In Search of Lost Purity: Critics, Monsters, Fanatics, and Other Literary Essays by Cynthia Ozick

from: Seattle Review of Books, August 31, 2016

In a Paris Review interview, Cynthia Ozick, then fifty-two, confesses to her incredulous interviewer, Tom Teicholz, that she has no audience:

…I want to be read. I know I can’t be “popular,” and I regard this as a major failing…but….[v]ery few people read me…

Some might interpret this as writerly anxiety or false modesty because the work of few contemporary authors has as serious a readership among the literati. Perhaps her comment reflects the multifarious and conflicting claims that are made regarding her true identity as a writer. Is she a feminist writer? Jewish writer? Critic? Elitist? Is her subject literature? The Holocaust? Writers and writing? A case has been made for each of these claims and others as well, so why does Ozick believe she isn’t read when clearly she is?

A partial answer may lurk in the magnitude of her early ambitions and her inevitable failure to fulfill them:

…I am one — how full of shame I feel as I confess this — who expected to achieve…something like…literary fame by the age of twenty-five&hellp;if it didn’t come at the burnished crest of youth, then it doesn’t matter. 

Ozick regrets wasting her youth in pursuit of an impossibly idealistic literary vision. 

Youth is for running around in the great world, not for sitting in a hollow cell, turning into an unnatural writing-beast… one becomes hollowed out. The cavity fills with envy [of other writers]…. I was too fixed, too single-minded, too much drawn up by some strange huge illumination, too saturated in some arcane passion of ideal purity.

Ideal purity? What exactly does Ozick mean? One hesitates to venture into such rarefied matters without prior approval, but one could infer that she believes that the pure writer/artist works alone in a kind of transcendent state. Literary artists, critics, and their audiences constitute a community of shared artistic values, traditions and history, embodied both in the work of an individual writer and present even in the “numinosity” of language itself. True literary art cannot exist outside a highly developed critical and receptive community because only this kind of community provides the context that makes art possible and necessary. This explanation doesn’t provide clear standards for evaluating ideal purity in a work or, for that matter, whether it’s even art and neither does Ozick. If you have to ask…

Now eighty-eight, Ozick has nevertheless continued to seek an ideal purity in both a literary and a moral sense throughout her career, and she records her findings in Critics, Monsters, Fanatics, and Other Literary Essays, a collection of pieces she has previously published in literary periodicals. Each of these dense, allusive and complex essays explicates a facet of Ozick’s ideal purity. The “Critics,” “Monsters,” and “Fanatics” of the title along with “Figures” and “Souls,” identify sections of the book and suggest the thematic content of the essays grouped within them. 

In “Critics,” Ozick lays out the conditions for nurturing ideal purity in writing: “[T]oday there are a number of first-rate writers of criticism who are at work full-time, but… [not] …enough to make what can be called an expansive literary culture.” Ozick means the literary culture that existed pre- and post-WWII and personified by the prolific literary critic Edmund Wilson, whose “achievement rises beyond reviewing, giving the news, assessing his time. Read him now and see the lineaments of a civilization; he reproduces nothing less.” Wilson’s absence and that of others of similar stature from the current literary scene has led to “incoherence” in our literary culture. Ozick’s lament in this regard is particularly poignant:

… Wilson…[is]…far more than a literary model to aspire to….[He is] the embodiment of an indissoluble fame. And…he is not read. Admired, honored, influential, legendary; rumored, but not read.

Without this vibrant culture, there is no court to rule on Ozick’s ongoing case for purity. 

In “The Boys in the Alley, the Disappearing Readers, and the Novels Ghostly Twin,” she expands on the claim that a robust literary culture depends on excellence — purity, rather — in literary criticism. She cites Jonathan Franzen’s early manifesto that attributed the decline in reading to the “scores of plots, shocks, titillations, and unfolding dramatic disclosures, shot out daily by the reality machines of radio, television, the Internet, endlessly evolving apps” and so on. She credits Franzen with linking “the question of public literacy with marketplace lust,” a compliment remarkable for its brevity because she immediately goes on to say that before Franzen’s time, “the publication of a serious literary novel was an exuberant communal event” when “serious writers looked down on the wider publishing marketplace” and when “’popular’ novelists were scorned,” adding nostalgically, “All that is nowadays extinct.” Presumably, if we had good literary criticism, Franzen wouldn’t even be allowed in the door, never mind celebrated.

There’s more. Franzen’s success in the current literary world marks him as the opposite of Ozick’s idea of ideal purity: 

Ambition…no longer invites elitist denunciation. Writers who define themselves by the loftiest standards of literary art are happy to be counted as popular…[and]… accept the high advances that signify the hope for a six-digit readership. But fifty years ago, Lionel Trilling, the paramount critic of the American midcentury, inveighed against…[these]…corrupting forces…[suggesting that]…the writer does well if he cannot see his right audience within immediate reach of his voice, to direct his words to his spiritual ancestors, or to posterity, or even, if need be, to a coterie.

According to Ozick, Trilling demanded self-denying purity; purity for the sake of higher purity. (emphasis mine) Franzen, more pragmatic and businesslike, talks numbers. Case closed.

In fairness, Trilling had a day job as professor of English at Columbia University, and Franzen writes fiction for a living exclusively, something Trilling ardently wished to do and famously failed at. Ironically, in addition to having the wide readership that Ozick and Trilling envy and deplore, Franzen is also the author of a novel titled Purity. The case of Commerce v. Purity continues unresolved. 

Ditto fame. In “Writers, Visible and Invisible” Ozick notes the obvious:

[For] the denizens of Parnassus….Nothing is more poisonous to steady recognition than death: how often is a writer — lauded, feted, bemedaled — plummeted into eclipse no more than a year or two after the final departure.

Think Norman Mailer.

Living, too, threatens the work: “the crux of the paradox…[is that]…writers are hidden beings” and necessarily so because:

Writers are what they genuinely are only when they are at work in the silent and instinctual cell of ghostly solitude, and never when they are out industriously chatting on the terrace.

According to Ozick the real problem for writers is “how to maintain a coveted clandestine authentic invisibility,” i.e. purity in work, because a true artist is one with the work, and all else is secondary. In her formulation, the cell and the terrace are mutually exclusive, and the shadow of her youthful quest hovers over both.

Two other aspects of literary purity, form and rigor, emerge in “W. H. Auden at the 92nd Street Y.” The occasion is a poetry reading:

And bliss was to be young and enraptured in the dusk of that cavernous arena….It was the Age of Poetry precisely because it was still the age of form, when form, even when abandoned, was there to be abandoned…And form…meant difficulty in the doing…the hard practice of virtuosity…the plumbing of language for all its metamorphoses and undiscovered metrics…the heritage of knowledge…the pressure of limits — rhyme….

Those were the days, my friends, before poetry fell…

…into its present slough of trivia and loss of encompassment, the herding of random images of minuscule perspective leading to a pipsqueak epiphany, a delirium of incoherence delivered, monotone upon monotone, in the cacophony of a slam.

Take that, rappers! 

For Ozick, literary purity is perhaps most fully realized in Kafka. In “Transcending the Kafkaesque,” she finds purity of intention:

Kafka saw his stories not as a reader or critic will, but from the inside, as the visceral sensations of writing. “I am made of literature. I am nothing else, cannot be anything else.”

She says that Kafka’s translator, Milena Jesenskå, “has left us with a useful and persuasive definition of fanaticism: ‘that absolute, unalterable necessity for perfection, purity, and truth.’” For Ozick fanaticism in the defense of literary purity is indispensable: 

Then let us now praise fanaticism, how it binds the like and the unlike how it aspires to purity, how it engenders art at its most sublime, seeking the visionary and the inescapable; and how it reveres the ascendancy of its desires.

Ozick’s identification with Kafka’s fanaticism echoes her own early ambitions, too. 

Kafka’s being Jewish is another point of identification. Ozick is the granddaughter of Russian-Jewish immigrants; her parents operated a pharmacy in the Bronx. While it is true that she suffered from anti-Semitic bullying as a child, she is second generation and speaks and writes in the dominant language of her society, not of her Jewish ancestors. Still, she seems to appropriate Kafka’s linguistic conflicts as a Jew writing in the language of a gentile culture. This is a rather complex and subtle matter. Kafka thought that Jews who wrote in German…”resembled trapped beasts, neither at home in their native idiom nor alien to it.” According to Ozick, because German wasn’t Kafka’s own language, he could never be truly himself in his writing. This is a puzzling claim if one considers that Kafka apparently spoke and wrote in German more fluently than in Hebrew and he could hardly have been more himself, that is to say original, in his writing. The important issue here is “not the overriding mastery of his language…but its ownership.”

Ozick expands on this idea and on the necessity for purity of language and purpose in “Nobility Eclipsed.” Here, she considers the work of the American Hebraists, obscure poets, among them her uncle, who wrote in Hebrew in the early twentieth century and are largely forgotten today. Noting that the linguistic and historic roles of Hebrew as a language are not solely Biblical, Ozick says approvingly:

American Hebraists almost uniformly turned away from the staccato innovations of the modernists….[They were] classicists who repudiated make-it-new manifestos as a type of reductive barbarism.

Instead, “…what the Hebraists chose was patrimony — patrimony in the sense of rootedness in a primordial continuum.” That continuum is Hebrew, the language that embeds the history and experience of the Jews. Ozick isn’t arguing for “ethnic writing,” which she deplores, but for purity. This distinction is important. Ozick believes that to categorize literature as ethnic or feminist, for example, is an affront to both because great writing transcends category and by (her) definition must partake of purity. Identifying writing on the basis of ethnicity or gender diminishes and subsumes its literary merit. IOW ethnicity and gender are narrow, and literature is wide. Still, aren’t the American Hebraists consummate exponents of ethnicity? Apparently, for Ozick. they represent another skirmish in the ongoing battle of Commerce v. Purity: 

In [the American Hebraists’] conscious renunciation of popular attention there was something of the self-gratification that proud artists allow themselves…with no expectation of reward either in this world or in the world to come.

For most of us, this is surely a purity of a very recondite sort, but here is something quite interesting happens. Ozick asks, Who is to blame for forgetting the American Hebraist poets? Her answer is severe and personally damning:

We are: we have no Hebrew…. Then who killed Hebrew in America? I did, with my little bit of Hebrew….If the American Hebraists are in eclipse, it is because we, who might have been their successors…have turned out to be incurious illiterates.

Does Ozick believe that had she been linguistically pure and therefore fluent in Hebrew, she and similar others could at the very least have preserved this esoteric fragment of Jewish civilization? Needless to say, this seems doubtful.

Ozick’s work is also permeated by her awareness of the Holocaust. In a documentary by Larry Bridges, she speaks of her high school years during the 1940s as the happiest time in her life, the time before she learned of the Holocaust: 

I am bewildered by my happiness when I look back. An entire civilization was destroyed...This seminal event of the 20th century has haunted me and…entered my DNA….an entire civilization…libraries, academies….[t]he European Jewish civilization is completely gone.

“The Shawl,” Ozick’s most famous and widely-read story, is a searing depiction this loss. 

The literary consequences of the Holocaust are especially significant:

The Jamesian notion of Europe as the center of culture had been murdered in the years of the Hitler era. I still feel that America, though imperfect…[became]…the center of civilization. 

Alas, the literary work this new center of civilization has produced since the 1950s mostly fails to meet her standards for purity.

Ozick understands that her demand for ideal purity is a moral as well as a literary one. In “Out from Xanadu,” she traces her own moral progress from her family’s Judaism through mysticism and “seriously antinomian” to an encounter at age twenty-four with Romantic Religion by Leo Baeck, a rabbi and an intellectual who had survived Theresienstadt. Ozick weighs the implications of Baeck’s ideas for her work as a writer: 

“…its emphasis on humane conduct over the perils of the loosened imagination, remains an essay to live by. It is not an essay to write stories by; stories crave the wilderness of untethered feeling. But once — even though I wanted then more than anything on earth to write stories — it left me dazzled and undone.”

Similarly, in “Souls” Ozick contends with Theodor Adorno’s dictum: “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” One can easily imagine the profound conflict this might create for the author of “The Shawl,” but, on the contrary, she says that Adorno’s view has become irrelevant because “the events themselves…[have]…failed to be quarantined” and his pronouncement “has been ten thousand times defied, dismissed and finally undone….” She asks: “Do the rights of history preclude, or even erase, the rights of fiction?” For her, the essential moral problem of the “Holocaust novel” is:

…[It]…has the power to corrupt history, and thereby the reader’s heart, by its contradiction of what is actual and factual… and then the guileless reader…will fall prey to mistaking the illusory for the reasonably credible.

Ozick counters this argument with the view of H. G. Adler, a death camp survivor and modernist writer: 

…[it was] not only possible to write poetry and literature after Auschwitz but that it was necessary, for only with the full engagement of the imagination would it be possible to elicit even a glimmer of the true nature of what had been suffered and, yes, survived….

Ultimately, she sides with Adorno at least intellectually: “Jews living or dead are not Everyman. They are not symbols. They are not the means of art.” However, she also says: 

I write about [the Holocaust]. I can’t not. But I don’t think I ought to. I have powerful feelings about this….Now we…Jew and Gentile, born during or after that time, we, all of us…are witnesses to it. We know it happened….I want the documents to be enough…And yet…It comes, it invades. 

Indeed, it does.

It might be tempting to dismiss Ozick as outdated and impractical, a practitioner of an irrelevant perfectionism, and even to question whether Ozick’s call for ideal purity is a self-protective move rather than a literary one. However, doing so overlooks a potentially broader loss. Isn’t it also true that civic life and culture in the West were also irreparably altered by the forces of history that destroyed Jewish civilization? If we now add to that history the forces of technology and globalization, we see that together they have rendered the kind of audience Ozick seeks extinct practically speaking. Even in academia, once a bastion of the standards Ozick espouses, the liberal arts and the literary canon are no longer as widely taught or necessarily valued; these changes are but one result of the postwar democratization of higher education and they are permanent. 

Further, since WWII, democratization has occurred in politics, media, and art, creating a culture that is the opposite of Ozick’s ideal purity. Shall we now reject “Hamilton” because it isn’t Shakespeare or because it’s profitable? Or “Girls” because it’s less encompassing than Jane Austen? Slam poetry because it’s less rigorous than Auden’s or Eliot’s? “Downton Abbey” because it’s widely popular? Today, it’s pretty much your call and mine, and that’s exactly what Ozick objects to. 

In these essays Ozick neglects some obvious questions, though it’s hard to imagine that she is unaware of them: In the 1950s would she really have been read in the way she imagines?? Would Wilson and Trilling and the others in her pantheon have embraced her as an equal or at least as a precocious acolyte? Or doesn’t she remember that even women like herself, nevermind those from non-western cultures and non-white races, were intentionally redlined on her Parnassus? While it may be true that some people likely resent her constant hectoring and frequent reminders that her bar is high and exclusionary, these may not be the reasons that Ozick isn’t read (if, in fact, she isn’t). Perhaps Ozick has confused symptom with cause. What if the civilization she eulogizes is not only Jewish civilization but, rather, the whole of Western Civilization? In the wake of the cataclysms of the twentieth century, might she (and we) be witnessing a long, slow eclipse of Western artistic and intellectual ideals? If that is the case, the conditions for Ozick’s ideal purity and the robust literary culture wishes to resurrect are themselves casualties of that history as well.