|Saul Bellow and Dejan Stojanovic, University of Chicago, 1992|
Stojanovic: Mr. Bellow, according to you, what is the place and role of literature in today’s world?
Bellow: I suppose the first task of literature is to survive in this period because there is so much . . . there’s a combination of technological transformation, political passion, and competing influences on public life. Literature is a private pursuit in a way; you sit by yourself and read a book so, therefore, somebody’s voice is what you are hearing as an individual. What I am really trying to say is that these individual activities are in a condition of risk these days. They are not the favorite activities of contemporary life. Rather, you have collective activities that are preeminent and of which writers also have some idea. That is to say, even though they may be concerned with individual transmission, they are of course fully aware or should be fully aware of what’s going on outside; it’s mostly collective activities. A simpler way of putting it is that it’s television versus a poem or television versus a novel. I suppose that there is also a strange lapse in literacy as well. I don’t mean technical literacy; I mean functional illiteracy, which is becoming very widespread in modern countries, where the public tends to divide its time between sports, politics, film, television, etc., or any combination of these.
So, I don’t know how many people, even in France, today sit down to read through the works of Proust. I suspect that fifty or sixty years ago there were more who did it, but this makes demands on a kind of privacy of the mind which is, I think, not very common anymore. So, I don’t know what’s going to happen. I think that there will always be certain people, in every society, who are not satisfied with popular art and popular culture and who will continue to cultivate a private taste for literature. The bigger the country, the larger the number of people, even though they represent a minority; so that, if in a country like this, with 250 million people, and one-tenth of one percent maintains this interest, it is still 250 thousand people. Honorable sleeplessness. That’s a good way to put it.
Stojanovic: In this era of tremendous technological progress, which is also marked by a substantial heritage of unsolved problems, how much room is left for true humanism?
Bellow: I don’t know how much room is left, but as a Jew, I am familiar with this phenomenon, as you have to maintain a very difficult religion which leaves you in a very weak position socially against tremendous opposition and resistance–sometimes mortal resistance. Of course, my answer is that you have to stand up for this stuff. And it’s not just a matter of humanism as an alternative, as a matter of what you call humanism, but rather a matter of what you call humanism as a necessity of the human soul, which seems to me is not itself completely without it.
Stojanovic: Readers of your novels are impressed by your extraordinary knowledge of situations in the countries you describe, for example, in the novel The Dean’s December, in which your portrayal of the situation in Communist Romania is amazingly realistic.
Bellow: Yes, that’s true, but I had never been in Africa when I wrote “Henderson the Rain King” anymore than Voltaire had been, if you’ll excuse the comparison, I don’t mean to presume, that he had been to South America before he wrote Candide. It’s perfect for El Dorado; it’s perfectly possible to write about these things. In the case of Romania, I had been there. I have visited certain Communist countries. Poland, for instance, and Yugoslavia for that matter.
You don’t really have to go there because what you don’t know you could always make up. And maybe it’s better to make it up because people who know the situation will always look askance at your effort to invade their historical sphere; they don’t like it very much. Any number of Russian writers who have read “The Dean’s December” didn’t like it because they felt that it was sort of peculiar, even a screwy American view of Communism and its hardships and so on. Of course, I meant it to be an American’s view. I didn’t pretend anything else.
|Saul Bellow and Dejan Stojanovic, University of Chicago, 1992|
Stojanovic: What has inspired your interest for that part of the world?
Bellow: My parents left St. Petersburg in 1913 and came to Canada where I was born. I was born in a household where they spoke Russian, and I learned three or four other languages, which I also spoke. My mother’s cousin was a Menshevik in a high position. I remember the talk, from even the time I was three years old, around the table about the Revolution and about Lenin and Trotsky and so on. So I grew up with an interest in these matters, which is not so amazing because as you can see in traveling around this country among Serbians, Croatians, and so on, there’s an enduring interest in what goes on back home even among the younger generations; and the Ukrainians, which is where this phenomenon is exceptionally strong.
Stojanovic: You have written the foreword for the book The Closing of the American Mind, in which Professor Alan Bloom gave a picture of American society with all its sins and shortcomings. What is your view of the major trends in American society?
Bellow: That’s a very large question. So let me answer it peripherally. America is, as Freud said—a great experiment, and then he said, “I don’t think it will succeed.” That was in 1910 when he visited here. On other occasions he even risked slandering America, and he may be perfectly right. It may not succeed. However, it is one of the most interesting experiments in history because it’s based on contractual democracy, which is offered to a great diversity of people from all over the world, on the understanding that they all possess fundamental rationality which will make them feel that this is a fair social order.
In addition to that, however, I always ask myself a question: “How much productivity or prosperity or consumerism can any country stand?” This country is a kind of utopia and the people in it in many ways are utopians. In a strange way, they speak of their pragmatism, but it’s got to be a combination of pragmatism and utopianism. I say utopianism because it’s a sort of perennial dream of mankind which, America showed, could be realized, and that is that the dream, the scarcity will end, has been realized here.
I didn’t say it didn’t happen elsewhere in the world. It certainly happened in Western Europe, but not with the same degree of success, not without the wars, particularly the wars of the 20th century, which would have gone very badly, for all parties without American participation. And you might even say American generosity because although they made mistakes after World War I, they didn’t make the same mistakes after WWII. They didn’t allow any repetition of Versailles. It was instead an inspired effort. It was great political inspiration to formulate the Marshall Plan as a check to Soviet Communism, and it seems to have worked.
The question is, however, whether this abundance can ever be made into a stable reality or whether there isn’t something about it that is threatening to the life of a nation like this. I don’t know. It seems to be a sort of falling off of the old seriousness enough to have to say in a presidential campaign, like the present one, that it is a kind of joke. Laughable people saying laughable things and appealing for votes on the basis of their resemblance to everybody else, which is not a good thing for political leaders to claim. We are as silly and inconsequential as everybody else. Imagine people like Brown being taken seriously in this country thirty years ago. It would have been impossible because he represents 1960’s in California. It’s really not a serious thing at all.
I give you this only as an example of a kind of pitfall in the ways of this Utopianism—American Democratic Utopianism. I think, the point of Bloom’s book was that there was a drying up of the original political interest of this country, which dominated American politics very significantly throughout the 19th century and into the 20th century. And way beyond an event, like the American Civil War, that was serious; that was politically very serious. It was a declaration of enlightenment on which this country is founded. But in the 20th century, it seems to have died out, and now the main interest is in the kind of person or kind of individual, a kind of social life that this country could or should create. It doesn’t even seem to be a debate about it, but they are making up a kind of synthetic America now, which seems to me in the accompaniment of unlimited American productivity. Here’s the person who is going to enjoy this productivity; what sort of person should he be? I agree with Bloom that some of the main forces of American life are concentrating on the fabrication of a human type in this country, and I think this is a very serious and dangerous path to follow. It’s producing very bad results. And when I speak jokingly about a political campaign, I am really referring to this. It costs the people, incapable of judgment, significant political judgment.
Now, this was not true even in the 30’s, and it was certainly not true in the 40’s. In the period of war, the period just after the war, and during the Cold War, this was already beginning to be eaten away. But it’s a terrible thing to try to synthesize a kind of human being to take his soul away and give him a kind of simulacrum. Originally, Bloom wanted to call it the “ending of the American soul” or something like that, or he said, “souls without longing,” that is to say—souls without the original impulses of souls.
People are talking about fabricating themselves more and more, and they are talking about fabrications of all sorts and unreal questions for which they come up with unreal answers, and it’s running away with us.
This is why when I was young and read what Freud said about the U.S. in 1910, I sneered a little bit in my heart at this. I knew this is typical of European snobbery toward the U.S. After all, Austria came to a bad end so far as Freud was concerned, so he had nerve to talk about this interesting experiment, which was not going to work, but I now begin to have certain doubts.
I think there’s still enough solid sense and stability in this country to survive. But who knows, as you see what’s happening in politics and in public life. A man rushes up to a platform where a retired president is delivering a speech and seizes the trophy from him and smashes it to make a point and then he is let out without bond, as being no particular threat to the country. Who says he is no particular threat? He might have rushed through and killed the man too, and who knows what he’ll do next time. Now, he is a hero on TV. He’s appearing on CBS. The people want to hear what he has to say. Well, this kind of show business clowning is a very bad sign. It seems to me it shows a lack of . . . I’ve given you my short answer to this question.
|Saul Bellow and Dejan Stojanovic, University of Chicago, 1992|
Stojanovic: A certain sense of failure is present in the character of your heroes, as is true in the case of the university professor, Moses Herzog. Is that a phenomenon of metaphysical uncertainty of mankind in general, or is that so only in individual cases?
Stojanovic: My modest observation suggests a conclusion that tradition is present in your creative endeavor, but that you are at the same time a modern writer par excellence. I would like you to make a comment about the relationship between traditional and modern.
Bellow: I don’t think I want to answer your question about the relationship between the traditional and the modern . . . That’s a long scenario . . . I don’t feel like getting into it. Of course, there were two tendencies in Romanticism. One was the tendency of the early romantics, whose tradition was just as likely to be classical Greece as anything else or medievalism. Then, there was the romanticism of the Rimbaud style of poetry. These are the modern tendencies that we have lived with now. They are no longer modern, but by now they also are traditional because it’s a long time since things were current about 150 years ago.
Stojanovic: To what extent in these times, in which economy is the major factor, are there sufficient conditions and substance for sophisticated art?
Bellow: If it were just the economy, it would be a simpler question to answer, but if it’s more than an economy, it’s also technology. It’s technology that transforms everything in a revolution and by far the deepest revolution of this time. It’s the kind of revolution that is so deep that we’re not even conscious of its dimensions and its power over us. These are the things that really hold us in their power. And we are the agents, whether we know it or not. This is part of the dream of the end of scarcity, which is a perennial human heaven on earth. Heaven on earth is made possible by technological miracles. People believe without even knowing that it’s belief. And they serve it without even knowing that they serve it, and are its instruments.
We feel its pressure on us continually whether we know it or not. And although intellectuals pride themselves in their ability to understand everything, most intellectuals don’t and can’t understand what’s happening, and they are in the position of savages, even when it comes to an electric light or a fan or a jet flight from here to there, going up and down in an elevator, or running water from a faucet, or whatever. They tell themselves that they have been educated, and therefore they understand it. The fact is that very few of us do actually understand it. When I was reading Ortega y Gasset years ago, he defined . . . he made a distinction between the masked man and the intellectual, and he said that the masked man doesn’t treat these inventions as though they were phenomena of nature. It’s true, but the intellectual treats them as if he had certain words whereby to explain them. You talk about atomic fission or whatever it is. You just have words; you don’t really understand the process. Very few do.
|Saul Bellow during the interview with Dejan Stojanovic, 1992|
Stojanovic: Since you mentioned Ortega y Gasset, what do you think about his vision of a United Europe?
Bellow: I hope it’s true, because what we are seeing today is really terrible. You’re seeing a revival of nationalism which is tearing parts of Europe wide open, and that‘s testimony to the power of the emotions of nationalism, and right now it it’s confined to a small area of Western Europe. But suppose it were to break out in what used to be the Soviet Union, then what? It’s terrible to think about that, and it’s there, too, in Azerbaijan and between the Georgians and Armenians and so on. On the other hand, you have the E.E.C. trying to straighten the whole thing out. But then there’s also a certain grudging and dislike among members of the E.E.C. and you can’t blame them; the French are very xenophobic people. It’s very hard for them to swallow this E.E.C. regulation of their sacred cheeses and all the rest of that. It’s a difficult moment.
I think that Ortega was a real enlightened man and that he looked forward to the triumph of reason over irrationality; but it seems to me that irrationality is having a very lively field day of its own. I don’t mean that it’s irrational to have nationalistic feelings, but I don’t think that it’s rational to conduct these modern wars in very limited places where you’re sure to kill many thousands of innocent bystanders. What sense does it make? What’s it for? It doesn’t make any sense really. I mean there should be other ways to resolve these matters. And then it wouldn’t have been left to the West either to grab recognition of these various factions, on which they founded their legitimacy. It doesn’t seem to me like a good idea. But I’m not really a politician; these are just my amateur observations.
I remember talking, to get back to Ortega’s definition of the masked man, and discussing it with my friend, the late Harold Rosenberg and he said: “Nobody really understands anything.” I thought about this comment for a while and concluded he was right because we don’t understand even our own metabolism. If you ask an educated person about metabolism, he’ll give you a schoolbook answer. It has two elements of anabolism and catabolism and so on. Where does that leave you? It leaves you with a sort of formulaic conviction that you understand things that you’re not really able to understand. For that matter, nobody understands as of this moment. What is this destruction of matter inside the organism that produces energy by the organism? How does it happen? So there’s a kind of myth of rational mastery and rational control, which is based, I think, partly on the triumphs of applied science in this day and age which gives us our miracles every day because they are miracles. A miracle is when what you think can then be made actual. You think, I’d like to be in Pango-Pango tomorrow, and all you have to do is buy a ticket. They’re almost as fast as the thought. And you’re there, courtesy of engines devised by thought, by thinking. So, we are really living under a strange condition, it seems to me; reduced to barbarism by the triumphs of scientific progress that we use with great confidence.
|Saul Bellow and Dejan Stojanovic, University of Chicago, 1992|
Stojanovic: Is the intellectual elite in America concentrated exclusively in an oasis, away from the mercantile demands of this continent?
Stojanovic: In your speech in Stockholm in 1976, during the Nobel Prize ceremony, you spoke about “central human energies,” which are a focal subject of art. What is happening today with central human energies?
Bellow: There are two main schools of thought. One is mind, which I think is that you are born a certain kind of person with soul and the other is that there is no such thing and that we are just some sort of psychological apparatus who happened to be at the forefront of the evolutionary chain of development as of this moment, but maybe not tomorrow. I happen to think that I am a person who has a certain kind of core. And I know I have to be faithful to that core. Other people will tell me that this is mere fiction and that I am a fiction who writes fiction. Well, I believe that I’m a true person, or at least I want to be a true person who also does these other things.
Stojanovic: What is your opinion of the ongoing situation in Eastern Europe since you are a good connoisseur of circumstances in that part of the world?
Bellow: I’m not such a connoisseur that I know what is going to happen. I didn’t know that the Soviet Union was going to collapse. Almost nobody knew, except maybe Amalrik, in that book of his when he said . . . What was the title of that book? “Will The Soviet Union Survive?” I think he was the one. Maybe there are a few other prophets here and there, but it seemed unbelievable that this structure that had stood for seventy years was going to come to an end. That its own contradictions . . . And now I don’t know what’s going to happen in Eastern Europe.
It seems to me that there are countries that have a fairly good prospect of stability and others that don’t. And since I couldn’t predict the downfall of the Soviet Union, I can’t predict what’s going to happen among the old republics. All I can do is keep my fingers crossed and hope that it isn’t as bad as it could turn out to be. I don’t know whether capitalism is going to take hold here, but even after this decline began, I was still making the wrong guesses. I was saying that the army and the secret police and the bureaucracy were not going to fade out. It couldn’t, and without some resistance they still substantially controlled the country. I was wrong about that, too. So after suffering such defeats as a prophet, you’re not going to get me to prophesize about anything anymore.
Stojanovic: What do you think about the idea of the New World Order?
Bellow: There are two ideas about the idea of a New World Order. One is Dostoyevsky’s, the universal anthill that we shouldn’t altogether discount, and the other is the League of Nations or U.N. kind of alternative. I don’t know about that. There are very few countries that have shown any ability to maintain free politics and survive. Now, when you talk about a world order, you talk about societies that have never shown that they were in slightest capable of creating that kind of free society. You think of that. In the world, it’s practically ruled out by, not only history, but by doctrine, by powerful hierarchy. You don’t know whom you would be with, who would be the representatives of hundreds of millions of people all over the world who believe that the Koran should be the law of the land. I don’t know. I really don’t know about that.
|Saul Bellow during the interview with Dejan Stojanovic, 1992|
Stojanovic: Germany has united, the old alliances are being dismantled, and new ones are being created. Is there, in your opinion, a danger that fascist tendencies may become more prominent?
Bellow: Everybody worries about it. Everybody in the West has worried about it of course. Some people were happy when the Berlin Wall crumbled. I was one of them. I thought it was a great thing because it was the end of that particular East German and Bolshevik Russian-sponsored tyranny, and how can you say no when a tyranny collapses. It’s always very moving that human beings cannot tolerate more than just so much and no more of that kind of life. On the other hand, Germany has very limited experience in democratic government. The first German democracy lasted from the peace of Versailles to Hitler. It was not a great success. The second one, the Adenauer Republic, under Western sponsorship, was much more successful. Now Germany is once more virtually number one on the European continent, and it’s very unlikely they will repeat what happened before; but because what happened before was so terrifying, so dreadfully monstrous to us all, and when you see even slight signs of ideas of that sort in Germany, you hope that this is going to disappear too; and the fascist youth is not going to get very far.
On the other hand, Germany is a country that seems to have given its consent to what happened between 1932 and 1946. It was not entirely imposed or pushed down their throats. Let’s hope that the reconstituted Germany, since the days of Adenauer, has developed a new kind of public mentality. But speaking as a Jew, it’s not reassuring when you see the Jewish question reappear at the very top level of the German political system. It’s always a bad sign when the Jewish issue becomes involved with ad hoc politics in any country. It shouldn’t. It is the first sign of dangerous demagogy, it seems to me.
I don’t hold any patience either for Jewish political organizations that can sometimes become very disagreeable and I don’t approve always of the way they behave. As a private person, I try to keep my distance from them too because I feel I shouldn’t go along with all of their protests. But in a case like this recent one in Germany, I was very uneasy to see that Kohl was catering to this kind of nastiness for political reasons, as I saw no other justification or no justification. I saw no other cause for it. It made me feel extremely uneasy. I don’t feel that it’s going to get out of hand, and I feel that way partly because it wouldn’t be tolerated by the other countries of the E.E.C and partly because Germany is actually too prosperous at the present moment to try to solve its problems by such means. Also, its future prosperity seems guaranteed by its advantageous connection with Eastern Europe, which is going to need German investment and use German industrial production. So it seems, I would say, that the situation is nasty but safe, is my way of describing it.
(Part of a little private conversations in which Bellow said, “You asked for my views; I‘m giving you my views. . . . The last time I was in Yugoslavia was in the early 1970’s.)
|Saul Bellow during the interview with Dejan Stojanovic, 1992|
Stojanovic: How do you view the chaos in Yugoslavia and the position of the Serbian people in this particular historic moment?
Bellow: I don’t have enough information to answer your question about Serbian politics. I did talk a little bit about it before. I don’t have anything to add to what I said earlier. I hate to play the pundit. When I was young, there were people in the world to whom everybody turned for an opinion—literary people like H.G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw, Romain Roland, etc. And these individuals were always approached for statements that were by others, such as giving these examples as statements whenever there was a crisis of any sort. Looking back at what they had to say, I make every effort to avoid getting myself in that position because they were so completely wrong, especially on all the Russian questions, so Shaw on Stalin, or Romain Roland on Stalin is better forgotten, except to people who have to remember it, like me. So no, I am not going to get into this. I wish you all well, and I think it would be better if the fighting were to end and the differences were resolved in discussion, rather than with arms because modern arms are very different from the old arms. Nobody in his right mind thinks that cultural monuments have to be destroyed from the air to settle political differences. Something is very wrong with that. So that’s the full extent of my comments on Yugoslav politics.
Bellow: There are two kinds of intellectual elites to say the least. Many more than two, actually, but I can distinguish two main trends: The elite that gave us the enlightenment in the 17th and 18th centuries—the Montesquieu, Locke, Hume, Rousseau, and so on; and the elite that was going to change the world. The anarchist elite, the Marxist elite, the Fascist elite—they haven’t given us much satisfaction. After all, the Russian Revolution was undertaken by intellectuals, with our instructions—the diagnosis of an intellectual Marx and Engels. It seems to me that for whatever reason, the first group had certain reasonable success in the world, and the second group hasn’t done very well by mankind. This is why I speak of two elites because there are many more in all branches, literary, and so forth.
I have some doubts even about Jean Jacque Rousseau, whom I greatly admire, and considered to be a political genius. But when I think that Rousseau’s perception for love between the sexes has lead to in the 20th century, I recoil from it. I don’t think it was a success. Sometimes I think that intellectuals, before they propagate their ideas, ought to see the worst outcomes as well as the best or to try to project what will happen if this goes wrong; because it’s sure to go wrong in many ways. Would Marx have written the “Communist Manifesto” if he’d envisioned the Leninist scenario? Well, I am not absolutely sure that he wouldn’t have.
The October Revolution tried to revise Marxism with the events of 1917—1918. It never really did work out very well. Why should the first proletarian revolution occur in a backward country rather than in an advanced country? Well, yes, they died. It did. And maybe after seventy odd years it collapsed because the country was economically backward. That’s quite possible. But there’s a combination of things. It was also a political abuse, not just technological or economic backwardness. I would say that any really responsible intellectual ought to try to project what will happen to his ideas when they are corrupted as they’re certain to be.
Now, you ask me what role can the intellectual elite play? I think that its first task is to purify itself. The second task is to read the history of the influence of intellectuals on the history of the 20th century. (Well, why not? Even musicians have a very low place in light of the history of Mozart.)
I think there ought to be some sort of public review of the effects of certain leading intellectual projects in the 20th century. It would not make a pleasant book. It wouldn’t be pleasant to read. This doesn’t mean that I’m opposed to intellectualism. No, I am not. In fact, I just think it’s irresponsible. As a matter of fact, you can say that society as it is now wouldn’t function without its intellectuals if you include among those intellectuals technicians who are, after all, university-trained “intellectuals.” No government could function without them now. But as you go elsewhere in society and you look at intellectuals as educators or intellectuals as social planners or intellectuals as urbanists or whatever you like—then it seems very fishy.
When I think, for instance, what intellectuals have done to high school education in this country, I am appalled. I think it’s a terrible thing. Yet the schools have education that follows the leadership, and the doctrines of John Dewey were received very warmly and their leadership was accepted and all the rest of that, and yet they haven’t really done very well by us.
Intellectuals are very smart people from nowhere who find that this is the key for rapid advancement, and they are tempted to take and use power. They also, in some other countries, become public heroes or figures, celebrities, and they have their fan clubs and all the rest of that. I remember arriving in Paris in 1948 when I went over after the war on a Guggenheim Fellowship. I was a product of American universities. I had the highest regard for French civilization. And then I watched Jean Paul Sartre for two years, and I must say it was not a very inspiring thing to watch. In the first place, I thought he was a very poor student of Marxism and that I knew more as a college student than he did, but what was happening in the Soviet Union, he seemed to know. And any time there was a real manifestation of independence or libertarianism, while he was against it and on the side of Communist repression; and all of that, you know. He was a hero. And not just in France, either, but all over the civilized world. It’s a terrible mistake. By the time he got around to writing about Frantz Fanon and his revanche against the colonialists, against whites, against anybody with different skin, I thought, “This is for the toilet.” Fanon said: “To recover your lost manhood, you must kill all whites, you must shoot at every white face; women children, everybody. Immediately. They did it in Cambodia to everybody so . . .”
|Saul Bellow, University of Chicago, 1992|
Stojanovic: To return to art, for the last question, and finish this conversation on a lighter note: What is, according to you, the meaning of intuition in art?
Bellow: It’s impossible in this length of time to discuss any such thing, but let me connect this with what I said before about intellectuals. I think it’s important for artists to separate themselves from intellectuals in a way. I don’t mean that they should ignore them; they can’t. It would be a bad thing if they did, but in themselves, for themselves, they must follow a different path because there are answers to questions they have that intellectuals cannot have. There are intuitions peculiar to their feelings about human life, about human existence, which artists have, which may or may not be shared by intellectuals as intellectuals.
This is another way of saying that there is a significant difference between cognition and imagination; and if you take the way of cognition so that it rules out imagination, then you are on very dangerous ground; and this can cause harm to what people think art is. And I think Sartre is a fairly good example of this. He was a very ingenious and gifted man. He even had much talent as a novelist, but when he got started, he was really much more interested in the cognitive and so far as he divorced those two, he was a failure. Insofar as imaginative writers yield too much to the cognitive influence, they will fail, too. It’s a question of maintaining the balance between these two things.
Pogledi, Views, (Serbia, the former Yugoslavia), January 1993, No. 125