Sunday, April 10, 2005

Brooks on Bellow

A UChicago reuinion for the ages, Brooks (AB'83) on Bellow (X'39):

"Bellow's best America would be a Times Square version of a German university, with intellectual rigor on one side and scrambling freedom - sex included - on the other."

[Link mine]

But, to more seriously analyze Brooks's point, which is that America no longer defines itself vis a vis Europe (screw accent marks, btw--what do you think this is, my BA?), with intellectual Americans not caring about being American, and with the rest of us not giving a damn about Europe, either because we are anti-Old Europe cowboys or because we are too drunk off our Cancuning asses to read the Classics. Brooks writes:

The tension that propelled Bellow's work is now mostly absent from American life. On the one hand, you have a generation of students who are educated in a way that doesn't bring them into contact with the European canon, the old "best that has been thought and said." They don't have a chance to push back and assert their own Americanness. On the other hand, there are those in the academic and literary stratosphere who are part of the global circuit of conferences and academic appointments. They seem aloof from or ashamed of America, so they are not driven to define, the way Bellow did, an American identity.

Finally there are the rest of us who don't pay attention to what is being written and said in Europe because it doesn't seem that exciting, (Quick, what book is the talk of Berlin? Who is the François Truffaut of our moment?)

I'm not sure if there was ever a time in which a whole generation of American students was being educated in a way that Brooks and similar would find acceptable. While there may be less Aristotle at Harvard than there once was, there are more people going to college in general, and thus more people potentially coming into contact with the canon. But moreover, I think Brooks is missing the point when it comes to Bellow's Americanness. The novelty and power of being self-made and self-educated have not disappeared from the American ideal. A.O. Scott writes that "Bellow readers can take heart from his imperfect, immortal strivers, arguers, dreamers and failures and learn, once again, to go at things our own way." If anything, Bellow's America is now everyone's America. Bellow's asides on the great books are not what make his stories great books in their own right, and can at times be distracting, even for those who have taken all the right classes at Chicago and can get many of the references. What makes his stories worth reading is the way in which, through their characters, they define this nation. Brooks might be onto something when he argues that there's a certain type of mind that could only come out of Bellow's generation, it's a bit too early to give up on the current one. I mean, we've got blogs, which has to count for something...

1 comment:

Maureen said...

I think Hyde Park needs slightly more shopping in order to get to Bellow's utopia.