“Our media make crisis chatter out of news and fill our minds with anxious phantoms of the real thing—a summit in Helsinki, a treaty in Egypt, a constitutional crisis in India, a vote in the UN, the financial collapse of New York. We can’t avoid being politicized (to use a word as murky as the condition it describes) because it is necessary after all to know what is going on. Worse yet, what is going on will not let us alone. Neither the facts nor the deformations, the insidious platitudes of the media (tormenting because the underlying realities are so huge and so terrible), can be screened out.”
These lines may sound like something written by a contemporary social commentator. In fact, they were published nearly fifty years ago by an American novelist. Against the backdrop of sacred land, recalling the dawn of recorded history, the battles that ensued, and those that persist, Saul Bellow’s To Jerusalem and Back: A Personal Account (1976), captures the crazed and violent dawning of the information age. With the same vitality that characterized his fiction, Bellow’s reportage, from the microcosm of the Holy Lands, offered an arresting glimpse of a world reeling toward collective chaos, baiting the individual to participate in a race—“to know what is going on”—it could not win.
Since the publication of The Life of Saul Bellow: From Fame to Fortune, 1915–1964, the first half of Zachary Leader’s remarkable biography, and the appearance of a new volume of Bellow’s collected nonfiction, There Is Simply Too Much to Think About, the race has only gotten faster. Both books hit the shelves in 2015. While the world may not have changed all that much in three years, by the publication last year of Leader’s second volume, The Life of Saul Bellow: Love and Strife, 1965–2005, readers could be forgiven for feeling as though they were living on a different (or at least more precarious) planet. America was two years into the public calamity of the Trump presidency, and the anti-Trump resistance circus; global warming appeared to be a growing threat of biblical proportion; global economic disparities continued to tip in favor of the ultrawealthy. One could go on. Around the world the far right and the far left were at war, mostly on Twitter and Facebook, though occasionally they met in city centers to see whose version of history was right; Google assumed more power than the CIA and NSA combined; privacy, as a fundamental aspect of the human experience, was disappearing; unjust wars were being fought like adolescent video games…. There was simply too much more to think about.
It’s all enough to make one long for Saul Bellow’s ruthless and artful clarity of vision. But one could also feel a measure of comfort that his passing in 2005 relieved him of observing, and describing, the countless absurdities and anxious phantoms that have emerged since his death.
Love and Strife is not a perfect book. But it is a good one that brings into focus Bellow’s maturing and masterful dance between the world of ideas and the world of their fictional objects. Leader’s achievement and contribution is one that gives readers space to encounter the intricate details of Bellow’s life, and how he went about carefully deploying that energy, step by step, day by day, failure by failure, and triumph by triumph, to the very end. The book also follows Bellow’s transition from living a life of tragic and destructive unforced errors to harnessing some of his demons and eventually finding love. “Transforming yourself”—as he wrote in a complimentary letter to John Cheever—is what being a writer was all about.
The transformation Leader recounts in this second volume coincides with the publication of some of Bellow’s most gripping, provocative, and successful works, from Mr. Sammler’s Planet (1969) to his final novel, Ravelstein (2000). Sammler won the National Book Award (Bellow’s second) in 1970. Humboldt’s Gift (1975) followed, winning the Pulitzer Prize. In 1976 Bellow won the Nobel Prize, and in Stockholm gave a speech that was hardly ready for delivery. As Leader recounts, Bellow’s progress on his address was hindered by the bustle of what the novelist described as a “family circus,” which included his youngest son, Daniel (twelve at the time), getting drunk at a party the evening before the ceremony.
Despite the chaos surrounding its writing, Bellow’s Nobel lecture was the manifesto of a great literary life. Marking the “separation between the great artists and the general public,” Bellow witnessed how both academic and commercial culture were trafficking in the currency of abstraction, inviting individuals to construct false, incoherent, and reptilian senses of self, devoid of spirit and fully prepared to receive the vulgarity of mass society. “We do not think well of ourselves; we do not think amply about what we are. Our collective achievements have so greatly ‘exceeded’ us that we ‘justify’ ourselves by pointing to them.” Against such resignations and dehumanizing visions, Bellow argued that “we are much more limber, better articulated, there is much more to us—we all feel it.”
To feel and give voice to the more of our humanity was Bellow’s vocation. It was not a calling without risk, or conflict, and there was no guarantee of comfort. There was only the task of describing the central features, experiences, and expressions of the human condition. In Stockholm he asked, “What is at the center now? At the moment, neither art nor science but mankind determining, in confusion and obscurity, whether it will endure or go under.” For Bellow, endurance would require the discovery and preservation of what he called the “quiet zone,” where the very tangible aspirations, realities, and mysteries of the soul could take refuge: “When complications increase, the desire for essentials increases too...for certain durable human goods—truth, for instance; freedom; wisdom.”
In the years to come, Bellow’s personal preservation of the quiet zone would find him swimming against the current of high theory in literary criticism, and an increasingly polarized political discourse. Despite the fact that Bellow spent his whole life under the specter of anti-Semitism, and that there was hardly a more capable and comically attuned critic of Protestant American culture, he was categorized as just another beneficiary of white privilege. Because he didn’t subscribe to first-wave identity politics, he was deemed a backward conservative. As Philip Roth once said, on publication of one of Bellow’s later novels, “You look the worst right in the face and will take much shit as a result.” In response, Bellow wrote, “I discovered some time ago that there was nothing to stop me from saying exactly what I thought.”
Take his graphic description of a black man exposing himself in Mr. Sammler’s Planet. The bizarre and curious moment is matched by Arthur Sammler’s response, reinforcing caricatures and stereotypes. For this, Bellow has been smugly deemed a racist. But the fictional frame of reference Bellow created was one of limited vision: literally, of half-sight. Arthur Sammler has only one eye. That disability, along with Sammler’s age, his sexual insecurities, his survival of the Holocaust, and America’s grotesque racial history, makes one wonder if Bellow is trying to show us how the batterings we receive in this world can make it hard to see the whole truth.
Whatever the case may be, there will be those who insist on Bellow’s repulsiveness, clinging to half-truths, unseemly phrases in private letters, interview responses taken out of context, or moral imperfections. Christ’s rebuke of the Pharisees eager to stone the sinful may feel of little help today, living in a culture where the act of hurling stones—in cyber and public space—is the spiritual discipline by which we are relieved of our moral impurities. In a cosmic reversal of grace and sacrifice, it is by scapegoating and ostracism that we once again publicly secure our salvation. As Bellow wrote in his novella The Actual (1998), “Shared stupidity is an important force when it is presented in the language of independence or emancipation.” The language of independence and emancipation is one thing; its realization, quite another.
It was the actualization of that reality that Bellow sought to the very end, fending off critical dismissals and what he called “TV-tested” propaganda, always in pursuit of the quiet zone. As Leader recounts, during his time reporting in Jerusalem, Bellow met with Amos Oz. The two great novelists covered everything from their respective literary sensibilities to the state of the Hebrew language to mortality. Of the latter, Oz told Bellow he hoped one day to die peacefully in his sleep. As Oz recalled, “Saul responded by saying that, on the contrary, he would like to die wide awake and fully conscious, because death is such a crucial experience he wouldn’t want to miss it.” In the noise, confusion, and obscurity of contemporary life, it remains to be seen if our culture still has the stomach to search for the quiet zone, and bring Saul Bellow with us to gain a deeper appreciation of what it means to be truly wide awake.