The Din in the Head: Essays Paperback – Jun 2 2007
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From Publishers Weekly
[Signature]Reviewed by Daphne MerkinEver since she first started offering up her fiercely (and often unfashionably) judgmental opinions over three decades ago, the din in Cynthia Ozick's head has been worth listening to—even if you don't agree with her conclusions. "This persistent internal hum," as she characterizes it in her latest essay collection, is set off most memorably by "the individual's solitary engagement with an intimate text," be it John Updike's early stories, Sylvia Plath's journals, or Robert Alter's new translation of the Pentateuch. In our cacophonous Age of Buzz, where eloquent literary reflection has gone the way of Wite-Out, Ozick prides herself on resisting the blandishments of popularity for the highbrow's more discriminating vantage point. "Readers are not the same as audiences," she reminds us sternly in "Highbrow Blues," "and the structure of a novel is not the same as the structure of a lingerie advertisement."Although Ozick is equipped with the kind of intellectual muscle that marked Susan Sontag's strongest writing—the opening essay, "On Discord and Desire," pays qualified homage to Sontag—she also has a rigorous (some might say self-righteous) moral sense and a distrust of radical chic that draws her to burnishing eclipsed reputations, which she does in moving appreciations of Lionel Trilling and Delmore Schwartz, and to upholding classical values, as espoused by Saul Bellow or the Bible. Ozick is most effective when she has more rather than less room to expatiate; the best pieces here are capaciously rendered, like an inspired reconsideration of Gershom Scholem. To be sure, at however exalted an altitude she pitches her criticism, Ozick is not above fretting about the vagaries of celebrity and, indeed, seems never to have accommodated herself to the relative obscurity that attends upon a more elitist calling. I assume it is to this end that we are treated once again to an account of her youthful obsession with writing a Jamesian novel ("James, Tolstoy, and My First Novel")—a miscalculation that clearly preys on her. Perhaps it is her wish to make up for her late start that has led her to include every piece of occasional writing she has done (including a review of Joseph Lelyveld's memoir, Omaha Blues, that I remember reading the first time around). If this collection is not the strongest of the four she has published, Ozick's is a strikingly independent and articulate voice, one that rises above the noise of the madding crowd with rare clarity and force.Daphne Merkin is the author of Enchantment, a novel, and Dreaming of Hitler, a collection of essays. She is a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and writes a bimonthly book column, Provocateur, for Elle.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
Ozick is a literary powerhouse, writing beguiling and adventurous novels, most recently Heir to the Glimmering World (2004), and electrifying literary essays. Criticism is a difficult form, and Ozick practices it with passionate curiosity, discernment, and pleasure in both rigorous thinking and the crafting of decisive and scintillating prose. Her latest collection of forthright and tonic essays includes penetrating tributes to two brilliant thinkers, Susan Sontag and Lionel Trilling. Ozick expresses her faith in imagination in a provocative reflection on Helen Keller and considers the nexus of literature and tyranny in incisive readings of Tolstoy, Babel, and Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran. Revisiting Updike, Bellow, and Roth inspires thoughts on the decline of a vibrant mainstream American book culture and a spirited defense of the "insights of art" in general and the novel's "infinity of plasticity and elasticity" in specific. Writing with pirouetting grace, Ozick observes that only the novel can encompass "the din in our heads, that relentless inward hum of fragility and hope and transcendence and dread." Donna Seaman
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
A Jew, Ozick directly addresses the question of what it means to be a 'Jewish writer' in her essay, Tradition and (Or Versus) the Jewish Writer. She believes that if a Jewish author is not tackling such massive problems as the Holocaust or the creation and stability of Israel, then 'All other subject matter in the so-called Jewish-American novel is, well, American, written in the American language, telling American stories.' She rejects the concept of a Jewish novel unless, as stated, it is forcibly and solely Jewish in origin and intent. Catholic, Protestant, Atheist, etc novels are not usually branded with their religion before being read, and nor should they be - it seems only the Jews and minorities such as colonial literature suffer from this problem. A novel is what it is, the aim of an author is not 'community service or communal expectation.' She finishes by saying that writers 'are responsible only to the comely shape of a sentence, and to the unfettered imagination'.
That being said, a number of her essays do directly deal with leading Jewish authors such as Saul Bellow, Delmore Schwartz, Lionel Trilling, Isaac Babel, Gershom Scholem. Other authors include Updike, Tolstoy, Kipling, Plath and Henry James. Roughly half of the book deals with Jewish authors or themes, the other half with novels in general. While the book cannot honestly be claimed as Jewish - witness Ozick's own attack on the concept, but also consider the inappropriateness of a book on literary criticism not analysing the works of such masters as Saul Bellow - Ozick's pride in her heritage is plain. But it is not the pride that comes from grandstanding or self-propelling ambition, rather, Ozick discusses these things because they have merit to herself, and by extension, to others.
Her essay, John Updike: Eros and God, is a remarkable piece of sustained admiration for an author who, sad as it is to say, seems to be less appreciated than in his due by today's younger authors, who value the flash and fire of literary psuedo-pyrotechnics, all the while ignoring Updike's supreme command of the English language, his ease and skill and, dare it be said, grace in composing sentences that show us the ordinary in a way we couldn't - wouldn't? - have looked at it ourselves. 'Language in all its fecundity is Updike's native country, and he is its patriot.' Fecundity is right, Updike language grows and stagnates, flourishes and falls, but it is always abundant and verdant, ripe to read and delicious to see.
One of the primary questions Ozick is attempting to answer throughout this book is the deceptively simple: What is a novel? She baldly states it only once, but every essay dances around the topic before culminating in yet another insightful, illuminating aspect of an answer. Granted, there may never be a complete, coherent response to the question, but beautiful, intelligent and important attempts may be given. The novel is, she writes, 'A persuasion towards dramatic interiority. A word-hoard that permits its inventor to stand undefined, unprescribed, liberated from direction or coercion.'
Lionel Trilling, a once-famous critic whose star has long since dimmed, is given a twenty-page examination, and is the saddest essay in the novel. Trilling, though respected, even revered in his own time, always chafed against the mantle of 'critic'. He wanted to be a novelist, and envied Hemingway beyond all others. His own novel, The Middle of the Journey, which is by Ozick's account a certainly capable novel, was not received well. Trilling, writing in his diary, noted, 'The attack on my novel, that it is gray, bloodless, intellectual, without passion, is always made with great personal feeling, with anger. -How dared I presume?' The weight of a man's sadness, heavy to behold and difficult to read.
There are small pieces scattered throughout the novel. Kipling's essay is very short, a mere two pages, Plath receives five, miscellaneous topics stay under ten. But even these remain worthwhile and interesting. I am lucky in that I am familiar with most, though not all of the authors, but even those about whom I know little, the encouragement to explore their works is vast. A difficulty in any collected work of criticism is the reader's potential unfamiliarity with the subject matter - the question of, 'If I have not read the author, why would I read criticism of them?' - is firmly answered by the exuberance and enthusiasm of Ozick's prose. She captures not the essence of the writer, necessarily, but the essence of what it meant to them to write, how important it was to be writing, and how important is it to read their work.
Ozick shows a clear preference for literature above all other forms of entertainment and communication. 'The din in our heads, that relentless inward hum of fragility and hope and transcendence and dread - where, in an age of machine addressing crowds, and crowds mad for machines, can it be found? In the art of the novel...And nowhere else.' And she's right. Literature speaks to the interiority of ourselves, that endless, limitless space in which we define who we are, what we are about, why we are here and what it is that we hold closest to ourselves. Literature, more than any other medium, directly address this interior, it furnishes it with rooms and chairs, carpets and chandeliers, mountains, lakes, rivers and cities. It makes of the blankness of our births a glorious empire, but an empire that we create. Literature is our friend and our confidante, it is our enemy and our attackers. It challenges, harmonizes, repudiates and chastises. It is capable of all this and more - endless reams of purple prose, all for the sake of novels and reading. Ozick may be preaching to the converted with her book of essays, but the enjoyment, exuberance and passion she receives from reading is so beautifully conveyed that I cannot help but suggest it to people who are non-readers, as a way of allowing them into the realm of the written word. Ozick kindles - or rekindles - the love of literature until it is a raging fire alongside which we could warm ourselves forever.
She has been chided for again fighting in this work a battle which many claim already won, the battle to preserve the significance of the Novel as a form. She too has been taken to task for that haughty elitist tone, which sets limits and standards, and sees a place in the Tradition as something to be struggled and aspired for.
She is a deep person in feeling and often her prose is complicated and awkward, an overwhelming rush of words upon words upon words. But her mind is a fine and powerful one and she time and again makes the right distinction and perception.
Above all readers of these essays can rest assured that they have entered a kind of small higher world, a world where writing and thought , the search for truth and beauty are given a special measure of devotion. This is very apparent in her long essay on the master scholar of Jewish Mystical Literature Gershom Scholem.
Ozick is like James a writer of great intelligence, and careful moral judgment.
It is just a very great pleasure and privilege to read her work.
Ms. Ozick states in her book's forward that "some matters are, in truth, more urgent, and significant, than others." Art is what 'matters', as opposed to what pleases the crowd - literature over pulp, discernment over pop, and a patrician taste that sends plebeian pap back to the kitchen. There must be standards, with standard-bearers to separate the high from the low, and her article asserts that for a literate culture (and for the future of The Novel), someone needs to get off their butt and provide the distinctions. What the world needs now are critics.
According to Ms. Ozick, critics are the architects of a culture, and I don't find any fault with that assumption. They bring to bear "horizonless freedoms, multiple histories, multiple libraries, multiple metaphysics, and intuitions" when they consider a text. A *professional* reviewer, on the other hand, because of space requirements and other limits, barely has time to outline the plot before giving it the thumbs-up or thumbs-down. If the critic is the architect, then the reviewer is the mason. But Ms. Ozick reserves special hatred for Amazon's unprofessionals - a cadre of unwitting saboteurs of the architects and masons both.
Why such venom? "Amazon encourages naïve and unqualified readers who look for easy prose and uplifting endings to expose their insipidities to a mass audience." Ouch. I'm not sure how she arrives at this conclusion unless she's responding to comments posted about her own books. She continues - these "typically unlettered exhibitionists signal a new low in public responsibility" as, "uncontested and unedited," we derail the critic's work by assigning stars to writers based on insubstantial literacy. That, in turn, leads to the crumbling confidence of readers - a confidence carefully groomed by the critic. "Amazon's unspoken credo is that anyone, or everyone, is well suited to make literary judgments." Obviously that is no credo of Cynthia Ozick's.
I wasn't aware of her indictments when, rooting through the bargain bins, I found 'The Din in the Head,' Ms. Ozick's collection of essays on literature. Though only three selections are attributed (to the New Yorker), I'm sure that most were published first in magazines such as Harper's and The American Scholar. Those are demanding venues, and Ms. Ozick's skills are up to the task, though her prose seems purposefully obtuse at times, as if she wanted to distance herself from anyone having trouble deciphering her meaning. Regardless, the essays were educational, though probably not necessarily meant as criticism. Some are closer to Ms. Ozick's own definition of reviews, and others are personal reflections - but they all reflect a glimmer of those horizonless freedoms that she posits separate criticism from reviewing.
Without horizons, it's imperative that the critic at least strike out in interesting directions. In that regard, 'The Din in the Head' is a mixed bag. The section on Isaac Babel was captivating, and I appreciate Ms. Ozick's efforts to bring him to my attention - after her essay, I'm eager to read more. Other profiles were also fascinating, like those of Gershom Scholem and Robert Alter, though it's likely that my investigation into their output is probably finished at her essay's conclusion. The rest, other than a short, surprising endorsement of Kipling, were of mixed interest, though Ms. Ozick brought the same academic level of scrutiny to each. To say that I'm satisfied with this collection after paying the bargain price for it would be justified, and the combination of cost and quality easily rates four stars.
So why the need for the explicit commentary on the Harper's article? Because her need to attack hobby reviewers to make her point about critics suggests that not only art and literature are matters more significant than others - it implies, that to Ms. Ozick, there are *people* more significant than others too.
Books are not written in a vacuum. They come from within an author, and as such, critical studies must includes the context in which she frames her thoughts. Her perspective should be exposed along with the finished work - and in this case, that perspective is elitist and exclusionary. How much of that sifts down onto the printed page I don't know. My only guidance is the old maxim - consider the source. I have, and I don't want anyone who believes as she does delineating the cultural landscape for me.
I may never have been her intended audience anyway - it may have only been for the imaginary members of her literary country club. On the other hand, she does have her work published - it's all right for me to buy it evidently, just as long as I don't review it. That makes me wonder...Perhaps the din in her head, as the title essay discusses, is not an "innerness" that seeks relief far from the madding crowd after all. It may instead be the persistent echo of Ms. Ozick stamping a petulant foot at the unintended recipients of her book - who then had nerve enough to talk about it.
It's not that Ozick's book is like a cheat sheet or a Cliff's Notes summary. She focuses on some specifically revealing vignettes from the lives of each of these authors, or on some particularly telling aspect of their styles. You'll get something meaty out of these essays. They'll enable you to hold your own in intelligent conversation about these figures at cocktail parties.
But these essays might give you an itch to actually go back and read these authors. They're not presented here as dry school subjects. They are "as seen by" Ozick. And her commentaries act like a prism, separating the white beacon of fame that has been shone on these iconic literary figures into distinct personal colors.
Even if you don't go anywhere with these essays though, I think you'll enjoy reading them for sheer pleasure. Ozick has a spectacularly limber vocabulary. Her sentences are pirouettes and gran jetes. She has an admitted love affair with words and can arc them across dazzling spans, concluding with fresh twists on her subject matter.
The last essays in this book deal with a Zionist author, and then with a man who single-handedly produced a new translation and gloss of the Bible. These are subjects I wouldn't have ordinarily delved into for casual reading. But in a relatively few pages, Ozick shows some of the interesting insights to be drawn from these men's labors.
Then if you like this book, I highly recommend the essay collections of Thomas Mallon. He is also a master at illuminating literary careers with a turn of phrase.
Her elitist rant is in the middle of an otherwise sensible exploration of serious literature's diminishing readership. Ozick longs for a time when critics like Lionel Trilling could assume the existence of a coterie of readers excited by novels past and present, and before closing she lists what she calls "a potential critical aggregate" of a dozen or so mostly East Coast literary commentators who might reliably keep the flames of high literature alive. I would suggest to Ms. Ozick that the keepers of the flames are more numerous than her eminent band, most of whom are seated firmly in academy chairs, and more widespread. At least a partial answer to her "better question...not who will read, or how they will read, but why," might be found on websites such as this one, which she so unnecessarily trashes. She should know, as she believes Trilling knew, "that despite the loftiness of one's will or desire, the gross and the immediate impose themselves."
That last quote is from her essay on Trilling in "The Din in the Head" collection. I bought a copy after reading a glowing review in the L.A. Times, mainly for the title essay, which turns out to be the shortest in the book and the thinnest in scope. She doesn't know quite what to make of electronic media's impact on literature. Non-literary media are noisy and ubiquitous, produced by crowds for crowds. I share her suspicion of crowds, but I retain, however shakily, a belief in the democratic impulse that, like it or not, embraces crowds.
Some of the other essays brought me back in touch with Henry James, Sylvia Plath, Delmore Schwartz, Saul Bellow, Isaac Babel, writers I'd studied as an undergrad at a university that I won't name -- why be a shameless exhibitionist? I like Ozick; she's a thoughtful, penetrating commentator, and I'm grateful to her for her attentiveness. Bottom line: I would've given this book 5 stars had I not read her savaging remarks about Amazon in Harper's.