Cynthia Ozick Essay - Critical Essays

Cynthia Ozick American Literature Analysis

In her essays, as well as her fiction, Ozick has repeatedly returned to a handful of themes connected with problems created by being Jewish in a secular society. In the earlier works Trust and The Pagan Rabbi, and Other Stories, the Jewish connection is most obvious. In later works, the moral burden placed on post-Holocaust Jewish generations, while it might be less pronounced, remains indigenous to the characters’ psyches. Ozick’s work serves as a reminder that it is impossible to separate modern Judaism from the devastation that Jewish culture endured during World War II, because Judaism in a vast majority of the civilized world was directly affected. As a result of Adolf Hitler’s “final solution” (his attempted extermination of the Jews), the Jewish community in the United States burgeoned, the state of Israel was formed, and European Jewish culture, developed over centuries, was decimated.

Ozick chose a career as a storyteller, yet she has remained unsure of the morality of telling stories. Whether the creativity that inspires storytelling is in conflict with the biblical Second Commandment prohibiting idol worship, and whether the human creativity required to enter an author’s make-believe world competes with the world of the Creator of the Universe are common themes in Ozick’s fiction. Yet her assertion that people become what they most desire to contend with is how Ozick has justified the apparent moral conflict with her career choice. “Usurpation (Other People’s Stories)” warns against this bending of the Mosaic rule, while “The Pagan Rabbi” illustrates the dangerous results when the creative imagination is allowed to overtake the Jewish mind-set.

Another of her interests that recurs in several Ozick works is the nature of language and its influence upon human culture. Because Ozick is a highly articulate writer who manipulates language with enormous precision and artistry, this latter curiosity is not surprising. Not only is Ozick a master of English, the secular language, she also reveals her deep affection for Yiddish, the mamaloshen, or mother tongue, in stories such as “Envy: Or, Yiddish in America.”

This interest in language has fueled Ozick’s desire to plow through her vast and ever-growing reading list. Although she has read widely and broadly, Ozick has “collected” twentieth century writers, most of whom are either Jewish or women (Bernard Malamud and Virginia Woolf, to name two). Ozick has used reading to prime herself for writing, and much of her fiction has been inspired by writers whose work she has read. In an interview, she commented, “I read in order to write.” The Messiah of Stockholm illustrates what Ozick meant by this. This title is borrowed from Polish writer Bruno Schulz’s lost manuscript “The Messiah,” and the plot is about the pursuit of the vanished masterwork. “Envy: Or, Yiddish in America” incorporates a caricature of another Jewish writer, Nobel laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer.

Other than reading, a main source of Ozick’s inspiration has been her well-grounded Jewish knowledge. Her familiarity with the Talmud (the authoritative body of Jewish tradition and laws) and Kabbala (Jewish mysticism) has often been the foundation upon which Ozick has built her prose. In The Puttermesser Papers, the protagonist, using ancient rituals, creates a golem out of the earth of her houseplants. Ozick writes about Jewish matters with authority and authenticity, whether her characters be observant or assimilated Jews.

One drawback with being an intellectual and a writer of ideas is that Ozick’s characterizations tend to lack warmth, often making it difficult for the average reader to identify with her characters. Protagonists such as Lars Andemening in The Messiah of Stockholm contribute to this perception of Ozick as a writer of ideas rather than as a window on the human condition. Lars, although an interesting character, has no ability to form lasting relationships and has all but cut himself off from society, even to the point of sleeping while everyone else is at work and working while everyone else is asleep. Edelshtein, the protagonist in “Envy: Or, Yiddish in America,” is characterized as pitiable but basically unlikable—he, too, is unable to have a successful marriage or trust even his closest friends. Rabbi Kornfeld in “The Pagan Rabbi,” a character the reader knows only posthumously, lives in a world completely removed from reality. In Heir to the Glimmering World, Professor Mitwisser has become almost a recluse in his study of the Karaites, a medieval Jewish movement.

Ozick, opposing the generally accepted rule that writers should write about that with which they already are familiar, has taught that writers should write about what they do not know, thereby removing the tendency toward insulation and forcing them to broaden their imaginations. Ozick has followed her own rule, especially when choosing settings for much of her fiction. A native New Yorker who has lived almost her entire life in that state, Ozick has written novels and short stories set in places as varied as Paris, Sweden, Canada, the Midwestern United States, Jerusalem, and Germany.

Ozick embraces her designation as part of the Jewish intellectual establishment. Jewish myths, traditions, speech patterns, religious practices and customs, and historical experiences find their place in her fiction. She has offered her audience prose for thought. Often complex, her writing, with its carefully constructed sentences and rich description, rewards the reader in equal measure to the effort spent reading it.

The Cannibal Galaxy

First published: 1983

Type of work: Novel

A middle-aged school principal who has spent his life seeking out a child prodigy is blind to the brilliance of one of his own pupils.

In a story rich with metaphor, even the title of Cynthia Ozick’s first novel in seventeen years, The Cannibal Galaxy, is pregnant with meaning. An astronomical term, a cannibal galaxy is a huge galaxy that swallows another until the smaller becomes an insignificant component of the larger; Western culture is the cannibal galaxy that devours Jewish culture. This story is about the struggle against having Judaism devoured by the modern world, yet the characters’ particularly Jewish struggles parallel and reflect the struggles of many people, regardless of religious or cultural background. Many unique cultures, while they attempt to emulate the West, paradoxically fear the loss of identity in becoming Westernized.

The protagonist, Principal Brill, is caught between two worlds—his native Parisian Jewish ghetto, where he studied the centuries-old traditions of his ancestors, and modern-day Paris, complete with arguably the world’s best museum, the Louvre, and the world-renowned university, the Sorbonne. In order to fulfill his destiny, Brill founds an American school based upon what he considers to be his unique inspiration, a dual curriculum. He theorizes that this combined method of learning will bridge the gap between the secular and the Jewish, thereby improving both teaching methodologies. As in numerous Jewish day schools, Brill plans that students will learn traditional Hebraic subjects, the Talmud and Gemara, half the day, and modern secular subjects, science and mathematics, during the other half.

Brill devotes his adult life to this pedagogical pursuit, waiting for an exceptional child to work through his dual curriculum and to prove the worth of his life’s work. Brill, however, is so fully absorbed in his preconception of the exceptional child that he overlooks her when she emerges. It is not until the child, Beulah Lilt, reaches adulthood and makes her significant contribution to society that Brill is at last able to see her brilliance, which has been discovered by others. Not surprising to the reader, but an agonizing shock to Brill, Beulah never mentions her childhood education except to note its lack of exception.

The way in which Ozick belittles Brill’s entire life’s work is severe, but her point, that compromise merely encourages mediocrity, is well taken. Rather than combining the best of both the traditional and modern worlds, Brill is left with a mediocre mixture of the two, which produces neither Jewish nor secular scholars of merit. Everything in middle-aged Brill’s life is middling. Even his school is geographically located in the middle of the United States.

For much of his life, Brill sees himself as a creator and an original thinker. Yet when he meets the linguist Hester Lilt, a true intellectual, he cannot even hold a conversation with her without constantly being reminded of his ineptitude. Hester does not accept Brill’s compliment that she is an original thinker. Rather, by way of his compliment, Hester forces Brill to realize how incredibly ordinary he is. Principal Brill acts as a reminder to many who think of themselves as original, creative, and maybe even brilliant. True brilliance is rare, and the last original thinking, Hester Lilt humblingly reminds him, occurred with Plato.

The Messiah of Stockholm

First published: 1987

Type of work: Novel

An adult orphan pursues a lost masterpiece manuscript written by the man he imagines to have been his father.

The Messiah of Stockholm has a dual purpose: It is Ozick’s tribute to Bruno Schulz, the legendary Polish author of Sklepy Cynamonowe (1934; Cinnamon Shops, and Other Stories, 1963) killed by the Nazis in a mass slaying. The Messiah of Stockholm also focuses on the aspect of human nature that craves knowledge of the past in order to have a basis upon which to mold a perception of the present. The deeply human need to have a personal, as well as a cultural, history is one theme winding through this complex novel; this need for a self-history directs the path that orphaned Lars Andemening’s life follows.

Ozick’s third novel, set in the frigid city of Stockholm, Sweden, is a chilling story of one man’s desperate search and struggle to create a rational past for himself. Lars, who selected his name from a dictionary, seeks help from a cast of other World War II refugees who also have public identities of their own choosing. Not all the secondary characters are refugees, however; those in Lars’s world fall into two distinct categories: colleagues with factual pasts from the “stewpot” where he works, and refugees from the bookstore with fictional histories. Lars seeks out members of the latter group to help him discover his own indeterminable origins. Obsessed with his search for verification of something impossible to verify, Lars is incapable of establishing lasting relationships with anyone from either category.

His lack of any family history is considered cause, at least by one of his former mothers-in-law, for Lars’s lack of success in both his personal and professional life. His daughter lives in America; a dried-up childhood paint set is Lars’s only remaining connection with her. He only chose to keep the paints because of Schulz, who had been an art teacher as well as a writer; Lars hoped to see some of his “father’s” talent genetically passed on to his daughter.

Lars’s obsession with Schulz invades his consciousness awake or asleep, the latter being when Lars sees “as if he lets me have his [Schulz’s] own eye to look through.” In his fixation with discovering his past, he...

(The entire section is 4760 words.)