Saul Bellow is a writer who has affected me profoundly before. I have recently found a pair of essays given by him as part of the Tanner Lectures under the title, “A Writer from Chicago.”
They are substantive and serious, and occasionally pithy. For instance, Bellow observes that “a degenerate negative romanticism is at the core of modern mass culture,” “Humankind is always involved in some kind of metaphysical enterprise,” and, “The descent into subhumanity begins with the thinning out of the imagination.”
Bellow gave these lectures in 1981. He had won the Nobel and Pulitzer prizes five years before, and was entering a phase of life where in his mid-60s one could more openly detect a sentimentality of sorts, a politically incorrect and sometimes brusque judgmentalism.
Here’s a section, however, that illustrates in incisive fashion where Bellow thinks that modern progressivism went awry:
My own opinion is that American confidence in education and progress went wrong somehow when the country made a giant effort to improve and to assist and lift up and to educate, and when, under the New Deal, the New Frontier and, later, Johnson’s Great Society programs, hundreds of billions were spent on liberal programs. The efforts of the government gave the country a sense that all the problems were manageable, that its troubles were being handled by experts, and that solutions could be bought and paid for. Washington was being moral for us. We were thus able to think well of ourselves, covered by moral insurance, federally centralized. Everybody was publicly for all the good things – public health, free education, equal justice – and against the bad ones. People were consequently free to ‘realize’ themselves. There was money enough for every purpose.