What is “Western Civilization”?
Tolstoy, the Zulus, and the Crimea
In one of the most infamous one-liners of the 1980s culture wars, Saul Bellow told James Atlas, who was working on a New York Times Magazine profile of Allan Bloom, “Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus? The Proust of the Papuans? I’d be glad to read him.”
Later, Bellow denied ever having made that remark as quoted. He claimed, in writing, that an unnamed journalist had misunderstood him.
If I were a journalist whose career depended on a reputation for accuracy and care in quoting sources, I would have defended myself from Bellow’s backtracking. I’m not shy, and neither was James Atlas. But James Atlas was largely sympathetic to Bellow’s and Bloom’s views on the so-called Western Canon. Indeed, Atlas had written his own book about the canon wars, Battle of the Books, not too long after his 1988 profile of Bloom. Having burned no bridges with Bellow over the accuracy of his own reporting, James Atlas ended up writing Bellow’s semi-authorized biography, which carefully made no mention of the infamous remark.
Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus…I’d be glad to read him.
Why did Bellow walk that back and repeatedly deny having said it, as Zachary Leader carefully documents in the second volume of his outstanding Bellow biography, The Life of Saul Bellow: Love and Strife, 1965–2005.
Well, it was a patently racist remark, and overt racism was less respectable in the 1980s and 1990s than it is today. So that was probably part of Bellow’s motivation for denying that he said what he said. He had made what he assumed to be an insider’s joke to Atlas about the cosmopolitanism of Western Civilization when compared to the purported backwardness of “tribal” sub-Saharan Africa or the South Pacific. But Bellow’s one-liner didn’t look like witticism in print; it looked like the vulgar racism that it was.
Still, Bellow had more personal reasons to be ashamed of that comment. His whole career as a writer, his whole identity as a humane citizen of the world, was built upon the courage to defy the condescension of WASP culture and WASP canons of taste that regarded Jews and Jewishness as exotic and other and essentially incompatible with “civilization.” Bellow had successfully taken the particular — Jewishness — and made it “universal” in his work. Or so the critics said. But in that remark to James Atlas, he sounded like a member of the WASP establishment, ready to dismiss out of hand the thought that an “ethnic other” had produced or could produce any transcendent work.
Alas for Bellow, the damage was done, and his one-liner about Tolstoy and the Zulus became part of a de-facto catechism for the conservative culture warriors of his day. The culture war par excellence in 1987 and 1988 — indeed, the contretemps regarding which Bellow made his initial remark — was the battle over Stanford University’s “Western Culture” course and its core reading list. In the view of those who defended the list, there were no “great works” by women or Black authors on Stanford’s reading list because no Black author or woman had ever written a work that merited such a designation. If there were any great works by women or Black writers, the argument went, they would be well known already, and would already be on the list. (Keep in mind, this was a list of fifteen books.)
That was the argument, that was the catechism. I know, because I repeated it myself as a callow Stanford sophomore.
But Bellow’s throw-away, thrown away line has turned out to be a cathected catechism indeed. There was more going on in that single sentence than perhaps even Bellow could have articulated.
I suppose the pairing of “Proust” and the “Papuans” can be explained by alliteration. But “Tolstoy” and “the Zulus” is an odd pairing — particularly in the 1980s. Tolstoy, the great Russian writer, may or may not have become part of the “Western canon” by the 1980s, but Russia — never mind the Soviet Union — was not part of “the West.” Still, Tolstoy had come before the Bolsheviks. Could Tolstoy be considered “Western” in the 1980s? Was Russian literature written before the Bolshevik revolution “Western” literature? Before the revolution, had Russia been part of “the West”?
That problem had been posed decades before Saul Bellow’s birth, but it had never been satisfactorily answered. In fact, debates over the civilizational status of Russia — not merely the question of whether Russia belonged to “the West,” but the question of whether Russia could be considered “civilized” at all — played out in United States newspapers during the middle decade of the 19th century. Moreover, this mid-19th century debate about whether Russia could properly be considered civilized at all was the very same debate that gave some sort of coherence to the term “Western Civilization.”
The term “Western Civilization” gained common usage in the United States in the 1850s — if you do a decade-by-decade search for the term in the Chronicling America database of the Library of Congress, you will see it break onto the scene quite suddenly during that decade, appearing hundreds of times in the decade, as opposed to dozens of times in decades prior. In those earlier decades, “Western civilization” was a term most often used (sometimes ironically) to describe the rough condition of life on the American frontier.
Suddenly, though, in the 1850s, the term “Western civilization” was showing up in American newspapers to describe two somewhat distinct but substantially overlapping ideas. “Western civilization,” broadly speaking, signified both those industrializing capitalist societies that relied upon free labor and those nations that enjoyed a liberal democratic government of some kind (whether republican or parliamentary), in contrast to a pre-industrial or feudal societies that relied on unfree labor and nations that featured some despotic or absolutist form of government.
But that distinction had already been made explicit in earlier decades via the term “civilization,” which was widely used in the early 19th century to designate both industrial capitalism and representative democracy as the pinnacles of human progress. Why did “civilization,” as it was already understood, suddenly become “Western” in the 1850s? Where did that modifier come from?
The term “Western Civilization” as an omnibus designation to describe industrial capitalism and liberal democracy emerged in the context of the Crimean War. The “Western” part of the term derived not from some imagined continuity with archaic Greece or Roman republicanism — that’s a different just-so story — but from the geopolitical designation of “the Western Powers”: England, France, and Austria. During the Crimean war, these Western Powers came to the aid of one Eastern Power, the Ottoman Empire, resisting the incursions of another Eastern Power, Russia.
This was the battle for “Western Civilization,” as the newspapers put it in the 1850s. The Weekly National Intelligencer, published in Washington, D.C., pondered “The War and the Eastern Question,” weighing the chances of both Turkey and Russia as potential members of Western civilization. The abolitionist newspaper The National Era, a Washington D.C. daily, rejoiced at the success of England and its allies in the siege of Sevastopol as “this triumph of Western Civilization over Eastern Barbarism.” The “barbarians” were the Russians, the “civilized” were the Ottoman Turks and their allies.
Even as the newspaper coverage of the Crimean War helped define the concept of “Western Civilization” in an international context, it also raised a crucial question: who could belong to “Western Civilization”? Was this a geographic designation, a religious designation, an economic designation, a political designation?
Ottoman Turkey was a majority Muslim empire. But if the Western Powers prevailed and the Ottoman Porte opened the polity and the economy to modernization, democratization, industrialization, and free labor, might majority Muslim Turkey then belong to “Western civilization”? Would the sick man of Europe ever become well, and if he became well, would he truly be part of “Europe” — the West — or was he indelibly Asiatic?
The same questions swirled around Russia. By embracing industrialism, free labor, modernization, and liberal democratic reforms, could majority Orthodox Russia not only join “civilization” but join “Western civilization”? Or was its place on the globe determinative of its place in the geopolitical order? Was Russia east or west? If it could be civilized, in the way that the Western powers understood the term, could it ever be Western?
Was Tolstoy, who was part of the Russian Army during the siege of Sevastopol and published the Sevastopol Sketches in 1855, a standard-bearer of “Western civilization”? If so, did he know it? Did anyone else?
From 1850s to the 1980s, the notion of “Western civilization” as a descriptor for some actual coherent entity — whether geographic, political, religious, intellectual, or genealogical — underwent so many changes and permutations. Who was Western and who was not? Who could become Western and who could not? These questions were up for grabs again and again during that time period, particularly in the United States.
Saul Bellow may not have known the origins of the term “Western Civilization” in American discourse. But as he entered the lists in debates over the Western canon, he surely knew what it meant to be regarded as belonging or not belonging based on descent, on the accidents of birth. In casting about for a word that would signal the impossibility of inclusion, he chose “Zulus.” For most, his remark was beyond the pale of what counted as civilized discourse in the 1980s. In an earlier era, Bellow himself would have been beyond the very pale of civilization, at least in the eyes of “the West” — he and Tolstoy and the Zulus, all of a piece.