What is The New Yorker? I know it’s a great magazine and that it’s a tremendous source of pleasure in my life. But what exactly is it? This blog’s premise is that The New Yorker is a work of art, as worthy of comment and analysis as, say, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Each week I review one or more aspects of the magazine’s latest issue. I suppose it’s possible to describe and analyze an entire issue, but I prefer to keep my reviews brief, and so I usually focus on just one or two pieces, to explore in each the signature style of its author. A piece by Matthew Trammell is not like a piece by James Wood, and neither is like a piece by Peter Schjeldahl. One could not mistake Finnegan for Frazier, or Lepore for Paumgarten, or Goodyear for Khatchadourian. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Mendelson's Moralism

Edward Mendelson, in his “Old Saul and Young Saul” (The New York Review of Books, September 26, 2013), sets out a quote from James Wood’s “Sins of the Father” (The New Yorker, July 22, 2013) and calls it “immoral.” Mendelson writes,

Bellow’s literary heirs like to imagine him as a nineteenth century artist-hero, beyond good and evil, exempted from all other obligations by the service demanded of his art. One reviewer who savaged Greg Bellow’s book argued that Saul had

struggled to create something out of nothing, and had to justify that scandalous magic in conventional, unmagical, mid-century America. This justification expressed itself all too often as self-justification, and the storm of assertion cleared a brutal path…. In two or three generations, that story will have faded from memory, outlived by what it enabled.

It was of course Bellow’s brutal actions that “cleared a brutal path,” not his self-justifying “storm of assertion” about them, and these sentences argue for a fantasy of writing as “scandalous magic,” a godlike creation ex nihilo (a “nothing” that was in fact crowded with living wives and friends), and a fantasy of brutality as something that only the boring bourgeois recoil from. Like all immoral arguments, it is also illogical, relying as it does on the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy that Bellow’s brutality “enabled” his writing rather coexisting with it or diminishing it. Had Bellow done less damage in life he might have written even better novels, without the preening and point-scoring that disfigure most of his later books.

Can the writing justify the life? Some say yes, others say no. For example, John Updike, in his “On Literary Biography” (Due Considerations, 2007) sides with the ayes. He says, “If literary biography enhances our access to literature, populating its annals with graspable, provocative personalities, then it does perform, I suppose, useful work; but in deflecting our attention from the work itself, the work in its necessary aloofness and autonomy, literary biography participates in the curious modern deconstructive neutering of art, which discredits its testimony and belittles its practitioners.”

Cynthia Ozick also chooses the perfection of the work over the messiness of the life. In her great “Justice (Again) to Edith Wharton” (Art & Ardor, 1983), she writes,

But we know, and have always known (Freud taught us only how to reinforce this knowledge), that the secret self is the true self, that obsession is confession. For Edith Wharton that is the only acceptable evaluation, the only possible justice. She did not doubt her allegiance. The writing came first…. Otherwise she can be defined only by the horrific gyrations of “a life” – by the spiraling solipsism and tragic drift that led to her small dogs instead of babies, servants instead of family, high-minded male distance instead of connubial friendship, public virtue instead of private conscience, infatuation instead of the love that sticks. Only the writing board could justify these ugly substitutions. And some would say – myself not among them – that not even the writing board justified them.

In condemning Wood’s position as “immoral,” Mendelson goes too far. He fails to acknowledge the competing views – “the work in its necessary aloofness and autonomy” (Updike), “Only the writing board could justify these ugly substitutions” (Ozick) – that complicate the choice between the perfection of the work and the life. Mendelson’s moralism diminishes his credibility.

Credit: The above portrait of Saul Bellow is by David Levine.

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