Thursday, January 22, 2009

Ozick: Toward a Minor Literature

I have to be honest—I was hoping to grab a quick hook from Deleuze's work to hang a reading of Cynthia Ozick's Messiah of Stockholm from, but the damn thing's dauntingly rich. Please read the following as a very threadbare use of Deleuze which hopefully sparks some further thoughts on a couple of topics—Americans' relationship to Central European literature, for one, and how that relationship may model or resemble an American reader's relationships to various segments of American literature.

First, a few quotes from Milan Kundera about the literature of small European countries:
What distinguishes the small nations from the large is not the quantitative criterion of the number of their inhabitants; it is something deeper: for them their existence is not a self-evident certainty but always a question, a wager, a risk; they are on the defensive against History, that force is bigger than they, that does not take them into consideration, that does not even notice them...

There are as many Poles as there are Spaniards. But Spain is an old power whose existence has never been under threat, whereas History has taught the Poles what it means not to exist. Deprived of their State, they lived for over a century on death row...

The large nations [of Europe] resist the Goethean idea of "world literature" because their own literature seems to them sufficiently rich that they need take no interest in what people write elsewhere... Small nations are reticent toward the large context [of world literature] for the exact opposite reasons: they hold world culture in high esteem but feel it to be something alien, a sky above their heads, distant, inaccessible, an ideal reality with little connection to their national literature.
In The Messiah of Stockholm, we overhear a little debate between Swedish book critics:
"This pond," Anders said. "This little pond of translators and chameleons. Swedish, the secret language. Who else knows it besides the Swedes? Who else runs to learn everyone else's language? The paralysis of Swedish identity. Pour the water, Lars."
"The Poles are just the same. The Czechs. The Hungarians. We're no worse off than anyone," Gunnar objected. "Why blame the Swedes?" [...]
"Half the population of Stockholm think they're French philosophers. And the other half"—Anders looked straight at Gunnar—"are circus barkers."
Ozick toys with Jewish identity in a number of interesting ways in this novel, without bringing Judaism itself ever into focus. In this exchange, the Swedes are implicitly positioned as the stereotype of Mitteleuropean Jews—hyper-literate to the point of being nationless, possessing a "secret language" which is kept secret by their eagerness to learn the languages of everyone else. The novel's protagonist, it should now be mentioned, believes himself to be a Polish Jew who was smuggled out of Poland before the German invasion and who has now taken a very Swedish name (Lars Andemining) and is for the most part passing. He also believes himself to be the son of the great Polish writer Bruno Schulz, who was shot during the German occupation. Lars is obsessed with Central European writers—Gombrowicz, Hrabal, Kiš, Konwicki, et al.—an interest which puts off most Swedes, who see this group as a welter of angst, surrealism, esotericism, and inscrutability—a kabbalistic crew. Lars's editor tells him, "your reviews are practically theology."

In other words, Ozick encourages the common (American?) tendency to Judaize Central European writers (whom most Americans even tend to call Eastern European, a vaguely Orientalizing error), an action which correlates with our tendency to see them all as Kafka variants. Ozick even plays a little bit on this, as one character tells Lars that Bruno Schulz is too little-known: "Why don't you pick Kafka to be the son of? Then people would have some recognition. They'd be impressed. They'd look around at you."

This in itself is interesting, but when we read it back through Kundera's definition of a small nation as one whose very existence is never assured, we come to think of the subliminally automatic Judaization of Central European writers as being a little more weighty in its carelessness. When we go on to read Kundera's critique of the provincialism of small nations—as being too reverent of "world literature"—as also referring to the ultra-cosmopolitan Jews of pre-WWII Vienna or Prague or Budapest, the questionable relationship between national identity, assimilation and mere survival is considerably sharpened. In other words, if we think of pre-WWII Central European Jews as having consituted one of Kundera's small nations, what does this say about how we tend to read them? What do we look for in them? Is what we look for precisely that pervasive threat of non-existence—the quality of small-nation-ness, and if so, what do we miss?

It is here that I would like to bring in Deleuze & Guattari and their notion of a "minor" literature. D&G (not Dolce & Gabbana, although I imagine Gilles and Felix would have been amused by the coincidence) start their definition of a minor literature by saying, "A minor literature doesn’t come from a minor language; it is rather that which a minority constructs within a major language." This is one reason why Kafka is their exemplar—he did not write in Czech, though he lived in Prague, but in German. However, I think this definition is applicable over not just the set of natural languages, but on a number of different, more metaphorical levels—in our case, thinking of the literature of small (Mitteleuropean) nations being written in the "large-nation" language of pan-European history and culture, but spoken from a minority's position.

This page contains a fairly good summary of the key characteristics of the Deleuzian concept of minor literature, so you can read that if you wish to get a fuller idea of the term, but I want to condense things to the three points to Deleuze's definition: deterritorialization, politicization, collectivization, and I want to highlight one quote they take from D&G: "minor no longer designates specific literatures but the revolutionary conditions for every literature within the heart of what is called great (or established) literature." (my emphasis)

There are obviously massive subtleties to those three points which I do not have time to get into, not to mention the problematics of what revolution means or is, but I want to start thinking about how formation of these revolutionary conditions is resisted by attempts to deny the applicability of these three points—both by the major literature which hosts the minor literature and by the practitioners of the minor literature itself. That is, what strategies are employed to prevent a minor literature from cropping up, or what strategies are employed to deny a minor literature its revolutionary potential—how are its deterritorializations, its politicizations, its collectivizations curtailed or redirected?

To a certain extent, I think in the case of the "small nation" of Central European Jews (and a fortiori the nations of Central Europe themselves), this is achieved by overloading or overdetermining the deterritorializations, politicizations and collectivizations of this literature. By reading essentially everything as if it is Kafka (or Kafkaesque) and overemphasizing its excessively deterritorialized nature (everything is parabolic), its excessively political nature (everything is a critique of fascism and communism), we are already at the point where every narrative articulates a collective story, a single story which resonates within every individual work. I think Ozick's novel is largely about this process of overdetermination, and seems to advocate for a disenchantment from this uniformity, and a reconnection to a vital literature on other terms.

The conspicuous non-Americanness of this story, however, also begs some questions relating to the position of Jewish writers in this country. I think the history of Jewish-American literature is particularly rich ground for the kind of inquiry I have described&mdsh;taking the definition of a "minor" literature and thinking through how a given literature is prevented from fulfilling that definition, from becoming revolutionary. How does the reterritorialization of Jewish-American literature as being (stereotypically) a literature of New York work to dilute its possibilities as a radical critique of "mainstream" American literature? How do writers like Saul Bellow or Philip Roth act to depoliticize and decollectivize the idea of Jewish-American literature? etc.

Deleuze & Guattari themselves make a comparison between Prague Jews and black Americans: "Prague German is a deterritorialized language, appropriate for strange and minor uses. (This can be compared in another context to what blacks in America today are able to do with the English language.)" I think there is a great deal of work to be done considering how various potentially "minor" literatures are kept from reaching their revolutionary potential.

1 comment:

Tony Christini said...

Depending upon definitions of "revolutionary" and so on, some of the works at Liberation Lit ( might test case the theories - and vice versa.