Discussed in this essay: Bellow: A Biography, by James Atlas. Random House, 2000. 688 pages. $35.
The novelist Saul Bellow is many things to many people. To some, he is the self-made literary Bourbon who restored the soul to American letters; to others, the Jewish Jackie Robinson who smashed his own idiom through WASP exclusions. To still others, he is the wisecracking custodian of the best that has been thought and said; or the patient stylist in Flaubert’s line, laboring to make language a prehensile attachment to the eye. To my mind, this is all either piffle or partial truth. Bellow’s genius consists in his being one of the greatest meshuganas who ever lived.
“Meshuga” means harmlessly crazy in Yiddish, but I am going to take liberties and use it in the sense of being gripped by divine laughter. Bellow himself characterizes this state of being in “Him with His Foot in His Mouth,” a story about a man, Shawmut, whose truth-compulsion guarantees his social isolation: “In various ways I have been trying to say this to you, using words like seizure, rapture, demonic possession, frenzy, Fatum, divine madness, or even solar storm—on a microcosmic scale.” Shawmut’s irresistible urge to tell it straight manifests itself in witticisms that arouse the wildest life-giving laughter. It is the opposite of the spasms of blind self-regard that destroyed many of Bellow’s friends and contemporaries: John Berryman, Randall Jarrell, Robert Lowell, Jean Stafford, Delmore Schwartz. Meshuga is the other side of destruction, a reconstitution in the form of a momentary flying-apart. The Meshuga Principle ventilates what self-destructive outbursts of deep forces actually work to repress.
Bellow has written a wise and affecting essay called “Mozart: An Overture” about his lifelong love for the composer. Mozartean laughter is, in fact, the very quality that fuels his meshuga energy. “That’s the animal ridens in me, the laughing creature, forever rising up,” thinks Augie March to himself at the conclusion of The Adventures of Augie March, a novel that begins almost farcically with an old woman at the mercy of an animal—a dog—and ends with several dogs bounding into the air and kissing the face of their master, an image of happy parity between humans and their physical nature. This communion between the individual and his or her animal power is one of Bellow’s great themes. Here is most of the final paragraph of Herzog:
Coming back from the woods, he picked some flowers for the table. He wondered whether there was a corkscrew in the drawer. Had Madeleine taken it to Chicago? Well, maybe Ramona had a corkscrew in her Mercedes. An unreasonable thought. A nail could be used, if it came to that. Or you could break the neck of the bottle as they did in old movies. Meanwhile, he filled his hat from the rambler vine, the one that clutched the rainpipe. The spines were still too green to hurt much. By the cistern there were yellow day lilies. He rook some of these, too, but they wilted instantly. And, back in the darker garden, he looked for peonies; perhaps some had survived. . . . He turned his dark face toward the house again. . . . He set down his hat, with the roses and day lilies, on the half-painted piano, and went into his study, carrying the wine bottles in one hand like a pair of Indian clubs. Walking over notes and papers, he lay down on his Recamier couch. As he stretched out, he took a long breath, and then he lay, looking at the mesh of. the screen, pulled loose by vines, and listening to the steady scratching of Mrs. Tuttle’s broom. He wanted to tell her to sprinkle the floor. She was raising too much dust. In a few minutes he would call down to her, “Damp it down, Mrs. Tuttle. There’s water in the sink.” But not just yet.
At the close of a novel in which an intellectual has tried to reconcile his experience with his ideas about experience, Bellow creates a brief existential harmony. The passage undulates between nature and culture—from the natural woods to the civilized corkscrew; from the physical act of breaking the bottle to the movies, that civilized simulacrum of uncivilized behavior. There is the hat and the roses; the half-painted piano; the wine bottles and the Indian clubs; the civilized notes and papers that get savagely trodden on; the protective screen, which gets pulled loose by the wild vine. And the novel ends at a perfect Mozartean pitch, with dust, the primal element of death, about to be joined with water, the primal element of life. Herzog is set to issue instructions for the improvement of his condition; he is about to commence the operation of civilization once again. But he pauses. He wants his thoughts to stop. He wants the serenity, if not the actuality, of death for just a few seconds longer, which is all that he will be able to bear.
Rearranging life’s givens in such a way is a refusal to accept the tyranny of life’s givens, and that is the essence of laughter and the function of art. It is also the promise of democracy. Bellow fittingly ends Humboldt’s Gift, his epic story of a genius-poet of humble origins who achieves fame before ruining himself, with an old joke from Jewish immigrant culture:
“They used to tell one about a kid asking his grumpy old man when they were walking in the park, ‘What’s the name of this flower, Papa?’ and the old guy is peevish and he yells, ‘How should I know? Am I in the millinery business?’”
Such a guerrilla-like eruption of the Meshuga Principle can have a terrible effect on people who lack the imagination to question the circumstances life has presented to them. They get very nervous. They reach for their credentials; they brandish the signs of conventional success; they withdraw into cliques and coteries. Their defensiveness is the response of a sham meritocracy to a true democratic spirit. Sadly, a new biography of Bellow is animated by these very anxieties.
Now, if James Atlas is out of his mind (to borrow a line from Moses Herzog), it’s all right with me. The unfolding of his condition, however, reveals a lot about American literary life. The brute fact of the matter, as it seems to me, is that Atlas, the author of Bellow: A Biography, which required over ten years to research and to write, would appear to have been driven insane by his subject’s cosmic laughter.
Bellow, raised in Chicago, is the child of poor Russian-Jewish immigrants. Atlas, too, is an American-Jewish writer, of the next generation, and brought up in more comfortable circumstances (in nearby Evanston, as he tells us in his introduction). There is something novelistic about the meeting of these two men in the pages of Atlas’s startlingly deficient biography. It is an almost Jamesian encounter between a man who made mistakes and took wrong turns and failed and created out of his life great art that transforms experience into truth; and his chronicler, who never took a false step and whose right moves finally caught up with him. It is an encounter between two opposing versions of American experience; and it is an encounter between two very different versions—there are, of course, many—of American-Jewish experience.
What exactly happened to James Atlas, a solid and reliable literary journalist, who for the past twenty years or so has been on the staff of such distinguished publications as The New Yorker and The New York Times Magazine? His writing for those and other magazines offers clues. First there appeared articles in which Atlas blithely declared the death of the independent intellectual in America (“the intellectual vocation … is largely obsolete, an archaic profession; the intellectual has gone the way of the cobbler and smithy”). Then there emerged, in piece after piece, Atlas’s strange obsession with social and economic status (“if you don’t have a six-figure book deal by the time you’re thirty-five, you’ve failed”). Next Atlas turned up and proclaimed in print that the great modernist novels of Proust and Joyce and Mann were not worth reading (“I am bored to tears and long for nothing more than the latest issue of Vanity Fair”). Worst of all, the poor man was slipping in a reference, every chance he got, to the fact that he had attended Harvard (“As we walked toward the Harvard Yard, where a quarter of a century earlier I had dodged tear gas with a wet handkerchief over my mouth . . .” ; “I called him up from a phone booth at the Harvard Club. He’d heard about my project, and was full of enthusiasm”; “A month later, in Harvard Square, I went to the Harvard Coop, where I’d shopped as a student”; “Meanwhile, the pledge envelope from Harvard—I finally promised a hundred just to get them off my back—lies in the drawer”). One can almost imagine, at the end of Atlas’s relationship with Bellow, the biographer keeping his Harvard diploma in his inside jacket pocket and desperately fingering it whenever Bellow said something wise or witty or wild.
It’s especially Atlas’s fateful rendezvous with this wildness of Bellow, with Bellow’s demonic vitality, that seems at the root of his curdled spirit. Atlas himself, after all, has had little time for meshuga side trips. Not long after college, he published a first-rate and widely admired biography of Delmore Schwartz, and since then has advanced from one prestigious magazine position to another. Recalling his decision to write a biography of Bellow, he confides in the introduction that it “came at a difficult moment in my life.” And what exactly was this difficult moment? A crisis induced by despair, grief, heartbreak? “I was,” Atlas confides, “between projects.” He was between projects.
The confrontation between such emotional constriction and Bellow’s animal ridens is perhaps one reason for Atlas’s ludicrously hostile and resentful approach to Bellow’s life. It might help to explain why Atlas suppresses material that puts Bellow in a flattering light, material that an honest biographer would never consider excluding. He tiresomely refers, again and again, to what he at one point calls Bellow’s “ill-concealed racism,” his evidence being Bellow’s honest if disturbing fictional expression of his fear of poor blacks’ rage and violence in the seventies. Yet Atlas never mentions, while briefly touching on an early Bellow story, “Looking for Mr. Green,” that Bellow sets the story in Chicago’s black ghetto with the greatest empathy and that he identifies the elusive Mr. Green, who is black, with life itself. Atlas doesn’t even tell us that the story has any black characters in it.
An even worse omission, given Atlas’s recurrent charge that Bellow is insensitive to women, has to do with Anne Sexton. The poet cherished Bellow’s writing, especially his novel Henderson the Rain King, the themes of which she drew on in several poems. The two pursued a lively and revealing correspondence, according to her biographer Diane Wood Middlebrook, in which Bellow seems touchingly to encourage the suicidal Sexton to cling to life. Atlas never mentions this material; indeed, he never mentions Sexton at all. Atlas at one time wrote a novel, a thinly disguised memoir in the first person, entitled The Great Pretender. “For as all of Russian literature was said to have come out of Gogol’s overcoat,” Sven Birkerts wrote prophetically in a review of the book, “so all of The Great Pretender has come out of Bellow’s hat…. Atlas would like to swallow [Bellow] whole and be him—parricide by anthropophagy.”
Enjoy this sample:
“You’re destroying me,” I complained. “I’m going to end up at Northern Illinois University.”
“So what’s wrong with Northern Illinois University? People do go there, you know.”
Yeah, but not people whose fathers gave them a complete set of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire for their twelfth birthday. Make good, Sonny. Make good or else.
Not surprisingly, the novel flopped. A bilious biographer was born.
The Bellow we meet in the pages of Atlas’s book must have been given the Nobel Prize by a Jewish charitable organization.
In truth, [Bellow] hadn’t fared well in menial jobs; his stints in his family’s coal companies had ended disastrously.
[Bellow]was unaware that in Parisian literary circles to discuss one’s work was considered gauche.
[Bellow]lacked the reserves of self-esteem needed to engage in rigorous self-criticism.
As the biography proceeds, as Bellow becomes more and more accomplished, and more and more famous, Atlas cuts him down to size. We get Bellow’s philandering, his vengefulness, his temper, his philandering, his vanity, his five marriages and four divorces, his selfishness, his philandering, his philandering, his philandering. Atlas seems so flustered by Bellow’s countless affairs with women that at one point he sputters out an insinuation that Bellow is actually gay, a speculation tossed off like a schoolboy taunt and never returned to.
Maybe Bellow really is the biggest shit in the world. Maybe he really is the selfish, sexist, thin-skinned, retaliatory monster of egotism Atlas wants us to see him as. Once you’ve established his flawed character, what do you do with it? The occasion for writing about Bellow’s life is his work, and the work is the only justification for scrutinizing Bellow’s life. Otherwise all this not-very shocking personal material is just what it is: unverifiable gossip. And it’s not even gossip deepened and selected by time into history. Bellow is still alive—still writing, for that matter.
In a nearly 700-page biography, Atlas doesn’t offer a single sustained reading of Bellow’s fiction. Of the stunning scene that concludes Seize the Day, in which Tommy Wilhelm, the novel’s protagonist, breaks down at a stranger’s funeral and sinks “deeper than sorrow, through torn sobs and cries toward the consummation of his heart’s ultimate need,” all Atlas has to tell us is that Wilhelm is really Bellow and that this climactic moment is “an elegy to Bellow’s father, dead only a year before.” Never mind that Bellow portrays Wilhelm’s father as a stingy, brutal monster, a wholly unsympathetic character who drives his son into despair. Some elegy. Atlas does not even examine the interview Bellow gave to The Paris Review’s “Writers at Work” series, an extraordinary window onto his life and art. Instead, he reduces the fiction to the bare actual facts that provoked the artist into transforming them, depending for his literal interpretations of the fiction on the integrity of people who once knew Bellow: “Schwartz appears as Sandor Himmelstein in Herzog, a reliable guide to this episode in Bellow’s life, according to Ralph Ross . . .”
I have never read a biography in which the author seemed to take his subject so personally. Atlas incessantly reminds the reader—and Bellow—that the novelist long depended on his wealthy businessman-brothers for money. Bellow was a poor kid from a poor family, and Atlas lingers nastily over the young writer’s penury, and over his setbacks and rejections. The biographer is obsessed with Bellow’s professional failures and ordeals: his short-lived literary magazines; his unsuccessful plays, which Atlas spends an inordinate number of pages discussing; and, above all and always, Bellow’s struggle to make a living from his writing. Bellow’s first novel, Dangling Man, got mostly rave reviews, including one from Edmund Wilson in The New Yorker, and placed the young author at the heart of American literary life. That’s unusual for a first novel. Atlas is unimpressed:
He was thirty years old, and his one book had gotten some good reviews. . . . Yet he was still a Hyde Park intellectual with a closetful of ill-fitting suits, a wife and child to help support, and a postmark that read Stock Yards Station—in effect, nowhere.
Later, after Bellow has published his second novel, gone to Europe on a Guggenheim, and been celebrated by the cream of literary society in New York and London, Atlas reminds him that he:
was still the threadbare artist, ill dressed and perpetually short of cash. He had a reputation among the Partisan Review crowd but was virtually unknown to the general public.
And, four years after the Yiddish inflections of The Adventures of Augie March had resurrected American literature and established Bellow as the most important novelist of his generation, Atlas contemptuously describes Bellow as “a novelist with no job and no fixed income.” Why a man who does not consider writing novels a real job would want to write the biography of a novelist is a mystery.
Atlas, in fact, writes like Bellow’s father (though of course without that father’s stormy affection), an immigrant who naturally disapproved of his writer-son’s limited financial prospects. His biography bursts with numbers and sums quoted from Bellow’s advances, sales figures, royalties, and tax returns. “The $600,000 advance made back about $160,000 on the trade edition, and subsidiary rights added another $200,000, leaving ‘at risk’ some $240,000.” Augie March, meet Charles Schwab. Commenting on the young Bellow’s yearning for a more meaningful life than the one his lower-middle-class origins offered him, Atlas again sneers, “Going into Dad’s business: What could be more contemptible than that?” The biographer’s philistine attitudes are almost self-satirizing:
The two older brothers whose bed [Saul] shared, Moishe and Schmule . . . were healthy, vigorous, dynamic; no one in the family was surprised when they went on to become big deal makers in Chicago real estate. . . . Their worldly success was a persistent rebuke to the impecuniousness of their intermittently broke and never wealthy brother. Together with [Bellow’s father], who at last became a prosperous businessman in his forties, they formed a triumvirate from whose judgmental gaze the novelist struggled to free himself—without much success—throughout his days.
If only he could return his Pulitzer Prize and his three National Book Awards and his Nobel Prize and do it all over again! He might have become the dynamic Laundromat king of the South Side.
The most damaging effect of Atlas’s single-minded prosecution of Bellow’s life is that it hampers Atlas’s professional competence. His biography is filled with contradictions and errors, with poor judgments and outright distortions. We read that Bellow was “disdainful of any effort to get ahead in the literary world—a form of defensiveness,” and then about twenty pages later learn that Bellow was “ever expedient in matters of literary politics.” At another point, Atlas writes that The Adventures of Augie March was “a modest triumph,” explaining that it “never made the bestseller list.” Yet one page later, he tells us that Augie “had made Bellow famous.” A triumph not so modest. And fifty pages after Atlas has conceded that Bellow had become famous, he tells us that Bellow, several years after Augie March appeared, was still “well on his way to fame.” The biographer has fame-block!
Atlas describes Bellow as “a novelist who was to make the process of becoming American one of his major themes.” But the process of becoming American is not a theme in a single one of Bellow’s novels and short stories. Bellow’s characters, Jewish or not, are Americans who are in the process of becoming persons. For Atlas, Willis Mosby, the main character in Bellow’s short story “Mosby’s Memoirs,” is an “older, more reflective version of [his] creator.” Yet Bellow portrays Mosby as a casually vicious anti-Semite who admires Hitler’s managerial skills. And Atlas thinks that in Herzog the phrase “potato love” reverently refers to a “powerful devotion to the family.” In fact, Herzog isn’t referring to family feeling at all. He uses the term to refer to his envious friend Sandor Himmelstein’s pretense of affection for him, to Himmelstein’s “amorphous, swelling, hungry, indiscriminate, cowardly potato love.” Of course, this is also the kind of stifling inauthenticity a generation of sensitive Jewish sons and daughters—generations of everyone’s sensitive sons and daughters, for that matter—struggled to free themselves from.
Atlas’s identification with a particular kind of immigrant father—there were also the fathers who supported and encouraged their wayward artistic children-represents a sea change in American-Jewish writing. Leave aside the fine points of exactly what it means to be an American-Jewish writer, not to mention the danger of committing a coarse anachronism in using the designation. It is safe to say that the American-Jewish sensibility once was characterized by a skepticism about current conditions, which was in fact a way of affirming life. It had laughter and was devoid of the cold calculation that wears sentimentality like a fig leaf. It seemed to come from nowhere. American-Jewish literary expression had a special kind of ethical beauty; an inconsolable joy; a pregnant mirth drawn out of life’s sadness. That sensibility is just about extinct. There are beautiful exceptions, to be sure. Leon Wieseltier’s Kaddish, an impious masterpiece of filial piety, is the history of a soul in the form of a meditation on a ritual, which barely refers—imagine!—to the author’s self or to his father. It is a pointed sublimation that stands on their head two generations of American-Jewish autobiographical outpourings. And all the world-historical polemics of the much sentimentalized New York Jewish intellectuals don’t rise to the moral courage of Philip Gourevitch’s book on the Western complicity with genocide in Rwanda. And I would take one page of Jeffrey Rosen’s writing on American law and society over one hundred pages of, say, Hannah Arendt’s Olympian miscomprehensions of American law and society. But these are, again, beautiful exceptions. For the most part, rather than the heirs to Bellow and Roth and Mailer (and the New York intellectuals at their best), today one sees younger American-Jewish writers who are more like characters straight out of the satirical fiction of Bellow and Roth and Mailer.
One writer smoothly inserts a proprietary reference every chance he gets to the Holocaust (he got married on the anniversary of Kristallnacht as a gesture of defiance, and then he writes about getting married on the anniversary of Kristallnacht as a gesture of defiance); another pursues a power-fantasy of New York Jewish intellectual authority in a culture column for an online magazine, displaying a comical blend of insecure assertiveness and obsequious careerism that even Roth could not invent; another writes cute little affirmations of suburban life, as if she were making small talk while examining teeth; and still others continue to write about being Jewish, male, and horny, as though they were organizing briefs for distant, historic cases as a law-school exercise. Where have all the fine independent American-Jewish minds gone? Such cautious calculation is a form of rebellion against their artistic and intellectual parents. But it is also the windfall of a lazy inheritance, thanks to the hard-earned affluence of their actual parents.
When is the last time you read a piece of writing by a Jewish writer in his or her twenties or thirties, or even forties, that approached life with the fresh, vital Archimedean angle on life that has been the hallmark of American-Jewish writing? (God knows, I’m not holding myself up as an exception.) It is not at all that Jewish writers have become, en masse, anhedonists incapable of deep mischief. It is that many American-Jewish writers, who have been the custodians of the meshuga spirit in modern America, who gave American writing and American culture a new life after the Second World War, now (like Atlas) seem smugly to associate the chance-taking and the inspired condition of their cultural forebears (“But you will be wondering what happened to ‘the inspired condition.’’’—Herzog) with a life of self-destruction and failure. Make good, boys and girls. Make good or else.
Of course, today’s American-Jewish carefulness and complacency are part of the general atmosphere. Literary, artistic, and intellectual worlds used to set up their own hierarchies against the outside world’s conventional hierarchies. The creative world’s ranks were ordered according to personal gifts and idiosyncrasy, audacity and the capacity for self-reinvention. Now, in New York, you go to a literary, artistic, or intellectual party and you encounter the same pecking order that exists in the conventional world. Everyone is from Yale, Harvard, Princeton, or such like; they are standing around in the same formation, with the same nervous, contracted ambition, as they did in college, and everyone comes from money. In Bellow’s day, the city’s creative precincts were full of the peers of privilege, but they also brimmed with people from everywhere and from every level of society; yes, blacks, women, and gays, too. Not that outsiders don’t break in now and again. One might have reservations about the young writer Dave Eggers’s work, but at least he’s not a calculating creature of old-school ties. (He is a raw, original calculating creature.) But Eggers is just one more semi-inspiring exception. Let’s not kid ourselves. We are living now in the age of Atlas, the anti–Angie March.
The Adventures of Augie March is the great novel of the young person who not only almost ended up at Northern Illinois University but who experimented with life in the search for a calling rather than just a career. Like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Ellison’s Invisible Man, Bellow’s teeming picaresque tale sprang, in part, from the author’s experience of traveling upward through society. If American democracy is ever put on trial, the American picaresque novel will be Exhibit A in its defense. Augie comes from, as Atlas likes to say, “nowhere.” He is the kind of literary hero a money snob and an Ivy League snob like Atlas doesn’t want to know from.
Augie is, among other things, a spiritual record of how a kid born into poverty uses culture. The novel rolls in culture references as if in clover. One of the fiercest critical arguments about Bellow is whether his dense cultural allusions mar his fiction. True to form, Atlas chalks these cultural allusions up to Bellow’s “childish intoxication with ‘the big ideas’”; “the products of a provincial Chicago boy’s efforts to show that he wasn’t provincial.” (An ambitious poor boyar poor girl should never meet a teacher like James Atlas.) Augie, however, is proof of the artistic potency of Bellow’s cerebral flights. As poor kids do, the young Bellow used culture to raise himself above his origins; Bellow the triumphant adult uses culture in his novels to, as it were, raise himself above culture, to drop back into experience. In Bellow, culture and an irreverence toward culture become, like laughter, a universal principle of upward human motion.
Here is a pertinent moment from Augie March, in which William Einhorn writes an obituary for his wealthy businessman-father—the “Commissioner”—for a local newspaper. Einhorn is Augie’s first great teacher. Einhorn himself is self-taught and erudite, and also a cripple confined to a wheelchair. In other words, he is the very image of the man uplifted by the power of culture; ideas propel him where his legs have failed. Augie loves him. The older, completed Augie, looking back on his life, tells us that “William Einhorn was the first superior man I knew.” Einhorn is no clumsy autodidact. He even talks like Augie, mixing racy street idioms with high-flown culture references in spontaneous bursts of eloquence and poetry:
“Augie, you know another man in my position might be out of life for good. There’s a view of man anyhow that he’s only a sack of craving guts; you find it in Hamlet, as much as you want of it.”
Bellow has Einhorn using culture in his obituary the way Bellow treats culture in his novels. He plays games with it:
“The return of the hearse from the newly covered grave leaves a man to pass through the last changes of nature who found Chicago a swamp and left it a great city. He came after the Great Fire, said to be caused by Mrs. O’Leary’s cow, in flight from the conscription of the Hapsburg tyrant, and in his life as a builder proved that great places do not have to be founded on the bones of slaves, like the pyramids of Pharaohs or the capital of Peter the Great on the banks of the Neva, where thousands were trampled in the Russian marshes. The lesson of an American life like my father’s, in contrast to that of the murderer of the Strelitzes and of his own son, is that achievements are compatible with decency. My father was not familiar with the observation of Plato that philosophy is the study of death, but he died nevertheless like a philosopher, saying to the ancient man who watched by his bedside in the last moments. . . .”
Now, Einhorn doesn’t talk in such a pompous, awkward way. Why does Bellow have him write like that? Einhorn is shrewdly using culture as a lever for his own purposes, just as his creator does. This is the very next paragraph:
We then went to his father’s room. . . . [Einhorn] handed me things with instructions. “Tear this. This is for the fire, I don’t want anyone to see it. Be sure you remember where you put this note—I’ll ask for it tomorrow. . . . So this was the deal he had with Fineberg? What a shrewd old bastard, my dad, a real phenomenon.”
Far from proving in his life that “great places do not have to be founded on the bones of slaves,” Einhorn’s father was a “shrewd old bastard” who knew how to climb to the top of the heap in iron Chicago. With the obituary’s overblown, almost baronial cadences, Einhorn fabricates the image of a noble Commissioner—whose business Einhorn has inherited and needs to keep respectable. At the end of the chapter, Einhorn sums things up for Augie:
“We never learn anything, never in the world, and in spite of all the history books written. . . . There’s a regular warehouse of fine suggestions, and if we’re not better it isn’t because there aren’t plenty of marvelous and true ideas to draw on, but because our vanity weighs more than all of them put together.”
In one stroke, Einhorn acknowledges the pretense of his obituary, which is a kind of history, and an insightful one at that; places it in relation to his ego; and teaches Augie a lesson about social reality and the virtues and limitations of culture. Yet it is Einhorn’s reading that has led him to be skeptical of a purely literary education. The power of books helps him affirm the primacy of experience, which leads him back to books, which he once more tests against experience. It is like the undulating dialectic between nature and culture at the end of Herzog.
Einhorn is Bellow’s image of the ordinary man who labors to bring out his innate nobility—the nobility of the individual. Such regalness of the spirit is not conferred; it is extracted through hard work and alert living. Bellow’s heroes are usually introspective because they are engaged in the process of paying unsparing attention to themselves. They wish to, in Augie’s phrase, find the “axial lines” of their own specific existence and to follow them into their mortal allotment of dignity. Not surprisingly, Atlas mistakes this introspection, which requires a substantial sense of self, for the narcissist’s self-obsession, which is the product of a reduced sense of self.
“Narcissism” happens to be the clinical condition that Atlas attempts to pin on Bellow. He mentions the “narcissistic traits that a succession of psychiatrists diagnosed in him.” Not narcissism in the colloquial sense, in other words, but clinical narcissism. The problem is, Atlas never quotes a single psychiatrist or therapist making such a diagnosis. In one of this biography’s lowest moments, Atlas finally stumbles upon Heinz Kohut, a famous psychoanalyst who was the grand theoretician of the narcissistic personality. In the late sixties, Bellow saw Kohut for a short time in Chicago’s Hyde Park, where both men lived. Although Kohut, who died in 1981, never disclosed the identities of his patients in his notes, Atlas thinks he knows which patient Bellow is, and he thinks he has figured out that Kohut, too, diagnosed Bellow as a clinical narcissist. Yet Atlas doesn’t even cite the source that he is relying on when he quotes Kohut’s diagnosis of an anonymous “forty-year-old university professor.”
Aside from the obvious ethical and professional questions Atlas’s irresponsibility raises (we’re talking about a still living patient, after all), his malicious encounters with Bellow’s life are at the heart of his inability to grasp the nature of Bellow’s art. Atlas uses Kohut’s theories to support his fantasy about Bellow’s psyche. He quotes Kohut: “The artist stands in proxy for his generation. He anticipates the dominant psychological problem of his era.” But Atlas drops the art from Kohut’s accurate, though trite, observation about artistic genius, and he keeps the psychological problem. So radical is Atlas’s denial of the fact that he is chronicling the life of one of the twentieth century’s greatest novelists that he writes about Bellow as if Bellow had never written any fiction at all.
It’s hard to square clinical narcissism with Bellow’s attachment to friends from seventy years ago, or with his powerful, if evidently tormented, family feeling. And it’s hard to square the clinical narcissist’s solipsism and inner emptiness with Bellow the novelist’s curiosity and sympathy, with his extraordinary openness to other people’s lives, with his uncanny, sensuous grasp of the sights, smells, sounds, and textures of physical reality. Clinical narcissists do not have a capacity for surrender to the world’s sweetness and strangeness. Still, maybe Bellow is a clinical narcissist. Who knows? Again, it is a question of what to do with that bit of information. Meanwhile, the art is waiting.
The world’s siren song, its sweetness and strangeness, is the ordeal of Bellow’s heroes. Life fills them with such a sense of promise and beauty that, in the end, they turn inward as a way to escape the inevitable disappointments that plague passionately receptive natures.
“Men of most powerful appetite have always been the ones to doubt reality the most,” says the African king Dahfu to Henderson in Henderson the Rain King. These life-famished figures are contemporary; they cannot, Dahfu continues, “bear that hopes should turn to misery, and loves to hatreds and deaths and silences, and so on.” They are contemporary in precisely this sense: the more their desires expand, the further reality recedes.
So Bellow’s heroes leap away from disappointing reality into ideas, and then away from insufficient ideas into sex, and away from sex into fantasy, and back to culture, and then back to experience—and on and on, in an infinite regression of distancing from the episodes in life that fall short of life’s promise. They must protect their psyches from the insult of inadequate conditions. This psycho-acrobatic motion is anarchic, like laughter; and it reproduces the odyssey of Mozart’s music, which modulates from earth to sky to the far end of heaven and back to earth.
Bellow’s heroes are in flight from reality to the heart of existence. They flee from life for love of life. Henderson is both strengthened and harried by a small persistent voice deep inside him that repeats, “I want I want I want.” There is something terrible about these protagonists who are so consumed with desire. They burn life away with the intensity of their wanting, feeling, thinking, and almost always find themselves alone, barely alive, far away from other people. It is as if their defeat by desire were also the fulfillment of their desire. A wish for deprivation lurks in the depths of their voracity. Joseph reflects in Dangling Man:
Of course, we suffer from bottomless avidity. . . . And then there are our plans, idealizations. These are dangerous, too. They can consume us like parasites, eat us, drink us, and leave us lifelessly prostrate. And yet we are always inviting the parasite, as if we were eager to be drained and eaten.
With the exception of the Rabelaisian Humboldt’s Gift, all of Bellow’s novels end with the heroes in isolation: plunged into darkness in a movie theater (The Victim); walking along the edge of an icy North Sea (Augie); submerged in tears at a stranger’s funeral (Seize the Day); running along the Arctic tundra (Henderson the Rain King); gazing toward cold infinite spaces from an astronomical observatory (The Dean’s December); stationed at a laboratory near the North Pole (More Die of Heartbreak); diffused into a disembodied, oracular voice that seems to come from somewhere beyond life (Dangling Man, Mr. Sammler’s Planet, Ravelstein). These figures seem to will themselves into simulated oblivion. Such an end seems foreordained: a thin pane of glass exists between the Bellovian fictional persona and the other characters in the novels. Herzog concludes with a subtle melting of the third person into an atmosphere that speaks; as if the self, in the absence of God, were consoling itself by impersonating the neutrality of a divine voice:
In a few minutes he would call down to her, “Damp it down, Mrs. Tuttle. There’s water in the sink.” But not just yet. At this time he had no messages for anyone. Nothing. Not a single word.
Thus does the Bellovian hero give himself up utterly to the world that he has rendered with such self-forgetful vividness and accuracy. And thus does he end up sacrificing the world, and the world of other people, to his sanity. World and self vanish into the absolute freedom of a fresh beginning. It is a kind of fecund nowhere, both chilling and charged with inspiring possibility.
I spent the day with Bellow once and told him a joke. It was an old joke from Odessa. One day Cohen tells Goldberg, his business partner for fifty years, that he wants out. The distraught Goldberg asks several times why Cohen wants to end· such a long association, and finally Cohen tells him, in exasperation, that the reason is because Goldberg is pretentious. Goldberg is shocked; he is speechless for a moment, and finally he replies: “Who? Moi?” Bellow laughed richly, his eyes glittering, and then he said, “But that is not just a joke.” He would say that. The self-deluding mystery of the moi is Bellow’s turf, just as it has been the turf of every great writer since Sophocles. (If you wanted to sum up Oedipus Rex and King Lear with two words, they would be “Who? Moi?”) But only those who have a moi know what it means to want to solve the riddle of it, or to escape from it, or to endure it with laughter.