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Posted in: Culture Wars & Censorship

Published on Mar 14, 2006 by Phyllis Chesler

Published by FrontPageMagazine.com

The Rights of History

On March 8, at the New School University in Manhattan, the distinguished 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 the journal 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, as 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. Recalling the late Partisan Review, this dazzling display, while entertaining, did not allow us to escape certain harsh realities. We were being scrupulously educated about history as opposed to "narrative"-- that is, 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, she observed. Thus, as I have written in this space, the film Paradise Now presents a highly sympathetic and believable portrait of two Palestinian homicide bombers, yet the film is based on a deft series of lies. All those who view this film but 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 the truth? Yes, it is.

Ozick presented Exhibit A: William Styron's Pulitzer-winning novel, Sophie's Choice, which thereafter became both a best seller and a very popular film. Styron's Sophie (played 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% of all those who were murdered at Auschwitz were Jews.

Does Styron have the right to do this? The answer, of course, is 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, yes, 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 is malevolent? What if he desired to "universalize" or "de-Judaize" the Holocaust? Ozick did not say so but this is similar to what Ann Frank's father, Otto, and the various people who worked on her diary and on the play about her, also did. It obsessed Meyer Levin--or so he told me on a long walk we took together on an Israeli beach in the mid-1970s. Eventually, Ozick herself confirmed what Levin told me in a piece for The New Yorker.

So, the novelist's intentions might be factored into the question. In the discussion afterwards, Ozick referred to an op-ed piece that Styron had published in the New York Times in which he described his desire to "universalize" the Holocaust. Ozick believes that ultimately we can, and perhaps must judge a novelist by whether or not his "intention" is to "deflect" us from the larger, objective truth.

After Ozick stopped speaking, the first question posed was: "Did she believe that a novelist cannot or should not portray Hitler fictionally with sympathy, pity, and understanding?" It was a good question but it gave me a headache. The questioner was without feeling; he was coldly logical, removed, precise, devilishly clever. I do not understand why so many audience members, hungry for culture, have no manners.

No matter. For a brief while, the cutting-edge intellectual excitement that Partisan Review had brought into the world with each and every issue was remembered and re-created. I began reading Partisan Review in the 1950s; Phillips began publishing it in 1937--three years before I was born. For those too young to remember, let me say that PR introduced the work of Franz Kafka, Arthur Koestler, Albert Camus, Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre to an American audience, as well as Nobel Prize winners Saul Bellow, Delmore Schwartz and Issac Bashevis Singer. It also published Susan Sontag's essay about "Camp" which essentially initiated her career. Politically, PR straddled the Great Divide between Marxism and Modernism; it remained both anti-fascist and anti-communist.

Many writers, such as Doris Lessing, Czeslaw Milosz, Conor Cruise O'Brien, Helen Frankenthaler, Roger Straus, Frederick Feirstein, Walter Laqueur, Irving Louis Horowitz, Norman Podhoretz and Ozick herself all contributed to a tribute to William Phillips which was made available at the lecture. Edith Kurzweil introduced this last volume of PR which people eagerly took. Let me give Norman Podhoretz the last word. He remembers Phillips as "brilliant," as someone whose mind was "quick, cultivated, and supple," but also as a man who was "easygoing and relaxed, a man of "great and unfailing sweetness, a loving, loyal, considerate, and tactful friend." Phillips himself would have enjoyed the evening.

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