Saul Bellow’s Late-in-Life Exploration of Transcendence and Tradition

Ruth R. Wisse
pick
Aug. 18 2022
About Ruth

Ruth R. Wisse is a Mosaic columnist, professor emerita of Yiddish and comparative literatures at Harvard and a distinguished senior fellow at the Tikvah Fund. Her memoir Free as a Jew: a Personal Memoir of National Self-Liberation, chapters of which appeared in Mosaic in somewhat different form, is out from Wicked Son Press.

In his 1990 story “Something to Remember Me By,” the great American Jewish novelist Saul Bellow writes in the voice of an aging father—Louie—addressing his only son. Ruth R. Wisse, comparing the work to the ethical wills of traditional Jewish literature, examines its conclusion, which comes after a Bellovian tale of youthful aspirations, misadventure, sexual humiliation, and complex family dynamics:

The grown Louie writes: “You, my only child, are only too familiar with my lifelong absorption in or craze for further worlds” (my emphasis). I stress those words because Bellow himself integrates so many areas of life and thought into his fiction that it is easy to overlook his reach for transcendence. This lifelong absorption began for him in childhood when he recited the daily morning prayers with his father and brothers. In adolescence, he began exploring the subject eclectically in books. He did not bring the subject into his fiction until he was already the “great American writer.” Nor, to my knowledge, did he ever ascribe this belief in an afterlife to any Jewish or formal religious source. It always remained semi-obscured, as it does here, while forming an indispensable part of his legacy.

In addressing his son, Louie thinks him “too well educated, respectably rational” to believe, as he himself does, in the continuum of spirit and nature. Recounting how carelessly he had treated his inheritance, Louie is under no illusions about the next generation. But Bellow the writer did not succumb to cynicism, about either literature or life. Like Louie, he thinks that by honestly conveying what is most important, how all parts of life hold together and include the ineffable, his disclosure can help to actively perpetuate civilization.

An ethical will does not flatter its intended beneficiaries but tries to leave them something they may otherwise be missing. Modern man cannot bring down another set of commandments from the mountaintop, and Bellow could not become a rabbinic authority. His “Louie” reveals himself as the Jewish boy who had to go out into the world to learn to value the deathless love of his mother and the steadying hand of his father.

Subscribe to Mosaic

Welcome to Mosaic

Subscribe now to get unlimited access to the best of Jewish thought and culture

Subscribe

Subscribe to Mosaic

Welcome to Mosaic

Subscribe now to get unlimited access to the best of Jewish thought and culture

Subscribe

Read more at Sapir

More about: American Jewish literature, Judaism, Literature, Saul Bellow

UN Peacekeepers in Lebanon Risk Their Lives, but Still May Do More Harm Than Good

Jan. 27 2023

Last month an Irish member of the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) was killed by Hizballah guerrillas who opened fire on his vehicle. To David Schenker, it is likely the peacekeeper was “assassinated” to send “a clear message of Hizballah’s growing hostility toward UNIFIL.” The peacekeeping force has had a presence in south Lebanon since 1978, serving first to maintain calm between Israel and the PLO, and later between Israel and Hizballah. But, Schenker explains, it seems to be accomplishing little in that regard:

In its biannual reports to the Security Council, UNIFIL openly concedes its failure to interdict weapons destined for Hizballah. While the contingent acknowledges allegations of “arms transfers to non-state actors” in Lebanon, i.e., Hizballah, UNIFIL says it’s “not in a position to substantiate” them. Given how ubiquitous UN peacekeepers are in the Hizballah heartland, this perennial failure to observe—let alone appropriate—even a single weapons delivery is a fair measure of the utter failure of UNIFIL’s mission. Regardless, Washington continues to pour hundreds of millions of dollars into this failed enterprise, and its local partner, the Lebanese Armed Forces.

Since 2006, UNIFIL patrols have periodically been subjected to Hizballah roadside bombs in what quickly proved to be a successful effort to discourage the organization proactively from executing its charge. In recent years, though, UN peacekeepers have increasingly been targeted by the terror organization that runs Lebanon, and which tightly controls the region that UNIFIL was set up to secure. The latest UN reports tell a harrowing story of a spike in the pattern of harassment and assaults on the force. . . .

Four decades on, UNIFIL’s mission has clearly become untenable. Not only is the organization ineffective, its deployment serves as a key driver of the economy in south Lebanon, employing and sustaining Hizballah’s supporters and constituents. At $500 million a year—$125 million of which is paid by Washington—the deployment is also expensive. Already, the force is in harm’s way, and during the inevitable next war between Israel and Hizballah, this 10,000-strong contingent will provide the militia with an impressive human shield.

Subscribe to Mosaic

Welcome to Mosaic

Subscribe now to get unlimited access to the best of Jewish thought and culture

Subscribe

Subscribe to Mosaic

Welcome to Mosaic

Subscribe now to get unlimited access to the best of Jewish thought and culture

Subscribe

Read more at Tablet

More about: Hizballah, Lebanon, Peacekeepers, U.S. Foreign policy