To Jerusalem and Back: A Personal Account.
by Saul Bellow.
Viking. 182 pp. $8.95.
After Saigon disappeared as a byline from American papers, Jerusalem became the place where most front-page foreign news is filed, with Beirut second. Aside from the reporters living in Israel and telexing stories daily, there are the stars of journalism—talented ex-reporters who no longer need to slip their opinions in between the lines—who visit for a week or two, maybe a month, and write up their experience. Many choose the diary form, since that seems to be the easiest, most natural way of listing a whirlwind series of encounters, interviews, sights, ideas, responses. The Israeli diary has become a genre. Though most of the writing produced so far hasn’t been able to convey more than surface impressions (often marked by hilarious mistakes due to ignorance or simple-mindedly good intentions), it is clear that these are meant to be thoughtful pieces, supplying what is missing in regular news and TV “stories.” The implicit claim is that the reader might profit something from following the tourist-writer through Israel, that overwritten country.
In his short new book in diary form, Saul Bellow demonstrates the possibility of making good on such a promise. Admittedly, Bellow is not a journalist, if journalism is defined as writing that is published in newspapers and magazines, or any writing that will be less interesting tomorrow than it is today. Bellow has not often published any thing other than novels and stories; but he has occasionally written short pieces of reporting and reflection combined—such as a magazine essay fifteen years ago on Khrushchev, which still stands up tolerably today. To Jerusalem and Back, while recognizably Bellow’s work, is something of a departure. It handles the stuff of the daily headlines without the tools of metaphor, and it is obviously meant, among other things, to affect, directly and quickly, what is called public opinion. From one aspect, To Jerusalem and Back is in the tradition of political pamphlets, which have their ground in the moment they are written, and which act to educate and rally sentiment, the sooner the better. From another angle, this book should be read as a continuation of Bellow’s life-long meditation on the themes of good-heartedness and private longing in an age of commercial, cultural, and political racketeering.
“Probably the trade I have followed for so many years has made me naive.” Is it disingenuous for Bellow to note this? For years he has been an open-eyed specialist in American urban paranoia and the slugging rise of ex-slum boys. But confronted by the Israelis, their past and present and their prospects, Bellow thinks that he has been spared harsh, truthful blows in comparison, thanks to being a writer, an academic, and, especially, an American. Bellow—who once had his fictional creature Henderson declare, “The truth comes in blows”—believes that Americans continue to be sheltered from some of the deadlier rackets operating on a mass scale in the world. If this is temporarily comfortable for his countrymen, it is downright dangerous for those dependent on American support and understanding, like the Israelis. So continually in To Jerusalem and Back Bellow, worried by this innocence, enacts the role of one of those reality instructors who hold forth in his novels, about whom he evidently has mixed feelings. Here the object of the teaching is at once the reader and Bellow himself. There is no pretense that Bellow is about to pick up something new about human nature at his age, but he can learn how it has revealed itself in arrangements and crimes, and in the particulars of the look and history of a region—the Middle East—with which he was previously not very familiar.
Like his other books, this is bookish and down to earth. Bellow gets much of his Middle Eastern education from an excellent reading list, and quotes from it generously for the reader’s benefit. Elie Kedourie, Malcolm Kerr, Bernard Lewis, Theodore Draper, Walter Laqueur, Yehoshafat Harkabi—these writers are usually unencumbered by the jargon and mythology propagated by area experts and transformed into hopeful media clichés. With all their different emphases and styles, Kedourie and the others studied by Bellow agree that Zionism was not the region’s Original Sin; that non-Muslim minorities in the Middle East have a precarious hold on their communal independence and civil rights, if not their very lives; that Arab socialism is more rhetoric than substance; that the Palestinian refugee question has always been incidental to the Muslim Arabs’ refusal to have a Jewish state in their midst; and that Israeli territorial concessions alone will never cause peace to break out. Such views, based more or less explicitly on evidence of recurring blood lust exploitable but not controllable by political gangsters, of which the Lebanese slaughter is the latest expression, are unpopular for obvious reasons in America, Europe, and also Israel. They sort badly with neo-Marxist and corporate think-tank projections of what should happen in the so-called Third World. To accept them, even seriously to consider them, is presumed by some to be equivalent to closing off the mind or giving in to despair. Although Bellow doesn’t swallow his reading list uncritically, To Jerusalem and Back is certainly not an optimistic book; however, it is not despairing, either. So far as Bellow undermines the conventional wisdom for himself and for a far larger audience than his authorities can command, his book has a liberating effect.
Bellow could have done his homework in Chicago but he did most of it in Jerusalem, between listening to people talk and walking around the city for three months. There is a constant tension and reverberation between his readings and his observations:
Here in Jerusalem, when you shut your apartment door behind you you fall into a gale of conversation—exposition, argument, harangue, analysis, theory, expostulation, threat, and prophecy. From diplomats you hear cagey explanations; from responsible persons, cautious and grudging statements rephrasing and amending your own questions; from parents and children, deadly divisions; from friends who let themselves go, passionate speeches, raging denunciations of Western Europe, of Russia, of America. I listen carefully, closely, more closely than I’ve ever listened in my life, utterly attentive, but I often feel that I have been dropped into a shoreless sea.
Attempting to achieve “clarity,” Bellow notices first that the Israelis are less confident than when he visited last, before the Yom Kippur War, and that the roll of Israel’s failings and offenses that is publicized abroad is also given wide currency inside Israel:
The New Left sees it as a reactionary little place. Its detractors tell you how it abuses its Arab population and, to a lesser extent, Jewish immigrants from North Africa and the Orient. It is occasionally denounced by some Israelis as corrupt, “Levantine,” theocratic. Gossip traces the worst of the Israeli financial swindles to the most observant of Orthodox Jews. I am often told that the old Ashkenazi leaders were unimaginative, that the new Rabin group lacks stature, that Ben-Gurion was a terrible old guy but a true leader, that the younger generation is hostile to North African and Asian Jews. The North African and Oriental immigrants are blamed for bringing a baksheesh mentality to Israel; the intellectuals are blamed for letting the quality of life (a deplorable phrase) deteriorate.
The extremely typical epitome of this self-criticism comes in the words of an Israeli novelist who informs Bellow that “Israel has sinned too much . . . lost its moral capital and has nothing to fight with.” That was before the Entebbe mission, yet Bellow understood that this writer was wrong, that his words were not to be taken literally. Bellow does not downplay Israel’s woes and shortcomings, he has an inkling of the mediocrity and cant here and there, high and low, but he is good enough—and this is unusual these days—to get behind the words and see that the incessant weighing of the national soul on the scales of moral beauty is actually proof that the Israelis are faithfully carrying out their peculiar and unhappy assignment. American and European radicals, Bellow says with bitterness, “appear to believe that the Jews, with their precious and refining record of suffering, have a unique obligation to hold up moral burdens everyone else has dumped.” Like it or not, the Israelis, being Jews after all, seem to be doing their duty, acting perforce not so much in their own interest as in the interest of those for whom they are surrogates.
Bellow manages to state this perception without giving the impression of smugness, complacency, or satisfaction; that is because, with rare breaks, the dominant mood of To Jerusalem and Back is one of uneasiness, an emotion that the not-so-private diarist urgently wishes to communicate to his readers. His fear is that Americans and other people in the West will focus on Israel’s “multitude of faults” and acquiesce in the imposition of stillborn solutions on the Middle East, in order to obscure what is really at stake. For if Western radicals, consciously or unconsciously, expect Israel to be their better half, too many others prefer to blink the whole issue, which for Bellow comes down to nothing less than the survival of virtue: “The ‘civilized world,’ or the 20th-century ruins of that world to which so many Jews gave their admiration and devotion between, say, 1789 and 1933 . . . has grown sick of the ideals Israel asks it to respect.” Israel is, indeed, a terrible bother to the “humanistic civilized moral imagination,” which Bellow says is sunk in “lethargy and sleep.”
However, his own imagination is humanistic, civilized, moral. Calling it “inadequate,” he can propose nothing better, not even cynicism, though the temptations of cynicism have never been stronger, and though, from time to time, Bellow gives in to them, only to draw back before the barrenness and false comfort. Here Bellow is incorrigible. Disappointed, educated, he remains a humanist, a liberal. If he acts the reality instructor, demanding of readers that they forswear illusion, it is not so he can give them the low-down, and rub their noses in that other lie, which holds that humans today are universally mean and j worthless. Nor does Bellow, in contrast with the colorful gallery of steam-bath philosophers who inhabit his novels, appear to relish the task he has taken on. To inform himself and think about the “butcher problems”—the Sixth Fleet, the terrorist bomb that explodes in a restaurant in Jaffa Road—is unpleasant. He would rather be enjoying literature, or sitting in one of Jerusalem’s quiet places, being moved mystically:
I enter a flagstoned court in the Greek quarter and see that it is covered by a grapevine. . . . Light shimmers through the leaf cover. I want to go no farther that day. . . . I am tempted to sit down and stay put for an aeon in the consummate mildness. . . . The origin of this desire is obvious—it comes from the contrast between politics and peace. The slightest return of beauty makes you aware how deep your social wounds are, how painful it is to think continually of nothing but aggression and defense, superpowers, diplomacy, war.
What is real, the “consummate mildness” of personal, poetic experience, or the “butcher problems”? Which one prevails? Bellow’s debate with himself on this throughout To Jerusalem and Back, continuing when he is home again in Chicago, provides the book with a dimension beyond polemic. Bellow is not blind to the fact that these Israelis—to whom he feels so close, as an American and as a Jew—have lost something in their inescapable preoccupation with war, become split or hypertrophied. Their beleaguered land is “both a garrison state and a cultivated society, both Spartan and Athenian.” And, for all his concern about the dreaminess of Americans, he knows we too “have mechanisms operating within, answering to more remote stimuli, phantoms of crisis that set off endless circuits of anxious calculation.” He honors, maybe envies, those writers who refused “to submit to what societies and governments consider to be important” (Stendhal, E.E. Cummings, Mandelstam, Sinyavsky), and wonders, more than half-convinced, whether “to remain a poet . . . is also to reach the heart of politics.” Nevertheless, that is not the route he has taken, and by reason of temperament and circumstances he probably had no choice. To Jerusalem and Back is in “the public realm”:
What drives the soul into the public realm is, first, the reality of the threat to civilization and to our own existence; second, our duty to struggle and resist (as we conceive this); third, the influence of public discussion in the press, on television, in books, in lecture halls, or at dinner tables, in offices; and fourth, perhaps, is our own deep desire to send the soul into society.
This last motive, for fame, should not be misunderstood. Actually, it took courage for Bellow to publish this book. Lately it may seem that everybody is writing first-hand about Israel; in fact, these are mostly journalists and glorified journalists. The writers who have reputations as masters of American culture, which they made with novels addressed to the entire literate public, yet who are identifiable in one way or another as Jews, have tended to shun the subject of Israel and may never have set foot there. Some are known for overt political engagements, going back to the Vietnam era or before, in the course of which they have done everything from signing petitions to abandoning fiction in favor of books on burning current issues. To be specific, these were some pages of caricature devoted to Israel in Portnoy’s Complaint. The silence of Norman Mailer is more typical, however. It would be nice to give the benefit of the doubt, to credit such writers with an unwillingness to add to the pile of superficialities and pieties already written concerning Israel—not unintelligent, they must realize how little they know when it comes to this subject. That is possible. But one’s stronger suspicion is that to delve into the Jewish state and its relations with America would mean raising in public questions of the writer’s identity that are frightening and would best be left alone; rather than go into this, the tacit excuse for silence is that Israel is of interest and importance only to Jews, and to write about it, let alone rally support, would betray parochialism. Against this background, Bellow’s achievement is more impressive still.