Thursday, April 05, 2012

Remembering Saul Bellow

Writing the foreword of Alan Bloom’s classic on higher education in America The Closing of the American Mind, Saul Bellow remarked that the style of the book “will seem to modern readers marred by classical stiffness”—‘Truth,’ ‘Knowers,’ ‘the Good,’ ‘Man’—but we can by no means deny that behind our objection to such language is a guilty consciousness of the flimsiness, and not infrequently the trashiness, of our modern talk of ‘values’.”

Saul Bellow challenged this “flimsiness” and the “trashiness” throughout his writing career and, as the newspapers report, died “peacefully” last Tuesday. Recipient of the Nobel Prize for literature in 1976 for “the human understanding and subtle analysis of contemporary culture that are combined in his work,” Bellow wrote tirelessly against the deterministic and mechanistic interpretations of human life. The post-Depression and post-War mood of disillusionment that pervaded the Western man’s consciousness in the second half of the last century never overwhelmed Bellow’s unwavering conviction in the higher destiny of mankind. The writer with a Jewish background, Saul Bellow inherited memories of two millennia of oppression and anti-Semitism, but his “larky” spirit never gave into the modern melancholia or encashed “victimhood”. In The Victim, his second novel, Bellow explores the relationship between a Catholic and a Jew each being an unwarranted victim of the other’s action yet each not without human sympathy which binds them together. In his most celebrated book, The Adventures of Augie March, Bellow but mentions in  passing the anti-Semitic outburst Augie experienced in his childhood and how, instead of taking it to hear, he designates it to the “lunatic fringe” present in every society. Bellow’s characters do not dwell on suffering of their race but are active beings continually engaging with the environment, rescuing it from the dark forces of the time. Instead of focusing on the limiting memories of the past they grapple with the constraining mindsets of the age. They test the celebrated philosophies on the touchstone of day-to-day life. Bellow’s most memorable characters are deeply sensitive character having predilection for the philosophical. Moses E. Herzog, the protagonist of what some consider his signature work Herzog typifies a modern intellectual, a Ph.D. from a leading American University, who falls apart when his wife leaves him for another man. Through this novel Bellow shows how little strength “higher education” has to offer a troubled man. The flimsiness of now prevalent educated responses is appalling to Bellow. Though sometimes criticized for having highbrow airs, Bellow stood up against the “disheartening expansion of trained ignorance and bad thought,” now spread in the institutions of higher learning. “People ‘inside’ are identical in their appetites and motives with the people ‘outside’ the university,” wrote Bellow in the same foreword.

Philip Roth has called Saul Bellow, along with William Faulkner, “the backbone” of American Literature. Bellow has indeed written some great American novels, but his vision is much more encompassing. Alluding to antiquity while meditating upon contemporary landscape, invoking the East while delving deep into the Western spirit, Bellow creates modernist world fiction reminiscent of T. S. Eliot, another American whose neurotic characters and religious overtones are reflected in Bellow’s fiction. In Herzog Bellow has his protagonist, Moses, thinking how he liked Pather Panchali and is inspired to donate his assets to Dr. Bhave, an Indian social activist working for the poor.  In Mr. Sammler’s Planet, another of his much-acclaimed book, Bellow has an Indian character Dr V. Govind Lal, author of a book on astronomy. There is a warm understanding of other cultures and their achievements in his fiction dealt with care one does not come across frequently.

Reader of Kierkegaard and Dostoevsky Bellow has moral vision that respects life and seeks to extend human strengths. There is deep existential resonance in his novels but his existentialism is neither morbid like Camus’s nor nauseated like Sartre’s. Man’s seeming failure is not his final destiny as he remarks at the end of Augie March: “Columbus too thought he was a flop, probably, when they sent him back in chains. Which didn’t prove there was no America.”

But besides all this what was truly remarkable about Saul Bellow was his humility. Bellow refused to be enamoured by the Romantic illusion that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world” and that they should establish some “fixed modes of experience”. Bellow saw the futility of such universal appeals and portrays that “Humility is endless.” Last words to Bellow himself. This is what he said in his Noble accepting speech. “No one can bear to be ignored. I would, however, have been satisfied with a smaller measure of attention and praise. For when I am praised on all sides I worry a bit. I remember the scriptural warning, ‘Woe unto you when all men shall speak well of you.’ Universal agreement seems to open the door to dismissal.”


1 comment:

लाल्टू said...

Great piece on a great writer. I read 'Humboldt's Gift' in 1979, hardly mature enough to understand the quality of writing. And I remember it to this day as one of the greatest novels I ever read. In later years I read more of him. Other than the literature itself, the kind of authentic picture you get of North America in his novels is a benchmark.
Thanks for posting this.