Saturday, June 20, 2009

Saul Bellow and Others

Not all is vanity. There have been wise man and women who have told us great things. One valuable thing which philosophy often offers is the evaluation of the wisdom of others. Philosophers are voracious readers with high standards and strong opinions about each other. Saul Bellow'sfiction often resembles philosophy in that he, and so too his characters, have read so very widely; they digress from their immediate problems with family or business to reflect on Platoor Aquinusor Nietzsche,they connect their present surroundings to the developments and trends of centuries and millenia, and they are able to do this convincingly because they have read Plato and Aquinus and Nietzsche and a lot of the other authors on the great-books lists. No-one who's relied on secondary summaries, on Western Civ textbooks and such, would be able to talk to you that way. More, the constant name-dropping encourages one to seek out and read the great thinkers of Western society going back to ancient Athens, to learn different languages in order to read the great thinkers still more directly, untranslated -- in short, to take the full course oneself, as Charlie Citrine, the narrator and protagonist of Humboldt's Gift,describes the amount of reading one had to do in order to keep up with the thrilling, brilliant conversation of the novel's title character, Von Humboldt Fleischer, based on Bellow's erstwhile friend and sometime enemy Delmore Schwartz.

At least, I was encouraged to take the full course. And having read by now a few of the philosophers in the Western-Civ canon, I would not hesitate to list Bellow, or Goethe,for example, among them. The similarities far outweigh the incidental differences of genre. In France, as shown for example by the careers of Voltaireand Sartre,such division of labor is not so strongly insisted upon, and sometimes the French will point to countries like Germany and the United States, and criticize us for insisting that this thinker or that is either a novelist or a philosopher, either a poet or an historian, but not both at the same time, and they're absolutely right to criticize us for that. In Germany this rigid classification is much worse even than here, although at least two prominent German philosophers, other than Goethe who is not usually classified as a philosopher, have bucked the trend: Nietzsche, not only with his famous tale Also Sprach Zarathustra,but also with many highly-regarded shorter poems; and Peter Sloterdijk with his novel -- we would call it a novel, the Germans also subdivide this category -- Der Zauberbaum,published in 1985, set in France in 1785.)

So, yes, by all means, read Bellow, read Goethe, read Plato, Aristotle, Lucretius, Boethius, Dante, Machiavelli, Descartes, Spinoza, Hobbes, Vico, Hume, Kant, Voltaire, Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and Sartre. You probably can't read them all in their original languages -- but why not try? Maybe you can! At least try to learn some other languages. Read the people I didn't list. Suggest your own list. Doesn't have to be all Western Civ. I'm relatively ignorant of non-Western philosophy -- but I'm not proud of that, by no means determined to keep it that way, and do not wish to imply that I'm dismissing that that which I do not not know, nor that I support any sort of exaltation of the West at the cost of the rest of mankind. It's just that I happen to know a little about this particular corner of the library, and find much there of value, and hate to see it getting so dusty and being forgotten. Furthermore: within this corner, I favor those dead white man who are less bigoted. Not that everyone is in perfect agreement about who exactly is to what degree progressive or reactionary, cf below. For now let me just say that one should not expect a hymn of praise of Kipling from me, and that Juvenal'sxenophobia, for example, marks him out as just as dull and dreary amongst the poets of his age, as Kipling.

You'll do what you want to do. But if you happen to learn German, and read Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Adornoand Sloterdijk, you may notice that they present you with five distinct, often conflicting accounts of Hegel.Nietzsche's account stays very close to Schopenhauer's until very late in his career, to the point that one feels it may have been borrowed -- and then, in Jenseits Von Gut Und Boese,after having in his earlier books heaped scorn on Hegel very much in the manner of Schopenhauer, and having gradually shifted his position on Schopenhauer from one of unmixed praise to one mixed with steadily more contempt, Nietzsche comes forth with the very startling remark that Hegel and Schopenhauer were two great brother-geniuses of philosopher, and that in striving to opposite poles of the German spirit they had been unfair to each other as only brothers can be. Can it be that if he had written longer, Nietzsche would have become an Hegelian? Probably not; the mind boggles at the suggestion. More to the point is that Nietzsche neither entirely accepted not entirely rejected other thinkers based on hearsay. He kept thinking for himself, reading the primary texts for himself, revising his own positions. Some have accused Nietzsche, unfairly, I think, of inconsistencies. I see instead growth and a very unusual degree of self-criticism, with changing philosophical positions as their unavoidable consequence. Can it be that some philosophers even today seek absolute, unchanging truth?

I am a leftist, or at least, I see the left wing of the Democratic Party in the US, and the Social Democrats and Greens in other countries, as the lesser of the available evils. I've never been tempted to vote Republican, (I have to wonder what Teddy Roosevelt, environmentalist, enemy of racial discrimination and of the largest corporations, would make of the remains of his erstwhile party today. The image of Teddy in safari gear, boots and gauntlets, chasing W out of the White House with a riding crop, like Jesus with a reed in the temple among the moneychangers, is stuck in my mind.) nor to favor a conservative in another country. Mario Vargas Llosain Peru was a very intriguing presidential candidate, but I was a distant and largely ignorant observer of his political campaigns. I only know his fiction, not what his actual political platform looked like.

And then there's Bellow, whom I have praised above. They say he was a young Trotskyitewho became an old neocon. It's true that he was a young Trotskyite, and that his best friend was Allan Bloom,and that in his collection of nonfiction entitled It All Adds UpBellow says some things which don't add up at all, and which can only be described as reactionary. And so I feel I must offer an exasperated and qualified defense of Bellow. I feel that his books are beautiful and valuable, with several exceptions: in his first two novels, Dangling Manand The Victim,he has not yet fully found his remarkable style. And then there are It All Adds Up and, not beautiful at all, but very valuable indeed as an aid to understanding Bellow, his last novel, Ravelstein,a roman a clef. Ravelstein is Allan Bloom, the neocon puppetmaster, the narrator is Bellow himself, dancing enchanted on one of Bloom's many strings. Bellow a conservative? I don't know. I would prefer to think that Bellow was hypersensitive, emotionally needy, longing for close friendship, and that the nefarious Bloom saw the aching void in Bellow's soul and permanently occupied it.

Not that Bloom himself was all bad: in his hugely best-selling book The Closing of the American Mind-- helped onto the bestseller lists, perhaps, by his pal Bellow's foreword? Or did the book's success have more to do with Reagan and Bill Bennett? -- in this book, amidst some nonsense, Bloom does say some sensible things, as, for example, when he states that Nietzsche, although appropriated by many antisemites, was himself the opposite of an antisemite. (Perhaps eventually enough people will actually read Nietzsche himself to make such statements superfluous.) In his criticisms of the contemporary (1988) student, however, I cannot recognize any reality I knew as a student at the time. And, more to the point, nowhere in the entire book can I see anything remotely resembling the character Ravelstein. And I suppose I simply trust Bellow much more than Bloom. If you're going to read one of these two books, please read the other, too. Bellow was ordinarily very good at at recognizing other people's motives, passions, obsessions, delusions, agendas. He does not tend to be flattering in his depictions of politicians either of the left or of the right. In Ravelstein, however, you see how blind he was to his best friend's faults. (Another blind spot was his own relationships with women: Bellow's wives seemed to remain constantly in or near their 20's, while he himself got older and older like Dorian Grey's portrait.)

Apart from such reservations, however, I cannot go along with the general characterization of Bellow as conservative or reactionary. That's just too simple, and Bellow is irreducibly complex. It's true, he does attack some self-serving positions of the left, but he certainly is not kind to the right, either. Bellow reminds me of Nietzsche's dictum #579 in the 9th chapter, "Der Mensch mit sich allein," of Menschliches, Allzumenschliches:"Nicht geeignet zum Parteimann. — Wer viel denkt, eignet sich nicht zum Parteimann: er denkt sich zu bald durch die Partei hindurch." ("Not well-suited to be a party member: he who thinks too much is not well-suited to be a party member: he thinks his way too quickly through the party and out the other side.") Like many of Nietzsche's sayings, this one is very easy to recite and to misunderatnd, to superficially understand, extremely difficult to fully live up to. So many of us would like to think that we have broken away from the human herd, but how many of us can assert this of ourselves with any authority? Bellow was very unusually independent: he broke away from the Trotskyite crowd early on, and was not nearly so completely co-opted by by the neocons as many leftist critics, or some neocons, would have liked to believe. How many of Bellow's readers, from the left or the right, are anywhere near as free from the constraints of a party line as he was?

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