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

Who Changed the Term “Nakba” into a Symbol of Arab Victimization?

April 19 2019

In contemporary Palestinian discourse, not to mention that of the Palestinians’ Western supporters, the creation of the state of Israel is known as the Nakba, or catastrophe—sometimes explicitly compared with the Holocaust. The very term has come to form a central element in a narrative of passive Palestinian suffering at Jewish hands. But when the Syrian historian Constantin Zureiq first used the term with regard to the events of 1948, he meant something quite different, and those responsible for changing its meaning were none other than Israelis. Raphael Bouchnik-Chen explains:

In his 1948 pamphlet The Meaning of the Disaster (Ma’na al-Nakba), Zureiq attributed the Palestinian/Arab flight to the stillborn pan-Arab assault on the nascent Jewish state rather than to a premeditated Zionist design to disinherit the Palestinian Arabs. “We [Arabs] must admit our mistakes,” [he wrote], “and recognize the extent of our responsibility for the disaster that is our lot.” . . . In a later book, The Meaning of the Catastrophe Anew, published after the June 1967 war, he defined that latest defeat as a “Nakba,” . . . since—just as in 1948—it was a self-inflicted disaster emanating from the Arab world’s failure to confront Zionism. . . .

It was only in the late 1980s that it began to be widely perceived as an Israeli-inflicted injustice. Ironically, it was a group of politically engaged, self-styled Israeli “new historians” who provided the Palestinian national movement with perhaps its best propaganda tool by turning the saga of Israel’s birth upside down, with aggressors turned into hapless victims, and vice-versa, on the basis of massive misrepresentation of archival evidence.

While earlier generations of Palestinian academics and intellectuals had refrained from exploring the origins of the 1948 defeat, the PLO chairman Yasir Arafat, who was brought to Gaza and the West Bank as part of the 1993 Oslo Accords and was allowed to establish his Palestinian Authority (PA) in parts of those territories, grasped the immense potential of reincarnating the Nakba as a symbol of Palestinian victimhood rather than a self-inflicted disaster. In 1998, he proclaimed May 15 a national day of remembrance of the Nakba. In subsequent years, “Nakba Day” has become an integral component of the Palestinian national narrative and the foremost event commemorating their 1948 “catastrophe.”

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More about: Arab World, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, New historians, Yasir Arafat