Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Foreign Bodies

My review of Cynthia Ozick’s new novel Foreign Bodies is on the front page of Jewish Ideas Daily this morning. In her latest book, Ozick rewrites The Ambassadors, the novel that is by most accounts Henry James’s masterpiece. Ozick does not agree. She thinks that James is at his best in some of the short stories.

James is a touchstone for Ozick. Not only has she written about him repeatedly in her literary essays (the kind of writing, for my money, she is best at). What is more, she made him a character in Dictation (2008). Nevertheless, she is of two minds about him. On the one hand, from an early age she was a member of his “cult.” He embodied the life of fiction for her, as for so many other young writers. In “The Lesson of the Master,” an essay originally published in the New York Review of Books and reprinted the next year in Art and Ardor (1983), she testifies to the danger of his influence. “I thought it was necessary—it was imperative, there was no other path!” she wrote—“to be, all at once, with no progression or evolution, the author of the equivalent of The Ambassadors, The Wings of the Dove,” as if James himself had never served an apprenticeship, turning out lesser works.

On the other hand, a short while later she became a baalat teshuvah, a “returnee” to Judaism, a born-again Jew. She began to read widely in classic Jewish texts, and set about to reconceive literature in Jewish terms. The central text here is her long essay on Harold Bloom. He is a worthy adversary, because in his voluminous criticism, she wrote, Bloom is “engaged in the erection of what can fairly be called an artistic anti-Judaism.”

Bloom’s most famous critical idea is his literary adaptation of Freud’s Oedipus complex: according to Bloom, every writer seeks to liberate himself from a powerful literary influence by the “revisionary act” of “emptying” and “undoing” the great precursor, then taking his place. Ozick responds that no one can stand by this idea and be a Jew:

The notion of “ ‘undoing’ the precursor’s strength” has no validity in normative Judaism. Jewish liturgy, for instance, posits just the opposite: it 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.[1]What Ozick seeks in Foreign Bodies, then, is a Jewish “recapturing” of James’s Ambassadors. She reverses his meaning, but does not hope to displace him. The two books are meant to be read in tandem, as source and commentary. (Jewish tradition discourages the reading of the Torah without interpretive aids.) But though she explicitly reverses James’s meaning in Foreign Bodies, the book is not a “revisionary act” in Harold Bloom’s sense. In Jewish literature, what is prized above everything else is a hiddush, an innovative reinterpretation of a classic text. Among religious Jews, this is what it means to write a “novel.”

[1] Cynthia Ozick, “Literature as Idol: Harold Bloom,” in Art and Ardor (New York: Knopf, 1983), p. 194. Originally published as “Judaism and Harold Bloom” in Commentary (January 1979).


Shelley said...

Then Balanchine's work is hiddush.

D. G. Myers said...

A hiddush. (With a hard H.) “Balanchine's work is a hiddush.”

Stephen Cahaly said...

Sounds similar to the Japanese aesthetic tradition. Basho poured over the ancient anthologies, studied the Chinese legacy to be found in the courts, and discovered that by simplifying the compactedness into a single reflection, could create just as viable a form. Many apprentice poets in Japan get their start simply by taking the poems they appreciate and changing a word or two to see what they've done. Basho never really relinquished the engagement, as it appears Cynthia Ozick hasn't either.

I'm wondering if Bloom's "anxiety" of influence could've only been written at a particular time? It seems like members of all the ancient traditions of the world already accept influence as a "necessary" pressure, and from humble naivete too, I think.

In consideration of this, I do believe Leo Strauss's discussions of the "hidden" quality of certain writers has been mischaracterized as subversion and deceit. Inevitably, any engagement with the past has to leave something behind in order for us to move forward. It's sad both ways!

In all honesty, I don't really care all that much for Henry James('s industry). Would too much be lost if I avoided him and just went directly to Ozick's book?