Dec/Jan 2011

The Victim

Saul Bellow thought everyone would do him dirt.

Vivian Gornick


Saul Bellow died in 2005 at the age of eighty-nine, and now we have, under the editorship of Benjamin Taylor (working closely with Bellow's widow), a collection of 708 letters out of the thousands that he wrote. The letters are to publishers and editors; boyhood friends; wives, lovers, children; the crowd of writers Bellow knew, both famous and obscure. Many of these letters are rich in gossip, declarations of love and ambition, praise, criticism, and commiseration; the most touching among them are to the writers for whom he had tender feeling (John Berryman, Ralph Ellison, John Cheever) and those who appealed to him for help (William Kennedy, Wright Morris). Filled as they are with the encouragement of high regard, these letters are yet among the book's briefest and even least interesting, with hardly a word in them, over all the years, of what Bellow was reading, or working on, or even fulminating against, as his famous disaffection for the world as it is grew.

What is startling, however, is the difference between the over-the-top voice that dominates the novels and the uniformly moderate one here in evidence. That novel-writing voice—always the same, always glowing with the force of dazzling, inventive complaint rushing out of the mouth of this manic Jew who had swallowed a library—who ever doubted it was Bellow's own? Of course, it was and it wasn't; yet the corrective to literary fantasy is a bit unnerving. Even during periods of his life when we know that Bellow was beside himself with shame and rage (around the time, for instance, that the openly autobiographical Herzog [1964] was being written), the sentence structure of the letters remains straightforward, the vocabulary simple, the tone calm. One cannot help but speculate on how these seven hundred were chosen. Are there, perhaps, hundreds more somewhere that strike a wilder note of emotional distress, moral ferocity, intellectual contempt? Or is it, rather, that all the talented agitation went into the books, while life on the ground got the dull edge?

Click to enlarge

Saul Bellow ca. 1950s. Photo: courtesy Janis Bellow.

Yet a current or two of passion runs strongly through the seventy years of Bellow's life that the collection covers. For this reader, two letters, both written in 1949, one to a boyhood friend, another to a university colleague, epitomize the concerns that cut deepest. The first: "It seems the more I write and publish, the more . . . [p]eople draw off into coldness and enmity who'd have kinder feelings toward me if I were a photographer of dogs or a fish-expert." The second: "I am very hostile . . . to 'literary culture' . . . [and] the other vanities of 'culture' that have no meeting with chaos. . . . The idea of a university, as Ortega says, is in classicism; the true life of poetry, as he also tells us, is in shipwreck."

The first letter betrays a lifelong preoccupation with the jealousies of others who Bellow always thought were bound to do him dirt; the second an equally lifelong reiteration of the inner chaos he believed necessary to the making of literary art. The connection between the two is, I believe, significant. In 1975, he wrote wearily to art critic Meyer Schapiro, "Lawrence said he cast off his sickness in writing and I understand that thoroughly. On the other hand, looking at what you've set down you see nothing, at times, except the sickness."

As Bellow got older, his sense of life, love, and a writer's place in his own culture grew infinitely more anxious. To be sure, it was out of the anxiety that he made his books, but it is dismaying to see how steadily, after early youth, he lost both pleasure in the simple act of being and the sympathy for human frailty that such pleasure induces. Take his regard for love and lovers. In 1937, he wrote, "I am deeply in love, and I think I shall continue in love, because it is my salvation." In 1942, "I hate to make fun of anyone's passions. The struggles from which they proceed are always real even when their manifestations are ridiculous." In 1949, "[To speak despisingly of a lover is] the ruin of intercourse." But a decade later, he no longer, except when infatuated, spoke of love in his letters. Instead, what we got in 1964 came from the mouth of Moses Herzog, the fictional character whom Bellow called his brother. Those plotting bitches, Herzog says of women. Who are they? What do they want? "They eat green salad and drink human blood." And that was that until the last line of the last book was written.

Then there is the unhappy transformation of his attitude toward the culture in which he found himself. In 1952, he wrote to Lionel Trilling: "Are most novels poor today? Undoubtedly. But . . . things are now what they always were, and to be disappointed in them is extremely shallow. We may not be strong enough to live in the present. But to be disappointed in it! To identify oneself with a better past! No, no!" A decade later he was in the full, relentless cry against "the present" that made his books rise repeatedly to crescendoes of ridiculing bitterness against his own time. Wherever he looked he saw evil insufficiency, and he longed for a past, in the words of biographer Ruth Miller, "before books defeated him and institutions failed him and the dishonesty and wickedness of men in action debased him."

At the age of sixty-four, he writes to Hymen Slate, an old Chicago friend, "You have a generous style, and that's what makes listening to your talk so agreeable. . . . [I know you] don't really like it when I talk about the cultural void. You insist that there are human characteristics that have nothing at all to do with this void, and to an important extent you're right." But against the exhilarating pull of the cultural void, Bellow was helpless. To begin with, it was where the talent led him, and wherever the talent went he was forced to follow; and then again, the void justified his ever-growing melancholy over those he imagined thwarting him. If a critic wrote unfavorably about his work, the critic deserved to be hung. If a friend wrote unfavorably, almost invariably it was the end of the friendship. If a woman left him, he pronounced her mentally disordered.

On the publication of her novel Careless Love in 1966, Bellow wrote to Alice Adams, "Women like your heroine do seem to live completely in relationships and think of very little apart from [them]. . . . This is in its own way attractive—until one strikes what one is always sure to strike, namely, wretchedness, the unreliability of men, the poor human stuff of lovers." It was true that in her work Adams was not able to make something large out of her disappointments with failed love, whereas Bellow—who really had the same subject—certainly was. In Moses Herzog, he created a disheveled academic at a hysterical loss over being cuckolded and packed him with so much cultural allusion that the character was hailed by critics, far and wide, as a metaphor for our failing civilization. In life, however, Bellow did no better than Adams.

One and all, the women in his life are first idealized, then demonized. It's hard to believe any one of them had any reality for him beyond his instrumental use of them. Throughout the years, nearly every sexual relationship with a woman begins with a flood of letters that read, Honey, baby, dolly, I miss you so much, I've never felt like this before, how I wish you were in my bed tonight—and ends with a uniform lament to friends: She wants my blood. In a 1984 letter to a former mistress, he says of the fourth wife now leaving him almost exactly what he'd said of the second when she left him: "Where a woman's warmest sympathies should be there is a gap, something extracted in the earliest years of life which now is not even felt, not recognized as absent." The grievances that she levels at him are to be ignored: They stem from her own nervous disorder. Needless to say, not a single letter to any woman with whom he was romantically entangled contains a line of intellectual content.

In trying to cure himself of the misanthropy of the spirit from which he suffered, Bellow became an adherent of Rudolf Steiner, the founder of a spiritually based philosophy called anthroposophy, and in 1975 began writing to Owen Barfield, an English self-styled philosopher who was also a follower of Steiner's. Barfield interpreted the Steiner doctrine as it related to the ancient Greek discovery of an indwelling voice of Reason, one that speaks words of wisdom to the blind, instinctual self. Barfield called this voice the Spirit Being, which urges on one a true account of the nature of things. The trick was to develop the Spirit Being within oneself.

The years-long correspondence with Barfield is an eye-opener. In it, Bellow comes across as a supplicating student, ready to accept major humbling from the Master ("I didn't mind your dismissing Humboldt. I expected that") if that's what it takes to gain not wisdom but relief. Thus, the Bellow who scorned Freud ("I see [psychoanalysis] as trivial pursuit") spent years imploring a mystic philosopher to show him the way when, in his sorry sixties, he confides with distress that he still doesn't "know what causes so much confusion in me." Needless to say, the confusion does not abate; as old age takes over, the alarm merely exhausts itself.

More than once, in these letters, Bellow speaks of his own rotten character—he even says it leaves him with a bad taste in his mouth—but the confession is only rhetorical; in the very next sentence, he's justifying himself. In his deepest heart, it remains all those others—"she" or "they"—who are responsible for life's inexorable malfeasance. He never really sees his own part in things. Which is true for all of us until the rhetorical insight becomes an actual one.

The poet Charles Bernstein makes a distinction between looking and seeing. We have repeated flashes of self-recognition that light up the inner sky for a moment, then recede quickly into the darkness from where they emerged: That is looking. It is thrilling, that flash of recognition, but it is only cathartic; it is, in fact, an everyday event, the kind (as any years-long analysand will tell you) that can go on repeating itself without variation for a lifetime. To act on the recognition—to take it in and let it change you—that is both to look and to see; to transform event into experience. In our work and in our lives, it is the experience, not the event, that delivers the wisdom.

Bellow was a man for whom event did not often evolve into experience. As the years advanced, and the books and the divorces piled up, the events continued to repeat themselves, achieving neither dilution nor enrichment. Therein lay the growing limitation of his writing, as well as his undiminished angst with the world as it is, not to mention the ongoing inability to see himself as others saw him.

Toward the end of his life, in 1991, he begins writing sentimentally to the surviving members of his boyhood Chicago gang; the ones, he thought, with whom he hadn't felt competitive. The letters, essentially, are to say he's sorry he's drifted away from each of them, and he'd like to revive the old friendships now that they're all nearing the end. We don't have the replies of these men, but in the next set of letters to them, Bellow writes:

"To accuse me of 'contempt' is cockeyed."

"You think that when I wish you well I do it from self-pity . . ."

"For the life of me I can't remember being unpleasant about your 'character.'"

He meant it: He couldn't understand; he didn't remember; he was perplexed.

Vivian Gornick's biography of Emma Goldman will be published by Yale in 2011.

Advertisement