Readers today have no contemporary novelist of urban life to turn to—so back to Bellow it is.
Saul Bellow (WikimediaCommons)
Since Dickens, the author Myron Magnet recently observed, “our best urbanologists have been our novelists.”
We Americans have long turned to literature to help us make sense of the chaotic and more than occasionally violent nature of our surroundings—to help us find our bearings in the “moronic inferno” of American life.
“Moronic inferno.” This, of course, is a turn of phrase we owe to that colossus of 20th century literature, Saul Bellow, whose absence is acutely felt at a time when major American cities are descending, day by day, into an abyss of filth and criminality.
Hyperbole you say? Consider the following: Statistics released by the FBI recently show what even the reliably liberal NPR calls an “unprecedented spike” in murders across the U.S. in 2020.
According to a report in the Financial Times, “murders in New York rose last year by 43 per cent — and are on track to be higher this year than last. The situation is even uglier in Chicago, which is close to its 1974 peak when almost 1,000 people were murdered. Ditto across urban America.”
Major metropolitan areas as far afield as San Francisco and Atlanta are experiencing record rates of homicides and gun violence. The estimable Heather Mac Donald, citing the work of the criminologist Jeff Asher, writes that “The local murder increases in 2020 were startling: 95% in Milwaukee, 78% in Louisville, Ky., 74% in Seattle, 72% in Minneapolis, 62% in New Orleans, and 58% in Atlanta.”
Meantime, the cost of the BLM/Antifa riots that shook American cities throughout the summer of 2020 may be up to $2 billion dollars.
We’ve been here before. But one of the things (among many) that have changed is that the U.S. once had writers of imagination and conscience who were unafraid to criticize what was unfolding in our major cities. Today, American writers by and large flinch from exploring the crime and disorder that engulfs New York, Chicago, San Francisco, St. Louis, Baltimore and many other cities besides. They now serve a different role, as the intellectual shock troops of the current chaos.
The protagonist of Bellow’s 1970 novel, Mr. Sammler’s Planet, a Manhattan intellectual and Holocaust survivor named Artur Sammler, asks “whether the worst enemies of civilization might not prove to be its petted intellectuals at its weakest moments.”
Sammler was Bellow’s response to the depravity that marked New York City at the time. And New York’s current decline, owed largely—if not solely—to the maladministration of its hapless mayor Bill de Blasio, recalls the mayhem the city experienced under mayor John Lindsey in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Upon its release, the critic Joseph Epstein described Sammler as a book designed to “offend whole categories of the reading public as well as most of the people who write about books.” Twenty-five years after its release, the critic Stanley Crouch counted Bellow as among those who were not “afraid of the big bad wolves of popular culture,” who “refuse to slink along with the cowards of our academies, those all too willing to add material they despise to the reading lists of their courses — if that means their most self-serving colleagues and the orneriest students will pick some other people to harass.”
Today, the need for such truth tellers is dire, yet they are notable by their absence.
Instead of an honest reckoning of how we arrived at this point, the American reading public has, of late, been treated to a steady diet of what can only be politely described as performance art by a coterie of cosseted writers and academics, some of whom seem to have walked right out of a Tom Wolfe novel. Ibram X. Kendi, Robin DiAngelo, Nikole Hannah-Jones, Patrisse Cullors, among many others besides, have become the objects of endless praise, richly awarded by the universities and legacy foundations such as Ford and MacArthur.
Yet Bellow’s comment about the student radicals of the 1960s just as easily applies to this high profile coterie of opportunists who have dominated popular discourse for much of the past two years. “The trouble with the destroyers,” Bellow once observed, “is that they’re just as phony as what they’ve come to destroy.”
If we can (as we should) learn from Bellow’s personal example of stubborn fearlessness in the face of the bien pensant discourse police, we might also learn from the examples set by his characters Artur Sammler and Albert Corde of The Dean’s December, who, each in his own way, dissented from the prevailing orthodoxies of the time. They are characters motivated by a sense of obligation to their fellow human beings.
Bellow himself anticipated much of the stupidity of our age, where the educated and well-off are uselessly embroiled in absurd identitarian controversies while blithely ignoring the shameful living conditions of our most vulnerable citizens.
“Like many people who had seen the world collapse once, Mr. Sammler entertained the possibility it might collapse twice,” yet everywhere he looked people, even those closest to him, were contributing to the collapse. But the problem went beyond his immediate circle. Sammler, writes Bellow, “was testy with white Protestant America for not keeping better order. Cowardly surrender. Not a strong ruling class. Eager in a secret humiliating way to come down and mingle with all the minority mobs and scream against themselves.”
There was something about the uprootedness of the New York of the 1960s that appalled Sammler. His trust fund niece Angela kept herself busy raising defense funds for “murderers and rapists.” Angela, his nephew, his son-in-law, and even his own daughter were all seemingly driven mad by the requirements—sexual, financial, educational—of the age. They were, to borrow from Simone Weil, uprooted. Uprooted from reality. And, as Weil once wrote, for such people there are only two options, they either “fall into a spiritual lethargy resembling death…or hurl themselves into some form of activity necessarily designed to uproot, often by the most violent methods, those who are not yet uprooted, or only partly so.”
What to do? Mr. Sammler’s answer was to keep one’s head even as everyone else was losing theirs, “to live with a civil heart… with disinterested charity.” To live a life “conditioned by other human beings.” There is a contract, “the terms of which, in his inmost heart, each man knows.” And Bellow knew, as we all do, that the nihilism and anarchy of the street represents an attempt to cancel that contract. So, too, the progressive totalitarians of our age who demand: “Do as you’re told!” Even as they deny the most elementary biological facts of human existence.
A dozen years following the publication of Sammler, Bellow, now a Nobel laureate, released The Dean’s December, another of his “Chicago” books and a kind of spiritual cousin to Mr. Sammler’s Planet. The dean is Albert Corde, and, unusually for a Bellow-stand in, Corde is an uxorious WASP who has made himself a target of the campus thought-police for a controversial article he wrote on the workings of the inner city for Harper’s. In writing The Dean, Bellow said he was, “contemplating a great modern mystery — why, in this age of communication, are we so near the border of total incoherency? The literate masses desire information. A crowd of technicians informs them. Why the information should be haunted by unreality is the great mystery.” James Atlas writes that the book conveys “the general sense that barbarians had invaded the United States and no one was paying attention.”
Yet The Dean’s December is no mere fusillade against a weak, sanctimonious American elite. Rather, in its description of the role mass communication plays in the shaping of modern consciousness, it was prophetic. In such an age—and surely, with the advent of Twitter, Facebook, and online mobs, we live in such an age—reality is often the first casualty of “the discourse.”
Bellow writes of Corde’s friend, the journalist Dewey Spangler (a thinly veiled stand-in for Bellow’s childhood friend, the columnist Sidney J. Harris), that he lived in a “kind of event-glamour” unaware that “the false representations of ‘communication’ led to horrible distortions of public consciousness. Therefore the first act of morality was to disinter the reality, retrieve reality, dig it out from the trash…”
Corde’s unearthing of the hard, unpleasant, and at times supremely violent and chaotic reality of Chicago cost him. But he, like Bellow, was compelled to uncover these facts by a sense of obligation, the same sense of obligation Sammler spoke of when he spoke of the human contract. The nihilists and grifters who instruct us not only to ignore, but celebrate, the crime and disorder all about us are in effect demanding we tear up that contract.
We should refuse to do so.
James W. Carden is a former advisor at the State Department who has written for numerous publications including the National Interest, the Los Angeles Times, Quartz, and American Affairs.