|SAUL BELLOW DIED yesterday at the age of 89. He was one of the few
remaining literary modernists. His last published novel was the 2000
Ravelstein, a thinly disguised portrait of his life-long friend, U. of
Chicago colleague and fellow neoconservative Alan Bloom. Both Bellow and
Bloom hated the 1960s in general and Black militancy in particular. Bloom
wrote "Closing of the American Mind" which likened 60s radicals to Nazi
brownshirts. In this assault on social movements, Bloom remained curiously
silent on gay liberation. That was likely because Bloom was gay himself. He
died of AIDS in 1992.
Bellow shared Bloom's contempt for cultural diversity. They were defiantly
opposed to "watering down" the curriculum with works foreign to the Great
Books/Western Civilization chapel. Bellow once wrote, "Who is the Tolstoy
of the Zulus? The Proust of the Papuans?"
Ironically, Christopher Hitchens, who is now running tours of Merrie Olde
England in the spirit of Bloom/Bellow with David Horowitz and Paul Johnson,
had these people nailed once upon a time. In an April 27, 2000 LRB review
of Ravelstein, Christopher Hitchens wrote:
"Chaos, most especially the chaos identified with pissed-off African
Americans, was the whole motif of The Closing of the American Mind. Bloom
had taught at Cornell during the campus upheaval of 1968, and never
recovered from the moment when black students produced guns to amplify
their demands. (He also never reconciled himself to the ghastly fondness of
the young for rock music. 'Whether it be Nuremberg or Woodstock,' he wrote
in a passage of extreme dyspepsia comparing everybody to the Brownshirts,
'the principle is the same.') However, there was hope. A small group of
classics students copied out and xeroxed a passage against ochlocracy from
Plato's Republic and passed it out as a leaflet. Bloom sounds just like
Bellow when he recalls this moment: 'They had learned from this old book
what was going on and had gained real distance on it.'"
Despite his resentment at being viewed in this fashion, Saul Bellow was
habitually grouped with fellow Jewish-American novelists Philip Roth and
Bernard Malamud. All three had a talent for picaresque tale-telling and
vivid characters, often gripped by one neurosis or another. Bellow
subjected himself to psychoanalysis on three different occasions and even
sat in an orgone box for a time.
I regard "Herzog" as his crowning achievement. This is a novel about a
character like Bellow. After being cuckolded, Moses Herzog goes to live in
a cabin in the woods where he writes long, philosophical letters to God and
famous personages living and dead but that are never sent. As a long-time
writer of such letters on the Internet, I feel a certain kinship with
Herzog, although my efforts probably have more to do with Lazlo Toth.
Like any other reactionary author, Bellow's work has to be judged solely on
literary merit. As such, "Herzog" would be sufficient grounds for awarding
Bellow the Nobel Prize. In 1980, a year after I dropped out of the
Trotskyist movement, I read this novel and a number of other classics in
order to familiarize myself with novel-writing techniques. I had plans--you
see--of writing the Great American Novel. After reading "Herzog," I decided
to get back into politics because there just didn't seem to be any point in
trying to accomplish something in a field that was so totally dominated by
superior talents. There is one scene in particular in "Herzog" that made me
feel like I was woefully inadequate. In a visit to one of his new
girl-friends, Herzog spends a moment or two in her bathroom performing his
ablutions. Bellow takes this opportunity to describe the woman's character
through the objects in the bathroom and how they are organized. It is a
bravura performance. After reading this passage, I confessed to myself that
I could never write like this in a million years.
After reading "Herzog," I became a fan of Bellow despite his politics. My
loyalty was put to the test when I read "Mr. Sammler's Planet," a work
about a holocaust survivor on Manhattan's Upper West Side that exhibits in
full bloom (pun intended) his growing animosity toward Blacks and
resentment toward young radicals. Although Sammler is treated with a
certain amount of disdain by Bellow, he becomes a vehicle for a lot of the
racism and reactionary politics brewing inside the author. This is a
favored device of novelists shifting to the right: using fictional
characters as a sounding board for their new ideas. By introducing an
openly reactionary character, the novelist is free to state that this is
"not really me, just a character". This is a ploy used by Ian McEwan, whose
latest novel "Saturday" features the stream of consciousness of a
neurosurgeon alienated by protestors against the war in Iraq.
One of the most repellent (and unbelievable) scenes in "Mr. Sammler's
Planet" involves Sammler and an immaculately dressed African-American
pickpocket who exposes himself while robbing the old man. It not only
stretches credulity. It breaks it into a thousand pieces.
In a fascinating April 10, 1993 Guardian article titled "Marx At My Table,"
Saul Bellow describes his political evolution. After arriving in Chicago
from Canada, Bellow describes his rapid politicization in the 1930s.
The article concludes with Bellow's confession that "politics as a vocation
I take seriously. But it's not my vocation. And on the whole writers are
not much good at it." I think that we can all agree on this.