Posted in: Arts, Film & Culture
Published on Mar 22, 2006 by Phyllis Chesler
A Brief And Shining Moment Of Cultural Literacy
On March 8, at the New School University in Manhattan, the distinguished and beloved author Cynthia Ozick delivered the opening lecture in a series dedicated to the work and memory of William Phillips, who edited and was the heart and soul of Partisan Review for more than 60 years. Dr. Edith Kurzweil, who also edited Partisan Review, and who was married to Phillips, introduced Ozick.
For at least one and a half hours the level of cultural literacy was elevated in the city; perhaps in the universe. Suddenly, a cultural oasis appeared, one in which we found ourselves listening to Saul Bellow, Scott Turow, Sven Birkerts, Michaelangelo, Thomas Mann, Henry James, Delmore Schwartz, Allan Bloom, Aristotle, Janet Malcolm, Leo Tolstoy, Gustave Flaubert, William Styron, Bernhard Schlink – as Ozick herself brought them to life and allowed them to “talk” to each other, in Talmudic style.
It was a feast for the famished. Like Partisan Review (PR), this dazzling display, while entertaining, did not allow us to escape certain harsh realities. On the contrary. We were being scrupulously educated about history versus “narrative,” about truth versus lies.
Ozick’s lecture was titled “The Rights of History and the Rights of Imagination, or When Narrative Dares to Enter History.” Her question, which she wrestled with but did not ultimately resolve, is as follows: Does “wondrousness” and the “rights of the imagination” overrule the “stringent demands of honest history?” Can a novelist simply “make things up” or is s/he also bound by objective, incontrovertible, historical reality?
This might seem an absurd question to pose. How can a work of the imagination “betray history?” As a novelist, Ozick wants to believe that “imaginative fiction” is and must remain a “liberated zone.” This seems obvious to her. And yet, both the rights and dangers of distorting history have been tugging away at her as well.
For example, Ozick is concerned about the way in which “narrative has become a corrupting polemical tool.” The “Palestinian narrative,” for example, has “invaded and contaminated” what people think is historically true. Thus, as I have written in these pages, the film “Paradise Now” presents a highly sympathetic and believable portrait of two Palestinian homicide bombers – but the film is based on a deft and deadly series of lies.
All those viewing this film who are not experts in Middle Eastern and Jewish history will believe that what they have just seen with their own eyes is true. Does the filmmaker have the right to do this? Yes, of course. But is his use of “narrative” being used to trump and to disappear the truth? Yes, it is.
Ozick presents Exhibit A: William Styron’s Pulitzer-winning novel Sophie’s Choice, which became both a bestseller and a very popular film. Styron’s Sophie (played in the movie by Meryl Streep) is a Catholic woman who survived Auschwitz. Factually, 75,000 Polish Catholic prisoners died in Auschwitz. Styron does not tell us much about them. But by focusing on one such victim as his Holocaust symbol, Styron manages to erase from memory the fact that 90-95 percent of all those who were murdered at Auschwitz were Jews.
Does Styron have the right to do this? Of course, yes. Is he allowed to also show Sophie being again victimized by a mentally ill Jewish man in Brooklyn? (This was not Ozick’s question but was posed by an audience member). Again, of course a novelist is entitled to do this. But, Ozick asks, what if Styron specifically intended to distort history, to use fiction to create propaganda in order to “expunge the real nature of the Holocaust?” What if Styron’s intention was malevolent? What if he desired to “universalize” or “de-Judaize” the Holocaust?
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