Where Do We Go from Here?: The Future of Fiction

Saul Bellow

April 10, 2015 
This essay appears in There Is Simply Too Much to Think About, Bellow’s collected non-fiction edited by Benjamin Taylor. On the tenth anniversary of Bellow's death, this 1962 essay reminds us that anxiety regarding the future of the novel is nothing new. Bellow was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1976.

We know that science has a future, we hope that government will have one. But it is not altogether agreed that the novel has any­thing but a past. There are some who say that the great novelists of the twentieth century—Proust, Joyce, Mann and Kafka—have created sterile masterpieces and that with them we have come to the end of the line. No further progress is possible.

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It does sometimes seem that the narrative art itself has dissolved. The person, the character as we knew him in the plays of Sophocles or Shakespeare, in Cervantes, Fielding and Balzac, has gone from us. In­stead of a unitary character with his unitary personality, his ambitions, his passions, his soul, his fate, we find in modern literature an oddly dispersed, ragged, mingled, broken, amorphous creature whose outlines are everywhere, whose being is bathed in mind as the tissues are bathed in blood and who is impossible to circumscribe in any scheme of time. A cubistic, Bergsonian, uncertain, eternal, mortal someone who shuts and opens like a concertina and makes a strange music. And what has struck artists in this century as the most amusing part of all is that the descriptions of self that still have hold of us are made up of the old unitary foursquare traits noted according to the ancient conventions. What we insist on seeing is not a quaintly organized chaos of instinct and spirit but what we choose to call “the personality”—a presentably combed and dressed someone who is decent, courageous, handsome, or not so handsome but strong, or not so strong but certainly generous, or not so generous but anyway reliable. So it goes.

Of all modern writers, it is D. H. Lawrence who is most implacably hostile toward this convention of unitary character. For him this character of a civilized man does not really exist. What the modern civilized person calls his personality is to Lawrence figmentary: a product of civilized education, dress, manners, style and “culture.” The head of this modern personality is, he says, a wastepaper basket filled with ready-made notions. Sometimes he compares the civilized conception of character to a millstone—a painted millstone about our necks is the metaphor he makes of it. The real self, unknown, is hidden, a sunken power in us; the true identity lies deep—very deep. But we do not deal much in true identity, goes his argument. The modern character on the street, or in a conventional story or film, is what a sociologist has re­cently described as the “presentation” self. The attack on this presenta­tion self or persona by modern art is a part of the war that literature, in its concern with the individual, has fought with civilization. The civi­lized individual is proud of his painted millstone, the burden that he believes gives him distinction. In an artist’s eyes his persona is only a rude, impoverished, mass-produced figure brought into being by a civ­ilization in need of a working force, a reservoir of personnel, a docile public that will accept suggestion and control.

The old unitary personality that still appears in popular magazine stories, in conventional best-sellers, in newspaper cartoons and in the movies is a figure descended from well-worn patterns, and popular art forms (like the mystery novel and the western) continue to exploit endlessly the badly faded ideas of motives and drama or love and hate. The old figures move ritualistically through the paces, finding now and then variations in setting and costume, but they are increasingly remote from real reality. The functions performed by these venerable literary types should be fascinating to the clinical psychologist who may be able to recognize in these stories an obsessional neurosis here, paranoid fan­tasy there, or to the sociologist, who sees resemblances to the organiza­tion of government bureaus or hears echoes of the modern industrial corporations. But the writer brought up in a great literary tradition not only sees these conventional stories as narcotic or brainwashing enter­tainments, at worst breeding strange vices, at best performing a thera­peutic function. He also fears that the narrative art we call the novel may have come to an end, its conception of the self exhausted and with this conception our interest in the fate of that self so conceived.

It is because of this that Gertrude Stein tells us in one of her lectures that we cannot read the great novels of the twentieth century, among which she includes her own The Making of Americans, for what happens next. And in fact Ulysses, Remembrance of Things Past, The Magic Moun­tain and The Making of Americans do not absorb us in what happens next. They interest us in a scene, in a dialogue, a mood, an insight, in language, in character, in the revelation of a design, but they are not narratives. Ulysses avoids anything resembling the customary story. It is in some sense a book about literature and offers us a history of English prose style and of the novel. It is a museum containing all the quaint armor, halberds, crossbows and artillery pieces of literature. It exhibits them with a kind of amused irony and parodies and transcends them all. These are the things that once entranced us. Old sublimities, old dodges, old weapons, all useless now; pieces of iron once heroic, lovers’ embraces once romantic, all debased by cheap exploitation, all unfit.

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Language too is unfit. Erich Heller in a recent book quotes a typical observation by Hugo von Hofmannsthal on the inadequacy of old forms of expression. Hofmannsthal writes, “Elements once bound to­gether to make a world now present themselves to the poet in mon­strous separateness. To speak of them coherently at all would be to speak untruthfully. The commonplace phrases of the daily round of observations seem all of a sudden insoluble riddles. The sheriff is a wicked man, the vicar is a good fellow, our neighbor must be pitied, his sons are wastrels. The baker is to be envied, his daughters are virtuous.” In Hofmannsthal’s A Letter these formulas are present as “utterly lack­ing in the quality of truth.” He is unable, he explains, “to see what people say and do with the simplifying eye of habit and custom. Every­thing falls to pieces, the pieces to pieces again, and nothing can be comprehended any more with the help of customary notions.”

Character, action and language then have been put in doubt, and the Spanish philosopher Ortega y Gasset, summing up views widely held, says the novel requires a local setting with limited horizons and familiar features, traditions, occupations, classes. But as everyone knows, these old-fashioned local worlds no longer exist. Or perhaps that is inaccurate. They do exist but fail to interest the novelist. They are no longer local societies as we see them in Jane Austen or George Eliot.

Our contemporary local societies have been overtaken by the world. The great cities have devoured them, and now the universe itself im­poses itself upon us; space with its stars comes upon us in our cities. So now we have the universe itself to face, without the comforts of com­munity, without metaphysical certainty, without the power to distin­guish the virtuous from the wicked man, surrounded by dubious realities and discovering dubious selves.

Things have collapsed about us, says D. H. Lawrence on the first page of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, and we must each of us try to put to­gether some sort of life. He offers us a sort of nature mysticism, love but without false romanticism, an acceptance of true desire as the first prin­ciple of recovery. Other writers have come forward with aesthetic or political or religious first principles. All the modern novelists worth mentioning aim at a point beyond customary notions, customary dra­mas and customary conceptions of character. The old notion of a customary self, of the fate of an all-important Me, displeases the best of them. We have lived now through innumerable successes and failures of these old selves. In American literature we have watched their prog­ress and decline in scores of books since the Civil War, from buoyancy to depression. The Lambert Strethers, the Hurstwoods and Cowperwoods, the Gatsbys may still impress or please us as readers, but as writers, no. Their mental range is no longer adequate to these new cir­cumstances. Those characters suit us better who stand outside society and, unlike Gatsby, have no wish to be sentimentally reconciled to it. Unlike Dreiser’s millionaires, we have no more desire for its wealth; unlike Strether, we are not attracted by the power of an old and know­ing civilization.

This is why so many of us prefer the American novels whose charac­ters are most nearly removed from the civil state—Moby-Dick and Huckleberry Finn. We feel in our own time that what is called the civi­lized condition often swings close to what Hobbes calls the state of nature, a condition of warfare in which the life of the individual is nasty, brutish, dull and short. But we must be careful not to be swept away by the analogy. We have seen to our grief in recent European and especially German history the results of trying to bolt from all civilized and legal tradition. It is in our minds that the natural and the civil, autarchy and discipline, are most explosively mixed.

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But for us here in America discipline is represented largely by the enforced repressions. We do not know much of the delights of discipline. Almost nothing of a spiritual, ennobling character is brought into the internal life of a modern American by his social institutions. He must discover it in his own experience, by his own luck as an explorer, or not at all. Society feeds him, clothes him, to an extent protects him, and he is its infant. If he accepts the state of infancy, contentment can be his. But if the idea of higher functions comes to him, he is pro­foundly unsettled. The hungry world is rushing on all continents to­ward such a contentment, and with passions and desires, frustrated since primitive times, and with the demand for justice never so loudly expressed. The danger is great that it will be satisfied with the bottles and toys of infancy. But the artists, the philosopher, the priest, the statesman are concerned with the full development of humanity—its manhood, occasionally glimpsed in our history, occasionally felt by individuals.

With all this in mind, people here and there still continue to write the sort of book we call a novel. When I am feeling blue, I can almost persuade myself that the novel, like Indian basketry or harness-making, is a vestigial art and has no future. But we must be careful about proph­ecy. Even prophecy based on good historical study is a risky business, and pessimism, no less than optimism, can be made into a racket. All industrial societies have a thing about obsolescence. Classes, nations, races and cultures have in our time been declared obsolete, with results that have made ours one of the most horrible of all centuries. We must, therefore, be careful about deciding that any art is dead.

This is not a decision for a coroner’s jury of critics and historians. The fact is that a great many novelists, even those who have concen­trated on hate, like Céline, or on despair, like Kafka, have continued to perform a most important function. Their books have attempted, in not a few cases successfully, to create scale, to order experience, to give value, to make perspective and to carry us toward sources of life, toward life-giving things. The true believer in disorder does not like novels. He follows another calling. He is an accident lawyer or a promoter, not a novelist. It always makes me sit up, therefore, to read yet another scold­ing of the modern novelist written by highly paid executives of multimillion-dollar magazines. They call upon American writers to represent the country fairly, to affirm its values, to increase its prestige in this dangerous period. Perhaps, though, novelists have a different view of what to affirm. Perhaps they are running their own sort of sur­vey of affirmable things. They may come out against nationalism or against the dollar, for they are an odd and unreliable lot. I have already indicated that it is the instinct of the novelist, however, to pull toward order. Now this is a pious thing to say, but I do not intend it merely to sound good. It should be understood only as the beginning of another difficulty.

What ideas of order does the novelist have and where does he get them and what good are they in art? I have spoken of Lawrence’s belief that we must put together a life for ourselves—singly, in pairs, in groups—out of the wreckage. Shipwreck and solitude are not, in his opinion, unmixed evils. They are also liberating, and if we have the strength to use our freedom, we may yet stand in a true relation to na­ture and to other men. But how are we to reach this end? Lawrence proposes a sort of answer in Lady Chatterley’s Lover, showing us two people alone together in the midst of a waste. I sometimes feel that Lady Chatterley’s Lover is a sort of Robinson Crusoe for two, exploring man’s sexual resources rather than his technical ingenuity. It is every bit as moral a novel as Crusoe. Connie and Mellors work at it as hard and as conscientiously as Robinson and there are as many sermons in the one as in the other. The difference is that Lawrence aimed with all his pow­ers at the writing of this one sort of book. To this end he shaped his life, the testing ground of his ideas. For what is the point of recommending a course of life that one has not tried oneself?

This is one way to assess the careers and achievements of many mod­ern artists. Rimbaud, Strindberg, Lawrence, Malraux, even Tolstoy can be approached from this direction. They experiment with themselves and in some cases an artistic conclusion can come only out of the ex­perimental results. Lawrence had no material other than what his life—that savage pilgrimage, as he called it—gave him. The ideas he tested, and tested not always by an acceptable standard, were ideas of the vital, the erotic, the instinctive. They involved us in a species of nature mysticism that gave, as a basis for mortality, sexual gratification. But I am not concerned here with all the particulars of Lawrence’s thesis. I am interested mainly in the connection between the understanding and the imagination, and the future place of the intelligence in imaginative literature.

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It is necessary to admit, first, that ideas in the novel can be very dull. There is much in modern literature, and the other arts as well, to justify our prejudice against the didactic. Opinion, said Schopenhauer, is not as valid as imagination in a work of art. One can quarrel with an opin­ion or judgment in a novel, but actions are beyond argument and the imagination simply accepts them. I think that many modern novels, perhaps the majority, are the result of some didactic purpose. The at­tempt of writers to make perspective, to make scale and to carry us toward the sources of life, is of course the didactic intention. It involves the novelist in programs, in slogans, in political theories, religious theories and so on. Many modern novelists seem to say to themselves “what if” or “suppose that such and such were the case” and the results often show that the book was conceived in thought, in didactic pur­pose, rather than in the imagination. That is rather normal, given the state of things, the prevalence of the calculating principle in modern life, the need for conscious rules of procedure and the generally felt need for answers. Not only books, painting and musical compositions, but love affairs, marriages and even religious convictions often originate in an idea. So that the idea of love is more common than love, and the idea of belief is more often met with than faith. Some of our most re­spected novels have a purely mental inspiration. The results are some­times very pleasing because they can so easily be discussed, but the ideas in them generally have more substance than the characters who hold them.

American literature in the nineteenth century was highly didactic. Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman and even Melville were didactic writers. They wished to instruct a young and raw nation. American literature in the twentieth century has remained didactic, but it has also been unin­tellectual. This is not to say that thought is lacking in the twentieth-century American novel, but it exists under strange handicaps and is much disguised. In A Farewell to Arms Hemingway makes a list of subjects we must no longer speak about—a catalog of polluted words, words ruined by the rhetoric of criminal politicians and misleaders. Then Hemingway, and we must respect him for it, attempts to represent these betrayed qualities without using the words themselves. Thus we have courage without the word, honor without the word, and in The Old Man and the Sea we are offered a sort of Christian endurance, also without specific terms. Carried to this length, the attempt to represent ideas while sternly forbidding thought begins to look like a curious and highly sophisticated game. It shows a great skepticism of the strength of art. It makes it appear as though ideas openly expressed would be too much for art to bear.

We have developed in American fiction a strange combination of extreme naïveté in the characters and of profundity implicit in the writ­ing, in the techniques themselves and in the language. But the language of thought itself is banned; it is considered dangerous and destructive. American writers appear to have a strong loyalty to the people, to the common man. Perhaps in some cases the word for this is not loyalty; perhaps it might better be described as fealty. But a writer should aim to reach all levels of society and as many levels of thought as possible, avoiding democratic prejudice as much as intellectual snobbery. Why should he be ashamed of thinking? I do not claim that all writers think, or should think. Some are peculiarly inept at ideas and we would harm them by insisting that they philosophize. But the record shows that most artists are intellectually active, and it is only now in a world increasingly intellectualized, more and more dominated by the productions of scientific thought, that they seem strangely reluctant to use their brains or to give any sign that they have brains to use.

All through the nineteenth century the conviction increases in nov­elists as different as Goncharov in Russia and Thomas Hardy in England that thought is linked with passivity and is devitalizing. And in the masterpieces of the twentieth century the thinker usually has a weak grip on life. But by now an alternative, passionate activity without ideas, has also been well explored in novels of adventure, hunting, com­bat and eroticism. Meanwhile miracles born of thought have been largely ignored by modern literature. If narration is neglected by novel­ists like Proust and Joyce, the reasons are that for a time the drama has passed from external action to internal movement. In Proust and Joyce we are enclosed by and held within a single consciousness. In this inner realm the writer’s art dominates everything. The drama has left external action because the old ways of describing interests, of describing the fate of the individual, have lost their power. Is the sheriff a good fellow? Is our neighbor to be pitied? Are the baker’s daughters virtuous? We see such questions now as belonging to a dead system, mere formulas. It is possible that our hearts would open again to the baker’s daughters if we understood them differently.

A clue may be offered by Pascal, who said there are no dull people, only dull points of view. Maybe that is going a little far. (A religious philosophy is bound to maintain that every soul is infinitely precious and therefore infinitely interesting.) But it begins perhaps to be evi­dent what my position is. Imagination, binding itself to dull viewpoints, puts an end to stories. The imagination is looking for new ways to ex­press virtue. Society just now is in the grip of certain common falsehoods about virtue—not that anyone really believes them. And these cheerful falsehoods beget their opposites in fiction, a dark literature, a literature of victimization, of old people sitting in ash cans waiting for the breath of life to depart. This is the way things stand; only this re­mains to be added, that we have barely begun to comprehend what a human being is, and that the baker’s daughters may have revelations and miracles to offer to keep fascinated novelists busy until the end of time.

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I would like to add this also, in conclusion, about good thought and bad thought in the novel. In a way it doesn’t matter what sort of line the novelist is pushing, what he is affirming. If he has nothing to offer but his didactic purpose, he is a bad writer. His ideas have ruined him. He could not afford the expense of maintaining them. It is not the didactic purpose itself that is a bad thing, and the modern novelist drawing back from the dangers of didacticism has often become strangely unreal, and the purity of his belief in art for art in some cases has been peculiarly unattractive. Among modern novelists the bravest have taken the risk of teaching and have not been afraid of using the terms of religion, science, philosophy and politics. Only they have been prepared to admit the strongest possible arguments against their own positions.

Here we see the difference between a didactic novelist like D. H. Lawrence and one like Dostoyevsky. When he was writing The Brothers Karamazov and had just ended the famous conversation between Ivan and Alyosha, in which Ivan, despairing of justice, offers to return his ticket to God, Dostoyevsky wrote to one of his correspondents that he must now attempt, through Father Zossima, to answer Ivan’s argu­ments. But he has in advance all but devastated his own position. This, I think, is the greatest achievement possible in a novel of ideas. It be­comes art when the views most opposite to the author’s own are allowed to exist in full strength. Without this a novel of ideas is mere self-indulgence and didacticism is simply ax-grinding. The opposites must be free to range themselves against each other and they must be pas­sionately expressed on both sides. It is for this reason that I say it doesn’t matter much what the writer’s personal position is, what he wishes to affirm. He may affirm principles we all approve of and write very bad novels.

The novel, to recover and flourish, requires new ideas about human­kind. These ideas in turn cannot live in themselves. Merely asserted, they show nothing but the goodwill of the author. They must therefore be discovered and not invented. We must see them in flesh and blood. There would be no point in continuing at all if many writers did not feel the existence of these unrecognized qualities. They are present and they demand release and expression.



From THERE IS SIMPLY TOO MUCH TO THINK ABOUT: Collected non-fiction by Saul Bellow, edited by Benjamin Taylor. Reprinted by arrangement with The Wylie Agency, to be published by Viking Penguin, part of the Penguin Random House company. Copyright © 2015 by Janis Bellow.

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