The Obligations of the Imagination
By PETER BEBERGAL
The Din in the Head
By Cynthia Ozick
243 pages. Houghton Mifflin. $24.00.
“Never mind!” Cynthia Ozick shouts when she confronts
Tolstoy’s humanization and troubling romanticization
of the inhumane and murderous Cossacks, for whom he titled his 1863 novel. The Din in the Head, Ozick’s new
collection of literary essays, is filled with such outbursts. Never mind! she insists when her own
guilty conscience demands to reconcile Tolstoy’s fiction with what he knew
about the Cossacks’ massacres. Ozick reminds us that the young author of The Cossacks was still a sensualist, “an
apostle of desire.” It would be many years before he would write his
Such dramatic reprimands of both herself and others provide the backdrop for
the pivotal insights about narrative on which this collection turns. Ozick
ultimately applauds the young Tolstoy for his devotion to “the sovereign
integrity of the story.” Tolstoy
needed to be true to a character responding authentically to his own condition
and prejudices, not to history.
Because the novel is in the service of story, we must be careful not to apply
contemporary political or stylistic conventions to earlier literature. When
reading Tolstoy, we must not try to locate where Tolstoy exists in his novel,
but rather where and how his characters really
Throughout these essays, Ozick returns to the problem of authenticity in
literature. Writing about Helen Keller, Ozick takes to task her critics,
including The Nation, The New Yorker, and even the
psychiatrist Bruno Bettelheim, all of whom accused Keller—in different ways—of
the same crime, of being a chameleon, a borrower of others’ experiences and words
who said nothing original but created only through precise imitation. Ozick
counters that because she couldn’t see color, shape, or form, Keller had to
rely on metaphor: “She saw, then, what she wished, or was blessed, to see, and
rightly named it imagination.” What other called mimicry, Keller understood as
her only vocabulary.
All literature is in some regards criticism, and by synthesizing all she read,
Keller did what the Romantics did to the Greeks. For the Romantics, as for
Keller, literature was the vehicle for the imagination to speak about the
world. The truth of great writing lies not in its literal depiction of the
external world, but in whether its encounter with the world is authentic.
Reading A Din in the Head, I thought
about W.G. Sebald, who practiced a most startling
example of literary synthesis. Writing mainly of the post-War German
experience, of exile and dislocation, Sebald’s novels are littered with
ephemeral detritus—postcards, photographs, tickets, maps—that create a dizzying
experience. Safe in the fictional distance of Sebald’s often grave but
beautiful vision, the reader confronts something that makes the fiction real.
Is this actually a photograph of the narrator’s uncle? Who then is the
narrator? Isn’t this supposed to be a novel? Echoing Ozick, I shout, “Never
mind!” What is true here are not facts, but the encounters with reality. For
Ozick, as long as the response to the world is true, fiction is free to use
whatever means necessary.
Literature, and the novel specifically, is for Ozick the greatest expression of
the inner life. Ozick is at her curmudgeonly best in the titular essay,
denouncing all electronic forms of communication, finding nothing there but
hollow chatter, “the dwarfing gyrations of crowds.” Salvation from this din is
in the novel.
Yet Ozick remains wary of “literary culture,” as well, eschewing easy
distinctions between high and low. In a very funny essay, Ozick enjoys being
annoyed with Jonathan Franzen and his 2001 Oprah debacle, when the author
declined to have his novel The
Corrections selected as a pick for the Oprah Book Club. Interviewed at that
time, a slightly defensive Franzen was quoted as saying, “I feel like I’m
solidly in the high-art literary tradition.” Ozick gives him no quarter and
makes fun of his use of the conjunction “like.” She does, however, reminisce
about a time of “serious discourse about serious writers,” but remarks that
such nostalgia is no longer relevant. Today, high and low culture are
Nevertheless, there must be some distinction between different kinds of work.
Sitcoms are not Catch-22. And yet to
position a novel, or novelist, on a dais, in the inner part of the temple where
only high priests of literature are allowed, is a danger. Art must engage with
society. Though there are plenty of starving writers, artists are not ascetics.
In Ozick’s two most striking essays, one on Gershom Scholem and the other on
Robert Alter’s translation of Torah,
she shifts her discussion from the cultural impact of literature into the
metaphysical. Scholem, a scholar of Kabbalah, was also moved by the symbolic
significance of the Lurianic Kabbalistic
myth concerning creation, in which God must contract a part of himself through
what is known as tsimtsum, to create
a space for creation. Part of God becomes exiled. As World War Two and the
Holocaust underscored this idea of exile, Zionism highlighted the other
Kabbalistic idea of tikkun, or
repair. The mythic is a vessel for actual experience—in these cases, exile or
repair—what other human endeavors cannot withstand. Literature, for Ozick,
offers the same quality.
In the essay on Alter, the Bible poses an interesting problem for Ozick because
it can be read and translated in so many ways. The early scholarly tradition of
the “Bible as Literature” was mostly philological in its approach. Robert
Alter, like Scholem in many respects, is interested in the actual literary
potential, because this is where the mythic is actually realized. Even the
Bible, it seems, must be in service to the story.
Ozick’s collection is rounded out by short, sharp essays on Updike, Plath,
Delmore Schwartz, Babel, and
Henry James. She also takes up the problem of the Jewish writer, and asks if
this mercurial character needs to be beholden to tradition above art. But as in
her defense of Tolstoy, Ozick insists that “[t]he aims of imaginative writers are
the aims of fiction. Not of community service or community expectations.” The
obligation of all writers is first to imagination.