Saul Bellow on the Writer's Voice

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Saul Bellow
Saul Bellow (1915-2005). (Ulf Andersen/Getty Images)

Canadian-born American writer Saul Bellow was one of the most accomplished novelists of the second half of the 20th century. He received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1976 and the National Medal of Arts in 1988. His novel Humboldt's Gift was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1976.

The subject of Bellow's Romanes Lecture (delivered at Oxford University in 1990), "The Distracted Public," is "the contemporary crisis" of distractionthe "hostile condition (massive and worldwide)" that writers and other artists "are called upon to overcome." In these two paragraphs from the end of the lecture, Bellow explains how the writer's voice can rise above "the moronic inferno" and bring us to attention.

from The Distracted Public*

by Saul Bellow

If the remission of pain is happiness, then the emergence from distraction is aesthetic bliss. I use these terms loosely, for I am not making an argument but rather attempting to describe the pleasure that comes from recognition or rediscovery of certain essences permanently associated with human life. These essences are restored to our consciousness by persons who are described as artists. I shall speak here of artists who write novels and stories, since I understand them better than poets or dramatists. When you open a novel—and I mean of course the real thing—you enter into a state of intimacy with its writer. You hear a voice or, more significantly, an individual tone under the words. This tone you, the reader, will identify not so much by a name, the name of the author, as by a distinct and unique human quality. It seems to issue from the bosom, from a place beneath the breastbone. It is more musical than verbal, and it is the characteristic signature of a person, of a soul. Such a writer has power over distraction and fragmentation, and out of distressing unrest, even from the edge of chaos, he can bring unity and carry us into a state of intransitive attention. People hunger for this. The source of their hunger is found in the aforementioned essences. In our times, those essences are forced to endure strange torments and privations. There are moments when they appear to be lost beyond recovery. But then we hear or read something that exhumes them, even gives them a soiled, tattered resurrection. The proof of this is quite simple, and everyone will recognize it as once. A small cue will suffice to remind us that when we hear certain words—"all is but toys," "absent thee from felicity," "a wilderness of monkeys," "green pastures," "still waters," or even the single word "relume"—they revive for us moments of emotional completeness and overflowing comprehension, they unearth buried essences. Our present experience of anarchy does not destroy this knowledge of essences, for somehow we find ways to maintain an equilibrium between these contradictories, and others as well.

But this is why the artist competes with other claimants to attention. He cannot compete in the athletic sense of the word, as if his objects were to drive his rivals from the field. He will never win a clear victory. Nothing will ever be clear; the elements are too mixed for that. The opposing powers are too great to overcome. They are the powers of an electrified world and of a transformation of human life the outcome of which cannot be foreseen.

Selected Works by Saul Bellow

  • The Adventures of Augie March, novel (1953)
  • Herzog, novel (1964)
  • Mr. Sammler's Planet, novel (1970)
  • Humboldt's Gift, novel (1975)
  • To Jerusalem and Back, essays (1976)
  • It All Adds Up, essays (1994)

* Saul Bellow delivered "The Distracted Public" as a Romanes Lecture at Oxford University on May 10, 1990. The lecture was published in It All Adds Up: From the Dim Past to the Uncertain Future, by Saul Bellow (Viking Penguin, 1994).