In Saul Bellow’s published letters he aims a few short jabs at Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, et al:
One of the things that was clear to me when I went to Paris on a Guggenheim grant [in 1948] was that Les Temps modernes understood less about Marxism and left-wing politics than I had understood as a high-school boy.
This sort of remark might be read — too hurriedly — as the familiar boast of the right-wing apostate, eager to promote himself as an ‘authority’ on the renounced creed.
After all, Bellow regularly enough mixed petty egoism with toxic politics. In 1998 he delivered Philip Roth a dreary epistolary lecture, upbraiding the author of I Married a Communist for excessive indulgence towards his main character, a blacklisted actor whose wife had denounced him to the HUAC.
Yet the sentence quoted above is uncharacteristically unadorned and shorn of self-importance. Bellow’s claim was simply true.
At Chicago’s Tuley High School, during the early 1930s, he was close friends with Yetta Barshevsky, who eventually married Max Shachtman. He later joined the Socialist Workers Party, before leaving in the 1940 split following the Red Army’s invasion of Finland.
With Shachtman, James Burnham, C.L.R. James and Dwight Macdonald, Bellow helped form the third-campist Workers Party. As with Burnham, re-evaluation of the Soviet Union led swiftly to (or was the pretext for) Bellow’s abandonment of socialism altogether, and to his blossoming affection for the status quo: visits to the White House, funds from the Olin Foundation, etc. (‘Look at me, going everywhere!’)
Most of the other splitters eventually followed the same rightward trajectory.
All this left its mark on Bellow’s subsequent literary work, about which Harold Bloom’s assessment bears repeating: he was ‘an immensely wasted talent’ who offered easy pleasures without making ‘things difficult enough for himself or for us’.
Bellow himself aspired, so he said repeatedly, to the weightiness of Dickens, Balzac, Theodore Dreiser, the nineteenth-century Russians and Walt Whitman. And twentieth-century Chicago presented him with material of astonishing drama and historical significance, comparable to that of Dickens and Mayhew’s London.
To be sure, Bellow’s stories do capture, like few others, the abundance and tumult of the sprawling metropolis. The dog turds, the sooty facades, the smell of mud and decay — the descriptive power of his style is overwhelming. The raptures stirred in his characters by ‘massive, clumsy, amorphous’ Chicago derive, so his narrators say, from the city’s ‘absence of a formative power’.
This lack of order is meant to be life itself, in all its ‘idiot joy’, ‘all the confusion and degraded clowning of this life through which we are speeding’, devoid of solidity, coherence and intelligibility.
Emotionally, too, Bellow’s output might seem to capture the entire range of experience. It is characterized by abrupt mood swings: exuberant amor fati in one novel alternates with cantankerous misanthropy in the next.
But his high and low moods are more than a little self-willed and self-exhorting: the language getting carried away with itself and generating the content, which then provides excuse enough for the style. (Hence the common remark that Bellow makes an ‘ethic’ or a ‘metaphysical principle’ of close perception).
Augie March’s postwar song of himself (1953) heralded, like Whitman’s ebullience one century earlier, a moment of economic upswing and national self-assertion. But, rather than the delirious immersion announced by his predecessor (‘myself disintegrated, every one disintegrated, yet part of the scheme’), Bellow’s swollen individuality followed the renunciation of youthful commitments and marked a retreat inward, away from engagement with the external world.
Roth himself pointed out this ‘spurning of our world’ in Commentary in 1960. Speaking of Bellow’s ‘bouncy’ prose style, the ‘self-conscious language making’, the display of ‘stamina or good spirits’:
The writer pushes before our eyes—it is in the very ordering of our sentences—personality, in all its separateness and specialness. Of course the mystery of personality is nothing less than the writer’s ultimate concern; and certainly when the muscular prose is revelatory of character—as in Augie March—then it is to be appreciated; at its worst, however, as a form of literary onanism, it seriously curtails the fictional possibilities, and may perhaps be thought of, and sympathetically so, as a symptom of the writer’s loss of the community as subject…
[If] the world is as crooked and unreal as I think it is becoming, day by day; if one feels less and less power in the face of this unreality, day by day; if the inevitable end is destruction, if not of all life, then of much that is valuable and civilized in life—then why in God’s name is the writer pleased?
Bellow’s exuberance and descriptive mania thus strive to fill some kind of gap. They provide ornamental compensation for meagreness elsewhere (in narrative, among other things) and distract from domains of reality that are missing (as Bloom says, most types of person and varieties of human relationship are absent from Bellow).
Beneath all the bustle and noise sits intellectual swampland: first, Dostoevksian piety and abjection, to which generations of remorseful literary ex-revolutionaries have inevitably turned. Later there is Rudolf Steiner’s anthroposophy, against whose appeal Andrei Bely stood already as a cautionary example.
Thus Fredric Jameson described ‘the anti-hero of the sad sack, Saul Bellow type… a kind of self-pitying vision of alienation’, as the latter was designated formulaically in ‘middlebrow media acceptation’ of the 1950s and 1960s.
There is something contrived and decorative, too, in Bellow’s funny, critically vaunted fusion of low slang, on the one hand, with displays of erudition and allusive hyper-intellectualism, on the other. Praised as both ethnolect and comprehensive, style-shifting survey of high and popular varieties in US culture, Bellow’s linguistic merger is in fact an instance of the relaxed postwar synthesis (‘the highbrows and the lowbrows have intermarried’) that Harry Levin complained about in 1960.
While executed spectacularly, it must nonetheless be judged as one more eclectic composite among countless postmodern hybrids. The style, presented for admiration and enjoyment, neither corresponds to nor unveils anything given in reality. But it (along with the Steiner) does reliably produce its own themes, e.g. that Herzog and Artur Sammler should lighten up and stop being such pedantic bookworms.
Bellow’s style of course conveys something of the lives and mimic the multiple registers used by the striving sons of émigrés from Galician shtetls. But its true purpose, plainly, was ornamental, displaying its author’s mastery and breadth of knowledge, to wow readers who then bathed indulgently in the virtuosity. (Bellow’s self-impressed work then licensed much worse from subsequent generations of US novelists, who continue to give us brilliant new Herzogs with pseudonyms like Hal Incandenza.)
As Roth put it: ‘Look at me, I’m writing.’
Having deliberately deprived the Bellovian city of form, order or meaning (another period preoccupation), its creator could craft from it little that would compare to the efforts of his literary heroes. In a brief programmatic essay, he describes ‘the very special debt to truth’ acknowledged by the ‘greatest of the realists.’ This obligation, he says, demands that the writer be ‘reliable about the lower ranges of fact’ — ‘the details of labor in Walt Whitman, the knowledge of navigation in Mark Twain’ — while also being accurate about ‘the arrangements that shape our destiny.’
How did Bellow do on this second criterion?
In the real world, from the midpoint of Bellow’s career Chicago’s urban core (and that of Detroit, Newark and other riot-struck industrial cities) began to be hollowed out, its schools ruined, its phone booths smashed, its small proprietors driven away or made extinct, its pavements become cracked and dirty, its people forced to endure decades of stagnant real wages, even while enormous fortunes blossomed for a tiny few.
Much of the population was cast to the social winds, intellectually disfigured and spiritually demoralized, while a semi-criminal lumpenproletariat thrived: ‘specialists in every sort of prostitution, male or female, adult or minor. Here one sees junkies, alcoholics, derelicts. Here assaults, knifings, and shootings occur. Wilson Avenue, bad even in the thirties, is now, fifty years later, a disaster area.’
Bellow describes all this with the appropriate sense of loss. How did this grandiose former ‘home of the steel mills and the stockyards’ become a ‘shattered city struggling to survive’?
I drive through the old Chicago neighborhoods. They weren’t much to look at in their best days; but was it necessary to smash, strip, board up, burn, or raze so many of them? Was this demolition a judgment on their petty-bourgeois ugliness? When you turn your head, you see the sparkling skyscrapers of the new Chicago which have risen in the Loop. From the seventieth floor of the Hancock Building or of the Sears Tower, the fields of rubble in the middle distance form part of the privileged executive’s view. He doesn’t have to look at the minute particulars of the middle distance. He can fix his gaze on the horizon. At the rim of the city residential areas are still standing, but no one can predict how long they will last. Yes, in in the twenties these streets through which I drive were dull, and in the thirties they were depressed and grim, but it was not because they were dull that they were forsaken, boarded, burned, or bulldozed. In less than a century some force – we may call it for convenience the world-historical spirit – raised up a giant city and then scraped most of it away. Fifty years ago we all thought it would endure forever.
Immigrant Chicago of the nineties, square, wooden, and upright, rotted away – no more industrial villages strung together, but a core of skyscrapers, a “magnificent mile” where retailers gross billions; beyond this a wasteland; then a slum horror; then a region of precarious stability – Greek, Italian, Scandinavian, Irish; and finally the suburbs…
Chicago stood for something in the twenties and thirties. That something was not entirely good, but it was distinctive. What is there to distinguish it now? Many economists agree that the American balance has shifted, the South and West have made progress, the Northeast and the Midwest are declining, and now Chicago is part of the disorder of the country. It stagnates, rots. The chief justice of the Supreme Court declares that urban America is in the hands of its own terrorists. When America does a Third World number, it does it with a vengeance.
In the streets, an armed population. In flats and houses, the unarmed with their newspapers, magazines, radios, television sets…
Chicago is, in its own way, a battlefield. So at least it seems to me.
On the benches where garment workers and carpenters [once] read Ibsen you now find drug pushers and adolescents who belong to street gangs. There is a large narcotics market on Rockwell Street. Porsches and Jaguars from the suburbs pull up here for heroin and cocaine.
In these backstreets where an occasional wife-beating once scandalized the neighbors and brought out the cops, muggings, rapes, stabbings, and shootings happen daily. There are still relatively safe enclaves in the city looking much as they did in the old days – wide, clumsy, lumpy streets, brick bungalows, cottonwoods, geraniums which seem to have been cranked up from the soil; but these Irish, Polish, Scandinavian enclaves are not at peace, they are in a state of siege. In the brick bungalows there are guns in the closets, cans of mace under the beds, doors and windows wired with alarm systems.
Chicago’s white population is declining. The black middle class is also trying to escape to the suburbs. Factories are pulling out.
Bellow notes ‘the tragic impotency of a civilization challenged by a phenomenon like the city of Chicago, its failure to build anything behind its gorgeous façade, to educate, to keep order, or to attach its population to life.’
Such remarks echo those of his memorable protagonist Artur Sammler, who sees in urban decline, as in the Nazi Judeocide, a challenge to civilization itself:
Like many people who had seen the world collapse once, Mr. Sammler entertained the possibility it might collapse twice. He did not agree with refugee friends that this doom was inevitable, but liberal beliefs did not seem capable of self-defense, and you could smell decay. You could see the suicidal impulses of civilization pushing strongly. You wondered whether this Western culture could survive universal dissemination—whether only its science and technology or administrative practices would travel, be adopted by other societies. Or whether the worst enemies of civilization might not prove to be its petted intellectuals who attacked it at its weakest moments—attacked it in the name of proletarian revolution, in the name of reason, and in the name of irrationality, in the name of visceral depth, in the name of sex, in the name of perfect instantaneous freedom. For what it amounted to was limitless demand—insatiability, refusal of the doomed creature (death being sure and final) to go away from this earth unsatisfied. A full bill of demand and complaint was therefore presented by each individual. Nonnegotiable. Recognizing no scarcity of supply in any human department. Enlightenment? Marvelous! But out of hand, wasn’t it?
Thus disaster is said by Sammler to have arisen because ‘the children of bourgeois civilization’ demanded the impossible: ’the privileges, and the free ways of barbarism, under the protection of civilized order, property rights, refined technological organization, and so on.’
Of course the ‘Polish-Oxonian’ Sammler is a parody of the austere, uncomprehending central European exiled in coarse North America (an Adorno-like figure, terrified of student radicals and their ‘confused sex-excrement-militancy, explosiveness, abusiveness, tooth-showing, Barbary ape howling… arrested in the stage of toilet training… Who had raised the diaper flag? Who had made shit a sacrament?’).
But with this character (in what its author confessed ‘isn’t even a novel’ but ‘a dramatic essay of sorts, wrung from me by the crazy Sixties’), and in his late fiction, Bellows gives indulgent voice to something that tempted him throughout his work.
Sammler, on Bellow’s behalf, asserts the popular postmodern idea, a conservative notion both trivial and ancient, that order is something draped deceptively over primordial chaos. Morality is a shallow gloss applied to the surface of the barbaric human animal by ‘civilization’ (or Hobbes’s Leviathan), and nature is intrinsically without categories — is something (according to Nietzsche) ‘changeable and untamed and in everything a woman, and no virtuous one’.
This is a shallow notion and Bellow surely wouldn’t have devoted so much attention to it if he wasn’t, bafflingly, attracted by it. Being human, Sammler concludes, is ‘not a natural gift at all. Only the capacity is natural.’
And both meaning and order aren’t qualities intrinsic to things themselves — history, the city, society or humanity — but are merely applied to them from outside.
Sammler warns repeatedly against the urge to comprehend things:
You had to be a crank to insist on being right. Being right was largely a matter of explanations. Intellectual man had become an explaining creature. Fathers to children, wives to husbands, lecturers to listeners, experts to laymen, colleagues to colleagues, doctors to patients, man to his own soul, explained. The roots of this, the causes of the other, the source of events, the history, the structure, the reasons why. For the most part, in one ear out the other. The soul wanted what it wanted. It had its own natural knowledge. It sat unhappily on superstructures of explanation, poor bird, not knowing which way to fly.
In other words, Bellow here forswears investigation of those ‘arrangements that shape our destiny.’ Understanding is renounced.
In the late fiction, the author’s imaginative sympathy and analytic eye are swallowed up by his apparent real-life adherence to Reagan conservativism and hostility to ‘welfare dependency’:
My own opinion [this is Bellow speaking in his own voice] is that American confidence in education and progress went wrong somehow when the country made a giant effort to improve and to assist and lift up and to educate, and when, under the New Deal, the New Frontier and, later, Johnson’s Great Society programs, hundreds of billions were spent on liberal programs. The efforts of the government gave the country a sense that all the problems were manageable, that its troubles were being handled by experts, and that solutions could be bought and paid for. Washington was being moral for us.
With just a bit of novelistic attention, Bellow might have noted that the proximity of ‘the opulent sections of the city’ (downtown Chicago and his university district) to low-income ‘inner-city wastelands’, inhabited mostly by African Americas, made the real estate in the latter neighbourhoods extremely valuable.
Dreiser, for example, surely would have realized that the social and physical deterioration of places like Cabrini-Green involved deliberate planning by the local elite (developers, bankers and Democrat city administrators playing the role of Hegel’s Weltgeist).
Public housing was being allowed to rot and become a den of misery and criminality, so that federal housing authorities could take over, the buildings safely be demolished, the residents moved on and the locality be profitably gentrified — as indeed occurred under Bill Clinton during the 1990s.
‘A phenomenon like the society of Chicago’ was indeed subject to a ‘formative power’ — one more intelligible than Bellow, for political and artistic purposes, liked to suppose.