Why Read Saul Bellow?
Friday, May 21, 2021
Why Read Saul Bellow?
Before recommending immersion into Mr. Bellow’s brilliant fictional worlds, I wish to apologize for disappearing the last few months. I plan on keeping this blog going—probably weekly—as I have for several years now. It offers me a vehicle, perhaps more accurately a ventilation pipe, for sharing edgy psychoanalytic, literary, and philosophical reflections not consonant with the usual academic writing.
BTW, and herein lies the distraction, I started a subscription newsletter
earlier this year called:
Journeys to the Unconscious Mind
It costs $70 per year, the lowest fee that Substack (the sponsoring
company) allows. The newsletter is intended for practitioners of psychoanalysis, patients of psychoanalysts, or anyone interested in the field or in related areas like psychodynamic psychotherapy, psychoanalytic psychotherapy, depth psychotherapy, or Jungian psychoanalysis.
In my view, and as I note in the first few issues, these modes of clinical practice share more commonalities than differences. Psychoanalytic psychotherapists facilitate transformational encounters whether they be five-times-a-week or every two-weeks.
If you, or anyone you’ve ever met is interested, please invite them
to sign up at:
And, now, shameless self-promotion complete, I turn to discussing the
enviable genius, Saul Bellow.
His work reminds us that understanding human subjectivity results not only from carefully listening to others, but through reading literature, viewing art, and listening to music.
Of course, some formal training in depth psychology is important. A
structured apprenticeship would be best. You learn a great deal from meeting with different types of patients over the years, and receiving guidance from experienced supervisors helps. However, all clinical psychology programs, ranging from the cognitive-behavioral to the formal psychoanalytic, would advance their educational quality by teaching the arts.
Psychoanalytic training programs typically require a year-long, in-depth
reading of Freud. A detailed reading of Shakespeare offers at least equal, perhaps greater, relevance in terms of understanding human beings.
Which topic of the human experience does the Bard omit?
A year of philosophy would prove similarly beneficial as would a year of art
history. But, alas, psychoanalysis remains ensconced in the scientism dominant when it emerged. Psychoanalysts keep trying to be scientists when they are anything but.
Lacan (2008) advises “psychoanalysts to notice that they are poets” (p. 44).
Consider the insights about the human condition illuminated by these few
excerpts from the contemporary man-of-letters, Saul Bellow. He exemplifies the power of literature to facilitate understanding of real people. I share a few paragraphs from Bellow’s novel, Humboldt’s Gift, followed by comments.
The novel tells the story of one writer idealizing another. The protagonist’s
relationship with author he admires, Humboldt, descends from the status of dear friend to dark enemy. Along the way, Humboldt falls to pieces.
The story itself is compelling. Vividly displayed are failed friendships, troubled marriages, deceit, betrayal, greed, and competition—a rainbow array of human fallibility.
Here comes the first excerpt:
There came a time (Early Modern) when, apparently, life lost the
ability to arrange itself. It had to be arranged. Intellectuals took this as their job. From, say, Machiavelli’s time to our own this arranging has been the one great gorgeous tantalizing misleading disastrous project (p. 29).
The so-called modern period refers to the height of the belief in scientism.
As Nietzsche warned, the death of G-d would lead to a crisis of meaning. He
foresaw the Holocaust and other tragedies of the 20th century. Humans believed their lives could be reduced to algorithms. The humanities fell into disfavor. Even just recently, STEM curriculums have excised basic writing requirements.
How could anyone write about science, technology, engineering or mathematics if they don’t know how to clearly communicate?
I’m no scholar of English literature. I can only surmise as to Bellow’s
meaning. He seem to refer to the organic unfolding of a human life replaced by the technical. Before the modern period, humans lived more attuned to nature. They had no choice. You lived in the same village as your parents. You modeled their lifestyle and career. The distance between the natural and the technological was vast. Authorities dictating choices were limited to the family, the elders, or perhaps local governments.
Since the Modern Period, alleged experts regularly proclaim how to live,
subtly removing persons’ sense of agency. Current examples range from Dr. Oz to Oprah. How better to describe this loss of agency than to call deference to these alleged specialists “one great gorgeous tantalizing misleading disastrous project.”
The mass media, more than ever before in human history, tells us how to
think and feel and behave. Look around. People are glued to their mobile phones and their computers. Individuals are killed, in ever increasing numbers, by drivers distracted by their cell phones. This is just one example of mind control exceeding Orwell’s wildest imagination: people are too immersed in their technology to even notice those around them.
In the final analysis, we make our own choices. Most of our lives play out
uncontrollably, understood by some as fate. It is crucial to direct your own limited powers with the most authenticity possible—in caring for self while also loving others. It takes courage to look inward, discover your own individual desires, and live them out in a meaningful yet ethical way.
Along these same lines, Bellows later writes:
Boredom is an instrument of social control. Power is the power to impose boredom, to command stasis, to combine this stasis with anguish. The real tedium, deep tedium, is seasoned with terror and death (p. 203).
Is this what prevents mobile phone addicts from looking up, sitting still,
being present? Mass media outlets like the ever-growing Facebook, Twitter,
Instagram, Tik-Tok, and similar platforms shape minds, molding
them, manipulating them. They tailor news feeds to the specific interests of
users, creating ever more isolated bubbles of information.
Knowledge is siloed.
People fear aloneness more than ever before.
Perhaps if they stand still, breathe the air, take in the view, and experience their emotions, the stasis, boredom, anguish will rush in.
No wonder retail stores play background music.
No one wants to be alone.
We’ve become phobic.
Better to not dare it.
Best to return to the ever-present digital display.
Striving for engagement, meaning, and fulfillment in life reverses the
ever-present threat of boredom.
No one delivers these to you.
You can only find them within yourself.
Fear, even more than boredom, additionally serves as a mechanism of power. Just a few weeks ago, for example, the Los Angeles Times ran a horrid front-page story describing the death of an 80-year old psychologist. He had already been double-vaccinated—rendering the tale even more troubling. If you read further down the page, metaphorically buried in the fine print, the author acknowledges the chances of such a fatal post-vaccine, Covid-reaction were .008 percent! This level of risk approximates the chance of you getting killed by a car while casually walking along a residential street, or being struck by lightning or by an airplane engine falling from the sky.
Why feature, on the front page no less, such a frightening and yet meaningless story?
The article illustrates the immense power of fear-mongering. Perhaps, in
Bellows’ defense, fear trumps boredom. Most people, aroused by fear, falsely believe some purchase, or looking forward to a weekend, will soothe them. But these solutions never work.
Being present to the moment raises the risk of boredom, fear, and other dark emotions rising to the surface.
Still not much of a leap in topic, the next excerpt from Humboldt’s Gift
describes why some young men find meaning in going to war:
… I now found relevance in the explanation T. E. Lawrence had given
for enlisting in the RAF—’To plunge crudely among crude men and find myself…’How did it go, now? ‘ … for these remaining years of prime life.’ Horseplay, roughhouse, barracks obscenity, garbage detail. Yes, many men, Lawrence said, would take the death-sentence without a whimper to escape the life-sentence which fate carries in her other hand (p. 284).
Here the same theme plays out:
Why face boredom, or even fear, if you can find intense distraction in
killing others or risking being killed yourself? And, imagine the stimulation of horseplay and roughhouse along the way?
You take control of the uncontrollable.
Continuing in the same trend, Bellows writes:
Now I begin to understand what Tolstoy was getting at when he called
on mankind to cease the false and unnecessary comedy of history and begin simply to live (p. 483).
That citation requires no explanation.
It follows from the above.
Finally, I turn away from life’s insights to the simple brilliance of Bellow’s
writing. The following few sentences sufficiently prove, in and of themselves, why schools and universities must continue to teach communication skills.
Watch how much Bellow’s packs into three sentences:
We made our approach over the steely patch of evening water and landed at La Guardia in the tawny sundown. We then rode to the Plaza Hotel imprisoned in the low seats in one of New York’s dog-catcher taxis. They make you feel that you have bitten someone and are being rushed to the pound, frothing with rabies, to be put down (p. 321).
The first sentence communicates travel, the time of day, the look of the water, and geography.
Can’t you feel it?
The next sentence elicits an image of the Plaza Hotel, even if you’ve
never seen it. The taxi ride becomes visceral, the “low seats” and the “dog-catcher” feeling. Then, the finale, the emotional sense of the ride itself, intensity, anxiety, the feeling of having bitten someone and frothing, readying yourself to be put down.
Professors of psychology and psychoanalysis take note.
Writers like Saul Bellow convey more than any textbook of abnormal psychology, psychophysiology, or clinical psychology ever could. They impart the wisdom possibly gained by years of clinical experience, only more tightly and brilliantly packaged. If you want to delve into the intimate lives of others, then read fiction, go to the theater, watch the cinema, listen to the music. They deliver the mythology guiding our subjectivities.
Bellow, S. (1975). Humboldt’s Gift. New York: Penguin.
Lacan, J. (2008). My teaching, Trans. D. Macey. New York: Verso.
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