Robert Edison Sandiford - Issue # 99

It All Adds Up: From the Dim Past to the Uncertain Future by Saul Bellow, Viking Penguin, 327 pp., $28.99, 1994.

Most admirable among Saul Bellow's qualities as a novelistis his refusal to condescend to readers. He has made himself a success the recipient of National Book Awards, a Pulitzer Prize and the Nobel Prize for Literature - by not underestimating the intelligence of the public. And he has written with this conviction since The Adventures of Augie March (1953) gushed from his pen. Consequently, another of Bellow's great qualities is his commitment to portraying the Big Picture, i.e., to illustrating the human condition and the necessity, as he put it in Henderson the Rain King (1959), of "being," notjust "becoming."

These qualities are generously in evidence in It all Adds Up, his first collection of essays, travel writing and other non-fiction selected from the last 45 years. What emerges here, as elsewhere in his work, are Bellow's vested interests in the ever-changing states of art, the artist and humanity.

"Mozart: An Overture," the opening essay, sets the tone and demonstrates how far-reaching hisprosecan be. In adiscussion on the Classical composer, Bellow addresses humanity's relative enlightenment. "We are committed to the belief that there are no mysteries - there is only the not-yet-known," according to him. "We are as ignorant of fundamentals as human beings ever were."

Yet this is where the artist and art come into play. "All of [our trouble]," writes Bellow, "comes from us. It is we who set up and we who knock down. If we are impostors, we are also those who expose impostors. This 'being human is our very own show." For in Mozart "we see a person who has only himself to rely on. But what a self it is, and what an art it has generated. How deeply (beyond words) he speaks to us about the mysteries of our common human nature."

What Bellow is talking about, of course, is art as a means of perceiving the world. Perhaps not surprisingly, then, he slams science and intellectuals and their claim to greater awareness. There is no mistaking his hostility in "Writers, Intellectuals, Politics: Mainly Reminiscences":

 My case against intellectuals can be 
 easily summarized: Science has postulated 
 a nature with no soul in it; commerce does 
 not deal in souls and higher
 aspirations-matters like love and beauty 
 are none of its business .... Intellectuals
 seem to me to have turned away from those 
 elements in life unaccounted for in modern 
 science and that in modem experience have 
 come to seem devoid of substance.  The 
 powers of soul, which were Shakespeare's 
 subject (to be simple about it) and are 
 heard incessantly in Handel or Mozart, 
 have no footing at present in modern life 
 and are held to be subjective.  Writers 
 here and there still stake their lives 
 on the existence of these forces.  About
 this, intellectuals have little or 
 nothing to say.

Be this as it may, it's reassuring how Bellow makes use of literature to link all humanity. In "The Sealed Treasure," he observes that "without a certain innate sympathy, we could not read Shakespeare and Cervantes." Furthermore, "the important humanity of the novel must be the writer's own. His force, his virtuosity, his powers of poetry, his reading of fate, are at the center of his book. The reader is invited to bring his sympathies to the writer rather than to the characters, and this makes him something of a novelist too."

Despite such hard-won wisdom (he is an advocate of constant selfcorrection), Bellow has his failings as a writer. He is, actually, the first to acknowledge them. "If I were to write these pieces today," he admits in his Preface, "I think I should say less about distraction and emphasize instead the importance of attention." For Bellow is apt to be overtaken by his own preoccupations.

There is a tendency toward imprudent sentimentality in It All Adds Up. Bellow is a man with an enviable sense of place. Chicago is his city, America his country, the world his to roam. But at 78, he also sounds like a man slipping through time and not liking it very much.

In Part II of "The Jefferson Lectures," Bellow notes that the Chicago slums of his youth were ruined by the Imniigration Act of 1924. "The slums as we knew them in the twenties were, when they were still maintained by European immigrants, excellent places, attractive to artists and bohemians as well as WASPs who longed for a touch of Europe." The act, in his opinion, resulted in "the disappearance of a genial street life from American cities; the dank and depressing odors of cultural mildew rising from the giant suburbs, which continue to grow; [and] the shift of bohe@a from the slums to the universities."

But Bellow's vision is both tainted by the self-indulgent "posturing" he finds distasteful among Romantics and clouded by the knee-jerk cynicism he distrusts in intellectuals. "The good old days weren't always good," as Billy Joel once sang. They only seem that way because we have already lived them. It was no less true yesterday than it is today that there always have been challenges to meet and changes to overcome.

What can we say, though, except that, right or wrong, Bellow is honest? In "The French as Dostoyevsky Saw Them," he reminds us that "the degree to which you challenge your own beliefs and expose them to destruction is a test of your worth as a novelist." So in almost every piece, it is possible to hear bellow speaking directly to you: opinionated, street-smart, eloquent, erudite, and hopeful. In his 1976 Nobel address, he is unerring despite distractions: "Only art penetrates what pride, passion, intelligence, and habit erect on all sides - the seeming realities of this world."