Saul Bellow, Cancel Culture, and the Dangers of Setting Limits on Imaginative Freedom

July 23, 2021 | Howard Jacobson
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To the delicate sensibilities of the early 21st-century, the treatment of race relations in Saul Bellow’s 1970 novel Mr. Sammler’s Planet is, to put it politely, “highly problematic.” One could say the same of Bellow’s literary treatment of women. And that’s not to mention the works of his younger contemporary, Philip Roth, a biography of whom itself caused a scandal in the literary world. Howard Jacobson reminisces about his first encounters with Bellow’s fiction (“Mr. Sammler’s Planet, it has to be said, was not an encouraging novel for a first-time visitor to New York”), and the fate of Bellow’s work in our censorious present:

The pagan dramatists didn’t have to explain away their engrossment in deicide and incest. They had no stern moralizer God to answer to. Jewish novelists, on the other hand, forever pretending to be the hoodlums they’re not, have to make some sort of an apology for their imposture before taking art where art exists to go.

On the face of it, our age has grown a little too nice for both Roth and Bellow. And those recent encyclopedically candid biographies won’t do anything to improve their personal reputations. But as novelists, the future could be theirs. In showing a willingness to countenance what’s presently considered bad, their novels demonstrate the limits of what’s presently considered good.

I’ve never had the patience for the misogyny charge so often leveled at Philip Roth. Misogyny is not a literary sin. A novelist may dislike women as he may dislike Jews and still write sentences that light up the mind. . . . Bellow’s appreciation of women fares no better with those for whom reading is a species of invigilation. But the closeness of his scrutiny of those women, like Sammler’s scrutiny of the Black thief, can be visionary, as illuminatingly witty in its minuteness as Dickens or Henry James, as voluminous and glowing as Rubens. The scenes in which Herzog, [in the book of the same name], observes his ex-wife Madeleine applying makeup, or genuflecting upon entering church, are masterpieces of comic and devotional observation.

It’s a cop-out to explain away the novel’s improprieties on the grounds that they are of another age. Any novel is what it is for all time, and we must take the good and the bad of it on the chin. And besides, if there is a pure exultancy in ugliness, where will we go to find it when all ugliness is expunged from discourse? If we truly believe that an enlarged vision is the artist’s reward for rummaging among the dross (I mean their own no less than society’s), we have no business setting limits to imaginative freedom.

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