Monday, March 6, 2017

Reading Now (March 2017): Too Much To Think About

The Moral Writer

Saul Bellow [1915-2005]: There Is Simply Too Much To Think About; Edited by Benjamin Taylor (2015).
Photo Credit: ©2017. Perry J. Greenbaum

This book, published in 2015, 10 years after Saul Bellow’s death in 2005 at the age of 89, is a fine collection of Bellow’s nonfiction essays. Many of the pieces speak about change, the pace of change and what it means to an American man of letters like Bellow, who lived their lives fully in the 20th century. It seems as if we have witnessed more changes in the last 15 years than in the 50 years preceding it, including and perhaps most notably the way we communicate and speak to each other.

Despite the change and the noise of life, Bellow hangs on to the belief of universal human nature; consider the following essay, “The Writer as Moralist,” published more than five decades ago, in 1963, on the question of the writer and his moral purpose, which touches on life itself:
If we don’t want to continue, why write books? The wish for death is powerful and silent. It represents actions; it has no need of words. But if we answer yes, we do want it to continue, we are liable to be asked how. In what form shall life be justified. That is the essence of the moral question. (164-65)
I find Bellow’s words true, even as I find them hard to put into practice effectively and continually with conviction, limited as I am by the circumstances in which I live. If it is to be lived “justified,” what does this mean? I know it has to do with the good life. Has its meaning changed in the last fifty years? Is morality relative to both culture and time? to moral intelligence? to financial means? Or are there real universal truths to be found? Internal debate or Hegelian dialectic carries with it the hope of leading to a final confirming truth.

I too “believe” in universal human nature, even as it finds fewer and fewer followers today, trampled to death by the current manners (and memes) of universal confusion wrapped in the cloak of anger. Arrayed against the Man of Universal Ideas are many obstacles, placed one in front of the other. There is no shortage of doubt; there is no shortage of failed plans; there is no shortage of shallow efforts, which is not the same as best effort. There are few victories, and thus few reasons to celebrate.

In the case of this writer, I can offer much in the way of observations and too little in the way of answers, other than to continue on living. I don’t think that we can go back, return to another time and place, despite strong yearnings (for some cases and for some reasons) to do so (e.g., more civility and hope and less confusion and chaos). What has not changed is the attack on the individual; although it seems to be done today with more ferocity and with greater vulgarity and certainty. This is all easily justified with little thoughtful reflection—another sign of confusion, it seems.

The writer in general is left to observe the current age, not with disinterest or detachment, but with honest appraisal. The decay and moral rot (always) seems worse in the time in which one lives. It, the sense of putrefaction of civil society, becomes stronger as one ages, fearing that things are not quite the way they ought to be, that we as a civilization have descended the steps of humanity, falling through the rotting floor. There is a sense of urgency, but the first responders don’t reach the scene of the accident.

Even as I state this, I lick my wounds and look up. I can’t say that our world is a pleasant one at this particular time, but it does have its magnificent moments of beauty, its subtle scents of sanity.

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