Boredom as a Political Weapon

Saul Bellow fought banality—and taught us to look hard at the world

Only one Saul Bellow novel has ever been filmed: Seize the Day, with Robin Williams, which Bellow himself co-wrote, and hated. The others are impossible to imagine as movies. Think of Herzog, the main action of which is a man thinking about writing letters (which are never sent) to friends and celebrities, an act of self-therapy and secular confession. There is a car chase of sorts at the end. But it’s a story that takes place in the head, mostly. Humboldt’s Gift, too, the book which brought Bellow the 1976 Nobel Prize in Literature, in which the main character, Charlie Citrine, mostly thinks about but never quite gets around to writing a long essay on boredom. No car chase.

“We are told much and shown little in the course of the narrative,” John Updike wrote of Bellow’s 1982 novel, The Dean’s December, as quoted in the second volume of Zachary Leader’s detailed and confident biography of Bellow, “and if Bellow’s eye is still magical his ear seems dulled, allowing the voice of exposition to overwhelm the voices of character.”

It had always been thus for Saul Bellow and his fiction: he liked to think and talk. There were important, even life-and-death things, to think and talk about. And the urgency to think and talk only grew as the author got older. The older Bellow is the subject of Leader’s new book, which covers the Canadian-born writer’s life from 1965, a year after the novel Herzog is published, to his death at 89 in 2005.

The writer and critic John Gardner complained, as Jeffrey Eugenides points out in an introduction to Humboldt’s Gift (published in 1975, when its author was 60), about Bellow’s way of “leaning his characters against the wall” while he “lectures to a favourite graduate student.” The favourite posture of the Bellow character, Eugenides adds, is not so much leaning against the wall but on the couch: alone, with his thoughts (and it’s always a “he”) on the verge of enlightenment or nap, coming to terms, in Citrine’s case, with “children, courts, lawyers, Wall Street, sleep, death, metaphysics, karma, the presence of the universe in us, our being present in the universe itself.”

It’s tiring work, being Charlie Citrine. Same with reading him. But if you’re a Bellow fan you can’t stop. The Bellow novel has the feel of a very slow sporting event (say, soccer) where we can’t know what will happen next but it might be good. There are rewards.

But Hollywood yawns. You can’t film this stuff. The closest a mainstream film has come to the Bellow style may be Margarethe von Trotta’s 2012 biopic of Hannah Arendt. It’s a slow movie, but smart, important. The title character likewise spends a lot of screen time on the couch thinking, and smoking (there’s a lot of smoking), coming to terms with (or at least approaching the meaning of) death, metaphysics, and karma in the context of Adolf Eichmann’s 1961 war crimes trial in Jerusalem. There she cooks up a controversial concept: the banality of evil; the dull, workaday, bureaucratic process of genocide. It’s a movie about a philosopher philosophizing. She lies down, smokes, stares at the ceiling.

Funny that von Trotta’s Arendt is a Bellovian character. Bellow himself never cared for the real Arendt. “The trouble,” he wrote to Leon Wieseltier in 1982, “is that her errors were far more extensive than her judgment…she was monumentally vain, and a rigid akshente.” (Yiddish for “ballbuster”, according to the published Letters but also translated as “impossible woman.”)  In his novel Mr. Sammler’s Planet, he calls her out directly, as one “making use of a tragic history to promote the foolish ideas of Weimar intellectuals.” In Bellow novels, stories, and the rare plays, real world scores are settled, with real world political foes, the intellectually lazy, critics, pundits, and, seemingly on every turn of page, an ex-wife and her lawyers, of which there were many. In lesser hands the result would be tedious, bellyaching. In lesser hands they are tedious: six volumes of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s real-to-life adventures almost but not quite living up to the requirements of interesting anecdote can show, by contrast, the uncanny effect of Saul Bellow’s fiction in that he ignites incident into art. He has an eye for the world not unlike Arendt’s: his subject is the dull, workaday, bureaucratic process of living. For both Bellow and Arendt the stakes were high. There are big questions. How do we find meaning in a hostile world?

“Suppose,” Charlie Citrine thinks, to himself and the reader of Humboldt’s Gift, “that you began with the proposition that boredom was a kind of pain caused by unused powers, the pain of wasted possibilities or talents.” Citrine is a Pulitzer-winning playwright and, as usual, the Bellow surrogate. Zachary Leader, in two volumes of biography (the first, The Life of Saul Bellow: To Fame and Fortune, 1915–1965 was published in 2016), has had great fun lining up the real and fictional worlds of Saul Bellow to show in plain light how they match: every character has a real-life counterpart. Von Humboldt Fleisher is the poet who goes mad, a relic of an America when art mattered at least as much as commerce. Von Humboldt Fleisher is also Delmore Schwartz, the American poet and friend of Bellow’s who died in 1966 at 52 after a struggle with mental illness. In the book Von Humboldt Fleisher is a nuisance. But he’s a nuisance in the style of Shakespeare’s ghosts: he is trying to tell Charlie something important. What happened to the world, he seems to be asking, that people ignore art, each other, the things that used to matter? Why are people so dull, so bored?

Citrine works on his project, a treatise on boredom. Why boredom? Because Bellow is interested in the subject. So what is boredom? One is invited to pull up a chair: this may take a while. Citrine is thinking. He makes notes. This, for a Bellow book, is what passes as action. For starters, thinks Citrine, history is instructive. Take Lenin. Lenin was boring. He wrote pamphlets and held meetings. Then, briefly, came the fire, as Citrine notes, “all passion, all radiant interest.” A revolution. And the Russian Revolution, he thinks, “promised mankind a permanently interesting life…Workers peasants soldiers were in a state of excitement and poetry.” But it doesn’t last. Russia after 1917 is the “most boring society in -history. Dowdiness shabbiness dullness dull goods boring buildings boring discomfort boring supervision a dull press dull education boring bureaucracy forced labour perpetual police presence penal presence, -boring part congresses, etcetera,” the playful dispensation with punctuation a way of underscoring the point: life is but a list. Permanent revolution à la Trotsky? “What was permanent,” thinks Citrine, “was the defeat of interest.”

This of course is Bellow leaning Charlie Citrine against a wall and talking to a favourite graduate student (he flatters us) about what concerns him. This is the artist’s prerogative. Bellow is interested in the subject. He writes about it elsewhere.

“We are in a state of radical distraction,” he writes in “A World Too Much with Us,” an essay for the journal Critical Inquiry, in 1975, the same year Humboldt’s Gift appears. “I don’t see how we can be blind to the political character of our so-called ‘consumer’ societies. Each of us stands in the middle of things, exposed to the great public noise…All minds are preoccupied with terror, crime, the instability of cities, the future of nations, crumbling empires, foundering currencies, the poisoning of nature…To recite the list is itself unsettling.” (T.S. Eliot could no longer read the daily paper, Bellow writes. “It was too exciting.”) The list is unsettling. But familiar, too.

We’re living it, again and always. This is what Bellow is driving at with Charlie Citrine’s imagined project on boredom. Crises tend to pile up, repeat themselves. The more crises you have in your morning news, the longer the list of frustrations, the eyes inevitably glaze over. It’s the experience of Stalin’s Russia: nothing is interesting and at any moment one might be shot in the back of the head, just another day on the Volga. “This combination of power and boredom has never been properly examined,” thinks Citrine in Humboldt’s Gift. “Boredom is an instrument of social control. Power is the power to impose boredom, to command stasis, to combine this stasis with anguish. The real tedium, deep tedium, is seasoned with terror and death.”

This is not the banality of evil, but the evil of banality.

The era of Donald Trump in America is one in which we can credit boredom as an instrument of social control. Timothy Snyder writes in The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America (2018) of “the politics of inevitability, a sense that the future is just more of the present, that the laws of progress are known, that there are no alternatives, and therefore nothing really to be done.” This is America of the twenty-first century: everything will work out, no reason to get involved. It is the politics of civic boredom. What we see now in Russia, Europe, and America is a subversive “politics of eternity,” an invented state of perpetual crisis. “Every new event,” writes Snyder, “[is] just one more instance of a timeless threat.” Likewise, there is no call for the lone citizen to do anything: it’s just the way things are. The effect is numbing. Politics is passive, a cringeworthy entertainment: like watching Say Yes to the Dress over and over.

In fiction, other writers besides Bellow present retroactive prophecy, too, if you’re inclined to look for it. David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest is the story of an entertainment so engrossing the viewer is unable to attend to life outside of it. It’s a story of addiction but Infinite Jest can also be seen as a parable of political disengagement: interest is drawn to the single, repetitive experience, that videocassette, and the rest is too boring to matter, which leaves the field open to boundless autocratic politics (Wallace’s American president, Johnny Gentle, is a former Vegas entertainer and known germaphobe who quietly turns the northeastern United States into a hazardous waste zone while the electorate is busy not paying attention). Also, anything by Samuel Beckett: the world is absurd, nothing to be done but to sit and wait.

Bellow’s ideas seem to prefigure modern politics: how power manages a stunned electorate, or what we’ve agreed to define as an electorate, a minority of the hysterical who “vote” out of imagined grievance, for the sake of the theatrics. The rest stay home. They are bored with the same nonsense over and over. They may claim to be horrified, or excited like T.S. Eliot with his morning paper, but they have heard it all by now. In the American narrative they’ve agreed to move on to other distractions: a racist president, a president who calls African-American reporters “stupid,” an administration that uses doctored videos as propaganda, a politics of lying and repetition: these things despite our graces become tedious, a “deep tedium…seasoned with terror and death,” if you’re in the mood to trace lines to Saul Bellow’s cynicism. It’s dark stuff.

In this context, Bellow followed the work of Rudolf Steiner, an Austrian idealist, reformer, pseudo-philosopher, and “esotericist” (meaning, a proponent of non-traditional religious mysticism along the lines of Madame Blavatsky and what will be known as the New Agers) who spoke of a connection between the natural and spiritual worlds, not unlike the Romantic poets. In Humboldt’s Gift Charlie Citrine is also a follower of Rudolf Steiner. “I have the idea,” thinks Citrine, looking out the window of an airplane in flight, “that, as well as beholding, I can also be beheld from yonder and am not a discrete object but incorporated with the rest…For what is this sea, this atmosphere, doing within the eight-inch diameter of your skull?”

Here is Bellow’s antidote to the evil of banality: to think more, to look hard at the world instead of looking away. This is where Zachary Leader finds the key to Charlie Citrine, and by definition to Saul Bellow himself. “What Charlie looks for in Steiner and other mystical writers,” Leader writes, “is corroborating evidence, support for what he knows is true” (Leader’s italics). There is something more beyond the body and brain, but is only of note in relation to a specific body and brain, that of Charlie Citrine, or Saul Bellow. In short: Bellow is supremely interested in the view as seen from Saul Bellow, and in a religion or personal philosophy that confirms in advance what Saul Bellow already believes. That’s solipsism. So what makes it literature? That’s the magic we can only sense, the tingle in the spine as Nabokov describes it. Bellow’s divorces are of no real interest to you and me but Moses Herzog’s are part of an American literary history and what’s weird is they are both the same thing.

Boredom as a political weapon: it’s a headful. It is compelling nonsense (we know that civic engagement will turn things around in America, don’t we? It’s just a matter of sitting back, waiting for the return of the inevitable per Snyder, and watching Say Yes to the Dress), and it’s mostly the author blowing off steam or even challenging himself to a fight: can we fight evil just by understanding it? That was Arendt’s question too. The problem with all this thinking, and Bellow in his way was wise to it, is that the eight-inch diameter of one man’s skull is a small place indeed, if that’s all he cares about. “For me the self-conscious ego is the seat of boredom,” writes Bellow as Charlie Citrine in Humboldt’s Gift, seemingly responding to his future biographer, as if to say those narcissists (not me, of course) are the problem after all. “For to be fully conscious of oneself as an individual is also to be separated from all else. This is Hamlet’s kingdom of infinite space in a nutshell, of ‘words, words, words.’ ”

Bellow liked to talk and think, talk and think. So that’s what his characters do. “Once you begin talking,” says Artur Sammler in Mr. Sammler’s Planet, “once the mind takes this way of turning, it keeps turning…But what can one do? The thoughts continue turning.” One can write them down where they’ll present, mostly, as mere “words, words, words,” in a walnut-sized world of self-absorption, or, in the case of Saul Bellow, they somehow become art. The fact that his fiction feels so familiar, now, in this political moment, thirteen years after his death, is uncanny, but that’s how art works too: it takes place not in the author’s head but in ours. Like a movie.