Saul Bellow on Artists and Philosophers

In his two-part essay in the New York Review of Books on being a Jewish writer in America, Saul Bellow is typically uneven. There are some rambling portions (Bellow seems to have a talent for such rambling, nowhere more evident than in this bizarre 1994 New York Times Op-Ed where he attempts to defend himself during the “Tolstoy of the Zulus” flap), accompanied by moments of lucidity:

[Q]uestions that can be closed by philosophic argument often remain open for art, and it is therefore a mistake for writers to accept the preeminence of the philosophers, and write poems, novels, and plays to illustrate, to confirm, to work out in their art and in human detail, the thoughts given to us abstractly by distinguished (and also by undistinguished) thinkers. (Cartesians, Kantians, Hegelians, Bergsonians, Marxians, Freudians, Existentialists, Heideggerians, etc.) Neither the philosopher nor the scientist can tell the artist conclusively, definitively, what it is to be human.

This does not need much commentary except to say that writers who “work out in their art and in human detail, the thoughts given to us abstractly by distinguished (and also by undistinguished) thinkers” often, precisely, by this very act, serve to remind us that an ostensibly “closed” question, remains, in fact, very much open. (I do think Bellow could have said something stronger in his first statement: Questions that appear closed by philosophic argument always remain open for art; it isn’t clear to me indeed, what it would mean for a question to remain “closed” for an artist; what form could such a question take?).

Update: My ever-alert cousin Priya (in comments) pointed out a typo, which I’ve now fixed. Thanks!

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2 comments on “Saul Bellow on Artists and Philosophers

  1. Priya says:

    A door slamming comes to mind, and a ‘talktothehand’ gesture. Also constipation :-)
    Sorry to be a troll but you missed a ‘remain’ in the last line. My Gestalt sensibilities will look for what’s not there ;-)

    • samirchopra1 says:

      Priya,

      Good to see you here – thanks for finding that typo. I thought I’d stick in a “be” instead, but went with your suggestion instead. Your examples aren’t “questions” to be settled by philosophical argument, right?

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