The Death of Saul Bellow

From his obit in the Times:
"Like their creator, Mr. Bellow's heroes were all head and all body both. They tended to be dreamers, questers or bookish intellectuals, but they lived in a lovingly depicted world of cranks, con men, fast-talking salesmen and wheeler-dealers....Mr. Bellow grew up reading the Old Testament, Shakespeare and the great 19th-century Russian novelists and always looked with respect to the masters, even as he tried to recast himself in the American idiom. A scholar as well as teacher, he read deeply and quoted widely, often referring to Henry James, Marcel Proust and Gustave Flaubert. But at the same time he was apt to tell a joke coined by Henny Youngman."

My favorite Saul Bellow novel-- by that, I mean the one I re-read the most, for comfort, guidance or stimulation-- is "Humboldt's Gift". I love the combination of high and low culture, from characters that should be played by Dennis Farina, Bruno Kirby (as Ron Cantibile) and John Cusak (as the young Charlie Citrine) to intellectual and philosophical flights and a central figure of Humboldt that would be played as-- I don't know, Zero Mostel as Harold Bloom? Don't forget Carole Raphaelle Davis as Charlie's footsie playing mistress Renata.
(Carole Raphaelle Davis played the Italian Wolfram and Hart representative in "The Girl In Question" one of the funniest episodes in any Whedon enterprise.)
Whenever I need bracing-- fairly often with melancholy Scots-Irish genes and only a dab of French sensuality-- I can turn to this from "Humboldt's Gift":
“For after all Humboldt did what poets in crass America are supposed to do. He chased ruin and death even harder than he had chased women. He blew his talent and health and reached home, the grave, in a dusty slide. He plowed himself under. Okay. So did Edgar Allan Poe, picked out of the Baltimore gutter. And Hart Crane over the side of a ship. And Jarrell falling in front of a car. And poor John Berryman jumping from a bridge. For some reason this awfulness is peculiarly appreciated by business and technological America. The country is proud of its dead poets. It takes terrific satifaction in the poets' testimony that the USA is too tough, too big, too much, too rugged, that American reality is overpowering. And to be a poet is a school thing, a skirt thing, a church thing. The weakness of the spiritual powers is proved in the childishness, madness, drunkenness, and despair of these martyrs. Orpheus moved stones and trees. But a poet can't perform a hysterectomy or send a vehicle out of the solar system. Miracle and power no longer belong to him. So poets are loved, but loved because they just can't make it here. They exist to light up the enormity of the tangle and JUSTIFY THE CYNICISM [emphasis mine] of those who say, "If I were not such a corrupt, unfeeling bastard, creep, thief, and vulture, I couldn't get through this either. Look at those good and tender and soft men, the best of us. They succumbed, poor loonies." (from HUMBOLDT'S GIFT)

The VanGoghs of this world are to get their reward in Heaven. Do we despise Andy Warhol for making self promotion and factory art production pay off? Or do we admire him as a trickster who sold the emperor new clothes? American as apple pie. Why is Elvis recycled constantly and Big Mama Thornton forgotten? Five bars of her "Hound Dog" will blow out any Elvis left in your system.
There is some truth in the complaint "'It's 'cause he's white!"-- there is more than one kind of "whiteness" in America. There is a kind of whiteness, blandness of the spirit that lets us stay asleep, pretends to be authentic but in fact doesn't upset anyone.
This was most evident in Pat Boone's covers of Little Richard; Elvis was an acceptable compromise to the culture between Boone and Big Mama.
Does anyone really believe that Elvis was "transgressive" because Ed Sullivan wouldn't show his hips moving? Censoring Elvis was a masterpiece of PR; nothing sells faster in America than shocking your grandma. When Elvis was swallowed up by Vegas, it was a fulfillment of prophecy.
Joss Whedon wondered if part of "Buffy's" artistic success was based on its unwillingness to not be "comfortable" relationship with the audience's expectations about genre.
Is this entirely the fault of capitalism and a world where perception is formed by advertising skills? A system that says the 40th most popular song or film or book in America is not as worthwhile artistically as the top ten?
They had the opposite problem in Soviet Russia, or Revolutionary France, where the "successful" artist was the one who pleased the most people in power. The painter David and his "Death of Marat" or "Liberty Leading the People"-- my god, he's got the chops still, but my god what a monster.
Power loves flattery; the crowd craves reassurance, even if it's a cynical rowd being reassured by "Sin City" that we indeed live in a corrupt world where beautiful noir women wear sidearms (and sleep with horribly scarred men.)
If we operate on a patronage system, do we cross our fingers and hope that the Medici just thrown money at us and leave us alone? The MacArthur grants are a good idea-- I love what John Sayles has done with his-- but you're still counting on knowing someone who knows someone who...
Maybe the best art in America is going to always be the stuff that relies on happy accident, like Louis Armstrong shooting off a gun on New Year's Eve, and then being sent to a Waif's Home where someone had donated a trumpet.
Or combinations of people coming together to mold "Citizen Kane" and "Casablanca".
Or the Hernandez Brothers making us "fall in love with ink and paper" because of the "Archie," Kirby and Ditko comics their mother brought home?
There is a great deal of the bird singing because it must in American art. Muddy Waters' voice carries across the fields and then transfers to success on the Chicago stage because it's in his nature.
We are not surprised when the scorpion stings the frog because "it's in his nature". Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised when the artist or the art form break through the rubble to reach the sun.
I've got it easy; nothing stops me from writing or drawing except a want of ink and paper. The frustration I feel is caused by not winning "The Smile of the World" as Warhol or the Beastie Boys have.
I would be a happier fellow if I concentrated on the work and let the selling. getting and spending take care of itself. My artistic frustrations should be based on whether I got the work done and done well, not whether it sells or not. I ought to be more concerned about craft, whether my sentences are polished or my drawings as anatomically skilled as they should be. And almost everyone you know, including yourself, is going to try and distract you from that. They don't know how else to measure your worth, except to ask if it's been published or not, if it's sold or not, and if so, how much has it sold?
It's a bit easier for musicians or magicians to focus their energy on craft and less on the audience. If I don't start worrying about the audience-- readers and editors-- I end up writing on the inside of a closet in my own blood, and in a language that only I can read.
The poor bastards i feel sorry for are those whose art depends on a group effort and lots of money: dancers, actors, playwrights, filmmakers... I knew a New York actor who was rejected three times for the same role in a play: the first time because he was "Too Young", the second time because he was "Too Old", and a third time because he looked "Too Young" again.
(Producers and directors ought to be licensed, like psychotherapists; their power their subconscious wields in American culture is frightening to behold.)
Bracing words from Saul Bellow, the streetwise zaydeh I never had-- except that by writing it down, he does indeed pass it on to those who need it.

"A great deal of intelligence can be invested in ignorance when the need for illusion is deep."

"Take our politicians: they're a bunch of yo-yos. The presidency is now a cross between a popularity contest and a high school debate, with an encyclopedia of cliches the first prize."

"You're all alone when you're a writer. Sometimes you just feel you need a humanity bath. Even a ride on the subway will do that. But it's much more interesting to talk about books. After all, that's what life used to be for writers: they talk books, politics, history, America. Nothing has replaced that."

"I discovered that rejections are not altogether a bad thing. They teach a writer to rely on his own judgment and to say in his heart of hearts, 'To hell with you.'"

"A man is only as good as what he loves."

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