Our New York, Too, Will Disappear
Writing on a Big Topic: An Essayist Takes on New York
by Jessamine Price
“The Synthetic Sublime,” by Cynthia Ozick, was the first essay that ever made me cry. It was early winter, late 2001. I was living in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, on the salt-breezed fringes of New York. All four windows of my apartment looked out onto airshafts; every view was of red bricks crisscrossed with fire escapes. Even though the neighborhood was several miles outside the usual student and artist districts of Brooklyn, the rent was still too high for a graduate student, so I had a roommate living in the dining nook attached to the kitchen. We built a homemade wall of pressboard to separate her bed from the refrigerator. But despite the high rent and hour-long commute to classes in Manhattan—despite the faint, bitter smell when the wind blew from the wreckage of the World Trade Center—still I found myself loving New York. Cynthia Ozick’s 1999 essay, in which she calls New York “the synthetic sublime,” offers a stew of explanations for the irrational adoration the city can provoke. The essay arrived in my life at a moment when I was furious to conquer the world and write my name on walls—a moment, too, not long after September 11th, when I felt unusually sympathetic toward the messiness and money, the stuffy subway stations and windy avenues, the corner pizza guys and the downtown stock traders.
A decade later, I reread the essay in a less tender mood. To my surprise, I again grew teary-eyed by two-thirds of the way through and was sobbing by the conclusion. Most readers probably don’t have such a strong reaction. But given how many writers have tackled New York, given how hard it is to say something new about the city, how is it that Ozick, this woman born in 1928—this lifelong New Yorker almost fifty years my elder—captures something about the city that touches me as true?
The form of this essay defies contemporary writing trends. Rather than memoir, “The Synthetic Sublime” is a contemplative essay in the tradition of Montaigne and Lamb. Thus Ozick does not start with a personal anecdote; in fact, she waits until the second half of the piece to recount the long-ago kidnapping of her infant brother—a dramatic event with which most writers would have started. Instead, Ozick makes New York her main character.
Taking New York as a character and summarizing its meaning in six thousand words strikes me even now as an enormous task, too broad in scope and ambition. When I first read the piece, I was a doctoral student in history, trained to distrust big ideas. The historians I respected wrote books about one or two city neighborhoods—few tackled the whole package. Ozick’s wide-ranging statements succeeded with me in part because “The Synthetic Sublime” appeared in 1999, as one of many end-of-the-millennium recaps, recaps that fascinated me despite my postmodern suspicion of anyone claiming to know the Meaning of Something. But I also think Ozick succeeds because her thoughts about architecture, history, society, and culture resonate with emotion, ironically making this piece feel more personal than some of her memoir essays. She succeeds, too, because she repeatedly surprises the reader with unusual imagery and syntax. Ozick’s style is uniquely her own, and this essay serves as a magnificent challenge to every nonfiction writer to invigorate intellectual pieces with emotion—and enrich memoir with big ideas.
Although Ozick does not begin the essay with a narrative, she does introduce tension and conflict immediately. She begins with a bold, counter-intuitive opening statement, “More than any other metropolis of the Western world, New York disappears.” Instead of describing today’s city, she introduces lost monuments—the Grand Opera House and the once-famous Wallack’s Theatre, places that disappeared a hundred years ago, absent landmarks that she and her readers have never seen. She superimposes a ghostly, invisible city on the familiar New York of today, suggesting the conflict between past and present, preservation and renewal, old and new.
Ozick is a virtuoso at the level of the paragraph. She uses a variety of sentence structures that bounce exuberantly off each other, magnifying the individual energy of each phrase. Each of the seven sentences in the first paragraph possesses a distinctive character and syntax. Their lengths vary, too, alternating like the dots and dashes in Morse code. Count the number of words in each sentence. You find a wild asymmetry: 12, 43, 20, 7 (a sentence fragment), 23, 38, and 36. Within the long sentences, Ozick employs every kind of punctuation to insert pauses of varying durations; here we encounter commas, colons, semi-colons, m-dashes, and even an exclamation mark. The effect is like a prose version of George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, with some phrases drawn out, passionately elongated, and others crisply syncopated. The rhythm begs the reader to speak the words aloud. We could set these sentences in verse form:
In nature, the daffodil blooms,
and in the spring returns—
always a daffodil,
from its precursor. Not
so New York….
Ozick is exploring a specific contradiction here. The city is like a flower that periodically flourishes, withers, and is reborn, but it is also unnatural and artificial—with streets, buildings, and inhabitants that take on radically new forms with every reincarnation. Her energetic syntax echoes the city’s energy. Her New York is always growing—always dying as well.
The entire opening section of the essay is a rhapsody to the New Yorks that have disappeared and the new New Yorks blooming on top of them. Ozick writes about history and architecture with passion. Though this passage is lengthy—approximately two thousand of the essay’s six thousand words—the images are personal and emotional. Grief and amazement intermingle in passages such as the one in which the “autograph” of the “insouciant wrecking ball” replaces the “cleaner-and-dyer” and “shoe-repair man” with “a stylish boutique and a fancy-cookie shop.” These images capture Ozick’s nostalgia for the vanished, working-class, immigrant city of her childhood, without a single use of the words “class” or “money.” At the same time, Ozick exhibits the pride of a mother who has watched her toddler grow into a college graduate as she describes “the city’s persistent daring, vivacity, enchantment, experiment; the marvel of new forms fired by old passions, the rekindling of the snuffed.” Ozick’s nouns and verbs suggest the city is a person. A superhero perhaps, but a human one. She also personifies the city more directly, when she compares New York to the woman that a magician saws in half and reassembles with a magic word.
Ozick tempers her multitude of images with occasional short, declarative sentences, table-pounding manifestos such as this one: “New York will never leave town.” She also varies her prose with questions and imperatives that directly address the reader. “Wait,” she tells us, “for the downtown No. 104 bus at the bus stop on Broadway and Seventy-Second Street, look across the way, and be amazed—what Renaissance palazzo is this?” Here we have her distinct voice: bossy, intellectual, a little old-fashioned thanks to the inverted syntax of the question, deeply knowledgeable.
Only after introducing the city as protagonist does Ozick present the bit players, among whom she includes herself. The lengthy first section, with its descriptions of New York as a whole, gives way to shorter sections focused on particular inhabitants. In the second section, Ozick includes the words of other authors for the first time, quoting E.B. White’s famous 1948 essay, “Here is New York.” In sections two and three, Ozick also turns momentarily to personal anecdotes about the street games of her childhood and the close mingling of rich and poor on the city streets. But in section four, Ozick produces new surprises. In mythical terms, she depicts the destruction and reconstruction of buildings and institutions, imagining the spirits of New York’s museums and theaters as “soaring apparitions…hovering over the city” whispering to the buildings below, “Aspire, aspire!” She concludes the invocation of these architectural angels with one short sentence fragment that stands alone on the page and recalls the ornate language of the Victorian capitalists who built so many of the city’s cultural institutions: “Susurrations of grandeur.”
The heart of the essay is still to come. After a description of New York neighborhoods, we reach the most touching section, a mere three paragraphs in which each paragraph forms a mini-essay—a lesson in how to construct this often-misunderstood unit of prose. In the first paragraph, Ozick recounts how her brother was kidnapped for a few hours as a baby, taken by a “madwoman” from her father’s Upper East Side pharmacy and found nearby a few hours later, with the kidnapper “undone by furious infantile howls, and grateful to relinquish the captive screamer.” Since the event happened before Ozick’s birth, she confesses her invention of certain details with phrases such as “it seems to me that it must have been summer” and “in my half-dreaming re-creation of this long-ago scene.” Nevertheless, the three-sentence imagining of the kidnapping is vivid. It includes descriptions of Ozick’s mother, father, and baby brother, along with a description of the pharmacy, investing the kidnapping with a gravity disproportionate to its short length on the page. I remembered this scene as much longer and was surprised to find how succinct it was when I reread the piece.
Ozick’s expertise as an essayist emerges in the subsequent two-paragraph exploration of an odd question: why does she imagine the kidnapping happening in summer? Her answer leads to my favorite passage in the piece, the description of New York in winter. “The true city is the winter city,” she says, introducing a rhythmic description of woolly winter clothes and clouds of sweet scents from carts and bakeries. The details—tactile and olfactory, as well as visual—suggest the author’s affection for winter. She writes of “the lone walker,” who feels alternating desolation and good cheer on the twilight streets of midwinter. In depicting an imaginary walker rather than herself or a specific person, Ozick invites readers to imagine themselves there. The phrase recalls the French use of the article on (literally, “one”) to imply the second-person “you” while maintaining a certain distance, but by saying “the lone walker,” Ozick avoids the stuffy-sounding “one.” She immerses the reader in the physical act of walking, walking alone, in a coat with a tall collar, bumping into strangers in the “blurry gray of early evening.” The sentences themselves have a rhythm that resembles a walking pace; commas demarcate a series of phrases that roll along as we walk down the sidewalk, feeling the loneliness of evening. And then we notice the “forest of flowering lights”—the bright city around us—and the rhythm changes, growing shorter and choppier and repetitive: “here, right here, is importance, achievement, delight in the work of the world…here, right here.” In the following sentence, we enter a restaurant or bar to join friends. She doesn’t describe specific friends or tell us the topics of conversation, leaving it open to readers to imagine their favorite people gathered in the “gregarious New York winter.”
Remarkably, the lack of precise details is what makes this passage grab me by the throat—or rather, Ozick’s precision in describing the touch of wool, the smell of bakeries and the color of the twilight sky, combined with the imprecise description of the restaurant and the people there. Are they yuppies or students, financiers or punks? Though Ozick might have in mind a place on the Upper West Side full of gray-haired professionals, I’m free to imagine myself back in an Italian café just off West Fourth in the Village, drinking espresso with Palestinian and Egyptian graduate students, who wave their cigarettes emphatically as we argue about the writings of Slavoj Žižek or the future of political protest. Ozick’s elision of personal detail ironically gives me a stronger sense of identification with her.
In the essay’s last short sections, Ozick pulls back from the close-up on one lone walker and one winter night, returning to the theme of change and mutability. But she continues to write with an intimate, affectionate tone. She calls New York “our” city and speculates about what “we” will witness. Some writers put me off by writing about New York as if it is theirs and they know it better than the reader; Ozick does the opposite, offering it up for inspection as if it is already mine.
Despite the wealth of topics in the essay, Ozick succeeds in drawing everything together at the end. She concludes as she began, with a lament for vanished versions of the city. Sadly, she says, “our New York, too, will disappear,” though when The New Yorker first published this essay in 1999, none of us suspected how soon the city would change again, in a roaring cloud of falling grit and girders. Her closing titles for the city—“Headquarters of Misery and Marvel, Eraser and Renewer, Brain and Capital of the Continent!”—resound with enthusiasm. But immediately following this apostrophe, she deliberately spills the wind from her sails by finishing the essay with four short questions about the future city, wistful questions with death as their subtext—her own death, and ours.
The immigrants will come—what language will they speak? The towers will climb to the sky—what shape will they have? The crowds will stream in the streets—what thoughts will they think? Will they think our outworn thoughts, or imaginings we cannot imagine?
The city will outlive us; we will not see every future immigrant and tower.
Like all great essays, “The Synthetic Sublime” travels from one topic to a different, larger one. It starts with a description of New York—a large topic in itself—and ends up showing how the city’s mutability is a reminder of death—a reminder, too, that death makes way for new births, new marvels. The reader traverses Ozick’s sense of loss for her childhood city to reach her exhilaration for the city of the present. Ultimately, we arrive at her understanding that the future city will look different but seethe with familiar energy. The city’s vitality transcends its merely human origins—transcends, too, the deaths of individual residents and monuments. In showing the presence of the sublime within the messy streets, Ozick sanctifies New York; she makes holy the seemingly chaotic process of wrecking and building. No wonder that her essay strikes me as being just as timely for New York’s new incarnations as it was at the turn of the millennium. No wonder, too, that “The Synthetic Sublime” still moves me. Ozick invites us to mourn all the places we have lost, wherever they may be.
“The Synthetic Sublime”*
Quarrel and Quandary
*Originally published in The New Yorker in slightly different form, Feb. 22, 1999: 152-186.