In 1976, the great novelist Saul Bellow wrote his sole book-length nonfiction work, a travelogue called To Jerusalem and Back. Bellow’s account is informed not only by several months in Israel but also by his reading of literary antecedents, including the decidedly anti-Semitic French writer Pierre Loti, who visited Jerusalem in 1894, and the great French conservative Catholic François-René de Chateaubriand, whose 1809 travelogue displays a bit of admiration for Jews mixed in with a great deal of contempt. Considering both Bellow’s work and the works of those who influenced him, Paul Berman writes:
In the single most remarkable passage of his To Jerusalem and Back, Bellow frets over his own ability to see and to appreciate miracles and supernatural astonishments. He wants to see and appreciate, but he worries that he does not have the capacity to do anything of the sort. In this one respect, he resembles Chateaubriand pretty closely, give or take every conceivable difference. Chateaubriand had an exciting experience in the Jewish Quarter, but that was only because of exceptional qualities that, in his view, adhered to Jerusalem and the Jews. Mostly Chateaubriand considered that, for an intelligent man like himself, attuned to the modern ideas of 1809, it was no longer possible to undergo supernatural astonishments.
The Jerusalem sky reminds [Bellow] of the psalmist who sings of “God’s garment of light.” He wonders if, in gazing upward at the sky, he isn’t seeing the garment.
But it was Mount Zion, which he could see from his quarters in Jerusalem, that struck the novelist the most. In Bellow’s own words:
Letting down the barriers of rationality, I feel that I can hear Mount Zion as well as see it. . . . There is no reason this hill should have a voice, emit a note audible only to a man facing it across the valley. What is there to communicate? It must be that a world from which mystery has been extirpated makes your modern heart ache and increases suggestibility. In poetry you welcome such suggestibility. When it erupts at the wrong time (in a rational context) you send for the police; these psychological police drive out your criminal “animism.” Your respectable aridity is restored. Nevertheless, I will not forget that I was communicated with.