Was Saul Bellow a Novelist of Ideas?

Feb. 25 2019

Reviewing the second volume of Zachary Leader’s biography of Saul Bellow, which covers the Nobel Prize-winning novelist’s life from 1965 (the year after the publication of Herzog) to his death in 2005, Abe Greenwald explores Bellow’s philosophical and ideological commitments. Greenwald praises Leader for producing a “sprawling anthology of Bellow’s ideas—politics, metaphysics, love, and more—and a treasure map to these ideas in Bellow’s life and fiction.” This is particularly important since

it is neither Bellow’s personal nor fictional explorations in the realm of the physical that are the most compelling elements of his life. Arguably, it’s his perpetual search for transcendence, for large systems or explanations that account for man’s existence. It’s what loaned his art a touch of the numinous and fueled the childlike sense of wonder he retained throughout his life. [The first volume of the biography] covered Bellow’s earlier flirtation with the radical and pseudoscientific psychology of Wilhelm Reich, and [the second] relays a particularly fascinating episode pertaining to his more earnest interest in “anthroposophy,” the mystical teachings of the Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner (1861–1925).

The episode is fascinating because it perfectly captures the intersection of some key Bellow traits, [among them] his desperate pursuit of the spiritual. . . .

Yet for all the value Greenwald finds in Bellow’s engagement with the philosophers, he also agrees with the critic Seymour Epstein’s biting comment on the novelist’s handling of the issue in much of his fiction (in this case the 1975 novel Humboldt’s Gift): “the novelist who has raised important questions owes us the integrity not to trivialize those questions by repetitive improvisation on a theme, no matter how adroit.” Greenwald concludes:

While Bellow possessed a preternatural gift for description—an ability “to call all things by some name,” as Bernard Malamud described it—his work was frequently stretched out of shape by circular, noncommittal musings on abstract notions. This was an indulgence he never tamed.

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More about: American Jewish literature, Arts & Culture, Literature, Saul Bellow

Despite What the UN Says, the Violence at the Gaza Border Is Military, Not Civilian, in Nature

March 22 2019

On Monday, a UN Human Rights Council commission of inquiry issued its final report on last spring’s disturbances at the Gaza border. Geoffrey Corn and Peter Margulies explain why the report is fatally flawed:

The commission framed the events [in Gaza] as a series of demonstrations that were “civilian in nature.” Israel and its Supreme Court, [which has investigated some of the killings that occurred], framed the same events quite differently: as a new evolution in Israel’s ongoing armed conflict with the terrorist organization Hamas. Consistency and common sense suggest that the Israeli High Court of Justice’s framing is a more rational explanation of what occurred at the Israel-Gaza border in spring 2018.

Kites, [for instance], played a telltale role [in the violence]. When most people think of kites, they think of a child’s plaything or a hobbyist’s harmless passion. In the Gaza confrontation, kites [became] a new and effective, albeit low-tech, tactic for attacking Israel. As the report conceded, senior Gaza leaders, including from Hamas, “encouraged” the unleashing of waves of incendiary kites that during and since the spring 2018 confrontations have burned thousands of acres of arable land within Israel. The resulting destruction included fires that damaged the Kerem Shalom border crossing, which conveys goods and gasoline from Israel to Gaza. . . .

Moreover, the incendiary-kite offensive was an effective diversion from the efforts encouraged and coordinated by Hamas last spring to pierce the border with Israel and attack both IDF personnel and the civilian residents of the beleaguered Israeli towns a short distance from the border fence. . . .

The commission also failed to acknowledge that Hamas sought to use civilians as an operational cover to move members of its armed wing into position along the fence. For IDF commanders, this increased the importance of preventing a breach [in the fence]. Large crowds directly along the fence would simplify breakthrough attempts by intermingled Hamas and other belligerent operatives. The crowds themselves also could attempt to pour through any breach. Unfortunately, the commission seems to have completely omitted any credible assessment of the potential casualties on all sides that would have resulted from IDF action to seal a breach once it was achieved. . . .

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More about: Gaza Strip, Hamas, Israel & Zionism, Israeli Security, Laws of war, UNHRC, United Nations