Critics, Monsters, Fanatics, and Other Literary Essays - Cynthia Ozick 2016


In the universe of critics, essayists, biographers, publishers, journalists, bloggers, and so on, only the poets and a few chosen novelists are privileged to think of themselves as monsters. When Rilke advises aspiring young poets to “confess to yourself whether you would have to die if writing were denied you,” he is recommending poetry as a kind of martyrdom, or the loss of it as a call to suicide. And when Flaubert, observing an ordinary family enjoying a fine afternoon, reflects, “Ils sont dans le vrai”—it is they who live in reality—he is recognizing, perhaps wistfully, the condition of the writer as a deformed outlier. “I detest my fellow beings,” he once admitted, “and do not feel that I am their fellow at all.” Seeming to fall into contradiction, Flaubert also wrote in favor of the habits of the middling bourgeoisie: “Be regular and orderly in your life,” he said, “so that you may be fierce and original in your work”—but this was plainly a tribute to ferocity, not to regularity. Byron as England’s literary bad boy; Tolstoy abandoning Sonya, his wife and lifelong amanuensis; George Eliot, flouter of the received moral will; the Beat poets, all of them stoned: generation after generation, the image of the writer’s rebellious flight from the commonplace holds.

The writer as a figure apart, the writer as unfrocked monk—Tolstoy for the sake of ascetic godliness, Kafka for the sake of the enigma of guilt and punishment, Flaubert for the sake of le mot juste, Rilke for the sake of the most extreme of admonitions: You must change your life. But also: Keats and Blake and Wordsworth and the Beats and Emily Dickinson for the sake of exaltation. Put it that the Romantic era still whispers, and even old lost Dionysus distantly cries out. Rare is the writer who chooses to be seen as a proper citizen, though a few, like Thomas Mann or Henry James or John Cheever, will act out a long-lasting practiced façade—until time and happenstance come to reveal the furies below; or, as in Death in Venice, the writer himself discloses his hidden doppelgänger.

Yet apart from the fata morgana of fame, which bewitches nearly all beginning writers, biographers and critics are helpless to name the buried motive of any writer. Not that on occasion the thorn that spurs can’t be readily evident—because it is scarcely buried at all: social grievance, for instance. Think of the strange trajectory of Tillie Olsen, who, while thwarted early on by what she felt to be the devouring constraints of motherhood and money, bravely wrote, even so, stories decrying those constraints—the most lauded of which is “Tell Me a Riddle,” a blow against domesticity and custom. In 1962, when those former obligations were well in the past, and she was already acclaimed a feminist hero, she published Silences, her final work, a cri de coeur that addressed writing “aborted, deferred, denied.” “I have had special need,” she wrote, “to learn all I could of this over the years, myself so nearly remaining mute and having to let writing die over and over again in me.” But rewarded afterward with close to five decades of personal freedom, affectionate celebrity, and public honors, she repeatedly lamented those old, unhappy, and (she emphasized) unjust times—and never again sat down to write anew. She lived to ninety-four.

Mostly, though, the secret engine that stirs into life a driven and unappeasable hunger to write cannot be prized out by assessing the writer’s background or experience or temperament. Biography on the trail of clues is useless and misleading. What in E. M. Forster’s life can account for the echo in the Marabar Caves? What in the complex narrative of Conrad’s change of country and language can unriddle the origin of the secret sharer? Who can uncover the source of Malamud’s Jewbird? Such signs and omens are the work of unnatural divination. The critic may parse and parse: a futility. Easy enough to find surface motivation in the psychologist’s shelf of elixirs, those vials of reasonable cause and effect. But the writer’s need is subterranean, unfathomable, subversive, and O, reason not the need!

Rabbi Leo Baeck, meanwhile, citing both Hegel and Kant, calls for reason as necessity, reason defined as “an essential part of that honesty man owes to himself: the test of criticism.” Presumably he means self-criticism, the practice of restraint and moderation, the reserved and steady posture of the good citizen.

Monsters in their rapture elude such tests. They know themselves to be visionaries carried off by some innate force to the fields of Arcadia, or else to the banks of Alph, the sacred river; or even, with Persephone, to a gloomy enchanted underworld. So much, then, for what can be glimpsed through the usual magic casements: let the poets be poets. But what of the sober-minded critics, who (see above) parse and parse, who are thinkers, exegetes, rationalists, close kin to historians and biographers, guardians and guarantors of humanism? The nearest that Samuel Johnson, the English-speaking world’s most formidable critic, ever came to an expression of exaltation is his observation that “happiness consists in the multiplicity of agreeable consciousness.” Such arithmetic weightiness, ringing with materialist authority though it may be, will never waken Orpheus.

A radically different authority, so rare as to be prodigious, is borne by a critic who, surprisingly, claims Dr. Johnson as precursor and mentor, and whose contemporary stature is not far from Johnsonian. He is, moreover, his own Boswell, taking note of his every thought and impulse, and when he utters “I,” it is out of openness and intimacy:

Samuel Johnson spoke of our “hunger of imagination,” and conceded that Shakespeare alone assuaged that dangerous prevalence. Perhaps Shakespeare helped Johnson avoid madness, a function that has served for me whenever I waver in my own perilous balance.

Yet Harold Bloom (“so rare as to be prodigious” has already disclosed this critic’s identity) wields another, even more powerful, key to his “I”: the self that surrenders to the oracular, the self that willingly submits to submersion in ecstasy. Whatever it is that poets of the Orphic (or call it mystical) variety experience, Bloom too experiences, or longs to. In this he is like no other critic: why then, since he knows in his marrow what poets know, and long ago uncovered this knowledge as poets do, in childhood, is he not a poet? He tells us why he is not:

I have been rereading Moby-Dick since I fell in love with the book in 1940, a boy of ten enthralled with Hart Crane, Whitman, William Blake, Shakespeare. Moby-Dick made a fifth with The Bridge, Song of Myself, Blake’s The Four Zoas, and King Lear, a visionary company that transformed a changeling child into an exegetical enthusiast adept at appreciation rather than a poet. A superstitious soul, then and now, I feared being devoured by ravenous daemons if I crossed the line into creation.

Other little boys of ten, a few perhaps even destined to become critics themselves, were, in 1940, reading the Hardy Boys series, while little girls of ten with similarly conscious literary pinings were likely, in that era of innocent childhood, to be besotted with Jo March. But should anyone doubt that a word-struck child of ten can be susceptible to the exaltations of Hart Crane’s image-mobbed lines, or that the boy Bloom was already a Childe Harold, a Byronic literary pilgrim “glimmering through the dream of things that were,” then let such a doubter recall an earlier unearthly infant: John Stuart Mill, who, having been taught Greek at three, by the age of eight had mastered the Anabasis, all of Herodotus, the six dialogues of Plato, and much more. And Mill, like Bloom, never “crossed the line into creativity,” at least not of the Xanadu kind. Erudition, however voluminous, is not poetry. Enthusiasm, however exultingly heart-stunned, is not poetry. But who would wish to exclude either the rationalist philosopher or the rhapsodic critic from the genus monster?

“A poet,” Bloom writes of Whitman, “who equates his soul with the fourfold metaphor of night, death, the mother, and the sea is thinking figuratively as fiercely as did the Hermeticists and the Kabbalists.” To this he adds poignantly, “At eighty-four, I lie awake at night, after a first sleep, and murmur Crane, Whitman, Shakespeare to myself, seeking comfort through continuity, as grand voices somehow hold off the permanent darkness that gathers though it does not fall.” These are the yearning yet inflamed intimations not of a poet, but of a lover—a critic who has fallen in love with incantation as a conduit to the Elysian horizon luringly beyond his reach. And like any monster gazing past the rest of us, he stares alone.