I often find myself horrified by my own inability to form sustained, iterative, progressive thoughts. My thinking is tangential and erratic; most of my intellectual activity is reactive. By and large, my mental resting-point is a near-trance tinged with equal parts exhaustion, frustration, and mild terror. I read frequently, then sporadically and, in bursts, voraciously. Each time I rest a book on the nightstand I try to think back through the meaning of the material that I’ve just read – and, here, I generally find a failure of comprehension.
Today, I’m reading Saul Bellow’s It All Adds Up, a collection of reflective essays spanning nostalgic odes to Depression-era Chicago, biographical pieces which describe the unlikely musical and political genius of Mozart and FDR, respectively, drafts on the state of the American soul and the writers, both real and potential, who struggle to revive it, and introductions and farewells to places and people of importance to the author. Throughout the book the nut of Bellow’s thought wrestles with who we (Chicagoans, Americans, Jews, Post-Modern Westerners, Globalists wrestling with, just then, Cold War realities) are, how much humanity we retain, whether we can squirrel away those humanistic holdovers in a post-Romantic, Nihilistic, materialistic world, and how we might shield ourselves from the wiles of the intellectual class he abhors.
Bellow certainly is a powerful essayist – on par with Orwell, I’d say (they both share a rabid disapproval for formal intellectuals). While Orwell relies on olfaction for exposition, Bellow draws us in with eyesight and where the Englishman steadies our attention on the meaning of material conditions, Bellow brings us to the soul. Bellow’s illustrative description of his Depression Chicago flat, for example: the decaying mattresses and “see-through sheets” and walls with buckling wallpaper which separated his bookish behaviors from the workmen’s’ trades beyond them – the steel mills, the slaughterhouses, and the furniture factories – each sustaining the city he loved dearly. These are physical-descriptor metaphors for the ruddy contemporaneous human condition. For Bellow, this was the best the world had to offer and disappointing all the same.
While I’ve sincerely enjoyed it, the book lends itself to my personal anxieties. Here we have a piece of literature illustrating the impoverished state of the human mind and soul and a reader with a sinking suspicion that his own mental state is generally out of sorts — jumbled and disrupted by a combination of a lack of personal discipline and an external overload of stimuli. We’re a species who’s greatest and most temporary happiness comes at the cash register, who’s longing lies the way of the till, and whose minds can’t be troubled with the dictates of a meaningful existence.
The discomfort transcends personal space, too, as the collection of essays takes you through Bellow’s own political journey. Here I found a quandary that I’d wager is regnant throughout our thinking populace yet unheard of in mass culture: a Nietzschean revaluation of values that’s political in nature and language. While he began his political life a Trotskyite, like so many Bellow was pushed rightward by the appalling political realism of the Stalinists who held so much sway in the early post-war era. He found his roots, then, as a liberal and, I believe, he steeled himself there for a lifetime as the world moved scattershot in a multitude of directions.
Here’s a man who’s all for the Liberal state, who’s familiar with the horrors of the authoritarian-totalitarian regime, who detests cut-and-dry jingoism while, at the same time, decries ubiquitous American self-loathing spurred on by an unctuous intellectual class. Saul Bellow was a liberal: it’s the meaning of the word that has changed.
The ultimate truth that emerges is that it is now Conservative to support the modern Liberal state. To share worries with a man like Bellow that, when a society rejects all public talk of prejudice, we’ve castrated ourselves politically and that, while formalized laws that oppress groups by color, creed, gender, sex-act, and religion are odious, a personal preference for one’s own choices and natural circumstance creates, defines, and seasons character and ought not be driven out of us as Jesus drove the demons from the swine, is now a socially and political unwieldy position to take.
Living in a multicultural world where vocal public preference is abjured and culture-clash-irritants are forced inward for contemplation, we’ve essentially stilled our social critics – those from within and without. Resentment is the only recourse for elucidation. Hatred is a human quality that’s best engendered by stifling thought and muzzling speech. In truth, we’ve created a new political-correctness-Puritanism not unlike the early-20th-century American Puritanism that D.H. Lawrence worried had broken the “sympathetic heart,” had made us all “stink in each other’s nostrils.”
The battle lines are drawn – those who wish to conserve elements of humanity that are often deemed undemocratic and, at the same time, beautiful vs. those who call for a grey mass of material equality of purchasing power and freedom of superficial expression. Neither side has a perfect platform for utopia. Increasingly, we rely on abstract technological progress, material access, and a super-abundance of choice to arbitrate our differences. This was what Bellow wrote about.