A period in Paris, just after the war brought Bellow in touch with existentialism and post-war American writing is the subject of some ironic reflections in a famous essay Bellow published in 1963, “Some Thoughts on Recent American Fiction”. (The piece was written just as he was about to publish Herzog.) Here he reflects on the current appeal of new American fiction for European intellectuals; recalling the title of Wylie Sypher’s brilliant and then influential study of modernism, ‘Loss of the Self in Modern Literature and Art’, he observes that a literature of the lost and inauthentic self has become a staple of contemporary writing. In Europe, in the work of writers like Gide, Beckett, Sartre, and Camus, this arises from the crises of contemporary history, and the breakdown of Enlightenment thought, and has clear origins in philosophical theories of the human condition. ‘American writers, when they are moved by a similar spirit to reject and despise the Self,’ Bellow then adds ironically, ‘are seldom encumbered by such intellectual baggage, and this fact pleases their European contemporaries, who find in them a natural, that is, a brutal and violent acceptance of the new universal truth by minds free from intellectual preconceptions.’ In European writers he sees a nerveless collapse of humanism, a sacrifice to history or necessity or logic. In post-war American writing the violence of being, the absurdity of existence, the state of alienation are presented as plain and brute empiricism, a view of the way things just are.- Malcolm Bradbury
I don’t know if it is post-war or if it actually started before the war. Of the European philosophers, Nietzsche, Sartre, Camus, Derrida and Baudrillard would be my greatest influences. Thoreau and Paine are the Americans I am reasonably familiar with. Thoreau and Paine and Baudrillard have always seemed the “Free-est” of the lot — Thoreau and Paine by virtue of, as Bellow points out, having a natural (if brutal — not comfortable with the flavor of this word, unless understood in an exact intent) outlook, Baudrillard by virtue of having ripped apart (or rather, progressed to the next logical stage) of contemporary thought, with his precession of simulacra and the hyperreal. Nietzsche tried to break free of the shackles, and succeeds somewhat, but he, like Sartre, I think, is encumbered by the baggage of prevailing politics — which for Sartre was his movement towards communism.Camus is the odd one out here, somewhere between Thoreau and Derrida, I think sometimes, scraping against the outer arc of the idea, the event horizon of contemporary thought (I’d like to call this event horizon The Theater of the Absurd) without really breaking free of it.Still, the tools these thinkers set into place have great value. One I haven’t mentioned, since I am still getting acquainted with his work, is of course Wittgenstein. Anyways. I found this piece rather interesting, and, having now been immersed in these ideas for a while, I can’t help but thinking of Friedrich Holderlin’s words…”We are in the period of darknessbetween the Gods that have vanishedand the God that has not yet come,between Matthew Arnold’s two worlds,‘one dead, the other powerless to be born’”Those thinkers are all gone, Baudrillard was the last. But their work remains incomplete.