Document Type


Publication Date



On the occasion of his acceptance of the Nobel Prize for Literature, Saul Bellow asked, “What is at the center now?” (2015a: 299). This question gets at the heart of a lifetime of literary attempts to find “the center,” to expose the core of what it means to be human in the volatile, unstable, and explosive twentieth century. In defense of what, for Bellow, was the singular preoccupation of his lengthy and distinguished literary career, he insists that “[o]ut of the struggle at the center has come an immense, painful longing for a broader, more flexible, fuller, more coherent, more comprehensive account of what we human beings are, who we are, and what this life is for” (299). For Bellow, one of the responsibilities of the novelist, if not the central, fundamental aim, is to expose “the center,” and to adjudicate among the many explanations, rationalizations, defenses, and subterfuges that constitute modern life. As Bellow’s introspective and skeptical interlocutor, Artur Sammler, sees it, the self-invented “[i]ntellectual man” of the twentieth century has become “an explaining creature. . . in one ear and out the other” (1978: 3). Yet the impulse to explain must somehow find its aesthetic temper, its voice, within but also separate from the cultural cacophony. According to Bellow, “a novel of ideas . . . becomes art when the views most opposite to the author’s own are allowed to exist in full strength. . . . [T]he opposites must be free to range themselves against each other and they must be passionately expressed on both sides” (2015b: 130). For Sammler, as for Bellow, the value in human existence, in navigating both the tangled “theater of the soul” and the cacophony — the plentitudes and platitudes – of the great experiment of twentieth-century America, is in “[e]liminating the superfluous. Identifying the necessary” (234, 278).

Document Object Identifier (DOI)



Johns Hopkins University Press


Baltimore, MD

Publication Information

Partial Answers: Journal of Literature and the History of Ideas