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

Aug. 18 2022
About Ruth

Ruth R. Wisse is professor emerita of Yiddish and comparative literatures at Harvard and a distinguished senior fellow at Tikvah. 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.

Read more at Sapir

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

The ICJ’s Vice-President Explains What’s Wrong with Its Recent Ruling against Israel

It should be obvious to anyone with even rudimentary knowledge of the Gaza war that Israel is not committing genocide there, or anything even remotely akin to it. In response to such spurious accusations, it’s often best to focus on the mockery they make of international law itself, or on how Israel can most effectively combat them. Still, it is also worth stopping to consider the legal case on its own terms. No one has done this quite so effectively, to my knowledge, as the Ugandan jurist Julia Sebutinde, who is the vice-president of the ICJ and the only one of its judges to rule unequivocally in Israel’s favor both in this case and in the previous one where it found accusations of genocide “plausible.”

Sebutinde begins by questioning the appropriateness of the court ruling on this issue at all:

Once again, South Africa has invited the Court to micromanage the conduct of hostilities between Israel and Hamas. Such hostilities are exclusively governed by the laws of war (international humanitarian law) and international human-rights law, areas where the Court lacks jurisdiction in this case.

The Court should also avoid trying to enforce its own orders. . . . Is the Court going to reaffirm its earlier provisional measures every time a party runs to it with allegations of a breach of its provisional measures? I should think not.

Sebutinde also emphasizes the absurdity of hearing this case after Israel has taken “multiple concrete actions” to alleviate the suffering of Gazan civilians since the ICJ’s last ruling. In fact, she points out, “the evidence actually shows a gradual improvement in the humanitarian situation in Gaza since the Court’s order.” She brings much evidence in support of these points.

She concludes her dissent by highlighting the procedural irregularities of the case, including a complete failure to respect the basic rights of the accused:

I find it necessary to note my serious concerns regarding the manner in which South Africa’s request and incidental oral hearings were managed by the Court, resulting in Israel not having sufficient time to file its written observations on the request. In my view, the Court should have consented to Israel’s request to postpone the oral hearings to the following week to allow for Israel to have sufficient time to fully respond to South Africa’s request and engage counsel. Regrettably, as a result of the exceptionally abbreviated timeframe for the hearings, Israel could not be represented by its chosen counsel, who were unavailable on the dates scheduled by the Court.

It is also regrettable that Israel was required to respond to a question posed by a member of the Court over the Jewish Sabbath. The Court’s decisions in this respect bear upon the procedural equality between the parties and the good administration of justice by the Court.

Read more at International Court of Justice

More about: Gaza War 2023, ICC, International Law