Cynthia Ozick writes about the beginning lines of her piece ‘A Hebrew Sybil’.
My mother was a native of this place, though my father, a trader in pots, was not.
This opening sentence of ‘A Hebrew Sibyl’ was scratched out and rewritten many times, as I puzzled over how best to place its sparse components. The quandary inherent in this helpless wrestling was how to balance internal logic with resonance, or call it pitch attuned to coherence. But what I had no doubt about, and no hesitation, was where that first sentence was leading. Often enough, and perhaps most of the time, the start of a story is the beginning of chaos, and its clear design – what does this story tell, what does it mean? – is revealed only at the three-quarters mark, or later still. It can happen, though, as it did with ‘A Hebrew Sibyl’, that the first sentence knows almost exactly the burden, and the outcry, of the last sentence.
The title is of course an oxymoron. The ancient Hebrews had no sibyls or oracles. What Greeks and Romans had in common with Israelites was the construction of their temples: impressive size, columns, vast inner space. But the Greek and Roman temples (there were many) were also shrines dedicated to a ruling deity, whose colossal image loomed within their gilded porticos. The Hebrews, by contrast, were permitted only a single temple confined to Jerusalem, and to the astonishment, and then the derision, of those conquering invaders, the Seleucid Greeks and after them the Romans, the Temple in Jerusalem, despite its grandeur, seemed no better than a hollow shell. It contained no image of god or goddess; it was eerily empty. What else could a godless temple mean if not a declaration of communal atheism?
So the atheist trader from the Levant, who must annually spend an entire season in accumulating an inventory of merchandise for export overseas to his home country, takes a wife from the local population, a Greek woman noted for her piety. The child born of this marriage is reared in polytheism – itself a brilliant projection of every conceivable element of the human psyche. For all its dazzling expanse of understanding, it falls short, in our Judeo-Christian perception, in that it cannot imagine the unimaginable: an invisible God of powerful influence, yet not subject to representation in any known form.
This was my subject. And my sibyl, though she sees through the fiction of the oracle, can see no further. From her father she has learned atheism, a repudiation of the gods. But she has not learned that in the view of a competing civilization he is not an atheist at all, but a carrier of an idea so new among the ancients, and so alien even to the daughter of this particular father, that it cannot be comprehended.
Some stories begin with an incident, or a set of enigmatic circumstances, or a scene indelibly witnessed, or the relationship of unlike temperaments, or even something as gossamer as a mood. And then there is the kind of story that is rooted in an idea. Here that idea is implicit in the first sentence, and is carried out in the last sentence, and ends in deepest pity.
I fear that this exposition will strike you as grandiose – the chief sin of exposition. Having written it – all the foregoing – I instantly regret it. A story is simple and speaks for itself, unlike a thorny explanation, which speaks for the writer’s intent. And who cares about the writer’s intent? An intent is not a story. An explanation is not a story. Only a story is a story.
Photograph by Dennis Jarvis