The Distracted Public: Saul Bellow on How Writers and Artists Save Us from the “Moronic Inferno” of Our Time
By Maria Popova
In 1990, fourteen years after he received the Nobel Prize in Literature and the Pulitzer Prize, and two years after being awarded the National Medal of Arts, Saul Bellow (June 10, 1915–April 5, 2005) delivered a lecture at Oxford University titled “The Distracted Public.” Eventually included in It All Adds Up: From the Dim Past to the Uncertain Future (public library), Bellow’s talk laments the “moronic inferno” — a phrase he borrowed from Wyndham Lewis — produced by the “contemporary crisis” of distraction, “the apocalypse of our times,” calling on artists and writers to raise their voices in countering that “massive and worldwide” “hostile condition” of humanity.
Bellow begins by considering the role of the artist — the writer — in society, and in societies of various regimes:
The writer cannot make the seas of distraction stand still, but he [or she] can at times come between the madly distracted and the distractions. He [or she] does this by opening another world. “Another world,” I am fully aware, carries suggestions of never-never land, and people will be asking themselves how seriously any man can be taken who still believes that the moronic inferno can be put behind us, bypassed or quarantined by art. It isn’t as though the champions of art had won any great victories. Madame Bovary dies of arsenic, and Flaubert the artist-chronicler is dangerously wounded too. Tales of love and death can be mortal to the teller. Yet for many people … the abandonment of art cannot happen. Dictatorships did not succeed in frightening artists to death, nor has democracy done them in altogether, although some observers consider democracy to be by far the greater threat. In the West, Stalinism is sometimes seen as a political disaster but, to artists, a blessing in disguise. It kept them serious. They died, leaving us great works. With us, the arts sink into the great, soft, permissive bosom of basically indifferent and deadly free societies…
And yet all is not lost. Bellow goes on to add, obliquely yet brilliantly, to history’s finest definitions of art:
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.
He echoes Tolstoy’s definition of art as “emotional infectiousness” between creator and audience — be that artist and viewer or writer and reader — and observes:
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 [or she] can bring unity and carry us into a state of intransitive attention. People hunger for this.
How poignant to consider Bellow’s remarks in our age where people seem to “hunger for” cat videos and where the writer’s voice is being increasingly muffled by the “content”-producer’s agenda — and yet, and yet, when we do encounter those ever-rarer “essences” today, those oases of absolute intimacy with another mind, how transcendent our “emotional completeness” then. Bellow writes:
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 at 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 [or she] cannot compete in the athletic sense of the word, as if his objects were to drive his rivals from the field. He [or she] 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.
It seems, then, that our only hope for salvaging those “essences” of the soul amidst our “electrified world” of “distraction and fragmentation” is to nurture what Oscar Wilde identified as the heart of the creative spirit — the “temperament of receptivity,” which seems to be the only true custodian of Bellow’s “emotional completeness and overflowing comprehension.”
It All Adds Up: From the Dim Past to the Uncertain Future is a fantastic read in its entirety. Complement it with the collected wisdom of great writers.
Published March 4, 2014