On Cynthia Ozick’s “The Shawl”

by vinnyhaddad

I think one of the major challenges of literary criticism is still developing a theory of how a text like Ozik’s The Shawl has such an affect on the reader. The announced lessons of postmodernism for on fiction (the systematic problematization of many of our assumptions about narrative and history) vanish, it seems, through the allure of feeling in fiction. Ozick’s The Shawl, as one reads it, is seemingly unproblematic in the way it offers up the story of a Holocaust survivor and her inability to assimilate into American society: it simply hurts. The Shawl hurts like few texts I have ever encountered. I open in this way because it seems to me that The Shawl offers itself up as a sort of argument for fiction, something it essentially shares with even the most playfully destructive postmodernists.

The reader is put in the position to attempt an empathic relationship with Rosa, to desperately understand her experience, and, potentially, to diagnose her mania. The narrative offers up a counterpoint to our reading with the much maligned James W. Tree, Ph.D. from the Department of Clinical Social Pathology at the University of Kansas-Iowa who is undergoing the same task. As Rosa sensitively deconstructs the language of his letter of request to interview and examine her for his research, Dr. Tree becomes a phallic symbol of the ultimate violation, psychic penetration. Implicit in the juxtaposition of Rosa’s deconstruction, contempt and deep terror, of Dr. Tree with the narrative is that fiction “cares,” that fiction when fiction touches and hurts us, it does so because it cares and without ever losing sight of our humanness. When Dr. Tree’s letter opens his inquiry on the wide range of “neurological residues” that his work at the Institute for Humanitarian Context has discovered in “survivors,” Rosa becomes irate: “Disease, disease! Humanitarian Context, what did it mean? An excitement over other people’s suffering. They let their mouths water up…Consider also the special word they used: survivor. Something new. It used to be refugee, but by now there was no such creature, no more refugees, only survivors. A name like a number-counted apart from the ordinary swarm. Blue digits on the arm, what difference? They don’t call you a woman anyhow. Survivor. Even when your bones get melted into the grains of the earth, still they’ll forget human being. Survivor and survivor and survivor; always and always. Who made up these words, parasites on the throat of suffering” (36-37). Rosa is also goaded when Dr. Tree refers to data accumulation as his own concern, “as a human being” (“Ha! For himself it was good enough, for himself he didn’t forget this word human being!”). The clinical language is too much to bear, and Rosa reclaims her subjectivity through a “routine” she has with all university letters: “she carried the scissors over to the toilet bowl and snipped the paper squares whirled like wedding rice…She threw the letter into the sink…she lit a match and enjoyed the thick fire. Burn, Dr. Tree, burn up with your repressed animation! The world is full of Trees! The world is full of fire! Everything, everything is on fire!…Big flakes of cinder lay in the sink: black foliage” (39). The way in which Rosa asserts her disgust for opens itself up to us with a vastness of interpretation (of her use of fire as a liberating destructive agent, of her self-exhibition that she wields “power to minimize affect inhibition” [Tomkins]) that have as an underlying current the irony that as a readers of fiction we are not vastly different from Dr. Tree. We exhibit the same “excitement over other’s people’s suffering” as we get fully absorbed and magically lost in the narrative of The Shawl. We commit the same phallic violation of psychically penetrating Rosa because we are mimetically enthralled by Ozick’s imaginative exercise; we uncritically ride the track laid out by the narrator, puzzling our way through Rosa’s delusional mania, voyeuristically pining for more pain to excite and engorge us.

Retrospectively, it seems The Shawl prefigures/ embodies the “affective turn” in literary studies. The persistence to her Rosa’s feelings of shame and being ashamed throughout invite the Tomkinsian interpretations of affect that were so powerfully brought to the fore by Eve Sedgwick. Tomkins describes shame in the following way:

If distress is the affect of suffering, shame is the affect of indignity, of defeat, of transgression, and of alienation. Though terror speaks to life and eath and distress makes of the world a vale of tears, yet shame strikes deepest into the heart of man. While terror and distress hurt, they are wounds inflicted from outside which penetrate the smooth surface of the ego; but shame is felt as an inner torment, a sickness of the soul. It does not matter whether the humiliated one has been shamed by derisive laughter or whether he mocks himself. In either event he feels himself naked, defeated, alienated, lacking in dignity or worth. (Shame and its Sisters, 133)

A prerequisite for the affect of shame is the activation of interest or enjoyment, to which shame acts as an inhibitor to one or the other or both. (134) Much of the shame is induced by sexual excitement and interest/contempt for the old man who pursues a romantic relationship with her: “When the drying cycle ended, Rosa noticed that the old man handled the clothes like an expert. She was ashamed from him to touch her underpants” (19). The shame connected to sex is uncovered in the letter she rights her long-deceased baby and her paternity: “Your father was not a German. I was forced by a German, it’s true, and more than once, but I was too sick to conceive” (43). The presence of a potentially new object attachment, Mr. Persky, seems to bring to the fore this sexual shame, but it is consistently mirrored by the constant threat of a psychic penetration by Dr. Tree, by the writer, by the reader, by fiction itself.

In this way, shame functions not just as an observation of an affect of Rosa’s, but as an affectively shared atmosphere that is experienced vicariously by the reader. Speaking from my personal experience of this narrative, the announcement of Rosa’s shame did not in and of itself produce a feeling of shame for me; instead, I was carefully enthralled and deeply saddened throughout the series of frustrations and irritations. However, in the moment in which Rosa attempts to produce for Mr. Persky her living daughter Magda only to produce the book Repressed Animation. Persky “can see [he’s] involved in a mistake” (61), and quickly retreats. Within just a few pages, Rosa receives the proper package with the shawl. Upon having a conversation with Stella on the phone, the phrase “long distance” conjures up the phantom of Magda in the shawl and her delusion moves about the room. When the delusion stops, the narrator remarks, “Magda did not even stay to claim her letter: there it flickered, unfinished like an ember, and all because of the ringing from the floor near the bed—Magda collapsed at any stir, fearful as a phantom. She behaved at these moments as if she was ashamed, and hid herself. Magda, my beloved, don’t be ashamed! Butterfly, I am not ashamed of your presence: only come to me, come to me again, if no longer now, then later, always come” (69). She vanishes as Mr. Persky re-enters: “Magda was not there. Shy, she ran from Persky. Magda was away” (70). There is, it seems, an imbalance or competition between object attachments for Rosa, and neither can be present when the other is.

However, I want to return to the offering of the phrase “long distance” as the prompt for Rosa’s delusional fantasy. The image of Magda and the phantom recalls the tragic scene from “The Shawl,” when Rosa is helplessly far from baby Magda as she waddles out into the middle of the concentration camp wailing for her mother, shawl-less:

Far off, very far, Magda leaned across her air-fed belly, reaching out with the rods of her arms. She was high up, elevated, riding someone’s shoulder. But the should that carried Magda was not coming toward Rosa and the shawl, it was drifting away, the speck of Magda was moving more and more into the smoky distance. Above the shoulder a helmet glinted. The light tapped he helmet and sparkled into the goblet. Below the helmet a black body like a domino and a pair of black boots hurled themselves in the direction of the electrified fence. The electric voices began to chatter wildly. ‘Maaamaa, maaamaaa,’ they all hummed together. How far Magda was from Rosa now, across the whole square, past a dozen barracks, all the way on the other side! She was no bigger than a moth. (9)

After Magda’s murder, Rosa cannot move:

the steel voices went mad in their growling, urging Rosa to run and run to the spot where Magda had fallen from her flight against the electrified fence; but of course Rosa did not obey them. She only stood, because if she ran they would shoot, and if she tried to pick up the sticks of Magda’s body they would shoot, and if she let the wolf’s screech ascending now through the ladder of her skeleton break out, they would shoot; so she took Magda’s shawl and filled her own mouth with it, stuffed it in and stuffed it in, until she was swallowing up the wolf’s screech and tasting the cinnamon and almond depth of Magda’s saliva; and Rosa drank Magda’s shawl until it dried. (10)

This unimaginable, incommunicable helplessness is relived so potently in this moment when Rosa attempts to avow her delusion to Mr. Persky that I vicariously felt deeply ashamed for her. It is noteworthy that the word “distance” is uttered here, not by Rosa herself, but by the narrator. The only other time the word distance exists in the entire text is when Stella complains of long distance charges. It is possible that the word linguistic utterance of “distance,” as a match with the narrator’s use of it in this pivotal early scene, as a trigger for her delusion suggests an unseen attunement between the narrator and Rosa. This attunement between narrator and Rosa is significantly matched by the attunement that the narrator produces with the reader, which only circuitously reasserts the power of fiction to produce such an object attachment in the first place.

Because interest and excitement are the prerequisites of shame, according to Tomkins, “shame enlarges the spectrum of objects outside of himself which can engage man and concern him. After having experienced shame through sudden empathy, the individual will never again be able to be entirely unconcerned with the other…If there is insufficient interest in the other, shame through empathy is improbable” (162). The novel (or, as this story is technically a novella, perhaps fiction is the operative word here) can only produce shame because it has first become an object of interest and excitement, and one product of this shame is the never returning to a state of indifference to that which has produced it. In this sense, we might consider that The Shawl, by successfully producing a shared affective atmosphere of shame, not merely between Rosa and the reader, but also between a myriad of geographically and temporally dispersed readers, successfully makes the case that the novel “cares” in a way that Dr. Tree cannot, achieves a humanity where the rest see only pieces and survivors.

This implicit argument for fiction ought not be seen uncritically, I think. The oddness of it does not go unseen by Ozick when an interviewer asks about her ability to write stories that convincingly are read as if “you were a Holocaust survivor yourself:”

I don’t agree with the sentiment “write what you know.” That recommends circumscription. I think one should write what one doesn’t know. The world is bigger and wider and more complex than our small subjective selves. One should prod, goad the imagination. That’s what it’s there for.

All the same, I’m against writing Holocaust fiction: that is, imagining those atrocities. Here we are, fifty years after the Holocaust, and the number of documents and survivor reminiscences — organized by very sensitive programs such as The Fortunoff oral history efforts at Yale and Steven Spielberg’s oral-history program — keep coming in torrents. Each year throws up more and more studies. It seems to me that if each one of us, each human being alive on the planet right now, were to spend the next five thousand years absorbing and assimilating the documents, it still wouldn’t be enough. I’m definitely on the side of sticking with the documents and am morally and emotionally opposed to the mythopoeticization of those events in any form or genre. And yet, for some reason, I keep writing Holocaust fiction. It is something that has happened to me; I can’t help it. If I had been there and not here I would be dead, which is something I can never forget. I think back on the four years I was in high school — I was extraordinarily happy, just coming into the exaltations of literature — and then I think about what was going on across the water, with very confused feelings.

When “The Shawl” was first published in The New Yorker (May 26, 1980), I received two letters, both quite penetrating in shocking ways. The first was from a psychiatrist who said he dealt with many Holocaust survivors. He said he was certain that I was such a survivor because only a survivor could write such a story. I was shocked by the utter confidence of his assumption; he knew nothing about imagination. The second was a very angry letter from a Holocaust survivor. She found my use of imagination utterly out of place and considered it both emotionally and morally disruptive. I sided with the survivor and thought the psychiatrist foolish. I finally assauged the survivor by convincing her that I was not an enemy of her unreplicatable experience.

As for the Jewish tradition of memory informing my outlook — absolutely, yes. History is the ground of our being, and together with imagination, that is what makes writing. Writing without history has been epidemic for some time now. It’s a very strange American amnesiac development to put all experience in the present tense, without memory, or history, or a past. What is “the past”? One damn thing after another. What is history? Judgment and interpretation. (“The Many Faces of Cynthia Ozick”).

Ozick offers in her response this fascinating tension between “sticking with the documents” because and the impulsion to write Holocaust fiction, to engage imaginatively with history and trauma. The playfully destructive irony and the historiographic metafictional techniques of much of the fiction that falls under the banner of postmodernism come to mind here as Ozick juxtaposes history with imagination. The deep feeling of The Shawl is, I contend, deeply ambivalent and unresolved. The belief in the value of fiction is a constructed one, but not any less real of one. As Tomkins suggests, “value hierarchies result from value conflicts wherein the same object is both loved and hated, both exciting and shaming, both distressing and enjoyable” (68). Such is our relationship to the value of fiction “after” postmodernism.