The Obligations of the Imagination


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 confessions.

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 live.

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 “inextricably intermingled.”

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.