Saul Bellow

What kind of wise man flunks kindergarten?

I recently got back in touch with an old friend from graduate school for the first time in 40 years. We’re in our late sixties now.

Our conversation reminded me of the following event which I would like to tell you about.

We were students at the University of Chicago in a department called the Committee on Social Thought. Shortly after we arrived to start our first year, the department threw a party for one of the professors, Saul Bellow, to celebrate the fact that he had just won the Nobel Prize in Literature. This was the first time the new students had the opportunity to meet the faculty and other students.

Facing us as we entered the room was a homely cake on a table, the kind of cake that Americans buy from local bakeries for their children’s birthdays, on which the baker had written in gaudy icing, “Congratulations Saul!”

A group of new students including me stood at the side of the room feeling awkward and uncomfortable. Nobody offered to introduce us to the faculty; nobody paid any attention to us at all. The professors were talking to each other or the older students, and the older students were smiling sycophantically at the professors and trying desperately to attract their attention. It occurs to me now (and perhaps occurred to me then, I don’t remember) that some of the professors were getting a kind of egotistic pleasure by giving the older students less attention than they wanted and watching them intensify their efforts.

Eventually one of the new students, a young man named Dan Frank,* said with a tone of sudden determination, “I’m going over to Bellow and congratulate him.”

We watched Dan cross the room, walk up to Bellow, say something, and extend his hand. Bellow put his hands in his pockets, leaned back slightly, and sneered. Dan walked back to us. His face was white.

“What did you say to him?” we asked.

“Congratulations,” Dan said. His voice was trembling. “All I said was congratulations.”

At that moment Bellow was the most famous novelist in the world. Dan was nothing to Bellow except a student young enough to be his son. They had never met before.

Bellow’s sneer and refusal to shake Dan’s hand said: You aren’t worthy to congratulate me. You aren’t worthy to shake my hand. You are presumptuous. You overstep yourself.

I would like to ask the following question: What kind of man, finding himself in Bellow’s position — Nobel laureate, most celebrated author in the world — would behave this way?

There are several angles to that question. Here’s the one I’d like to focus on.

I think Bellow had very little awareness of his behavior, his motivations, or his impulses. When he hurt Dan’s feelings, he was an unreflective puppet controlled by his emotions. He barely knew what he was doing. It didn’t occur to him that he was doing something deplorable. Either he thought his action was appropriate or he was unaware of it.

If Bellow had been more conscious, the impulse to hurt Dan probably would not have arisen, but if it had he would have said to himself, “Only a contemptible jackass would refuse to shake this young man’s hand.” But Bellow didn’t say that to himself.

When I applied to be a student in that graduate program, I wanted to study famous old books because I hoped to find wisdom in them. I also hoped that the professors who study those books would be wise in the same way as the books. The first hope was fulfilled. The second, not so much.

Bellow was a world-famous intellectual but he lacked the most important, fundamental sort of wisdom: the ability to see himself and treat other people with kindness. In that respect, the most important respect, Bellow was a fool.

To call these things “wisdom” is a little misleading because it makes them sound like rarefied attainments. Every adult should know these things. Every child should learn them. They are the stuff of ordinary decency.

The reason I’m writing about this here on a website about enlightenment is that many gurus are like Bellow. They claim to be enlightened yet they treat their students in a hurtful, disrespectful, self-indulgent, unreflective, unkind way.

For the life of me, I cannot understand how anybody takes them seriously as gurus.

They flunked kindergarten yet they claim to know the supreme wisdom of the Cosmos.

It cannot be said often enough: The most important things are the simplest ones. Be aware, be kind. The rest is icing on the cake.

*I usually replace people’s names with pseudonyms when I write about their private lives here but Dan is dead and there’s nothing shameful or embarrassing in what he did so I’ve used his real name. He went on to have a prominent career as an editor.

4 thoughts to “Saul Bellow”

    1. I’m glad to know you like it. It was very encouraging to see this message from you so soon after I published it, after such a long time without any articles here. Thanks!

  1. I found this story very touching. Maybe because it summarises my doubts about society, and maybe because of my insistence on staying naive and humble despite getting older and despite the general trend in society on the contrary. I also found it comforting in seeing that I’m not alone.
    Thank you!

    1. Thanks for writing. I’m glad to know you’re still here. 🙂

      I know how you feel. No matter how we feel, we can try to be kind. We can be glowing lights in the fog. We can remain aware of love no matter what somebody is saying to us.

      Do you think people are less kind today than they used to be? I don’t know. Certainly people talk about it less. Do children still get taught “be kind,” “treat others as you would like to be treated,” etc.? Institutionalized religion has good and bad aspects but one thing that is very good about Christianity is love your neighbor, the golden rule, worry about the beam in your own eye, etc. In my country (the US) I suspect that the only morality that most children hear nowadays is “don’t be a racist,” “use the right pronouns,” etc. Not being a racist is a good thing but the golden rule already covered that and a lot more besides.

      The more fundamental way to solve the problem, I think, is for people to be more conscious, as I suggested above, but that isn’t a part of Western tradition. Even if it were, it’s hard to teach “be conscious” to people. Until people notice that they are asleep they can’t try to be more awake. They have no idea what you’re talking about. This is the weakness of mindfulness instruction in Buddhism. Originally the purpose of mindfulness meditation must have been “be conscious” but I doubt it usually has that effect. Maybe I’m wrong about that.

      I think maybe Jesus taught people to be more conscious (maybe that’s the meaning of his familiar instruction, “be vigilant”) but I don’t think we can recover Jesus’s teaching. I don’t think it got preserved through a living tradition. I think it got lost when Paul’s followers took over the early Church.

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