The Stone City

Words Made to Last

Friday, April 15, 2005


It seems almost sacreligious for me to be commenting on Bellow. Nonetheless.

Most of Europe, in the late 1940's, was busy with the business of survival. The recent past was blotted from memory, with the grateful assent of the priveleged and intellectual classes. As Gunter Grass wrote in The Rat:
And then?
We remembered
Fine bathing weather in the summer of '38.
And then, and after that?
Then came the currency reform.
The taint of collaboration which burdened the French conscience was less onerous than the unspeakable collective guilt felt by the Germans; nonetheless it was worth forgetting.

One of the mechanisms of this forgetting was the dissociation of the individual from the State; obviously this served to lessen the individual's culpability. Probably the leading exponent of this was Albert Camus, with The Plague offering a mechanistic metaphor for the occupation, and The Stranger showing a man who is surrounded by society, but neither contributes to it nor receives support from it.

Bellow's work militantly opposed this reasoning. He recognized that society is amalgamated of individuals, as the tidal sum of their needs, plans and desires. Bellow did not minimize these greater-than-human forces, but he did not depersonalize them either. Herzog, whose protagonist writes to the world's great men as well as to his own acquaintances, most exemplifies this; he is part of the world, and aware of that, not an exogenous Stranger. The world has grown larger, but man need not be powerless in it.

Bellow also retained a sharp focus on personal responsibility, and stood squarely against invented systems of morality that serve mainly to excuse their authors. His finest writing remains this ringing finale:
... he did meet the terms of his contract. The terms which, in his inmost heart, each of us knows. As I know mine. As all know. For that is the truth of it, Lord: that we know, that we all know, that we know, we know, we know.