This collection of 20 recent essays by Cynthia Ozick begins with a memorial appreciation of Susan Sontag. It’s noble and notable that Ms. Ozick should appreciate Sontag, a vanquishing rival for literary reputation and, equally to the point, a liberal emanating from the old Partisan Review, while Ms. Ozick stands with the Commentary crowd who invented neoconservatism. Ms. Ozick makes a point of transcending such oppositions: “But set all that aside: it counts as politics, so let it go.” She was clearly moved by Sontag’s death, “too early” for Sontag’s intellect to have been “slaked,” as Ms. Ozick quite wrenchingly puts it. She pulls out Sontag’s old books, with their pictures of a face the camera loved, and acknowledges Sontag’s perception that photographs don’t preserve a presence so much as render its loss “more acute,” quoting an observation so subtle and right that it makes one miss Sontag all over again.
And yet I found Ms. Ozick’s appreciation so left-handed (Sontag’s 1963 novel reads like a “stilted translation”; her politics were reflexive; the aesthetic principles that made her famous were abominable) that I was laughing at the idea that it was meant as tribute. Let me say here that I don’t disagree with Ms. Ozick’s judgments. I, too, had to struggle against the kind of art Sontag espoused (I practically wept reading my paperback of Against Interpretation); I hated Sontag’s early novels; and if I sympathized with Sontag’s political views, I was often derisive about the Joan of Arc manner that went with them. But I don’t think I’d voice these reservations through, as it were, my tears. Over the years, she changed, and so did I.
Ms. Ozick was reconciled to Sontag because she “recanted”: Her last novels were traditional. But this reconciliation reads as anything but. Ms. Ozick spends pages blaming Sontag (in gorgeous writing)—not for valorizing a cold, astringent modernist aesthetic that was never going to be for the masses, but for admitting popular culture into the realms of high art. After going back into Sontag’s essays myself and rereading the Ozick several times, what was clearest was that this wasn’t a reasoned argument against the Susan Sontag of 1965, whose book is all about artists like Resnais and Ionesco, with only a few lines about pop, but rather the last word in a public argument—a parting shot in the culture wars waged by the Commentary crowd. Ms. Ozick was quoting from obituary notices in The New York Times and The New Yorker, not from what Sontag wrote—which, while allowing that you can appreciate Dionne Warwick complexly, still insists on distinctions between good art and bad.
This blame is unseemly in a memorial tribute—maybe it’s little more than the complaint of a girl who feels square next to the cool girl—and also unfair. (I prefer to blame the degradation of the arts on politicians who empower corporations and elevate the profit motive over all other values, so that, for instance, just as insurance-company earnings trump the medical needs of individuals, how many copies a book can sell out-shouts how a better book may speak to well-read people.) But the point here is that it isn’t readily apparent why Ms. Ozick allowed her anger to show.
The key is extra-textual: In essay after essay in this volume, she’s bleeding for what is happening and has happened to erode the quality of literature and of literary appreciation—and, boy, I could not be more with her—but she also seems to be carrying on an argument that long preceded any given essay and is not explicitly stated within it.
Some of the authors she writes about, it seems to me, were chosen for where they are on the political and religious spectrum (the Commentary ideology frowns on secularism and supports Israel as a religious state). I’d love to believe she wrote about Bellow (an intimate of the Chicago school that produced neoconservatism) and his old friend Delmore Schwartz out of sheer love of their work; or about Robert Alter’s translation of the Old Testament solely for its (acknowledged) wonderfulness—but I rather unwillingly notice that even what she writes in praise of John Updike has a taint of unstated, unacknowledged ideology. That doesn’t make it less amusing or astute when she observes that Mr. Updike’s “sexual scenes seem as distanced and skeptical as a lapsed seminarian’s meticulously recited breviary, while his God-seeking passages send out orgasmic shudders.” It’s fine if she approves this because she’s a believer and herself wants religion to be sexy: Ideological writing can have a place in literary criticism. I just want it to be very clear when we’re reading about an aesthetic or psychological issue, and when it’s politics. I don’t want to give her my cordwood to chop if she’s just grinding an ax.
Let me immediately say that every essay in The Din in the Head is worth reading. If anything, you wish that the pieces were longer, that they’d been allowed, within the protection of book covers, to expand from their magazine origins. When Ms. Ozick brings her powers of description to Tolstoy, Henry James, Lionel Trilling, it’s a thrilling ride, slightly rollercoaster-ish as she swoops down on the enemies of unfettered imagination. She champions Kipling, a writer whose uncritical colonialism has for too long obscured the brilliance of his anthropology and the compassion with which he drew his characters. Her piece on Helen Keller as a writer is educational even for the generation that remembers her autobiography and the documentary films about her; the essay is warm and humorous, as well as fiercely protective.
Ms. Ozick’s sentences are excitable, practically tripping over with their suitcases and bundles of ideas. Really, she’s too vehement a thinker and imaginer to rein herself in with anything like a party line. I’m sorry if my praise comes too much from the left hand! It remains the case that readers will be richer for every minute they spend with this book.
Anna Shapiro’s third novel, Living on Air (Soho), was published last month.