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  • The Daemonic Life of Objects:Object-Oriented Criticism and Cynthia Ozick's "The Pagan Rabbi"
  • Dillon Rockrohr (bio)

Cynthia Ozick's short story "The Pagan Rabbi" is about Isaac Kornfeld, a once brilliant and promising rabbi until he was found having hanged himself in a tree at Trilham's Inlet, a bay area just beyond the main part of the city. When the narrator of the story goes to visit Kornfeld's widow Sheindel after Kornfeld's death, Sheindel makes the narrator read aloud the suicide letter left in Kornfeld's pocket. This letter reveals the late contemplations of a man who, towards the end, was rapidly becoming rather unorthodox. Kornfeld became obsessed with the possibility of an inhuman vitality residing in Nature—in the rivers, the plants, and trees. This life, he determined, takes the form of entities like dryads and naiads called "the free souls" (2006, 20), which he contrasted with the souls of humans, who "are cursed with the indwelling" (16). Kornfeld's discoveries and his pursuit of copulating with one of the free souls leads ultimately to his suicide and to Sheindel's accusations that he had "scaled the Fence of the Law" and was therefore a pagan and not a Jew (17). The following essay reads "The Pagan Rabbi" in two ways: first, as a narrative which contains questions relevant to the discourses of object-oriented ontology, speculative realism, and the new materialisms. This reading will explore the story's own exploration of the Law's delimitation of the life of the human subject against a background of vegetable and animal life as well as the inanimate status of non-living things. In this reading, Kornfeld is a figure who transgresses that limit while yet imposing a mystical anthropomorphism—implicit in the force of the Law's delimitation—onto the life of the inhuman. The second reading of this work of fiction constitutes an experiment in developing an object-oriented literary theory that regards the fiction as an object itself, imbued with its own daemonic life. However, in contrast to the withdrawal of objects posited by Graham Harman, this reading will propose a Deleuzian ontology of objects as open, constituted by their vital aesthetic relations and interactions with other objects. This ontology will call for a literary critical method that forges new force-relations between reader and text and between text and world, thereby, through a productive process of dismantling and creation, revealing [End Page 207] our shifting intimacy to the multitude of things that coinhabit our worlds and ourselves.

The Law and Correlationism

In introducing Isaac Kornfeld to the reader, the narrator contrasts him to their fathers—both orthodox rabbis—and the narrator himself, a former seminarian turned atheist. Isaac maintained an interest in philosophy that their fathers rejected:

Neither man was philosophical in the slightest. It was the one thing they agreed on. "Philosophy is an abomination," Isaac's father used to say. "The Greeks were philosophers, but they remained children playing with their dolls. Even Socrates, a monotheist, nevertheless sent money down to the temple to pay for incense to their doll." "Idolatry is the abomination," Isaac argued, "not philosophy." "The latter is the corridor to the former," his father said. My own father claimed that if not for philosophy I would never have been brought to the atheism which finally led me to withdraw, in my second year, from the seminary. The trouble was not philosophy—I had none of Isaac's talent: his teachers later said of him that his imagination was so remarkable he could concoct holiness out of the fine line of a serif.


In describing philosophy as an abomination that inevitably leads to idolatry, Isaac's father suggests a distinction in legitimate forms of knowledge associated with the religious Law of Judaism. As a quintessential religion of the Book, orthodox Judaism regards reflection on its particular Law, inscribed in the Torah, as a fundamental practice of the holy life. To disregard the Law is to transgress it, to distinguish oneself from the community of the Law. The Law offers the particular religious community an epistemological framework of sanctioned knowledge, and this is why philosophy—associated here...


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