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Robert L. Kehoe III

“I Will What?”

Saul Bellow and the madness of our moment.

When news of his death made its way around Chicago, the claws of winter clung to Lake Michigan's shores with one last determined grip. In the next day's Chicago Tribune, Saul Bellow's passing was placed prominently, as if the city that defined so much of his life and work was clinging to its greatest literary son with equal determination. Ten years earlier Bellow had accepted an appointment to the east, so in a way Chicago had said goodbye before. But the permanence of this final parting was felt in the Tribune's careful attention to a Nobel laureate they called their own: "Bellow loved Chicago not simply as a non-New York but for itself. It was an eyes-wide love that took in, even embraced, the grit and ugliness and stupidities of the city as well as its beauty and aspirations." Seeing and hearing with such vivid resolution and fidelity, he wrote his city in a manner as conversant with Aristotle and Kafka as it was with bus drivers, bartenders, gangsters and windbag city officials on the stump.

Last year marked the tenth anniversary of his passing, and with it Saul Bellow had a bit of a moment with two noteworthy publications: Zachary Leader's The Life of Saul Bellow: To Fame and Fortune, 1915-1964, and There Is Simply Too Much to Think About: Collected Non-Fiction, edited by Benjamin Taylor. Both books were widely reviewed, but the rap on Bellow has become fairly predictable in recent years. While his gripping, tragic-comic prose and numerous accomplishments are impossible to ignore, his ability to speak with clarity to the moral challenges of the 20th and early 21st century is routinely dismissed. At The Nation, David Mikics—whose own book, Bellow's People: How Saul Bellow Made Life into Art, is due in May—suggested that "the withering of Bellow's reputation" is due to a wrongheaded understanding of his writing, along with the new normal in "academic fashion: Professors now ignore his work, believing it to be a swamp of white male privilege tinged by racism and sexism." But if the specter of the pale-masculine-élitist-Euro-American-intellectual, holding up human progress and spoiling all the fun, continues to push people away from Bellow's fiction and public commentary, Mikics points out that, in fact, his "work did not exclude otherness, but instead engaged it." That Bellow has been reduced to such caricatures—or is now only celebrated with caveats and reticent disclaimers—is ultimately a reflection of the very insecurities he so powerfully exposed. And it may be worth noting that the strength of his clear thinking and writing began on the margins.

"What was it, in the Thirties, that drew an adolescent in Chicago to the writing of books? How did a young American of the Depression period decide that he was, of all things, a literary artist?" It's appropriate that There Is Simply Too Much to Think About opens with these two questions from Bellow's essay "Prologue: Starting Out in Chicago." His would become a voice at one with America, the Midwest, and his adopted city, but Saul Bellow and his family were first and foremost strangers in a strange land. Fleeing the dismal conditions that led so many Jews to emigrate from Czarist Russia in the early 20th century, they joined the flood of Europeans searching for even a hint of freedom and opportunity across the Atlantic. Initially the Bellows found asylum in Canada, where Saul was born in Quebec in 1915, two years after his parents and his three siblings arrived. In 1924, the family emigrated again, smuggling themselves across the border into the United States. Settling in Chicago, they found a home in "a colossal industrial business center, knocked flat by unemployment, its factories and even its schools closing," but one that still "decided to hold a World's Fair on the shore of Lake Michigan, with towers, high rides, exhibits, Chinese rickshaws, a midget village in which there was a midget wedding every day, and other lively attractions including whores and con men and fan dancers." Up against the background of Chicago's wild and industrious spirit Bellow recognized early in life that he "was here to interpret the world (its American version) as brilliantly as possible." In the caldron of an assimilating melting pot, the cultivation of that brilliance was not a matter of privilege, or divine right. It was a matter of discipline and tenacity. In the years that followed, Bellow would exhibit both in spades, living through "that mixture of imagination and stupidity with which people met the American Experience, that murky, heavy, burdensome, chaotic thing."

Though Zachary Leader's is a sprawling biography (too often packing five quotes from five different novels into the same paragraph), it does offer a detailed account of how Bellow's tenacity emerged from the chaos. Set against the cold winters of Montreal and Chicago, his youth was fraught with an abusive father, an illness that nearly killed him, stark anti-Semitism, and fierce sibling rivalries. To cope with the turmoil he's said to have wandered the streets and empty lots of Humboldt Park, rummaging for bottles and digging for coins in abandoned couches to use at "the neighborhood Walgreen's drugstore," where "barrels of used books were sold, for 25, 19, or 12 cents." After recovering from his illness, which required months in the hospital, Leader says that young Saul "was determined … to be out in the world, active, no longer weak or sickly." Out there he developed a hunger for freedom and independence. At home he developed a love of language, benefiting from early exposure to French, Yiddish, Russian, English, and Hebrew. In his early years, Bellow said, "I didn't know what language I was speaking and didn't understand if there was any distinction among these various languages." Upon arrival in Chicago he recalled, "everybody had one ambition: to become American as quickly as possible and to speak English."

Like many Jewish American writers of this era, Bellow found that the task of helping his parents translate English enhanced his own capacity to use it. In particular, it inspired a deep sensitivity for the nuances of the spoken word, which can be seen in his delicate, energetic, and comedic prose. In Herzog, the novel that catapulted him to international acclaim, we hear of Moses Herzog's genteel Yiddish-speaking upbringing, hearkening back to "ancient family prejudices" and "absurdities from a lost world." The challenge for Bellow was to recast those absurdities to the rhythm and tenor of America's urban vibrancy, where new life was breathing into a culture still almost exclusively beholden to an Anglo-Saxon heritage. In his view, if not for the waves of immigrants (blacks, Slavs, Irish, Italians, Hispanics, Japanese, Jews, and more) who came to the United States (both by force and by choice), America would have become the aesthetic equivalent of a northeastern country club in desperate need of a fresh coat of paint. The likes of James Baldwin, Jack Kerouac, Zora Neale Hurston, and Bernard Malamud modernized American culture, giving voice to the kaleidoscopic array of heritages and interests in an artistic landscape that needed their perspective and conviction. Where Bellow's fiction captured this aesthetic and linguistic eruption as a literary project, his essays addressed the political and philosophical underpinnings of an ambitious nation whose penchant for social Darwinism, mixed with "not fully mastered biases," created an embattled "free-for-all U.S.A."

In "The Civilized Barbarian Reader," Bellow located himself on the battlefield "as a Midwesterner, the son of immigrant parents." But he was also one who "recognized at an early age that I was called upon to decide for myself to what extent my Jewish origins, my surroundings (the accidental circumstances of Chicago), my schooling were allowed to determine the course of my life." For reasons that remained mysterious to him, he chose to be his own man. Under pressure to Americanize, he said that the rigid Protestant virtues of "gainfulness, utility, prudence, business had no hold on me." Intellectually and artistically, Bellow had little patience for mindless conformity, easily found across of the demographic spectrum. Politically and philosophically, what was at stake in the free-for-all U.S.A. was the very possibility of civilization, which he saw taken for granted at every turn. On this point, Bellow sensed "that all civilized countries were destined to descend to a common cosmopolitanism and that the lamentable weakening of the older branches of civilization would open fresh opportunities and free us from our dependence on history and culture." While the freshness certainly opened up new imaginative realms, it also paved the way—especially in academic institutions—for "deserts of abstraction," and worse, "systems of opinion and formulas that hide reality from us." The result?

Personal judgment is disabled, crippled by theoretical borrowing. We are bound, in other words, to be skeptical of learning too. Hybrid barbarians that we are, we trusted intellectuals to tell us what was what, we put up with the invented mental language of their "authoritative explanations." But in the end man must master his own experience.

Though The Dean's December (1982) was mostly dismissed at the time of publication, today it reads like a prophetic vision of college and university life, where scholarship is no longer oriented toward the pursuit of truth and where the work of a university administrator is that of a fundraising executive, who exists to satisfy whatever his or her students (the consumers) demand. In the case of Dean Albert Corde, simply treating his official duties as a matter of public relations would virtually guarantee comfort and success. But writing a series of articles for Harper's—testing some of his observations "against the blight of Chicago"—leads to hostile criticism from every corner of his school and city. For speaking to the depth and backdrop of racial tension (its "wounds, lesions, cancers," and "destructive fury") and America's dismal treatment of the "black underclass," he's accused of being a racist who's waging "a secret war against blacks." Not surprisingly, he's subject to all manner of denunciatory protest. Ironically, Corde himself was "a campus radical years ago"; now he sees "how little things had changed. The same meetings, agitprop slogans, fanaticism, pressure methods the same." What had certainly changed, much for the worse, was the circumstances of those the campus radicals were presumably protesting on behalf of.

Like Albert Corde, Bellow confounded conservatives and angered liberals in equal measure. But for him, independence and clarity of thought were always worth fighting for, even in the face of the occasional uproar about a prosaic argument or fictional creation. Given the modern penchant for public outrage, it's not surprising that Bellow's question about where we might find the Papuan Proust or the Tolstoy of Zulus was hastily read as demeaning to the artistic and intellectual integrity of those who live below the equator. Today that interpretation persists. Earlier this year, Elon Green published a lovely essay about his experience conducting the last (known) on-camera interview with Bellow. But for all his admiration, Green made room for a qualifying statement about the "grotesque" question. Even more prominently, in Between the World and Me, Ta-Nahisi Coates hearkens back to "a quote I once read, from the novelist Saul Bellow." Admittedly, Coates "can't remember where I read it, or when," but when confronted with the Tolstoy/Proust question the response is no less predictable.

Tolstoy was "white," I understood him to say, and so Tolstoy "mattered," like everything else that was white "mattered." And this view of things was connected to the fear that passed through the generations, to the sense of dispossession. We were black, beyond the visible spectrum, beyond civilization. Our history was inferior because we were inferior, which is to say our bodies were inferior. And our inferior bodies could not possibly be accorded the same respect as those that built the West. Would it not be better, then, if our bodies were civilized, improved, and put to some legitimate Christian use?

Apart from the elision of Bellow's Jewishness, Coates misunderstood what he was saying, and like most of his critics never considered that he was pointing to the legitimacy of indigenous African, South East Asian, and Latin American cultures on their own terms while critiquing the absurdity of holding them to the same aesthetic standards (i.e., the conventions of epic novels) formed and governed by European tastes and professed in Western universities. Bellow's deeper point—one that Coates might sympathize with, if given more careful attention—is worth reconsideration. Responding to accusations of his " 'discriminatory' remarks" in the essay "Papuans and Zulus," Bellow suggested that the "Papuans probably have a better grasp of their myths than most educated Americans have of their own literature," and are probably more equipped to deal with the human experience than the presumably civilized whose principle "demand is for scientific discussions of everything." But Bellow understood that careful consideration (aesthetic, political, or scientific) was not a common feature of American life. Since his passing, it certainly hasn't been encouraged by the advent of social mediation or virtual reality.

Still, reality is there to be dealt with, and we can either seek to master our experience of the world or be overwhelmed by the world's indifference. Bellow chose the former, aspiring to a "higher consciousness by means of which we make final judgments and put everything together":

The independence of this consciousness, which has the strength to be immune to the noise of history and the distractions of our immediate surroundings, is what the life struggle is all about. The soul has to find and hold its own ground against hostile forces, sometimes embodied in ideas that frequently deny its very existence and that indeed often seem to be trying to annul it altogether.

Surely, this attempt to deny or annul the mysterious depths of the human soul is a fruitless task, bordering on madness. But it was a madness that Saul Bellow could see with supreme clarity, and describe with brilliant candor, comedy, and beauty—the contradictory beauty of a city that remains as wild, industrious, and heartbreaking as it was when his family arrived nearly a century ago.

As Bellow once noted of his beloved city, "Chicago's motto is 'I will.' " A motto so devoid of meaning, he said, prompted a more vexing question: "I will what?" In years to come Bellow's reputation may continue to wane, as his questions that reorient us toward reality are no longer invited and the prospect of ascertaining answers becomes, in the words of Albert Corde, like "a shuttlecock flying back and forth over the taboo net." While that may be disappointing to those of us who still revere his work, it shouldn't come as a surprise. It certainly wouldn't have surprised the son of poor Jewish immigrants whose life in literature began as a resident alien in the free-for-all U.S.A.

Robert L. Kehoe III is a contributing editor for The Point magazine. His work has appeared in The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Boston Review of Books, and First Things, among others. He writes from Madison, Wisconsin, where he lives with his wife and sons.

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