The following, the second part of a two-part series, is excerpted from a talk originally given by Saul Bellow in 1988 and now published here for the first time. A footnote has been added by the editors.
In reading Lionel Abel’s memoir, The Intellectual Follies, I came upon an arresting passage in his chapter on the Jews. During the war he had heard accounts of the Nazi terror, Abel says, and reports of extermination camps in Eastern Europe.
But I had no real revelation of what had occurred until sometime in 1946, more than a year after the German surrender, when I took my mother to a motion picture and we saw in a newsreel some details of the entrance of the American army into the concentration camp at Buchenwald. We witnessed the discovery of the mounds of dead bodies, the emaciated, wasted, but still living prisoners who were now being liberated, and of the various means of extermination in the camp, the various gallows, and also the buildings where gas was employed to kill the Nazis’ victims en masse.
It was an unforgettable sight on the screen, but as remarkable was what my mother said to me when we left the theatre: She said, “I don’t think the Jews can ever get over the disgrace of this.” She said nothing about the moral disgrace to the German nation…, only about…a more than moral disgrace, and one incurred by the Jews. How did they ever get over it? By succeeding in emigrating to Palestine and setting up the state of Israel.
I too had seen newsreels of the camps. In one of them, American bulldozers pushed naked corpses toward a mass grave ditch. Limbs fell away and heads dropped from disintegrating bodies. My reaction to this was similar to that of Mrs. Abel—a deeply troubling sense of disgrace or human demotion, as if by such afflictions the Jews had lost the respect of the rest of humankind, as if they might now be regarded as hopeless victims, incapable of honorable self- defense, and, arising from this, probably the common instinctive revulsion or loathing of the extremities of suffering—a sense of personal contamination and aversion. The world would see these dead with a pity that placed them at the margin of humanity.
“Certainly, the Holocaust was a tragedy,” Abel says. And with a writer’s weakness for literary categories, he begins to talk about theories of tragedy:
When we think of tragedy we must remember that the best critics of tragedy considered as an art have told us that at the end of tragedy there must be a moment of reconciliation. The human spirit, offended by the excesses of the pitiable and the terrible, has to be reconciled to the reality of things. Some good must come of so much evil; and for the Jews, this good was found only in the setting-up of the state of Israel. What came out of the Holocaust was the success of Zionism.
My note in the margin was “Do we really need to go into this?” I was far from sure that this was the time to bring down the curtain on the Fifth Act. The struggle still went on. What was certain however was that the founders of Israel restored the lost respect of the Jews by their manliness. They removed the curse of the Holocaust, of the abasement of victimization from them, and for this the Jews of the Diaspora were grateful and repaid Israel with their loyal support. Perhaps a more appropriate category than tragedy, if a category is what we need, would be epic, for centuries of continuous adherence to Jewish ideas does make one think of a long continuing epic, the dedication of a people to something far higher than itself.
In Germany the revival of the epical theme in Wagnerian and later in Hitlerian form may well have been a bid to supersede the Jewish epic. Even the plan to destroy the Jews was epical in scale. The building up of Israel was a further chapter in the epic of the Jews. It probably matters little which literary label one selects, but then I am speaking of Jews and literature, so it is not inappropriate to speculate about tragedy and epic, for what is suggested by the foregoing discussion is that in the modern world of nihilistic abysses and voids the Jews, through the horror of their suffering and their responses to suffering, stand apart from the prevailing nihilism of the West—if they wish to separate themselves from this nihilism they have such a legitimate option.
At the same time, I have often thought that it would be something of a miracle if they had not been driven mad by their experiences in this century. I look up Yeats’s poem “Why Should Not Old Men Be Mad?” and see what the provocations of his old men are: a likely lad who turns into a drunken journalist, a promising girl who bears children to a dunce. Yes, private tragedies—one should not minimize them. But put them up against the project of murdering an ancient people in its entirety, think of what it means that your Jewish birth may condemn you to death, and they seem negligible causes of madness.
And I sometimes glimpse in myself, an elderly Jew, a certain craziness or extremism, as if the vessel can no longer hold what is poured into it, and feel that my mental boundaries are crumbling. I occasionally think that I see evidences in Israeli politics of rationality damaged by memories of the Holocaust. And even if we were to accept Abel’s cathartic view of Israel and pronounce its Founding a successful Fifth Act—that play, the play of the Founding, may be over but Jewish involvement in the history of the West is far from concluded. Our own American chapter of it is certainly opened.
Times have changed (they always do, don’t they?) since Karl Shapiro published his book In Defense of Ignorance. I read it during the hopeful Sixties and the chapter on the Jewish writer in America left a permanent impression on me. In it Shapiro argues that Jewish creative intelligence has for centuries been driven into bypaths. “The fantastic intellectual powers of the Jews of our time go into everything under the sun except Jewish consciousness,” he wrote.
As far as one can tell these things, there are only two countries in the world where the Jewish writer is free to create his own consciousness: Israel and the United States…. The European Jew was always a visitor…. But in America everybody is a visitor. In this land of permanent visitors the Jew is in a rare position to “live the life” of a full Jewish consciousness. The Jews live a fantastic historical paradox: we are the spiritual aborigines of the modern world.
Here, says Shapiro, the American Jew has been able to “emerge from the historical consciousness to a full Jewish consciousness.”
Later, when Shapiro sees similarities between Judaic mystical humanism and American secular humanism, he loses me. But his prior assertion, namely that in the United States the Jewish writer is free to create his own consciousness, is most appealing.
But in creating his own consciousness, what are the limits our Jewish-American writer must expect to consider? I spoke earlier of the nihilistic abysses of the modern world and suggested that Jews, through the horror of Jewish suffering, the enormity of the Final Solution, might stand apart from the nihilism of the West. If they wished to separate themselves from this modern and European nihilism they might legitimately exercise the option. What did I mean by this?
These are difficult matters. I shall naturally be asked to define nihilism. What is it? We have our choice of a variety of definitions. For Nietzsche, nihilism signifies the abolition of all hitherto accepted measures and fundamental values. But that may be too broad to be useful. More to the point is the assertion that nihilism denies the existence of any distinct substantial self. This lack of self-substance makes all persons nugatory or insignificant. If we are insignificant, what does it matter what becomes of us? Still, those who are killed need not accept their definition from their killers or have their humanity taken from them as well as their lives. The burden of valuation is on the killer whose ground is nihilistic.
Let the country that committed the crimes bear the blame for them. The slain were not invited into Nothingness, they had it thrust upon them. We are free to withdraw (to withdraw our minds where we cannot withdraw our bodies) from situations in which our humanity or lack of it is defined for us. It was the judgment of the slayers that slaughter was permitted, that the slain had at best a trivial claim to existence based on an untenable fiction of inviolate selfhood. Theorists of euthanasia had long ago consented to the destruction of the unfit. Even mild vegetarian Fabians like G.B. Shaw (there were others) agreed that measures should be taken by a progressive society to rid itself of defective types. These socially and historically “progressive” reforms were applied in Central Europe by the Nazis with programmatic rigidity and also a kind of purgatorial irony to the Jews and other peoples judged superfluous. This is what causes me to speak of nihilism.
It would be a mistake on modern grounds to set aside as unimportant the age-long inclination of connecting the spiritual order in the universe with our own lives. In our pragmatic attitude toward the social order we leave no room for the influence of general beliefs on our own particular views of morality. In his recent short book Death of the Soul, the philosopher William Barrett offers a useful discussion of the consequences of the disappearance (the destruction, in fact) of the self. He examines critically Heidegger’s treatment of the human being. How, in Heidegger’s view, are we in the world? We ask of Heidegger, “Who is the being who is undergoing all these various modes of being? (Or, in more traditional language: Who is the subject, the I, that underlies or persists through all these various modes of our being?) And here Heidegger evades us.” “We are nothing,” he says, “but an aggregate of modes of being, and any organizing or unifying center we profess to find there is something we ourselves have forged or contrived.”
Thus there is a gaping hole at the center of our human being—at least as Heidegger describes this being. Consequently, we have in the end to acknowledge a certain desolate and empty quality about his thought, however we may admire the originality and novelty of its construction.
And Barrett asks, “How could a being without a center be really ethical?” He concludes: