October 19, 1998
Volume 51, No. 8
Potok speaks of confrontation and change at Oxford College
As part of the 1998-99 Oxford Studies series, acclaimed author Chaim Potok brought his "small and particular world" to Allen Church Oct. 8, and a crowd of a couple hundred was treated to a small and particular marketplace of ideas.
Potok, author of such novels as The Chosen and The Promise, spoke of the "invisible scaffolding" that connects his many works. Taken very much from experiences in his own life growing up "in a Hassidic world without the beard and the earlocks," Potok's stories involve what he called "core-to-core culture confrontations," in which the core of the protagonist's world collides with the core of another, wider world and is forever altered.
"Every single one of us is born into a small and particular world, and early on in our lives we begin to encounter worlds outside that small and particular world into which we're born," said Potok, who is a member of the honors faculty at the University of Pennsylvania. "From very early we are bombarded insensibly with alternate ways of thinking [about] the human experience. We think it's a normal way to live; it is not a normal way to live. It's only about 300 years old, and we still don't know how to live that way."
"Two, three hundred or more years ago, we were born into our small and particular world, and that was it for us. You stayed in that world. There was very little chance that you could move from that world to another one. Not only that, but most of us never traveled more than 25 miles from where we were born."
Not anymore. Potok's core-to-core confrontation pitted his traditional Jewish upbringing against the world of fiction. "In the edifice of things Jewish, writing stories is somewhere in the basement," he joked. "Oh yes, the Jewish tradition has great stories. [But] stories born out of a frightened imagination, out of the solitary passion of an individual, stories that run counter to the way that tradition sees the world [are something] that tradition regards at best as frivolity and at worst an out and out menace."
But such works as Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce opened Potok's eyes to a world in which he knew he would live--at least partly--for the rest of his life. Over time he convinced his parents that fiction writing, not teaching the Talmud or becoming a doctor, was his calling, even though Jews until relatively recently could find no audience for their stories in much of the Western world.
"Western art, until the modern period, was by definition Christian art; its themes, its aesthetic molds, were either pagan--Roman and Greek--Christian or secular," Potok said. "Since the major thrust was an expression of Christendom, the Jew by definition could not participate."
But Potok did participate, crafting fiction that represented a model of the world, an organization of events for representing human experience.
"The modern novel, with very few exceptions, is a novel about individuals for whom nothing is intrinsically sacred," he said. "We are not a pleasant species, and the tacit understanding of the serious novelist is that we see ourselves for what we really are; if we can really look at ourselves, without preaching, without any moralizing, maybe we will change."