Wednesday, April 06, 2005

On Saul Bellow's Nobel Lecture

The American writer Saul Bellow has passed away.

I haven't read enough of Saul Bellow to comment on his oeuvre or his legacy. But one way of honoring him while continuing to tangle with him critically might be to point readers to his Nobel Lecture, from 1976.

Amongst the various 'noble' sentiments he offers in the lecture, Bellow makes a pretty specific point about the function of character in contemporary writing. He tangles with Alain Robbe-Grillet's claim that the novel of bourgeois individualism is "obsolete" because in the latter half of the 20th century individuals are less important than ideas, systems, processes. Here is his quote from Robbe-Grillet's essay On Several Obsolete Notions:

"Fifty years of disease, the death notice signed many times over by the serious essayists," says Robbe-Grillet, "yet nothing has managed to knock it ["character"] off the pedestal on which the 19th century had placed it. It is a mummy now, but one still enthroned with the same phony majesty, among the values revered by traditional criticism."

Bellow's lecture defends complex human character as the subject of literature, whose death is rather prematurely announced by Robbe-Grillet and others, beginning in the 1960s.

And art and literature - what of them? Well, there is a violent uproar but we are not absolutely dominated by it. We are still able to think, to discriminate, and to feel. The purer, subtler, higher activities have not succumbed to fury or to nonsense. Not yet. Books continue to be written and read. It may be more difficult to reach the whirling mind of a modern reader but it is possible to cut through the noise and reach the quiet zone. In the quiet zone we may find that he is devoutly waiting for us. When complications increase, the desire for essentials increases too. The unending cycle of crises that began with the First World War has formed a kind of person, one who has lived through terrible, strange things, and in whom there is an observable shrinkage of prejudices, a casting off of disappointing ideologies, an ability to live with many kinds of madness, an immense desire for certain durable human goods - truth, for instance, or freedom, or wisdom. I don't think I am exaggerating; there is plenty of evidence for this.

Take away the damage done by war and the noise of ideology, and the reader is still there.

But why do many contemporary writers fail to hold the place of importance they once did for readers? Bellow feels that literature has become in some sense marginal to the center of human activity, and goes to Hegel:

But for a long time art has not been connected, as it was in the past, with the main enterprise. The historian Edgar Wind tells us in Art and Anarchy that Hegel long ago observed that art no longer engaged the central energies of man. These energies were now engaged by science - a "relentless spirit of rational inquiry." Art had moved to the margins. There it formed "a wide and splendidly varied horizon." In an age of science people still painted and wrote poetry but, said Hegel, however splendid the gods looked in modern works of art and whatever dignity and perfection we might find "in the images of God the Father and the Virgin Mary" it was of no use: we no longer bent our knees. It is a long time since the knees were bent in piety. Ingenuity, daring exploration, freshness of invention replaced the art of "direct relevance." The most significant achievement of this pure art, in Hegel's view, was that, freed from its former responsibilities, it was no longer "serious." Instead it raised the soul through the "serenity of form above any painful involvement in the limitations of reality." I don't know who would make such a claim today for an art that raises the soul above painful involvements with reality. Nor am I sure that at this moment, it is the spirit of rational inquiry in pure science that engages the central energies of man. The center seems (temporarily perhaps) to be filled up with the crises I have been describing.

So Bellow isn't sure if "science" rules the roost after all. The prospect of centrality is still available to writers if they are inspired enough to enter it. As he says at the end of the essay, "If writers do not come again into the center it will not be because the center is pre-empted. It is not. They are free to enter. If they so wish."

There are two things that I find interesting about this. One is, in his resistance to Robbe-Grillet, Bellow sounds an awful lot like people today who (like Terry Eagleton, say) complain about the drift of both contemporary literature and the criticism that is associated with it. It's not just an old debate, it's a very old debate.

The other is in this business about centers and margins, and the purpose of art. For Bellow, the time when art inspired the bending of knees was also the time when it had a ritualistic function -- when it was the image of Jesus and the Virgin Mary that inspired one, not the precision of the craftsmanship or the verisimilitude of the image. Arguably, in a secular culture art and literature can never be quite as powerful as in the kind of pre-modern society Bellow is thinking of, where the thing that "high" art represents is never in fact merely physically present.

Perhaps Bellow's idea of the "center" is just a euphemism for writing really, really well. Or maybe it's more serious: but what might it mean to make a work of art that accesses the central nerves of human development at the present moment? More concretely, if it were a novel, what kind of novel would it be? Would it look like Saul Bellow's own work?


Prashant Kothari said...

"Arguably, in a secular culture art and literature can never be quite as powerful as in the kind of pre-modern society"


Another factor in the decreased role of literature: the change in the supply-demand equation w.r.t our time.

On the one hand, increased demands on our time from ever-widening sources of entertainment (films, TV, the Internet, and now video games). And on the other, decreased supply of time (most people working longer hours today vis-a-vis their grand parents)

9:03 PM  

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