U.S. Intellectual History Blog

“My huge involvement in the history of thought”

Saul BellowMany critics have looked askance at making too much of Bellow’s dogged effort to refer at one point or another to every member of the Western Intellectual Pantheon. In his review of Ravelstein, Louis Menand stated flatly that “Bellow himself is not a theorist. He is a novelist who is fascinated by theorists.”[1] James Wood echoed this thought: “Bellow has been so often discussed—mistakenly, I think—in the context of his many ‘ideas’ that it is easy to forget that many of his heroes are failures or clowns in thought; the comedy of the novels has much to do with the prospect of the inefficacy of ideas, the piles of intellectual slack which truss these schlemiels like babies.”[2] Bellow is like Hemingway in this regard—the pervasiveness of masculine codes of honor in Hemingway’s novels tends to make us forget how often Hemingway’s protagonists fail these codes, or how often the codes fail the protagonists.

Bellow’s characters (and, moreover, his treatments of them) are indeed remarkably ambivalent about their relationship to philosophies or theories of history—none more so, perhaps, than More Die of Heartbreak’s Kenneth Trachtenberg. Trachtenberg tells the reader that “I take very little pleasure in theories and I’m not going to dump ideas on you. I used to be sold on them, but I discovered that they were nothing but trouble if you entertained them indiscriminately,”[3] but, a scant fifteen pages later, he also advocates the necessity of such theories, provided they are “correct”: “unless your thinking is deduced from a correct conception of history, unless you live in your time, thinking will only confuse you—it will drive you nuts. The terrible result of hyperactive but unfocused consciousness is a cause of our decline.”[4] Trachtenberg is just one of those great Bellovian narrators who oscillate from passion about ideas to pessimism about their utility. Moses Herzog often expresses both in the same sentence or phrase—he describes himself at one point as “a learned specialist in intellectual history, handicapped by emotional confusion.”[5] The learnedness, the specializing, the intellectuality, and the history are all accomplishments and are in many ways the definition of Herzog’s identity, but they are limited, constrained by the emotional confusion. Herzog also refers to “my huge involvement—huge but evidently formless—in the history of thought,”[6] and his “strong will and a talent for polemics, a taste for the philosophy of history,”[7] all of which are quite pregnant with self-irony and profound ambivalence.

Bellow is a little more direct when it comes to critiquing other writers. He derides on multiple occasions those “writers whose novels and plays are derived from definite theories which make a historical reckoning of the human condition and are peculiarly responsive to new physical, psychological, and philosophical theories.”[8] He even goes so far as to say—quite skeptically—that “The fact is that modern writers sin when they suppose that they know, as they conceive that physics knows or that history knows. The subject of the novelist is not knowable in any such way.”[9] More to the point, “ideas in the novel can be very dull.”[10] However, he equivocates when considering the degree to which modern (American) writers are governed by an allegiance to one historical theory or another. At one point, he expresses a belief that, “[w]hether he is conscious of it or not, I think that every modern novelist has a theory of history,”[11] and later that “[e]very novelist is a historian, a chronicler of his time,”[12] but he also states that “American writers… are not on the whole given to taking the historical or theoretical view. They characteristically depend on their own observations and appear at times obstinately empirical.”[13] Regardless of how much American writers do depend on theories of history, Bellow is fairly emphatic, however, that to do so is destructive to the art, that “the human content of art must necessarily dwindle”[14] when such theories are the supposedly vivifying force behind the novel.

Bellow particularly questions the role of art as a mediator between the world’s problems and our thoughts about them, arguing that this theory-grasping will not resolve these problems—either intellectually:

For to put the matter at its baldest, we live in a thoughtworld, and the thinking has gone very bad indeed. Therefore the artist… is involved in thought-struggles. Thinking alone will never cure what ails him, and any artist should be grateful for a naïve grace which puts him beyond the need to reason elaborately.[15]

or even artistically:

The novel of ideas has added little to the development of ideas. Writers are in general more effective in appreciating a human situation than in intellectual discovery. Too often in recent times they have been glad to work out the implications of scientific or philosophical theories instead of consulting their own deeper intuitions, as artists should.[16]

Bellow stresses that the answer to these theory-driven artists is not some counter-theory but rather a superior artistic creation: “I can overcome opposing opinions by the only kind of proof no judgment can resist, that of performance.”[17] Rather than out-theorize the Lawrences or the Gides or the Joyces or the Manns, Bellow will show them—and a great many others besides—what a writer can really do.[18]

However, Bellow equally criticizes those writers who hide their intellectual light under a bushel basket—the Hemingways who play a “highly sophisticated game” based around “the attempt to represent ideas while sternly forbidding thought.” Such a game, Bellow says, “shows a great skepticism of the strength of art. It makes it appear as though ideas openly expressed would be too much for art to bear.”[19] Bellow’s beef, therefore, is not with thought as such, but with old thoughts; “pre-thought thoughts;”[20] thoughts alone, without the company of imagination; stale thoughts imported wholesale from Europe, uncritically.[21] Bellow has an unmitigable horror of what Flaubert first named idées reçues.


The preceding is a very lightly-edited excerpt from my undergraduate thesis, which was on Saul Bellow. I excerpt it not out of vanity—I make absolutely no claims for its quality—but the stored labor of finding and selecting citations is one I think we can all appreciate is worth not having to repeat. So I offer it less for what I have to say than for what Bellow has to say here.

But I would like to offer a few thoughts from the vantage point of a slight temporal distance from my undergrad enthusiasm for Bellow. That enthusiasm has dimmed, although I picked up one of Bellow’s acknowledged minor works, The Dean’s December, and readily remembered what I found so enlivening. He wrote prose for the connoisseurs of prose without ever betraying an envy of the experiment or opacity of his high modernist peers. It is prose that approximates the eating of oysters: lubricious, opulent, a little ceremonial (the lemon, the oil, the formation of a pile of shells), but basically sprightly, larkish, sportive.

But I no longer eat oysters (for ordinary religious reasons), and I no longer read or re-read Bellow for pleasure. There are other novelists of uncommon literary gifts to read, ones without the noxious aspects that infect Bellow: the overwhelming misogyny, the abrupt lurches into crabbiness, the acidulous swipes at African-Americans and young radicals. And what I first read Bellow for—the excitement of entering into a world of ideas, of a sort of mist of magical names: Spengler, Collingwood, Ortega y Gasset, Toynbee, Vico, Yeats, Burckhardt, Merz, Rostovtzeff, Sombart, Marx, Macaulay, Arnold, Nietzsche, Kojève—has burned off as I came to want more than the incantation of names from my reading.

It is more than that, however, I came to conclude in looking back over the material I had planted in my thesis and in returning to James Atlas’s biography of Bellow and to some of Bellow’s novels. Bellow was far more than wary of the power of idées reçues and he was not just “not a theorist” as Menand and others have it. Rather he was a lazy sort of novelist of ideas, a skimmer, a gutter, maybe even a flim-flam man. Bellow was not just an “unsystematic” thinker or autodidact, as he liked to present himself: there is simply a difference between eclecticism and superficiality, and there is a difference between superficiality and indifferent derivativeness. It is in the last category I would now put Bellow: Bellow, I think, was a great reader of reviews, not a great reader of texts. His education was not just “higgledy-piggledy,” as he once described it, but something approximating the graduate student catching up to his last fifteen monographs the nights just before his comprehensive exams. Except Bellow had the time and chose to read desultorily. I have not found a single passage that suggests extensive concentration and study of a single text or single author’s corpus. In a review of F. O. Matthiessen’s study of Theodore Dreiser, for instance, not a single specific Dreiser text is adduced to make any point; Bellow’s famous review of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man appears to be innocent of the knowledge of prior literature by African Americans. Both could almost be written with only the book under review by his typewriter, and perhaps not even that.[22]

As Andrew Hartman has argued here, Bellow was an inveterate (and influential) enemy of the “new class.” But he was also often resentful of the old class of intellectuals, one might say, whom he dismissed as pedants and ambivalently mocked throughout his novels. Moses Herzog, Artur Sammler, Albert Corde: they are not members of the new class, and they come in for rough treatment if they rely on their formal academic training:

There are times when I enjoy making fun of the educated American. Herzog, for instance, was meant to be a comic novel: a Ph.D. from a good American university falls apart when his wife leaves him for another man. He is taken by an epistolary fit and writes grieving, biting, ironic and rambunctious letters not only to his friends and acquaintances, but also to the great men, the giants of thought, who formed his mind. What is he to do in this moment of crisis, pull Aristotle or Spinoza from the shelf and storm through the pages looking for consolation and advice? The stricken man, as he tries to put himself together again, interpret his experience, make sense of his life, becomes clearly aware of the preposterousness of such an effort. Certain readers of Herzog complained the book was difficult. Much as they might have sympathized with the unhappy and comical history professor, they were occasionally put off by his long and erudite letters. Some felt that they were being asked to sit for a difficult exam in a survey course in intellectual history and thought it mean of me to mingle sympathy and wit with obscurity and pedantry.

But I was making fun of pedantry![23]

A clearer case of cake-having and cake-eating one cannot find. Bellow’s reputation was built solidly on the quality of his prose, but it was also built upon Bellow’s self-presentation as a significant interlocutor with the “great men, the giants of thought” (in spite of the reconsiderations of Menand, et al.). We are supposed to take Moses Herzog seriously as a thinker, even if we are not supposed to take his kind of thinking seriously as a source of salvation or content.

The most famous feature of Herzog is, in fact, precisely those letters to philosophers to which Bellow refers. One is to Heidegger. In my research for my thesis, I ran across this interesting passage from a 1984 interview:

Q: In your novels you are concerned with what Heidegger called a free-floating anxiety, angst? I ask because all your protagonists seem tormented or are aware of its presence.

A: Ah, yes. Well, Heidegger gets it from Nietzsche. I didn’t read Heidegger until quite recently, and then discovered that he was Nietzsche’s principal anatomist.[24]

Now, Heidegger shows up—by name!—in Herzog, which was published in 1964, twenty years before Bellow admits to reading Heidegger for the first time “quite recently.” It is true that Heidegger’s lectures on Nietzsche were not published in English until 1979, but Bellow is not likely to have forgotten reading Being and Time, even if it were twenty years prior. It is far more likely that reviews of the 1962 publication of the MacQuarrie translation of Being and Time introduced Bellow to some of the terminology and general drift of Heidegger’s thought as Bellow was writing Herzog.[25]

On the penultimate page of Ravelstein, we run into a very curious sentence. “In his own way Ravelstein [i.e., Allan Bloom] tried to protect me from poring over the works of the thinkers he most admired.”[26] What a strange idea. What kind of friend protects someone they respect from encountering “the thinkers [one] most admire[s]?” Why should Bellow have needed this protection, if indeed Bloom tried to pull him away from weighty tomes?

My point here is not to suggest that Bellow does not merit study. He is an immensely influential figure in US literature and intellectual culture of the postwar era. But it seems to me that the ‘moral seriousness’ that Bellow was credited with during his heyday has not been properly re-evaluated in light of the poverty of his ideas. Well, that is not quite right: in the guise of broader considerations of neoconservatism, the texture and nature of the morality of a figure like Bellow has been deeply called into question. But his seriousness? Perhaps that ought to be re-thought as well.

[1] Louis Menand, “Bloom’s Gift.” New York Review of Books 47.9 (May 25, 2000).

[2] Wood, The Irresponsible Self, 262.

[3] More Die of Heartbreak 19.

[4] More Die of Heartbreak 36.

[5] Saul Bellow, Herzog, 106.

[6] Herzog 127. Emphasis in the original.

[7] Herzog 6.

[8] Saul Bellow, “Recent American Fiction,” American Studies International 15.3 (1977) 7.

[9] Bellow, “Recent American Fiction” 18. Emphasis in the original.

[10] Saul Bellow, “Where Do We Go From Here? The Future of Fiction.” Saul Bellow and the Critics (New York, New York University Press, 1967) 217.

[11] Joseph Epstein, “A Talk with Saul Bellow,” Conversations with Saul Bellow (Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1994) 93.

[12] Jo Brans, “Common Needs, Common Preoccupations,” Conversations with Saul Bellow(Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1994) 154 Bellow also says more broadly that “We’re all engaged in historical analysis” (Sanford Pinsker, “Saul Bellow in the Classroom,” College English 34.7 (April 1973) 980).

[13] Bellow, “Recent American Fiction” 9.

[14] Saul Bellow, “Literature,” The Great Ideas Today (Chicago: Encyclopedia Brittanica, Inc., 1963) 155.

[15] Foreword, Closing of the American Mind, 17.

[16] Bellow, “Literature” 155.

[17] Bellow, “Comment on Form and Despair,” Location 1.2 (Summer 1964) 10.

[18] Bellow insists on the inherent value of the performative aspect of literary production unrelated to ideas, asserting that “if a man writes an excellent sentence, he has performed a valuable action, one which teaches you something. Even if the sentence has no direct moral application, he’s done something of value. That in itself is a good thing… it’s not a question of resolute edification or affirmation.” (Rockwell Gray, et al., “Interview with Saul Bellow.” Conversations with Saul Bellow (Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1994) 216).

[19] Bellow, “Where Do We Go From Here?” 218.

[20] Bellow, “Summations,” Saul Bellow: A Mosaic (New York: Lang, 1992) 190.

[21] Bellow, “Summations” 192.

[22] There is a quote in Bellow’s review of the Dreiser study, but I have been unable to find it in Dreiser’s works, and Bellow doesn’t even attribute it to Dreiser.

[23] Foreword to Closing of the American Mind, 16.

[24] Roudané 268.

[25] Heidegger was in Bellow’s mind a lot in 1984: in the story “Cousins,” he wrote, “My only reading matter for months has been the reports of [Franz Boas’s] Jesup Expedition, and I am attracted to certain books by Heidegger. But you can’t browse through Heidegger; Heidegger is hard work.”

[26] Ravelstein 231.

3 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. Andy,

    This was a bracing and irreverent commentary, and I’m grateful for the brave reconsideration of Bellow you undertake here. Bellow’s skimming of newspapers and intellectual periodicals for novelistic material puts me in mind of the superficial reading practices of the poet Wallace Stevens, another literary figure often mistaken by readers as a “serious” thinker. Perhaps neither qualifies as “serious” if by that we mean “systematic” or even “coherent”–neither successfully lays out a body of doctrine or even a consistent point of view on a single subject across their career (and they often fail to do so within a single text). Rather, they enjoy the play of opposites, the intensity of expressing one side of an argument and then coming back around to give the other side its due. Some might gloss this with the noble label of “dialectical” thinking, but I’ve always found it difficult to shake the feeling that Bellow (and Stevens, for that matter) simply enjoyed playing with ideas in fiction; a dialectical process seeks resolution or clarity, while they remain waylaid at the preliminary stage of the “thought-struggle.” If I may hazard a crude distinction: ideas and intellectuals play an important role in the medium of their composition (ideas ARE the subject), but specific ideas don’t drive the cognitive aspects of the narrative itself (the process). They want to get credit for being seen as thinkers without avoiding the danger that sustained acts of intellection presents to their art–dulling spontaneity and controlling whimsy.

    I’d be curious to know more about what Bellow actually taught during his years on the Committee for Social Thought at U Chicago. Are there any records of his syllabi or copies of student notes? I seem to remember that he made a big deal out of the fact that he never taught fiction, but only works of history and philosophy (Rousseau, Nietzsche, etc.) If so, does it stand to reason that he may have read some of these works fairly carefully? Or do you think he managed to conceal his lack of real engagement with philosophy while continuing to teach it in the classroom? At times, Atlas’s biography hints that Bellow took a great deal of pride and pleasure in playing the role of “great artist” stranded among lowly academics. Philip Roth says something similar in a memoir somewhere–that when he was at U of C (in the early 60s, I think), it took him a while to get past Bellow’s larger-than-life grandstanding persona in order to actually get the man to talk about books. I would love to know more about what evidence there is concerning Bellow’s reading habits or teaching practices.

  2. Patrick, thank you so much for this comment. I think you’ve really captured what I find frustrating about many of Bellow’s efforts to work through an idea: he often begins more or less dialectically, but then gives up, and settles for some kind of quasi-mystical platitude.

    As for evidence of Bellow’s reading habits/teaching practices, I imagine we will get a lot more of it when the first part of Zachary Leader’s biography comes out in May.

    But in Atlas’s biography, there is some suggestive material from the recollections of his students, and I feel it does not paint a very complimentary picture, at least as far as serious study goes. It appears that he actually did normally teach fiction. Here’s how Atlas describes his course on the English novel:
    “Straying from the text at hand, he offered autobiographical digressions about his Canadian childhood, his student days at the University of Chicago, writers he had known. ‘He talked about his own life as an artist–he figured that was what people came to hear–and he was enchanting when he did,’ said Arlette Landes. He called his courses ‘episodes in the history of the soul in modern times.'”
    Atlas also tells us that “If he wasn’t sufficiently engaged, he called it quits; one year, he folded up a seminar on Ulysses two thirds of the way through” (405).

    There are a few other stray observations from former students in Atlas’s bio that also suggest Bellow was more of a performer before his classes than a scholar. Perhaps there will be more concrete material in the Leader bio, but at any rate, I feel that one thing that might be taken into consideration is that, despite teaching in the Committee on Social Thought for many years, Bellow never turned out anything in the way of serious, sustained criticism. My guess is that Bellow spoke extemporaneously and that there never were anything like lecture notes that he could have turned into a book, a kind of Art of the Novel or Craft of Fiction or something. He certainly could have snapped his fingers and gotten a contract for such a thing!

  3. Thanks, Andy! This was super helpful and has gotten me even more excited to see what Leader has to say on these matters.

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