Atlantic Archive Fiction Issue 2005

Saul Bellow on Moralism

In 1963 the novelist Saul Bellow warned against the temptation to weigh down a work of art with gratuitous negativity or heavy-handed moralism.

We have recently been told by Leslie Fiedler that it is the responsibility of novelists to be in the opposition, to say no, always no, no in accents of thunder. Mr. Fiedler reminds us that the negative tradition in literature, the tradition of prophetic denunciation, claims our loyalty ...

Literature may show, as some have argued, that from Sophocles to Shakespeare and from Shakespeare to Tolstoy the greatest geniuses have cursed life. But the fact that a writer similarly curses it proves absolutely nothing. The deliberate choices of writers in such matters can never be interesting. We have had our bellyful of a species of wretchedness which is thoroughly pleased with itself. In France the wretched angry fulminating hero has come to be as common in bookshops as choucroute garnie in restaurants—despairing sauerkraut, a side dish to the knackwurst of middle-class Prometheanism. Really, it's about time everyone recognized that romantic despair in this form, naggingly conscious of the absurd, is absurdly portentous, not metaphysically "absurd." There is grandeur in cursing the heavens, but when we curse our socks we should not expect to be taken seriously ...

It apparently makes no difference what the artist should decide about his commitment, whether he considers himself a moralist or a purely objective artist. The writer in any case finds that he bears the burdens of priest or teacher. Sometimes he looks like the most grotesque of priests, the most eccentric of teachers, but I believe the moral function cannot be divorced from art. This means that the artist had better not strain so to be didactic.

To look for elaborate commitments is therefore vain. Commitments are far more rudimentary than any "position" or intellectual attitude might imply. I should like to suggest that commitment in a novel may be measured by its power to absorb us, by the energy it contains. A book which is lacking in power cannot be moral. Dullness is worse than obscenity. A dull book is wicked. It may intend to be as good as gold, as nice as pie, as sweet as can be, but if it is banal and boring, it is evil ...

An art which is to be strong cannot be based on opinions. Opinions can be accepted, questioned, dismissed. A work of art can't be questioned or dismissed.

"The Writer as Moralist," by Saul Bellow, March 1963

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