Thursday, June 11, 2009

Only during stays

Perhaps the basic question about The Shawl, Cynthia Ozick’s little pair of stories originally printed in the New Yorker and released as a stick-thin seventy-page book in 1989, is whether it represents “women’s experience” in the Holocaust. The question whether Holocaust experience can be differentiated by sex has divided scholars and writers into warring parties.

Ozick has said things that suggest she would reject the notion of a distinguishable “women’s” Holocaust experience. In an interview in the Atlantic, for example, she said:

People often ask how I can reject the phrase “woman writer” and not reject the phrase “Jewish writer”— a preposterous question. “Jewish” is a category of civilization, culture, and intellect, and “woman” is a category of anatomy and physiology. It’s rough thinking to confuse vast cultural and intellectual movements with the capacity to bear children.The rejection of the biological is, in fact, something of a commonplace in Ozick’s thought. In defending the so-called “uniqueness thesis,” the argument that the Holocaust was a historically unique genocide and that the Jews were its unique victims, Ozick summarized its liberal opponents, who like to say that the Holocaust must never be represented as if it were “merely” Jewish: “[T]o assert that Auschwitz is ‘merely’ Jewish would in effect raise doubts as to whether it is truly anti-human.” Liberal universalism emphasizes what all human beings have in common, while Jewish particularism—the insistence upon the uniqueness thesis—differentiates human beings. But what all human beings have in common is their biology, she observes, and “if being a Jew is being only what is universal, then a Jew is no more than his organs . . . and then what matter cremation?”

For Ozick, the differentiating fact about Holocaust victims would seem to be their Jewishness. And yet The Shawl seems to emphasize their sex.
To begin with, Ozick prefaces the book with two lines from Paul Celan’s Todesfuge—untranslated, as if she were unwilling to dilute their strength:dein goldenes Haar Margarete
dein aschenes Haar Sulamith
In the standard interpretation, these lines are said to differentiate a golden-haired Aryan, perhaps the girlfriend of a camp Kommandant (the poem’s “man [who] lives in house [and] plays with serpents”), from an ashen-haired Jewish victim. Significantly, though, Ozick elides the man, reducing Celan’s poem to a two-line differentiation between women. The man’s actions—“whistl[ing] his Jews out,” ordering them to dig a grave, “strik[ing them] with leaden bullets”—disappear altogether. Although male agency can be assumed, it is not the indispensable, the narrated, fact; the Holocaust is sharpened to the point of women’s response.

And isn’t this the work of Ozick’s two stories? The whole purpose of the book, divided into two stories, is to differentiate between Rosa Lublin, who must witness the murder of her daughter in a Nazi camp, and her niece Stella, who also survived the camp and wishes now to live in the present. The title story focuses upon the death of Rosa’s infant daughter Magda. After her cousin Stella jealously steals her “magic shawl,” which “wrapped” her and kept her “hidden away,” which was both her mother’s breasts and her “own baby, her pet, her little sister,” Magda wanders outside the barracks into the roll-call arena, searching for it. There, while Rosa looks on, horrified, she is murdered. But the agency of the murder, although it can be assumed, is barely narrated:[Magda] was high up, elevated, riding someone’s shoulder. But the shoulder that carried Magda was not coming toward Rosa and the shawl, it was drifting away, the speck of Magda was moving more and more into the smoky distance. Above the shoulder a helmet glinted. . . . Below the helmet a black body like a domino and a pair of black boots hurled themselves in the direction of the electrified fence. . . . All at once Magda was swimming through the air.And she “splashe[s] against the fence.” In plainer words, an SS guard picks up the child, strides to the electrified fence, and throws her against it. But the SS guard is nothing more than a shoulder, a helmet, a black body, and a pair of black boots; and what is more, this accumulation of features is not the agent of the little girl’s destruction. “All at once Magda was swimming through the air”—Ozick’s use of the passive voice refocuses attention on Rosa’s response.

And on Stella’s. The second story in the book, entitled “Rosa,” takes up the afterlife of these two women. After having smashed up her own antique shop in Brooklyn and relocating to Florida, Rosa has moved, although only fifty-eight, into a hotel for the elderly, where she spends all her days in her room (“I like my own room, that’s all”), writing letters to Stella, which she never mails, and to the dead Magda. “Stella was alive,” she thinks, “why not Magda?” She clings to Magda’s old shawl. Stella is disgusted, calling it Rosa’s “idol” and telling her toGo on your knees to it if you want. You make yourself crazy, everything thinks you’re a crazy woman. Whoever goes by your old store gets glass in their soles.This seems to hint that, in Stella’s eyes at least, Rosa has made her own life, just as she made her Brooklyn store, into a Kristallnacht. “[M]y God!” she cries. “It’s been thirty years, forty, who knows, give it a rest.”

To Rosa, however, it is Stella who suffers from “a strain of dementia.” And why? Every vestige of former existence is an insult to her. Because she fears the past she distrusts the future—it too will turn into the past. As a result she has nothing. “She wants to wipe out memory,” Rosa says later. In other words, The Shawl differentiates what might be called two strategies of response to the Holocaust—one that insists upon preserving memory, the other that seeks to wipe it out. But are these uniquely women’s responses?

My own view is that Ozick means to revalue sex, “a category of anatomy and physiology,” by reinterpreting it as motherhood, a moral category. Opposing herself to Stella’s fear of the past, Rosa writes in a letter to Magda thatMotherhood . . . is a profound distraction from philosophy, and all philosophy is rooted in suffering over the passage of time. I mean the fact of motherhood, the physiological fact.Yet her entire existence seems a distraction from philosophy, because it is entirely given over to Magda—to keeping her alive through memory. “[Y]ou’re always prodding me for these old memories,” she writes to Magda. “If not for you, I would have buried them all, to satisfy Stella.”

Someone else might accuse Rosa of being obsessed with Magda, with the Holocaust, with (as she puts it) the theft of her life. The accusation that American Jews obsess over the Holocaust was popularized by Peter Novick’s faux-history The Holocaust in American Life (1999). Since obsession is a mental disorder, the implication is that American Jews need treatment to get over it. (In a mordant anticipation of such insipidity, Ozick has Rosa receive a letter from a psychologist who is studying “Repressed Animation,” or R.A. for short, in Holocaust survivors.) Rosa, however, is Ozick’s evidence that, instead of obsessing over the Nazi genocide, the living may have an obligation to the Holocaust dead. For as she tells Persky, the retired button manufacturer who tries to pick her up, Holocaust survivors know three lives:     “The life after is now. The life before is our real life, at home, where we was born.”
    “And during?”
    “This was Hitler. . . .”
    Persky speculated. “You want everything the way it was before.”
    “No, no, no,” Rosa said. “It can’t be. . . . Before is a dream. After is a joke. Only during stays. . . .”
For those who lived through the Holocaust—perhaps for anyone who lives in its aftermath—life can never again be the same. “Only during stays.”

And that could be the motto of motherhood. Once a mother, always a mother; even though Magda was murdered, Rosa remains a mother forever after. Motherhood stays and stays. Persky asks quietly whether the Germans killed Rosa’s entire family.Rosa held up all the fingers of her two hands. Then she said: “I’m left. Stella’s left.” She wondered if she dared to tell him more. . . . “Out of so many, three.”Persky is confounded. If Rosa holds up two fingers—if only she and Stella remain alive—why “three”? Because Rosa keeps Magda alive: “A mother,” she reflects, “is the source of consciousness, of conscience, the ground of being. . . .” As long as she continues to remember the Holocaust—to obsess over it, as Novick would scornfully say—she keeps Magda alive in her conscience, her consciousness.

In the biblical book that bears her name, Ruth is praised by the “chorus”—the women, the elders, the townspeople—for “building up the house of Israel” when she gives birth to Oved, the grandfather of King David. Something like this, Ozick seems to be saying, is the religious value of motherhood. She hints as much by calling Magda at one point a “lioness,” which is probably an allusion to Ezek 19.1–9. There Israel is praised as a lioness who raises up her whelps to become princes. Motherhood is a building up of Israel.

But if a mother is a building up of Israel, and if (through Rosa) Ozick has shown motherhood to be what Novick disdains as “obsession”—keeping memory alive in conscience, in consciousness—then the conclusion follows as a kiss follows a confession of love: memory builds up the house of Israel. To memorialize the Holocaust is not to “obsess” over it, but to discharge an obligation.

And women are suited to the obligation, not by the “physiological facts,” but because of their experience of motherhood—that is, their long training in the truth that “Only during stays.”


S.K. Azoulay said...

It's interesting to note that the name "Simon Persky" is also the original name of Shimon Peres, Israel's current president (probably prime minister around the time the story was written) which is perhaps symbolic of that character's desire for a life after the Holocaust.

Lane Eliezer said...

It's interesting that you address the "woman question," and Ozick's own stance, when I believe another major theme of "The Shawl" is the Jewish question; namely, the ways in which Rosa differs from the Jews who surround her, both in Poland and America. Rosa does not care all that much about her Jewishness, and only inasmuch as it relates to the Shoah.

It seems Rosa is almost a lesser Hannah of "Envy" infamy: Rosa reads Tuwim while looking down on the Torah-dedicated underclass Jews of the ghetto.

Have you noticed as well the similarities between Rosa and Sammler? You gotta read Wirth-Nesher's "Call it English"!