There was a portrait of Saul Bellow in The New Yorker many years ago. I tore out the article and stuck it on the wall with a piece of tape. He’s elderly, probably around 80, with a knowing grin. I was absorbed by Bellow’s slim Seize the Day in 2001. I’d known his name and was vaguely aware of his influence on today’s neurotic writers, mostly Jews. I’m pretty sure Bellow is thought of as equally brilliant and self-important. Seems he passed the baton off to Philip Roth, whom I distinctly remember ended a “Fresh Air” interview, in which Terry Gross always genuinely thanks the interviewee for their time and intimate discussion, with a flat and self-satisfied, “You’re welcome.” As if we should all be supremely thankful to Roth for his decision to talk for 30 minutes on public radio.
I came across a series on writers and what they read, and found Jeffrey Eugenides touting Herzog as the book that he returns to, if only for the beauty of the prose, the stylistic voice, both electrifying and bewildering, and Bellow’s flourishes of language and lyricism. I went to Amazon’s “Used” section, and found the third cheapest book, which claimed it was in “good” condition. How Jewish of me already. Support your local bookstore, but use Amazon every day. I ordered the used book from the mega-site. A week or so later it arrived.
A “Houston Public Library” label in black and white is on the front. A stamp that read “Discarded” on the last page. The shape of the book (rectangle), more acceptable than anything else. At least the book had been discarded, rather than stolen. Do any of these details mean anything? A book about existentialism, chaos, god, professors, women, and insecure and unstable emotions. A book that won the 1965 National Book Award, a reference point for writers, a cultural artifact of the time period just before capitalism firmly established its death grip on American society.
And now I’m tearing off the label that says “library,” mainly because of the idea that every time I see the thing, I’ll wonder if it’s overdue. Subconsciously, I know that I’ll be reading this book for longer than I want. The book’s cover is now slightly torn. The condition has worsened before the worn-down spine has even been cracked.
Choosing to start a novel is difficult for me. I love books and writing, but reading and I have a temperamental relationship. When it’s going well, I read often, excited to pick up where I left off. When it’s not going well, I struggle, but rarely quit. Often reading painstakingly and with frustration. My eyes tire easily. I open the pages minutes before drifting off. I drag a book under my arm upstairs and down, inside the house and outside into the world, protected in a bag, as if to keep it safe. My wife mocks me when I add books when packing for a trip. She’s right—I’ll be lucky to finish one, and yet I bring three, and a copy of The Atlantic.
The Internet has imposed itself on my reading life. The dog has imposed himself on what I would like to be my reading life. Fantasy baseball and my competitive nature have also imposed. So have cooking and cleaning. Or should I say, more accurately, that I haven’t carved any time out of my routines for reading in a while.
But now I begin… Herzog and Me. Bellow calls out. Will I be able to hear him?
[The dream of man’s heart, however much we may distrust and resent it, is that life may complete itself in significant pattern. Some incomprehensible way. Before death. Not irrationally but incomprehensibly fulfilled. Spared by these clumsy police guardians, you get one last chance to know justice. Truth.]
Bellow insists that our hearts seek patterns of meaning without comprehension. That justice exists amidst the chaos and randomness of the universe. That truth is hidden in the coincidences of life. That what we call déjà vu is a slice of this cosmic pie. We want the comfort of a guiding force, without the understanding of why or how we are being guided. We call this staying in touch with our inner child. We call this empathy. We call this humanity. We call this wanderlust. We call ourselves dreamers. The confines of reality and logic and hand-held technology squelch the dreams of our less human hearts.
[More commonly suffering breaks people, crushes them, and is simply unilluminating. You see how gruesomely human beings are destroyed by pain, when they have the added torment of losing their humanity first, so that their death is a total defeat, and then you write about “modern forms of Orphism” and about “people who are not afraid of suffering” and throw in other such cocktail-party expressions. Why not say rather that people of powerful imagination, given to dreaming deeply and to raising up marvelous and self-sufficient fictions, turn to suffering sometimes to cut into their bliss, as people pinch themselves to feel awake. I know that my suffering, if I may speak of it, has often been like that, a more extended form of life, a striving for true wakefulness and an antidote to illusion, and therefore I can take no moral credit for it. I am willing without further exercise in pain to open my heart. And this needs no doctrine or theology of suffering.]
Why write if not to live in this dream-state? With a powerful imagination, we’re able to create these self-sufficient fictions. But a powerful imagination without determination and the ability to plan becomes overwhelming and sends us toward depression. Creative urges become a burden when not indulged regularly, when not given breathing room in our daily routines. With suffering, we are able to feel fully and dream fully. We let go of the controlling natures of both optimism and cynicism. We let go of order. And yet, how do we let go of order in a world that demands organization, in a reality that demands reason and logic, in an environment that urges us to compete and to judge?
Living with an open heart means opening a heart to despair and brutality. We may find true wakefulness and it may become an antidote to illusion. This same open heart is able to engage with possibility and with the openings that life presents us. When we seek truth, we often find ugliness. Injustice. We feel compelled to fight when we recognize the systems of control that block the path of justice and equality. So then, we may say that awareness of our own suffering is awareness of each human being’s suffering. And that our powerful imaginations are the only true antidote to an oppressive reality, filled with injustice and blind.
I finished Herzog. I read too slowly. Like most people, I am easily prone to distraction. I felt a tiny sense of accomplishment upon closing the book. An old library book. I wondered who else had bothered to push through this very book. Who had opened and closed it. How many half-Jews live in Houston? How many non-Jews can tolerate such brilliant self-sabotage and narcissism?
1963. Before assassinations. Before counterculture’s brief takeover. Before technology had its way with us. A book about a time and about a suffering bastard who can’t get out of his own way. Can we get out of our own way? Does an online text allow the reader the chance to wrestle with a writer’s ideas in the same way? Yes and no and yes and no. Maybe we’ve all been assassinated. Or the idea of the writer, the poet, the artist as cultural sage. Maybe that has been assassinated. Anything too real is bound not to be watched, read, or discussed. 12 Years A Slave: too much for our entertainment-driven culture to absorb.
What would Bellow tell us about Facebook? About Twitter? About authors and self-promotion? What do you tell yourself about these things? What do you fight against and what do you accept? Do you examine your small sufferings and share the wakefulness that imaginative suffering might provide the world? Stop suffering silently. Put all of your distractions aside. Keep living in words and songs, if you bother to write them, read them, hear them.