Cynthia Ozick

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Cynthia Ozick (born April 17, 1928) is a Jewish American short story writer, novelist, and essayist.


  • He who cries, "What do I care about universality? I only know what is in me," does not know even that.
    • Trust (1966) p558
  • It is useless either to hate or to love truth - but it should be noticed.
    • Trust (1966) p559
  • Metaphor is the reciprocal agent, the universalizing force: it makes possible the power to envision the stranger's heart.
    • Metaphor & Memory (1991), in the title essay
  • Real apprenticeship is ultimately always to the self.
    • Fame & folly (1996), in the essay "Old Hand as Novice"
  • Like twinned with unlike is beauty's shock. And eternal.
    • Dictation: A Quartet (2008), "Dictation"
  • Lie, illusion, deception, she said--was that it truly, the universal language we all speak?
    • Dictation: A Quartet (2008), "What Happened to the Baby?"
  • She thought: How hard it is to change one’s life. And again she thought: How terrifyingly simple to change the lives of others.
    • Foreign Bodies (2010), p254

Art & Ardor (1983)

  • What we think we are surely going to do, we don't do; and what we never intended to do, we may one day notice that we have done, and done, and done. (Forward)
  • Wars, invented and organized by the highest available consciousnesses (do the worms go to war? do the fish? do the paramecia?), are the planet's chief source and cause of torment. ("The Biological Premises of Our Sad Earth-Speck")
  • We are so placid that the smallest tremor of objection is taken as a full-scale revolution. ("Justice to Feminism")
  • We have had, alas, and still have, the doubtful habit of reverence. Above all, we respect things as they are. ("Justice to Feminism")

Interview with The Paris Review (1987)

  • I read in order to write. I read out of obsession with writing...I read in order to find out what I need to know: To illuminate the riddle.
  • (What sustained you without publication during that period?) Belief. Not precisely self-belief, because that faltered profoundly again and again. Belief in Art, in Literature: I was a worshipper of Literature...I no longer believe in Literature, capital L, with the same fervor I used to. I’ve learned to respect living, perhaps. I think I have gotten over my fear of largeness as well, because I have gotten over my awe—my idolatrous awe. Literature is not all there is in the world, I now recognize. It is, I admit, still my all, but it isn’t the all. And that is a difference I can finally see.
  • One must avoid ambition in order to write. Otherwise something else is the goal: some kind of power beyond the power of language.
  • To imagine the unimaginable is the highest use of the imagination. I no longer think of imagination as a thing to be dreaded.
  • 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.
  • The insight that the largest, deepest, widest imaginative faculty of all is what you need to be a monotheist teaches me that you simply cannot be a Jew if you repudiate the imagination.
  • It seems to me that more can be found about a writer in any single sentence in a work of fiction, say, than in five or ten full-scale biographies. Or interviews!

The Shawl (1989)

  • "If you're alone too much," Persky said, "you think too much." "Without a life," Rosa answered, "a person lives where they can. If all they got is thoughts, that's where they live."
  • “...this is very nice, cozy. You got a nice cozy place, Lublin." "Cramped," Rosa said. "I work from a different theory. For everything, there's a bad way of describing, also a good way. You pick the good way, you go along better." "I don't like to give myself lies," Rosa said. "Life is short, we all got to lie.”
  • Because she fears the past she distrusts the future — it, too, will turn into the past.
  • "In the middle of the war there was Heine, there was Goethe, there was Schiller. I did posters for the German club, in the middle of the war. When I think back to how happy I was, studying German and flunking algebra, and I think what was going on for other Jewish teenagers on the other side of the world, I'm so puzzled by those dates."
  • "sometimes starting is so difficult. Because it's all chaos. It's the difference between writing an essay, which if it's about Henry James, at least you know that much. But with fiction you don't. It could be a scene in your mind or it could be some kind of tendril that you can barely define. So I have to force it. And then after – and this is real compulsion, real self-flagellation – it kind of takes off. But there's a lot of agony before. And sometimes during. And sometimes all through. But just before the end and revelations start coming, that's the joy. But mostly its hell."
  • "I think the word is intractable. I blame the lack of live and let live. And which side is it coming from more than the other side? I think it is coming from people who call other people infidels. That's how it strikes me." Was she moved the first time she went to Israel? "Yes. Probably not like my father, who was simply swept away. He couldn't get over that he had ascended Mount Zion. I don't see any solution here. I'm despairing. That's where I stand."

Interview with The New York Times (July 10, 2016)

  • (Tell us about your favorite short story.) There are too many to be tempted to isolate only one, so here are five: “Lighea” (sometimes titled “The Professor and the Mermaid”), by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa; “My Quarrel With Hersh Rasseyner,” by Chaim Grade; Chekhov’s “Ward Six”; Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilych”; James’s “The Beast in the Jungle” (everyone’s autobiography).
  • (And about your favorite poem.) “Dover Beach,” by Matthew Arnold. And running neck-and-neck, Shelley’s “Ozymandias” and Auden’s “September 1, 1939.” All are cutting-edge images of the 21st century so far.
  • Sometimes repugnance overrides psychological curiosity, and sometimes psychological curiosity is no more illuminating than pornography.
  • no book makes me furious. Maybe sad, or lost, or confused, but mostly joy and wonder are the emotions involved. That’s why I prefer books to people.
  • (What moves you most in a work of literature?) Language as the well of image and feeling. Nabokov rather than Hemingway. If less is more, it is nevertheless also loss. And the easy vernacular is deprivation.
  • (If you could require the president to read one book, what would it be?) “History of the Jews,” by Heinrich Graetz…it taught me that a writer lacking history, however gifted, is an empty sack.

Interview with NPR (July 17, 2016)

  • I have argued this question, novel versus essays, and I do come out on the novel side. Because though both these forms use intellect and imagination, they do it in different proportions — the essay more on the intellect side and the novel more on the imaginative side. And the imaginative is freedom. You're at liberty to inhabit other people — including the bad guys — which is sometimes very thrilling, since you won't do it in real life. (On how imagining "the bad guy" relates to empathy) It's the beginning of empathy, indeed. And it's also a place where you can make judgments, where you can enter other people's minds and at the same time subtly, not didactically, not as if you're giving a sermon or a tract. But you can also make judgments, and they can be social judgments, moral judgments, metaphysical judgments.
  • there was a time when a new novel came out — let's take Saul Bellow — and it was a public event. And really, it wasn't just an elitist hobby. I remember — this goes way, way back into my early childhood — when Gone with the Wind was published, the world was whirling around this novel. I remember walking to school and seeing shopkeepers sitting outside their shops reading Gone with the Wind. This was an event. It changed people's minds. Maybe I have a yearning for that, though I don't see it would ever happen again. On the other hand, didn't we see that with Downton Abbey? So maybe it isn't all lost.
  • I always knew that this was what I wanted to do. I think this is true of most writers — especially anybody who's read Little Women, which is every writer. Not so much the male writers, let's admit it, but every writer who grows up has wanted to be Jo.
  • I don't think one writes for immortality. I think beginning writers always think they will have fame. But if fame — which is power — is what you want, then you'll get it, probably. But it's not something necessary to want or need.
  • ("On why she writes") Because I can't not. I mean, what else am I going to do with my life? That's another way of putting it. I simply must. Writers simply can't help themselves. In a way they're sort of like the queen of England. Every writer is doomed to his or her profession. What else is the queen going to do with her life? She was born a queen; she's stuck. And writers are stuck, too.

Quotes about Cynthia Ozick

  • She is the master of the casual, searing image; in a department store in Foreign Bodies, a woman is ambushed by "floating tongues of perfume". During an awkward conversation between two people "a stillness blundered between them." In Heir to the Glimmering World, Professor Mitwisser, a Jewish exile from Nazi Germany, has eyes "acutely blue . . . I was shocked by their waver of bewilderment – like heat vibrating across a field."
  • Cynthia Ozick is one of America’s greatest living writers. What makes her work breathtaking is its unvarying subject, a single idea that encompasses all that marks American life, Jewish tradition and every other challenge to the world as it is: ambition.
  • I've read...some of the people who are sort of like poets but are prose writers like Grace Paley and Cynthia Ozick.
  • Remember Cynthia Ozick's story, "The Shawl"? In that extraordinarily moving story, Ozick doesn't once mention the word, Holocaust; she focuses on the conflicts of a mother and her two daughters trying to survive the horrors of death-camp internment. That's what good fiction does, and should do.
  • Cynthia Ozick, in her landmark feminist essay "Notes Toward Finding the Right Question," has strikingly if shockingly-lamented the exclusion of women from the tradition of Jewish learning and creativity as "one of the cruelest events in Jewish history."
    • Alicia Ostriker Forward to The Defiant Muse: Hebrew Feminist Poems from Antiquity to the Present: A Bilingual Anthology (1999)
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