of a women's club was misprinted on the luncheon program: instead of "The Contemporary Poem," the audience was expecting to be advised on "The Contemporary Home" ("We Are the Crazy Lady" 41). Ozick recounts a more painful example of this sort of reductiveness in her angry but comic essay, "We Are the Crazy Lady," where she recalls how Lionel Trilling seemed unable or unwilling to distinguish her from the only other female in his Columbia graduate class, a highly intelligent but annoyingly argumentative woman who became known as the Crazy Lady. One of the morals of the story is that "even among intellectual humanists, every woman has a Doppelganger -- every other woman" (40-41). If we are at first puzzled that while Ozick insists relentlessly on the particularity of culture and ethnicity, she wants to deny special attributes to gender, we are reminded that, historically, power struggles in these areas have not been analogous: gender distinctions, persuasively buttressed by biological differences, have always implied a hierarchy that subordinates females; on the other hand, attempts to obliterate cultural differences seem inevitably to entail the sacrifice of the minority culture. That is, gender distinctions have traditionally served the agenda of oppression, while cultural distinctions are essential to cultural continuity.

Furthermore, a careful reading of Ozick's essays dispels even the appearance of contradiction or paradox. Actually, Ozick's insistence on her rootedness in Judaism and her refusal to recognize "woman writer" as a viable category are not inconsistent, but are rather expressions of the same moral and intellectual vision. The struggle against the culture of Woman (traditionally defined) is analogous to the struggle to keep the Covenant. Both require a willful, muscular resistance to the sin of Sloth:

Nature offers ease: here you are, and what you need to be is only what your biology requires of you: all the rest is dream and imagination. History offers the hard life: history says, Beyond your biology lies Clarification . . . The Jew chooses against nature and in behalf of the clarifying impulse. He chooses in behalf of history. The terrible -- and terrifying -- difficulty is that it is truly against our natures to choose against nature. (Untitled response 91)

That is, it is easier -- and thus more "natural" -- for the ethnic minority to be assimilated than to maintain a cultural identity and a connection with a specific past; it is easier -- and thus more "natural" -- to succumb to powerful gender stereotypes that define anatomy as destiny than to prove them wrong. In both instances -- as a Jew and as a woman -- Ozick chooses "the hard life."

It is not surprising, therefore, that she makes the same choice as an artist, rejecting the easy literary conventions -- what she calls "the trodden path and the greased pole" of her Jewish-American predecessors -- in favor of a new literature not yet definable:

In literature the chief post-Enlightenment value is "originality"; but nothing is less original, by now, than, say, a Parisian or New York novelist "of Jewish extraction" to write as if he had never heard of a Jewish idea, especially if, as is likely, he never has heard of a Jewish idea. . . . By now, for writers to throw themselves entirely into the arms of post-Enlightenment culture is no alternative at all. It is a laziness. ("Bialik's Hint" 234)

The term "laziness" is here applied to writers who, avoiding the tough confrontation with ideas, lapse into literary cliches and stereotypes, triviality and parochialism. "Laziness" recalls the effortless "slide into nature" offered both by the "culture of Woman" and by the attractions of ethnic and religious assimilation. The Jew, the woman, the artist -- all are bound by the obligation constantly to exert the will, to resist what comes "naturally," and to choose instead the constant struggle toward "clarification," that is, toward the judgment and interpretation that grow from historical understanding. Although Ozick's deep concern with the artist as idolater has received a good deal of critical attention, one is thus led to conclude that what she finds most threatening to all aspects of her identity is the sin of Sloth.(7) As Jew, as woman, and as artist, she insists upon "the reality-pain that clarification imposes." Moreover, she demands that her readers choose the "damn hard work" of resisting "naturalness and worldliness and sentiment" (Untitled response 91). Like Milton's "fit audience though few," Ozick's readers must be willing to accept the challenge of her "mandarin" prose and "cerebral" fictions, to see beyond what one critic has called the "sheer force of stylistic razzle-dazzle" (Alter 53). In doing so, Ozick's readers can come to appreciate the experience and the emotion -- born of an enduring resistance -- that make the stylistic ingenuity not only possible but both a moral and esthetic necessity.

Ultimately, Ozick's emotional ambivalence toward Eliot -- her powerful sympathy with his veneration of knowledge, tradition, history, and high culture coupled with her recognition of the moral danger represented by his hegemonic views -- measures both her struggle to find a place in the great tradition and the profound humanity of her interpretation of the past. While she mourns what she views as the disintegration of high art that has accompanied the decline of Eliot, she agrees with Rahv that palefaces had inevitably to lose out to redskins in America -- "it may simply be |she wrote~ that it is in the renunciatory grain of America to resist the hierarchical and the traditional" ("Eliot at 101" 154). Yet the "principles of democracy, tolerance, and individualism" inherent in the American ideal -- principles that stood outside Eliot's moral vision -- do not in her mind atone for all that has been lost in the postmodern quest for diversity, universality, and deconstruction. Indeed, she finds fearsome our present culture, in which history, tradition, and learnedness are devalued:

Tradition is equated with obscurantism. The wall that divided serious high culture from the popular arts is breached; anything can count as a "text." Knowledge . . . is displaced by information, or memory without history: data. Allusiveness is cross-cultural in an informational and contemporary way (from say, beekeeping to filmmaking), rather than in the sense of connecting the present with the past. ("Eliot at 101" 153)

However, no one familiar with Ozick's fiction will need to be reminded that this is not an echo of Allan Bloom calling for the inviolability of the canon or -- even worse -- the establishment of social conditions in which only the "right" sort of books will be tolerated. For Ozick, unlike Eliot, the cultural centeredness of the individual talent need not mean the exclusion or intolerance of other cultures. To the contrary, what she opposes is the dissipation or annihilation of culture whether it be by "liberals" who want to universalize particular human experience even if that means denying historical event(8) or -- to use one of her favorite metaphors -- by those who would "cannibalize" others (or the Other) through gradual or violent appropriation. In Ozick's oeuvre, such cannibals run the gamut from the Nazi soldier who murders Rosa's baby daughter to the plagiaristic "poet" of "Virility" to the well-intentioned but sadly misguided pedagogue Joseph Brill of The Cannibal Galaxy.

Finally, the bookish, serious Ozick is neither bitter nor self-righteous. Once called to account because her characters were considered "crabby, bitter, uneasy, spiteful, full of acid observation about a discomfiting world," Ozick replied, "I am nicer in life than I am in my |fiction~ writing" (Bernstein C15). Her essays lend truth to this assertion, but perhaps a more revealing indication of her "niceness" is her respect and admiration for Philip Roth, to whom she dedicated her novel The Messiah of Stockholm. Unlike Pope's Atticus, she does not feel threatened by a "brother near the throne" ("Epistle," line 198). In the final account she shuns both conquest and assimilation. Perhaps it is this quality that most distinguishes her from her great (male) predecessors and contemporaries -- regardless of the depth of their pallor.


1 See, for example, Gertel 44-45; Wisse 41; Alter 53-54. Gertel suggests that "The Pagan Rabbi" is "so rich in retrospection and reflection that it strangles its own characters"; Wisse takes Ozick to task for sacrificing "truth of feeling" to intellect, a tendency to which she attributes the "failure" of "Usurpation"; Alter complains that The Messiah of Stockholm is short on "novelistic imagination" because it is "rooted not in experience but in reading and cogitation about experience."

2 Pinsker's appreciative volume, The Uncompromising Fictions of Cynthia Ozick, provides an overview of Ozick's development as an artist and is particularly helpful in its discussion of the story collections (The Pagan Rabbi and Bloodshed and Three Novellas). Pinsker's book, however, does not do justice to the complexity of The Cannibal Galaxy.

3 The phrase occurs in the preface to the essay collection For Lancelot Andrewes: Essays on Style and Order (London: Faber and Gwyer, 1928). In the revised collection, Essays Ancient and Modern, Eliot wrote that the neat triplet had become "too easily quotable" and regretted having given the impression that his literary and political beliefs were equal in importance to his religious faith. Assuring an audience of Anglo-Catholics that the values and theology of Anglo-Catholicism underlay every aspect of his credo, he insisted on the need for "cultural unity in religion" and warned against the dangers of open-mindedness: "any programme that a Catholic can envisage must aim at the conversion of the whole world . . . I think that the virtue of tolerance is greatly overestimated, and I have no objection to being called a bigot myself" ("Catholicism and International Order" 128, 135). Ozick's religious commitment, while quite as thorough as Eliot's, demands vigorous opposition to the impulse toward universal conversion. In her view such an impulse is an expression of the "cannibalistic" spirit and is thus profoundly immoral.

4 Wisse offers a lucid comparison of "Bloodshed" with "Eli the Fanatic," highlighting both thematic similarities and crucial differences (43). For a study of Ozick's "appropriation" and transformation of literary sources in "Usurpation," see Rosenberg, esp. 58-60.

5 Ozick's lyrical memoir, "A Drugstore in Winter," recounts some of her formative childhood experiences.

6 In "The Lesson of the Master" Ozick discusses her early, rather obsessive (and, in retrospect, naive and misguided) attempts to emulate James's masterworks:

. . . I offer the implausible and preposterous model of myself to demonstrate the proposition that the Lesson of the Master is not a lesson about genius, or even about immense ambition: it is a lesson about misreading. . . . The great voices of Art never mean only Art; they also mean Life, they always mean Life . . . (Art and Ardor 296)

Prior to working for nearly seven years on Trust, she had spent seven years on another novel (never completed) called Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love. The singlemindedness of those years she recalls with bitter regret: "This is a part of my life that pains me desperately to recall. Such waste, so many eggs in one basket, such life-error, such foolish concentration, such Goddamned stupid 'purity'" (Interview 162).

7 Several years ago Ozick revealed that, through discussion with an undisclosed "good thinker," she had come to see story-making and Judaism as integrated rather than antithetical: ". . . I no longer feel I'm making idols. The insight that the largest, deepest, widest imaginative faculty of all is what you need to be a monotheist teaches me that you simply cannot be a Jew if you repudiate the imagination" (Interview 168). In "Bialik's Hint" she explores the potential for a post-Enlightenment "Jewish literature."

8 In "A Liberal's Auschwitz," Ozick takes William Styron to task for writing of the attempted Nazi genocide as "anti-human" rather than as specifically anti-Jewish:

If we make an abstraction out of human wickedness . . . we will soon forget that every wickedness has had a habitation and a name. . . . And though it may be metaphorically true that "humanity" was threatened and "life" denied, it was Jews who did most of that vast dying, it was the historic life of the Jewish people in Europe which was brought to an end. (152-53)


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-----. "Tradition and the Individual Talent." Selected Prose Works of T. S. Eliot. Ed. Frank Kermode. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1975. 37-44.

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-----. The Shawl. New York: Knopf, 1989. Orig. pub. as two pieces. "The Shawl." The New Yorker 26 May 1980: 33-34. "Rosa." The New Yorker 21 March 1983: 38-71.

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-----. "We Are the Crazy Lady and Other Feisty Feminist Fables." Ms. Spring 1972: 40-44.

Pinsker, Sanford. "Philip Rahv's 'Paleface' and 'Redskin'--Fifty Years Later." The Georgia Review 43.3 (Fall 1989): 477-89.

-----. The Uncompromising Fictions of Cynthia Ozick. Columbia: U of Missouri P, 1987.

Pope, Alexander. "Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot." The Poems of Alexander Pope. Ed. John Butt. New Haven: Yale UP, 1963. 597-612.

Rahv, Philip. "Paleface and Redskin." Kenyon Review 1939. Essays on Literature and Politics 1932-1972. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1978. 3-7.

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Wilner, associate professor of English at Rider College, has published articles on Henry Fielding's fiction and legal pamphlets and on William Steig's books for children. Her current projects include a study of Sarah Fielding's The Governess in the context of eighteenth-century attitudes towards female education and a detailed analysis of Ozick's The Cannibal Galaxy.
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Title Annotation:Philip Rahv's essay, "Paleface and Redskin"
Author:Wilner, Arlene Fish
Publication:College Literature
Date:Jun 1, 1993
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