Bellow: the novelist as homespun philosopher
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, October 23, 2000)

James Atlas's Bellow: A Biography, a study of Canadian-born writer Saul Bellow, is published today. Critic and lifelong Bellow reader Robert Fulford assesses the importance and impact of Bellow's ideas.

For decades, Saul Bellow has played a unique role in literature, the novelist as freewheeling philosopher, unlicensed and unabashed. He and his characters are worriers, and what they worry about are the great questions of life and death. Bellow doesn't hesitate to revisit ground covered earlier by Plato, Rousseau, Machiavelli, and other heavyweights. And he never falters just because he can't resolve the big issues. His job is to raise them, and embody them in his fiction. He does this better than any other storyteller of his time.

He made his reputation as a seductive thinker by standing outside conventional wisdom. He obviously believes that when nearly everyone holds the same view, it's probably wrong. He refuses to travel with what Harold Rosenberg, the art critic, called "the herd of independent minds" -- the writers and commentators who see themselves as free spirits yet amazingly all end up with the same opinion.

Sometimes, Bellow's conclusions emerge as one-liners that hint at oceans of experience. Back in the days when "alienation" was a fashionable concept, he liked to say, "Alienation? Oh, let the other guy be alienated." That remark has since acquired a literary patina: In 1979, in The Ghost Writer, Philip Roth lifted it from Bellow's conversation and put it in the mouth of a character obviously based on him.

Bellow's point was that alienation, far from being an inescapable part of the modern human condition, as armies of Marxist thinkers argued, might be nothing more than a conceit of intellectuals. You could decline to be alienated, if you felt like it. You might decide not to take seriously the insistence of intellectuals that your work and your life lack meaning.

That was truly radical. Through most of the 20th century, the advanced literary world instructed us that life is as bleak as a poem by T.S. Eliot and as aimless as conversation in a Beckett play. This became dogma among intellectuals, and even Bellow may well have believed it when he wrote his first two novels, Dangling Man and The Victim. But around 1950, he dissented. He suggested that life might not be that dreary after all, and he identified social theory itself as a source of evil. Marxism, he decided, was doomed to put plans and principles ahead of humanity. In Mr. Sammler's Planet (1970), Artur Sammler's experience of Hitler and Stalin forces him to abandon his hope of applying scientific principles to building a beautiful society. He decides that the bureaucracy involved in such a program encourages dictatorship. In The Dean's December (1982), the hero tries to imagine some grand truth that will explain modern history's disasters. He, too, eventually realizes that all-encompassing theories of human life lack humanity. Constructing grand plans, he decides, avoids the truth of experience.

His way of thinking made Bellow into a critic of the theory-prone New York intellectuals who were among his teachers. Later, the energy behind the 1960s New Left appealed to many liberal intellectuals, but Bellow saw the young radicals as vicious clowns. Today, he sometimes makes common cause with neoconservatives but never embraces them. An economic theory based on decisions made by everyone out of enlightened self-interest just doesn't make sense to him. What evidence is there that the self-interest of most humans is enlightened?

Curiously, Bellow's complicated attempts to challenge literary fashion helped make him rich. Intellectual defiance was a major part of Herzog, the 1964 best-seller that brought him financial success at the age of 49. Was there ever a less likely money-maker? The crazy and Bellow-like hero, Moses Herzog, spends his time writing letters crammed with anger and high-flown language, mostly about the fate of the human spirit. He denounces "The canned sauerkraut of Spengler's [The Decline of the West], the commonplaces of [Eliot's] Wasteland outlook, the cheap mental stimulants of Alienation, the cant and rant of pip-squeaks about Inauthenticity and Forlornness. I can't accept this foolish dreariness. We are talking about the whole life of mankind ..."

Occasionally, Bellow himself has shown a weakness for fads. In the 1950s, Dr. Wilhelm Reich (1897-1957), a charismatic quack, preached a neo-Freudian theory that mental health depends on unfettered orgasm. A Reichian adherent would sit for hours each day in an Accumulator, or orgone box, which looked like an old-fashioned phone booth. It was lined with zinc and insulated with steel wool, to collect "orgone energy." Bellow's Reichian analyst had him sit in the box for many hours, and sent him out in the woods to advance his cure by screaming his head off. In the end, Bellow decided the therapy did more harm than good.

Much later, he was attracted to another dubious set of ideas, the anthroposophy of Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925), the author of books such as The Occult Significance of Blood. Steiner's impenetrable theories showed up in Humboldt's Gift, prompting interviewers to ask whether this nonsense was meant satirically. Bellow was offended. Hell, no, he took Steiner seriously.

What he was looking for in Steiner was what certain American writers have sought since Ralph Waldo Emerson: transcendence, a glimpse of an existence beyond mundane experience. Emerson, Thoreau and the other New England transcendentalists were heirs to German idealist philosophy and to the writers of the Romantic era, notably Coleridge and Wordsworth. The transcendentalists in turn influenced Melville, Whitman -- and Bellow.

Bellow's characters dream of finding patterns behind a world that appears meaningless. This leads them in the general direction of religion, and though Bellow has never claimed to be conventionally religious, "soul" is among his favourite words. Accepting the Nobel Prize in 1976, he suggested readers everywhere were longing for a "more coherent, more comprehensive account of what we human beings are, and what this life is for." A characteristic of our time, he said, is that the individual must struggle against the forces of dehumanization "for the possession of his soul."

It's not clear what he means by "soul," but there's no doubt he wants us to pay more attention to it. As Hillel Halkin pointed out in Commentary three years ago, Bellow seems to imagine that the human soul is in exile in the world. In Humboldt's Gift (1975), the doomed poet is possessed by the Platonic belief that souls came from an original world elsewhere, a home-world, now lost: "He spoke of our species as castaways," the narrator says. In The Dean's December, the hero has "taken it upon himself to pass Chicago through his own soul." Bellow sometimes has his characters refer to an original soul, the soul humans possess at birth.

It happens that at this moment, two Canadian-born American Jewish intellectuals stand among the great world figures in the arts: novelist Saul Bellow and architect Frank Gehry. This may be mainly coincidence, but the parallels between them, particularly in their intellectual lives, are worth noting. Among other similarities, they both left Canada for the United States at a young age and both remained known only to a relatively small public until their reputations blossomed in middle age.

But don't tell Bellow that similar origins shaped those two magnificent careers. That would violate his cherished belief that lives are not determined by circumstances. In 1984, when his home town of Lachine, Que., named its library after him, Bellow seized the opportunity to denounce the abhorrent idea, typical of the tired formulas produced by universities and journalism, that those born to poverty and ignorance likely will remain poor and ignorant. Don't believe it, he said. "Your mind and your spirit have their own liberty." Each individual should be loyal to that. And besides, "The human soul has its own way." The human soul is Bellow's true and explicit subject, which is one of several reasons why he's among the exceptional writers of the world.

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