Academic journal article MELUS

Disruptive Memories: Cynthia Ozick, Assimilation, and the Invented Past

Academic journal article MELUS

Disruptive Memories: Cynthia Ozick, Assimilation, and the Invented Past

Article excerpt

He that applieth himself to the fear of God, And setteth his mind upon the Law of the Most High, He searcheth out the wisdom of all ancients, And is occupied with the prophets of old.

- The Wisdom of Ben Sira

The popular and academic successes of Jewish writers in the 1950s and 60s led John Updike - in what now seems high comedy - to a sustained fret over the popularity of things ethnic in American literature.(1) While Updike's paranoia about his unmarketable ethnicity has abated, the predominance and importance of Jewish writers certainly have not. Even as I was writing this essay, Philip Roth won the P.E.N./Faulkner award for 1993. By almost any standard, the achievement of Jewish-American artists denotes a success that parallels the general prominence of Jewish-Americans in American life.

Still, for Cynthia Ozick that very success marks a more profound failure. In her estimation, Jewish-American authors have too often bought literary success at the price of an internal colonialism, or - to use a more Ozickian term - at the price of an idolatry by which they eschew that which is historically Jewish in favor of the ephemera of Jewish ethnicity. While Jewish writers maintain an ethnic exoticism that is currently attractive to an American audience, in Ozick's view they have lost a full-blown Jewish identity:

To be a Jew is to be old in history, but not only that; to be a Jew is to be a member of a distinct civilization expressed through an oceanic culture in possession of a group of essential concepts and a multitude of texts and attitudes elucidating those concepts. Next to the density of such a condition - or possibility - how gossamer are the stories of those writers "of Jewish extraction" whose characters are pale indifferent echoes of whatever lies at hand.... (Metaphor 224)

In the conflict between descent and consent outlined by Werner Sollors, Ozick is dismayed that, in her estimation, Jewish-American writers have eschewed descent - the density of Jewish civilization and memory - for the easy currency of consent which enables success in the American mainstream. For Ozick, the success of Philip Roth, Norman Mailer, Henry Roth, and even Saul Bellow, marks the failure of specifically Jewish religious and ethical ideals and the loss of Jewish memory as an effective cultural force in the present(.2)

The centrality of Jewish historical memory to Ozick's imagination suggests her commitment to the central traditions of Jewish religious thought and practice.(3) Wielding an iconoclastic club against the Oedipalizing of literary history practiced by Harold Bloom, Ozick affirms that

[Jewish liturgy] posits recapturing without revision the precursor's stance and strength when it iterates "our God, and God of our fathers, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob." Nearly every congeries of Jewish thought is utterly set against the idea of displacing the precursor. "Torah" includes the meanings of tradition and transmittal together. (Ardor 194)

Thus, Elaine Kauvar is right to assert that for Ozick "the principle of continuity overwhelmingly takes precedence over the desire to create new forms..." (xii). However, such desire for continuity is as much a problem as it is a resource. If memory is at the root of Jewish life, contemporary cultural developments have threatened the continuity of that memory. Jewish memory, in Ozick's estimation, has faced a number of threats in contemporary culture, not least of which is the threat of assimilation. Ozick's sense of Jewish cultural crisis motivates her work as she attempts to recreate collective memories through fiction. In the balance of this essay, I will analyze the ways in which Ozick addresses the threat of assimilation as she forges a fiction that is at once contemporary and memorial, in keeping with the history of Jewish religious practice.

Guarding against assimilation, to some extent, has been a constitutive feature of Jewish religious imagination since Moses - as is evidenced by Biblical injunctions against worshipping idols and against intermarriage. …

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