As Ben Alpers made clear in his introductory post to Saul Bellow week, the novelist is important to intellectual historians for helping to enumerate representative twentieth-century literary themes, such as the “crisis of man” trope isolated by Mark Greif in his new book. But as Ben also pointed out, late in life Bellow was a conservative culture warrior. In today’s post I will analyze this a bit more.
One of the central interventions that my forthcoming book, A War for the Soul of America: A History of the Culture Wars, makes is that secular neoconservatives like Saul Bellow were arguably more important than religious conservatives in defining the parameters of the culture wars. This goes against the grain of how most people think about the culture wars, in part because most of us understand the culture wars through the lens of the book that has been the standard-bearer for 25 years: James Davison Hunter’s Culture Wars. I will write more about this in future posts, but for now let’s just say that the intellectual history of the culture wars allows us to think more carefully about the genealogies of the culture wars.
Neoconservatives were crucial because the New Left had changed the national debate about political culture. Unlike traditionalist conservative thinkers who conflated liberalism with the New Left, neoconservatives believed the New Left had infected the liberal intellectual culture they loved. That they detected such a change was one of the central reasons for their political conversion; it was one of the primary reasons neoconservatives proved so useful to the modern American conservative movement. As such, the texture of post-sixties anti-intellectualism was best revealed in neoconservative writings, even in the fiction of Bellow.
In the 1969 novel Mr. Sammler’s Planet—the neoconservative novel par excellence—Saul Bellow drew a picture of the “new class” type distinct from older anti-intellectual caricatures (as Stephen Schryer argues in his excellent Fantasies of the New Class: Ideologies of Professionalism in Post-World War II American Fiction, which Andy Seal first pointed out to me a few years ago). In the opening scene,Artur Sammler complains that “intellectual man has become an explaining creature. Fathers to children, wives to husbands, lecturers to listeners, experts to laymen, colleagues to colleagues, doctors to patients, man to his own soul explained.”
Despite being an explainer himself, Sammler is alienated because he believes that most explanation contradicts the “natural knowledge” innate to the human soul. Having fun with Hegel’s “Owl of Minerva,” which only takes flight at dusk—a reference to Hegel’s allegory about philosophy only being revealed after phenomena—Sammler says that the soul rests “unhappily on superstructures of explanation, poor bird, not knowing which way to fly.” Bemoaning that intellectuals increasingly dedicated their work to rationalizing bad behavior, Sammler offers a thinly veiled critique of the sixties liberation ethos:
The labor of Puritanism was now ending, the dark satanic mills changing into light satanic mills. The reprobates converted into children of joy, the sexual ways of the seraglio and of the Congo bush adopted by the emancipated masses of New York, Amsterdam, London.
By siding against contemporary intellectual mores, Bellow and the neoconservatives aligned with the more authentic sensibilities of average Americans. In other words, the neoconservative mind was the intellectualization of the white working-class ethos. As a Commentary writer put it: “Three workingmen discoursing of public affairs in a bar may perhaps display more clarity, shrewdness, and common sense” than a representative of the “new class,” with his “heavy disquisitions.” In this way, neoconservatives elaborated on the crude conservative populism of George Wallace’s presidential campaigns. They gave theoretical expression to Spiro Agnew’s colloquial eviscerations of the “nattering nabobs of negativity.” Most importantly, they helped make sense of the seemingly incongruous fact that some of nation’s most privileged citizens doubled as its most adversarial. These were the people the Catholic intellectual and budding neoconservative Michael Novak labeled the “Know-Everythings”: “affluent professionals, secular in their values and tastes and initiatives, indifferent to or hostile to the family, equipped with postgraduate degrees and economic security and cultural power.”
The development of such neoconservative “new class” thought was crucial to the culture wars—crucial to the continuing attack on higher education by conservatives such as Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker. It also helps explain the racial arrogance of Bellow’s infamous statement: “When the Zulus produce a Tolstoy we will read him.”
Greif argues that Bellow’s connections to the University of Chicago help explain the “crisis of man” theme that runs through some of his best early works. I would argue that this connection also explains his role in the culture wars, especially his close friendship with Allan Bloom, author of the culture wars über-text, The Closing of the American Mind. Bellow’s 2000 novel Ravelstein—which is actually one of my favorite Bellow novels—is about his good friend Bloom, who died of AIDS in 1992. In the book Bloom, or rather “Ravelstein,” is depicted as a complex, eclectic, lovable, troubled, multi-dimensional human being.
This is not how Bloom necessarily comes across in his role as Chief Culture Warrior. In fact, Bellow had a lot to do with the cartoonish depiction of Bloom that loomed large in the American imagination.
Bellow authored the renowned foreword to Closing of the American Mind, in which he announced in the first sentence: “Professor Bloom has his own way of doing things.” Namely, according to Bellow, Bloom refused to stoop to the level of his philistine contemporaries, preferring instead to keep company with the likes of Aristotle. By encouraging readers to think of Bloom as a renegade genius, Bellow also invited mockery. Philosopher Robert Paul Wolff playfully suggested that Bloom was a figment of Saul Bellow’s literary imagination:
Saul Bellow has demonstrated that among his other well-recognized literary gifts is an unsuspected bent for daring satire. What Bellow has done, quite simply, is to write an entire coruscatingly funny novel in the form of a pettish, bookish, grumpy, reactionary complaint against the last two decades. The ‘author’ of this tirade, one of Bellow’s most fully-realized literary creations, is a mid-fiftyish Professor at the University of Chicago, to whom Bellow gives the evocative name ‘Bloom’. Bellow appears in the book only as the author of an eight-page ‘Foreword,’ in which he introduces us to his principal and only character.
The idea that helped make Bloom a cultural marvel—the notion of him as a sage among boors, sent from some distant past to rescue civilization from the abyss—was also what helped make him an easy target for ridicule. For better or worse, this perception also secured Closing of the American Mind’s place as the most important text of the culture wars. Bellow played some part in that.