Saul Bellow on writing and “Experience”

Now I don’t want to make jokes on serious matters, and it is serious when people feel that they must be able to demonstrate that reality has happened to them, certified and approved reality in the form of Experience. Have they met life, not fled it? That’s fine. Very good. But Experience in this aspect is something resembling a merit badge; something like a commodity. Let us admit it, Experience with a capital E is something of a writer’s commodity …

Well now, does it harm writers to teach in universities? I am not sure the question is a real one. It is to some extent a postural question. It assumes that by doing the right things we get the desired results. Those right things are conventional. Leave your hometown; don’t leave your hometown; don’t write for the movies; travel; don’t be a sissy; don’t tie yourself down – and you will turn out fine. But the wind of the spirit is capricious … It bloweth where it listeth. And in the end a correct posture can give you nothing more than the satisfaction that comes of fidelity to good form.

It is not easy to find the right way. You must learn to govern yourself, you must learn autonomy, you must manage your freedom or drown in it. You may strain the will after Experience because you need it for your books. Or you may perish under the heavy weight of Culture. You may make a fool of yourself anywhere. You may find illumination anywhere – in the gutter, in the college, in the corporation, in a submarine, in the library. No one man holds a patent on it. No man knows what it is likely to tell him to do. For this reason universities and corporations may find the illuminable type unreliable from a personnel point of view. A writer may do better in the anxiety of the gutter; he may do better in the heavy security of the college. Despite the purity of your posture he may do well. It’s up to the spirit, altogether, and the spirit prints no timetable.

Saul Bellow, “The University as Villain” in There is Simply Too Much to Think About

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