April 7, 2005


Big ideas and wandering fools: Saul Bellow (1915-2005): The great Chicago novelist created a unique imaginative universe that made sense of modern human experience of crisis and change, says Tom McBride. (Tom McBride, 7 - 4 - 2005, Open Democracy)

As Hamlet said we defy augury, so does Saul Bellow defy category. Bellow once said that all of us are obliged to make difficult judgments about what it all means. It was, he said, both the price and the privilege of freedom. As Ian McEwan recently suggested in a radio interview, in the first world we are both terribly rich and terribly worried.

Bellow would have agreed. He was fascinated with our not-knowing. We cannot “know” a world that is overmediated – wildly overcooked with images and mottos and self-help and a million other steamy ideas – as we “know” physics or chemistry. He believed in the individual’s quest for integrity and love, guided by the great writers but not overwhelmed by them, learning from the swindlers but not driven to despair by them. The melody of his words, the lavish messiness of his characters and their settings, the obsession with ideas and their consequences or lack thereof – these are the features of Bellow’s World. There is none other quite like it. Many yet unborn will enter it, laugh, and be harrowed.

The great tragedy of 20th century man was the desire for life to be more complicated than our religious forebears knew it to be. It took a couple hundred million dead to work that nonsense out of our system.

-Rereading Saul Bellow (Philip Roth, 2000-10-09, The New Yorker)
He Thrived on Chaos: Remembering Saul Bellow. (JEFFREY MEYERS, April 7, 2005, Opinion Journal)

The two greatest postwar American novelists--Vladimir Nabokov, a Russian exile, and Saul Bellow, a Montreal-born Jew--were intellectual outsiders. Both mainlined the European novel of ideas into the veins of American literature and infused it with a coruscating, high-octane style. Mr. Bellow's prose is energetic and torrential; his voice learned and allusive. He thrived on chaos and loved contention, courted conflict and was inspired by personal cataclysm. It's fascinating to see how Mr. Bellow, married five times, sublimated his misery and portrayed his wives, from goddess to bitch, before and after they divorced him.

-Finding Augie March: Saul Bellow’s first novels. (Joan Acocella, 2003-10-06, The New Yorker)

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 7, 2005 6:15 PM

Bellow's metaphysics (the metaphysics, curiously enough, of both poets and scientists) is not only ancient, it perennially reemerges whenever and wherever it is trampled by the powers that be. Mystical, poetic, androgynous pantheism is the cockroach of religions. And that's a good thing.

Posted by: ghostcat at April 7, 2005 7:43 PM

The cockroach is eternal and annoying, but not useful.

Posted by: oj at April 7, 2005 7:54 PM

Morphed into a Utilitarian now, have we?

Posted by: ghostcat at April 7, 2005 8:03 PM

Incidentally (and seriously) thanks for posting all those Bellow eulogies. I, for one, would have missed most of them otherwise.

Posted by: ghostcat at April 7, 2005 8:18 PM

The desire for complexity (nuance, depth, gradation, subtlety, whatever) has not disappeared; it will always be there, as an escape from moral clarity.

However, the names the 20th century gave (socialism & communism) are gone, at least for now.

But the deceitful lives of men like John Kerry prove that the 'Big Lie' continues unabated.

Posted by: jim hamlen at April 7, 2005 8:30 PM

Utilitarianism is one of the needless confusions.

Posted by: oj at April 7, 2005 8:41 PM

Consider the reaction you received the last time you said anything remotely "clear". I recently lost really good friends over something as simple as arguing against communism in China too vehemently with a Chinese student who was rooming at their house. (I wasn't being "gracious", in the "christian" sense. Of course, they tried to kill Jesus just after describing his words as "gracious", so I don't know what they were complaining about.)

Life may be like navigating an ocean full of icebergs, but that doesn't make it complex.

Posted by: Randall Voth at April 7, 2005 8:56 PM


I once had a close friend from church tell me that you could drive almost anyone crazy by asking them "why?" five times in succession. I was about his only close friend.

For me, I lost friends (back when I was single) when I dared to point out that we cannot specify/demand how we will be loved by our friends (and even our spouses). Some guys thought I was being too quirky, and most women thought I was being too harsh. But all I really did was ask people if God loved them the way they wanted all the time.

I appreciate your iceberg analogy.

Posted by: jim hamlen at April 7, 2005 11:00 PM


Did this friend work for Toyota? This questioning is a method of Taichi Ohno, who worked for Toyota and is largely responsible for its pioneering manufacturing techniques. Excerpt from an interesting article:

"Ohno was legendary for his zeal. His commitment. His dedication to process improvement. His asking of "why" five times. Try it: Take a situation. Ask someone who is responsible for it "Why?" Once they answer, "Why? again. And again. And again. Once more. The person whom you question either ought to like or respect you, because otherwise they're going to be annoyed."


Posted by: Rick T. at April 8, 2005 9:17 AM