"The Din in the Head"

Written by: Cynthia Ozick

Published by: Houghton Mifflin
ISBN: 0618470506

Reviewed by: Lys Anzia

Genre: Nonfiction - Essays

Answering the Writer's Tumult on Cynthia Ozick's The Din in the Head

-by Lys Anzia

What do Susan Sontag, Helen Keller, Saul Bellow, the Muslim Student's Association, and 14th Century Kabala all have in common?


Why it's Cynthia Ozick of course.

In a new collection of essays by Houghton Mifflin, Ozick's new work The Din in the Head is a full buffet of topics, portraits, and musings on the famous and the not so famous.

Starting with her unapologetic yet sympathetic portrait of Susan Sontag, Ozick says, "She left a memorable and mottled trail." Describing how Sontag "dominated any room," Ozick pins the tail on the donkey of Sontag's discord.

Surprisingly we find out that Sontag's book The Benefactor has today, after Sontag's death, no beneficiaries. In shocking style Sontag has left her work to the American culture at large to what Ozick deftly describes as the "modernist fracture" of today's world. After all, as the New York Times remarked in their obit for the goddess of high culture, Sontag was a person who could believably link Patti Smith and Nietzsche together in one breath.

"I did not know who Patti Smith was," said Cynthia Ozick with her essayist self-disclosed determination. "Here was Sontag herself, unembarrassed, undisgraced... As if a movie were being run in reverse," added Ozick.

Ozick's "words are used sparingly, yet they are chosen for everyone to admire," said the Times Literary Review on Cynthia Ozick in July 1999. It's with the precision of a stone mason that Ozick delivers each of her well-crafted words.

I have been brought to the searing honesty of Cynthia Ozick's work in The Din in the Head to remember my own meeting with Susan Sontag when I, too, lived in New York in 1985. Back then, I was only a fledgling writer-waitress working in a breakfast cafe that Sontag frequented often on the edge of Greenwich Village.

Bringing Susan her eggs, toast, and coffee, then, morning after morning I understand now and agree clearly with Ozick's assertions that Sontag was indeed "the tone of the times." During those breakfast days on my efforts I heard Susan speaking in at least four different languages. I served her coffee as I longed to take off my waitress apron and sit down at the table with Susan (Rosenblatt) Sontag to discuss the true meaning of photography, film, culture, and life.

"The life of the mind was for her something both rigorous and passionate," says Ozick of Sontag in The Din in the Head.

It's not so hard to prove that Ozick too has her own grand passions and her own rigorous mind.

Born April 17, 1928, from immigrant Litvak (Lithuanian) Jewish parents, Cynthia Ozick began life as an extra curious, brainy, skinny, myopic, knobby-kneed young girl raised in a northeast Bronx borough of New York City in the 1930s to a family surrounded by an atmosphere of rational Talmudic scholarship. Since her first novel "Trust" landed on the public fields in America in 1966, Cynthia's style as a writer has grown ever since in unending leaps and bounds.

"Everybody inherits a past. And it glimmers either happily or miserably," said Ozick in a 2004 Robert Birnbaum interview for The Morning News.

Ozick is a vast encyclopedia of knowledge.


Photo Copyright Marion Ettlinger

In The Din in the Head she reflects on Mary McCarthy and Hannah Arendt's pro and con assertions on anti-Semitism or Norman Mailer's masculine (my word) "noisy, nasty, competitive display of put downs" (Cynthia Ozick's words) in Mailer's book Advertisements for Myself.

"Writers shouldn't be mistaken for priests, it goes without saying," says Cynthia with a wink. But Ozick goes on to say too, "Readers are not the same as audiences, and the structure of the novel is not the same as a lingerie advertisement."

So goes the American literary tradition.

So goes every American writer's literary success on the back of Oprah Winfrey's monthly book choice.

I agree with Cynthia Ozick in The Din in the Head that the golden days of literature may be completely gone forever now. But what about "the free precincts of the novel?" asks Ozick. "If Melville lived among us, would he dare to grapple with the mammoth rhapsody that is Moby Dick?"

Ozick attempts to answer this as she goes on. "Life—the inner life—is not in the production of story lines alone, or (where) movies would suffice. (Is it in) The micro-universe of the modem?"

"Never mind," adds Cynthia as she covers her cynical territory on humanity and the machine.

"The din in our heads, that relentless inward hum of fragility and hope and transcendence and dread—where, in an age of machines addressing crowds, and crowds mad for machines, can it be found," adds Ozick on the current state of modern living.

It's ultimately undecided who or what will sway our culture to its ultimate demise.

As Ozick mentions Azar Nafasi, author of the book Reading Lolita in Tehran, she examines Nafasi's searing insights as "maps and weapons" against the censored bastions of Nafasi's home country of Iran. Nafasi's educated doctorate in literature has provided, as Ozick coins, "the weapons" where "Lolita, The Great Gatsby, Daisy Miller, Pride and Prejudice and also A Thousand and One Nights," all banned in Iran, stand as a reminder of the true and enduring strength of knowledge and the human mind.

Known today as the true voice of New York, Ozick takes to the task seriously, but to this she must add the sly laughter of the generations before her. Born clearly in the wrong century, Cynthia Ozick has been known to obsess about the past, especially about the writer Henry James.

As The Din in the Head shares what Cynthia calls her (Unfortunate) Interview with Henry James, Ozick begins her parody. As Henry James adds his comments sharply from the beginning.

Who James calls "the lady from the magazine," his interviewer come calling, is obviously his nemesis.

"A lady? I was rather expecting a gentleman," says James in the interview.

"I gather you intend to inhibit my line of questioning," answers "the lady" as she continues to dig at the motives and actions of the nineteenth-century's most well-known intellectual.

There is only one answer. Henry James replies giving strict direction to his house butler Mr. Noakes. "Noakes will you be good enough to escort our visitor to the door?"

"I cannot say that all the essays in this book are unified by a single theme, though I suppose (like the ass straining to keep up with the ox) I could laboriously invent one for the occasion," said Ozick on The Din in the Head.

It's true that Cynthia offers us the madness of association in her ramblings. But the ramblings themselves unify our own discord. What Ozick calls "the tumult of answering" is only our own heart exiled and then harshly turned in against itself.

Lys Anzia, is assistant book reviews editor for Moondance magazine. As 2006 nominee for the Pushcart Prize, Lys currently writes news articles through Women News Network for WUNRN - Women's UN Report Network, UN-INSTRAW, NewWest magazine, ProgressNow, SquareState and ColoradoPols magazine. Dedicated to help in the fight for women's rights around the globe Lys is also a producer for international radio syndicate WINGS - Women's International News Gathering Service. In 2003, she was picked as creative affiliate in poetry by UNESCO for poetry contributions to OtherVoices International, (Sam Hamill's) Poets Against War, BluePrint Review among others. Working for over fifteen years as an American historic dramatist Lys is also an honorarium recipient of the City of Boulder, Colorado-Boulder Library Foundation.