Sven Birkerts Ladder Essay





APRIL 2, 2015

SVEN BIRKERTS: Why did you decide to write about Bellow’s essays in the form of a self-interview? Isn’t that displacing the focus just a bit?

SVEN BIRKERTS: Maybe so, yes. But the idea came to me as a kind of default after I had been beating my head against the standard, familiar thing — you know: hook, overview, bits of excerpt, some wrangling, some praise, followed by the larger pronouncement … I felt I just could not do it one more time. Then I remembered that Bellow had conducted a self-interview (included in this very collection) and something clicked. The form offers certain advantages, the main one being that you can break against the prescribed structure and meander to the things that are more interesting, as happens in good conversation. 

But what about fulfilling your reviewer’s responsibility?

I own that there is a certain shirking of the task going on. Which would normally be unconscionable. But this seemed an exception. And here’s my reasoning: first, there’s no need to be arguing for Bellow’s literary status — he is one of our confirmed greats, a Nobelist, admired by his fellow writers the world over. The essays in this book have been published and published again; not only in their original journals like Partisan Review, The Atlantic Monthly, The American Scholar, and The New Yorker, but in previous books. They’ve been reviewed and discussed and —

It sounds like you’re saying “what’s the point?”

I guess I am. On the other hand, there’s always a point in writing about a great writer. That’s what being a great writer means — that he or she can (and ought to) always be written about. Which leads me around to my other rationale for these proceedings: reading the essays had me dropping in on some of the novels — and as I did, my brain started getting revved up in the unique way that it does when I get near that side of Bellow, as if there really is simply too much to think about. (I was, it seemed, living out the feeling of the title of the collection.) I was being overrun — like in those old movies when the attacking multitudes finally put their crude ladders up against the castle walls and swarm over everything. (Well, that’s a bit dramatic …)

Okay, stop justifying — you’re obviously going to free-associate. But let me ask you something — to see if it might direct you. What do you mean when you say your brain was “getting revved up in the unique way it does when [you] get near that side of Bellow”?

What did I mean … Well — I love Bellow. Have always loved Bellow. Because he gets me going. Because he’s an enthusiast like no other, at least in his novels. He’s a man of unruly excess sentiment, a comic with a sense of the cosmos; a romantic sensualist, a lover of the sentence, the image; a man swept up by historical imagination, a reader —

So you’re saying that when you get caught up in all that, the voice, you feel excited, awake to things. But if that’s true —

Wait — I’d better clarify. When I said “that side of Bellow” I was talking about the novels and the stories — the fiction. That’s the Bellow that gets me going, not so much the essayist —

But —

I know, I know, I’m here to talk about the essays. Except I don’t want to, mea culpa … Yes, no question, the essays are smart and broadly thoughtful. They take up the big cultural topics of their and our day, offer up all kinds of reflections on the future of the novel, the dangers of a mechanized society, the importance of imagination. And they do it with a great range of historical reference. He’s always bringing in Hegel and Weber and de Tocqueville and Ortega y Gasset, and developing these important syntheses. But I’ll confess: whenever I see a synthesis coming I want to turn and run. Even when it’s a synthesis from a writer I admire as much as Bellow.

You don’t like ideas.

Ideas? Ideas are okay. Ideas are pretty much inescapable, right? What I don’t usually like is a certain language of ideas. And it’s this language — I feel I’ll be struck down for saying this — that I encounter over and over in Bellow-the-essayist.

As opposed to —

As opposed to what I find in the novels. I feel like Bellow-the-novelist is a kind of counterweight to the other — an embodied critique of Bellow-the-essayist. What I don’t understand is how Bellow-the-novelist, who is to me the greater of the two, doesn’t seem to get this himself. Bellow-the-essayist is relatively humorless. He is earnest, serious, somewhat pontificating. I can sometimes feel the other Bellow in the wings — he can’t be completely repressed; he makes little cameos in the essays. He says things like: “Eros manages somehow to survive analysis; and somehow imagination survives criticism.” This observation coming even as he engages for long stretches in what feels very much like just such criticism. Or else: “Not professional study but imagination keeps imagination alive.” Clearly he “gets” the power and nature of imagination.

The “earnest, serious” Bellow … Interesting. Can you get us in closer?

Sure. For example, here he is being just that way in an essay called “Machines and Storybooks: Literature in the Age of Technology,” from 1974:

This is the quintessence of the tradition of the new. By attaching itself to technology, “newness” achieves a result longed for by those thinkers of the last century who were oppressed by historical consciousness. Karl Marx felt in history the tradition of all the dead generations weighing like a nightmare on the brain of the living. Nietzsche speaks movingly of the tyranny of “it was,” and Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus also defines history as a “nightmare from which we are trying to awaken.” The vision of freedom without conditions, a state of perfect and lucid consciousness into which we are released by technological magic from all inertias, is a sort of romance, really, a French intellectual’s paradise.

No question, it’s perfectly good stuff. Important ideas, necessary references, a lucid explanatory diction. And there is such a very great deal of it in these essays. It almost does not matter the topic, for after a certain setting up of whatever is his pretext, he shifts into cruise control — the forward motion of thinking. Eloquent concept language. Which, I will keep insisting, is perfectly fine. It’s just that it’s not the language of the other, the imagining Bellow. Who would never use phrases like “the tradition of the new” and “oppressed by historical consciousness.”

So then why do you suppose he wrote so much in this more “pontificating” style?

Why? I think he was smitten with ideas, and with the fantasy of a culture of the likewise smitten. He cut his teeth early on debating with his artist-intellectual friends, like Isaac Rosenfeld and Delmore Schwartz, and then later Edward Shils and Allan Bloom, and the whole Partisan crowd. That style — critical, historical, issue-based, synthesis-seeking — was the lingua franca, the house style: a contentious, ginned-up drone, equal parts philosophy, psychoanalysis, art-and-culture critique. Lionel Trilling, Irving Howe, Alfred Kazin, James Baldwin, Mary McCarthy, Edmund Wilson … I don’t think Bellow could stay away. He was playing for their approval, their esteem, and it could just be that for all of his protestations about imagination, he did not believe they took his art as seriously as they took his intellectualized essaying. 

And your evidence?

It’s in the novels — in Herzog, Humboldt’s Gift, The Dean’s December, Ravelstein — the protagonist is always a misfit, a man too befuddled by his emotions and inner (human) contradictions to pursue the life of the mind as he feels it should be pursued. He places himself in an essentially comic relation to that high-mindedness. And that feels truer — at least to this reader.

But why?

I come back to the language — how the language makes me feel. When I’m reading the best of Bellow-the-novelist, I feel I’m in direct contact with the stuff of living. Not just the things of the world, but the thoughts and emotions that living elicits, that are alive. Here, for example, in Humboldt’s Gift — and I truly just opened randomly and put down my finger — he writes:

The sun still shone beautifully enough, the blue was wintry, of Emersonian haughtiness, but I felt wicked […] Very good, Humboldt, you made it in American culture as Hart Schaffner & Marx made it in cloaks and suits, as General Sarnoff made it in communications […] As, according to Dr. Johnson, dogs made it on their hind legs and ladies in the pulpit — exceeding their natural limits curiously.

I read a passage like this and it gives me the willies — the good kind of willies. I feel that clear tuning-fork vibration. And in that vibration, if only for sustained moments, I lose that sense of dividedness that is like a perpetual haunt. Reading the essays, on the other hand, I find I am immediately put at several orders of remove from everything. There is a place for this, sure. But when I try to sort my preferences — what I need to read, what I want from a writer — the difference matters.

So you put Bellow-the-essayist below Bellow-the-novelist?

Yes, I do. And I take that ranking, what accounts for it, as my basis for approaching this new collection. Which I admire greatly, could quote from liberally, agree with significantly … But truth be told, I was never not wishing as I read that the author would take off his jacket, roll up his sleeves, go at things with that two-handed exuberance he invokes at the very beginning of The Adventures of Augie March, that “I want!” that his Henderson calls out … I wanted that slant on ideas that is the slant of a troubled and passionate individual, not a savant speaking from on high.

So let’s look more at this other, to-you-more-interesting Bellow. Can you elaborate a bit?

Sure. Here’s another passage, one that gives a good angle on what I’m talking about. Listen to the syncopation, hear the shifts. It’s from Herzog, the strangest of novels — a novel that sat on the bestseller list for months when it first came out. That popularity is itself interesting — because delightfully comic as the novel is, you need to have both hands on the wheel when you read. Tune in for a moment to Moses Herzog as he carries on one of his anarchic inner monologues:

But how as he to describe this lesson? The description might begin with his wild internal disorder, or even with the fact that he was quivering. And why? Because he let the entire world press upon him. For instance? Well, for instance, what it means to be a man. In a city. In a century. In transition. In a mass. Transformed by science. Under organized power. Subject to tremendous controls […] The beautiful supermachinery opening a new life for innumerable mankind. Would you deny them the right to exist? Would you ask them to labor and go hungry while you enjoyed delicious old-fashioned Values? You — you yourself are a child of this mass and a brother to all the rest. Or else an ingrate, dilettante, idiot. There, Herzog, thought Herzog, since you ask for the instance, is the way it runs. On top of that, an injured heart, and raw gasoline poured on the nerves. And to this, what does Ramona answer? She says, get your health back. Mens sana in corpore sana. Constitutional tension of whatever origin needed sexual relief. Whatever the man’s age, history, condition, knowledge, culture, development, he had an erection. Good currency anywhere. Recognized by the Bank of England. Why should his memories injure him now? Strong natures, said F. Nietzsche, could forget what they could not master.

This is, in my view, the real thinking Bellow. The other, the essayist, is a man looking to impress with his argumentation and reference; the real Bellow is a man well aware that he’s tethered to a self, a life — a messy life — and that ideas are not faits accomplis, but parts of a process, evidence of the mind shredding away at experience personal and public. I respond to the off-kilter, Human Comedy stuff, people tangled up in messes of their own making, aware of their terrible complicity, moaning and groaning, and then come those wry little one-liners: “Good currency anywhere.” You feel the writer trusting — and using — his after-thoughts.

It’s thinking, but thinking imbued in every syllable with the temper — the soul — of the person doing the thinking. The staccato, the sudden flips from abstract to personal, that velocity you feel of someone in a mind fugue who is right on the verge of tripping on his own shoelaces. I’m saying that as a reader I get a greater sense of truth from this than from that more dutiful prose in the essays. That prose is, as noted, very good — expansive, aphoristic, trenchant — it has everything but the thing that made Bellow a genius.

Which is

Which is the feeling that there is hot human blood running through the veins of the prose.

Do you think of Bellow as a writer with a wide and diverse tonal range, or are you suggesting something more like a split personality?

Well, I’m no psychologist.

You’re going to let that stop you?

From offering an opinion? Of course not! But I don’t have background enough to venture a theory — which is probably just as well, a theory being yet another kind of synthesis. But listen, here’s a funny thing, and it’s right to the point. This morning I was poking around on the internet and I landed on an article by the critic Lee Siegel. Just out. About his great admiration of Bellow — prompted by this current wave of Bellow publications (the essays, a big new biography, another volume in the Library of America series). Siegel gets right to what for him is the great Bellow paradox — how this writer who was so hugely admired and beloved by so many could also have spouted increasingly conservative views as he got older. Bellow, the man who got the mercury of the yearning life force into his characters … Well, it’s a familiar business — we see it with Larkin, T.S. Eliot, Kingsley Amis … right?

But I was reading that and thinking of the things that I’ve been saying here, and I heard a distinct click in my head. I thought: here I’ve been wrestling with the idea of these two Bellows — in terms of their prose. And now we have Lee Siegel, a man deeply versed in the work — who also met the author in later years — and he’s wrestling from his side with another version of this. Bellow the soulful life-lover, Bellow the conservative. And I’m suddenly connecting the Bellow of the public essay prose with the Bellow of those positions, the Bellow who palled around with that conservative instigator Allen Bloom, who centered his last novel, Ravelstein, on him — and against that Bellow I’m setting up the lyric Bellow, voice of all those wised-up suffering characters, from Henderson to Herzog to Humboldt. Doesn’t it seem that there’s a struggle going on — in him? You read Herzog saying “You — you yourself are a child of this mass and a brother to all the rest. Or else an ingrate, dilettante, idiot.” That, I believe, is Bellow channeling the voice of a man at odds with himself, at odds between what he reasons and what he feels.

You’re saying, in essence, that it’s the Bellow of the novels we should heed; that the creator of characters is somehow deeper or truer than the synthesizer of all those ideas?

I’m saying that I read the novels with heart and head. I trust the language. I’m emotionally engaged and I’m moved to thought. Whereas when I read the essays I mark the margins with a pencil. I think the imagination embodies more of a writer than does the intellect, and when intellect and imagination fuse, as they sometimes do in Bellow’s fiction … This is just a reader’s instinct, of course. But I know, as I read something, how fully it possesses me, how much it reaches me in ways that are consequential, that might actually affect my life.

Last question: how do you think Bellow himself reconciled these aspects of himself?

How can I, or anyone, presume to answer? I did once meet the man, when he was very old. He was in his last year of teaching at Boston University, and I interviewed him for the literary journal AGNI. By then — so it seemed to me — he was not so interested in taking any polemical positions, but neither was he that caught up in the antic sensuous immediacy that gives those great novels their special pulse. No, he was onto last things, matters of the spirit. I was keen to get him to reflect on these things, but he shied. When I pushed just a bit, he said, “If just you and I were having a conversation, I’d be willing to talk about this, but if it’s going to be in print I don’t want to … because it’s too close to —”

I waited for that next word, you can bet I did. But he was just not going to go public with it.

“It …”This — the unknown — sounds like a good place to stop, doesn’t it?

It does.

¤

Sven Birkerts is the author of The Other Walk and other collections of essays. His book Changing the Subject: Art and Attention in the Internet Age will be published later this year.


“More than revealing the insights he obtains through contemplation, Birkerts sheds light on the process of allowing connections to fuel ruminations that lead to a greater understanding of self. Readers will delight in the humor and insights conveyed in these enchanting and well-crafted essays.” ―Publishers Weekly, starred review

“Like a modern-day Proust, though at blessedly shorter length, Birkerts's keen eye and sinuous prose are triggered time and again by the humblest of objects. . . . [The Other Walk] should be picked up, reread and savored for its expressive beauty and its gentle reminder that we can find life's fullness amid its most inconsequential moments.” ―Shelf Awareness

“One of America's finest literary critics brings us 45 short autobiographical pieces meditating on the necessity and delight of quiet contemplation in a busy existence. . . . Sven Birkerts's thoughtful and elegant pensées reveal the enchantment awaiting anyone who slows down long enough to look.” ―The Barnes & Noble Review

“Birkerts' essays, many of them about fatherhood, some about his Latvian heritage, are full of the passage of time--nostalgia, regret, melancholy. . . . In each essay, he looks for 'the prompt, the sliver, the bit of grit that grows the pearl.' He looks for the 'smallest detail in the heart of the day.'” ―Newsday

“[Birkerts] is one of the foremost essayists working today. He doesn't care about seeming cool or sounding smart; he writes what he thinks. In this new gathering, he combines his typically astute literary criticism with personal essays about his first post-college job at Borders Books in Ann Arbor, Michigan; the night he learned to play chess; and his reflections on Saul Bellow.” ―Chicago Tribune

“In his latest collection of [essays], Birkerts remains astute, witty and surprisingly sentimental. . . . It's impossible to read these close-to-the-ground essays without reminiscing on one's own past, connecting the dots between possessions and emotions, say, or reconciling memories of old lovers and friends with the way things turned out.” ―Kirkus Reviews

“Critic, memoirist, and all-around man of letters Birkerts is a virtuoso of the short essay. Each of the 45 concentrated, autobiographical meditations in this evocative volume offers a glimpse into the evolution of a writer's sensibility, both in the memories and the vignettes they preserve and in Birkerts' caressing of language and the pursuit of meaning. . . . Birkerts' poetic dispatches portray a life of fruitful steadfastness and inevitable change.” ―Booklist

“Very much about making connections between the vast details of life, time becomes as central a character across these essays as Birkerts himself. His voice is one marked--for the better--by time. . . . This is not a voice of lamentation or complaint. [Birkerts] is honest and straightforward, at times humorous and at others surprisingly sentimental, but always unapologetic.” ―Ploughshares

“The Other Walk comprises 45 short pieces . . . and with each, Birkerts considers his route with a keen eye, wit, and spare, elegant prose. . . . He succeeds in guiding us into his head, allows us to take his measure, then leaves us feeling as if we have traveled somewhere new.” ―NewPages

“Birkerts doesn't overwhelm with nostalgia but invites us into that part of his past to observe and slowly begin to understand our author and the events that have shaped him. . . . It is easy to settle into these stories and feel at home.” ―San Francisco Book Review

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