Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

An awkward utilitarianism

with 2 comments

A biographer should write the history of this passage to freedom, should see that a superior soul with superior gifts has to be accounted for. It is an elitist assumption, no doubt; but without such an assumption the biography of a great writer leaks away its rationale. [Saul] Bellow’s “sins”—how he treated his wives, and how self-regarding he was—were committed in the process of creating an imperishable body of work. It is not so much that they should be “forgiven,” whatever this means, than that they must be judged in the light of the work of which we are the beneficiaries. An awkward but undeniable utilitarianism must be in play: the number of people hurt by Bellow is probably no more than can be counted on two hands, yet he has delighted and consoled and altered the lives of thousands of readers.

James Wood, in The New Republic

2 Responses

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  1. [1] Well, we started to have this debate re. Campbell too, didn’t we? It’s a continuing problem, separating the work from the actual life of the responsible individual, which may be dross.

    [2] Yes, James Wood’s argument is vomit-making, especially that “the unfolding of a will-to-greatness” line. Woods is generally a bit of a twat, I feel.

    [2] Nevertheless, you’re over-egging your own argument by deliberately omitting the name Jack Ludwig and any account of his relationship with Tschacbasov and Bellow, aren’t you? Yes, Bellow’s behavior towards Tschacbasov was stupid and wrong. But the thing that speaks most poorly for Bellow was that he married the woman. Sandre Tschacbasov sounds like she was scum, frankly.

    Mark Pontin

    March 19, 2018 at 7:03 pm

  2. @Mark Pontin: If I’d had more time or space, I definitely would have talked about Jack Ludwig, just because that story is unbelievable. (In theory, I know that I have unlimited time and space on this blog, but that isn’t how it works out in practice for these daily posts.) But I don’t think that it really affects my underlying point, which is more about the lack of any discussion at all—so far, anyway—about Bellow’s actions.

    Also, I see just now that Ludwig died only last month! That’s incredible in itself.


    March 19, 2018 at 7:30 pm

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