Jan/Feb 2019  •   Reviews & Interviews

Bellow Sungo

Discussion by Peter Amos

I could say that my interest in Saul Bellow's Henderson the Rain King had nothing to do with my adoration of Counting Crows, but that would be a lie. Dad used to cue me in so I wouldn't miss the ending of their song "Rain King"—and I wailed along with Adam Duritz: Eee–yeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeuhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh

I didn't love Bellow's Rain King the same way: I won't read it again, flip breathlessly through pages, recommend it to friends. The story is interesting and beautifully written, but the setting enables an omnipresent casual racism.

Henderson, life collapsing around him, travels to Africa to find himself. The Africans he encounters serve at best as foils and at worst animalistic props. The story, told by Henderson, satirizes the adventurer-hero of Hemingway and others. Rather than unrealistically noble and bold, he is narcissistic, grandiose, unbalanced, and misogynistic. Bellow absolutely intends this. His great western hero comes to Africa full of grand ideas, blows things up, bumbles about, makes plain the ignorance implied in the adventure itself. Any believable Henderson would be incapable of seeing women or other cultures as equal, or even fully human. So the story is written the way that it is.

It's odd to read, not just for the narrator's flaws, but for the way the layers peel away. Bellow describes African characters in nakedly demeaning terms, but the book was written in 1959 about an older man, of a different era even then. Bellow makes the man's personality clear—he mistreats and belittles everyone in his life, considers his every capacity exceptional, indulges every self-destructive whim, and is extraordinarily self-centered. But knowledge of Bellow himself cracks the fourth wall. His criticism was stridently arrogant, and he made statements in his later years that were construed as chauvinistic and racist. The line between Henderson and Bellow is not so stark, and that problem is not unusual.

Artists constantly project themselves and their shortcomings into their work. Junot Diaz is tainted, Frank Underwood's cold manipulation is discomfiting beyond the writers' intention, and Harvey Weinstein's shadow hangs over two decades of film. Some of their work will suffer and the rest will have an asterisk by it even while people continue consuming it.

The harder case is, perhaps, the art that is a product of its time. Joseph Conrad produced a masterpiece that disposed of African villagers, bush cleared on the path to Kurtz. His themes were complex, but many of his contemporaries didn't acknowledge the existence of anyone beyond their white main characters. Orwell participated in executions and used pejoratives even as he recognized his own flaws and the humanity of the Burmese subjects he policed. Law and Order is naive in its later years, but the first seasons are startlingly racist. Bellow wrote Rain King.

More than ever, we confront art that conflicts with our morality, the objective ways in which the world has changed for the better. Can we still enjoy it? Should we try to? Do we have a duty not to? I understand the conflict, but something always felt off-kilter. People should be disturbed by the implications of art they consume, the character of the artist. But the power we assign the artist feels wrong. No art is that important. Art is, of course, indispensable, shaping culture—air to breathe, water to lap. But with exceedingly rare exceptions, no single piece is essential. Why would it be? I found The Great Gatsby absurdly over-rated and feel I'm a fine person nonetheless. Nirvana's Nevermind doesn't do it for me either. No genius is so staggering that the world would collapse without him (or her). Why would it be? I don't suffer terribly for pretending Charles Dickens doesn't exist outside of high school English classrooms. The sun still rises on those unfamiliar with Ernest Hemingway.

As an artistic type, I can relish the way we view artists. They're larger than their work, larger than life. They twist us all up in knots and inspire hero worship. It's superficially satisfying that the world values something so important to me, but it's also backward, unhealthy, and fundamentally wrong. Susan Sontag wrote that "in almost every case, our manner of appearing is our manner of being. The mask is the face." She dismissed the idea that art should be decoded or interpreted (an opinion Bellow identified as well), indifferent to whether or not the artist intended any code. Work may harbor a worldview or message or meaning, but the artist cedes control when the creation is released into the world. When a painting goes up on the wall, a book stacks on the shelf, it becomes an aesthetic thing—not devoid of meaning but open to any or none at all. Giving the artist power to strip it of personal meaning or riddle the audience with guilt grants him a control he relinquished voluntarily.

Meaning changes with context, but artists can be separated from art. Wagner poured his life into opera and considered his odysseys to be total, to encompass the world, to be philosophy and religion as much as music and staging. He considered his work inseparable from his worldview, but that was never his choice to make. Countless opera fans relish the experience of his music but consider Wagner a disgraceful man. Living artists merit another consideration—do I want to support this person materially? Books are easy. Buy used. But music, television, and movies rely on opaque fee structures. One song or show can put only a fraction of a penny in the creator's pocket or contribute to the legitimacy that keeps him paid. I don't have a solution, but more disturbing is the way we elevate individual genius far beyond its importance.

#MeToo illuminated our tendency to excuse genius of abuse, bigotry, and violence—particularly when the genius is male (hence the narrow choice of pronoun in this essay). But our readiness to scrap a writer or musician entirely—person and work—is its own indication of the power we grant individual brilliance. A writer shouldn't have his drunkenness, antisemitism, or misogyny excused because he wrote a beautiful book. Nor does its creation mean that he, personally, deserves to be forever associated with its beauty. That beautiful book can be enjoyed without a second thought to the author, it can be enjoyed while we scorn the author, it can be cast aside because the author's behavior has tainted it for us, it can be enjoyed a la carte, we can keep only that which we value, we can assign it utterly different significance. The author doesn't have that power. We do.

Ignoring the implications of a book is inexcusable, as are whitewashing the evils of the author, rationalizing them, justifying them, or ridiculing those who need them and it removed from their lives. But we juggle too many complicated moral questions to waste energy tip-toeing around a terrible person because he made something we appreciate. The significance of any work of art is endlessly malleable. The ways in which we appreciate it change as often or radically as they need to. If we decide we can't morally justify consuming a piece of art, it should be our choice and not because its creator stripped the choice from us.

Can we enjoy morally ambiguous art, art created by terrible people, art with an agenda? There's no single answer, but anyone can decide individually without guilt. David Foster Wallace shouldn't be allowed to deprive his readers of Infinite Jest and the joy it gives them simply because of his crude attributions and abusive behavior. David Foster Wallace also never produced anything—Infinite Jest included—without which the world would stop spinning. Keep it without his interference—cut him and his work loose entirely. There is no wrong answer except to allow him and his behavior to dictate the significance of something we read alone on a Sunday afternoon and enjoyed. Genius wants to be scrubbed of its faults, but absent that it wants to claim every stroke of the brush or word on the page and take it all down when it falls. It's complicated, but we don't need to let that happen.

In 1998, the publisher Modern Library produced a list of the 20th century's top 100 novels. I puzzle over Henderson the Rain King's position (#21) not because of my moral conflict, but because The Adventures of Augie March (#81) smacked the breath from my lungs and Henderson left me flat. Parts of the book made me cringe. They were likely intended to, but weighed against those that made me soar, the balance was unfavorable. Still, the problem can seem far more difficult to solve after we've learned of, sat with, contemplated, meditated on the faults, evils, prejudices, or rage. Applied elsewhere, it feels ludicrous.

I harbor an eternal love for Counting Crows and their "Rain King," but I don't know much about them. I've read hundreds of pages of Bellow essays, but I don't know Adam Duritz beyond that which is public. Dad still cued me in with my sisters while we sat in traffic on I-64, Mom quilting in the front seat. That experience is entirely our own. To contemplate abandoning that song feels distant and hypothetical, but that's exactly what our notion of artists and creation would ask. I'm not prepared to let anyone—least of all a genius—rob me of that experience.



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