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 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.

Read more at Sapir

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

A Catholic Reporter Attends Anti-Israel Protests and the Pro-Israel Rally

Mary Margaret Olohan has spent much of her career in journalism covering demonstrations of various kinds. Since October 7, she has attended numerous anti-Israel gatherings, an experience she discusses with Robert Nicholson and Dominique Hoffman. Olohan explains the ways protestors intimidate outsiders, the online instruction booklet for protests distributed by Students for Justice in Palestine, the systematic avoidance of any condemnation of Hamas, and much else. To this, she contrasts her experience at the joyous yet serious November 14 rally for Israel. Olohan also talks about how her own Christian faith has influenced her journalism. (Audio, 61 minutes.)

Read more at Deep Map

More about: American Jewry, Gaza War 2023, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict