Cynthia Ozick, The Din in the Head

The Din in the HeadThe Din in the Head by Cynthia Ozick

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This 2006 essay collection begins with an appreciation of Susan Sontag, who had died in 2004. Ozick retells Sontag’s intellectual biography, from avant-garde champion of the counterculture in the 1960s to defender of traditional high culture in the 1990s. While Ozick pays tribute to Sontag’s unappeasable intellectual appetite, she gently chides her for her infidelity to high culture in “linking Nietzsche to Patti Smith,” when Ozick at the time “did not know who Patti Smith was.”

It’s wrong to dismiss Ozick as just another nostalgic, though. In an essay on Jonathan Franzen’s Oprah imbroglio, she describes her amusement at the novelist’s self-enrollment in the “high-art literary tradition.” She rightly remarks that the need to make such an assertion means that there is no such living tradition, for living traditions do not have to be claimed in this insecure way (the principle is, “If you have to say you are, you’re not”). Nor does Ozick quarrel with Sontag’s early aestheticism: she understands well enough that literature is the realm of the imagination’s autonomy, which makes it automatically inimical to the normative claims of high culture. In a related vein, again sympathetic to aestheticism, she is generally dismissive of writers’ biographies, journals, and memoirs as inessential to the understanding of literary works (see her essay on Plath).

Ozick believes that tradition gives literature backbone; that literature without tradition is a mere revel—or, as she more severely and religiously has it elsewhere, an idol. Nevertheless, she also maintains that tradition cannot be willed: one must be supported by one’s context or not supported at all. For this reason, her skepticism about pop culture is not expressed on behalf of art itself—for art has no internal defense against the sensational—but rather on behalf of the enabling civilizational matrix that makes for the best art, whether artists like it or not. As she notes in “Tradition and the Jewish Writer,” a title that ironically evokes Eliot only to rebuke his willful, therefore ersatz (and prejudiced), traditionalism:

But tradition is useful to the writer only insofar as the writer is unconscious of its use; only insofar as it is inevitable and inaudible; only insofar as the writer breathes it in with the air; only insofar as principled awareness and teacherliness are absent; only insofar as the writer is deaf to the pressure of the collectivity. What could be more treacherous to the genuine nature of the literary impulse than to mistake the writer for a communal leader, or for the sober avatar of a glorious heritage? No writer is trustworthy or steady enough for that. The aims of imaginative writers are the aims of fiction. Not of community service or communal expectation.

To stay in touch with tradition and to avoid what dilutes it, the writer is well-advised not to spend too much time on pop culture, which has an insistent presentism that enervates and detracts from a living history. (Sontag’s trendiness is a key counterexample: she was for the nouveau roman and communist fellow-traveling when they were cool in the 1960s, and then she was for postmodern narrative and liberal imperialism when those became cool in the 1990s.)

It is still possible, against the grain of Sontag’s torn banner, to read Nietzsche—and Gibbon and Jewish history and George Eliot and E. M. Forster and Chekhov and so much else—without at the same time taking notice of Patti Smith.

This is a strong and disturbing argument, admirably nuanced, and I suspect that history bears it out to a point. Witness the evanescence of avant-gardism, the datedness of strenuous attempts to be radical or reactionary. I certainly think it’s ridiculous to dismiss Ozick’s position casually, as if to put the overused satirical command, “Get off my lawn!” in her mouth. (Incidentally, it’s nice that we have a phrase that instantly evokes mindless conservatism, but do we have a similar phrase to call up mindless radicalism?)

On the other hand, I can’t ignore a certain irony in hinging this argument upon Patti Smith, who is, after all, something of a classic at this point. Based on my experience with undergraduates, I would say that a 20-year-old today who knows about Patti Smith will probably also know about Nietzsche—and Susan Sontag. Neither radicals nor conservatives have ever been very good at accounting for how anarchic works of literature (e.g., those of Nietzsche himself) become part of tradition, as they so often do—but that’s a topic for another day.

The Din in the Head is at its best when most literary, in its appreciations for Saul Bellow, John Updike, Henry James, Leo Tolstoy, Lionel Trilling, and, maybe most surprisingly, Rudyard Kipling. Its reflections on the relation between Jewish tradition and the Jewish writer are illuminating, to this goy anyway. When Ozick editorializes on political matters, though, things go wrong in ways that tend to distract from this collection’s literary virtues.

Ozick’s politics emerge most obviously in a laudatory review of Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran and more obliquely in an appreciation of Gershom Scholem, whose Zionism Ozick is at pains to emphasize. Nine years ago, it would have been simple to caption Ozick, rather contemptuously, as a neoconservative, one of Bush’s “useful idiots,” in Tony Judt’s memorably barbed repurposing of the Cold War formulation. For my part, I am not yet ready to forgive those who acquiesced in the war fever of those years, but I also regret the terms in which my own protest was expressed—there is an anti-war fever too, I think, because when society descends into violent and irrational fervors, no one is spared. Today, I will say that I think Ozick and I value most of the same things, but I am extremely skeptical that they can be defended without thereby being degraded by means of militarism and nationalism. I can’t quite go along with the way Ozick ties all her enemies, from intellectual populism to Palestinian terrorism, so neatly together (though, to be fair, there are those on the opposite side who unite them just as speciously):

A novel concerned with English country-house romances is not the same as a tract on slavery in Antigua. A department of English is not the same as a Marxist tutorial. A rap CD is not the same as academic scholarship. A suicide bomber who blows up a pizzeria crowded with baby carriages is not the same as a nation-builder.

This is just polemical bluster, and Ozick should be above it. The first quoted sentence is in reference to Edward Said’s reading of Mansfield Park in Culture and Imperialism, but Ozick trivializes it beyond recognition. Said’s literary criticism was indeed often distorted by a tortuous attempt to defend by universalizing the liberal tradition while pragmatically pursuing a “no enemies to the left” tactic in his polemics. This renders his reading of Mansfield Park unappealingly double: both tediously banal—by asserting the mere truism (against the usual New Critical straw man) that the novel has a social and political context—and untenably radical—by implying that the novel was itself an instrument of imperialism. In short, I am not a great admirer of Said’s argument, but neither am I convinced that Ozick has read it closely enough to comment based on her op-ed crudity. The third quoted sentence is in reference, of course, to Cornel West and, while I don’t exactly disagree (neither does Michael Eric Dyson, but see also John McWhorter), the implied equation between rap and terrorism is a bit much.

The function of these four sentences is to make the referents of the first three metonymies equivalent to the referent of the fourth, so that academic Marxists, Edward Said, and Cornel West become suicide bombers killing children in a pizzeria. Here is the scar in the prose of the war fever with which we were afflicted in the first decade of the present century: you don’t have to support Marxism or the views of Said and West to view Ozick’s rhetoric here as regrettably demagogic, especially from one who insists on moral rigor in judging intellectual complicity with violence. But maybe I am just more nihilistic than Ozick, at one with the pessimism of Said’s intellect if not the optimism of his will: how can we be so sure that nations or any other constructs of civilization are categorically separable from the violence that so often brings them into being and sustains them?

When Ozick tells an interviewer that she has an “an unending, unforgiving, implacable self-devastating rage against Europe,” she reveals a certain kinship with postcolonial theory. I suppose the difference is in Ozick’s perception that anti-Semitism, with its attack against those it designates as alien elites, is too closely akin to the left’s similar politics of anti-privilege, which, if not rigorously universalized, is all too prone to decay into the usual populist furies. “Europe” in her usage, then, must stand for this tendency—perhaps encoded in Christianity itself—to create otherworldly standards of justice whose partisans tend to turn resentfully murderous when they cannot be achieved on their own impossible terms. Then they scapegoat the Jews, with their rival civilizational attainments, for their theories’ own inevitable failure. This is a striking argument, made in the essays on Scholem, on Alter’s translation of the Bible, and especially on Saul Bellow, whose desire to live “a Jewish life in the American language,” with its nuanced liberal pluralism, Ozick contrasts to “the rivalrous group tenets of multiculturalism.” The trends of recent years, especially the left-liberal encouragement of absolutist identity politics, have given me more sympathy to the distinctions Ozick makes here; they seem to me to be far more valuable and sophisticated in today’s climate than the all-too-dated neocon boilerplate about Said as professor of terror.

In general, I admire Ozick’s insistence on seeing intractable conflict and division—between literature and religion, between civilization and culture—where many other intellectuals are far too quick to see sameness in the question-begging name of “cultural studies.” Read these essays for those powers of mind, not for those few passages where the need to judge becomes a rush to judgment and the urge to divide mere divisiveness.

The best essay in this collection, interestingly, is not about contemporary American novelists, the fate of high culture, the place of the Jews in European and American civilization, the contending claims of religion and imagination, or post-9/11 politics. It is about Helen Keller. For Ozick, the many detractors of Keller’s writing—who argued that her disability prevented her from having enough direct experience to draw on, rendering her literature either thin or fraudulent—amount to nothing less than deniers of the imagination, which is at once the source of artistic, religious, and political insight, however these three may differ. I will close with Ozick’s eloquent statement of the case:

Helen Keller’s lot, it turns out, was not unique. “We work in the dark,” Henry James affirmed, on behalf of his own art, and so did she. It was the same dark. She knew her Wordsworth: “Visionary power / Attends the motion of the viewless winds / Embodied in the mystery of a word: / There, darkness makes abode.” She fought the debunkers who, for the sake of a spurious honesty, would denude her of landscape and return her to the marble cell. She fought the iron pragmatists who meant to disinherit her, and everyone, of poetry. She fought the tin ears who took imagining to be mendacity. Her legacy, after all, is an epistemological marker of sorts: proof of the real existence of the mind’s eye.



  1. […] (There is, of course, the nearly Chestertonian paradox that a political or religious passion seems to produce greater literature than does a merely art-for-art’s-sake posture—the religious reactionary Dostoevsky and the ardently progressive George Eliot are grander figures than the aesthetes Pater and Wilde, and, for that matter, the dangerously irrationalist Yeats is better than the sweetly reasonable Auden—but that is a topic for another day. I touched on it in this piece on Cynthia Ozick’s essays.) […]

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