Saul Bellow “On the Deep and Serious in Literary Criticism”

Are you trying too hard to find a deeper meaning in something meant to entertain? Here’s what Saul Bellow (1915-2005) had to say about that:

“Why, sir, the student asks, “does Achilles drag the body of Hector around the walls of Troy?” “That sounds like a stimulating question. Most interesting. I’ll bite,” says the professor. “Well you see, sir, the ‘Iliad’ is full of circles—shields, chariot wheels and other round figures. And you know what Plato said about circles. The Greeks were all mad for geometry.” “Bless your crew-cut head,” says the professor, “for such a beautiful thought. You have exquisite sensibility. Your approach is both deep and serious. Still I always believed that Achilles did it because he was so angry.”

A few terms date the thought, which was first published as “Deep Readers of the World, Beware!” in The New York Times Book Review (Feb 15, 1959, pp. 1 and 34), but the message is still relevant today.

On Academic Literary Criticism

Never having been trained in the jargon of academic literary criticism, I find especially annoying those who seem to seek obfuscation, as if that were a testament to their brilliance. Take the second sentence in the following quote and tell me if it helps explain Elmore Leonard’s style.

“Fantasy in Leonard can be frightening, especially when it gets stuck in the compulsion to repeat sexual or violent scenarios. It can also, interestingly, be the stuff of which the agency and productive emotional relations of ‘ordinary’ people are made in an otherwise anomic, dehistoricized social topography where neither ‘community’ nor ‘culture,’ as traditionally and Eurocentrically understood, can endow subjects with ethical identities.” (David Glover and Cora Kaplan, “Guns in the House of Culture”)

There’s a sentence that “deconstructs” itself.

So in this blog (with the exception of this post) you won’t find words such as: eidetic (of, pertaining to, or designating a recollected mental image having unusual vividness and detail, as if actually visible), apodictic (clearly demonstrated or established.), heuristic (serving to find out or discover something), noetic (of, relating to, or based on the intellect) anodyne (having the power of easing pain; fig., soothing, comforting; bland, inoffensive.), quiddity (the inherent nature or essence of a person or thing), ontology (the science or study of being; that part of metaphysics which relates to the nature or essence of being or existence.), fungible (a thing which precisely or acceptably replaces or is replaceable by another), hermeneutics (the study of the principles of interpretation; a method or principle of interpretation), aleatory (depending on uncertain contingencies), and the like. I’m not opposed to a person having a well-developed vocabulary, just to the use of that vocabulary to impress.

[Definitions from the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary]

Equal Opportunity for All

Paul Ryan has said that our ancestors came to this country  in order to create “an opportunity society, equality of opportunity, equal protection of the law—not  equality of outcome.”

So I guess he thinks the poor black child who lives in a ghetto and attends a public school has the same opportunity to succeed as the child born to wealthy white parents who can afford to send the kid to a private charter school.

I’m reminded of Anatole France’s ironic quip: “The law in its fairness for equality . . . forbids the rich as well as the poor to beg in the streets and to steal bread.”