Saul Bellow & Jewish Consciousness

James Santel has an excellent article on Saul Bellow’s novel Humbold’s Gift (1975). Among Bellow’s recurrent themes of Jewish identity, the novel contains an overarching theme of mortality. Here’s a wonderful quote from the novel:

“The human being, more and more oppressed by the peculiar terms of his existence—one time around for each, no more than a single life per customer—has to think of the boredom of death. O those eternities of nonexistence! For people who crave continual interest and diversity, O! how boring death will be!”

I’ve read Bellow’s novels Seize The Day and Herzog and was relatively underwhelmed. (The extent of Jewish consciousness in the latter, with its protagonist’s occasional, conscientious framing of non-Jewish characters as goyim zoological specimens was quite striking to me, even while in a pre-MacDonald phase.)

Here is Bellow himself, in 2011, briefly describing his Jewish consciousness (“A Jewish Writer in America”):

So, in my first consciousness, I was, among other things, a Jew, the child of Jewish immigrants. At home our parents spoke Russian to each other, we children spoke Yiddish with them, and we spoke English with one another. At the age of four we began to read the Old Testament in Hebrew, we observed Jewish customs, some of them superstitions, and we recited prayers and blessings all day long. Because I had to memorize most of Genesis, my first consciousness was that of a cosmos, and in that cosmos I was a Jew. I suppose it would be proper to apply the word “archaic” to such a representation of the world as I had—archaic, prehistoric. This was my “given” and it would be idle to quarrel with it, to try to revise or efface it.

A millennial belief in a Holy God may have the effect of deepening the soul, but it is also obviously archaic, and modern influences would presently bring me up to date and reveal how antiquated my origins were. To turn away from those origins, however, has always seemed to me an utter impossibility. It would be a treason to my first consciousness to un-Jew myself. One may be tempted to go behind the given and invent something better, to attempt to reenter life at a more advantageous point. In America this is common, we have all seen it done, and done in many instances with great ingenuity. But the thought of such an attempt never entered my mind. Thus I may have been archaic, but I escaped the horrors of an identity crisis.

Yes, by embracing the long cultural tradition of his race Bellow escaped the horrors of an identity crisis, which can’t be said for countless whites living in Western countries, too afraid and ashamed to inquire about their racial heritage, let alone embrace their racial identity.

This entry was posted in Jewish, Literature. Bookmark the permalink.