ART AND ARDOR by Cynthia Ozick
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ART AND ARDOR

Essays
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KIRKUS REVIEW

This new collection of essays by novelist Ozick offers a staggering array of fierce attractions: a style that combines light grace, virility, and profundity; literary analysis of measured brilliance; a lack of all timidity in asserting difficult beliefs; and--most specifically--her stiff-necked, powerful notion of Jewish covenantal "ardor." Ozick begins, however, with Edith Wharton, Virginia Woolf, E. M. Forster, and Truman Capote--coming away from each one with something hard-won and unexpected: Woolf's madness is seen as an opportunity to provide moment for the Jewish seriousness of husband (and assumed saint) Leonard; Forster's homosexual shame, not pride, is revealed in Maurice; Capote's work becomes the foremost example of the novel "that is fragrant with narcissism, that claims essence sans existence, that either will not get its shoes drekky or else elevates drek to cultishness--the novel, in short, of the esthetic will--[which] cannot survive its cult." And though each of these essays illuminates a very complex flaw or failure, how they fit in with Ozick's unique view of Art only becomes clear when she moves on to more particularly Jewish subjects: Harold Bloom, Harris' The Goy, Up-dike's Bech, and the oddly Christian formulations of Allen Ginsberg. As a Jew, it soon emerges, Ozick is concerned with the "sacral," the novel of Deed instead of sensibility, the non-transcandent. Thus, in her vision, Jewish artists and thinkers who deny--or fudge with--the Second Commandment against idol-worship ("Art," for Ozick, is the equivalent of idol-making) only commit a multiplied and vitiating illusion: "The problem of Diaspora in its most crucial essence is the problem of esthetics. . . . The religion of Art isolates the Jew--only the Jew is indifferent to esthetics, only the Jew wants to 'passionately wallow in the human reality'. . . The Jewish writer, if he intends himself really to be a Jewish writer, is all alone, judging culture like mad, while the rest of culture just goes on being culture." And this provocative mixture of approaches--the covenantal, the critical, the anti-idolatrous--is then given its most vigorous stir in "Towards a New Yiddish," a controversial essay which rejects for Jewish writers an ecumenical, widened-out art, recommending in its place a "liturgical novel" that speaks directly only to other Jews. ("Not. . . didactic or prescriptive: on the contrary: Aggadic, utterly freed to invention, discourse, parable, experiment, enlightenment, profundity, humanity.") Hard to swallow? It is indeed. But Ozick knows how difficult her ideas are: a remarkable essay on "Literary Blacks and Jews" sings out with the tension of voluntary reghettoization; she realizes that to again shtetl-ize Jewish literary culture means giving up either enormous gains or enormous illusions. And the result is a book that recognizes opposing ideas without evasion or surrender--with an unashamed yet astonishingly sophisticated zealotry that seems to invite dissent on its own level (unlike the antipodal, curatorially expert views of Susan Sontag). In sum: a discomforting challenge--to Jews, to writers, to Jewish writers, to anyone concerned with "culture"--and a masterful, significant book.
Pub Date: May 17th, 1983
ISBN: 0525481176
Publisher: Knopf
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1st, 1983




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