Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 523
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...
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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.