In this brilliant collection of essays, Cynthia Ozick, primarily a fiction writer, reveals her central concerns as a moral critic, her responses to contemporary politics and social developments, and her conflicts as a Jew in diaspora who chooses art as her home. The collection is aptly titled. Art and ardor, artistic creation and religious belief: These are the polarities of Ozick’s dialectic, the nice alliteration of the title revealing the ever so slight tipping of the scales in favor of art. What emerges from this dialectic is not so much a series of distinct pieces, despite the fact that they were commissioned by a variety of journals and interest groups over the course of fifteen years, as variations on a theme. This theme is the conflict between religious commitment and artistic creation, more particularly the conflict between the primary, central, and historical covenant of Judaism and the siren song of art in contemporary America, a Gentile culture which encourages assimilation, rewards trendiness, and dismisses history as bunk.
The greatest attraction of these essays is their passionate intensity, their moral urgency, and their belief in the power of ideas. Ozick’s mind is hard and brilliant, her judgment often severe and occasionally unjust. With a sense of urgency, she examines the claims of modern culture, adjusting her glasses to look ever more penetratingly, more honestly, more critically at current writers, such as Truman Capote and John Updike, and at current trends, such as the recent tide of black anti-Semitism in America. Fearlessly, she examines ideas and assumptions in the harshest light and exposes the flaws in some of the most fondly held contemporary beliefs, such as in the existence of a separate female consciousness, psychology, and art. At best, her high seriousness, stern morality, and unswerving commitment argue tellingly for the importance and meaningfulness of art in the modern world. She persuasively maintains, “Fiction will not be interesting or lasting unless it is again conceived in the art of the didactic. (Emphasis, however, on art.)” At other times, however, she sounds severe and unjust, her assertions those of a Jewish fundamentalist who fails to understand other minority groups because she fails to sympathize.
Ozick’s major preoccupation as an essayist is one of her major preoccupations as a novelist and short-story writer. Her primary concern is with the risk and temptation of idolatry. This theme runs throughout her work: in The Pagan Rabbi and Other Stories (1971), Bloodshed and Three Novellas (1976), Levitation: Five Fictions (1982), and The Cannibal Galaxy (1983). As Ozick notes, idolatry is the substitution for the creator of any other good, whether nature, art, literature, or philosophy. For the novelist, whose delight is in the sensuous world, the risk of nature worship is very great. Indeed, the line is fine between praising God’s creation and worshiping it. Thus, the practice of any art is a risk because the artist, like the pagan rabbi, who falls in love with a dryad, may so exult in the beauty of the world as to forget the source of this beauty. Not surprisingly, then, some of Ozick’s short stories are explicitly directed against storytelling. Many of her essays, as well, criticize idolatry and idolmakers, no matter how brilliant. Indeed, the more brilliant, the more seductive. For this reason, in “Literature as Idol: Harold Bloom,” she condemns the critical system that would make literature an object of worship, while appreciating the brilliance and sensitivity of the critic who devised it.
Clearly, then, Ozick’s concern is to preserve her identity as a Jew first, as a writer, second. Viewing the modern world from an absolute religious outlook, judging its actions in the light of an unvarying standard, she speaks with tough-mindedness and backbone against trendiness and solipsism. Repeatedly, she speaks for the highest standards in literature, because she sees literature as redemptive. In “Innovation and Redemption: What Literature Means,” she speaks against the narcissism in art which she maintains is now in fashion. She insists, rather, “What literature means is meaning” and “literature is for the sake of humanity.” Her literary sympathies being largely nineteenth century, she renews the Arnoldian dialogue between Hebraism and Hellenism with a new urgency in the wake of the Holocaust, the single historic event that demonstrated for all time the inadequacy of a purely aesthetic response to life. Above all, she is a polemicist, like all the cultural models she admires, among them the biblical Moses and the twentieth century historians Gershom Scholem and Maurice Samuel. A polemicist is one who argues most profoundly for a certain position because he feels most keenly the lure of the opposite side. Just as Moses became most effectively a Hebrew champion because he knew at firsthand the lure of Egyptian power and indolence, Ozick is most insistently the exponent of a...
(The entire section is 2055 words.)