Cynthia Ozick, Antiquities

AntiquitiesAntiquities by Cynthia Ozick

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

While I was waiting for Antiquities, Cynthia Ozick’s latest book, to come in the mail, I read her second novel, The Cannibal Galaxy (1983). I’m glad I did, because the earlier work illuminates the later one, not least because both The Cannibal Galaxy and Antiquities are school stories.

The earlier novel is set somewhere in middle America, where Joseph Brill, a Jewish refugee from France, has set up a school that offers a dual curriculum of both Jewish religious instruction and the traditional western liberal arts. Inspired by the books he’d read while hiding in a convent from the Nazis during the war, especially the works of Edmond Fleg, Brill dreams of uniting “the civilization that invented the telescope side by side with the civilization that invented conscience—astronomers and God-praisers uniting in a majestic dream of peace.” This syncretic ambition is challenged when the brilliant philosopher Hester Lilt enrolls her seemingly mediocre daughter Beulah in Brill’s Edmond Fleg Primary School. At the novel’s heart is the uneasy dance between Brill and Hester. With his growing despondency over the sameness and mediocrity of the student body, he wonders how a genius like Hester can withstand having reared a normal or even sullenly underachieving child. She insists, by contrast, that one not “stop too soon”—i.e., judge by early rather than later evidence or declare defeat before the battle is over, as she deems Brill to have done by assimilating into American mediocrity and abandoning his own intellectual aspirations even as he scorns her daughter’s abilities prematurely. “Ad astra,” Brill, a former astronomy student, proclaims to his charges, but he has long since ceased his studies and now vegetates after hours in front of his TV. In the novel’s eponymous metaphor, Brill has escaped Europe’s exterminationist attempt to cannibalize the Jews only to fall prey to America’s gentler assimilationist maw.

We can read The Cannibal Galaxy, then, as the Orthodox Ozick’s severe rebuke to Brill’s universalist dream: a dual curriculum is no curriculum at all. The novel’s earlier episodes, narrating Brill’s youth, support this interpretation, especially when an adolescent Brill accompanies his cultured gentile school friend, Claude, across the Channel to hear an English author read from a manuscript in a room full of intimate men (neither the author nor the book are named in the third-person narration, which always cleaves to Brill’s sometimes limited perspective). On the return trip, Brill fends off Claude’s sexual advance, and Claude then crudely derogates him as “Dreyfus.” Western culture is, on this view, endemically hostile to Jewish values and eventually threatening to the Jewish people. The subtext here, which will recur in Antiquities, is Ozick’s 1971 review of E. M. Forster’s Maurice, nastily subtitled “A Fairy Tale” when collected in Art and Ardor. There Ozick censures Forster’s posthumous gay love story for what she takes to be its compensatory fantasy of subcultural private loyalties and homosexual plenitude, when, to her mind, the Hebraic Covenant enjoins communal allegiance, and even Hellenic paganism, to which Forster otherwise pledges his troth, demands progeny.

Though she commits herself to the prohibition on idols, with their misdirection of reason and sympathy toward merest matter, Ozick loves Forster, not to mention James; and she loves nature and the body, as her sensuous, impastoed prose mimesis—the equal of her also beloved Bellow’s—amply proves; and she loves the monastic life of the pagan poet with his inherently idolatrous ambition to make the flesh word, in defiance of Judaism’s discarnate deity and His bodiless ethic. (Even Brill, for that matter, is “unsure whether he liked” Claude’s kiss.) “Dual curriculum” could be the collective title of her oeuvre; I think of her great early story, “The Pagan Rabbi”—another Forsterian variation, this time on “The Story of a Panic”—whose titular protagonist flees his study to couple with a dryad in a squalid city park. Victor Strandberg’s 1994 monograph, which has helped this wayward Catholic schoolboy to better grasp the writer’s theology, bears a title that is even more to the point: Greek Mind/Jewish Soul: The Conflicted Art of Cynthia Ozick.

Back to The Cannibal Galaxy: Brill, seeking a normal life in late middle age, marries his (non-intellectual) young assistant, and they a child who gives every appearance of being the prodigy he’d hoped for. Yet he lives long enough to see this son corrupted by America, becoming not a scholar or thinker but a mere money-mined business-school maven. Meanwhile, Brill discovers that he’d been wrong about Hester’s ostensibly dull daughter, Beulah; she has flowered into a painter of great distinction, the Edmond Fleg Primary School’s most successful student, albeit one who claims to an interviewer that she remembers nothing of her education. The novel ends with one of American fiction’s finest final sentences, one that should be indited in marble on some portico:

She labored without brooding in calculated and enameled forms out of which a flaming nimbus sometimes spread.

Even the most wayward student of Ozick—I haven’t read Trust, but then again, who has?—can read the ambivalence in these words: the dual curriculum’s greatest and only success is, like her deviser, a major artist, i.e., a maker of idols. Ozick’s only consolation is that Beulah doesn’t seek to usurp the Creator—who brooded over the face of the waters in bringing forth the creation—but remands her art to its properly Greek sphere, that of calculation.

Ozick’s nimbus happily still flames in her 10th decade, which brings me at last to this year’s novella, Antiquities, which purports to be the midcentury memoir of the elderly retired lawyer Lloyd Wilkinson Petrie. Petrie is a former student and current trustee of the Temple Academy, a private boys’ school in Westchester, named for a family related to the more eminent Jameses (as in Henry, William, and Alice) who’d once owned the land. Like the other trustees, Petrie currently lives in the old boarding school, long since closed to students; they have all agreed to produce memoirs of their time at the Academy, but only Petrie is making any effort, to the despair of his fellow elderly residents, who complain of his Remington’s nightly clatter.

Petrie’s diary-like account reads at first like an aleatory ramble, as Ozick cannily toys with her audience’s patronizing expectations of an aged author, yet the novella is tightly organized around several motifs to which Petrie, both widowed and bereft of his secretary-mistress, helplessly recurs. First is his father’s mysterious flight to join his archeologist cousin in Egypt in 1880, when the pyramids at Giza were being excavated, a flight from family and WASP respectability to a life of adventure. His father spent only a few months in Egypt, yet the objects he brought back—the “antiquities” of the title, not excavated from an archeological site but purchased in Cairo antique shops—remain in his son’s possession and continue to fascinate him in old age, especially a stork-shaped jug with an inscrutable inscription on its base.

Petrie also can’t help but recall a red-haired boy who was his classmate at the Temple Academy in youth, the strangely-named Ben-Zion Elefantin, with whom he formed an unlikely, intimate, and eventually abortive friendship. The intense Elefantin, who speaks in elevated, stilted, foreign tones, makes no attempt to assimilate to the school; he listens attentively to the regular scriptural readings, while his rowdy classmates jeer and make faces. Like other Jewish students of the Temple Academy, Elefantin is shunned by the dominant Christian students, yet Petrie befriends him. They play chess together, and, at the novel’s center, they lay together in Elefantin’s room while the boy recounts his history, a tale the elderly Petrie transcribes from memory and hides from his fellow trustees in his father’s cigar box.

Elefantin claims that his parents are itinerant traders in antiquities who enrolled him in the Academy to shield him from their trade, which they are able to ply only because westerners “are hollow and have no histories of their own.” The Elefantins’ own history according to their son: they descend from Judean refugees who’d fled to the Elephantine Island in the Nile after their fellow exiles from Egyptian bondage began to worship “a gilded bovine of the barnyard.” Because the Elephantine Jews built their temple near the island’s pagan house of worship, though, other Jews ironically accused them of worshipping strange gods and wrote them out of the people’s history. Elefantin protests that they kept the faith, that their incorruptible proximity to “the gods of the nations” testify to their own steadfastness in what Ozick may intend as another parable of the perils and pleasures of the dual curriculum.

Elefantin, his hair the color of Egypt’s sands as described by Petrie’s father (“deeper and denser and more otherworldly than any commonplace Celtic red”), is linked to the paternal archeological expedition, not on what Forster would call the “vulgar” level of the story but rather symbolically. As the boy tells Petrie his history, they literally lay entwined in a passage of intense and narratively fruitful homoeroticism that suggests a palinode for Ozick’s half-century-old reproof of Forster’s gay “sterility”:

[H]e slid off his end of the bed and pulled me down beside him, with his face so close to mine that I could almost see my eyes in the black mirror of his own. I had never before felt the heat of his meager flesh; sitting side by side in the chapel’s confining pews, our shoulders in their Academy blazers had never so much as grazed—nor had our knees in our short trousers. And now, the two of us prone on the floor amid the nubbles of dust, breathing their spores, I seemed to be breathing his breath. Our bare legs in the twist of my fall had somehow become entangled, and it was as if my skin, or his own, might at any moment catch fire.

Toward the end of the novella, as Petrie’s mind and body disintegrate, he concedes, “I remember nothing. I remember everything. I believe everything. I believe nothing,” while Elefantin describes himself as “an apparition.” Other reviewers have interpreted the boy as a ghost or as a projection of Petrie’s consciousness; since our not-quite-reliable narrator is the only source of the information that would confirm or deny any such reading, the issue is undecidable. We can place Antiquities on the same shelf with those other brief and mysterious masterpieces of others, doubles, and projective apparitions: “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” “The Secret Sharer,” and The Turn of the Screw.

If Antiquities is inherently ambiguous at the literal level, though, its higher meaning is clearer. Throughout his memoir, Petrie stresses his WASP bona fides, including a superficially unembarrassed genteel anti-Semitism that leads him to remark with scorn on the Temple school’s being mistaken by vandals for a synagogue, to question the veracity of the first reports from the camps, and to approve the “kernel of truth” in the “commonplace disparagements” of Jews that he finds in the Academy’s official history. Yet another of his Jewish classmates remembers Petrie as having refrained from the other boys’ prejudices and accordingly helps him find a place to live when the trustees are finally dismissed from the Academy grounds. Through Elefantin, he comes to understand in boyhood that the Jewish scripture is, if he is a Christian, in part his own, even as his truest inheritance from his father is not caste complacency but a yearning for otherness.

The central image of Petrie and Elefantin in an embrace, skin to skin, breathing each other’s breath and staring at each other’s eye-borne reflections, tells the tale: there is no Christianity, and no western civilization, without Judaism, without an encounter in that desert where conscience was invented. Like her bête noire and own disavowed secret sharer, Edward Said, Ozick indicts western civilization for smugly denying its dependence on an other than is part and parcel of itself. Petrie refers to Elefantin’s voice as “uncannily ancestral.” The allusion to Freud is the writer’s, not the narrator’s. Petrie characteristically derides Freud as “this charlatan Jew,” but Ozick knows that Freud called “uncanny” whatever is intimately familiar, yet displaced or estranged.

Petrie’s and Elefantin’s relationship collapses in the end. Petrie shows the boy his father’s prize curio, the jug fashioned like a stork. But in Elefantin’s narrative he had recalled that the pagans of Elephantine Island worshipped “gods of the river, red-legged storks,” whereas for the Jews, the stork was considered impure. Consequently, Elefantin judges the vessel an idol, an “abomination,” in a scene set in a frigid communal shower where the boys face each other shivering and naked—a harrowing image from a writer for whom the Holocaust is never far off.

Why is the stork impure among birds? Antiquities supplies no answer, because the gentile Petrie doesn’t know, and the reader unschooled in Jewish tradition may not know either. We could always Google it, but Ozick conveniently supplies the answer elsewhere in her oeuvre; if we return to The Cannibal Galaxy we’ll discover the reason. In the earlier novel, Hester Lilt sends Brill one of her essays, which he fails to read for almost two decades; when he finally takes it up, he notices a teaching she’d lifted from his own recollection of his childhood rabbi’s lessons. The stork’s problem, Hester writes, is that “she loves only her own. She hopes only for the distinction of the little one under her heart. She will not cherish the stranger’s young.” Applying this to Antiquities, with its narrator who trades, however ambivalently, in anti-Semitic stereotype, we may see how Ozick deftly turns the old charges back against the gentile world: she suggests again and again in Antiquities that the Christians, not the Jews, are greedy, clannish, selfish, sectarian—caring only for their own and therefore insubordinate both to the Hebrew and to the Greek testaments. A dual curriculum is only possible if both student and teacher surmount such a mentality. Lloyd Wilkinson Petrie never overcomes this barrier consciously, but he leaps it beneath his own awareness, powered by an imaginative longing for a distant relation, for a companion from afar.