CYNTHIA OZICK and Joyce Carol Oates have no thing in common but the O with which both their last names begin. That both are women and that both are primarily fiction writers who present us now with collections of essays are accidents of no more significance than their shared O. Ozick writes slowly, carefully, with respect for the conscious activity of art. Oates is a gusher, with a closet belief that every word welling up from the sacred unconscious must be precious. How else explain her inability to edit herself? In Art & Ardor, Ozick's perfectionist, self-critical habits produce a book which surprises and delights on every line, a model--except that her prose is inimitable--of the play of mind over matters of life and literature. For Oates' The Profane Art there is not much excuse, except that her reviews--in which she is presumably working under a word limit--are good.
A collection of previously published essays is like a dinner of leftovers. It may be delicious, but it should be served up with a certain modesty. Oates, to justify her book, invokes Plato, the myth of Medusa, Nietzsche, Northrop Frye, Matthew Arnold, and W.H. Auden's distinction between the sacred (whose value lies in what it is) and the profane (whose value lies in what it does). Criticism is "the profane art" of the title, and it is justified by its service to the sacred, Art itself. All the drumrolling seems increasingly silly as one makes one's way through the essays it heralds: a patched-together piece on cities in American literature, an essay pointing out that images of women in modernist writers are not at all innovative, a discussion of Wuthering Heights which contains nothing unfamiliar to academic readers, and a bland little essay on Lewis Carroll. Is it for this one needed to be reminded of Medusa's head, so terrifying it could not be confronted directly but only reflected in Perseus' shield? What hideous Medusa is reflected in the shield of Lewis Carroll?
But the principle of such writing is that nuggets exist --though the reader must find them. And so one reads on. Now it is Oates on Updike. "His world, like (Flannery) O'Connor's is 'incarnational' . . . perhaps because, in Updike, such a synthesis of fidelity and inventiveness allows an escape of sorts from the tyrannical, unimaginative cosmology of Calvinism." Rarely going beyond abstraction, Oates is a master of the unilluminating quotation and superfluous comparison. "O'Connor's interest was in love of a distinctly spiritual nature, but Updike speaks with Alexander Blok, surely, in saying, 'We love the flesh: its taste, its tones/Its charnel odor, breathed through Death's jaws.' "
Her prose reads like that of a bright, hard-working undergraduate, and most of her essays achieve that peculiar undergraduate mixture of demure self-effacement--abstinence from the personal--with gigantism, the taking on of everything at once. "A writer who shares Updike's extreme interest in the visual world as well as his obsession with language is Joseph Conrad who . . . could imagine the ideal and the real only as hopelessly separate: when the 'ideal' is given historical freedom to experience itself in flesh, in action, we have the tragicomedy of Nostromo, we have the Feminine Archetype, Mrs. Gould, at the very center of a storm of mirages, each an 'ideal,' each a masculine fantasy."
"Notes on Failure" is a sympathetic, writer's piece on how failure stimulates art, and how even successful artists always live with the fear of failure. Her shorter pieces, reviews of work by Jean Stafford, Paul Bowles, Flannery O'Connor, Jung, and Anne Sexton, are also fine--generous in spirit and to the point. Perhaps "significantly" (as Oates would say), her bitchiest--and so in many ways her most interesting--review deals with the often revered Simone Weil, whom Oates sees as a self-deluding, self-aggrandizing anorexic. Oates has fascinating things to tell us about the connection between starvation and spurious mystical insight.
Cynthia Ozick puts everything she has into her essays --and that's a lot: wit, fierce intelligence, supple writing, and an absence of hackneyed opinion. Her subjects include literature, Judaism, feminism. Beginning one of her essays, you don't know where it will end up or what strange points she will make along the way. An essay on Truman Capote produces an ironic reminiscence of studying literature at NYU in the post-war years, along with unappreciative Army vets. "Other voices, other rooms--ah, how we felt it, the tug of somewhere else, inchoate, luminous, the enameled radiance of our eternal and gifted youth. Instead, here were these veterans . . . coming alive only for Marketing and Accounting, sniggering at Sheats and Kelley, hating Thomas Wolfe, with every mean money-grubbing diaper-stinking aging bone hating Poetry and Beauty and Transfiguration . . . Capote was the banner against this blight."
An essay on "Literary Blacks and Jews" proposes that Ralph Ellison, who hunted quail and thanked Hemingway for having written so well about wing shooting, was more at home in America than Jewish writers such as Bernard Malamud and Irving Howe with their "bookish moral passion." Ozick, like Oates, writes about "the sacral Updike," but starts with the refreshingly outrageous assumption that we all know he is a closet theologian, and goes on to rebuke Updike (whose work she loves) for not theologizing his Jewish hero, Henry Bech, as he does his Christian ones. "What passes for Bech-as- Jew is an Appropriate Reference Machine, cranked on whenever Updike reminds himself that he is obligated to produce a sociological symptom: crank, gnash, and out flies an inverted sentence."
Ozick's positions are unequivocal and often unfashionable. She dislikes the new feminism which celebrates women's separateness. A "classic" feminist herself, she hates the term "woman writer" and opposes the idea of a female nature, calling it "the Great Lie." She thinks Jewish writers will last only if they write as Jews and for Jews. Norman Mailer will one day be no more than "a small Gentile footnote." Her deeply religious nature attacks what she calls "idolatry," the worship of anything other than God. And that includes Art. The book concludes with two masterpieces of autobiographical essay, "The Lesson of the Master" and "A Drugstore in Winter," which make very personal the point about idolatry. Her sterile and premature obsession with Henry James postponed her own growth as a writer. She herself was a worshiper of art, an idolater. Her conversion came late, which explains the virulence of her dislike of idolatry. Reading her essays along with those of Oates, who prattles so about the sacredness of Art, one is inclined to see Ozick's point.