Friday, April 10, 2020

'Under the Carapace of of Our Pervasive Gloom'

Next week, Cynthia Ozick will celebrate her ninety-second birthday in disease-imposed isolation. She lives in New Rochelle, the New York City suburb that suffered one of the first outbreaks of coronavirus in the country. In an email interview published in the Los Angeles Times, Ozick calls the place where she has lived for more than half a century “a notorious zone of pariahship: ‘contained,’ a euphemism for the confinement of untouchables.” Naturally, some have blamed the Jews:

“Because of a crowded funeral followed by a crowded celebration of a bar mitzvah in a single synagogue on a single street, 2020 suddenly became 1348, the year of the start of Europe’s Black Death. In the 14th century the Jews were accused of poisoning the wells and were massacred by the thousands. In the 21st, in the absence of wells and slickly updated with social media, the medieval mobs are once again charging the Jews with deliberately hatching the plague. In my hometown and elsewhere (elsewhere nowadays being everywhere) this old disease of enduring hatred has come to perch on the head of the coronavirus like a bubonic flea on the head of a rat.”

Anti-Semites need little incentive to spew idiocy. The good news is that Ozick is still writing, finishing “That Homeless Misfit,” a novella:

“If it looks different under the carapace of our pervasive gloom, then there must be something wrong with it. The germ that generates Story ought to be able to withstand the germ that generates plague. … A hot book, even (or especially) one gone viral, will be stale meat in a matter of weeks.”

The merely topical is merely irrelevant. As though to prove the point, Ozick says she is rereading George Eliot's Daniel Deronda, a novel we might have forgotten had it been merely a screed on “the Jewish question.” Asked why she’s reading it now, Ozick replies:

“Because of the siege by intellectuals (never mind the dregs) on Jewish sovereignty and liberty and independence. And because of the trashing of history in favor of ‘narrative.’ (Thank you, Edward Said [the creep who, in 2000, threw stones at Israelis].)”

Here is the narrator of Daniel Deronda, in Book I, Chapter VI, on Gwendolen Harleth (who is not Jewish): “Her ideal was to be daring in speech and reckless in braving dangers, both moral and physical; and though her practice fell far behind her ideal, this shortcoming seemed to be due to the pettiness of circumstances, the narrow theatre which life offers to a girl of twenty, who cannot conceive herself as anything else than a lady, or as in any position which would lack the tribute of respect.”

I met Ozick once, in 1987, at a conference on writing and the Holocaust. On the same panel were Aharon Appelfeld and Raul Hilberg. Ozick signed my copy of her recently published The Messiah of Stockholm. In 2004 I reviewed her novel Heir to the Glimmering World. Here is her parting remark in the interview:

“I plan to spend my birthday contemplating mayhem.”

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