Sunday, February 24, 2013
I read "The Shawl" by Cynthia Ozick aloud in class on Monday. Damn. It's one of those stories that make you want to stop as your surge forward but you can't stop because every part of what you're reading and seeing inside your head is so diligently inevitable you feel tossed aside and yet pulled within, caught up in something that destroys and disappears and destroys and disappears. Ozick's story gives us direct access into horror, and yet at the center of everything is a sort of insanely beautiful sensuousness, evidenced by this last paragraph:
"All at once Magda was swimming through the air. The whole of Magda traveled through loftiness. She looked like a butterfly toucan a silver vine. And the moment Magda’s feathered round head and her pencil legs and balloonish belly and zigzag arm splashed against the fence, 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 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 mouth with it, 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."
You earn that kind of poetry by staring violence and ugliness and vileness right in the face. You suck in the putrid air of what people can do, and you exhale the grace they are capable of. As I read out loud I felt the room get quiet and uncomfortable, and the whole way through the discomfort increased. No room for laughs, just recognition. When you can create something this humorless and yet so incredibly accessibilie, you find other ways to connect outside of "likability" and "relatability." You find the core of every one's existence, all of it guided through the consciousness of Rosa, and you locate morality in the death of a baby you truly feel is your own.
Above is a drawing by the German artist Kathe Kollwitz, who died in 1945. Her drawings, prints and paintings have the same mysterious and effortless clarity as Ozick's writing, so clear and pure it feels like the world is about to disappear.