The Din in the Head
In The Din in the Head Cynthia Ozick delivers a series of literary essays that provokes thought and demonstrates again her exceptional talent as a writer. It is her fifth book of essays, following most recently Quarrel and Quandry (2000), winner of the 2001 National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism, and Fame and Folly (1996), which was a finalist for the 1996 Pulitzer Prize. In this collection Ozick addresses a wide variety of issues, but of these the most recurring topic is the novel and its writers and the most consistent theme is the importance of literature.
The title essay, “The Din in the Head,” while not the first in the collection, is one that fervently pronounces the literary novel as “the last trustworthy vessel of the inner life,” other than one’s own consciousness of the world, what she refers to as the “din in the head” of the individual. Much time is spent in crowds; if not literally, then occupied in the crowd mentality that keeps one away from inner contemplation. Films and television belong to the principle of Crowd; technology and electronic devices promote the collective, as do most forms of writing. What used to be called the “personal” essay could be said to promote the inner life, but very few such meditative essays are now published. That leaves the art of the novel. The fictional worlds created by the great writers breathe out the cry of “Life!” and take the solitary reader into the inner life, into self-knowledge.
What the title essay accomplishesand, indeed, what the other essays similarly accomplishis to do what is claimed for the personal meditative essay. It is as though the reader is being invited into the writer’s mind and thoughtful consciousness, privileged to share and be stimulated by the text to think about things that would otherwise not be considered in the mundane day or busy crowd activities. What makes this especially true of Ozick’s essays is her remarkably evocative writing. Her writing is in that way very much like the writing in the art of the novel: It is not susceptible to easy paraphrase or summary. Talking about a great work of fiction never captures the fiction itself; to know what a novel is about, it must be read. The same is true of Ozick’s essays.
Given the quality of evocation of emotion and thought that shimmers and shines throughout the essays, it is no coincidence that Ozick herself is also a respected novelist. Her most recent novel, Heir to the Glimmering World (2004; published in the United Kingdom as The Bear Boy), was a New York Times Notable Book and a Book Sense pick and was chosen by NBC’s Today Book Club.
That Ozick is a successful novelist contributes to the stylistics of her essays; it also adds authority to her commentaries on other novelists. There are essays on John Updike, Saul Bellow, Leo Tolstoy, and Isaac Babel and more than one on Henry James. An essay on the well-known twentieth century literary critic Lionel Trilling reveals that despite his high reputation for such landmark works as The Liberal Imagination (1950), Trilling throughout his life (he died in 1975) bemoaned his role as critic and longed instead to be a novelist, to write fiction that would live long. Ozick also includes a very short essay, “Kipling: A Postcolonial Footnote,” in which she notes that Rudyard Kipling was one of the most renowned writers of the early twentieth century, and despite current postcolonial disdain for some of his attitudes, his stories present some of the strongest fiction of the past century. He was a master of narrative, an inventive writer who understood the interiors of his characters.
“What Helen Keller Saw,” the first essay in the collection and one of the longest, is a cogent retrospective of the extraordinary woman whose life from the time she was nineteen months old was spent as sightless and nonhearing. There were numerous changes in her public reputation both during her lifetime (1880-1968) and after. Charges were brought against her that she could not possibly have dictated the books attributed to her, that she could not possibly...
(The entire section is 1703 words.)