You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Saul Bellow's Ferocious Beliefs

Saul's particular combination of intellectuality and vitality was not paradoxical, it was category-shattering.

Books18/Flickr/Creative Commons

"The truth, whatever it is, is strange." I can still hear Saul's voice, for a few moments absent its gaiety and its wickedness, gently pronouncing those emancipating words. It was a summer afternoon in 1977. We were sunk in Adirondack chairs on the grass behind the shed of a house that he was renting in Vermont, and sunk also in a sympathetic discussion of Owen Barfield's theories of consciousness. Chopped wood was piled nearby like old folios, dry and combustible. When I met Bellow, he was in his theosophical enthusiasm. The legend of his worldliness went before him, obviously, not least in his all-observing, wised-up books, which proclaimed the profane charisma of common experience. Since I have a happy weakness for metaphysical speculation, a cellular certainty that what we see is not all there is, I thought I detected in some of his writings signs of the old hunt for a knowledge beyond knowingness, for an understanding that is more than merely brilliant. I was not altogether surprised when our first meeting moved swiftly toward an unembarrassed conversation about spirituality. (This was preceded by complaints about Hannah Arendt. We had to get comfortable.) I had never before encountered a Jewish intellectual of his generation who could say "spirituality" without choking. And as Saul discoursed on the lawn, in an engineer's cap, about "living significantly," I celebrated my friend's unlikely interest in credulity. I recalled that it was he who had translated "Gimpel the Fool." Even the imbecilic orgone box looked like an error in a classical direction. "I guess I am a sucker for people who talk about the deeper things of life," says Tommy Wilhelm. But I explained to Saul that I could not follow him into the floridities of Rudolph Steiner. I said that Steiner was Tamkin without the lard, for which I was rewarded with an operatic Bellovian laugh. I told Saul that I preferred the spiritual profit of reason. Saul wondered whether reason belonged in our deliberations. And I wondered whether fiction could bear so much metaphysics. Soon it was twilight. We fixed an early and simple dinner. For a beautiful hour we sat before the fire and Saul read from the "Zetland" manuscript, which was again in his typewriter.

Saul's particular combination of intellectuality and vitality was not paradoxical, it was category-shattering. He was a Lawrentian Jew, an impossible creature. Energy was, in a way, his very theme. Was ever a bookish soul so cracklingly unmediated, so flush with raw life? He was as vivid physically as he was mentally, almost perversely alert, completely at home in the world of matter, repulsed by tedium. "Wakeful" was one of his highest terms of praise. Saul's notion was that there could be nothing wan about the truth, or about the quest for it, or about the language in which the quest was depicted. His novels and his stories, for this reason, often place wisdom in the mouths of charlatans and hustlers and losers. Accept the truth from whoever speaks it, the Talmud advises. Eccentricity, for Saul, conferred an analytical advantage, because it promised a fresh standpoint, from which things previously not noted might be noted; and what he disliked about the intellectuals of his time was their lack of it. Sometimes the mockery of thinking people in his books irritated me, the way the anti-intellectualism of intellectuals always does; many of his plots concerned the humiliation of intellectuality by vitality, and he taught his readers, among many other things, that seriousness was a little ludicrous. But in fact Saul was the most ferocious of the believers in ideas, because he protested that they could be found everywhere, and that they could be a primary subject of literature. He did not deny the problem of being, but he preferred to set it in the subway. When Herzog wrote to Heidegger, it was because he desperately needed an answer. This was funny, but it was not grotesque. Saul liked his profundities vernacular. What is so exciting about the carnal and commercial tumult in which his tales rejoice is that it never lets go of the question of how to live. As a matter of philosophical principle and artistic method, he married life to thought. It was, along with his late, deep union with Janis Freedman, Bellow's successful marriage.

He was, as is well-known, hilarious. We sat together at Robert Lowell's funeral in a high and swishy church in Boston, and I remember that Saul's reverence for the deceased was fully matched by his irreverence for those who were dispatching the deceased. I bit my tongue until it bled. (After we were sprung from the pews, we recited some of Lowell's lines: "… wolfing the stray lambs who hungered by the Place de la Concorde … ") He never lost the freethinker's delight in a good blasphemy. But Saul blasphemed equitably, and all around: he was a recreational savager of pieties. There is the view that finally he was a comic writer, the quarrelsome master only of the American urban carnivalesque. It is not my view. His famously manic books contain much stillness and much sadness. In Seize the Day, which James Wood has rightly called the most Russian of his works, almost nothing happens, in the way that almost nothing happens in Beckett or Kawabata. When it came to concealing his troubles, Saul Bellow was not less capable than the next fellow; but I do not think that they were ever dispersed. Was he, as the newspapers keep repeating, a dandy? But the dandy is a prince of dejection. ("When a man is … wearing a hat, he has an advantage.") I always had the feeling about Saul that he was inwardly at war, that he breakfasted with his demons. He had melancholy eyes, except when they sparkled. His laughter was the sound of a snatched victory.

In the cemetery in Brattleboro, A row of tall junipers sets off a Jewish section. There our Zauberjude was buried last week, as Shaul ben Avraham, by family and friends who desolately wielded the shovels until the dirt that covered his coffin was level with the ground upon which the living walked, in accordance with traditional Jewish practice. As I was leaving I glanced back, and suddenly I needed him. Three shovels stood rudely in the remains of the dirt pile. Like stubbed cigarettes, I thought--but that was no good. I needed Saul for his mighty power of metaphor, so that he could tell me what his own grave looked like, what unexpected word, what unimagined element of the universe, could unlock its meaning. Who will describe things, and so quicken them, now?