Man in Culture
Mr. Sammler’s Planet.
by Saul Bellow.
Viking. 313 pp. $6.95.
A remarkable feature of Saul Bellow’s career is that it is a kind of model of organic growth, his novels both alike and different, like a human being getting older. Their differences have been easier to see first—an intellectual’s journal, a tight Kafkaesque nightmare, a loose, expansive, high-spirited picaresque tale, an African adventure story, and so on. But the novels are profoundly alike too, because from the start Bellow has had the luck to know what he most deeply cherishes, and he has clung to that knowledge against all the batterings of experience and all the seductions of intellectual sophistication. Each of his novels has asked: How can I hold onto the feeling, acquired in my (Jewish) childhood, that I am a precious soul and that life is full of beautiful promise? How can I hold onto this feeling when both experience and thought in our time seem to have turned it into a joke, and maturity seems to mean precisely the ability to see through the joke?
Bellow’s protagonists (each, however vividly individualized, a version of himself) have always fought against such maturity. To accept the idea that we are nothing special, and that the “nobility” that thrills us in history books is no longer among our possibilities—this, for Bellow, has always meant “to die,” while “to live”—the phrases recur almost obsessively—has meant to be stirred to joyous activity by a faith that inspires, the faith that the self we imagine in our happiest moments can be real. (“Imagination is a force of nature,” said Dahfu in Henderson the Rain King. “It converts to actual. It sustains. It alters. It redeems.”) What that life-giving faith asserts is that we do have a “separate destiny” (Joseph, in Dangling Man); that “the eternal . . . bonded onto us . . . calls out for its share” (Henderson); that we can be “marvelous” (Herzog). It is the faith of the early Romantics-Blake, Wordsworth, Keats—whose ideas in fact suffuse Bellow’s novels.
To this point, however, another must be added. Bellow is unique among American novelists not only because he has always clung to an unfashionably sunny faith, the faith of the child, but because he has been at the same time more heavily burdened with adult knowledge and thought than any American novelist since Melville. And in all his stories knowledge and thought tend to mock that faith, sometimes defeating it, sometimes merely complicating it.
One way to get at what is new in Mr. Sammler’s Planet would be to say that in it the Romantic faith of Bellow’s earlier novels might appear, at first glance, to have been abandoned. The book seems to be, in large part, an attack on a generation of Americans which is trying to stay “alive” in Bellow’s own sense of the word-to have a separate destiny, to be marvelous, just as his former heroes have done. Clinton Trowbridge has remarked that the Romantic Bellow has here turned suddenly “neo-classic,” and some reviewers, less kind, have called the book ungenerous and reactionary.
In my opinion, however, Bellow has done something far more interesting in Mr. Sammler’s Planet than to reverse himself. He has, it is true, moved from where he used to be: instead of the predictable repetition of old stances to which novelists incapable of growth tend to sink, he has tried, with unusual directness, to give expression to the new experience of a new time. But the fact is that the changes in emphasis which this novel dramatizes are changes required for Bellow to remain loyal, in this new time, to what has mattered most to him from the start. Today’s rebellious young are indeed loud in proclaiming Bellow’s own sense that each individual is precious and deserves a chance for rich fulfillments. But it is an old story that a good cause may be in danger from its own champions, and what Bellow is now trying to show is how the most prevalent ways of asserting that belief are actually, for reasons that lie deep in the recent development of Western culture, ways of caricaturing it, vulgarizing it. Now we have to grant, of course, that this is the work of a middle-aged man, and that Bellow’s protagonist is his oldest yet, a man in his seventies. But the distinction of Mr. Sammler’s Planet is precisely that it is an embodiment, beautifully adequate to its subject, of the wisdom of Bellow’s middle age.
To express this new perspective, and to judge from it the new age, Bellow has created a protagonist different from his others, as well as like them, in appropriate ways. Artur Sammler is a Polish Jew who was spoiled by well-to-do parents as a child, and who, as a young man, fell in love with English reasonableness and good manners (he was a friend of H. G. Wells)—in short, he was shaped, like earlier Bellow heroes, to expect good things of himself and others. But later there came a moment when he climbed naked and half-blinded out of a mass grave of Nazi victims, leaving behind the corpse of his wife. And soon after this he, in his turn, killed a German soldier he had disarmed and stripped—killed him deliberately, and with intense pleasure. For the rest of his life he struggles against the message there delivered to him, “that reality was a terrible thing, and the final truth about mankind overwhelming and crushing.”
It is a message renewed, of course, again and again, not only among the bloated corpses Sammler saw as an elderly journalist in the Sinai desert in 1967, but equally on New York’s upper Broadway, where it seems “the implicit local orthodoxy.” But he fights it. Mainly it is “a vulgar and cowardly conclusion, rejected . . . with all his heart.” Now he is living in New York on the charity of a rich doctor nephew, uncomfortable at what he sees around him, but hesitant to judge, increasingly fed up with “explanations”—to make “distinctions” is what he prefers—his favorite reading the work of Meister Eckhart, the medieval German mystic for whom the comfort of God requires that we abandon the false comfort offered us by His creatures. Yet others keep turning to Sammler as himself a source of mysterious comfort (even while his old-fashioned good manners make them smile): he remains hopelessly involved, through love as well as duty, with those same creatures. And the private vocation he has turned to in the leisure of old age is the search for “short views,” a phrase of Sidney Smith’s which, as Sammler uses it, generally means condensed conclusions about “some essence of experience,” and which keeps recurring as the new hunger of his mind.
Sammler’s, then, is the ripest intelligence Bellow has ever invented, a man educated not only by books, for he has learned at first hand the chief lessons of our time. And though the novel resembles Herzog, in that its story comes to us entirely through its hero’s idiosyncratic Jewish responses, and his wideranging memories and reflections, what makes it quite different is that it is actually just the sort of “condensation” a Mr. Sammler would have ordered. Action, memories, reflections are not here an image of the turbulence of life, but always in league with each other and building forward, each of the six chapters clearly a unit in a theme’s development. The story is, in fact, an account of a series of confrontations between the elderly humanist and a group of characters chosen to represent the current Zeitgeist. And these confrontations are given increasing urgency and point by a classic philosophical challenge that haunts them all—that is, by Sammler’s struggle, through the tale’s few days, to find some “word” to bring his dying nephew that might oppose the negation of death. (The nephew, rich in part with Mafia abortion money, has been no angel. But Sammler recognizes in him a man “assigned” to feel, especially for others—to reach out, please, help, as if the world were a family. And for this he loves him.)
There is, first of all, the new sexual morality, represented by Angela, the dying man’s daughter, who has been set free by her beauty and her father’s wealth for a “Roman” paganism of sexual behavior. She calls “perverse” not the “erotic business in Acapulco” that occurred when she and her fiancé played switch with some beach acquaintances, but his sudden jealousy afterward. Her brother Wallace is equally familiar—a “high-I.Q. moron,” who “finds out how to put things together . . . as he goes along,” as in “action-painting,” and whose one persistent motive seems to be to show his father that he can make it on his own, and that he can’t—for his brilliant beginnings always end in failure that looks deliberately courted. Wallace’s resemblance to Augie March, who also refused to let himself be pinned down or to risk, by accepting some limiting job or function, “a disappointed life,” is symptomatic of Bellow’s changed perspective. Augie, though he had his troubles, also had his author’s sympathy. Wallace, unwilling to accept limits or models of being imposed by others, and yet incapable of respecting for long those chosen by himself, is clearly a failure and a waste.
Then there is Feffer, a Columbia University student who represents the type who does make it. He is a clever promoter for whom ends justify means and liberal sentiments are quite enough for a good conscience. Feffer cons Sammler into lecturing on Bloomsbury to a Columbia crowd gathered to hear about Sorel on violence, an affair that ends in what is at this moment in history a familiar disaster. A “thick-bearded, but possibly young” member of the New Left, offended by an irony quoted from Orwell, stops the talk with, “Hey! Old man! . . . That’s a lot of shit!” and some remarks about Sammler’s dry balls.
Finally, there is Sammler’s son-in-law Eisen, an Israeli avant-garde painter and sculptor, in whom we are shown what is now happening both to Jews and to artists. Like Sammler, he is a survivor of the Holocaust, but he is one who has willingly, even happily, embraced the cynical lesson that Sammler struggles to resist. As an artist, he paints living people as corpses: by this gimmick of a death-oriented outrageousness he gives to creative impotence a hectic pseudo-potency. As a Jew, he crushes skulls, when it seems reasonable to do so, without any crippling tremors of doubt or remorse. “You were a Partisan,” he says, when the old man, in a scene I will sketch in a moment, protests in horror that he might have gained his end less bloodily. “You had a gun. So don’t you know? . . . If in—in. No? If out—out? Yes? No? So answer.” In Eisen the traditional allegiances of both Jew and artist—to life, to man—have been reversed. And he now goes after personal development and distinction—an American “karyera”—with the greedy single-mindedness of the ethically “liberated.”
The book is strewn with Mr. Sammler’s reflections on what all these confrontations imply—on the “individuality boom” that has resulted from the increase of freedom and the dread of “futurelessness”; on the drive to be “real” that has merely replaced traditional human models with “dime-store” models out of recent literature and Hollywood; on the resort to madness in order to demonstrate availability for “higher purposes,” which purposes “do not necessarily appear”; on the “non-negotiable” demands for instant gratification made by people who, refusing to admit any limitations on the possible, are doomed to humiliating misery and dangerous rages. But the opening chapter’s presentation of what is happening to Mr. Sammler’s planet is completed by the introduction of two characters who, though they too represent the new age, are types of the human he can respect. First, there is a tall, gorgeously dressed black pickpocket. Having caught Sammler watching him in action, the black follows the frightened old man into his hotel lobby, presses him to a wall, and displays, in significant silence, his massive penis. Immediately after this warning, Sammler finds in his room a manuscript work on “The Future of the Moon,” stolen for him by his half-mad daughter from an Indian scientist, Dr. V. Govinda Lal. Reading its first line, “How long will this earth remain the only home of man?” he closes the chapter with the silent cry, “How long? Oh Lord, you bet! Wasn’t it the time—the very hour to go? . . . To blow this great blue, white, green planet, or to be blown from it.”
The values represented by the black man—lawlessness, sexual potency, self-delight—may well have influenced mid-20th century youth. But as the story proceeds, Sammler becomes aware that he is, in fact, like Sammler himself, an outsider and the new generation’s victim. The pickpocket stole because “he took the slackness and cowardice of the world for granted.” Puma-like, eine Natur (Goethe’s respectful phrase), he was mad, if at all, “with an idea of noblesse.” Indeed, Feffer, hearing about him, is thrilled, as by a “sudden glory.” But Feffer’s response to the “glory” is to photograph the thief in action for magazine exploitation. And when the black struggles with him for the camera and Sammler asks Eisen to help, that new-type Jewish artist coolly smashes the black’s face with a bag of his crazy sculpture. It is the black who gets Sammler’s passionate sympathy, the others his horrified rage.
As for Lal, Bellow has created in him a genuinely brilliant man of science, and, improbable though it may seem, the twenty-nine pages of philosophic dialogue which follow his meeting with Sammler are a moving and exciting fictional climax. Lal, for whom nature, “more than n engineer, is an artist,” is no mere opposite to Sammler; yet they differ on one point that relates to the novel’s center. Lal is ready to call it quits on man’s long struggle to make a home on this planet. For him space travel is not only the inevitable next step demanded by the human imagination. As an Indian, “super-sensitive to a surplus of humanity”—that is, already familiar with the future—he believes that refusal to make the voyages elsewhere which are growing possible would turn this crowded planet into a prison, and bring the human species, now “eating itself up,” closer than ever to leaping into Kingdom Come. Moreover, amid the rigors of space and under the leadership of technicians endowed with their own kind of nobility, he believes that man may yet be disciplined into recovering lost virtues.
Sammler’s response is no simple disagreement. In fact, much of what he says is an anguished attempt to understand what has caused “the shrinking scope for the great powers of nature in the individual, the abundant and generous powers.” But he feels that there is “also an instinct against leaping into Kingdom Come. . . . The spirit knows that its continued growth is the real end of existence.” And crowded and disappointing though it is, his own planet is still, for him, a home he cannot—will not—give up. Why not? His answer to this question—what he has to offer in place of a defeatist departure into space or Kingdom Come—constitutes the point of the book.
Mainly, of course, the answer is himself. But, as I have suggested, it is dramatized in his struggle to find some “word” which will comfort his nephew in the hour of his death. The struggle is real, its desperateness is genuinely evoked, especially in the mounting excitement that precedes the end: in that scene of blood when Eisen’s killer-reasoning “sinks his heart,” and then in his final confrontation in the hospital with Gruner’s sexy daughter. Risking her rage, he tries first to get Angela to feel what is now wanted—to put aside for once her own demands and grievances, to go to her father, say something, make some sign, at least, that will show she is sorry her behavior, of which he has heard, has caused him pain. But Angela, bold enough in other areas, naturally recoils from a scene so “hokey.” (“You want an old-time deathbed scene. . . But how could I—It goes against everything. You’re talking to the wrong person. . . . What is there to say?”) A few seconds later Sammler himself, standing alone beside his nephew’s body, utters his “word” in the silent heartbroken prayer that ends the novel:
Remember, God [Sammler prays], the soul of Elya Gruner, who, as willingly as possible and as well as he was able, and even in suffocation and even as death was coining was eager, even childishly perhaps . . . to do what was required of him. At his best this man was much kinder than at my very best I have ever been or could ever be. He was aware that he must meet, and he did meet—through all the confusion and degraded clowning of this life through which we are speeding—he did meet the terms of his contract. The terms which, in his inmost heart, every man knows. As I know mine. As all know. For that is the truth of it—that we all know, God, that we know, we know, we know.
Here, then, is the new emphasis to which Bellow has been led by the new age (and his own new age). The mere assertion of individuality, the “non-negotiable” demand for one’s own way, the leaps to ecstasy or “significance” that by-pass duties and commitments to others—such behavior debases the self it seeks to glorify. It is only by loyalty to the “human bond,” to the “contract” implicit in our humanity, that we can safeguard our own sense of the self’s value.
Indeed, as Sammler becomes aware during a moment of horror, to find oneself with no other to turn to in a time of need is “death,” is to be “not himself. . . . Someone beween the human and not-human states, between content and void, meaning and not-meaning, between this world and no world. Flying, freed from gravitation, light with release and dread, doubting his destination, fearing there was nothing to receive him.” For Sammler, a man who believes in God, even our sense of ultimate destinations and receptions depend on that “contract.” The term implies a faith not merely in the fact of a “human bond,” but also in our obligation to create it for each other. By looks, by signs, by words, we make this planet a home for each other, we make a web of relationships and meanings that reach even beyond the individual life and reduce even the terror of the unknown future.
But if Bellow has tried to body forth the idea of a “contract,” he also makes clear that idea’s terrible vulnerability. For Sammler, the young who cry “Shit!” to their elders do have a case. He is painfully aware, for instance, that the old attitudes toward sex were not a success, and that Angela’s sexuality may well, as she cleverly observes, be the fulfilment of her father’s repressed wishes. He knows too that to insist on a “bond,” in a world so largely ruled by force, may be to support the inhibition of legitimate protest. Even Eisen’s killer-reasoning was once—or so it seemed—Sammler’s own.
The truth is that Sammler’s final “word” is no comfortable triumph. At best, it is a battle won in a war that will never end. Or more exactly, it is an assertion of faith, and faith is half the mere will that things be so and so, asserted against the undying possibility that they may not be. But—we don’t know everything. To swallow current “explanations” as the whole truth is to submit slavishly to ignoble reduction. There is in life an inexhaustible wealth of possibilities, and therefore freedom. In that freedom intuitions of decency may be entitled to respect. (I am, in part, paraphrasing Sammler, but Bellow had already said this in The Victim. “Choose dignity,” declared the sage Schlossberg. “Nobody knows enough to turn it down.”) If nothing in culture is born out of unmixed conditions or causes, yet graces do emerge out of the mixture, ideas of human decency which, though they may be “compromised,” may also be our chief safeguards against the brutes. To spit on such ideas in all relations because they have been alibis for evil in some may be itself a brute’s way of justifying brutishness.
Saul bellow is pre-eminently the novelist of man-in-culture, man swimming in an ocean of ideas in which he often feels near to being swamped. (“There are moments,” thinks Sammler, “when one lies under and feels the awful weight of accumulated consciousness. . . . Not at all funny.”) But though, as is often pointed out, ideas in art can be deadening, the odd fact is that in Bellow’s work they provide rather a source of fictional life, of drama. Bellow has a gift, reminiscent of Wordsworth, for evoking in his very sentence rhythms, as well as in his words, the experience of thought, the drama of its emergence out of the life of the whole man. Moreover, the ideas he presents are those of one who knows, in Sammler’s words, “Once take a stand, draw a baseline, and contraries assail you. . . . All positions are mocked by their opposites.” The thematic intentions his characters and plots are shaped to serve are therefore more likely to safeguard than to violate the mysteries of reality.
But there is a deeper reason for the emotional power of Bellow’s thought, and for the uniquely intimate response he elicits from some of us. It is that he is concerned above all with man -in-culture, man swimming for his life among ideas, wincing at or delighting in them, and challenging them always to answer the naive, irrepressible demands of the feeling heart. He carries amid the richest complexities of modern consciousness the claims and standards of our ordinary humanity. It is perhaps here, more than in his idiom or his subject matter, that his Jewishness may be located—in the fact that he writes as a champion of the human, of humaneness; he writes out of that tenderness for the hard-pressed human’ creature which has traditionally been the Jew’s strength, and his weakness. Mr. Sammler’s Planet is a beautiful defense of our common humanity against all the bogus idealism as well as the frank savagery that nowadays rejects it as “corn.” For this reason it deserves, as I once wrote of his other novels, not merely admiration, but gratitude.