Thursday, June 25, 2009

Still, with the Bellow

I have a whole cavalcade of quotes from Humboldt's Gift that I wanted to write down somewhere before I returned the book to the library, so I figured here is as good as anywhere. The whole book is so imminently quotable it's ridiculous. The man was profound and so earnest. Earnestness seems to be a rare commodity sometimes in our oh-so-snark-a-rific modern culture, and there is reason for that. One of earnestness' companions is often naivete. And Bellow on a certain level of practical living exemplifies the problems of earnestness in his characters. I don't want to mix up the man and his characters, but Charlie Citrine (the narrator and hero of H.G.) is a twice won pullitizer prize winning author, so perhaps a certain level of mixedupness is understandable.

The story is happening on two levels really. There's the plotted craziness that is a mainstay of Bellow's. His stories are always wild and crazy, but there's also this journey of the mind. His mind wanders through the hallways of philosophy, art, science, and ends in a mysticality he calls anthroposophy, which is apparently a term for the philosophy of Rudolph Steiner (both this word and this person were entirely new to me). Charlie C rejects rationality to a degree, but then doesn't reject it. Mostly he wants a deeper experience of living, and he goes into strange spiritualist practices to try and find this thing.

Because, of course, like the rest of us and especially like American society in the '70ies when Bellow wrote this book, Charles Citrine is finding himself experiencing a certain blaseness (with an accent on the e). Of course, as a highly emotional character with a deep intellect (I feel safe in saying this is something Bellow shares with his protagonists) this blaseness just peeps out at moments and manifests itself as this push into mysticism.

I've been reading William James' The Varieties of Religious Experience as well, and it has been quite unintentionally and synchronicitiously the ideal companion work of non-fiction for HG. One of the things James talks about is the experience of a presence, of which he chronicles many examples from various anthropological sources. This experience is just what it sounds like; A person feeling like someone else is present in the room when they are, in fact, alone.

Of course, my response to this idea is that it's surely a neurological phenomenon. The experience is in the brain, which does not mean that it's not real or valid or whatnot. It just means that this is some form of mental stimulation (how or where that mental stimulation comes from is another, more complicated question). The point I'm trying and failing to get at is that the spiritual and the religious are the means by which we can break the deadenings of the blase and reconnect with the power of the soul. Bellow's Citrine is all worked up about the fact that the soul is not to be dismissed as some relic of another time but is a real and useful concept. The reality of this soul, for me, is more in the experience of self that comes from the idea of an immortal spirit that both animates us and lives beyond our physical existence.

So, now I've gone all crazy tangential into a slight mysticism myself, but I think Emile Durkheim was right when he writes that religion has an incredible power to drive human existence (obviously, that's for both good and ill), and that the lessening of the spiritual in modernity is a potential loss of animating force within the self.

Oh right, quotes:

Artaud as the artist was a failed priest. Failed priests specialize in blasphemy.

The educated people of modern countries are a thinking rabble at the stage of what Marx called primitive accumulation. Their business is to reduce masterpieces to discourse. Artaud's scream is an intellectual thing. First, an attack on the nineteenth-century 'religion of art', which the religion of discourse wants to replace...

It seemed to me, however, that one might begin with this belief of the modern world-either you burn or you rot. This I connected with the finding of old Binet the psychologist that hysterical people had fifty times the energy, the endurance, the power of performance, the keenness of faculties, the creativity in their hysterical fits as they had in their quiet periods. Or as William James put it, human beings really lived when they lived at the top of their energies.

Someone has even written of an astronomer keeping droves of stars, the cattle of the mind, in the meadows of space. The imaginative soul works in that way, and why should poetry refuse to be knowledge?

He was definitively one of the great contemporary American novelists. Here's to earnest, profound authors who aren't afraid of the non-rational. May your soul live on forever Mr. Bellow.

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