The Whole Human Mess: On Saul Bellow
Herzog, Sammler, Citrine: they think, but they are not thinkers in the usual sense, professional intellectuals, and neither, quite deliberately, was Bellow. Having come of age in young Marxist Depression-era Chicago, having gone east to seek his literary fortune amid an even more hypertrophically intellectualized and politicized milieu, the Partisan Review crowd in its heyday, living in a century of omnivorous ideas and cannibalistic ideologies, he distrusted the big theory, the blanket explanation. The postwar scene was only worse. Already by 1948 he is bemoaning "our failing connection to reality." Journalism, sociology, political talk, "the canned goods of the intellectuals"—all of these he saw as mass delusions, groupthink on a global scale. All the official sources of cultural authority were suspect to him, all the "centers": Partisan (they were the "dying beasts"), New York, the Ivy League, Europe.
"I must say, here"—he is referring to the University of Minnesota, where he taught as a young man—"that sociologists are the greater offenders. I listen to them...with every effort to be fair and understanding but I can't make out their Man.... The creature the theologians write about is far closer to me." Bellow insisted on the reality of the soul, of its powers and greatness and supreme importance, a conviction he derived not from orthodox belief or any other kind but from his own intuitions and intimations, his encounter with himself and others. The soul: individual, unique, immediate, irreducible—not an average, not a notion. "The novelist labors in character," he writes here, eschewing the Village's fashionable Freudianism, "not in psychology, which is easier and swifter; the psychology of a man comes from many different sources, a theory that is shared; the vision of him as a character comes from the imagination of one man." Vision, imagination, art: this is the way to get at the truth, to get at the soul. Instead of talking about what matters, he says here, we should talk about "what really matters"—not received concepts or causes but feeling, perception, experience, the world as it arrives to us direct. "What I felt all through," he says of Cheever's novel Falconer, "was an enraged determination to state the basic facts."
His own tendency to think the general thought he recognized and sought to guard against. "Hattie in 'The Yellow House' and Henderson and 'The Old System' seem to me my most interesting things," he writes, "because they are not argued." His notion-spinning heroes were a way of keeping his own intellect at arm's length, ironizing the will to master mentally chaotic circumstances. His novels aren't essays, and they don't contain essays, either. Herzog's cogitation and the others'—it is mobile, improvisational, circumstantial, speculative, the mind wrestling with reality, not shutting it in the cellar. When Bellow started a literary magazine, the Noble Savage, in 1959, his goal, he said, was to get writers out of the "nutshells" into which the twentieth century had shut them and "into the world again." "It's a lucky man who has a generous style," he writes, "and can accept the wider range of other people's facts." Other people's facts: reality as it exists apart from us. His friend Allan Bloom said it brilliantly and best: "He has always understood that even if you are on your way from Becoming to Being, you still have to catch the train at Randolph Street."
Understanding, for Bellow, begins in feeling—hardly an intellectual's position or, these days, even a comprehensible one. Citrine, we read, is a man who has decided "to follow the threads of spirit he had found within himself to see where they might lead." That is why Bellow's memories of childhood were always his essential touchstone. "Love reclaims one for reality," he writes here—that same love that he felt for his readers. And that is why he insisted, to Alfred Kazin, that when it comes to judging a work of literature, "The first criterion is enjoyment, and so are the second and third criteria." Bellow was against interpretation long before another writer got there. "While our need for meanings is certainly great," he wrote in a 1959 essay, "our need for concreteness, for particulars, is even greater." And that is why he thought by telling stories.
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In his letters, too. "When people ask me how I am, I am always inclined to answer like a Roman I once saw knocked down by a Vespa. When people ran toward him to ask how he was, he said, 'I was better before.'" But the greatest story here is just the life itself, unfolding haphazardly but finding its own echoes and ironies, its dramas and denouements. We feel the racing excitement as the author gets another novel up to speed. ("I'm writing a book, growing a new life the way newts grow tails.") We weigh the ratios of vulnerability, manipulation, love and wounded pride in his letters to his sons. We follow subplots as they arch across the decades—most strikingly, the one that starts right off the bat. Bellow is 17 and denouncing, with high self-consciousness and full Russian flourishes, the girl who has refused him for another. "Some day when I am in my dotage," he concludes, "and you are many chinned and obese we may be reconciled." They must have been, for 64 impossible years and 500-plus pages later, we read the remembrance that Bellow composed for her memorial service.
Most compelling is the author's converse with his fellow writers. Beyond the letters, there are beautiful elegies here for Malamud ("We were cats of the same breed"), Warren ("a great-souled man") and Ellison ("It took great courage...to insist as Ralph did on the priority of art and the independence of the artist"). There is a series of marvelously pithy letters to the Guggenheim Foundation in support of younger authors: James Baldwin, Grace Paley, Louise Glück. And there is a whole raft of sympathetic but exacting critiques: to Malamud on God's Grace, to William Kennedy on Ironweed, to Cynthia Ozick on The Messiah of Stockholm, to Martin Amis on The Information, to Philip Roth on I Married a Communist.
Toward younger writers his generosity was unfeigned and unstinting. "I knew when I hit Chicago...and read your stories," he writes to Roth, "that you were the real thing. When I was a little kid, there were still blacksmiths around, and I've never forgotten the ring of a real hammer on a real anvil." In our age of diminishing expectations for culture and the novel, his example has the power to inspire yet new generations still: his work, for the scope of its ambition; his letters, for the devotion that they unapologetically proclaim. "The name of the game is not Social Security. What an error! Social Security is an entirely different game. The name of the game is Give All."