Page 88 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 42

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representation of reality in Western literature. As Auerbach re ­
minds his readers, it is to Aristotle and Plato that we owe the
Greek term
in the sense o f artistic representation. He
traces modern realism to innovative 19th-century French novel­
ists like Stendhal and Balzac, who “took random individuals from
daily life . . . and made them
the subjects o f serious, problematic and
even tragic representation”
(p. 489, my emphasis). It is to ancient
G reek l ite ra tu re th a t Auerbach tu rn s fo r the pu rpo se o f
comparing and, more importantly, contrasting the Western way
o f representing reality with the specifically Jewish way.
Homer, he argues, knows no background, “only a foreground,
only a uniformly illuminated, uniformly objective present” (p. 5).
“Homeric heroes . . . wake every morning as if it were the first
day o f their lives,” (p. 10). Homer’s basic impulse is to represent
phenomena in a fully externalized form, visible and palpable. In
Jewish literature, as epitomized for Auerbach by the biblical nar­
rative o f the Binding o f Isaac, the
“the decisive points of
the n a rra tive alone are emphasized , what lies between is
n o n e x is te n t , time and place a re u n d e f in e d and call fo r
thoughts and feelings remain unexpressed, are
only suggested by the silence and the fragmentary speeches; the
whole, permeated with the most unrelieved suspense and di­
rected toward a single goal . . . remains mysterious and
with background
’” (p. 9, my emphasis).
Abraham’s actions are explained not only by his character but
by his previous history. His faculties may be fully engaged in the
event at hand but he remains continually conscious o f what has
happened to him earlier and elsewhere. His thought and feelings
are entangled in many layers. According to Auerbach, this specif­
ically Jewish representation o f specifically Jewish reality has “doc­
trine and promise” incarnate in it and is therefore a teaching text.
It contains a secret second meaning which must be subtly investi­
gated and interpreted.
An investigation o f Cynthia Ozick’s latest novel reveals that its
characters — random or not so random individuals taken from
daily Jewish life — are also made the subjects o f serious, problem­
atic representation. Moreover, the main characters are p ro ­
foundly “fraught with background,” a background that is at times