The Great Assimilator

Saul Bellow’s genius lay in combining the high and the low, the reflective and the active, the ivory tower and the ghetto.

Look first upon this picture,

and on this …

the two photographs of Saul Bellow that adorn the initial covers of the Library of America edition of his collected works. In the first, we see a somewhat rakish fellow, sharply dressed and evidently fizzing with moxie, who meets the world with a cool and level gaze that belies the slight impression of a pool shark or racetrack con artist. In the second, and in profile, we get a survey of a sage in a more reflective pose; but this is a sage who still might utter a well-chosen wisecrack out of the side of his mouth. The antique history of the shtetl and the ghetto is inscribed in both studies of the man, but some considerable mental and physical distance has evidently been traveled in each case.

At Bellow’s memorial meeting, held in the Young Men’s Hebrew Association at Lexington Avenue and 92nd Street two years ago, the main speakers were Ian McEwan, Jeffrey Eugenides, Martin Amis, William Kennedy, and James Wood (now the editor of this finely produced collection). Had it not been for an especially vapid speech by some forgettable rabbi, the platform would have been exclusively composed of non-Jews, many of them non-American. How had Bellow managed to exert such an effect on writers almost half his age, from another tradition and another continent? Putting this question to the speakers later on, I received two particularly memorable responses. Ian Mc­Ewan related his impression that Bellow, alone among American writers of his generation, had seemed to assimilate the whole European classical inheritance. And Martin Amis vividly remembered something Bellow had once said to him, which is that if you are born in the ghetto, the very conditions compel you to look skyward, and thus to hunger for the universal.

In The Victim, the Jewish son of an anti-gentile and ghetto-mentality storekeeper is being given a hard time by an insecure and alcoholic WASP. “I’m a fine one to be talking about tradition, you must be saying,” admits the latter:

“But still I was born into it. And try to imagine how New York affects me. Isn’t it preposterous? It’s really as if the children of Caliban were running everything. You go down in the subway and Caliban gives you two nickels for your dime. You go home and he has a candy store in the street where you were born. The old breeds are out. The streets are named after them. But what are they themselves? Just remnants.”

“I see how it is; you’re actually an aristocrat,” said Leventhal.

“It may not strike you as it struck me,” said Allbee. “But I go into the library once in a while, to look around, and last week I saw a book about Thoreau and Emerson by a man named Lipschitz …”

“What of it?”

“A name like that?” Allbee said this with great earnestness. “After all, it seems to me that people of such background simply couldn’t understand …”

Remember that when Bellow was growing up, Lionel Trilling could be sacked from a teaching post at Columbia on the grounds that a Jew could not really appreciate English literature. Recall also the exquisite pain with which Henry James, in The American Scene in 1907, had registered “the whole hard glitter of Israel” on New York’s Lower East Side, and especially the way in which Yiddish-speaking authors operated the “torture-rooms of the living idiom.” Bellow in his time was to translate Isaac Bashevis Singer into English (and “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” into Yiddish), but it mattered to him that the ghetto be transcended and that he, too, could sing America. The various means of this assertion included pyrotechnic versatility with English, a ferocious assimilation of learning, and an emphasis on the man of action as well as the man of reflection.

If you reread Bellow’s fiction in this light, you will, I think, be sure to find these considerations recurring to you. As early as the text of Dangling Man, there are fairly effortless references to Goethe, Diderot, Alexander the Great, Measure for Measure, Machiavelli, Berkeley, Dr. Johnson, Joyce, Marx, and Baudelaire. The novel contains, in parallel, a replication of Bellow’s own life experience as a slum kid, as an illegal immigrant from Quebec, and as an aspirant member of the United States armed forces. A much later short story—“Something to Remember Me By—sees a young Jewish boy being rolled by a whore and saved by the sordid denizens of a Chicago speakeasy, but depicts the kid as distressed most of all by the loss of a torn book that he had bought for a nickel. All around him are people who have become coarsened and street-smart, but this variety of common “wisdom” is to be despised as too cheaply bought.

When I think of Bellow, I think not just of a man whose genius for the vernacular could seem to restate Athenian philosophy as if run through a Damon Runyon synthesizer, but of the author who came up with such graphic expressions for vulgarity and thuggery and stupidity—the debased currency of those too brutalized to have retained the capacity for wonder. “A goon’s rodeo” is Augie March’s description of a saturnalia of the mindless. “The moronic inferno”—apparently an- nexed from Wyndham Lewis—is the phrasing that occurs in Humboldt’s Gift. “Moral buggery” is the crisp summary of New York values in Dangling Man. Best of all, in a confrontation between a thoughtful person and an uncivilized one that also occurs in Humboldt’s Gift, is the dawning recognition that the latter belongs to the “mental rabble of the wised-up world.” The narrator of Dangling Man states it shortly:

Most serious matters are closed to the hard-boiled. They are unpracticed in introspection, and therefore badly equipped to deal with opponents whom they cannot shoot like big game or outdo in daring … The hard-boiled are compensated for their silence: they fly planes or fight bulls or catch tarpon, whereas I rarely leave my room.

Yet Bellow by no means dismisses the Hemingway style as easily as that. Sever­al of his heroes and protagonists—including the thick-necked Henderson, his only non-Jewish central character—rise above the sickly and the merely bookish. They tackle lions and, in the case of Augie March, a truly fearsome eagle. They mix it up with revolutionaries and bandits and hard-core criminals. Commenting on Socrates’ famous dictum about the worthlessness of the unexamined life, the late Kurt Vonnegut once inquired: “What if the examined life turns out to be a clunker as well?” Bellow would have seen, and indeed did see, the force of this question. Like Lambert Strether’s in The Ambassadors, his provisional answer seems to have been: “Live all you can; it’s a mistake not to.” And the tough-guy Henderson, so gross and physical and intrepid (and so inarticulate when he speaks, yet so full of reflective capacity when he thinks), cannot repress his wonder when flying: He keeps pointing out that his is the first generation to have seen the clouds from above as well as below:

“What a privilege! First people dreamed upward. Now they dream both upward and downward. This is bound to change something, somewhere.”

Erich Fromm once gave a course at the New School on “the struggle against pointlessness,” and one wonders whether Bellow heard of, or took, this class. Pervasive in his work is a sense of the awful trap posed by aimlessness and its cousins, impotence and the death wish. In Dangling Man, the narrator hears of a college friend’s death in the war and diagnoses it as an indirect act of will:

I always suspected of him that he had in some fashion discovered there were some ways in which to be human was to be unutterably dismal, and that all his life was given over to avoiding those ways.

Whereas in The Adventures of Augie March, the hero signs up for the same combat and, reflecting on what it does for his sex life, asks, “What use was war without also love?” Yiddishism or no Yiddishism, this must count as one of the most affirmative and masculine sentences ever set down.

Against pointlessness and futility, Bellow strove to counterpose what Augie calls “the universal eligibility to be noble”—the battle to overcome not just ghetto conditions but also ghetto psychoses. Such yearning ambition, as Bellow knew, can be a torment to those who are not innately noble to begin with. Even Wilhelm, the desperate and perspiring arriviste in Seize the Day, has a touch of higher aspiration amid his death-of-a-salesman panics, and he finds snatches of English lyric poetry coming back to him at improbable moments. And Allbee, the drunken anti-Semite in The Victim, the man who says that “evil is as real as sunshine,” chooses to speak loftily about his “honor” when he comes to oppress and exhaust Asa Leventhal. In all this, the great precursor is the strongly drawn King Dahfu in Henderson the Rain King, who makes splendid use of his secondhand English when addressing his massive and worried American guest as follows:

“Yet you are right for the long run, and good exchanged for evil truly is the answer. I also subscribe, but it appears a long way off, for the human species as a whole. Perhaps I am not the one to make a prediction, Sungo, but I think the noble will have its turn in the world.”

Perhaps the best illustration of nobility that Bellow offers is Augie March’s brief glimpse of Trotsky in Mexico, from which he receives a strong impression of “deep-water greatness” and an ability to steer by the brightest stars. Bellow himself had arrived in Mexico in 1940, just too late to see Trotsky, who had been murdered by a hireling assassin the morning they were meant to meet. Like Henderson, Trotsky was a man upon whom life had “decided to use strong measures.” The founder of the Red Army was also the author of Literature and Revolution and a co-author of Manifesto for an Independent Revolutionary Art. In his own person he united the Jew, the cosmopolitan, the man of ideas, and the man of action. And the speed with which Bellow learned from the experience of Trotsky’s murder is a theme in several of his fictions. In Dangling Man, Joseph astonishes his friend Myron by the amount he can deduce from the simple fact that a former “comrade” will no longer speak to him in public. “Oh, Joseph,” exclaims Myron, as if reproving exaggeration; but Joseph isn’t merely piqued in the sense of personal offense:

“No, really, listen to me. Forbid one man to talk to another, forbid him to communicate with someone else, and you’ve forbidden him to think, because, as a great many writers will tell you, thought is a kind of communication. And his party doesn’t want him to think, but to follow its discipline. So there you are … When a man obeys an order like that he’s helping to abolish freedom and begin tyranny.”

This “insolence,” Joseph concluded, “figured the whole betrayal of an undertaking to which I had once devoted myself,” and who is to say that Bellow selected the wrong microcosm of trahison? From a detail of political etiquette, he could infer the incipient mentality of the totalitarian. His life as a public intellectual is sometimes held to have followed a familiar arc or trajectory: that from quasi-Trotskyist to full-blown “neocon,” and of course it is true that the earlier novels contain portraits of members of the Partisan Review group, from Delmore Schwartz to Dwight Macdonald, whereas the final novel, Ravelstein, features an affectionate portrayal of Allan Bloom (whose Closing of the American Mind Bellow had helped make into a best seller), and even of Paul Wolf­o­witz during the intra-Washington struggle over the Gulf War, in 1991.

But Bellow’s political evolution was by no means an uncomplicated or predictable one. He had been loosely associated with the dynamic ex-Trotskyist Max Schachtman (a man, incidentally, who is much more the founder of neoconservatism than Leo Strauss). Bellow’s first published short story, a fiercely polemical reply to Sinclair Lewis’s novel It Can’t Happen Here that was no less polemically titled “The Hell It Can’t,” was obviously written under the influence of the Trotskyist youth movement. As late as the 1990s, Bellow eulogized Schachtman’s widow, Yetta Barshevsky, recalling her fiery anti-Stalinism with affection. And until quite late in the day, his name appeared on the editorial masthead of Julius Jacobson’s New Politics, an essentially post-Schachtmanite journal of democratic socialism.

Of the single occasion when I met Bellow properly, Martin Amis has given a brilliantly scandalized account in his memoir, Experience. Actually, the evening wasn’t as rough as all that. Bellow read to us from some fascinating old correspondence with John Berryman. He recalled the occasion when he had been denied a job at Time magazine by no less a person than Whittaker Chambers for giving the wrong answer to a question about William Words­worth (the episode is loosely fictionalized in The Victim). When asked his opinion, Bellow had said that he thought of Words­worth as a Romantic poet, and then been rudely turned away. He wondered aloud what he ought to have said instead, and I daringly suggested that the answer was an easy one: Chambers wanted him to say that Words­worth was a former revolutionary and republican poet who saw the error of his ways and became a counterrevolutionary and a monarchist. This seemed to satisfy and amuse Bellow, who then wondered aloud what his writing life would have been like if he had secured that safe billet at Time.

So all was going fairly smoothly, except that on the reading table, like a revolver in a Chekhov play, there lay a loaded copy of Commentary. It soon became apparent that Bellow really had moved to the right, without losing his taste for Talmudic and trotski­sant dialectic, and that in his mind there was a strong connection between the decay of American cities and campuses, and wider questions of ideological promiscuity. I do not think I am wrong in guessing that he regarded the battle in the Middle East as something of an allegory of the distraught state of black-white (and black-Jewish) relations in his beloved Chicago. Anyone who has read his nonfiction work To Jerusalem and Back will be compelled to notice that the Arab inhabitants of the holy city are as nearly invisible and alien as their equivalents in Oran in Camus’ La Peste. At any event, we ended up having a strong disagreement about the Palestinians in general, and the work of Edward Said in particular. I have several times devoutly wished that we could have had this discussion again.

The thread in the labyrinth of Bellow’s politics has undoubtedly something to do with the “ghetto” also, and with a certain awkward possessiveness about the employment of that same pejorative. In a revealing moment in Ravelstein, the hero objects to the commonplace use of the term as customarily applied to black American life:

“Ghetto nothing!” Ravelstein said. “Ghetto Jews had highly developed feelings, civilized nerves—thousands of years of training. They had communities and laws. ‘Ghetto’ is an ignorant newspaper term. It’s not a ghetto that they come from, it’s a noisy, pointless, nihilistic turmoil.”

So, perhaps paradoxically, Bellow echoes a defensive and even admiring attitude to the very place from which he wished to escape. This is almost conservatism defined. One can locate the same trope as early as Dangling Man, where the boy recalling the horrors of slum life remembers “a man rearing over someone on a bed, and, on another occasion, a Negro with a blond woman on his lap.” And the underage black boy who transmits AIDS to Ravelstein (who himself is fatally attracted to the very thing that he supposedly most despises), was in early drafts given the same name as Augie March’s only black character. In Mr. Sammler’s Planet, the eponymous figure is haunted by a large “Negro” who stops him in the street and flaunts a massive penis in his face. In The Dean’s December, black crime and big-city corruption have become hard to distinguish in Bellow’s mind; he was later to manifest alarm and disgust when a black demagogue in Chicago accused Jewish doctors of spreading the AIDs virus. I don’t want to make any insinuation here, but it’s clear that Bellow had concluded that one of the fondest hopes of the democratic left—that of a black-Jewish alliance—had become a thing of the past: another slightly sappy proj­ect of what in a more genial and witty moment he had called “the Good Intentions Paving Company.”

However, he never quite succumbed to the affectless cynicism that he had always despised. His famously provocative 1988 question, “Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus? The Proust of the Papuans?,” asked in the context of a defense of Bloom, seemed to many people to contradict the generosity of what he had offered about Africa in Henderson, and evidently must have struck Bellow himself in the same light, since six years later he wrote a much-less-noticed essay in praise of the novel of Zululand Chaka, by Thomas Mofolo. Life and politics might have had souring results, and so might personal experience, but to the end, he put his money on the life-affirming and on the will to live (as Henderson’s understanding of the benediction grun-tu-molani loosely translates), and he could never quite abandon his faith in that crucial eligibility to be noble.

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