The Synthesis of the Mind and Body in Cynthia Ozick's the Cannibal Galaxy

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Abstract

[1] Hester Lilt, like many of Cynthia Ozick's female protagonists, is unabashshedly independent of men. A philosopher, European refugee, and single mother, she remains an enigma to the hero of the novel, Joseph Brill, who is both drawn to her intellectual brilliance yet repelled by her fierce emotional and physical attachment to her daughter. The midrashic figure of Lilith, the woman who would not compromise her own sense of sexuality and autonomy and who paid for this independence with exile from Eden, is, in many ways, the metahuman archetype that graces Hester's life. Hester answers to no man, yet she remains alone, and like Lilith, she is demonized for this by Brill. It is he who makes the negative connection between Lilt and Lilith; it is the reader who sees the rightness in Hester's path, borne out by the later brilliance and success of her painter daughter, Beulah.

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[2] Like many of Cynthia Ozick's female protagonists, Hester Lilt, in The Cannibal Galaxy, is unmarried. The bias against a 'domesticated' female, a woman whose mind appears to be subservient to the life of the body and whose body clearly belongs, in the proprietary matrimonial sense, to a man, is reflected in Lilt's life choices. Her work, her personal life, and her personality seem to combine, in longing and in deed, the worlds of the physical and of the intellectual, the ritualistic and the conceptual, exemplifying an androgyny which Carolyn Heilbrun describes as an attempt "to liberate the individual from the confines of the appropriate." (1) Simultaneously, Lilt expresses the passion of motherhood. When Joseph Brill, the principal of her daughter's school, attacks Hester for being so blindly devoted to her daughter, Hester's strident rebuttal is single-minded: "She's everything. She's my life." (92)

[3] For Brill, a failed astronomer, devotion to nurturing children is seen as beneath a woman of Hester's brilliance. He remains mired in a traditional view of seeing women as breeders and when an extraordinary one comes along, then she, by definition, had to be lifted out of the realm of the physical and into that the idealized 'purely' intellectual.

[4] But Hester Lilt's passion for her child does not compromise her independence or her intense intellectual life. Rather, it is the notion and phenomenon of domination, specifically of men over women, which she sees as potentially compromising. "Ozick uses marriage," Mark Krupnick writes, "as James frequently does, to figure a larger crisis of culture." (2) The usurpation of a woman's abilities, the consistent prejudice against the fusion of her intellectual and creative talents, is what provokes Lilt's rejection not only of Brill's romantic overtures towards her, but also of his estimation of her. For a man whose name means eyeglasses in German and Yiddish, Brill's ability to see Hester realistically, is severely limited.

[5] For while he is determined to see her as an extraordinary woman, he can only continue to do so if she fits into his idiosyncratic lens. "'The mother. It's a question of who the mother is'" (41) he says to the staff when Hester registers her daughter Beulah (3) in his school. She is a serious thinker, a philosopher whose works include titles such as The World as Appearance, Divining Meaning, and Metaphor as Exegesis. She considers herself an imagistic linguistic logician, "a phrase foreign to Brill" (47). He is clever enough to know that the density and difficulty of Hester's books are what he finds attractive. One cannot help but wonder about Ozick's cleverness here to not only ridicule Brill's obtuseness but also Lilt's self-conscious intellectual pose. For this phrase, 'imagistic linguistic logician,' echoes some of the self-aggrandizing language of post-structural theory, language popular and prolific in learned journals in 1983, when this novel was published. …