Saul Bellow’s Heart; A Son’s Memoir by Greg Bellow; Bloomsbury, N.Y. 2013
In 1987 Allan Bloom published The Closing of the American Mind, in which he argued that overly liberal attitudes had actually closed the American mind in the name of openness. After careful reading, I found the book so closely paralleled views I was hearing from my father that I considered it a joint intellectual venture by two friends who had grown ideologically close. Bloom put forth views that appealed to social, cultural, and political conservatives in the Reagan White House, and Saul did not protest being included among thinkers with whom he often agreed. When Saul and I discussed the book I expressed distress that it was filled with “aristocratic notions.” I took his silence about my characterization as tacit agreement and as a measure of the extent to which my father’s mind had closed to anything but “superior” forms of culture, an attitude that bordered on the elitism I found in Allan’s book that was the exact opposite of my understanding of ‘young Saul’s” views. Bloom went after his enemies in public as much as Saul had to me in private, with venom, ridicule, and contempt designed to obliterate opposing views rather than to consider any potential worth in them or offering a contrasting position.
When ‘young Saul” became “old Saul,” my father changed from a young man full of questions to an old man full of answers. Virtually gone was Saul’s early optimism about making the world a better place. Worse, from my point of view, was the loss of his puzzlement about human nature, which I shared and treasured. “Old Saul” now took everything, including himself, so seriously that he lost the ability to laugh at himself or at the comic side of life’s contradictions. In earlier years, his pointed questioning of abstract solutions that offered little help to suffering human beings had seemed to me a form of leveling that brought great thinkers down to earth. My father was now siding with the thinkers he had once challenged, promulgating a set of answers and solutions to problems, both social and personal, that I found distinctly patriarchal, authoritarian, and hierarchical. My gut impressions of Saul’s reversals –that what he was backing away from was the basic fairness of the family ethos with which I had been raised –never wavered. I was and remain saddened by the toll Saul’s disillusionment and pessimism took on him and us. . .
Saul’s last work, Ravelstein, is a magnificent memoir of Bloom, barely disguised as a novel, so filled with actual events, feelings Saul shared, and matters the entire family spoke about that I take the book as largely a work of non-fiction.