Saul Bellow on literary criticism (spoiler: not a fan)

Nobel Laureate Saul Bellow, who would be something like 1m years old this year, interviewed on some of his thoughts on what academia has done to literature. He’s certainly erudite in his convictions. I myself learned to loathe French criticism when it was being served to me, Pablum-style on a spoon, during my undergrad.

BRANS: You’ve been very critical of academics. Isn’t there a contradiction [Bellow was a professor]?

BELLOW: I’m critical of academics who take masterpieces and turn them into discourse in the modern intellectual style. I’m against that, of course. I am not for the redescription of Moby-Dick by Marxists and existentialists and Christian symbolists, respectively. What does that do for Moby-Dick or for me. It doesn’t do anything. It only results in the making of more books . . .

There’s no reason why people shouldn’t talk about books. There is a prerequisite, though, which is that they should be deeply stirred by the books. They should love them or hate them. But not try to convert them into . . .

BRANS: Theory?

BELLOW: Yes. Or chatter. There’s no need to babble about these things. They can be talked about. But so much of literary criticism is babbling.

BRANS: I’m not sure I understand exactly what you mean by babbling. Do you mean using special terminology? Or talking about little things and ignoring big ones?

BELLOW: Critics often translate important books—write them again, as they were, in the fashionable intellectual jargon. And then the books are no longer themselves. They have been borrowed by Culture, with a capital C. There are two things here that we must clearly distinguish. One is the work of art with its direct effect on people. The other is a work of art as a cultural commodity, as a piece of society’s property in Culture. In the second form, art becomes a fertilizer for the cultivation of languages, vocabularies, intellectual styles, ornaments, degrees, honors, prizes, and all the rest of that. That’s Culture with a capital C. That’s what I’m talking about. And this is what always happens. Our model for it is the Christian religion, which started with faith and ended with churches.

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