- Rereading Cynthia Ozick:Pluralism, Postmodernism, and the Multicultural Encounter
The decades-long consistency of Cynthia Ommitment to Jewish moral concerns and her concomitant iconoclasm in defense of human over material and even aesthetic values has led to a critical consensus that Ozick's great topic is the dichotomous values of Hebraism and Hellenism.1 Ozick herself has often framed the competing cultural impulses inhabiting the Western mind in just these terms, in essays (Preface, "Metaphor and Memory"), stories ("The Pagan Rabbi," "The Dock-Witch"), and novels (The Cannibal Galaxy, Heir to the Glimmering World). In her early fiction, writer-protagonists self-flagellate over their covetousness for fame, and some of her best stories represent how a devotion to literature above and against real life turns into a self-cannibalizing venture for authors. In her novels, her heroes and heroines are often caught between their attraction to the spontaneity of their inventions and their commitment to tradition and memory. In Ozick's intellectual world-view, echoed in the predominant critical interpretation of her literature, the spontaneous, ahistorical, creative, aesthetic impulse—which is also chauvinistic, bigoted, anti-Semitic, soulless, and pagan—is Hellenistic. Memory, tradition, covenant, empathy, and ethics are Hebraic.
Evidence for the critical consensus seems present in these lines from Ozick's first published story about moral persuasion, "The Pagan Rabbi": [End Page 56]
"What are they like, those people?"
"They're exactly like us, if you can think what we would be if we were like them."
"We are not like them. Their bodies are more to them than ours are to us. Our books are holy, to them their bodies are holy."(12)
The holiness of the text, vehicle of God's word and epistle of moral rectitude, contrasts with the epicurean pleasure of the body. At first glance, the symmetry of books and bodies suggests a neat homology between the sacred and the profane, or Jews and Gentiles. That's one way of looking at it. However, with Ozick's writing, nothing is ever so neat, for moral paradox and quandary are at the crux of her work, as they are in real life.
Paying more attention to the question preceding the answer offers another perspective. The question, posed by Sheindel, wife of the suicide pagan rabbi, presumes the most basic sort of difference. Indeed, in 1966, the year "The Pagan Rabbi" was published, "what are they like, those people?" could have been a banner question limning all sorts of cultural encounters between people of different cultures, ethnicities, and religions. Edged with suspicion, curious without being generous, and quick to judge, scrutiny of the other is the gritty corollary to the dominant politics of recognition that emerged in the sixties. The scrutiny might occur between whites and blacks, Protestants and Catholics, Jews and Gentiles, Beats and squares, communists and capitalists. Identity refraction may not have been on the character's mind but was inescapable for mid-sixties intellectual denizens of New York such as Ozick. The subsequent emergence of minority authors into the literary mainstream, combined with the academic valorization of multiculturalism and ethnicity, would render the study of the "other" a near-moral imperative. To draw the story out just a bit further, by the eighties, the enfranchisement of academic multiculturalism and the popular marketing of newly empowered ethnic authors ended up leaving many Jewish authors, critics, and scholars on the sidelines, simultaneously resentful and envious of a multicultural literary movement with no place for Jewish studies. Returning to the early formation of ethnic and multicultural studies, and—beyond intuition—placing Ozick's work at the beginning of this formation, may give insight [End Page 57] into how it happened that Jewish authors—the celebrated ethnic group of the fifties—were found incompatible with the new vogue of difference by the end of the twentieth century.2
Pluralism and Postmodernism
If we do not typically think of Cynthia Ozick as "multicultural," it is precisely because she has created a literary world where social identities are either comedically sent up or, in the case of her most scathing critique of identity, The Messiah of Stockholm, smoked out and incinerated.3 Indeed, The Messiah...