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A Jewish Writer in America

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Judith Aronson
Saul Bellow and Janis Bellow, Boston, Massachusetts, 1994; photograph by Judith Aronson, whose portraits of writers and artists have been collected in her book Likenesses: With the Sitters Writing About One Another, published in 2010 by Lintott Press in association with Carcanet Press, UK

The following, the first 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. Footnotes have been added by the editors.

A few preliminary words on the title of this talk: it deals with aspects of my personal history and with the substantiality of the person behind this history. The idea of a substantial person has been subjected by modernist, postmodernist, and postpostmodernist thinkers to tests which make one think of the rude use of effigies by engineers who simulate car collisions and plane crashes—dummies are dismembered before our eyes or devoured by floods of ignited aviation fuel.

The “identity problem” has vexed and plagued the modern intellect. So what business have I, in view of the “new look” for individuals (in a word, for each and every one of us) sponsored by highly influential existentialist, deconstructionist, and nihilist designers, to speak of my personality and my personal history? And the truth is that no such right can be formally defended by a writer—a novelist—who, in any case, would have neither the time nor the metaphysical competency to do the job. All I have to say is that the learned philosophers and critics have raised some questions which perhaps do not have to be raised, sinister questions which I associate with an even more sinister challenge, the challenge, namely, to one’s right to exist in any form.

The philosopher Morris R. Cohen was once asked by a student, “Professor, how do I know that I exist?”

So?” Cohen replied. “And who is esking?”

Thanks to Professor Cohen I feel that I stand on firmer ground, and can do what I have done all my life: i.e., to fall back instinctively on my first consciousness, which has always seemed to me to be most real and easily accessible. For people who have no access to any such core consciousness, no mysteries exist. Linguistic analysts aim to clear away all mysteries—alleged mysteries, they would say. Facts, however, must be respected, and the fact is that for reasons I can’t explain, my own first consciousness has had a long unbroken history. I wouldn’t know how to defend my faithful attachment to it. All I can say is that it is a fact and I wonder why anyone should feel it necessary to put its reality in doubt. But our meddling mental world puts all such realities in doubt. This world of truly modern, educated, advanced consciousness suspects the core consciousness that I take to be a fact of being inauthentic and probably delusive.

I will ask you for the present to believe that I am right and that what I call the meddling mental world is wrong.

So, in my first consciousness, I was, among other things, a Jew, the child of Jewish immigrants. At home our parents spoke Russian to each other, we children spoke Yiddish with them, and we spoke English with one another. At the age of four we began to read the Old Testament in Hebrew, we observed Jewish customs, some of them superstitions, and we recited prayers and blessings all day long. Because I had to memorize most of Genesis, my first consciousness was that of a cosmos, and in that cosmos I was a Jew. I suppose it would be proper to apply the word “archaic” to such a representation of the world as I had—archaic, prehistoric. This was my “given” and it would be idle to quarrel with it, to try to revise or efface it.

A millennial belief in a Holy God may have the effect of deepening the soul, but it is also obviously archaic, and modern influences would presently bring me up to date and reveal how antiquated my origins were. To turn away from those origins, however, has always seemed to me an utter impossibility. It would be a treason to my first consciousness to un-Jew myself. One may be tempted to go behind the given and invent something better, to attempt to reenter life at a more advantageous point. In America this is common, we have all seen it done, and done in many instances with great ingenuity. But the thought of such an attempt never entered my mind. Thus I may have been archaic, but I escaped the horrors of an identity crisis.

There were, however, other crises to face. As a high school boy reading The Decline of the West I learned that in Spengler’s view ours was a Faustian civilization and that we, the Jews, were Magians, the survivors and representatives of an earlier type, totally incapable of comprehending the Faustian spirit that had created the great civilization of the West, aliens whose adaptive strategies or mimicries were based on blind survival methods or deceits. Thus Disraeli, often called the greatest of nineteenth-century statesmen, didn’t actually know what he was doing.1 He could not naturally enter into the English spirit and he succeeded only by study and artifice.

Reading this, I was deeply wounded. I envied the Faustians and cursed my luck. I had prepared myself to be part of a civilization, one of whose prominent interpreters (Spengler was an international best seller) told me that I was by heredity disqualified. He did not say that I must be put to death, and one might be grateful for that. Yet he did pronounce Jews to be fossils, spiritually archaic, and that was in itself a kind of death. I was, however, an American Jew, not a German or a French Jew, and everything in America was different. My boyish hunch was that America, the enlightened source of a liberal order, might be a new venture in civilization, leaving the Faustians in the rear. So that what Magians were to Faustians, Faustians might very well be to Americans. By such ingenious means, I held Spengler at bay.

Later I discerned a kind of Darwinism in his kind of history—mankind advanced by evolutionary stages. In the natural history museum I couldn’t reconcile myself to the surrounding pterodactyls and ammonites, to standing on a forgotten evolutionary siding. It did no harm to picture myself in a museum. On the contrary, I realized that I didn’t belong there.

Having begun this talk without an adequate perspective, I now begin to see an intent in it. The condition I am looking into is that of a young American who in the late Thirties finds that he is something like a writer and begins to think what to do about it, how to position himself, and how to combine being a Jew with being an American and a writer. Not everyone thinks well of such a project. The young man is challenged from all sides. Representatives of the Protestant majority want to see his credentials. Less overtly hostile because they are more snobbish, the English want to know who he is or what he thinks he is. Later his French publishers will invariably turn his books over to Jewish translators.

The Jews too try to place him. Is he too Jewish? Is he Jewish enough? Is he good or bad for the Jews? Jews in business or politics ask, “Must we forever be reading about his damn Jews?” Jewish critics examine him with a certain sharpness—they have their own axes to grind. As the sons of Jewish immigrants, descendants of the people whose cackling and shrieking set Henry James’s teeth on edge when he visited the East Side, they accuse themselves secretly of presumption when they write of Emerson, Walt Whitman, or Matthew Arnold. My own view is that since Henry James and Henry Adams did not hesitate to express their dislike of Jews there is no reason why Jews, while full of respect for these masters, should not be free to write as they please about them. To let them (the hostile American WASPs) determine once and for all what the American psyche is, not to challenge their views where those views are narrow, or to accept the transmission of European infections and racial poisons would be disloyal and cowardly.

On the other hand one can’t always be heroic, and there were times when shades of Brownsville and Delancey Street surrounded Jewish lovers of American literature and they were unhappily wondering what T.S. Eliot or Edmund Wilson would be thinking of them. Among my Jewish contemporaries, more than one poet flirted with Anglicanism and others came up with different evasions, dodges, ruses, and disguises. I had little patience with that kind of thing. If the WASP aristocrats wanted to think of me as a Jewish poacher on their precious cultural estates then let them.

It was in this defiant spirit that I wrote The Adventures of Augie March and Henderson the Rain King: “I am an American,” etc. But of course I was not so simple-minded as to think I had satisfied certain persistent and deadly questions. Those were repeatedly thrust upon me by everyone including Jewish writers and thinkers whom I held in great esteem. Back in the Fifties I visited S. Agnon in Jerusalem and as we sat drinking tea, chatting in Yiddish, he asked whether I had been translated into Hebrew. As yet I had not been. He said with lovable slyness that this was most unfortunate. “The language of the Diaspora will not last,” he told me. I then sensed that eternity was looming over me and I was aware of my insignificance. I did not however lose all presence of mind and to feed his wit and keep the conversation going, I asked, “What will become of poets like poor Heinrich Heine?” Agnon answered, “He has been beautifully translated into Hebrew and his survival is assured.”

Agnon was of course insisting that the proper language for a Jewish writer was Hebrew. I didn’t care to argue the matter. I was not in a position to dismantle my entire life and start again from scratch in Hebrew. Agnon did not expect me to. Without a trace of ill will he was simply directing my attention to certain chapters of Jewish history. He was sweetly needling me.

Gershom Scholem, whose books I admire, was less gentle with me. I am told that a statement that I was said to have made in 1976 when I won the Nobel Prize put him in a rage. I was quoted in the papers as saying that I was an American writer and a Jew. Perhaps I should have said that I was a Jew and an American writer. Because Scholem is one of the greatest scholars of the century, I’m sorry I offended him, but having made this bow in his direction, I allow myself to add that the question reminds me of the one small children used to be asked by clumsy Sunday visitors in olden times: “Whom do you love better, your Papa or your Momma?” I recognized that I answered the reporters unthinkingly, “writer first, Jew second.”

For easily understandable reasons Scholem immediately placed me among those German Jews who had done everything possible to assimilate themselves and of whom Lionel Abel has written (in The Intellectual Follies), “German culture was the culture of the gentile world” that was the most admirable. The tragedy of the German Jews, says Scholem (for Abel too is in this passage referring to Scholem), was “that they were destroyed by the nationalist political movement in the nation they loved best.”

This, like so many Jewish questions, is deeper and more tragic than it may appear. I shall examine it from my own standpoint, that of an American Jewish writer, and take the discussion back to Agnon, who needled me so sweetly about the vanishing languages of the Diaspora. One’s language is a spiritual location, it houses your soul. If you were born in America all essential communications, your deepest communications with yourself, will be in English—in American English. You will neither lie nor tell the truth in any other language. Without it no basic reckonings can be made. You will not reflect on your own death in Hebrew or in French. Your English is the principal instrument of your humanity. And when the door of the gas chamber was shut many of the German Jews who called upon God for the last time inevitably used the language of their murderers, for they had no other.

Some such recognition lay behind Agnon’s teasing warning. Teasing was his Jewish way of being serious with me. He argued that the soul of the Jew must turn its back on Europe and in the Edenic peace of the Promised Land contemplate Hochma [Wisdom]. Yes, but the Jews can neither bear nor afford to confine themselves to the Promised Land. Not even those who make Aliyah [immigration to Israel] can do without Western science, Western culture, Western financing and technology. How agreeable it would have been to study wisdom at Agnon’s feet. He said as much: he told me in Yiddish that if I had had enough Hebrew to understand him I would have longed to see him again (ihr volt noch mir gebenkgt). After the nightmare torments of Nazism we could settle down together at last to await the restoration of God’s kingdom.

  1. 1

    Spengler does say that the Jews could not understand the course of European history in which they were sometimes actors, but in fact points to Disraeli as an exception, someone who had the material power to act to manipulate the (to him) alien culture of England. See Oswald Spengler, The Decline of the West, Vol. 2, translated and with notes by Charles Francis Atkinson (Knopf, 1928), pp. 319–320. 

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