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Dara Horn on Cynthia Ozick: What’s Worth Knowing, and What Isn’t

If you had to name the most brilliant literary thinker in America, Cynthia Ozick wouldn’t be a bad pick. But in her new collection of essays, The Din in the Head (Houghton Mifflin, $24), that brilliance is distilled into one salient skill which has become an American taboo: distinguishing between what is worth knowing and what is not.

In an astonishing essay about Susan Sontag, Ozick blames Sontag’s elevation of taste above all other critical criteria as a major cause of the destruction of the American literary tradition. Reflecting on Sontag’s dismissal of distinctions between high and low culture, Ozick insists that “it is still possible to separate high from low, the enduring from the ephemeral; even to aver that intellect itself (and the ethical life as well) requires the making of distinctions.” This argument for acute judgment applies not only to art, but also to moral choices. In the collection’s most strident essay, “Highbrow Blues,” she reminds us that “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 a nation-builder.”

But what makes this collection rise above mere complaint is Ozick’s application of her own distinction-making talents to the blurred line between biography and art. Most of the essays here are monographs on figures as disparate as Henry James and Gershom Scholem. Nearly all begin with portraits of crucial moments in these individual lives, written so that the reader is utterly seduced. (Scholem’s father, for instance, responded to his son’s Zionism by writing him a letter disowning him—and having the letter hand-delivered to the family breakfast table.) Yet the fascination of these essays lies in how they dissect artist from work, revealing our latent lust for fame that makes us believe that the person, rather than the person’s achievement, is the radiance at hand.

One essay describes Sylvia Plath’s private journals, which actually describes the poet picking her nose, and smashes the mythology that attributes Plath’s power to her life rather than her talent. As Ozick puts it, “To look for the poems in the life…is not merely a tedium; it is a fool’s errand.” The collection’s most stunning essay is about Helen Keller: Ozick considers the vivid visual imagery in Keller’s writings an artist’s achievement, one that reveals the power of the imagination. Perhaps the most haunting essay here is an elegy for Lionel Trilling, the mid-century intellectual giant, whose notebooks reveal his disappointment that he did not become a famous novelist.

One senses Ozick’s own struggles with critical acclaim that has not always translated into celebrity. In the title essay, Ozick speaks of the din in her own head, punctuated by “shame and ambition and anger and vanity and wishing.” The implication, perhaps, is that if American culture had not deteriorated, Ozick’s own fame would far outstrip Danielle Steele’s. But even here, Ozick’s idea is universal: her book reveals that as possessed as one may be by the passion to create, the desire for fame truly eats the artist alive.

For the Jewish reader, The Din in the Head provides more fodder for debate. An essay here, “Tradition and (or versus) the Jewish Writer,” contends that traditional Jewish literature is by nature didactic, making it antithetical to the novel, whose obligations are only to story and language—and thereby making the idea of a “Jewish novelist” an oxymoron. A fair argument, and expressive of every writer’s dread of labels that might limit her imaginative freedom. In her essay on Lionel Trilling, Ozick quotes Trilling’s claim that “no writer in English…has added a micromillimeter to his stature by ‘realizing his Jewishness’,” Noting Trifling’s humiliating 1950s battle for tenure at Columbia, Ozick concludes that Trilling “could not have imagined that he would come to be remembered largely, if not chiefly, as Columbia’s first Jew.” One wonders if Ozick might already imagine herself being remembered, chiefly, for being precisely what she hoped not to be.

But to look for the writer in the work would be a fool’s errand. Instead, we have the book itself, and what emerges is nothing less than an understanding of how to recognize artistic worth. And no definition of the deserving could be as powerful as Ozick’s: “[0]ne must reserve one’s respect for writers who do not remain ignorant of history.. .who do not choose to run after trivia, who recognize that ideas are emotions, and that emotions are ideas; and that this is what we mean when we speak of the insights of art.”

Dara Horn is the award-winning author of the novels In the Image and The World to Come.