Saul Bellow’s Spectacular Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech on How Art and Literature Ennoble the Human Spirit
By Maria Popova
In a 1966 interview, Saul Bellow (June 10, 1915–April 5, 2005) articulated the seed of what would blossom into a central concern of his life, and of our culture: “Art has something to do with the achievement of stillness in the midst of chaos. A stillness which characterizes prayer, too, in the eye of the storm… Art has something to do with an arrest of attention in the midst of distraction.” A quarter century later — already an elder with a Pulitzer Prize, a National Medal of Arts, and a Nobel Prize under his belt — Bellow would come to explore this duality more deliberately in his stirring essay on how artists and writers save us from the “moronic inferno” of distraction.
But nowhere does the celebrated author address his views on the artist’s task more directly than in his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize awarded to him in 1976 “for the human understanding and subtle analysis of contemporary culture that are combined in his work.” Eventually published in Nobel Lectures in Literature, 1968–1980 (public library), it remains one of the greatest public addresses of all time.
Reflecting on the death of the notion of “character” in literature, Bellow writes:
I am interested here in the question of the artist’s priorities. Is it necessary, or good, that he should begin with historical analysis, with ideas or systems?
I myself am tired of obsolete notions and of mummies of all kinds but I never tire of reading the master novelists. And what is one to do about the characters in their books? Is it necessary to discontinue the investigation of character? Can anything so vivid in them now be utterly dead? … Can we accept the account of those conditions we are so “authoritatively” given? I suggest that it is not in the intrinsic interest of human beings but in these ideas and accounts that the problem lies.
With an almost Buddhist attitude as applicable to literature as it is to life itself, Bellow adds:
To find the source of trouble we must look into our own heads.
He admonishes against taking on faith any death knell rung by our culture’s so-called experts — lest we forget, Frank Lloyd Wright put it best when he quipped that “an expert is a man who has stopped thinking because ‘he knows’” — and in a sentiment that renders just as laughable the modern death knell for the novel, he writes:
The fact that the death notice of character “has been signed by most serious essayists” means only that another group of mummies, the most respectable leaders of the intellectual community, has laid down the law. It amuses me that these serious essayists should be allowed to sign the death notices of literary forms. Should art follow culture? Something has gone wrong.
Many decades before Tom Wolfe’s spectacular commencement address admonishing against the tyranny of the pseudo-intellectual, Bellow adds:
We must not make bosses of our intellectuals. And we do them no good by letting them run the arts. Should they, when they read novels, find nothing in them but the endorsement of their own opinions? Are we here on earth to play such games?
Once again, Bellow reminds us that the anxieties and paranoias which every generation sees as singular to its era are anything but — 1976 sounds an awful lot like today:
The condition of human beings has perhaps never been more difficult to define…
Every year we see scores of books and articles which tell [people] what a state they are in — which make intelligent or simpleminded or extravagant or lurid or demented statements. All reflect the crises we are in while telling us what we must do about them; these analysts are produced by the very disorder and confusion they prescribe for.
In private life, disorder or near-panic. In families — for husbands, wives, parents, children — confusion; in civic behavior, in personal loyalties, in sexual practices (I will not recite the whole list; we are tired of hearing it) — further confusion. And with this private disorder goes public bewilderment.
It is with these facts that knock us to the ground that we try to live… There is no simple choice between the children of light and the children of darkness… But I have made my point; we stand open to all anxieties. The decline and fall of everything is our daily dread, we are agitated in private life and tormented by public questions.
Let me interject here with a necessary caveat: Despite the Swedish Academy’s brief to celebrate the value of literature and the arts in ennobling the human spirit, a great many Nobel Prize acceptance speeches bear the distinct flavor of Grumpy Old Man. This is a natural, if hardly excusable, product of the fact that the Nobel Prize has a long history of being granted primarily to old white men, not to mention it was established by a particularly grumpy one — a fact increasingly glaring and uncomfortable even for those of us dedicated to preserving the wisdom of our cultural and civilizational elders. How exasperating that such extraordinary writers as Susan Sontag, Chinua Achebe, and Maya Angelou died without a Nobel Prize.
And perhaps the sample pool is too small to draw scientifically valid conclusions, but there is palpable anecdotal evidence that when a writer like Albert Camus, the youngest laureate of the Nobel Prize in Literature, or Pearl S. Buck, the second youngest laureate and the youngest woman to receive the coveted accolade, takes the stage at the Swedish Academy, there is a decidedly different ratio of grumpiness to gladness in their speech, of embitterment to emboldening faith in the human spirit. (cf. Hemingway’s.)
And now back to Grumpy Old Man Bellow, who is beneath grumpiness — or else, after all, he wouldn’t be here — a staunch champion of the power of art to elevate and enlarge the human spirit. Against this backdrop of dread and ruin, amid our growing spiritual hunger for quietude, he asks:
Art and literature — what of them? … We are still able to think, to discriminate, and to feel. The purer, subtler, higher activities have not succumbed to fury or to nonsense. Not yet. Books continue to be written and read. It may be more difficult to reach the whirling mind of a modern reader but it is possible to cut through the noise and reach the quiet zone. In the quiet zone we may find that he is devoutly waiting for us. When complications increase, the desire for essentials increases too. The unending cycle of crises that began with the First World War has formed a kind of person, one who has livd through terrible, strange things, and in whom there is an observable shrinkage of prejudices, a casting off of disappointing ideologies, an ability to live with many kinds of madness, an immense desire for certain durable human goods — truth, for instance, or freedom, or wisdom.
Only art penetrates what pride, passion, intelligence and habit erect on all sides — the seeming realities of this world. There is another reality, the genuine one, which we lose sight of. This other reality is always sending us hints, which without art, we can’t receive. Proust calls these hints our “true impressions.” The true impressions, our persistent intuitions, will, without art, be hidden from us and we will be left with nothing but a “terminology for practical ends which we falsely call life.”
Returning to the role of intellectuals in perpetuating such a quasi-reality of practical ends, Bellow considers the task of the writer and artist to reawaken our “true impressions”:
There is in the intellectual community a sizable inventory of attitudes that have become respectable — notions about society, human nature, class, politics, sex, about mind, about the physical universe, the evolution of life. Few writers, even among the best, have taken the trouble to re-examine these attitudes and orthodoxies… Literature has for nearly a century used the same stock of ideas, myths, strategies … maintaining all the usual things about mass society, dehumanization and the rest. How weary we are of them. How poorly the represent us. The pictures they offer no more resemble us than we resemble the reconstructed reptiles and other monsters in a museum of paleontology. We are much more limber, versatile, bette articulated, there is much more to us, we all feel it.
Bellow peers into the future of humanity, in the shaping of which we are all implicated — perhaps even more so today, when we are tenfold more interconnected and our fates more intertwined, than at the time of his speech:
Mankind [is] determining, in confusion and obscurity, whether it will endure or go under. The whole species — everybody — has gotten into the act. At such a time it is essential to lighten ourselves, to dump encumbrances, including the encumbrances of education and all organized platitudes, to make judgments of our own, to perform acts of our own… We must hunt for that under the wreckage of many systems. The failure of those systems may bring a blessed and necessary release from formulations, from an over-defined and misleading consciousness. With increasing frequency I dismiss as merely respectable opinions I have long held — or thought I held — and try to discern what I have really lived by, and what others live by.
In a sentiment that calls to mind psychoanalyst Adam Phillips’s magnificent meditation on the necessary excesses of our inner lives, Bellow adds:
Our very vices, our mutilations, show how rich we are in thought and culture. How much we know. How much we even feel. The struggle that convulses us makes us want to simplify, to reconsider, to eliminate the tragic weakness which prevented writers — and readers — from being at once simple and true.
Writers, Bellow argues, are in a singular positions to cut through the veneer of respectable opinions and remind us the truth of who we are and who we can be:
The intelligent public is wonderfully patient with [writers], continues to read them and endures disappointment after disappointment, waiting to hear from art what it does not hear from theology, philosophy, social theory, and what it cannot hear from pure science. Out of the struggle at the center has come an immense, painful longing for a broader, more flexible, fuller, more coherent, more comprehensive account of what we human beings are, who we are, and what this life is for. At the center humankind struggles with collective powers for its freedom, the individual struggles with dehumanization for the possession of his soul. If writers do not come again into the center it will not be because the center is pre-empted. It is not. They are free to enter. If they so wish.
Echoing the Dante-esque notion of “a love that moves the sun and the other stars,” Bellow closes with a breathtaking contemplation of our deeper search for meaning undergirding all great art and literature — those fragmentary glimpses of luminous lucidity through which we are reminded, although we soon forget again, of our eternal communion with the universe:
The essence of our real condition, the complexity, the confusion, the pain of it is shown to us in glimpses, in [Proust’s] “true impressions.” This essence reveals and then conceals itself. When it goes away it leaves us again in doubt. But we never seem to lose our connection with the depths from which these glimpses come. The sense of our real powers, powers we seem to derive from the universe itself, also comes and goes. We are reluctant to talk about this because there is nothing we can prove, because our language is inadequate and because few people are willing to risk talking about it. They would have to say, “There is a spirit” and that is taboo. So almost everyone keeps quiet about it, although almost everyone is aware of it.
The value of literature lies in these intermittent “true impressions.” A novel moves us back and forth between the world of objects, of actions, of appearances, and that other world from which these “true impressions” come and which moves us to believe that the good we hang onto so tenaciously — in the face of evil, so obstinately — is no illusion.
Art attempts to find in the universe, in matter as well as in the facts of life, what is fundamental, enduring, essential.
Complement with Dani Shapiro on the “animating presence” of secular spirituality and William Faulkner’s elevating Nobel Prize acceptance speech on the role of the writer as a booster of the human heart, then revisit Bellow on our dance with distraction.
Published June 10, 2015