It appears that The NY Times Book Review is shamelessly dumbing down for shallow readers in their “20s and 30s,” who are in fact at times symptoms of the modern malaise, not trendsetters who ought to be encouraged. Instead of accommodating PC drivel, The NY Times should be advising and encouraging them to strive to read and understand Saul Bellow.
Lowering literary standards further, though, ought to help corrupt corporate publishers, who have no standards but the bottom-line, using their ill-begotten wealth to pay for the exorbitant cost of advertising in The NY Times Book Review, and should make the plutocrats of Wall Street happy. Nothing like a dumb population to render them easy to control and rob… Bellow was a searing critic of media hacks throughout his novels and short stories. Perhaps that explains the betrayal.
Saul Bellow’s material isn’t a matter of fashion; it’s much of the foundation of anything worth calling civilization, despite the lack of defense, if not dismissal, by Sam Tanenhaus:
“For many he now belongs among the useless old gentlemen. Bellow admirers in their 20s and 30s are increasingly harder to find. “Humboldt wanted to drape the world in radiance, but he didn’t have enough material,” he wrote of one of his battered characters. Bellow had the material, in abundance, but it’s gone out of fashion. The great midcentury emancipator is now in danger of slipping into a forgotten past.”
Tanenhaus’ review makes clear he and The NY Times Book Review aren’t fit to touch Saul Bellow’s shoelace, let alone untie it.
See my essay “Saul Bellow’s Ravelstein–The Closing of the American Soul” in my book The Myth of the Enlightenment: Essays (2014) for a deeper reading of the importance of Bellow and my further comments about Bellow castigating the corrupt media. “Saul Bellow’s Soul” is in my book The Grove of the Eumenides (2007) and in Saul Bellow and the Struggle at the Center (AMS Press, 1996). https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0982677839
Let me discuss “The Silent Cry” and Kenzaburo Oe’s work in general by first sketching in a broader view of Kenzaburo Oe’s literary interests.
No other Japanese writer has seen as deeply into Yukio Mishima’s suicide and the “vacuum” of modern Japanese life as has the 1994 Nobel laureate in literature, Kenzaburo Oe:
“His death was a performance for the foreign audience, a very spectacular performance. The relationship between Mishima and the emperor system was rather dubious; the Japanese knew that. But from foreigners’ point of view–say, an American reader’s point of view–the Japanese emperor system is something inexplicable. Therefore, that final act by Mishima, tied in with the emperor system, appeared to be a kind of mystical thing. In actuality, he did it in order to entertain foreign readers.”
As in this excerpt from a 1986 interview, Oe, also influenced early on by Marxism and existentialism, especially Sartre, has had the vision and strength to confront in his writing not only the nostalgia of Mishima but also the past and present implications of the emperor system for Japan. In 1971 his novella “The Day He Himself Shall Wipe Away My Tears,” written just after Mishima’s suicide, courageously explores the nature and meaning of emperor worship. Having known Japanese students and friends who fiercely supported the emperor, loathed him, or were simply indifferent, with most falling into the last category, I believe it may be difficult for Americans to appreciate fully the scope of Oe’s achievement in this novella. Oe tried to convey the challenge of his theme when he wrote in an essay, “A man who criticises Mishima and his works must have the determination to criticise the total culture that orients itself toward the Imperial hierarchy.” Far from falling short of this determination, Oe creatively confronts the Japanese fascist and wartime past in “The Day He Himself Shall Wipe Away My Tears” and thereby truly serves the Japanese people and, I would argue, the emperor as well.
Oe grew up in a small village on the island of Shikoku where the events of “The Day He Himself Shall Wipe Away My Tears” and many of his stories take place. While in a Tokyo hospital dying of cancer, the persona narrates the densely complicated events of his father’s fervent devotion to the emperor, filtered through his own consciousness as a child and a mentally unbalanced adult recalling his “happy days.” His Japanese mother, who grew up in China, and whose own father was involved in the Daigaku Incident of 1910-11, an attempt to assassinate the emperor, believes her son has never been mentally stable since the age of three. Lying in his hospital bed, he recalls “hate-filled exchanges” between his mother and father about the role of his grandfather. Later in his life, she had always refused to discuss anything with her son about his father, a military official who returned from Manchuria a few years before the end of the war and who died attempting to lead an uprising in support of the emperor after his 1945 announcement of surrender on the radio. Respected by the village people, the father, suffering from cancer, secludes himself in the family storehouse. For the boy observing his father, he becomes a “kind of idol,” obedient to the emperor. After his older brother deserts in Manchuria, the boy shouts in defiance at his mother, “I don’t have no traitor’s blood in my veins”:
“Even now he could recall, with extreme vividness and reality . . . wanting to shout Long live the emperor! so that [his father] would acknowledge that it was his young son who was the true heir to his blood.”
Oe slowly leads the reader to the realization that the young boy has grown up to repeat the obsessions of the father, destroying himself in the process. When the mother, “a simple old country woman,” visits him as a thirty-five year old adult in the hospital, she struggles to no avail to get him to recognize what an absurd, cowardly figure his father actually was, while cancer literally and symbolically continues to eat him up. Near the end she says to the persona’s wife, whose own marriage and life have been ruined, “Sooner or later the Japanese are going to change their attitude about what happened, and I intend to live to see it, yessir! THIS IS THE DREAM. THIS MUST BE THE DREAM!” This is clearly the dream of Oe and many Japanese. He more than any other modern Japanese writer has had the courage to write fiction that might help Japan to accomplish it.
Also set mostly in Shikoku, The Silent Cry (1967), presents two brothers who return to their country village nestled in a valley. Although a dialectical struggle takes place between them, reminiscent of Dostoevski’s Brothers Karamazov, the older brother Mitsusaboro is the central figure of the novel, which is told from his point of view. In the opening paragraph, Mitsusaboro thinks to himself,
“Awakening in the predawn darkness, I grope among the anguished remnants of dreams that linger in my consciousness, in search of some ardent sense of expectation. Seeking in the tremulous hope of finding eager expectancy reviving in the innermost recesses of my being . . . still I find an endless nothing.”
He crawls into a hole dug for a septic tank and claws at the sides with his bare fingers trying to get the walls to cave in on himself. At the end of the summer his best friend, who had been injured in front of the Diet demonstrating against the Japan-US Mutual Security Treaty, had painted his head red, stuck a raw cucumber up the anus of his naked body, and hung himself. Mitsusaboro reflects, “And I too have the seeds of that same, incurable madness. . . .” Beginning in the hole, haunted by despair, madness, and nihilism, he gropes and searches throughout the novel for something worth living for. At dawn sticking his head up “two inches above the ground,” he notices,
“the backs of the dogwood leaves were a burning red… a red that reminded me of the flames in the picture of hell that I’d seen in our village temple every year on the Buddha’s Birthday. . . .
The Closing of the American Soul.
November 23, 2009.
When Saul Bellow’s novel Ravelstein was published in 2000, I did not rush out and buy a copy but closely followed the many reviews that began to appear. I had read almost all of Bellow’s work up to his last novel but felt for some reason that the time was not right to readRavelstein, despite my having ravenously devoured Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind when it had been published in 1987, and anything related to it. I trusted my intuition and attended to other interests, while more reviews continued to come out. Occasionally, I would stumble on one and read it, thinking Ravelstein was a book that I’d have to read someday. Then in 2005 I bought a copy when I happened upon it in a bookstore, but I didn’t read it. I put it on a shelf, waiting for the right moment. This fall, a year and a half into working on writing an epic poem, I realized I needed Saul Bellow’s help. I needed to know how things really stood with the Jews. Even more thanCommentary Magazine, I knew I could count on Saul Bellow to tell me the truth. He never lied to me in the past. I remembered Ravelstein and retrieved it. The right moment in the life of my soul had come….
ANN ARBOR—On September 22, 29, and October 6, the theatre company, Apollo’s Troupe, will stage the theater adaptation of the poem, The Parliament of Poets, written by Michigan poet Frederick Glaysher and published in 2012 by Earthrise Press. Continue reading →