The ‘Victims’ of ‘Realistic Literature’

In 1965, Gordon Lloyd Harper interviewed Saul Bellow for the Paris Review (9.36, 1966, 48-73). During the interview the following exchange took place:

INTERVIEWER

It’s been said that contemporary fiction sees man as a victim. You gave this title to one of your early novels [The Victim], yet there seems to be very strong opposition in your fiction to seeing man as simply determined or futile. Do you see any truth to this claim about contemporary fiction?

BELLOW

Oh, I think that realistic literature from the first has been a victim literature. Pit any ordinary individual—and realistic literature concerns itself with ordinary individuals—against the external world, and the external world will conquer him, of course. Everything that people believed in the nineteenth century about determinism, about man’s place in nature, about the power of productive forces in society, made it inevitable that the hero of the realistic novel should not be a hero but a sufferer who is eventually overcome.

Bellow might be accused of a little overstatement but perhaps not too much. After all, didn’t George Orwell say, in one of his characteristically cheerful moments, that ‘every life when viewed from the inside is but a series of defeats?’ (Orwell’s quote, captures quite well, I think, the ‘common unhappiness’ of man, which  psychotherapy, with its alternative narratives, attempts to ameliorate.) ‘Realistic literature’ often might be that same view conveyed from the ‘outside’: a tale of implacable, indifferent, forces arrayed against human endeavor, with ambitions and aspirations running aground on one shoal after another.

But these series of wrecks do not have to be caused by man being ‘determined’ or ‘determinism’ or anything like that; after all, why would it not be possible for some humans–even ‘ordinary individuals’–to have a bright future ‘determined’ for them? That does not seem statistically improbable. Rather, it is that at any given moment, no human can be conceivably aware of all that may render his or her plans moot. That ‘all’ includes not just the forces of nature but more often than not, other humans’ objectives and efforts.

And that is what may make the language of ‘victim’ appropriate. To use that term for a human afflicted by nature alone seems inappropriate; nature seems far too blithely unconcerned about man’s doings for such a personalized description to resonate. Man can only be a victim of others like him; victimhood is a state attained at the hands of humans. It is the ‘productive forces in society’, the economic and material circumstances and engines that alter and shape the world around man, that turn ‘ordinary individuals’ into ‘victims.’  It is they, driven by contrary human ambition and desire, that lend the fate of man a particularly grim hue. These opponents of ours, those supposed to be our fellow travelers, turn out to be, on closer inspection, precisely those that induce God’s supposed laughter at our putative plans.

Note: The interview with Bellow is reprinted in Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews. Third Series, ed. Alfred Kazin. (London: Viking Press, 1967). 175-196.

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