Column 2005-4-10 Commentary
First of all, I want to say that if the Times is going to start moving Brooks's column around (or, God forbid, giving him three columns a week), they really ought to notify me first. It seems only fair that if I'm going to have to write two Brooks reviews in a weekend, I ought to have advance knowledge of this fact so I can prepare myself. Luckily, this column continues Brooks's series of auditions for a spot outside of the editorial pages. Following his rejection by the Sports section, he has now set his sights on Arts and Leisure with a column in which he attempts to review Saul Bellow's oeuvre. Given that this is Brooks we're talking about, it's probably completely idiotic, but unlike Brooks, I don't attempt to talk about subjects about which I know nothing (well, at least not as often as Brooks does), and Bellow is one of those subjects. I read Henderson the Rain King in high school, and tried Herzog recently but didn't get anywhere with it, so I am completely unqualified to comment on Brooks's analysis. However, there are a couple of things that I feel I can mention without presuming on a knowledge of Saul Bellow that I don't possess.
The screamingly glaring un-Bellow-related point is that Brooks makes the whole column an exercise in Euro-bashing. Essentially, he takes the fact that he doesn't know much about culture in Europe these days and takes that to mean that there isn't any such thing. "Quick, what book is the talk of Berlin? Who is the François Truffaut of our moment?" Brooks asks, but the fact that he, and presumably most readers, doesn't know the answers to these questions does not mean that European culture is no longer important: it just means that Brooks and his readers are typical clueless Americans. What makes this most interesting is that he says that Bellow's work came out of a revolution against European cultural elitism: i.e., Bellow was revolting against the fact that no one in Europe cared what book was the talk of Chicago, or who was the D.W. Griffith of Bellow's moment. Given this context, it is rather strange that Brooks can't see that he is now engaging in the exact same phenomenon, only in the opposite direction. At one point, the cultural centers of the world were Paris, London, and Berlin (yes, I know, I'm being Eurocentric, but I'm simply meeting Brooks on his own terms). Now they are Los Angeles, New York and Chicago. This does not mean that European (or Asian, or African, or Latin American) culture is now somehow insignificant, just as American culture was not worthless in the 19th and early 20th century when European culture was the dominant world influence. It's not particularly surprising that Brooks would use his arrogance and ignorance as the basis for a sweeping assertion about European culture, but given the thesis of his column, it's slightly disappointing.
Also, Brooks says that the Bellow defined Americanness as the idea that "we can all grow up to be noble," which "acknowledges the virtue of aristocratic greatness and reconciles it with equality." All fine and good, but in the next paragraph Brooks says that the "comic twist" Bellow put on this idea is that it often detaches his characters from reality. Brooks refers to this fairly dimissively, but this would seem to undermine his claim that Bellow has somehow elevated "the American scramble for success" to a more spiritual plane. Rather, it suggests that Bellow is trying to make a point about the impossibility of achieving this ideal and is actually making fun of American society and its emphasis on success. It's possible, of course, that the comic twist is simply that, a comic twist, but if it shows up in every one of Bellow's books, we'd have to at least consider the possibility that it's an important part of Bellow's philosophy. At least, we would if we have any intellectual honesty, but then we wouldn't be David Brooks, would we?
Finally, I don't think Brooks is going to pull of a transfer to Arts and Leisure with this column. He does his best, but he needs to stop slipping into his usual culture schtick and stick to the topic at hand. My prediction is that he tries out for the Business section next. Or perhaps he'll stick with the arts but try music or movies instead. There's a slight possibility that the Times will fire him first, but I'm not holding my breath.