Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 9 No. 1


Saul Bellow (1915–2005)

SAUL Bellow died earlier this year at the age of 89. He was one of the few remaining literary modernists. His last published novel, in 2000, was Ravelstein, a thinly-disguised portrait of his life-long friend, University of Chicago colleague and fellow neo-conservative Alan Bloom. Both Bellow and Bloom hated the 1960s in general and black militancy in particular. Bloom wrote The Closing of the American Mind which likened 1960s radicals to Nazi brownshirts. In this assault on social movements, Bloom remained curiously silent on gay liberation. That was likely because Bloom was gay himself. He died of Aids in 1992.

Bellow shared Bloom’s contempt for cultural diversity. They were defiantly opposed to ‘watering down’ the curriculum with works foreign to the Great Books/Western Civilisation chapel. Bellow once wrote: ‘Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus? The Proust of the Papuans?’

Ironically, Christopher Hitchens, who is now running tours of Merrie Olde England in the spirit of Bloom/Bellow with David Horowitz and Paul Johnson, had these people nailed once upon a time. In his review of Ravelstein in the London Review of Books for 27 April 2000, Christopher Hitchens wrote:

Chaos, most especially the chaos identified with pissed-off African Americans, was the whole motif of The Closing of the American Mind. Bloom had taught at Cornell during the campus upheaval of 1968, and never recovered from the moment when black students produced guns to amplify their demands. (He also never reconciled himself to the ghastly fondness of the young for rock music. ‘Whether it be Nuremberg or Woodstock’, he wrote in a passage of extreme dyspepsia comparing everybody to the Brownshirts, ‘the principle is the same.’) However, there was hope. A small group of classics students copied out and xeroxed a passage against ochlocracy from Plato’s Republic and passed it out as a leaflet. Bloom sounds just like Bellow when he recalls this moment: ‘They had learned from this old book what was going on and had gained real distance on it.’

Despite his resentment at being viewed in this fashion, Saul Bellow was habitually grouped with fellow Jewish-American novelists Philip Roth and Bernard Malamud. All three had a talent for picaresque tale-telling and vivid characters, often gripped by one neurosis or another. Bellow subjected himself to psychoanalysis on three different occasions, and even sat in an orgone box for a time.

I regard Herzog as his crowning achievement. This is a novel about a character like Bellow. After being cuckolded, Moses Herzog goes to live in a cabin in the woods, where he writes long, philosophical letters to God and famous personages living and dead, but that are never sent. As a long-time writer of such letters on the Internet, I feel a certain kinship with Herzog, although my efforts probably have more to do with Lazlo Toth.

Like any other reactionary author, Bellow’s work has to be judged solely on literary merit. As such, Herzog would be sufficient grounds for awarding Bellow the Nobel Prize. In 1980, a year after I dropped out of the Trotskyist movement, I read this novel and a number of other classics in order to familiarise myself with novel-writing techniques. I had plans – you see – of writing the Great American Novel. After reading Herzog, I decided to get back into politics because there just didn’t seem to be any point in trying to accomplish something in a field that was so totally dominated by superior talents. There is one scene in particular in Herzog that made me feel like I was woefully inadequate. In a visit to one of his new girlfriends, Herzog spends a moment or two in her bathroom performing his ablutions. Bellow takes this opportunity to describe the woman’s character through the objects in the bathroom and how they are organised. It is a bravura performance. After reading this passage, I confessed to myself that I could never write like this in a million years.

After reading Herzog, I became a fan of Bellow despite his politics. My loyalty was put to the test when I read Mr Sammler’s Planet, a work about a Holocaust survivor on Manhattan’s Upper West Side that exhibits in full bloom (pun intended) his growing animosity toward blacks and resentment toward young radicals. Although Sammler is treated with a certain amount of disdain by Bellow, he becomes a vehicle for a lot of the racism and reactionary politics brewing inside the author. This is a favoured device of novelists shifting to the right: using fictional characters as a sounding board for their new ideas. By introducing an openly reactionary character, the novelist is free to state that this is ‘not really me, just a character’. This is a ploy used by Ian McEwan, whose latest novel Saturday features the stream of consciousness of a neurosurgeon alienated by protestors against the war in Iraq.

One of the most repellent (and unbelievable) scenes in Mr Sammler’s Planet involves Sammler and an immaculately dressed African-American pickpocket who exposes himself while robbing the old man. It not only stretches credulity. It breaks it into a thousand pieces.

In a fascinating article in the Guardian on 10 April 1993 entitled Marx At My Table, Saul Bellow describes his political evolution. After arriving in Chicago from Canada, Bellow describes his rapid politicisation in the 1930s:

The country took us over. We felt that to be here was a great piece of luck. The children of immigrants in my Chicago high school, however, believed that they were also somehow Russian, and while they studied their Macbeth and Milton’s L’Allegro, they read Tolstoy and Dostoevsky as well and went on inevitably to Lenin’s State and Revolution, and the pamphlets of Trotsky. The Tuley high school debating club discussed the Communist Manifesto and on the main stem of the neighbourhood, Division Street, the immigrant intelligentsia lectured from soapboxes, while at ‘the forum’, a church hall on California Avenue, debates between socialists, communists and anarchists attracted a fair number of people.

This was the beginning of my radical education. For on the recommendation of friends I took up Marx and Engels, and remember, in my father’s bleak office near the freight yards, blasting away at Value Price and Profit while the police raided a brothel across the street – for non-payment of protection, probably – throwing beds, bedding and chairs through the shattered windows. The Young Communist League tried to recruit me in the late 1930s. Too late – I had already read Trotsky’s pamphlet on the German question and was convinced that Stalin’s errors had brought Hitler to power.

In college in 1933 I was a Trotskyist. Trotsky instilled into his young followers the orthodoxy peculiar to the defeated and ousted. We belonged to the Movement, we were faithful to Leninism, and could expound the historical lessons and describe Stalin’s crimes. My closest friends and I were not, however, activists; we were writers. Owing to the Depression we had no career expectations. We got through the week on five or six bucks and if our rented rooms were small, the libraries were lofty, were beautiful. Through ‘revolutionary politics’ we met the demand of the times for action. But what really mattered was the vital personal nourishment we took from Dostoevsky or Herman Melville, from Dreiser and John Dos Passos and Faulkner. By filling out a slip of paper at the Crerar on Randolph Street you could get all the bound volumes of The Dial and fill long afternoons with T.S. Eliot, Rilke and E.E. Cummings.

Toward the end of the 1930s the Partisan Review was our own Dial, with politics besides. There we had access to our significant European contemporaries – Silone, Orwell, Koestler, Malraux, André Gide and Auden. Partisan’s leading American contributors were Marxists – critics and philosophers like Dwight Macdonald, James Burnham, Sidney Hook, Clement Greenberg, Meyer Schapiro and Harold Rosenberg. The Partisan Review intellectuals had sided with Trotsky quite naturally, during the Moscow Trials. Hook had persuaded his teacher John Dewey to head a commission of inquiry in Mexico. We followed the proceedings bitterly, passionately, for we were, of course, the Outs; the Stalinists were the Ins. We alone in the US knew what a bad lot they were. FDR and his New Dealers didn’t have a clue, they understood neither Russia nor communism.

Although I now drifted away from Marxist politics, I still admired Lenin and Trotsky. After all, I had first heard of them in the high-chair while eating my mashed potatoes. How could I forget that Trotsky had created the Red Army, that he had read French novels at the front while defeating Denikin? That great crowds had been swayed by his coruscating speeches? The glamour of the Revolution still cast its spell. Besides, the most respected literary and intellectual figures had themselves yielded. Returning from a visit to Russia, Edmund Wilson had spoken about ‘the moral light at the top of the world’, and it was Wilson who had introduced us to Joyce and Proust. His history of revolutionary thought, To The Finland Station, was published in 1940. By that time Poland had been invaded and France had fallen.

Nineteen-forty was also the year of Trotsky’s assassination.

I was in Mexico at the time, and an acquaintance of the Old Man, a European lady whom I had met in Taxco, arranged a meeting. Trotsky agreed to receive my friend Herbert Passin and me in Coyoacan. It was on the morning of our appointment that he was struck down, and when we reached Mexico City we were met by the headlines. When we went to his villa we must have been taken for foreign journalists, and we were directed to the hospital. The emergency room was in disorder. We had only to ask for Trotsky. A door into a small room was opened for us and there we saw him. He had just died. A cone of bloody bandages was on his head. His cheeks, his nose, his beard, his throat were streaked with blood and with dried trickles of iodine.

He is reported to have said once that Stalin could kill him whenever he liked, and now we understood what a far-reaching power could do with us; how little it took to kill us, how slight a hold we, with our historical philosophies, our ideas, programmes, purposes, wills, had on the matter we were made of.

It is perfectly true, as Charles Fairbanks has suggested, that totalitarianism in our century has shaped the very definition of what an intellectual is. The ‘vanguard fighters’ who acted under Lenin’s direction in October were intellectuals, and perhaps the glamour of this event had its greatest affect on intellectuals in the West. Among political activists this was sufficiently evident, but the Bolshevik model was immensely influential everywhere.

Trotsky and T.E. Lawrence were perhaps the most outstanding of the intellectual activists to emerge from the First World War – the former as Lenin’s principal executive, Lawrence as the delicate scholar and recluse, a Shakespearian Fortinbras materialising in the Arabian desert. Malraux was inspired by both men, obviously, an aesthete and theorist eager in his first phase for revolutionary action, and manifesting a curious relish for violence in a great cause. It was he who set an example for French writers of the 1940s. Sartre was certainly one of his descendants and many in France and elsewhere modelled themselves upon him, up to the time when he abjured revolution. There was a trace of this also in Arthur Koestler, who so often exposed himself to personal danger, but it was in France between the 1930s until the time of Regis Debray that leftist intellectuals presented themselves in the West as soldiers of the revolution.

The article concludes with Bellow’s confession that ‘politics as a vocation I take seriously. But it’s not my vocation. And on the whole writers are not much good at it.’ I think that we call all agree on this.

Louis Proyect

Updated by ETOL: 30.10.2011