Humboldt's Gift by Saul Bellow

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What is the metaphorical significance of Cantabile's $50 paper airplanes?

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David Morrison eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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After his car gets smashed up by a gang of thugs, Charlie finally pays back the gambling debt he owes to would-be tough guy Rinaldo Cantabile. Cantabile didn't really need the money; it was just a matter of pride, more than anything else. The last thing this wannabe gangster wanted was to earn the reputation of being soft.

Just how little the debt meant to Cantabile in financial terms can be seen when he turns the $50 bills he's received from Charlie into paper planes, which he then proceeds to throw into the air from the top of a tall girder. In metaphorical terms, this episode illustrates a challenge to the late Humboldt's belief in the rigid separation of art and commerce. Cantabile has literally created something out of money. In doing so, he's demonstrating that creation of anything doesn't come out of a void; there must be certain material conditions in place before anything can be created.

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David Morrison eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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write9,089 answers

starTop subjects are Literature, History, and Law and Politics

It's impossible to imagine anyone more different from the late Von Humboldt Fleisher than Rinaldo Cantabile. A wannabe gangster and tough guy, he's the epitome of everything that the avant-garde poet wasn't. Ignorant, thuggish, and an unapologetic philistine, Cantabile represents the antithesis of the cultural values to which Humboldt was so deeply committed. Charlie's involvement with this unsavory character, brought about ostensibly because he wanted to hang out with "interesting people," has brought him nothing but trouble.

Worst of all, the unwelcome presence of Cantabile has made Charlie's life much more complicated. As an artist, he always found it hard to reconcile the tension that so often arises between life and art, but with the thuggish Cantabile constantly on his back, that task has become more difficult, and his art has suffered accordingly.

Charlie is indebted to Cantabile for a large gambling debt, which arose from a crooked poker game in which everyone was cheating except Charlie. Eventually, after having his car smashed up by Cantabile's thugs, he agrees to pay what he owes. With the money safely in his pocket, Cantabile makes the fifty-dollar bills into paper airplanes, which he proceeds to throw into the air from the top of a high girder at a construction site.

The metaphorical significance of this incident is twofold. First of all, it can be seen to represent the importance of money in this materialist society. Money can quite literally soar high in the sky, certainly higher than any art that Charlie—or Humboldt, for that matter—has ever been able to produce.

Secondly, in literally creating something out of money, Cantabile is presenting a challenge to Humboldt's values, which were based on an almost Manichean opposition between art and commerce. Cantabile's $50 paper planes could, then, stand as a metaphor for the material conditions that must exist before anything can be created—whether it's poems, novels, plays, or paper planes—whatever intellectuals like Humboldt may think.

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