I had an unfortunate introduction to Saul Bellow. In 1988, as a college senior, I took a contemporary novels course with one of my favorite professors, a discerning, fervent, word-loving Shakespeare expert.
The course had filled with friends, most of us young women, and I remember groups talking with passion at lunch about Italo Calvino, Iris Murdoch, Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Mr. Bellow had stiff competition that semester.
We had to wait for his latest novel, More Die of Heartbreak. The book was available only in hardcover, and on back order. The professor altered the syllabus because of the delay. When the book finally came in, so did the high expectations reserved for the long awaited.
Within days, More Die of Heartbreak led a friend of mine to approach some of us outside of class. She said that the book was unfair, that it was blaming Uncle Benn's troubles on women in general and on Matilda, the beauty he secretly marries, in particular. "Uncle Benn was a woman-battered man," says the narrator. Alerted, we read and criticized. We came to class ready to battle. My friend raised her hand. She pronounced the criticism that some reviewers of More Die of Heartbreak were also making: misogyny.
Bellow dealt with the criticism by saying that women would better understand his work. "A woman is more likely to see the truth of what I've said," he told the London Sunday Times in 1987.
Bellow's ideal woman reader hadn't enrolled in our class. The professor responded to the insurrection by agreeing with us. The novel, written more than ten years after Bellow received the Nobel Prize for Literature, was not his best, she said. We should read his early books.
In the weeks after Bellow died, I thought repeatedly of our successful, and rather-too-easy defeat of More Die of Heartbreak as I read through Bellow's obituaries. According to an unscientific database scan, 380 news articles and obituaries appeared in the thirteen days between his death on April 5 and April 18, the day of this writing.
As a comparison, I looked also at the number of articles about Robert Creeley, who died March 30. He, like Bellow, happened to pass away at a hot news time, competing with the deaths of Terri Schiavo and the Pope. Creeley, an author of more than sixty books and a prime mover in the shift of a once-radical poetic style to the mainstream, received forty-nine mentions between March 30 and April 18.
I then looked at the number of articles devoted to fellow Chicagoan and important poet Gwendolyn Brooks in the thirty days after her death on December 3, 2000. Brooks was mentioned in 224 articles, many of them as part of end-of-the-year death roundups.
The obituaries described all three of these writers as "great," but none more frequently so than Bellow, who received hyperbolic and simultaneously meaningless accolades such as this one from the London Independent: "Saul Bellow was the finest novelist of his generation in an age when novels mattered." In a goofy bit of praise, The New York Times reported that, "like their creator, Mr. Bellow's heroes were all head and all body both." The New York Times credited Bellow with "breathing life" into the novel, and others also implied that he saved the novel.
But, like many members of my generation, I am suspicious about claims that whole genres are threatened or dying and that one person can be the savior. I also believe that placing the word "great" upon an author or a work of art can dull our capacities for close reading and careful evaluation. I also have an argument to pursue with Mr. Bellow.
Ironically, the journalists grasped for the word "great" to describe a member of a generation that was peculiarly preoccupied with its own greatness and talked about it incessantly. However, it is true that few writers can compose a long sentence as energetic and encompassing as could Bellow. Having read his own observation that he drank more coffee than he should, I sometimes think of that when I hit a passage (like the following one from Mr. Sammler's Planet) that attempts to fill itself to the bursting with human thought and emotion and physical life: "It was the turn again of certain minor things which people insisted on enlarging, magnifying, moving into the center: relationships, interior decorations, family wrangles, Minoz photographs of thieves on buses, arms of Puerto Rican ladies on the Bronx Express, odi-et-amo need-and-rejection, emotional self-examinations, erotic businesses in Acapulco, fellatio with friendly strangers." But this excited, additive, addicted thought-process is much more than caffeine. "If you opened up a modern mind with a saw," he said in 1990, "things would tumble out in every direction. You pitch yourself headlong into mental chaos and make your own way from there." The chaotic brain he shows us can contain Shelley's "Adonais," Louis Armstrong, Kierkegaard, dog shit, wet shoes, and flowers. And this intellectual journey, which he bids his readers to join, is a sensual and moral and, frequently, profound one. Like the lists in a Whitman poem, it has democratic implications.
Liberals and leftwingers have long complained about Bellow, and many of their concerns have to do with his extra-literary activities. His politics were often described as neoconservative, though he claimed he was a liberal and that liberalism had failed him, becoming "mindless medallion-wearing and placard-bearing." Then there was his thoughtless and famously nasty statement, "Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus? The Proust of the Papuans?" which he claimed was taken out of context. After he received the Nobel Prize, noted Andrew Rosenheim in The Independent after Bellow's death, "his political thinking hardened: lofty pronouncements on American problems and membership of the Committee on the Present Danger (a kind of rightwing PEN) suggested a political certainty absent from the fertile ambiguities of his novels."
I am drawn to writers who pull their readers into intellectual projects so surprising and sharp-minded that the experience of following their thoughts--however flawed they might ultimately be--is "almost erotic," as a friend once said of Hannah Arendt's work. So I can forgive Bellow his surface misogyny in exchange for what he gives of his mind and his moral regard.
But it's the deep misogyny that is unforgivable. Again and again, Bellow presents us with a main character, a seeking, dissatisfied intellectual who seems ill-prepared for a modern existence that is brutish and cruelly capitalistic. The jangling difficulties of life are relieved by only a few moments of solace. Most of these happen at instants when two minds that understand each other meet. Again and again, those two minds inhabit male bodies. In Mr. Sammler's Planet, for instance, one sought-for mind is that of Govinda Lal, an astronomer. "An intelligent and sensitive man, this was, with an expressive face," thinks Sammler as he begins to speak to Lal about his acquaintance with H. G. Wells. "He was beginning to think . . . that this Lal was, like Ussher Arkin, a man he could talk to."
The book contrasts the minds of Lal and Arkin with that of Margotte, Sammler's niece and Arkin's widow, who tries to engage Sammler in a discussion of Arendt's thesis that the "banality" of evil was to blame for the Holocaust: "The idea being," said Margotte, "there here is no great spirit of evil. Those people were too insignificant, Uncle. They were just ordinary lower-class people, administrators, small bureaucrats, or Lumpenproletariat. A mass society does not produce great criminals."
As Margotte continues to hypothesize, Sammler's mind wanders. "The late Arkin, generally affectionate and indulgent, knew how to make Margotte shut up," he reminisces.
Sammler has an answer for both Margotte and Arendt. Sammler's response is simply a "courtesy," even as it communicates moral power: "The idea of making the century's great crime look dull is not banal. Politically, psychologically, the Germans had an idea of genius. The banality was only camouflage," he says. "This woman professor's enemy is modern civilization itself. She is only using the Germans to attack the twentieth century--to denounce it in terms invented by the Germans. Making use of a tragic history to promote the foolish ideas of the Weimar intellectuals."
Other female characters in the novel are even more inadequate to Sammler's seeking intellect. His daughter, like him a survivor of the Nazi occupation of Poland, he believes to be crazy. His beautiful, humorous, new-woman niece who seeks him out and confides in him is consumed only by sexual adventure. The one woman mysterious enough to perhaps encompass intellectual life is his wife, killed long ago by Nazis.
If such an understanding of women's minds were simply the argument of one book, this would be a trivial complaint. But the theme repeats. In More Die of Heartbreak, the narrator nephew understands his uncles' lovers as competitors who interfere with the comforting intellectual life he shares with Benn. In Humboldt's Gift, the idea that a woman might join in the life of mind is dismissed again. "As a rule, her own reflections satisfied her perfectly and she used my conversation as a background to think her own thoughts," observes Charles Citrine of his lover Renata. "These thoughts, so far as I could tell, had to do with her desire to become Mrs. Charles Citrine, the wife of a Pulitzer chevalier. I therefore turned the tables on her and used her thoughts as a background for my thoughts."
For Bellow, the satisfying brain exists in competition with a satisfying body. His characters repeatedly think they cannot (and thus they do not) go to the same source for both. Because he almost inevitably interprets women as attractive or once-attractive, a Bellow protagonist does not generally care to explore their minds. When an intelligent woman does happen into a novel, such as Citrine's ex-wife, Denise, she uses her brainpower to think up ways to sue Citrine. In a variation on this theme, the gorgeous and "brilliant" Madeleine in the opening pages of Herzog destroys her new husband's career as a university professor and then divorces him.
Citrine himself sums up the conflict between brain and body that so troubles Bellow's novels. "I couldn't have a love affair with the daughter of a man who was teaching me so much," he says.
Why is this characteristic of Bellow's writing so unsettling when Western literature is full of a traditional misogyny? For one thing, Bellow is well aware of the dangers of stereotypes when they take other forms. Sammler writes to Cieslakiewicz, the man who hid him from the Nazis, and finds the letters he gets back degenerating into "anti-Semitic sentiments." Sammler describes the hate-talk as "nothing very vicious. Only a touch of the old stuff." But he recognizes the danger of the relapse into ordinary prejudices and the "exceptional demands" of the person who resists them.
The other reason Bellow unnerves me is more complicated. He invites his readers, without discriminating, into novels where thought, in all its pleasing diversions and excesses, is often plot. Implicitly, we are all encouraged to follow a moral consciousness that is at home equally with Ruskin, Morris, and Blake as with, as Bellow describes it in Herzog, "Chicago: massive, clumsy, amorphous, smelling of mud and decay, dog turds; sooty facades, slabs of structural nothing, senselessly ornamented triple porches with huge cement urns for flowers that contained only rotten cigarette butts and other stained filth; sun parlors under tiled gables, rank areaways, gray backstairs, seamed and ruptured concrete from which sprang grass; ponderous four-by-four fences that sheltered growing weeds." Yet, explicitly, he denies that women are capable of understanding the mind he invites everyone to enjoy. The denial of access coexists with an often welcoming, fascinating, and hilarious writing style that, in a few pages, will inform her that she is not supposed to understand. If she insists on pursuing that mind where it will lead, she learns that lesson again and again. It is like seeking approval where there is none to be had; it creates desperation.
Bellow may have been a man of his time, but he had plenty of models in novels that preceded his for female characters who had full intellects. And a distinct part of the pain of reading Bellow for me is seeing how his novels wrangle with and reject the idea that educating women could improve their minds. Arkin taught women at Hunter College, "charming, idiotic, nonsensical girls," remembers Sammler, "Now and then, a powerful female intelligence, but very angry, very complaining, too much sex-ideology, poor things." Bellow simply should have known better.
Even Bellow's Nobel Laureate address expresses discomfort with expanding learning to groups that, in earlier decades, would not have had access to it. "In America many millions of people have in the last forty years received a "higher education" in many cases a dubious blessing," he said, blaming the "upheavals" of the 1960s on "the pervasiveness of psychological, pedagogical, political ideas." In this observation, learning seems to be suspect if it is not carefully contained--right ideas in the right bodies.
In a Bellow novel, humanity depends upon an intellect that strives for integrity amid the shocks and whacks of daily, urban, American life. When such a novel denies the life of the mind to a female character, it also denies that she is fully human. Amid the astute moral observation, the comedic suspense, and the sentences that wind into a delightful democratic jumble, there is also this repeated theme: that women do not live a complete existence.
For writers of Bellow's generation, "great" is an overused adjective. If we are to adopt it with this writer, it behooves us to understand just what we are choosing to celebrate. For myself, the realization that Saul Bellow lacks morality in his treatment of women is a grievous knowledge not because he is a bad writer but because he is so often such an excellent one.
-- Anne-Marie Cusac is Investigative Reporter of The Progressive.