A Jewish Writer in America

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…

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