Ozick: Sapped of Quiddity

The NYT has a profile of author and critic Cynthia Ozick written by Giles Harvey (“Cynthia Ozick’s Long Crusade”).

Ozick’s writings are… how shall we say it… very Jewish.

Ozick came of age at the century’s midpoint, during the heyday of the New York Intellectuals, the group of largely Jewish writers and thinkers who, possessed by left-wing politics and a belief in the primacy of literature as a tool for comprehending self and society, “refused to be refused” by a WASP-dominated cultural establishment.

You get the idea.

When it comes to Gentiles, she has a giant chip on her shoulder.

Some example of how her Jewish ethnocentrism infused all aspects of her literary criticism:

[Harold] Bloom’s conception of poetry as a self-enclosed system that referred to nothing but itself, she charged, was a form of idolatry. The very idea of belatedness, so central to Bloom’s theory, was, in Ozick’s view, anathema to the Jewish tradition, according to which there were no latecomers.

Or this:

In an unpublished letter to Saul Bellow from the late 1980s that Ozick shared with me, she quotes some of Bellow’s words back to him: “As the son of immigrant parents, I recognized at an early age that I was called upon to decide for myself to what extent my Jewish origins … were to be allowed to determine the course of my life. I did not mean to be wholly dependent on history and culture. Full dependency must mean that I was done for.” Then Ozick writes: “It’s otherwise for me. I keep wanting to become my mother and father … and as I get older, I’m shocked now and again by the discovery of the music of their brains in my brain. … I’m not a runaway.” It made me think of her essay on Kafka from the new book, in which Ozick castigates John Updike for claiming that the author of “The Metamorphosis” transcends his “Jewish parochialism.” Such a view, she writes, “diminishes and disfigures” Kafka, whose feelings of ethnic marginality were, in her estimate, the source of his genius. This is true of Ozick herself: Her Jewishness is definitional without being delimiting. Quite the opposite.

Again, she castigated John Updike because that WASP tried to lift Kafka out of Jewish provincialism and into universalism, and for a proud Jew… that is deplorable.

Certainly it is impossible to understand Ozick’s pessimism, and its relevance to our current moment, without appreciating the essential Jewishness of her critique. To be a Jew, her work insists, is to recognize the tenuousness of cultural transmission. “All the World Wants the Jews Dead,” as the searing title of her 1974 essay has it, and the Jews, to be sure, have not made it this far by taking continuity for granted. The extraordinary dynamism of Ozick’s thinking and writing derives from the conviction that thinking and writing, the study of certain sacred texts, are not merely ends in themselves but matters of survival…

The profile, and Ozick’s life, is replete with Jewish pride and seeing the world through the narrow lens of Judaism:

As you read through the new collection, however, you realize that what seems at first like narrowness, or mere repetition, is in fact intellectual self-consistency, dogged allegiance to the highest artistic ideals. “You should be loyal to your intellectual or cultural or spiritual priorities,” Leon Wieseltier, the former literary editor of The New Republic and the collection’s dedicatee, told me. “Once you’ve decided what’s important, there is glory in sticking with it.” Here, too, we see how deeply Ozick’s being is suffused with Jewish thought. For Jewishness, her work also insists, depends upon the principle of havdalah, or distinction making. Jew and gentile, God and man, or (to recall the terms of her “amiable discussion” with Bloom), God and idol: These are categories that should not be muddled….

The money shot paragraph is this one, where Ozick stews and fumes at how WASPs have lifted the story of Anne Frank into universal consciousness. Why this is bad is beyond me. But it goes to show how warped Jewish paranoia can be:

Ozick the channeler of the literary past may seem remote from our present literary debates, dominated as they are by issues of representation, but her work offers a liberating model of engagement with identity. Her commitment to Judaism sharpens her powers of discrimination and inoculates her against the dubious allure of the universal. In a marvelously indignant essay on Anne Frank, she protests the diarist’s assimilation by mainstream culture, the way in which she has been “infantilized, Americanized, homogenized, sentimentalized; falsified, kitschified and, in fact, blatantly and arrogantly denied.” Sapped of quiddity, she has become “an all-American girl.”

Sapped of quiddity.

Well, there you go.

“Her commitment to Judaism sharpens… inoculates her against the dubious allure of the universal.”

WTF is that supposed to mean?

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