Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2818
Cynthia Ozick’s thesis for her M.A. degree was titled “Parable in the Later Novels of Henry James,” an exercise that she later thought of as a first step in an act of devotion that resulted in her belief in the exclusivity of art. In effect, as a result of studying...
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Cynthia Ozick’s thesis for her M.A. degree was titled “Parable in the Later Novels of Henry James,” an exercise that she later thought of as a first step in an act of devotion that resulted in her belief in the exclusivity of art. In effect, as a result of studying Henry James, she became, she believed, a worshiper at the altar of art, a devotee of the doctrine of art for art’s sake. This idea—one that many believe places art before life, form before content, beauty before truth, aesthetic enjoyment before moral behavior—became the belief system that led Ozick to conclude that to worship art is to worship idols—in effect, to break the Mosaic law. This kind of understanding led Ozick to study the Jewish textual tradition and the role of Judaism in Western culture.
In the 1980’s, Ozick began to realize that creative writers needed to use the highest powers of imagination to posit an incorporeal god, as exists in the Jewish faith, and to put forth a vision of moral truth rooted in the history, traditions, and literature of the Jewish people. Ozick’s success in this endeavor is manifested not only in her identification as a Jewish American author but also in the number of awards she has received from representatives of the Jewish people. Perhaps most important, however, is her own satisfaction that in her writing she is serving and has continued to serve the cause of moral truth according to Mosaic law.
A highly serious approach to art as embodying moral imperatives, however, is not necessarily one that eschews metafictional techniques, repetitions, reworkings, and story sequences. Happily, in her use of self-referential devices and other dazzling postmodern presentations of the fantastic, the irreverent, and the grotesque, Ozick’s techniques are relevant to the traditions and teachings of Judaism, where magic, dreams, and fantastic occurrences are ways to embody and convey truth.
“The Pagan Rabbi”
“The Pagan Rabbi” is a case in point. It is the story of Isaac Kornfeld, a pious and intelligent man who one day hangs himself from the limb of a tree. Isaac’s story is told by a friend who has known Isaac since they were classmates in the rabbinical seminary and who is a parallel character to Isaac. In the same way that the narrator and Isaac are counterparts, the fathers of both men are set up as opposites who agree on one thing only—that philosophy is an abomination that must lead to idolatry (the worship of false gods). Though the fathers are rivals, the sons accept the apparent differences in their own personalities and remain friends. In time, their different ambitions and talents separate them. The narrator leaves the seminary, marries a Gentile, and becomes a furrier; Isaac continues his brilliant career in the seminary and achieves the peak of his renown at the time of his death, when he has almost reached the age of thirty-six. The narrator, now a bookseller separated from his wife, learns that Isaac has hanged himself with his prayer shawl from a tree in a distant park. Immediately, the narrator takes a subway to the site of the suicide; Isaac’s behavior seems totally alien to his character and personality.
In the remainder of the story, Ozick attempts to explain the odd circumstances of Isaac’s death, and, by means of the parallelisms, inversions, and doublings, point to the ramifications of leaving the intellectual path for the mysteries and seductions of the unknown world of fantasy, magic, and dream. Apparently Isaac, shortly after his marriage, began to seek different kinds of pleasure that may have been associated with the marriage bed and the beautiful Scheindel. In line with marriage customs, Scheindel covers her lustrous black hair after the wedding ceremony and subsequently bears Isaac seven daughters, one after another. As he fathers each daughter, Isaac invents bedtime stories for each, relating to such aberrations as speaking clouds, stones that cry, and pigs with souls. At the same time, Isaac shows an inordinate interest in picnics in strange and remote places.
As Isaac behaves in odder and odder ways for a rabbi, exhibiting unhealthy (because excessive) interest in the natural world, Scheindel becomes more and more puzzled and estranged, since she has no interest in old tales of sprites, nymphs, gods, or magic events. Scheindel’s refusal to countenance anything magical is in counterpoint to her escape from the electrified fences of the concentration camp, which seemed a miracle of chance. Isaac’s notebook offers little explanation for his behavior, though it is filled with romantic jottings, quotations from lyric poets, and a strange reference to his age, using the means of counting rings as for a tree. Below this unusual computation, Isaac has written a startling message: “Great Pan lives.”
The narrator begins to understand more as Scheindel reads a letter written by Isaac and left tucked in his notebook. The letter makes clear that Isaac has eschewed deeply held Jewish beliefs to accept a kind of animism or pantheism, where all matter has life and, moreover, soul, although all matter except for human beings can live separate from their souls and thus are able to know everything around them. Humans cannot live separate from their souls and thus are cursed with the inability to escape from their bodies except through death. Isaac concludes that there may be another route to freedom—exaltation and ecstasy by means of coupling with a freed soul. The idea, once conceived, needs a trial, and Isaac’s efforts are subsequently rewarded by the appearance of a dryad, the soul of a tree. The dryad’s lovemaking brings Isaac to marvels and blisses that no man, it is said, has experienced since Adam. Isaac errs, however, in trying to trap the dryad into his own mortal condition. In so doing, he loses his own soul. His soul free, Isaac’s body is doomed to death. More important, however, the soul retains the visage of the rabbi, who has been and will be the one who walks indifferently through the beauties of the fields, declaring that the sound, smells, and tastes of the law are more beautiful than anything to be found in the natural world.
Scheindel’s repugnance toward, and lack of charity for, her husband’s folly surprises the narrator and turns him away from her. The narrator is able to appreciate the subtlety of the rabbi’s thinking and the bravery of the pursuit, but Scheindel is one who guarded the Mosaic law with her own wasted body during the Holocaust, and Scheindel is the issue here—not intellectual subtlety—she who seemed doomed to death when she was seventeen years old, she who traded her youth and vitality for marriage to a Jewish rabbi. After his conversation with Scheindel, and as an ironic afterthought, the narrator goes home to clear his house of his three paltry houseplants. His gesture next to Isaac’s forthright penetration into the forest, however, indicates something of the struggle of every Jew seduced by the pleasures of the beautiful but charged to interpret and guard the laws instead.
By the time of the publication of “The Shawl” in The New Yorker and “Rosa,” also in The New Yorker, Ozick had come to articulate fairly clearly her recognition that imagination need not be a negative, leading to idolatry, but a positive, allowing Jews to imagine a god without image. These stories are of exceptional importance and significance in the Ozick canon. In them, Ozick deals directly with the horror of the Holocaust. Rosa is the focal character of both stories, each of which exists as a separate entity coherent in itself, but also, when juxtaposed as in a diptych or modified story sequence, each takes on added significance as the two parts interact with each other.
In “The Shawl,” Rosa is a young woman with a baby in her arms wrapped in a shawl that serves not only to shelter the child, called Magda, but also to hide it, to muffle its cries, and to succor it. With Rosa is her young niece, Stella, who is jealous of Magda and craves the shawl for her own comfort. Deprived of her shawl, the baby begins to cry and crawl around on the ground. Rosa’s dilemma must be excruciatingly painful. She understands that her adolescent niece took the shawl, trying to cling to her own life, and she understands that if she chances getting the baby without the shawl to cover it up, she is likely to lose both her life and Magda’s. She chooses to go after the shawl first, and the fatal moment arrives too soon. A German officer finds the child wandering around and hurls her against the electrified fence.
Complicating the issue is the question of who is Magda’s father. Early in the story, it is suggested that the father is no Jew, since Magda has blue eyes and blond hair and seems a pure Aryan, a situation that causes Stella to react even more bitterly. As in any nightmare, the dreaded occurs. Stella steals the shawl; the baby cries, wanders about, and is killed. Rosa survives the horrible ordeal as she has survived others, including repeated rapes by German soldiers. She knows that any action will result in her death, so she stuffs the shawl in her own mouth and drinks Magda’s saliva to sustain herself.
For “Rosa,” Ozick won four awards. On the basis of the story’s publication, she was named one of three best short-story writers in the United States. Because the story does not proceed chronologically, a brief plot summary is helpful. After Rosa and Stella are rescued from the camps, Rosa brings Stella to the United States, where Stella gets a job and Rosa opens an antique shop. The action takes place some thirty-five years after the occurrences described in “The Shawl.” Rosa is still very angry with Stella for her role in Magda’s death, and she is able to get little personal satisfaction from her activities in the antique shop. Apparently, her customers do not want to listen to the stories she has to tell, and one day, extremely angry and apparently insane, Rosa destroys her shop. To escape institutionalization, she agrees to move to what appears to be a poverty-stricken retirement hotel in Miami Beach. Life is difficult for her. The intense heat makes it hard for her to get out into the sunlight in order to shop. When she does eat, she scavenges or makes do with tiny portions, such as a cracker with grape jelly or a single sardine. The condition of her clothes seems to indicate that she has nothing to wear. One morning, however, Rosa makes her way to a supermarket, and there, she meets Simon Persky. Persky is not a person in the ordinary mold. He notices Rosa on a personal level and insists that she respond to him. While Rosa’s relationship with Simon Persky is developing, Ozick establishes two parallel plot lines having to do with Rosa’s request of Stella that she send Magda’s shawl and a request from a Dr. Tree asking Stella to help him conduct research on Rosa’s reaction to her imprisonment and ill treatment.
These three plot lines weave about one another, providing the matrices for the action. Rosa is responsible for saving Stella’s life in the concentration camp and bringing her to the United States, and Stella is indirectly responsible for Magda’s death, perhaps the single most horrible thing that happened to Rosa in a life full of horrors—the internment, the death of family and friends, assaults and rape by brutal Nazis, near starvation, and finally Magda’s execution by electric shock. Since Magda’s death, Rosa has teetered on the brink of insanity, managing to hold herself together by working and by the creative act of writing letters to an imaginary Magda who, in Rosa’s fantasy, has survived and become a professor of Greek philosophy at Columbia University. Stella too has survived in Rosa’s imagination in another guise. She is a thief, a bloodsucker, evil personified, and the Angel of Death. To Magda, Rosa writes letters in perfect Polish, literary and learned. To Stella, Rosa writes in crude English, a language she never bothered to learn. To Stella, Rosa admits that Magda is dead; to Magda, Rosa explains that Stella is unable to accept and cannot be told the truth.
The shawl, which Stella agrees to send to Rosa and which finally arrives, acted in Poland during the worst years as an umbrella covering the three people—Rosa, prepubescent Stella, and baby Magda—and providing sustenance and security, even though illusionary. After Magda’s death, the shawl becomes for Rosa an icon; “idol,” “false god,” Stella says, since Rosa worships it and prays to it.
Dr. Tree is another threat to Rosa; he is a kind of parasite, living to feed off the horrors attached to other people’s lives. He wants to interview Rosa for a book that he is writing on Holocaust survivors. His letter to Rosa calling her a survivor is replete with jargon, with clinical terms naming the horrible conditions with neutral language and hiding the grotesque reality under the name of his own Institute for Humanitarian Context. Rosa objects to being called a “survivor” because the word dehumanizes her and every other person on the planet. Persky, on the other hand, offers Rosa an actual friendship, a human relationship in concrete, not abstract, terms. Thus he emerges as winner of Rosa’s attention, with Dr. Tree dismissed and memories of Magda put on hold for a while.
The Puttermesser Papers
The Puttermesser Papers consists of a series of five previously published short stories about Ruth Puttermesser. In the stories, it is often difficult to distinguish between what actually happens to her and what she fantasizes. In the first story, “Puttermesser: Her Work History, Her Ancestry, Her Afterlife,” for example, she visits her Uncle Zindel for Hebrew lessons, but the narrator says that Uncle Zindel died before Puttermesser was born. In the second story, “Puttermesser and Xanthippe,” Puttermesser creates a female golem, a person made of clay, from the dirt in the flowerpots in her apartment. The golem, named Xanthippe, helps Puttermesser get elected mayor of New York City and helps Puttermesser transform New York into a kind of paradise. The golem discovers sex, however, and as a result destroys all of the wonderful things she has helped Puttermesser achieve.
In each story, Puttermesser is a loser. She tries to achieve some kind of ideal and ends up with an unpleasant reality. In the long run, things never go right for her. In the third story, “Puttermesser Paired,” she finds someone she considers to be a true soul mate, Rupert Rubeeno, a copyist. Rubeeno and Puttermesser share a love of literature, especially an interest in the British authors and lovers George Eliot, the novelist, and George Lewes, the essayist. Eventually they marry, but Rubeeno leaves her on their wedding night, apparently without consummating the marriage.
In the fourth story, “Puttermesser and the Muscovite Cousin,” one of her relatives in the Soviet Union calls her and asks her to save the relative’s child. The child, Lidia Klavdia Girshengornova, turns out to be a grown woman interested in making a fortune in America. Eventually, she returns to the Soviet Union to rejoin her boyfriend. The final section, “Puttermesser in Paradise,” is probably the saddest of all. In it, Puttermesser is killed by a man who rapes her after she is dead. She enters a Paradise in which all things seem to go well for her, but in Paradise, she ultimately finds no happiness, for even there, “nothing is permanent.” She discovers the secret meaning of Paradise: “It too is hell.” Each thing she enjoys there disappears in turn, leaving her longing to be back on earth in spite of earth’s having also been in many ways unpleasant for her.
Discussions of Cynthia Ozick’s fiction often include the descriptors “uncompromising,” “demanding,” “difficult”—characteristics that can diminish a writer’s popularity and, consequently, status. For Ozick, however, no such diminution has taken place. Indeed, her reputation has grown steadily and strongly, her writings gaining more attention and Ozick herself more recognition. The phenomenon is not, after all, that surprising. If her protestations are stronger than those of other Jewish American writers, her demands are based more clearly in moral imperatives of the Jewish tradition; yet there is another tradition as truly her own—one commentators sometimes forget—an American literary heritage, with Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, Edgar Allan Poe, William Faulkner, those writers who clearly work like Ozick in a realm where the “power of blackness” wrestles with us all.