Page 27 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 43

Basic HTML Version

Delmore Schwartz (the model for the Humboldt von Fleisher of
Humboldt’s gift)
and, indeed, an entire generation of Jewish intel­
lectuals were formed. To be sure, Bellow— being Bellow — casts
an ironic eye on such proceedings. Too many of the New York
intellectuals constituted what Harold Rosenberg called “a herd of
independent minds.” Bellow, by contrast, has always operated on
the suspicion that if too many intellectuals are enamored by a
fashionable idea, there is probably something wrong with it. This
is particularly true for those who fell under the sway of
Wastelandish despair long after its day had past.
Granted, Bellow has become what one of his brooding,
egghead protagonists calls “an explaining creature,” one who
cannot quite resist the itch to deliver a stump speech on how and
why contemporary life is in such desperate shape. In this sense,
Bellow’s spokesmen — whether they be Moses Herzog or Artur
Sammler, Charlie Citrine or Albert Corde — serve as counter­
weights to a shoddy cultural moment. As Moses Herzog puts it,
he is out to find
. . . a new angle on the modern condition, showing how life
can be lived by renewing universal connections; over­
turning the last of the Romantic errors about the unique­
ness of the Self; revising the old Western, Faustian ideol­
ogy; investigating the social meaning of Nothingness.
This is, at bottom, a peculiarly “Jewish” vision, one that values re­
straint over Faustian excess, community over the unbridled Self.
It is also — in Herzog’s case — a grand, wonderfully nutty dream,
the stuff that makes Bellow’s brainier protagonists tick. Despite
the pronouncements of his “mental letters,” everything militates
against Herzog fulfilling his early promise: the
cultural “operators” like Mermelstein and Shapiro; Reality In­
structors of all sizes and shapes; divorce lawyers, nearly
woman and, of course, Herzog himself. Bellow’s fictional power
is such that we believe Herzog will rise above his distractions and
turn a life’s worth of notes into a marvelous book, that Artur
Sammler will at last write the definitive study of H.G. Wells his
* daughter so desperately believes in, that Albert Corde will be­
come an important essayist rather than a Provost — all this, de­
spite the evidence.