The Din in the Head
By Cynthia Ozick
Houghton Mifflin, 256 pages, $24.
* * *
It is a truth (almost) universally acknowledged that any person in possession of a large personal library will covet, if he or she does not already own, essays written by Cynthia Ozick. Why? Because Ozick’s paragraphs contain equal measures of passion and intelligence, and because even when she is exasperating, her arguments have a way of lodging themselves in your head.
In her fifth collection, aptly titled “The Din in the Head,” Ozick insists that some works of literature are better — not merely “different,” but better — than others, and that the unfettered (read: apolitical) literary imagination continues to matter. Many writers rant, but few do it with the aplomb of the curmudgeonly Ozick. She scolds and scours — all in an effort to pull down contemporary vanity and to promote writing genuinely worthy of our attention.
Ozick is unapologetic about her elitism, because she was formed by a high modernism that has long ago receded. To come of age at a time when T.S. Eliot was literary culture’s dominant taste-setter, when would-be novelists cut their teeth on Henry James and James Joyce, is to look on much that passes as postmodernist culture with great suspicion. Or, as she puts it: “Television confessionals, radio psychologists, telephone marketing quizzers, the retrograde e-mail contagion that reduces letter-writing to stunted nineteenth-century telegraphese, electronic ‘chat rooms’ and ‘blogs’ and ‘magazines’ that debase discourse through breeziness and the incessant scramble for the cutting edge — what are these, really, if not dwarfing gyrations of crowds?”
She is clearly out of sorts in our egalitarian culture of feeling and taste, one in which “‘the best that had been thought and said’ — Matthew Arnold’s exalted old credo, long superannuated — devolved to ‘Whatever.’” The result has indeed been a world in which critical judgments are unwelcome and, more to the point, impossible. But Ozick is a happy exception. She shakes off strongly held opinions with the same ease with which a wet puppy dampens a living room rug, and some of it may make some Jewish American readers squirm. For example, Ozick puts as much distance as she can between “Jewish books” (defined as Torah, Talmud and works such as Joseph Soloveitchik’s “The Lonely Man of Faith,” originally published in 1992) and what she regards as the central mission of the novelist: “to seize unrestraint and freedom, even demonic freedom, imagination with its reins cut loose.” That’s why the term “Jewish writer” is, for Ozick, an oxymoron, and why her essays focus on a wide variety of writers: Bellow, Leo Tolstoy, Henry James, John Updike, Philip Roth, Lionel Trilling, Isaac Babel, Gershom Scholem and, oddly enough, Helen Keller.
In each case, what Ozick wants to do is peel the onionskins of everything from political correctness to just plain gossip and, instead, to concentrate on the language that each writer uses to probe the inner life. At a time when the term “close reading” often requires long explanations, Ozick remains a consummate close reader. And as for the clash between what once was and what now is, one could do worse than to read the hilarious interview between an imagined Henry James and an equally imagined young, extremely earnest female interviewer who wants nothing more than to have James come clean about his homosexuality. The essay, “An (Unfortunate) Interview With Henry James,” is a hoot, but it is also a sad cautionary tale about the current state of American letters.
In another essay, “Highbrow Blues,” Ozick wonders why Philip Roth’s “Shop Talk” — a 2001 collection of interviews, exchanges and reflections about such writers as Isaac Bashevis Singer, Bernard Malamud, Saul Bellow, Primo Levi, Aharon Appelfeld and Bruno Schultz — sank like a stone. Few reviewers noted it, and fewer readers bought it. How could such a thing happen? “Fifty years ago, the publication of ‘Shop Talk’ would have been the topic of scores of graduate-student warrens and middle-class dinner parties, of book and gossip columns, of the roiling cenacles of the envious ambitious bookish young.”
Alas, I fear that “The Din in the Head” will suffer the same ignominy. The au courant will accuse Ozick of being one of the last dinosaurs still plodding along the literary highway. Others may attack her politics, prompted by her cracks about multiculturalism or her unwillingness to champion any fashionably ethnic writer under 50, much less under 30. And yet, it will be their loss. The essays in “The Din in the Head” remind us of what makes fine writing both exciting and humanly important. And that never gets old.
Sanford Pinsker is an emeritus professor at Franklin & Marshall College.