“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.