The Bar, How High, Etc.

Paris Review: But what about your literary ambitions in terms of subject matter and length?
Cynthia Ozick:
I see it as a simple matter of choosing a subject, or having the subject choose itself, and letting the subject dictate the length. It’s not my “ambition” that dictates the size of the enterprise. I am not interested in ego, if that’s what this question is about. “The Pagan Rabbi,” for instance, a short story written so long ago, touches on a large theme: the aesthetic versus the moral commitment. Profound subject matter can be encompassed in small space—for proof, look at any sonnet by Shakespeare! Multum in parvo. I am not avoiding length these days—not consciously. But perhaps there’s some truth in the speculation that I may be living my life backwards! Doing the short forms now, having begun with a Great Work, a long ambitious “modernist” novel of the old swollen kind.

PR: Can one write and avoid ambition?
CO: One must avoid ambition in order to write. Otherwise something else is the goal: some kind of power beyond the power of language. And the power of language, it seems to me, is the only kind of power a writer is entitled to.

PR: But is writing idolatry?
Until quite recently I held a rather conventional view about all this. I thought of the imagination as what its name suggests, as image-making, and I thought of the writer’s undertaking as a sovereignty set up in competition with the sovereignty of—well, the Creator of the Universe. I thought of imagination as that which sets up idols, as a rival of monotheism. I’ve since reconsidered this view. I now see that the idol-making capacity of imagination is its lower form, and that one cannot be a monotheist without putting the imagination under the greatest pressure of all. To imagine the unimaginable is the highest use of the imagination. I no longer think of imagination as a thing to be dreaded. Once you come to regard imagination as ineluctably linked with monotheism, you can no longer think of imagination as competing with monotheism. Only a very strong imagination can rise to the idea of a noncorporeal God. The lower imagination, the weaker, falls into the proliferation of images. My hope is someday to be able to figure out a connection between the work of monotheism-imagining and the work of story-imagining. Until now I have thought of these as enemies.
-Oh, fuck: “Cynthia Ozick, The Art of Fiction No. 95

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