Responsa

Cynthia Ozick contrasts Anglo and American Jewish sensibilities and challenges Adam Thirlwell on writing ‘Half Jewishly’



To my American ear, particularly to my Jewish American ear, the Quarterly’s tone, despite the affinity and sameness of topics and themes, is startlingly different. I suppose I mean by this that the timbre, the point of view, is (how else could it be?) English. Jewish self-consciousness is ubiquitous, God knows; but it seems to me that British Jewish self-consciousness is somewhat more intense in what we (tritely) call ‘comfort level’. (vide Howard Jacobson’s Kalooki Nights! Not to mention the British media’s views of Israel.) For instance: I cannot conceive of a lukewarm essay like Adam Thirlwell’s turning up in a Jewish periodical here, where passions are perhaps more freely paraded. Partly this is because as a writer he is an original, granted; but also because (here comes chutzpah on my part!) he derives his thesis from a personal circumstance, which always makes for lukewarmness. It is an old, old delusion (the delusion of ahistorical lukewarmness) that can lead to a statement like ‘Svevo’s identity…was Triestine, not Jewish.’ And of course he is right to say that Diaspora is a comedy; but it is not an intelligible comedy, and Thirlwell’s effort to turn halfness into intelligibility is exactly that: an effort. Placelessness? A figure dangling in air, like a Chagall effigy? Nisht ahin, nisht aher means blur: no one can charge Proust with blur! He chose; he was a Frenchman and a Christian; it also helped that he was a genius. Thirlwell may be a genius too, but if he chooses placelessness he will finally end as a literary blur. (Singer: A writer must have an address.) The intellectual value of Judaism, the hallmark of Jewishness, lies precisely in its distinction-making: the knowledge, the bold assertion (it does sometimes require courage), that one thing is not another thing – that a man is not a god, for instance, that the human and the divine are separate realms, that one can’t be half-man and half-god. And that centaurs are chimeras. And that people are born wholes, not halves. And that the purpose of seeing distinctions is to make choices. One can be whole and cosmopolitan too; in fact, to be cosmopolitan one must be whole. To be civilized one must be whole: integer vitae sclerisque purus. (That’s cosmopolitan Horace.) Thirlwell writes that his ‘deeper theory’ (by which he means his shallow feeling) is ‘the Jewish is always half-Jewish.’ Balderdash. Hogwash. Bullshit. Which half? From the waist up or from the waist down?

Cynthia Ozick’s new book Dictation is published in the US by Houghton Mifflin.

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