Great Throughts Treasury

A database of quotes

Saul Bellow

Canadian-born American Novelist, Playwright, Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Literature and National Medal of Arts

"In every community there is a class of people profoundly dangerous to the rest. I don't mean the criminals. For them we have punitive sanctions. I mean the leaders. Invariably the most dangerous people seek the power. While in the parlors of indignation the right-thinking citizen brings his heart to a boil. In here, the human bosom -- mine, yours, everybody's -- there isn't just one soul. There's a lot of souls. But there are two main ones, the real soul and a pretender soul. Now! Every man realizes that he has to love something or somebody. He feels that he must go outward. 'If thou canst not love, what art thou?' Are you with me? "

"A man is only as good as what he loves."

"Goodness is achieved not in a vacuum, but in the company of other men, attended by love."

"I feel that art has something to do with the achievement of stillness in the midst of chaos. A stillness which characterizes prayer, too, and the eye of the storm. I think that art has something to do with an arrest of attention in the midst of distraction."

"People are only as good as what they love."

"Art has something to do with the achievement of stillness in the midst of chaos. A stillness which characterizes prayer, too, and the eye of the storm… an arrest of attention in the mist of distraction."

"There’s a scheme of evasion that has gotten into everybody. It’s as though people were to say: “I get home dog tired after a terrible day out in that jungle, and then I don’t want to think about it. Enough! I want to be brainwashed. I’m going to have my dinner and drink some beer, and I’m going to sit watching TV until I pass out – because that’s how I feel.” That means people are not putting up a struggle for the human part of themselves."

"I feel that art has something to do with achievement of stillness in the midst of chaos. A stillness which characterizes prayer, too, and the eye of the storm. I think that art has something to do with an arrest of attention in the midst of distraction."

"A fool can throw a stone in a pond that 100 wise men cannot get out."

"A good American makes propaganda for whatever existence has forced him to become."

"A good novel is worth more than the best scientific study."

"A great deal of intelligence can be invested in ignorance when the need for illusion is deep."

"A human soul devoid of longing was a soul deformed, deprived of its highest good, sick unto death."

"A man may say, "From now on I'm going to speak the truth." But the truth hears him and runs away and hides before he's even done speaking."

"A man should be able to hear, and to bear, the worst that could be said of him."

"A millennial belief in a Holy God may have the effect of deepening the soul, but it is also obviously archaic, and modern influences would presently bring me up to date and reveal how antiquated my origins were. To turn away from those origins, however, has always seemed to me an utter impossibility. It would be a treason to my first consciousness to un-Jew myself."

"A novel is balanced between a few true impressions and the multitude of false ones that make up most of what we call life. It tells us that for every human being there is a diversity of existences, that the single existence is itself an illusion in part, that these many existences signify something, tend to something, fulfill something; it promises us meaning, harmony, and even justice."

"A professor from UBC observed that he agreed with Alexander Pope about the ultimate unreality of evil. Seen from the highest point of metaphysics. To a rational mind, nothing bad ever really happens. He was talking high-minded balls. Twaddle! I thought. I said, 'Oh? Do you mean that every gas chamber has a silver lining?"

"A style of this sort will seem to modern readers marred by classical stiffness--Truth, Knowers, the Good, Man--but we can by no means deny that behind our objection to such language is a guilty consciousness of the flimsiness, and not infrequently the trashiness, of our modern talk about values."

"A writer is a reader moved to emulation."

"A writer should be able to express himself easily, naturally, copiously in a form that frees his mind, his energies. Why should he hobble himself with formalities?"

"Actually there are few things that can be changed only wanting. You cannot change the lungs, nerves, constitution and character. None of that is within reach of human beings. When you are young, strong and impulsive and you are not happy with the course of things, feel the desire to change everything to assert their own freedom. Unable to overthrow the government or otherwise birth: it only has a limited and perhaps a feeling that essentially cannot be changed horizon."

"After much effort to live up to a glorious standard there came fatigue, wan hope, and boredom. I experienced extreme boredom. I saw others experiencing it too, many denying, by the way, that any such thing existed. And finally I decided that I would make boredom my subject matter. That I'd study it. That I'd become the world's leading authority on it. March, that was a red-letter day for humanity. What a field! What a domain! Titanic! Promethean! I trembled before it. I was inspired. I couldn't sleep. Ideas came in the night and I wrote them down, volumes of them. Strange that no one had gone after this systematically. Oh, melancholy, yes, but not modern boredom."

"All a writer has to do to get a woman is to say he's a writer. It's an aphrodisiac."

"All human accomplishment has the same origin, identically. Imagination is a force of nature. Is this not enough to make a person full of ecstasy? Imagination, imagination, imagination. It converts to actual. It sustains, it alters, it redeems!"

"Also, he was smoking a cigar, and when a man is smoking a cigar, wearing a hat, he has an advantage; it is harder to find out how he feels."

"Alternatives, and particularly desirable alternatives, grow only on imaginary trees."

"Although she never went to the synagogue...Grandma [Lausch], all the same, burned a candle on the anniversary of Mr. Lausch's death, threw a lump of dough on the coals when she was baking, a kind of offering, had incantations over baby teeth and stunts against the evil eye. It was kitchen religion and had nothing to do with the G-d of the Creation who turned back the waters and exploded Gomorrah, but it was on the side of religion at that."

"Americans must be the most sententious people in history. Far too busy to be religious, they have always felt that they sorely needed guidance."

"And I said to myself that unless you conceive Death to be a violent guerrilla and kidnaper who snatches those you love, and if you are not cowardly and cannot submit to such terrorism as civilized people now do in every department of life, you must pursue and inquire and explore every possibility and seek everywhere and try everything."

"And now here's the thing. It takes a time like this for you to find out how sore your heart has been, and, moreover, all the while you thought you were going around idle terribly hard work was taking place. Hard, hard work, excavation and digging, mining, moiling through tunnels, heaving, pushing, moving rock, working, working, working, working, panting, hauling, hoisting."

"Anxiety destroys scale, and suffering makes us lose perspective."

"Any artist should be grateful for a naive grace which puts him beyond the need to reason elaborately."

"Anyhow, I had found something out about an unknown privation, and I realized how a general love or craving, before it is explicit or before it sees its object, manifests itself as boredom or some other kind of suffering. And what did I think of myself in relation to the great occasions, the more sizable being of these books? Why, I ?saw ?them, first of all. So suppose I wasn't created to read a great declaration, or to boss a palatinate, or send off a message to Avignon, and so on, I could see, so there nevertheless was a share for me in all that had happened. How much of a share? Why, I knew there were things that would never, because they could never, come of my reading. But this knowledge was not so different from the remote but ever-present death that sits in the corner of the loving bedroom; though it doesn't budge from the corner, you wouldn't stop your loving. Then neither would I stop my reading. I sat and read. I had no eye, ear, or interest for anything else--that is, for usual, second-order, oatmeal, mere-phenomenal, snarled-shoelace-carfare-laundry-ticket plainness, unspecified dismalness, unknown captivities; the life of despair-harness or the life of organization-habits which is meant to supplant accidents with calm abiding. Well, now, who can really expect the daily facts to go, toil or prisons to go, oatmeal and laundry tickets and the rest, and insist that all moments be raised to the greatest importance, demand that everyone breathe the pointy, star-furnished air at its highest difficulty, abolish all brick, vault-like rooms, all dreariness, and live like prophets or gods? Why, everybody knows this triumphant life can only be periodic. So there's a schism about it, some saying only this triumphant life is real and others that only the daily facts are. For me there was no debate, and I made speed into the former."

"Apes in their own habitat are less sexually driven than those in captivity. It must be that captivity, boredom, breeds lustfulness."

"Apparently the rise of consciousness is linked to certain kinds of privation. It is the bitterness of self-consciousness that we knowers know best. Critical of the illusions that sustained mankind in earlier times, this self-consciousness of ours does little to sustain us now. The question is: which is disenchanted, the world itself or the consciousness we have of it?"

"Art -- the fresh feeling, new harmony, the transforming magic which by means of myth brings back the scattered distracted soul from its modern chaos -- art, not politics, is the remedy."

"Art has to do with the arrest of attention in the midst of distraction."

"Art is the achievement of stillness in the midst of chaos."

"As a scholar [Allan Bloom] intends to enlighten us, and as a writer he has learned from Aristophanes and other models that enlightenment should also be enjoyable. To me, this is not the book of a professor, but that of a thinker who is willing to take the risks more frequently taken by writers. It is risky in a book of ideas to speak in one?s own voice, but it reminds us that the sources of the truest truths are inevitably profoundly personal? Academics, even those describing themselves as existentialists, very seldom offer themselves publicly and frankly as individuals, as persons."

"As for Sono, she was trying to instruct him, to show how a man should treat a woman. The pride of the peacock, the lust of the goat, and the wrath of the lion are the glory and wisdom of God."

"As for Thea, sometimes she looked more barbarous than they did in spite of the civilized lipstick and conventional shape of the jodhpurs she wore."

"As long as I could keep improving my mind, I figured, I was doing okay."

"As for types like my own, obscurely motivated by the conviction that our existence was worthless if we didn't make a turning point of it, we were assigned to the humanities, to poetry, philosophy, painting the nursery games of humankind, which had to be left behind when the age of science began. The humanities would be called upon to choose a wallpaper for the crypt, as the end drew near."

"As the victim of those impulses she must be looking in the paper for his obituary."

"Associate with the noblest people you can find; read the best books; live with the mighty; but learn to be happy alone."

"At moments I dislike having a face, a nose, lips, because he has them."

"At times I feel like a socket that remembers its tooth."

"Beauty is not a human invention."

"Because he let the entire world press upon him. For instance? Well, for instance, what it means to be a man. In a city. In a century. In transition. In a mass. Transformed by science. Under organized power. Subject to tremendous controls. In a condition caused by mechanization. After the late failure of radical hopes. In a society that was no community and devalued the person.Owing to the multiplied power of numbers which made the self negligible. Which spent military billions against foreign enemies but would not pay for order at home. Which permitted savagery and barbarism in its own great cities. At the same time, the pressure of human millions who have discovered what concerted efforts and thoughts can do."