Monday, December 08, 2008

the bible is not made of sugar

Bookslut has an interview with Cynthia Ozick:

[Susan Sontag] took Patti Smith as seriously as Henry James, which you do not. Do you fear that in cutting yourself off from contemporary culture you handicap yourself in any way?

I would say, rather, that contemporary culture has cut itself off from the wellspring of culture in general, and in particular from literature, and in particular from history. It’s contemporary culture that has, by and large, done this. I say “by and large” because you can’t make generalizations of this kind; I can recite names of deeply literary young writers who are not cut off. I was boggled by one review of The Din in the Head, for instance, which faulted me for failing to write about hip-hop and various other types of popular music. But if you’re writing about literary figures you’re clearly not writing about music, whether it’s Mozart or any other kind of music. I find it a flabbergasting charge. The charge should be on the other foot: why aren’t writers on hip-hop writing about Lionel Trilling? (laughs)

I’m not asking you to write a hip-hop song. But I have not seen anything in your work that attempts to engage directly with the culture of your time.

I can hardly agree with that. If I go to the supermarket I’m engaging with the culture of my time. If I have a conversation, including this very one with you as interlocutor, I’m engaging with my time. When I spend hours at the computer absorbing news and opinion I’m engaging with the culture of my time. I think what you are saying is that I have a kind of history-consciousness. True, and it seems to me that you’re not engaging directly with the culture of your time if you are deaf and blind or even merely indifferent to that culture’s deep heritage. Not long ago I published in the New Republic a review of an abandoned novel by Lionel Trilling, newly unearthed in the Columbia University archives. And I discovered that nowadays people don’t even know Trilling’s name, not to mention this culture-shaping critic’s work. The same with Edmund Wilson, Alfred Kazin, Irving Howe. O lost, and by the wind grieved, ghost…