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

War with Iran Isn’t on the Horizon. So Why All the Arguments against It?

As the U.S. has responded to Iranian provocations in the Persian Gulf, various observers in the press have argued that National Security Advisor John Bolton somehow seeks to drag President Trump into a war with Iran against his will. Matthew Continetti points out the absurdities of this argument, and its origins:

Never mind that President Trump, Vice-President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan, and Bolton have not said a single word about a preemptive strike, much less a full-scale war, against Iran. Never mind that the president’s reluctance for overseas intervention is well known. The “anti-war” cries are not about context, and they are certainly not about deterring Iran. Their goal is saving President Obama’s nuclear deal by manipulating Trump into firing Bolton and extending a lifeline to the regime.

It’s a storyline that originated in Iran. Toward the end of April, Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif showed up in New York and gave an interview to Reuters where he said, “I don’t think [Trump] wants war,” but “that doesn’t exclude him basically being lured into one” by Bolton. . . . And now this regime talking point is everywhere. “It’s John Bolton’s world. Trump is just living in it,” write two former Obama officials in the Los Angeles Times. “John Bolton is Donald Trump’s war whisperer,” writes Peter Bergen on CNN.com. . . .

Recall Obama’s deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes’s admission to the New York Times Magazine in 2016 [that] “We created an echo chamber” to attack the Iran deal’s opponents through leaks and tips to the D.C. press. . . . Members of the echo chamber aren’t for attacking Iran, but they are all for slandering its American opponents. The latest target is Bolton. . . .

The Iranians are in a box. U.S. sanctions are crushing the economy, but if they leave the agreement with Europe they will be back to square one. To escape the box you try to punch your way out. That’s why Iran has assumed a threatening posture: provoking an American attack could bolster waning domestic support for the regime and divide the Western alliance.

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More about: Barack Obama, Iran, Javad Zarif, John Bolton, U.S. Foreign policy