Desert Solitaire – Edward Abbey

Desert Solitaire

I do not recall if Abbey studied zen. It appears to me that inherent in his craft is the idea that what he does not say is as important as what he does. Each sentence zigs and zags around, over and under so many norms of American society, and he does so with nary a collision. However, it is his intent to speak his mind and cause the collisions at his place and time: ( “Aside from the modest prevention the book is fairly plain and straight. Certain faults will be obvious to the general reader, of course, and for these I wish to apologize. I quite agree that much of the book will seem course, rude, bad-tempered, violently prejudiced, constructive – even frankly antisocial in its point of view. Serious critics, serious librarians, serious associate professors of English will if they read this work dislike it intensely; at least I hope so. To others I can only say that if the book has virtues they cannot be disentangles from the faults; that there is a way of being wrong which is also sometimes necessarily right.)

“It will be objected that the book deals too much with mere appearances, with the surface of things, and fails to engage and reveal the patterns of unifying relationships which form the true underlying reality of existence. Here I must confess that I know nothing whatever about true underlying reality, having never met any. There are many people who say they have, I know, but they’ve been luckier than I.

For my own part I am pleased enough with surfaces – in fact they alone seem to me to be of much importance. Such things for example as the grasp of a child’s hand in your own, the flavor of an apple, the embrace of a friend or a lover, the wild of a girls thigh, the sunlight on rock and leaves, the feel of music, the bark of a tree, the abrasion of granite and sand, the plunge of clear watering a pool, the face of the wind – what else is there?. What else do we need?”

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Ivan Illich & Jerry Brown – Natural Affinities?

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THE ART OF SUFFERING

by Jerry Brown

When in 1976, I first met Ivan Illich at the Green Gulch Farm, he told me that his current focus was the study of economics. Then, I didn’t understand that by the word economics, Illich meant a way of life where things are experienced only under assumptions of scarcity. Illich saw this as profoundly wrong.

For him, creation was a gift, accessible to every man and women–without any expert ministrations or institutionalized services. His critique of schooling, the pursuit of health, high technology and sexual equality all challenged core beliefs in progress and the capacity of progress to reduce suffering and improve the human condition.

When I try to understand Ivan Illich, I am forced back upon my experience in the Jesuit Novitiate in the 1950’s. There, I was taught Ignatian indifference to secular values of long life, fame and riches. It is only through that mystical lens that I can grasp the powerful simplicity of the way Illich lived. He had no home of his own and relied on the hospitality of friends. He traveled from place to place with never more than two bags. He refused medical diagnosis, any form of insurance and gave away whatever savings remained at the end of each year.

On December 2, 2002, Ivan Illich died in Bremen, Germany at the home of his friend, Barbara Duden. Three months earlier, he and I and two friends shared the pleasure of walking together through the streets of Florence, Italy. We enjoyed a leisurely meal in a small, typically Tuscan restaurant. Laughter and Chianti flowed freely. As I got up to pay the bill, I noticed Ivan coming back from the cashier. He had already taken care of it.

Among the serious thinkers I have had the privilege to meet, Ivan Illich alone embodied in his personal life as well as in his work, a radical distancing from the imperatives of modern society. From Deschooling Society (1971) to In the Vineyard of the Text (1993), he bore witness to the destructive power of modern institutions that “create needs faster than they can create satisfaction, and in the process of trying to meet the needs they generate, they consume the earth.”

Ivan Illich was the rarest of human beings: erudite, yet possessed of aliveness and sensitivity. He savored the ordinary pleasures of life even as he cheerfully embraced its inevitable suffering. Steeped in an authentic Catholic tradition, he observed with detachment and as a pilgrim the unforgiving allure of science and progress. With acute clarity and a sense of humor, he undermined, in all that he wrote, the uncontested certitudes of modern society.

In his last visit to Oakland, he invited the local archbishop to discuss matters of Catholic theology that greatly troubled him. Before he died, Illich wanted to engage ecclesiastical representatives in a conversation about corruption in the early church and the evolution-as he saw it–of Christian charity from a personal act to planned institutional services. This he called the corruption of the best becoming the worst- Corruptio optimi quae est pessima. His interlocutors arrived at my loft and were ushered into the library. Illich spoke at length, summoning up his vast store of Church history. He tried one subject, then another, but the bishop and his clerical assistants seemed nonplussed, even uncomfortable. Soon the conversation was over and our guests excused themselves and left. I am sure they were wondering what in the world Illich was getting at.

Two days after Illich died, the New York Timesprinted an obituary that was a polemic rather than a thoughtful remembrance. The writer described Illich as a preacher of “counterintuitive sociology” to “a disquieted baby-boom generation,” using “Jesuitic argumentation” and “watered-down Marxism.” He also quoted a deceased Timesliterary critic who said in 1989 that he would “especially” discard Illich’s books from his personal library. Given Illich’s frontal assault on the status quo, it is not surprising that the paper of record would so interpret his work.

In the Seventies, facing sharp criticism from the Vatican, Illich withdrew from the active priesthood and refrained from speaking ever again as a Catholic theologian. Instead, he focused on the nature of technology and modern institutions and their capacity for destroying common sense and the proper scale for human activity. Illich identified the “ethos of non-satiety” as “at the root of physical depredation, social polarization, and psychological passivity.” Instead of welfare economics and environmental management, Illich emphasized friendship and self-limitation.

At first, Illich offered trenchant social criticism, particularly in Tools for Conviviality (1973) and Medical Nemesis (1976). In later years, he turned his attention inward and to what one of his friends called an ancient way of doing theology. In an essay entitled, The Cultivation of Conspiracy,Illich wrote: “Learned and leisurely hospitality is the only antidote to the stance of deadly cleverness that is acquired in the professional pursuit of objectively secured knowledge. I remain certain that the quest for truth cannot thrive outside the nourishment of mutual trust flowering into a commitment to friendship.”

In the last twenty years of his life, Ivan Illich suffered increasingly from a persistent growth on the side of his face, which he never treated, nor had diagnosed. In explaining why he voluntarily suffered, he said simply: nudum Christum nudum sequere.I follow the naked Christ.

In what was his most provocative and perhaps final comment on the “pursuit of health,” Illich wrote:

“Yes, we suffer pain, we become ill, we die. But we also hope, laugh, celebrate; we know the joy of caring for one another; often we are healed and we recover by many means. We do not have to pursue the flattening-out of human experience. I invite all to shift their gaze, their thoughts, from worrying about health care to cultivating the art of living. And, today with equal importance, the art of suffering, the art of dying.”

Jerry Brown, governor of California from 1975 to 1983, is mayor of Oakland.


 

The New York Review of Books, Volume 13, Number 8 · November 6, 1969
Outwitting the “Developed” Countries

By Ivan Illich

It is now common to demand that the rich nations convert their war machine into a program for the development of the Third World. The poorer four fifths of humanity multiply unchecked while their per capita consumption actually declines. This population expansion and decrease of consumption threaten the industrialized nations, who may still, as a result, convert their defense budgets to the economic pacification of poor nations. And this in turn could produce irreversible despair, because the plows of the rich can do as much harm as their swords. US trucks can do more lasting damage than US tanks. It is easier to create mass demand for the former than for the latter. Only a minority needs heavy weapons, while a majority can become dependent on unrealistic levels of supply for such productive machines as modern trucks. Once the Third World has become a mass market for the goods, products, and processes which are designed by the rich for themselves, the discrepancy between demand for these Western artifacts and the supply will increase indefinitely. The family car cannot drive the poor into the jet age, nor can a school system provide the poor with education, nor can the family icebox insure healthy food for them.

It is evident that only one man in a thousand in Latin America can afford a Cadillac, a heart operation, or a Ph.D. This restriction on the goals of development does not make us despair of the fate of the Third World, and the reason is simple. We have not yet come to conceive of a Cadillac as necessary for good transportation, or of a heart operation as normal healthy care, or of a Ph.D. as the prerequisite of an acceptable education. In fact, we recognize at once that the importation of Cadillacs should be heavily taxed in Peru, that an organ transplant clinic is a scandalous plaything to justify the concentration of more doctors in Bogotá, and that a Betatron is beyond the teaching facilities of the University of Sao Paolo.

Unfortunately, it is not held to be universally evident that the majority of Latin Americans—not only of our generation, but also of the next and the next again—cannot afford any kind of automobile, or any kind of hospitalization, or for that matter an elementary school education. We suppress our consciousness of this obvious reality because we hate to recognize the corner into which our imagination has been pushed. So persuasive is the power of the institutions we have created that they shape not only our preferences, but actually our sense of possibilities. We have forgotten how to speak about modern transportation that does not rely on automobiles and airplanes. Our conceptions of modern health care emphasize our ability to prolong the lives of the desperately ill. We have become unable to think of better education except in terms of more complex schools and of teachers trained for ever longer periods. Huge institutions producing costly services dominate the horizons of our inventiveness.

We have embodied our world view into our institutions and are now their prisoners. Factories, news media, hospitals, governments, and schools produce goods and services packaged to contain our view of the world. We—the rich—conceive of progress as the expansion of these establishments. We conceive of heightened mobility as luxury and safety packaged by General Motors or Boeing. We conceive of improving the general well-being as increasing the supply of doctors and hospitals, which package health along with protracted suffering. We have come to identify our need for further learning with the demand for ever longer confinement to classrooms. In other words, we have packaged education with custodial care, certification for jobs, and the right to vote, and wrapped them all together with indoctrination in the Christian, liberal, or communist virtues.

In less than a hundred years industrial society has molded patent solutions to basic human needs and converted us to the belief that man’s needs were shaped by the Creator as demands for the products we have invented. This is as true for Russia and Japan as for the North Atlantic community. The consumer is trained for obsolescence, which means continuing loyalty toward the same producers who will give him the same basic packages in different quality or new wrappings.

Industrialized societies can provide such packages for personal consumption for most of their citizens, but this is no proof that these societies are sane, or economical, or that they promote life. The contrary is true. The more the citizen is trained in the consumption of packaged goods and services, the less effective he seems to become in shaping his environment. His energies and finances are consumed in procuring ever new models of his staples, and the environment becomes a by-product of his own consumption habits.

The design of the “package deals” of which I speak is the main cause of the high cost of satisfying basic needs. So long as every man “needs” his car, our cities must endure longer traffic jams and absurdly expensive remedies to relieve them. So long as health means maximum length of survival, our sick will get ever more extraordinary surgical interventions and the drugs required to deaden their consequent pain. So long as we want to use school to get children out of their parents’ hair or to keep them off the street and out of the labor force, our young will be retained in endless schooling and will need ever-increasing incentives to endure the ordeal.

Rich nations now benevolently impose a straightjacket of traffic jams, hospital confinements, and classrooms on the poor nations, and by international agreement call this “development.” The rich and schooled and old of the world try to share their dubious blessings by foisting their pre-packaged solutions on to the Third World. Traffic jams develop in São Paolo, while almost a million northeastern Brazilians flee the drought by walking 500 miles. Latin American doctors get training at the New York Hospital for Special Surgery, which they apply to only a few, while amoebic dysentery remains endemic in slums where 90 percent of the population live. A tiny minority gets advanced education in basic science in North America—not infrequently paid for by their own governments. If they return at all to Bolivia, they become second-rate teachers of pretentious subjects at La Paz or Cochibamba. The rich export outdated versions of their standard models.

The Alliance for Progress is a good example of benevolent production for underdevelopment. Contrary to its slogans, it did succeed—as an alliance for the progress of the consuming classes, and for the domestication of the Latin American masses. The Alliance has been a major step in modernizing the consumption patterns of the middle classes in South America by integrating them with the dominant culture of the North American metropolis. At the same time, the Alliance has modernized the aspirations of the majority of citizens and fixed their demands on unavailable products.

Each car which Brazil puts on the road denies fifty people good transportation by bus. Each merchandised refrigerator reduces the chance of building a community freezer. Every dollar spent in Latin America on doctors and hospitals costs a hundred lives, to adopt a phrase of Jorge de Ahumada, the brilliant Chilean economist. Had each dollar been spent on providing safe drinking water, a hundred lives could have been saved. Each dollar spent on schooling means more privileges for the few at the cost of the many; at best it increases the number of those who, before dropping out, have been taught that those who stay longer have earned the right to more power, wealth, and prestige. What such schooling does is to teach the schooled the superiority of the better schooled.

All Latin American countries are frantically intent on expanding their school systems. No country now spends less than the equivalent of 18 percent of tax-derived public income on education—which means schooling—and many countries spend almost double that. But even with these huge investments, no country yet succeeds in giving five full years of education to more than one third of its population; supply and demand for schooling grow geometrically apart. And what is true about schooling is equally true about the products of most institutions in the process of modernization in the Third World.

Continued technological refinements of products which are already established on the market frequently benefit the producer far more than the consumer. The more complex production processes tend to enable only the largest producer to continually replace outmoded models, and to focus the demand of the consumer on the marginal improvement of what he buys, no matter what the concomitant side effects: higher prices, diminished life span, less general usefulness, higher cost of repairs. Think of the multiple uses for a simple can opener, whereas an electric one, if it works at all, opens only some kinds of cans, and costs one hundred times as much.

This is equally true for a piece of agricultural machinery and for an academic degree. The midwestern farmer can become convinced of his need for a four-axle vehicle which can go 70 m.p.h. on the highways, has an electric windshield wiper and upholstered seats, and can be turned in for a new one within a year or two. Most of the world’s farmers don’t need such speed, nor have they ever met with such comfort, nor are they interested in obsolescence. They need low-priced transport, in a world where time is not money, where manual wipers suffice, and where a piece of heavy equipment should outlast a generation. Such a mechanical donkey requires entirely different engineering and design than one produced for the US market. This vehicle is not in production.

Most of South America needs paramedical workers who can function for indefinite periods without the supervision of an MD. Instead of establishing a process to train midwives and visiting healers who know how to use a very limited arsenal of medicines while working independently, Latin American can universities establish every year a new school of specialized nursing or nursing administration to prepare professionals who can function only in a hospital, and pharmacists who know how to sell increasingly more dangerous drugs.

The world is reaching an impasse where two processes converge: ever more men have fewer basic choices. The increase in population is widely publicized and creates panic. The decrease in fundamental choice causes anguish and is consistently overlooked. The population explosion overwhelms the imagination, but the progressive atrophy of social imagination is rationalized as an increase of choice between brands. The two processes converge in a dead end: the population explosion provides more consumers for everything from food to contraceptives, while our shrinking imagination can conceive of no other ways of satisfying their demands except through the packages now on sale in the admired societies.

I will focus successively on these two factors, since, in my opinion, they form the two coordinates which together-permit us to define underdevelopment.

In most Third World countries, the population grows, and so does the middle class. Income, consumption, and the well-being of the middle class are all growing while the gap between this class and the mass of people widens. Even where per capita consumption is rising, the majority of men have less food now than in 1945, less actual care in sickness, less meaningful work, less protection. This is partly a consequence of polarized consumption and partly caused by the breakdown of traditional family and culture. More people suffer from hunger, pain, and exposure in 1969 than they did at the end of World War II, not only numerically, but also as a percentage of the world population.

These concrete consequences of underdevelopment are rampant; but underdevelopment is also a state of mind, and understanding it as a state of mind, or as a form of consciousness, is the critical problem. Underdevelopment as a state of mind occurs when mass needs are converted to the demand for new brands of packaged solutions which are forever beyond the reach of the majority. Underdevelopment in this sense is rising rapidly even in countries where the supply of classrooms, calories, cars, and clinics is also rising. The ruling groups in these countries build up services which have been designed for an affluent culture; once they have monopolized demand in this way, they can never satisfy majority needs.

Underdevelopment as a form of consciousness is an extreme result of what we can call in the language of both Marx and Freud “Verdinglichung” or reification. By reification I mean the hardening of the perception of real needs into the demand for mass manufactured products. I mean the translation of thirst into the need for a Coke. This kind of reification occurs in the manipulation of primary human needs by vast bureaucratic organizations which have succeeded in dominating the imagination of potential consumers.

Let me return to my example taken from the field of education. The intense promotion of schooling leads to so close an identification of school attendance and education that in everyday language the two terms are interchangeable. Once the imagination of an entire population has been “schooled,” or indoctrinated to believe that school has a monopoly on formal education, then the illiterate can be taxed to provide free high school and university education for the children of the rich.

Underdevelopment is the result of rising levels of aspiration achieved through the intensive marketing of “patent” products. In this sense, the dynamic underdevelopment that is now taking place is the exact opposite of what I believe education to be: namely, the awakening awareness of new levels of human potential and the use of one’s creative powers to foster human life. Underdevelopment, however, implies the surrender of social consciousness to pre-packaged solutions.

The process by which the marketing of “foreign” products increases under-development is frequently understood in the most superficial ways. The same man who feels indignation at the sight of a Coca-Cola plant in a Latin American slum often feels pride at the sight of a new normal school growing up alongside. He resents the evidence of a foreign “license” attached to a soft drink which he would like to see replaced by “Cola-Mex.” But the same man is willing to impose schooling—at all costs—on his fellow citizens, and is unaware of the invisible license by which this institution is deeply enmeshed in the world market.

Some years ago I watched workmen putting up a sixty-foot Coca-Cola sign on a desert plain in the Mexquital. A serious drought and famine had just swept over the Mexican highland. My host, a poor Indian in Ixmiquilpan, had just offered his visitors a tiny tequila glass of the costly black sugar-water. When I recall this scene I still feel anger; but I feel much more incensed when I remember UNESCO meetings at which well-meaning and well-paid bureaucrats seriously discussed Latin American school curricula, and when I think of the speeches of enthusiastic liberals advocating the need for more schools.

The fraud perpetrated by the salesmen of schools is less obvious but much more fundamental than the self-satisfied salesmanship of the Coca-Cola or Ford representative, because the schoolman hooks his people on a much more demanding drug. Elementary school attendance is not a harmless luxury, but more like the coca chewing of the Andean Indian, which harnesses the worker to the boss.

The higher the dose of schooling an individual has received, the more depressing his experience of withdrawal. The seventh-grade dropout feels his inferiority much more acutely than the dropout from the third grade. The schools of the Third World administer their opium with much more effect than the churches of other epochs. As the mind of a society is progressively schooled, step by step its individuals lose their sense that it might be possible to live without being inferior to others. As the majority shifts from the land into the city, the hereditary inferiority of the peon is replaced by the inferiority of the school dropout who is held personally responsible for his failure. Schools rationalize the divine origin of social stratification with much more rigor than churches have ever done.

Until this day no Latin American country has declared youthful under-consumers of Coca-Cola or cars as lawbreakers, while all Latin American countries have passed laws which define the early dropout as a citizen who has not fulfilled his legal obligations. The Brazilian government recently almost doubled the number of years during which schooling is legally compulsory and free. From now on any Brazilian dropout under the age of sixteen will be faced during his lifetime with the reproach that he did not take advantage of a legally obligatory privilege. This law was passed in a country where not even the most optimistic could foresee the day when such levels of schooling would be provided for only 25 percent of the young. The adoption of international standards of schooling forever condemns most Latin Americans to marginality or exclusion from social life—in a word, under-development.

The translation of social goals into levels of consumption is not limited to only a few countries. Across all frontiers of culture, ideology, and geography today, nations are moving toward the establishment of their own car factories, their own medical and normal schools—and most of these are, at best, poor imitations of foreign and largely North American models.

The Third World is in need of a profound revolution of its institutions. The revolutions of the last generation were overwhelmingly political. A new group of men with a new set of ideological justifications assumed power to administer fundamentally the same scholastic, medical, and market institutions in the interest of a new group of clients. Since the institutions have not radically changed, the new group of clients remains approximately the same size as that previously served. This appears clearly in the case of education. Per pupil costs of schooling are today comparable everywhere since the standards used to evaluate the quality of schooling tend to be internationally shared. Access to publicly financed education, considered as access to school, everywhere depends on per capita income. (Places like China and North Vietnam might be meaningful exceptions.)

Everywhere in the Third World modern institutions are grossly unproductive, with respect to the egalitarian purposes for which they are being reproduced. But so long as the social imagination of the majority has not been destroyed by its fixation on these institutions, there is more hope of planning an institutional revolution in the Third World than among the rich. Hence the urgency of the task of developing workable alternatives to “modern” solutions.

Underdevelopment is at the point of becoming chronic in many countries. The revolution of which I speak must begin to take place before this happens. Education again offers a good example: chronic educational underdevelopment occurs when the demand for schooling becomes so widespread that the total concentration of educational resources on the school system becomes a unanimous political demand. At this point the separation of education from schooling becomes impossible.

The only feasible answer to ever-increasing underdevelopment is a response to basic needs that is planned as a long-range goal for areas which will always have a different capital structure. It is easier to speak about alternatives to existing institutions, services, and products than to define them with precision. It is not my purpose either to paint a Utopia or to engage in scripting scenarios for an alternate future. We must be satisfied with examples indicating simple directions that research should take.

Some such examples have already been given. Buses are alternatives to a multitude of private cars. Vehicles designed for slow transportation on rough terrain are alternatives to standard trucks. Safe water is an alternative to high-priced surgery. Medical workers are an alternative to doctors and nurses. Community food storage is an alternative to expensive kitchen equipment. Other alternatives could be discussed by the dozen. Why not, for example, consider walking as a long-range alternative for locomotion by machine, and explore the demands which this would impose on the city planner? And why can’t the building of shelters be standardized, elements be pre-cast, and each citizen be obliged to learn in a year of public service how to construct his own sanitary housing?

It is harder to speak about alternatives in education, partly because schools have recently so completely pre-empted the available educational resources of good will, imagination, and money. But even here we can indicate the direction in which research must be conducted.

At present, schooling is conceived as graded, curricular, class attendance by children, for about 1000 hours yearly during an uninterrupted succession of years. On the average, Latin American countries can provide each citizen with between eight and thirty months of this service. Why not, instead, make one or two months a year obligatory for all citizens below the age of thirty?

Money is now spent largely on children, but an adult can be taught to read in one tenth the time and for one tenth the cost it takes to teach a child. In the case of the adult there is an immediate return on the investment, whether the main importance of his learning is seen in his new insight, political awareness, and willingness to assume responsibility for his family’s size and future, or whether the emphasis is placed on increased productivity. There is a double return in the case of the adult, because not only can he contribute to the education of his children, but to that of other adults as well. In spite of these advantages, basic literacy programs have little or no support in Latin America, where schools have a first call on all public resources. Worse, these programs are actually ruthlessly suppressed in Brazil and elsewhere, where military support of the feudal or industrial oligarchy has thrown off its former benevolent disguise.

Another possibility is harder to define, because there is as yet no example to point to. We must therefore imagine the use of public resources for education distributed in such a way as to give every citizen a minimum chance. Education will become a political concern of the majority of voters only when each individual has a precise sense of the educational resources that are owing to him—and some idea of how to sue for them. Something like a universal G.I. Bill of Rights could be imagined, dividing the public resources assigned to education by the number of children who are legally of school age, and making sure that a child who did not take advantage of his credit at the age of seven, eight, or nine would have the accumulated benefits at his disposal at age ten.

What could the pitiful education credit which a Latin American Republic could offer to its children provide? Almost all of the basic supply of books, pictures, blocks, games, and toys that are totally absent from he homes of the really poor, but enable a middle-class child to learn the alphabet, the colors, shapes, and other classes of objects and experiences which insure his educational progress. The choice between these things and schools is obvious. Unfortunately, the poor, for whom alone the choice is real, never get to exercise this choice.

Defining alternatives to the products and institutions which now pre-empt the field is difficult, not only, as I have been trying to show, because these products and institutions shape our conception of reality itself, but also because the construction of new possibilities requires a concentration of will and intelligence in a higher degree than ordinarily occurs by chance. This concentration of will and intelligence on the solution of particular problems regardless of their nature we have become accustomed over the last century to call research.

I must make clear, however, what kind of research I am talking about. I am not talking about basic research either in physics, engineering, genetics, medicine, or learning. The work of such men as Crick, Piaget, and Gell-Mann must continue to enlarge our horizons in other fields of science. The labs and libraries and specially trained collaborators these men need cause them to congregate in the few research capitals of the world. Their research can provide the basis for new work on practically any product.

I am not speaking here of the billions of dollars annually spent on applied research, for this money is largely spent by existing institutions on the perfection and marketing of their own products. Applied research is money spent on making planes faster and airports safer; on making medicines more specific and powerful and doctors capable of handling their deadly side-effects; on packaging more learning into classrooms; on methods to administer large bureaucracies. This is the kind of research for which some kind of counterfoil must somehow be developed if we are to have any chance to come up with basic alternatives to the automobile, the hospital, and the school, and any of the many other so-called “evidently necessary implements for modern life.”

I have in mind a different, and peculiarly difficult, kind of research, which has been largely neglected up to now, for obvious reasons. I am calling for research on alternatives to the products which now dominate the market; to hospitals and the profession dedicated to keeping the sick alive; to schools and the packaging process which refuses education to those who are not of the right age, who have not gone through the right curriculum, who have not sat in a classroom a sufficient number of successive hours, who will not pay for their learning with submission to custodial care, screening, and certification or with indoctrination in the values of the dominant elite.

This counter-research on fundamental alternatives to current pre-packaged solutions is the element most critically needed if the poor nations are to have a livable future. Such counter-research is distinct from most of the work done in the name of the “year 2000,” because most of that work seeks radical changes in social patterns through adjustments in the organization of an already advanced technology. The counter-research of which I speak must take as one of its assumptions the continued lack of capital in the Third World.

The difficulties of such research are obvious. The researcher must first of all doubt what is obvious to every eye. Second, he must persuade those who have the power of decision to act against their own short-run interests or bring pressure on them to do so. And, finally, he must survive as an individual in a world he is attempting to change fundamentally so that his fellows among the privileged minority see him as a destroyer of the very ground on which all of us stand. He knows that if he should succeed in the interest of the poor, technologically advanced societies still might envy the “poor” who adopt this vision.

There is a normal course for those who make development policies, whether they live in North or South America, in Russia or Israel. It is to define development and to set its goals in ways with which they are familiar, which they are accustomed to use in order to satisfy their own needs, and which permit them to work through the institutions over which they have power or control. This formula has failed, and must fail. There is not enough money in the world for development to succeed along these lines, not even in the combined arms and space budgets of the super-powers.

An analogous course is followed by those who are trying to make political revolutions, especially in the Third World. Usually they promise to make the familiar privileges of the present elites, such as schooling, hospital care, etc., accessible to all citizens; and they base this vain promise on the belief that a change in political regime will permit them to sufficiently enlarge the institutions which produce these privileges. The promise and appeal of the revolutionary are therefore just as threatened by the counter-research I propose as is the market of the now dominant producers.

In Vietnam a people on bicycles and armed with sharpened bamboo sticks have brought to a standstill the most advanced machinery for research and production ever devised. We must seek survival in a Third World in which human ingenuity can peacefully outwit machined might. The only way to reverse the disastrous trend to increasing underdevelopment, hard as it is, is to learn to laugh at accepted solutions in order to change the demands which make them necessary. Only free men can change their minds and be surprised; and while no men are completely free, some are freer than others.


 

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Short biography – Ivan Illich

Theologian, educator, and social critic Ivan Illich (born 1926) sought bridges between cultures and explored the bases of people’s views of history and reality.
Ivan Illich was born on September 4, 1926, to Ivan Peter and Ellen Illich in Vienna, Austria. His father came from an aristocratic and Christian family; his mother’s family was Jewish. His childhood was spent growing up in the homes of grandparents and wherever his parents might be at the time. His father’s career as a diplomat politically protected the Jewish members of his family during the 1930s; yet Ivan was classified as “half-Jew” in 1941 and his family secretly fled from a Hitler-controlled Austria to Italy. In Florence at the age of 15, his father and grandfather having died earlier from natural causes, Ivan began taking care of his mother and younger twin brothers.
He entered the University of Florence where he majored in chemistry. At the age of 24 he graduated from the University of Salzburg with a Ph.D. in history on the work of the popular historian Arnold Toynbee. He prepared for the priesthood at the Gregorian University in Rome and became ordained in 1951. It was here that he met Jacques Maritain, the Catholic philosopher, who was to become his mentor and lifelong friend. Through him, Illich discovered the ideas of Thomas Aquinas and built a Thomistic philosophical foundation for understanding the world.

Stretching the Limits of the Priesthood

In 1951 Illich came to America hoping to study at Princeton University, but his interest quickly changed. On his first day in New York he heard through casual conversations about large numbers of Puerto Ricans migrating into other ethnic neighborhoods. After spending a couple days observing and visiting with them he asked to be assigned to a Puerto Rican parish. In his ministry he sought to make them feel at home in their new country by reinstituting their cultural and religious traditions. He sought to have Spanish materials made available to the children. His popularity among the Puerto Rican community grew and after just five years, in 1956, at age 30 he was made a monsignor and accepted the position of vice-rector of the Catholic University at Ponce in Puerto Rico.
During the decades of the 1950s and 1960s Illich continued his work within the church, yet his commitment often brought him into conflict with those in and outside the church who had different agendas. While in Puerto Rico, and later in Mexico, he threw himself into the study of education and was outspoken in his criticisms of formal schooling. He ridiculed the notion of development in U.S. programs such as the Peace Corps, believing that such volunteer programs damaged not only the people in Latin America but the volunteers themselves. He claimed that the Alliance for Progress was an alliance for the middle classes, and he questioned the motives of missionaries who came to him for further study. He refused to withdraw support from a politician who advocated birth control. He withdrew from his role at the Vatican Council in protest over its political timidity. In essence, he sought de-institutionalization of the church. In 1967 he was summoned to Rome before the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. He refused to answer their questions. Six months later Rome moved against him with documents he claimed were cribbed from U.S. Central Intelligence Agency reports leaked to the Holy See. At that point Illich voluntarily suspended himself from the priesthood, although he never resigned nor was he removed from the priesthood. He insisted that neither his faith, morals, nor theological views were at variance with the gospel and that they were orthodox, even conservative.

Awakening People to New Possibilities

Recognizing that Puerto Rico was perceived largely as a U.S. puppet, Illich moved to Cuernavaca, Mexico, in 1961 and established there the Center for Intercultural Documentation. The focus of his work remained unchanged as he sought to establish a bridge linking the two Americas and to train individuals for religious work in Latin America. By the mid-1960s the institute through its research seminars was attracting worldwide individuals concerned with social and economic issues. Illich viewed the center as a place for free, committed, and disciplined intellectual inquiry, yet many participants viewed it as an unstructured forum for political expression. Although still attracting students and economically sound, the center was not accomplishing its original purpose. Therefore, in 1976 it was closed.
The next several years Illich traveled and studied oriental languages and culture with the dream of writing the history of Western ideas in an oriental language. Subsequently, believing the task to be too great, he returned to an old intellectual home, to the study of 12th-century philosophy. Here, while teaching at the University of Marburg in Germany, he sought to find a fulcrum for lifting contemporary people out of their socially-constructed, conventional perspectives and out of a worsening world situation. He sought to enable them to understand how their commonly viewed reality (what is taken for granted or as certain) was historically constructed and can be changed. In the early 1990s Illich taught part of the year at Pennsylvania State University and continued to reside in Cuernavaca, Mexico.
Illich became known as a brilliant satirist and critic of contemporary institutions. In the early 1970s he called for a reexamination of existing social institutions. For example, he argued that schools are a lottery in which everyone invests but few win. As a result of perceived failure, those students who don’t succeed in schools are stigmatized and suffer discrimination. In contrast, he proposed to correct this unjust situation by de-schooling society and thereby making it impossible to discriminate on that basis. Later, his thought penetrated to new depths when examining the professions, particularly the medical profession and how it leads individuals to become dependent and to assume less responsibility for their own lives.
In the 1980s Illich’s thought shifted and again reached new levels of analysis. He stated that changes in our current situation can be attained if individuals “awaken” to the fact that each person’s understanding or perspective of his or her world, a world that each of us takes for granted and as certain, is seen as being formulated and handed down over the centuries. Such conventional perspectives lock individuals into certain solutions and prevent recognition of new ways of living in the world. For example, in his work ABC: The Alphabetization of the Popular Mind he shows how our way of thinking has made three shifts throughout time. The first shift that changed our ways of seeing resulted from the introduction of the alphabet. A second shift in our thinking came in the 12th century with the development of the written page as we moved from an oral public and a spoken reality to a written reality and a literacy paradigm. And finally, the computer and word processing have created a new watershed of change in which our thoughts were increasingly arranged more by the logic and efficiency of a technical tool than by the natural meanings embodied in a live discourse and spoken tradition.

Further Reading

An extensive six hour interview titled Part Moon, Part Travelling Salesman: Conversations with Ivan Illich was broadcasted by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in 1989. Transcripts and this highly informative dialogue can be ordered from Ideas, P.O. Box 6440, Station “A”, Montreal, Quebec, H3C 3L4.
A major political article by Francis Duplex is Gray, including biographical information, “Profiles,” appeared in the New Yorker (1969). A discussion of Illich’s writings was in Contemporary Authors, New Revision Series, Volume 10. Articles critical of his view included “The ‘Deschooling’ Controversy Revisited: A Defense of Illich’s ‘Participatory Socialism,” by Carl G. Hedman in Educational Theory (1979); “Towards a Political Economy of Education: A Radical Critique of Ivan Illich’s Deschooling Society” by Herbert Gintis in Harvard Educational Review (1972); and “Illich, Kozol, and Rousseau on Public Education,” by Jonathan Kozol in Social Theory and Practice (1980). A selected list of major works by Illich which trace the development of his thought included: Celebration of Awareness: A Call for Institutional Revolution, introduction by Erich Fromm (1970); De-Schooling Society (1971); Tools for Conviviality (1973); Medical Nemesis, the Expropriation of Health (1975); and ABC: The Alphabetization of the Popular Mind, with Barry Sanders (1988).

from: Gale Encyclopedia of Biographies

Philip Seymour Hoffman

A very serious loss to our culture.

Two articles on Hoffman – Open Letters Monthly and The New Yorker.

Philip Seymour Hoffman

PSH

 

In one of those wonderful old theater stories Laurence Olivier is said to have asked another Hoffman, Dustin, as the younger man voluntarily underwent physical abuse in order to convincingly play a tortured prisoner, “my dear boy, why not try acting?” It was a telling remark. Olivier was the kind of actor who could do just that, just act. But it was obvious from the performances of Philip Seymour Hoffman, a better actor than Olivier in every way, that he was a different breed of artist, one who braved his own depths for each performance, pulling up the anxiety, the megalomania, the manic energy, the deviousness, the sweetness, the ache, and the nervous feeling of being at sea in the world that obviously haunted him in life.  We responded to his performances with great love because we’re haunted by the same sensations in ourselves.

He played writers especially well, perhaps because writers also wrestle with those same emotions every day. He was brilliant and relatable and funny in the underrated State and Main, and he was the only actor whose nervous relatability could have sustained our interest in the baggy monster that wasSynecdoche, New York. He was a miracle in The Master and he was a miracle in Capote and he was a miracle in Magnolia, not because he seemed to have conjured his characters from thin air, but because he seemed to have assembled them from within himself. He was them and they were him. And we encountered those performances with a shock of recognition.

As we learn this afternoon that Hoffman died at age 46, we find ourselves amazed that he was so young. He’s given us a lifetime’s worth of work—so many fine performances that there’s an excellent chance his best work has yet to be fully discovered or properly understood. That’s up to us now. Few actors, let alone one so tortured in life, leave themselves such a monument. But we’re all tortured too, and his work is a monument to all of us as well, in all our nervous, nasty, wounded, complex glory.

http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/movies/2014/02/philip-seymour-hoffmans-genius.html

Camille Paglia – Making A Case For Real Gender Differences

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American culture and specifically Hollywood TV, is in the process of neutering the males of our society. Masculinity is boxed up and cauterised to fit into the restraints of a fantasy feminine world that is controlled through PC management. Camille Paglia is a woman who sees this clearly.

Camille Paglia: A Feminist Defense of Masculine Virtues

The cultural critic on why ignoring the biological differences between men and women risks undermining Western civilization.

By 

BARI WEISS
The Wall Street Journal

CONNECT

Updated Dec. 28, 2013 10:46 p.m. ET
Philadelphia‘What you’re seeing is how a civilization commits suicide,” says Camille Paglia. This self-described “notorious Amazon feminist” isn’t telling anyone to Lean In or asking Why Women Still Can’t Have It All. No, her indictment may be as surprising as it is wide-ranging: The military is out of fashion, Americans undervalue manual labor, schools neuter male students, opinion makers deny the biological differences between men and women, and sexiness is dead. And that’s just 20 minutes of our three-hour conversation.When Ms. Paglia, now 66, burst onto the national stage in 1990 with the publishing of “Sexual Personae,” she immediately established herself as a feminist who was the scourge of the movement’s establishment, a heretic to its orthodoxy. Pick up the 700-page tome, subtitled “Art and Decadence From Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson, ” and it’s easy to see why. “If civilization had been left in female hands,” she wrote, “we would still be living in grass huts.”

The fact that the acclaimed book—the first of six; her latest, “Glittering Images,” is a survey of Western art—was rejected by seven publishers and five agents before being printed by Yale University Press only added to Ms. Paglia’s sense of herself as a provocateur in a class with Rush Limbaugh and Howard Stern. But unlike those radio jocks, Ms. Paglia has scholarly chops: Her dissertation adviser at Yale was Harold Bloom, and she is as likely to discuss Freud, Oscar Wilde or early Native American art as to talk about Miley Cyrus.

Ms. Paglia relishes her outsider persona, having previously described herself as an egomaniac and “abrasive, strident and obnoxious.” Talking to her is like a mental CrossFit workout. One moment she’s praising pop star Rihanna (“a true artist”), then blasting ObamaCare (“a monstrosity,” though she voted for the president), global warming (“a religious dogma”), and the idea that all gay people are born gay (“the biggest canard,” yet she herself is a lesbian).

Neil Davies

But no subject gets her going more than when I ask if she really sees a connection between society’s attempts to paper over the biological distinction between men and women and the collapse of Western civilization.

She starts by pointing to the diminished status of military service. “The entire elite class now, in finance, in politics and so on, none of them have military service—hardly anyone, there are a few. But there is no prestige attached to it anymore. That is a recipe for disaster,” she says. “These people don’t think in military ways, so there’s this illusion out there that people are basically nice, people are basically kind, if we’re just nice and benevolent to everyone they’ll be nice too. They literally don’t have any sense of evil or criminality.”

The results, she says, can be seen in everything from the dysfunction in Washington (where politicians “lack practical skills of analysis and construction”) to what women wear. “So many women don’t realize how vulnerable they are by what they’re doing on the street,” she says, referring to women who wear sexy clothes.

When she has made this point in the past, Ms. Paglia—who dresses in androgynous jackets and slacks—has been told that she believes “women are at fault for their own victimization.” Nonsense, she says. “I believe that every person, male and female, needs to be in a protective mode at all times of alertness to potential danger. The world is full of potential attacks, potential disasters.” She calls it “street-smart feminism.”

Ms. Paglia argues that the softening of modern American society begins as early as kindergarten. “Primary-school education is a crock, basically. It’s oppressive to anyone with physical energy, especially guys,” she says, pointing to the most obvious example: the way many schools have cut recess. “They’re making a toxic environment for boys. Primary education does everything in its power to turn boys into neuters.”

She is not the first to make this argument, as Ms. Paglia readily notes. Fellow feminist Christina Hoff Sommers has written about the “war against boys” for more than a decade. The notion was once met with derision, but now data back it up: Almost one in five high-school-age boys has been diagnosed with ADHD, boys get worse grades than girls and are less likely to go to college.

Ms. Paglia observes this phenomenon up close with her 11-year-old son, Lucien, whom she is raising with her ex-partner, Alison Maddex, an artist and public-school teacher who lives 2 miles away. She sees the tacit elevation of “female values”—such as sensitivity, socialization and cooperation—as the main aim of teachers, rather than fostering creative energy and teaching hard geographical and historical facts.

By her lights, things only get worse in higher education. “This PC gender politics thing—the way gender is being taught in the universities—in a very anti-male way, it’s all about neutralization of maleness.” The result: Upper-middle-class men who are “intimidated” and “can’t say anything. . . . They understand the agenda.” In other words: They avoid goring certain sacred cows by “never telling the truth to women” about sex, and by keeping “raunchy” thoughts and sexual fantasies to themselves and their laptops.

Politically correct, inadequate education, along with the decline of America’s brawny industrial base, leaves many men with “no models of manhood,” she says. “Masculinity is just becoming something that is imitated from the movies. There’s nothing left. There’s no room for anything manly right now.” The only place you can hear what men really feel these days, she claims, is on sports radio. No surprise, she is an avid listener. The energy and enthusiasm “inspires me as a writer,” she says, adding: “If we had to go to war,” the callers “are the men that would save the nation.”

And men aren’t the only ones suffering from the decline of men. Women, particularly elite upper-middle-class women, have become “clones” condemned to “Pilates for the next 30 years,” Ms. Paglia says. “Our culture doesn’t allow women to know how to be womanly,” adding that online pornography is increasingly the only place where men and women in our sexless culture tap into “primal energy” in a way they can’t in real life.

A key part of the remedy, she believes, is a “revalorization” of traditional male trades—the ones that allow women’s studies professors to drive to work (roads), take the elevator to their office (construction), read in the library (electricity), and go to gender-neutral restrooms (plumbing).

” Michelle Obama‘s going on: ‘Everybody must have college.’ Why? Why? What is the reason why everyone has to go to college? Especially when college is so utterly meaningless right now, it has no core curriculum” and “people end up saddled with huge debts,” says Ms. Paglia. What’s driving the push toward universal college is “social snobbery on the part of a lot of upper-middle-class families who want the sticker in the window.”

Ms. Paglia, who has been a professor of humanities and media studies at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia since 1984, sees her own students as examples. “I have woodworking students who, even while they’re in class, are already earning money making furniture and so on,” she says. “My career has been in art schools cause I don’t get along with normal academics.”

To hear her tell it, getting along has never been Ms. Paglia’s strong suit. As a child, she felt stifled by the expectations of girlhood in the 1950s. She fantasized about being a knight, not a princess. Discovering pioneering female figures as a teenager, most notably Amelia Earhart, transformed Ms. Paglia’s understanding of what her future might hold.

These iconoclastic women of the 1930s, like Earhart and Katharine Hepburn, remain her ideal feminist role models: independent, brave, enterprising, capable of competing with men without bashing them. But since at least the late 1960s, she says, fellow feminists in the academy stopped sharing her vision of “equal-opportunity feminism” that demands a level playing field without demanding special quotas or protections for women.

She proudly recounts her battle, while a graduate student at Yale in the late 1960s and early ’70s, with the New Haven Women’s Liberation Rock Band over the Rolling Stones: Ms. Paglia loved “Under My Thumb,” a song the others regarded as chauvinist. Then there was the time she “barely got through the dinner” with a group of women’s studies professors at Bennington College, where she had her first teaching job, who insisted that there is no hormonal difference between men and women. “I left before dessert.”

In her view, these ideological excesses bear much of the blame for the current cultural decline. She calls out activists like Gloria Steinem, Naomi Wolf and Susan Faludi for pushing a version of feminism that says gender is nothing more than a social construct, and groups like the National Organization for Women for making abortion the singular women’s issue.

By denying the role of nature in women’s lives, she argues, leading feminists created a “denatured, antiseptic” movement that “protected their bourgeois lifestyle” and falsely promised that women could “have it all.” And by impugning women who chose to forgo careers to stay at home with children, feminists turned off many who might have happily joined their ranks.

But Ms. Paglia’s criticism shouldn’t be mistaken for nostalgia for the socially prescribed roles for men and women before the 1960s. Quite the contrary. “I personally have disobeyed every single item of the gender code,” says Ms. Paglia. But men, and especially women, need to be honest about the role biology plays and clear-eyed about the choices they are making.

Sex education, she says, simply focuses on mechanics without conveying the real “facts of life,” especially for girls: “I want every 14-year-old girl . . . to be told: You better start thinking what do you want in life. If you just want a career and no children you don’t have much to worry about. If, however, you are thinking you’d like to have children some day you should start thinking about when do you want to have them. Early or late? To have them early means you are going to make a career sacrifice, but you’re going to have more energy and less risks. Both the pros and the cons should be presented.”

For all of Ms. Paglia’s barbs about the women’s movement, it seems clear that feminism—at least of the equal-opportunity variety—has triumphed in its basic goals. There is surely a lack of women in the C-Suite and Congress, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a man who would admit that he believes women are less capable. To save feminism as a political movement from irrelevance, Ms. Paglia says, the women’s movement should return to its roots. That means abandoning the “nanny state” mentality that led to politically correct speech codes and college disciplinary committees that have come to replace courts. The movement can win converts, she says, but it needs to become a big tent, one “open to stay-at-home moms” and “not just the career woman.”

More important, Ms. Paglia says, if the women’s movement wants to be taken seriously again, it should tackle serious matters, like rape in India and honor killings in the Muslim world, that are “more of an outrage than some woman going on a date on the Brown University campus.”

Ms. Weiss is an associate editorial features editor at the Journal.

The Wall Street Journal

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Marilynne Robinson – Community vs Tribalism

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I have reposted two items: 1) a fragment from an interview of Robinson where she describes the process of how American colleges evolved in the Midwest. 2) the complete essay Imagination & Community from her book of Essays When I Was a Child I Read Books.

The imaginative makeup of a writer is established by their willingness to consider broad ideas and ideas that are divergent from their own cherished ones. On both accounts I find Robinson leading the front on what James Hillman calls amplification, that is , the idea of expounding on a base idea to show its nature versus the traditional dissection or analysis of an idea to display its make-up. Hillman states that the end product of analysis is often the destruction of the entity in consideration, the parts on their own do not look like the whole nor feel like it.

Robinson explores the concepts of community and tribalism and shows the outcomes for following one path versus the other. She gives weight to the consequences that evolve when applying them to democracy in today’s American scene.

Tucked away in this essay is her creative insight into the writer and their imaginative world and how this creativity may unfold to the authors and the reader’s benefit: “So long as a writer is working to satisfy imagined expectations that are extraneous to his art as he would otherwise explore and develop it, he is deprived of the greatest reward, which is the full discovery and engagement of his own mind, his own aesthetic powers and resources. So long as a writer is working below the level of her powers, she is depriving the community of readers of a truly good book. And over time a truly good book can enrich literally millions of lives.”

This essay was excerpted from When I Was a Child I Read Booksa collection of essays to be published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in March, copyright Marilynne Robinson.

In an excerpt from an interview published on April 4, 2006 in The Christian Century, Debra Bendis asked Robinson to explore the aspect of theology in her work:

“I’d like to see mainline churches, collectively and individually, remember and claim their profound histories and cultures. The mainline church, for example, founded a great many of the nonpublic universities in the country, and a lot of the public ones as well. This is an intellectual tradition. At least until the middle of the last century, most of the presidents of universities in this country were ordained clergy. This country has spent more time and resources on education than any other civilization in the history of the world. We are not phobic about intellectual institutions, but we act as if we were. We act as if we have to give people a placebo in place of learning and thought.

“I’m interested in the abolitionists partly because of the interesting effect their strategy had. Some speak of abolitionists as if they were all violent crazy people. But what they did was of great consequence: they came into the new territories and built colleges. Many of the colleges in the Midwest had such origins. The founders would buy land from the government and build a church and a college. People wanted to live near colleges and churches, and so the value of the land rose. When some of the land was sold, the money endowed the college or funded the development of another college. This was a well-designed system for creating value. These colleges educated women as well as men, and many were on the Underground Railroad. Oberlin is a classic example: an abolitionist foundation that admitted women and black people on equal terms with white men from the beginning. Important progressive movements germinated in these colleges and communities. They were organized on what was called the Manual Labor System. Everyone who went to a college did the work that was involved in the life of the college. Faculty and students alike hoed the rows and slopped the hogs. The point was, on one hand, to eliminate financial barriers to education and, on the other hand, to remove the stigma attached to physical labor.

“So long as a writer is working to satisfy imagined expectations that are extraneous to his art as he would otherwise explore and develop it, he is deprived of the greatest reward, which is the full discovery and engagement of his own mind, his own aesthetic powers and resources. So long as a writer is working below the level of her powers, she is depriving the community of readers of a truly good book. And over time a truly good book can enrich literally millions of lives.” – Robinson

Imagination & Community

What Holds Us Together

Marilynne RobinsonFebruary 27, 2012 – 10:13am

Over the years I have collected so many books that, in aggregate, they can fairly be called a library. I don’t know what percentage of them I have read. Increasingly I wonder how many of them I ever will read. This has done nothing to dampen my pleasure in acquiring more books. But it has caused me to ponder the meaning they have for me, and the fact that to me they epitomize one great aspect of the goodness of life. Recently I bought a book titled On What Cannot Be Said: Apophatic Discourses in Philosophy, Religion, Literature, and the Arts, Volume One: Classic Formulations. The title itself is worth far more than the price of the book, and then there is the table of contents. So far I have read only the last and latest selection, from The Wandering Cherub by Silesius Angelus, who wrote in the seventeenth century.

In the stack of magazines, read and unread, that I can never bring myself to throw away, there are any number of articles suggesting that science, too, explores the apophatic—reality that eludes words—dark matter, dark energy, the unexpressed dimensions proposed by string theory, the imponderable strangeness described by quantum theory. These magazine essays might be titled “Learned Ignorance,” or “The Cloud of Unknowing,” or they might at least stand beside Plato’s and Plotinus’s demonstrations of the failures of language, which are, paradoxically, demonstrations of the extraordinary power of language to evoke a reality beyond its grasp, to evoke a sense of what cannot be said.

I love all this for a number of reasons, one of them being that, as a writer, I continually attempt to make inroads on the vast terrain of what cannot be said—or said by me, at least. I seem to know by intuition a great deal that I cannot find words for, and to enlarge the field of my intuition every time I fail again to find these words. That is to say, the unnamed is overwhelmingly present and real for me. And this is truer because the moment it stops being a standard for what I do say is the moment my language goes slack and my imagination disengages itself. I would almost say it is the moment in which my language becomes false. The frontiers of the unsayable, and the avenues of approach to those frontiers, have been opened for me by every book I have ever read that was in any degree ambitious, earnest, or imaginative; by every good teacher I have had; by music and painting; by conversation that was in any way interesting, even conversation overheard as it passed between strangers.

As a fiction writer I do have to deal with the nuts and bolts of temporal reality—from time to time a character has to walk through a door and close it behind him, the creatures of imagination have to eat and sleep, as all other creatures do. I would have been a poet if I could, to have avoided this obligation to simulate the hourliness and dailiness of human life. This is not to say that books could not be written about walking through a door—away from what? toward what? leaving what wake of consequence? creating what stir of displacement? To speak in the terms that are familiar to us all, there was a moment in which Jesus, as a man, a physical presence, left that supper at Emmaus. His leave-taking was a profound event for which the supper itself was precursor. Presence is a great mystery, and presence in absence, which Jesus promised and has epitomized, is, at a human scale, a great reality for all of us in the course of ordinary life.

I am persuaded for the moment that this is in fact the basis of community. I would say, for the moment, that community, at least community larger than the immediate family, consists very largely of imaginative love for people we do not know or whom we know very slightly. This thesis may be influenced by the fact that I have spent years of my life lovingly absorbed in the thoughts and perceptions of—who knows it better than I?—people who do not exist. And, just as writers are engrossed in the making of them, readers are profoundly moved and also influenced by the nonexistent, that great clan whose numbers increase prodigiously with every publishing season. I think fiction may be, whatever else, an exercise in the capacity for imaginative love, or sympathy, or identification.

I love the writers of my thousand books. It pleases me to think how astonished old Homer, whoever he was, would be to find his epics on the shelf of such an unimaginable being as myself, in the middle of an unrumored continent. I love the large minority of the writers on my shelves who have struggled with words and thoughts and, by my lights, have lost the struggle. All together they are my community, the creators of the very idea of books, poetry, and extended narratives, and of the amazing human conversation that has taken place across millennia, through weal and woe, over the heads of interest and utility.

We live on a little island of the articulable, which we tend to mistake for reality itself. We can and do make small and tedious lives as we sail through the cosmos on our uncannily lovely little planet, and this is surely remarkable. But we do so much else besides. For example, we make language. A language is a grand collaboration, a collective art form which we begin to master as babes and sucklings, and which we preserve, modify, cull, enlarge as we pass through our lives. Some students in France drew my attention to the enormous number of English words that describe the behavior of light. Glimmer, glitter, glister, glisten, gleam, glow, glare, shimmer, sparkle, shine, and so on. These old words are not utilitarian. They reflect an aesthetic attention to experience that has made, and allows us to make, pleasing distinctions among, say, a candle flame, the sun at its zenith, and the refraction of light by a drop of rain. How were these words coined and retained, and how have they been preserved through generations, so that English-speaking people use them with the precision necessary to preserving them? None of this can be ascribed to conscious choice on the part of anyone, but somehow the language created, so to speak, a prism through which light passes, by means of which its qualities are arrayed. One of the pleasures of writing is that so often I know that there is in fact a word that is perfect for the use I want to put it to, and when I summon it, it comes, though I might not have thought of it for years. And then I think, somewhere someone was the first person to use that word. Then how did it make its way into the language, and how did it retain the specificity that makes it perfect for this present use? Language is profoundly communal, and in the mere fact of speaking, then writing, a wealth of language grows and thrives among us that has enabled thought and knowledge in a degree we could never calculate. As individuals and as a species, we are unthinkable without our communities.

I remember once, as a child, walking into a library, looking around at the books, and thinking, I could do that. In fact I didn’t do it until I was well into my thirties, but the affinity I felt with books as such preserved in me the secret knowledge that I was a writer when any dispassionate appraisal of my life would have dismissed the notion entirely. So I belong to the community of the written word in several ways. First, books have taught me most of what I know, and they have trained my attention and my imagination. Second, they gave me a sense of the possible, which is the great service—and too often, when it is ungenerous, the great disservice—a community performs for its members. Third, they embodied richness and refinement of language, and the artful use of language in the service of the imagination. Fourth, they gave me and still give me courage. Sometimes, when I have spent days in my study dreaming a world while the world itself shines outside my windows, forgetting to call my mother because one of my nonbeings has come up with a thought that interests me, I think, this is a very odd way to spend a life. But I have my library all around me, my cloud of witnesses to the strangeness and brilliance of human experience, who have helped me to my deepest enjoyments of it. Every writer I know, when asked how to become a writer, responds with one word: Read. Excellent advice, for a great many reasons, a few of which I have suggested here.

And this brings us to the subject of education. In the United States, education, especially at the higher levels, is based around powerful models of community. We choose our colleges, if we have a choice, in order to be formed by them and supported by them in the identities we have or aspire to. If the graft takes, we consider ourselves ever after to be members of that community.

As one consequence, graduates tend to treat the students who come after them as kin and also as heirs. They take pride in the successes of people in classes forty years ahead of or behind their own. They have a familial desire to enhance the experience of generations of students who are, in fact, strangers to them, except in the degree that the ethos and curriculum of the place does indeed form its students over generations. These gifts are very often made, the donors say, out of gratitude and in celebration, and I have no reason to doubt it. I am even inclined to look charitably upon the fondness of donors for seeing their names on buildings and fountains, to consider it the expression of a desire to implant themselves immortally in the consciousness of a beloved community. In any case, many of our colleges and universities have been richly adorned over many years with assets and resources we are far too ready to take for granted. There are literally hundreds of places in this country where an open and committed student can enjoy an education that would be extraordinary by any except the very high standard so many of these institutions do sustain. This is not to devalue the achievements of any specific university, only to speak the pleasant truth about American higher education in general.

From time to time I, as a professor in a public university, receive a form from the legislature asking me to make an account of the hours I spend working. I think someone ought to send a form like that to the legislators. The comparison might be very interesting. The faculty in my acquaintance are quite literally devoted to their work, almost obsessive about it. They go on vacation to do research. Even when they retire they don’t retire. I have benefited enormously from the generosity of teachers from grade school through graduate school. They are an invaluable community who contribute as much as legislators do to sustaining civilization, and more than legislators do to equipping the people of this country with the capacity for learning and reflection, and the power that comes with that capacity. Lately we have been told and told again that our educators are not preparing American youth to be efficient workers. Workers. That language is so common among us now that an extraterrestrial might think we had actually lost the Cold War.

The intellectual model for most of the older schools in America—for all of them, given the prestige and influence of the older schools—was a religious tradition that loved the soul and the mind and was meant to encourage the exploration and refinement of both of them. Recent statistics indicate American workers are the most productive in the world by a significant margin, as they have been for as long as such statistics have been ventured. If we were to retain humane learning and lose a little edge in relative productivity, I would say we had chosen the better part. Since we need not choose between one and the other, I think we ought to reconsider the pressure, amounting sometimes to hostility, that has lately been brought to bear on our educational culture at every level, particularly in the humanities and the arts.

Here I have wandered into the terrain of societal tensions, by which the dear old United States is much afflicted at the moment. There is a notion with a brutal history that a homogeneous country is more peaceful and stable and, in a very deep sense, more satisfying than one with a complex and mingled population like ours. To an alarming extent, we have internalized this prejudice against ourselves. I have read that the word “heterogeneous,” which was originally a term of geology, was first applied to society by the French writer Chateaubriand to describe America. Ironically, he was in America to escape the French Revolution and its aftermath, as thorough a social dissolution as has occurred in modern history. But he wrote that America was too diverse to be stable. Heterogeneous stone is not as solid as homogeneous stone. Oh, the power of metaphor.

In fact, Europe has gone berserk from time to time over this anxiety about mixed populations, most recently in the former Yugoslavia a few years ago. There is talk now that Belgium will cease to exist, having fallen into ethnic and linguistic halves, and there is fear that this will trigger divisions in other parts of Europe. This same anxiety is tormenting contemporary Africa, and it is one source of the disasters that have befallen Iraq. The assumption behind it is that people who differ from oneself are therefore enemies who have either ruined everything or are about to. It is the old assumption of Chateaubriand that difference undermines stability and strength.

When this assumption takes hold, the definition of community hardens and contracts and becomes violently exclusive and defensive. We have seen Christians against Christians, Muslims against Muslims, fighting to the death over distinctions those outside their groups would probably never notice and could certainly never understand. When definitions of “us” and “them” begin to contract, there seems to be no limit to how narrow these definitions can become. As they shrink and narrow, they are increasingly inflamed, more dangerous and inhumane.

They present themselves as movements toward truer and purer community, but, as I have said, they are the destruction of community. They insist that the imagination must stay within the boundaries they establish for it, that sympathy and identification are only allowable within certain limits. I am convinced that the broadest possible exercise of imagination is the thing most conducive to human health, individual and global.

In fact, we in America have done pretty well. By human standards, which admittedly are low. That we have done relatively well, I submit, is due to the fact that we have many overlapping communities and that most of us identify with a number of them. I identify with my congregation, with my denomination, with Christianity, with the customs and institutions that express the human capacity for reverence, allowing for turbulence within these groups and phenomena. Since we are human beings, turbulence is to be expected. If the effect of turbulence is to drive me or anyone back on some narrower definition of identity, then the moderating effects of broader identification are lost. And this destroys every community—not only through outright suppression or conflict. Those who seemingly win are damaged inwardly and insidiously because they have betrayed the better nature and the highest teaching of their community in descending to exclusion, suppression, or violence. Those of us who accept a historical tradition find ourselves feeling burdened by its errors and excesses, especially when we are pressed to make some account of them. I would suggest that those who reject the old traditions on these grounds are refusing to accept the fact that the tragic mystery of human nature has by no means played itself out, and that wisdom, which is almost always another name for humility, lies in accepting one’s own inevitable share in human fallibility.

I am a little sensitive on this point because another identification I hold passionately is with the academic community, which has its fair share of skeptics and agnostics, some of whom are well enough informed historically to mention Michael Servetus from time to time, to make an occasional offhand remark about the Thirty Years War. On all sorts of grounds I would go to the barricades to defend their right to make me uncomfortable, of course. They have caused me to ponder many things, to my great benefit. There are many examples now of friction between the extremes of these communities, and when it takes the form of radical opposition of either to the other the result is a decline from the humane standards that at best dignify them both.

There are excitements that come with abandoning the constraints of moderation and reasonableness. Those whose work it is to sustain the endless palaver of radio and television increasingly stimulate these excitements. No great wonder if they are bored, or if they suspect their audiences might be. But the effect of this marketing of rancor has unquestionably been to turn debate or controversy increasingly into a form of tribal warfare, harming the national community and risking always greater harm. I think it is reasonable to wonder whether democracy can survive in this atmosphere. Democracy, in its essence and genius, is imaginative love for and identification with a community with which, much of the time and in many ways, one may be in profound disagreement.

Democracy wrote itself some interesting history in the second half of the last century. When I was in high school, there were essentially three choices available to a bright girl like myself. I could be a teacher, I could be a nurse, or I could be a homemaker. My chemistry teacher was so sure I would finally be a nurse that he gave me much better grades than I had earned, so that this path would not be closed to me. And my unknown in the final exam was sodium chloride. But my biology teacher noticed that my drawing of the frog we were supposed to have dissected was entirely too imaginative to reflect any acquaintance at all with the actual innards of the thing, and he, wisely, advised me to pay no attention to the chemistry teacher.

It was my brother who told me I should be a poet. This was not a career, as he or I understood it, but a highly respectable use of solitude. I never had any real aspiration, only the knowledge that adulthood would come and I would want to while it away harmlessly enough to be considered a credit to my family. This may not reflect well on me, but it’s the truth, and I find it worth telling here because I was in fact pulled along into a broader and broader world by the generous interest of my brother, and of friends, a pastor, and various teachers. I believe I would have been happy with my unaspiring life—which always included a great deal of reading. But I am certain that I am happier with the very different, very interesting life that has befallen me.

When I was in college, at Pembroke, which has since disappeared into Brown, we women enjoyed exactly the same rigorous and ambitious education that the men did. Why? One dean explained to us that educated men preferred to have educated wives, and that corporations often interviewed the wife when they made decisions about whom to hire. Education made women socially presentable. This sounds appalling, but I don’t think it was ever a real consideration for anyone. The faculty loved to teach, and they taught well, and a certain percentage of those they taught were women.

Just at that time the great social transformation began, set in motion by Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., and many others, which called into doubt the whole system of discrimination that had governed most lives, not only in America but throughout the world. Almost suddenly an expanding field of possibility lay open to women, certainly to me. And almost as suddenly I had reasonable uses to make of my brains and my education. By chance I benefited profoundly from the self-transformation of communities and institutions that have been most central to my life. They changed my experience, and they also changed my mind. If I had lived a generation earlier, I might have thought about many of the things that interest me now, but not with the discipline that comes with writing about them or teaching, and not with the rigor that comes with being exposed to response and criticism. And, of course, I would have had no part in conversations that I consider important. So my mind has been formed by the uses I have been able to make of it. It is true for everyone that the experience that society gives to us, or denies us, is profoundly formative. Because I have lived at the cusp of great social change, I am perhaps especially aware of this fact. I am aware not only of the benefits I have enjoyed, sharing the life of this community, but also of the good service we can do one another by contributing as we can to the health, generosity, and courage of our community.

I have talked about community as being a work of the imagination, and I hope I have made clear my belief that the more generous the scale at which imagination is exerted, the healthier and more humane the community will be. There is a great deal of cynicism at present, among Americans, about the American population. Someone told me recently that a commentator of some sort had said, “The United States is in spiritual free-fall.” When people make such remarks, such appalling judgments, they never include themselves, their friends, those with whom they agree. They have drawn, as they say, a bright line between an “us” and a “them.” Those on the other side of the line are assumed to be unworthy of respect or hearing, and are in fact to be regarded as a huge problem to the “us” who presume to judge “them.”

This tedious pattern has repeated itself endlessly through human history and is, as I have said, the end of community and the beginning of tribalism.

At this point in my life I have probably had a broader experience of the American population than is usual. I have been to divinity schools, and I have been to prisons. In the First Epistle of Peter we are told to honor everyone, and I have never been in a situation where I felt this instruction was inappropriate. When we accept dismissive judgments of our community we stop having generous hopes for it. We cease to be capable of serving its best interests. The cultural disaster called “dumbing down,” which swept through every significant American institution and grossly impoverished civic and religious life, was and is the result of the obsessive devaluing of the lives that happen to pass on this swath of continent. On average, in the main, we are Christian people, if the polls are to be believed. How is Christianity consistent with this generalized contempt that seems to lie behind so much so-called public discourse? Why the judgmentalism, among people who are supposed to believe we are, and we live among, souls precious to God—300 million of them on this plot of ground, a population large and various enough to hint broadly at the folly of generalization? It is simply not possible to act in good faith toward people one does not respect, or to entertain hopes for them that are appropriate to their gifts. As we withdraw from one another we withdraw from the world, except as we increasingly insist that foreign groups and populations are our irreconcilable enemies. The shrinking of imaginative identification which allows such things as shared humanity to be forgotten always begins at home.

To look only at certain effects of this cynicism that manifest themselves in my experience: It is my good fortune to work with many gifted young writers. They are estimable people. The Writers’ Workshop is as interesting and civilized a community as I have ever encountered, and it owes the successes of its long history to the fact that it works well as a community. A pretty large percentage of these fine young spirits come to me convinced that if their writing is not sensationalistic enough, it will never be published, or if it is published, it will never be read. They come to me persuaded that American readers will not tolerate ideas in their fiction. Since they feel that anything recognizable as an idea is off-limits to them, they sometimes try to signal intellectual seriousness by taking a jaundiced or splenetic view of the worlds they create and people. They are good, generous souls working within limits they feel are imposed on them by a public that could not possibly have an interest in writing that ignored these limits—a public they cannot respect.

Only consider how many things have gone wrong here, when a young writer is dissuaded by the pessimism that floats around the culture from letting her or his talent develop in the direction natural to it. If the writer is talented, the work might well be published, and the American reading public will look once more into the mirror of art and find sensationalism, violence, condescension, cynicism—another testament to collective mediocrity if not something worse. Maybe even spiritual free-fall. But the writer is better than this, and the reading public is better than this. And the publishing industry is better than this, too. The whole phenomenon is a mistake of the kind that is intractable because so much that passes for common wisdom supports it. A writer controlled by what “has to” figure in a book is actually accepting a perverse, unofficial censorship, and this tells against the writerly soul at least as surely as it would if the requirement being met were praise to some ideology or regime. And the irony of it all is that it is unnecessary and in many cases detrimental because it militates against originality. But the worst of it is that so long as a writer is working to satisfy imagined expectations that are extraneous to his art as he would otherwise explore and develop it, he is deprived of the greatest reward, which is the full discovery and engagement of his own mind, his own aesthetic powers and resources. So long as a writer is working below the level of her powers, she is depriving the community of readers of a truly good book. And over time a truly good book can enrich literally millions of lives. This is only one instance of the fact that when we condescend, when we act consistently with a sense of the character of people in general which demeans them, we impoverish them and ourselves, and preclude our having a part in the creation of the highest wealth, the testimony to the mysterious beauty of life we all value in psalms and tragedies and epics and meditations, in short stories and novels. In the same way we diminish the worth of the institutions of society—law, journalism, education, and religion as well—when we forget respect and love for the imagined other, the man or woman or child we will never know, who will take the good from these institutions that we invest in them, or who will be harmed or disheartened because our institutions are warped by meagerness and cynicism.

It is very much in the gift of the community to enrich individual lives, and it is in the gift of any individual to enlarge and enrich community.

The great truth that is too often forgotten is that it is in the nature of people to do good to one another.

Saul Bellow: Letters

Excellent writing about a master of fiction and American life.

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Saul Bellow: Letters

In the newly published collected correspondence of Saul Bellow…

BY LEO ROBSON PUBLISHED 11 NOVEMBER 2010

Letters
Saul Bellow, edited by Benjamin Taylor
Penguin, 571pp, £30

“Of course I am not a Freudian,” Saul Bellow wrote to Philip Roth in 1974. “For one fierce interval I was a Reichian. At the moment I have no handle of any sort. I can neither be picked up nor put down.” But it wasn’t true. While at work on Humboldt’s Gift (1975), Bellow had developed an interest in the work of Rudolf Steiner, the founder of anthroposophy. And although he insisted, in a letter to the English barrister and “historian of consciousness” Owen Barfield, that he could not call himself a Steinerian, he was using – and refusing – the handle as a measure of knowledge rather than appetite. In 1973, he started attending meetings of the Anthroposophical Society of Chicago; two decades on, he wrote that he had read Steiner’s books “by the score”. Asked by an interviewer to account for the appeal of this work, he said: “When Steiner tells me I have a soul and a spirit, I say, yes, I always knew that.”

So while Bellow, who was happy to identify himself as “American, Jew, novelist, modern­ist”, did not deem himself fit to be called a Steinerian, he had, in another sense, “always” been one. Some of the most fascinating letters in this book are addressed to Barfield, for whose work Bellow expressed great admiration but from whom he received little in return. This was a rare case. Though he showed a tendency towards paranoia (in 1948, “I am a born slightee”; in 1980, “a favourable letter from me is a kiss of death”), most of his correspondence was conducted on the understanding that he was the senior – and busier – figure. And while Barfield evidently enjoyed Bellow’s company and encouraged his interest in Steiner, he was unable to finish the Steiner-heavy Humboldt’s Gift. Almost desperate, Bellow wrote in 1979, “I can’t easily accept your dismissal of so much investment of soul.” In defence of “‘novelistic’ expression”, he quoted Steiner: “If a man has no ordinary sense of realities, no interest in the details of others’ lives, if he is so ‘superior’ that he sails through life without troubling about its details, he shows he is not a genuine seer.”

To Bellow, the brainy product of immigrant Chicago, anthroposophy offered support for his lifelong intuitions about the relationship between the street and the universe. It was a matter of discrimination. To locate the possibilities for transcendence in city life, you must first identify what Charlie Citrine, the Steiner-mad narrator of Humboldt’s Gift, calls “the accidental, the merely phenomenal, the wastefully and randomly human”; Bellow and Citrine also borrowed Wyndham Lewis’s phrase “the moronic inferno” (a place, according to a 1981 letter, “as hot as ever”). In 1978, during an alimony dispute, Bellow wrote to Barfield: “Today I was asked for an inventory of my personal belongings, and I wonder whether the court would hesitate to put them on auction. One never knows. I manage nevertheless to concentrate daily on the distinctions between the essential and the inessential.” And in the final letter printed here – from 2004, when Bellow was 88 – he recalls: “My mother coveted for me a pair of patent-leather sandals with an elegantissimo strap. I finally got them – I rubbed them with butter to preserve the leather. This is when I was six or seven years old. Amazing how it all boils down to a pair of patent-leather sandals.” And what do the sandals boil down from? What is “it”? In one letter, Bellow talks of “the total human situation”; in another, with a hint of irony, “Life, that grand enterprise”.

Bellow’s spiritual or metaphysical vocabulary was intimately related to a bodily one. In 1966, he reread War and Peace and saw a kindred spirit: “I’m convinced that Leo was a somatological moralist. Eyes, lips and noses, the colour of the skin, the knuckles and the feet do not lie . . . It’s not a bad system. I seem to have used it myself, most of the time.” He was right to spot the connection; much of his own art lay in finding the mind’s construction in the face. (“Your looking things in the face is not inferior to mine,” he told Roth in 1981, the metaphor slipping its moorings.) Through the corporeal, Bellow believed, he could reach something, even somewhere, else. The belief persisted until the end. Chick, the narrator of his last novel, Ravelstein(2000), reflects: “I have always been inclined to give a special diagnostic importance to the upper lip. If there is a despotic tendency it will reveal itself there.” The swift-nibbed describer is at one with the novelist of ideas.

Broadly, Bellow’s work has two modes: third-person monochrome and first-person technicolour. In each mode, he produced stunning work – Seize the Day (1956) and Herzog (1964) in the former, The Adventures of Augie March (1953) and Humboldt’s Gift in the latter. When we read of Augie as “a sort of Columbus of those near-at-hand” and of Herzog as “the nemesis of the would-be forgotten”, we know that these books, though scrawled in ink of different colours, come from the same pen. My view, supported by these letters, is that we encounter the true Bellow in the gabby wonder of the first-person books, which also include Henderson the Rain King (1959), and that his other, more reticent mode, which also produced Mr Sammler’s Planet(1970) and The Dean’s December (1982), reflected not so much his world-view as his take on American society
at the time of writing – always disappointed, often appalled.

Whatever his temperament, Bellow was obsessed with rumination. Ideas are what his characters cleave to, for all the good it does them. These ideas served thematic and narrative purposes; they were not to be propounded. To Roth, he writes that “there should be a certain detachment from the writer’s own passions”. Fiction had powerful advantages over other approaches; it was, he thought, the only way to get human beings down on paper. In another letter to Roth, he expresses annoyance with the Freudian idea that “a man’s life is nothing but a front for the operations of his unconscious”. “The trouble with anthropology,” he writes elsewhere, “is that it doesn’t consider people at full depth.” As for sociologists: “I can’t make out their Man. Surely that’s not homo sapiens, mon semblable!” To look at man in terms of his environment, or rituals, or traumas was to miss each man’s quiddity; Charlie Citrine is no distance at all from Bellow’s own passions when he reflects, “there are no nonpeculiar people”. Here, in these letters, we are given extended access to Bellow’s man, a spiritual being washed up on the corporeal earth, “writing Ulysses all day long, within himself”.

These beautifully sincere letters reveal Bellow’s constancy. In 1949, he writes that Europe, where he has been living in Paris, “has taught me a great deal about what and who I am. That is, really, what and who others are”; and 47 years later: “There is something radically mysterious in the specificity of another human being which everybody somehow responds to. Love is not a bad word for this response.” Bellow is forever issuing professions of love, friendship and desire, together with reassurances, apologies and tributes. To Martin Amis: “you have found a way of writing entirely your own”. To an unhappy novelist friend: “Don’t forget that you are Wright Morris and the books you’ve given your countrymen are beyond price.” Remembering (in a eulogy) his friend and one-time housemate Ralph Ellison, he writes hat Invisible Man “holds its own among the best novels of the century”. He describes the portrayal of friends in his fiction as “a diabolically complex problem”; letters show that he thought hard about the problem when writing his most autobiographical (and biographical) books, Humboldt’s Gift andRavelstein.

There is also a generous helping of contempt, the sine qua non of literary letters. To Cynthia Ozick, one of the few younger writers he admired, he wrote: “It gives me something less than pleasure to be listed with the Styrons, Vonneguts, Mailers.” He acquiesces in a friend’s description of John Updike as “an anti-Semitic pornographer” and doesn’t much like Updike’s chief outlet, the New Yorker. Or, for that matter, the journal he calls the New York Review of Each Other’s Books. Or the Jewish magazine Commentary: “the language of the contributors is something like the kapok that life jackets used to be stuffed with”.

Followers of Jacques Lacan and Paul de Man “can be identified by a rictus of jeering rejection” (that tell-all face again). There is not much love, either, for Gore Vidal (“a specialist in safe scandal”), George Steiner (“of all pains in the ass, the most unbearable”), or another of Steiner’s eminent dissers, Vladimir Nabokov (“At his gruesome worst he pins feminine roses to simian bosoms”). And then there is this: “[Christopher] Hitchens appeals to Amis. This is a temptation I understand. But the sort of people you like to write about aren’t always fit company, especially at the dinner table.” However much one admires the target of this bitching (and he is just about Bellow’s wisest admirer), there is still a pang of disappointment at this update: “Cordial relations would subsequently develop between Hitchens and the Bellows.”

This is just letting off steam, but Bellow was quite capable of myopia and meanness, as he recognised. “God knows,” he wrote to Jack Ludwig, who was the basis for Valentin in Herzog, “I am not stainless faultless Bellow. I leave infinities on every side to be desired.” And though he is loud and clear in his distaste for psychoanalysis, it wouldn’t take a crack shrink to sense denial in his protesting account of his son’s response to his parents’ divorce (Bellow’s first of four): “Gregory is not so disturbed as you might imagine. He knows how strong his parents’ love for him is. He does not feel abandoned by me, in fact we have never been closer. I have never loved him more.” And here is a balanced account of that break-up: “Her rigid unlovingness has driven me out – that and nothing else.” It is easy to see why Bellow took refuge in Steiner’s “soul-spirit” rather than Freud’s “unconscious”; there was too much lurking down there.

Benjamin Taylor, the editor of this book, has done Bellow’s readers an almost-great service. The existence of the collection is a cause for celebration, but there are shortcomings, especially in the provision of contextual detail. It is the nature of this kind of book that we are given only one side of the story, yet there are ways of softening the blow, giving us more than half, rather than less. To Ann Malamud, he writes: “. . . you bowled me over when you identified Dick Rovere in The Dean’s December. That was either clairvoyance or genius.” Well, whichever it was, we would like to decide for ourselves. To Roger Shattuck in 1990, shortly before Bellow’s 75th birthday, he apologises: “It was unforgivable to burst into your office with a list of references . . .” In a letter to James Salter: “I loved the Nabokov taxi-cab anecdote.” The reader becomes, at such maddening moments, hungry from deprivation, weary with conjecture.

But most of the time we are the opposite of hungry and weary. I read these 550 pages with an overpowering feeling of joy. The book is not, thankfully, what the blurb says it is – “the autobiography Bellow never wrote”; such a book would be written with the kind of long-view clarity for which Augie March produced the ideal formula: “I see this now. At that time not.” The sense strongly imparted is not of cool reflection, but of continual longing, fighting and striving, of writing being done “in a fit”; not of laurels being rested on, but of more, and better, work to be done, that early sense of destiny still to be realised. It was a life well, if stressfully and unevenly, lived. These letters, now its clearest record, are among its richest fruit.

Leo Robson is the New Statesman’s lead fiction reviewer.

Saul Bellow: a life in letters

1915 Born Solomon Bellow to Russian immigrant parents in Lachine, Quebec, a suburb of Montreal
1924 Moves with family to the Humboldt Park district of Chicago
1933 Enters the University of Chicago
1935 Moves to Northwestern University. Gains BA with honours in anthropology and sociology two years later
1944 Completes his first novel, Dangling Man, while serving in the merchant navy
1953 His third novel, The Adventures of Augie March, is published
1964 Publishes Herzog
1976 Awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for Humboldt’s Gift, his eighth novel. Wins the Nobel Prize in Literature
1995 Nearly dies from toxin ingested in red snapper while on holiday
2000 Publishes his final novel, Ravelstein
2005 Dies in Brookline, Massachusetts

http://www.newstatesman.com/books/2010/11/saul-bellow-life-steiner