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In the second part of his essay, “The Jewish Writer in America,” Saul Bellow notes that while the Jewish writer will always be a stranger, this doesn’t mean he is immune from the ethos and the age. It is the themes of immunity and assimilation that might interest those of us who identify with some robust notion of “being Reformed.”
First note that the “America” of Bellow’s title is less a place and more like a Gestalt, an idea, a state of mind and way of being. Actually, Bellow zooms out even wider than that: he sees something even bigger than “America” at work in the twentieth century: “the fate of the Jews in the twentieth century,” Bellow summarizes, “was to suffer the cruelties of nihilistic thought and nihilistic politics.” (This is the Bellow of Ravelstein, it seems to me, more than Augie March.) In that respect, “America” is just one more outpost of this zeitgeist–but it is the incarnation where Bellow lives. For Bellow, what defines this “nihilism” is the denial of any substantial “self.”
Let’s not be distracted by Bellow’s claims about nihilism or his reading of Heidegger. What interests us is his account of how the Jewish writer inhabits this zeitgeist. Bellow’s analysis reminds me of Charles Taylor’s account of the “malaise” of modernity that besets us all in our “secular age.” Even if you’re religious in this secular age, Taylor argues, you can’t help but be religious differently because of the ubiquity of the secular–the contestability of religious belief falls upon the just and the unjust. There are no isolated enclaves; just different ways of inhabiting the age.
Similarly, Bellow concedes that even if “the fate of the Jews in the twentieth century was to suffer the cruelties of nihilistic thought,” this doesn’t grant the Jewish writer any immunity:
I did not say that the Jews–the survivors and descendants themselves–escaped the desolate and empty picture of being that Barrett correctly tells us “is at work in our whole culture.” All of us living in the West must endure this desolation. The feelings it transmits, the motives it instills in us, the human states our surroundings make us familiar with, the invasive force of these states which we are constrained to submit to, the coloration they give to our personalities, the mutilations they inflict on us, the overwhelming shaping powers of a nihilism now commonplace do not spare anybody. The argument developing here, using me as its instrument, is that Jews, as such, are not exempt from these ruling forces of desolation. Jewish orthodoxy obviously claims immunity from this general condition but most of us do not share this orthodox conviction. Closely observed, the orthodox too are seen to be bruised by these ambiguities and the violence that our age releases impartially against us all.
(Bellow goes on to point out that neither are Israelis immune.) So there is no immunity–not even in enclaves and subcultures that seek purity and protection. They, too, will be “cross-pressured,” as Taylor puts it. Indeed, sometimes sub-cultures, confident in their seclusion and separation, end up replicating the majority culture just with a kitschy veneer of religiosity.
If immunity is impossible, then it seems we are left with no critique of assimilation. Resistance is futile. But that’s not quite Bellow’s conclusion. Notice the verb above: it is a question of endurance.
Indeed, Bellow states baldly: “I am not an assimilationist.” But he owns up to the complications: “I am an American writer and a Jew.” It’s the how of that “and” he’s trying to understand. Many of his contemporaries, he recognizes, wouldn’t even understand the question.
Nor would many of mine, I fear. “Being Reformed” is too regularly the banner under which we enthusiastically assimilate to “America.” “Being Reformed” is the warrant and rationale for our cultural engagement to the point that it becomes a license to have our cake and eat it, too. “Being Reformed” is the badge of our refusal to be fundamentalists or evangelicals or conservatives or “concordists” or what have you, which only gives us permission to happily assimilate to the spirit of the age (there are both “left” and “right” versions of this available).
If we learn anything from Saul Bellow, we might look for continuing education from Klaas Schilder.