Bellow and the Dark Web

I had an odd introduction to Saul Bellow. My dad got me The Adventures of Augie March for Christmas two years ago. I read and loved the book, rapt in its pages for a month after the holiday. But I’ve yet to read any more of his fiction. Henderson the Rain King is en route to my house as we speak, but the rest of our acquaintance came by way of a massive collection of essays.

Most of the essays could be called “criticism.” Bellow was a master novelist and expert of twentieth century literature, so most examine fiction writing. But in doing so, he often comments on a writer’s role in the world, the relationship of writers to intellectuals, identity’s place in writing, and even politics. I notice a strain of thought common in intellectual circles today, better described perhaps as an orientation than thought at all. He resists conventional wisdom violently, foils the American intellectual community’s expectations, rejects cultural roles imposed upon him by fellow Jewish writers, mocks the usual paths of political debate and discourse. He is proudly contrarian. I hear in his words a prototype of a public intellectual with disproportionate influence in the decade and a half since his death.

I reserve a particularly rank corner of my being – the dustiest neglected cranny, most pungent of kitchen wastebaskets, soggiest cupboard – for the group of contrarian pundits known as the “intellectual dark web.” The group is unofficial and includes different names depending on who’s making the list, but all include Dave Rubin, Bret Weinstein, Ben Shapiro, Charles Murray, Christina Hoff Sommers, Jordan Peterson, and Joe Rogan among many others. Some – sociologist Steven Pinker, Yale professor Nicholas Christakis – never accept the label but find themselves, by virtue of one position or another, on common ground with those that do.

The most self-congratulatory, however, have embraced the label. The only unifying characteristics seem to be views contrary in particular ways to the dominant strain of Hollywood liberalism: free speech, religious pluralism, and late feminism. Some, like Maajid Nawaz, are heretics in the model of Galileo – activists and philosophers who see a world broader and finely shaded, exiled for their work. But many (particularly those most eager to take up the label) are stopped clocks who happen to be ‘right’ – dogmatic atheists who’ve found acceptance on the extremes, right-wingers made free speech advocates by liberal overreach, traditionalists who’ve finally found a populist wave to ride.

Sam Harris is among my least favorite of the bunch. He can’t be considered the worst of the crew – Ben Shapiro and Charles Murray are awful in ways both profound and innumerable – but his is the sweet spot. He’s as dogmatic and intolerant as one can be while retaining the respect of large swaths of liberals and progressives. His is also a slightly different – and more infuriating – contrarianism. Shapiro winks coyly at free thought, but isn’t deluded by independence. He’s a right-wing ideologue passing as a free thinker because his ideology is considered out of vogue, rather than because his thought is actually free. Harris, on the other hand, manages to come over a blind lady justice with a self-righteous prose style and popular podcast.

Known for his tabascotic atheism, Harris developed a following among young libertarians, progressives, and others inclined to quote Marx without context. He wrote several books on the topic, joining the ranks of professional atheists like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. In 2013 he started his Waking Up podcast which he claims (probably accurately) has over a million listeners. In the years since, Harris has waded into political controversies, perhaps inadvertently. He comments frequently on his conception of “identity politics” and free speech, stumbling into swampy political terrain. The similarities with Bellow are eerie.

Bellow relished the friction of his unpopular beliefs. He was a marxist in the Stalin years, a Trotskyist when Stalin had him killed, abandoned communism altogether later. He wrote proudly from his experience – a son of immigrants in a Chicago enclave, a Yiddish-speaking Jew, a renegade child of the Depression, a reformed communist – but utterly rejected any obligation the world imposed based on those experiences. He was a cultural conservative in the literal, rather than modern political sense, high brow during a populist surge. Consequences be damned.

Responding to criticism of his Nobel lecture by a fellow writer during which he identified himself as a “writer and a Jew,” Bellow replied:

“... I’m sorry I offended him, but having made this bow in his direction, I allow myself to add that the question reminds me of the one small children used to be asked by clumsy Sunday visitors in olden times: ‘Whom do you love better, your papa or your mama?’ I recognized that I answered the reporters unthinkingly, ‘Writer first, Jew second.’”

In his 1992 essay “There Is Simply Too Much to Think About,” Bellow mocks the dogmatism of intellectuals and pundits:

“So they are naturally for justice, for caring and compassion, for the abused and oppressed, against racism, sexism, homophobia, against discrimination, against imperialism, colonialism, exploitation, against smoking, against harassment – for all the good things, against all the bad ones. Seeing people virtually covered with credentials, buttons, badges, I am reminded of the layers of medals and campaign ribbons worn by Soviet generals in official photographs.”

He rarely gathered among other writers because too many were intellectuals, thinly disguised, and too often attacked him for impolitic statements. Occasionally he veered off into outright chauvinism, as when he flipped that there was no “Tolstoy of the Zulus” or “Proust of the Papuans.” He later wrote an essay; part apology, part defense, part claim to have been misquoted (the operative thing, perhaps, is that the idea sounds enough like him to be credible). The essay begins:

“The veering of the snowflakes under the street lights made me think how nice it would be if we were totally covered by white drifts. Give us a week's moratorium, dear Lord, from the idiocies that burn on every side and let the pure snows cool these overheated minds and dilute the toxins which have infected our judgments. Grant us a breather, merciful God.”

Putting aside charm, eloquence, and wit, the Op-Ed bears unnatural similarity to the dark-web of latter decades, both for its defensiveness and its self-pity. After a maelstrom of his own making involving himself and Charles Murray cheerily discussing correlations between race and I.Q. on his podcast, Harris defended himself by lamenting the overheated minds of the left and the “bad faith” of their arguments.

To his credit, Harris often invites people onto his podcast with whom disagrees. But he mostly taps a small cast of characters with whom he shares a mutually beneficial relationship and similar criticism of mainstream social liberalism. Most of those characters overlap with the “intellectual dark web:” Jordan Peterson, Andrew Sullivan, Charles Murray. Rather than a bubble that excludes ideas not approved by those inside, Harris shares an ideological center of gravity that allows all sorts of cosmic flotsam but refuses anything not subject to its pull.

I listen to his podcast occasionally and can’t help feeling that something isn’t right. The best criticism of Harris, articulation of that feeling, long predates his podcast and more regular forays into politics. Religious scholar Karen Armstrong, in her 2009 book The Case for God, says of Harris and his fellows:

“The more recent atheism of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris is rather different, because it has focused exclusively on the God developed by the fundamentalisms, and all three insist that fundamentalism constitutes the essence and core of all religion.  This has weakened their critique, because fundamentalism is in fact a defiantly unorthodox form of faith that frequently misrepresents the tradition it is trying to defend.”

She continues:

“… but they refuse, on principle, to dialogue with theologians who are more representative of mainstream tradition.  As a result, their analysis is disappointingly shallow, because it is based on such poor theology. ”

Armstrong argued that the aggressive “New Atheism” of Harris and his ilk focused only on fundamentalism and grew into an  inverted fundamentalism of their own. Harris and the others believed that their opposition to what they perceived as dogma made them free-thinkers when, as Armstrong gently points out, their position was equally dogmatic. I’m unsure of whether Bellow managed to avoid the same trap, but he distinguishes himself nonetheless.

In a 2006 interview, Harris stated the following:

“If I could wave a magic wand and get rid of either rape or religion, I would not hesitate to get rid of religion”

In context, Harris is using the analogy for shock value. He muses that religion has caused more human suffering than any other single thing. The statement goes from utterly brutal and horrific to “merely” stupid, frightening, and arrogant. The mark of the most dangerous ideologies of the modern age was their tendency to blind their purveyors to suffering and individuality. Only one blind to the suffering of roughly a quarter of women and the threat hanging over the rest could make such a statement. Only one unable to comprehend the malleability of ideas and flexibility of ritual could argue that an abstraction is more dangerous than physical and psychological brutality.

Bellow’s criticism was strident, voice arrogant, chauvinism often obvious, and hypocrisy pervasive. He relished contrarianism and disdained political correctness. But he allowed his experiences to swirl and bleed out into compassion for and interest in others. His waspish taste in literature didn’t blind him to the value of taste. He lambasted critics who wrote off the achievements of writers and taste of “lowbrow” consumers of art:

“Can we wonder at the cruelty of dictators when even a literary critic, without turning a hair, announces the death of a hundred million people?”

He strove to understand the foibles and glitches of the human program:

“There are certain common facts of the modern world that the mind does not readily accept; they have to be knocked into one’s head with a mallet.”

Most of all, he ridiculed the inhumanity of dogmatism. Despite his forays into marxism, he immediately composted the revolutionary ramblings of his contemporary Jean Paul Sartre (“To shoot down a European is to kill two birds with one stone”):

“Perhaps fertilizers and modern methods of agriculture would benefit the peasantry of the famished world more than the melodrama of rebirth through bloodshed. It may do more for manhood to feed one’s hungry children than to make corpses.”

He also commented on the tendency of intellectuals to dismiss voices and arguments that ran counter in some way to expectations, particularly (in his case) those wrapped up in religious identity:

“I refused to agree with them that my life had been illusion and dust. I do not accept any interpretation of history that declares the deepest experience of any person to be superfluous.”

Bellow was undeniably a purveyor of forbidden truths, a walker of murkier places, a forerunner to our “intellectual dark web.” But the evolution was not a straight line, it didn’t need to bring us here. Bellow demonstrates not only where this dark web came from, but what it left behind in getting here. He once wrote of academics and intellectuals: “I nevertheless object that their knowledge is defective – something is lacking. That something is poetry.”

Much of the dark web lacks far more than poetry, but Sam Harris and the many others who fancy themselves both “freethinkers” and humanists have dismissed it to their detriment. Poetry – eloquence, attention to language and emotions beyond shock – carries with it subtlety and nuance. Poetry is multifaceted, bearing the cracks, forests, caves, inconsistencies, ridges, and chasms in which humanity and compassion live. Harris and his cohort discuss facts and figures without attention to context and experience, pure fact a substitute for deeper truth. Saul Bellow was skeptical of illusory impartiality, dismissals of ritual or the transcendent, those who confuse reason with inquiry. Saul Bellow demonstrates that not all hypocrisies are equal, not all obstinacies courageous. I’m not certain we deserve a better class of contrarian, but that contrarian is out there and we should demand it.