Cynthia Ozick: In Defense of Imagination

By | Mar 29, 2021
Cynthia Ozick Pen America

Every few years, a YouTube clip makes its way around the literary corners of the internet: A young Cynthia Ozick stands up at a 1971 panel on feminism featuring Norman Mailer. In a previous book, Mailer had written, “A good novelist can do without everything but the remnant of his balls.” Ozick, with straightforwardness and perhaps faux innocence, asks: “Mr. Mailer, when you dip your balls in ink, what color ink is it?” The room, including Susan Sontag and Germaine Greer, bursts into laughter and applause. “I cede the round to you,” Mailer says. This exchange is quintessentially Ozick: funny, playful, unafraid and with the uncommon ability to be simultaneously biting and unfailingly polite.

Cynthia Ozick had published her first novel, Trust, five years earlier in 1966 at the age of 37. Seven novels, seven short-story collections and nine books of criticism later, the lifelong New Yorker (now living in New Rochelle) has become one of America’s foremost fiction writers and literary critics. Her carefully crafted prose makes her, as New York Magazine said, responsible for “some of the best sentences of the last half-century.” In an interview, David Foster Wallace named her, along with Cormac McCarthy and Don DeLillo, one of “the country’s best living fiction writers.” As a self-described “Jewish autodidact,” she writes stories that are immersed in Jewish history and textual knowledge. In The Messiah of Stockholm (1987), a book reviewer believes he is the orphaned son of Bruno Schulz, the Jewish writer murdered in Nazi-occupied Poland. In The Puttermesser Papers (1997), a New York lawyer creates a golem out of potting soil who helps her become the mayor of New York.

Ozick’s new novel, Antiquities, is narrated in the voice of Lloyd Wilkinson Petrie, a blue-blooded casual anti-Semite and purported cousin of the real-life archaeologist Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie. Petrie is in the midst of writing a memoir of his days at an elite boys’ boarding school and his encounters with a fellow student who claims descent from an ancient Jewish community on Egypt’s Elephantine Island. In this slim volume, Ozick explores how the meaning we give objects and memories can shift over time. Ozick speaks with Moment about her new book, “moribund old men,” cultural appropriation, the state of Jewish American literature today and more.

Cynthia Ozick asking Norman Mailer the question, “Mr. Mailer, when you dip your balls in ink, what color ink is it?” at a 1971 roundtable discussion on feminism in New York City. (Photo credit: YouTube)

Few people know about the Jewish community at Elephantine who had their own Temple. What made you want to write about a (supposed) descendant of that community?

When I discovered the existence of a parallel Temple circa 500 BCE—despite Deuteronomy’s prohibition against other centers of worship—I knew at once that it was irresistible as the seed of a story. The history of this community is supported by papyri, letters to and from the Jerusalem Temple (a trove of these are at the Brooklyn Museum) and by archaeological excavations. Historians say that the Jews at Elephantine were mercenaries. My story says they weren’t.

You allude to Freud’s fascination with antiquities and, of course, it’s the title of your novel. Is your interest in Sir Flinders Petrie and Egyptology of long standing?

I owe what I’ve learned of Sir Flinders Petrie, and much else, to my daughter and son-in-law, both of whom are Near Eastern archaeologists. This discipline was once known as biblical archaeology, a name no longer in good standing.

What moved you to write this novel in the voice of an anti-Semite? Was it difficult?

It wasn’t difficult or alien to write about something so prevalent at the time: the sentiments of the high-minded and cultivated Protestant elite. Think of Lionel Trilling’s early troubles at Columbia University.

A selection of Ozick’s works including Trust (1966), The Messiah of Stockholm (1987), Heir to the Glimmering World (2004) and Foreign Bodies (2010).

By writing in the voice of an anti-Semitic male WASP, you are far afield from the “write what you know” adage. What do you think of this writing advice?

We know more than we think we know; call it intuition. And “write what you know,” as usually preached, is narrowly circumscribing. At the height of the new feminism in the 1970s, sometimes called “the second wave” (and sometimes mocked as “Body Studies”), I was charged with disloyalty to my “gender” because so many of my protagonists were men. This was not merely one writer scolding another for unseemly defection. It was an attack on the nature of imagination itself.

I was charged with disloyalty to my “gender” because so many of my protagonists were men. This was not merely one writer scolding another for unseemly defection. It was an attack on the nature of imagination.

Why has cultural appropriation become such a hot-button issue in literature?

Because it too is an attack on the nature of imagination, which means that at bottom it is an attack on literature. The marvel of stories and novels is their power to take us out of our parochial selves, and to see into, empathize with, and almost become other human beings unlike ourselves. Anna Karenina moves us, yet her world is the French-speaking Russian aristocracy: What could be further away from our own experience? Or, whatever your origin or heritage or sensibility, read Frederick Douglass on his life as an enslaved person, and know and feel for the first time what you may never have known and felt before. “Cultural appropriation” is the name of a brute doctrinal system meant to create enmity rather than human connection.

Was Antiquities written pre-pandemic? Reading it now, it feels very relevant, a man stuck alone with his thoughts, looking back as things crumble around him. 

I began writing in the spring of 2020, when the concept and conditions of the pandemic were just bursting out of history and into daily life. But I was living in the mind and skin of Lloyd Wilkinson Petrie, and conscious of little else. Moribund old men and archaic pots pried out of the earth seemed to have everything in common.

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The plot seems to turn not so much on antique objects that can be grasped or studied as on secret, mystical things from the past that are essentially unknowable. Is there something wrong with how we readers, or our culture, approach the past?

Something wrong? I can only report on what I notice, and hope it won’t be taken as pontificating. America, it strikes me, is an absentminded society. Children don’t ask their grandparents about the time before they were born. Schools no longer teach fundamental civics. (When she first arrived in Washington in 2018, newly elected Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a graduate of Boston University, where she studied international relations, could not correctly identify what she called “the three chambers of government.”) The 1619 Project, a falsified history, has now taken hold of American education. Ideology replaces objective thinking, a plague that is rampant particularly in university humanities departments. Edward Said’s Orientalism has been especially influential. And it isn’t only the youngest generation that admits to never having heard of the Holocaust.

In the novel, so many people don’t belong: Jews not belonging at the Academy, Petrie not belonging among his peers, Ben-Zion Elefantin not belonging among non-Jews and Jews. Is the question of who fits in, and who doesn’t (and why), something you think about?

Who fits in and who doesn’t is something all societies think about (and practice), and there’s hardly a notable tale in any language, and in nearly every period, that doesn’t take precisely this as its chief theme. Don Quixote doesn’t fit in. Hamlet and Lear don’t fit in. Huckleberry Finn doesn’t fit in.

You have spoken a few times about some discomfort you feel about having published your 1980 short story, “The Shawl,” and the fictionalization of the Holocaust in general. How has your thinking on this evolved over time? And does the loss of survivors themselves change anything?

It’s indisputable that fiction addresses sympathetic emotion more easily than the starkness of documents, and therein lies its danger. Yet there is more truth-telling in a dutifully conscientious German freight report for so many Stücke (literally pieces, as in commodities) heading eastward with its caged and agonized Jews than in any effort of the imagination. By now, fictionalization of the Shoah in film, novels, even cartoons (i.e. so-called graphic novels), theater, museum installations, etc., is so prolific that all sense of proportion submits to whim or special effects.

And this is when good will is intended. But too often good will is not intended, and the instrumentalization (the new word for this is weaponization) of the Holocaust has poisoned the world. [People say] “What was done to the Jews, the Jews are now doing to the Palestinians, to American Blacks singled out by Israeli-trained police, to brutalized animals slaughtered for meat,” and so on and so on. As for survivors as voluntary educators in schools, they are a diminishing fraction that cannot hold against the flood.

One thing so many obsess over is this idea of the Great American Jewish Novel and Great American Jewish novelists. You don’t seem to ascribe much to those monikers, but I’m curious what you think about the state of Jewish fiction in America today?

The Great American Jewish Novel may well be the Great American Novel. For the latter, the two novels most often nominated are Huckleberry Finn and The Great Gatsby; both, I believe, are subsumed in Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March.

But what of this moment? The critic Irving Howe was notorious for his prediction that after the period of the great immigration, American Jews would be left barren of subject matter. But the new generation has other and more various inspirations. The latter-day presence of Soviet Jewish emigré children turned into mature American writers enriches Jewish literary horizons. Norman Mailer and E.L. Doctorow were not alone in fleeing any hint of curiosity or interest in Jewish history and thought. As for being drawn to Israel, it was once unthinkable for many American writers who were Jewish by birth, if not by knowledge and temperament, to contemplate the most colossal Jewish undertaking in 2,000 years. The new generation shrinks from nothing that pertains to Jewish actuality. Overall, even in their individuality, they appear to shun cultural timidity, and where there is timidity, there can never be greatness.

Hence the future of Jewish fiction in America promises confidence and strength—but only if the same can be said, in political and historical perspective, of the future of American Jews in society at large.

Opening picture: Cynthia Ozick at the 2008 PEN Literary Awards . (Photo credit: Beowulf Sheehan/PEN American Center Flickr) 

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