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  • “Do We Not Know the Meaning of Aesthetic Gratification?”: Cynthia Ozick’s The Shawl, the Akedah, and the Ethics of Holocaust Literary Aesthetics

For American Jewish writers, the Holocaust remains a compelling subject for fiction; and their work constitutes an ongoing reply to Theodor Adorno’s famous claim “that it is barbaric to continue to write poetry after Auschwitz” (87). The task of telling Holocaust stories has involved a recognition that beyond the fundamental value of presenting witness and survivor accounts, whether in nonfictional or fictional forms, there is value in telling more stories, particularly stories of life after Auschwitz. A work such as Art Spiegelman’s Maus features a self-conscious narrative style that addresses this as an imperative while highlighting the sense that conventional literary forms may be inadequate to the task. Such anxiety is evident in the trajectory of [End Page 963] American Jewish literary attitudes toward the Holocaust, and the career of Philip Roth exemplifies changing literary responses to the Holocaust.

The characteristic American Jewish response during the years following the Holocaust, when not omission, took the form of allusion in place of direct commentary. 1 This strategy is evident in one of Roth’s better known early pieces, “Defender of the Faith.” In this story, the problematic status of allegiances and cohesion within a group of American Jewish soldiers is given added dramatic and moral weight by the Holocaust, the one principal event that is cited only obliquely and, at that, by a self-serving Jewish soldier in a manipulative plea for ethnic unity. Roth’s work since that time has displayed more explicit and sustained interest in the Holocaust and its consequences. For example, he facilitated the American publication of Bruno Schulz and Jirí Weil, Jewish writers who remained in Europe during the Holocaust. And more recently, in Operation Shylock, Roth centered his reflections on identity around such related things as the Holocaust crimes trial of John Demjanjuk, an interview with Aharon Appelfeld, the Israeli writer of Holocaust novels, and the notion of “Diasporism,” a bitterly comic reflection on the possibility of a Jewish return to post-Holocaust Europe. Between the silences of “Defenders” and the articulations of Shylock, Roth offered a serious questioning of Holocaust literature in The Ghost Writer, which critiqued the American Jewish reception of Anne Frank’s Diary, particularly its adaptation for the stage. The elevation to iconic status of Anne Frank by American Jews during the 1950s led Roth to suggest that through excessive sentimentality and a lack of historical consciousness Jews of that era not only failed to come to terms with the Holocaust—to the extent that such a thing is possible—but too often were relying on successes in the United States to justify their complacency after the Holocaust. Roth emblematically transforms Anne Frank into Anne Franklin as part of his satire on upper-middle-class materialism and a concomitant American exceptionalist ideology that reinforced the sense of the foreignness of the Holocaust.

Roth’s satire of sentimentality about victimization and his insistence on the historical specificity of Holocaust suffering are two characteristics of much recent work on the Holocaust. The clearest attempt by an American fiction writer to move beyond these negative, [End Page 964] though necessary, steps of rejecting sentimentalism and universalism and toward the development of a more complex post-Holocaust literary aesthetic is offered by Cynthia Ozick’s The Shawl. 2

The Shawl is neither Ozick’s first nor her most recent fictional reflection on the Holocaust. Earlier short pieces, such as “Bloodshed” and “The Pagan Rabbi,” and her lengthy first novel, Trust, dramatize predicaments posed by the Holocaust and its consequences. Her most recent novels, The Cannibal Galaxy and The Messiah of Stockholm, directly treat the Holocaust as the central event in twentieth-century Jewish consciousness. The Shawl, a pair of related stories that appeared individually in 1980 and 1983 and were published together in 1989, resembles Ozick’s other fiction insofar as it deals with a theme Ozick’s critics agree is one of her primary concerns, the tension between Jewish and non-Jewish cultures. 3 But unlike her other writings on the Holocaust, the very form...

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