Saul Bellow Warns Against "Deep Reading"

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Oh, I love the internet. Saul Bellow, writing in ye old New York Times, takes overzealous literary students to task for failing to see the forests for the trees, and he does so in fine form.

"Deep reading has gone very far," Bellow writes. "It has becomes dangerous to literature."

Bellow continues by illustrating his point with a story that cuts directly to the heart of the devoted grad student.

"'Why, sir,' the student asks, 'does Achilles drag the body of Hector around the walls of Troy?'

'That sounds like a stimulating question. Most interesting. I'll bite,' says the professor.

'Well, you see, sir, the 'Iliad' is full of circles - shields, chariot wheels and other round figures. And you know what Plato said about circles. The Greeks were all mad for geometry.'

'Bless your crew-cut head,' says the professor, 'for such a beautiful thought. You have exquisite sensibility. Your approach is both deep and serious. Still I always believed that Achilles did it because he was so angry.'"

Buuuuuuuuuuuurn. That student may not be the best example, as his analysis seems reasonable and serious. But beware the students of Moby Dick.

Are you a Marxist? Then Herman Melville's Pequod in Moby Dick can be a factory, Ahab the manager, the crew the working class. Is your point of view religious? The Pequod sailed on Christmas morning, a floating cathedral headed south. Do you follow Freud or Jung? Then your interpretations may be rich and multitudinous.

I recently had a new explanation of Moby Dick from the young man in charge of an electronic brain. "Once and for all," he said. "That whale is everybody's mother wallowing in her watery bed. Ahab has the Oedipus complex and wants to slay the hell out of her."

Yikes. Bellow proceeds to excoriate the "dabbler" in deep reading, warning them to "be sure that your seriousness is indeed high seriousness and not, God forbid, low seriousness."

Personally, I long for a new day when the New York Times pretends to any sort of seriousness whatsoever.

Go read the whole thing. The complete article is available here:

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2 Responses to “ Saul Bellow Warns Against "Deep Reading" ”

  1. This type of thing was what I took issue with the most during lit classes. I used to get into heated arguments with my various teachers as they would tell me to look for the meaning behind the obvious.

    "What did the author mean..." was the most annoying question. I would invariably reply that the author meant exactly what he said. I never scored highly on those questions.

    To be fair, there are many authors who deliberately make use of symbolism, but trying to solve those riddles is pointless unless the author gives direct clues. People will always see what they want to see in anything, so it's best just to assume that when an author writes something down he intends you to interpret it as he/she wrote it. After all, he/she is the only one who would actually know.

    Thus concludes my quarterly comment quota. I shall comment again somewhere in 3 months.

  2. I agree. I was lucky that my college lit courses were open to other readings. Symbolism is irrelevant unless intended by the author. 


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