To Jerusalem and Back

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In Saul Bellow’s novel Mr. Sammler’s Planet, published in 1970, the hero is an old man, blind in one eye, survivor of a Nazi concentration camp, a journalist and scholar. He is “attentive to everything, appalled by nothing.” His detachment enables Bellow to record the social and political tensions of contemporary urban America with a curiosity and detachment that startles the reader. Sammler has seen and suffered too much to be taken in or defined by any experience. When Bellow has him cover the aftermath of the Six Day War for a London Polish-language newspaper, he is strangely unimpressed by the rotting corpses in the desert sun: “. . . as human affairs went, a most minor affair. In modern experience, so little.” Sammler’s good eye sees what his blind eye reveals. Like Oedipus at the end of Sophocles’ tragedy, he is sated with reality and his detachment is really the calm of the gods. Like them, he sees all and his suffering makes him divine.

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In To Jerusalem and Back the book’s main character is Bellow himself, with the simple vision of his two eyes—the man, not the novelist. The Nobel Prize winner steps out from behind his literary creations—the Herzogs, Hendersons, Humboldts, and Sammlers who have provided the mythic embodiments of his life-affirming but morally rigorous sensibility. This book is a journal, not a novel. It purposely avoids the resolutions and hope of art. There are no larger-than-life people to shoulder the burden of experience and illuminate its humanity through comic or tragic visions. There is only Bellow, the American Jew, meeting all sorts of people, simple and prominent, and struggling to comprehend the social and historical complexity that underlies the meaning of Israel. It is the writer stripped naked with imagination curbed but his powers of observation heightened. Sammler’s trip to the Sinai was based on Bellow’s own experience as a correspondent at the scene. Instead of subordinating the gruesome descriptions to the theme of his fiction. Bellow produces them in the journal for their own sake, for their own inherent drama. He associates the putrefying corpses with the madness of all the conflicts in the Middle East, with their cruelty that is unique to the region. Without Sammler to filter the moment, Bellow leaves his readers with the real thing. Apprehensively but carefully, he explores all the experiences that come his way. Whereas Mr. Sammler’s Planet is a dramatization of a certain kind of tragic memory, To Jerusalem and Back plunges its readers into the puzzling and disturbing confusion of the here and now.

If this journal has any structure, it is that of a pilgrimage. But Bellow establishes very clearly that his is not a religious pilgrimage in any simple understanding of the term. When his co-passenger on the flight to Israel, a young Hasid, offers him fifteen dollars a week for life if Bellow will eat nothing but Kosher food, Bellow tactfully but firmly answers, “I can’t accept such a sacrifice from you.” Bellow is interested in secular “sacrifices,” the passions which have made Israel a social and political reality. He finds what he is looking for in the simple flow of conversation. He talks with the “kibbutznick” seaman, John Auerbach, who survived the Warsaw ghetto, and after thirty years of hard agricultural labor, ships on oil tankers to obscure ports where his Israeli identity (he is a Wandering Israeli, not a Wandering Jew) flows into the strange ambience of “ancient mariners.” He talks with the novelist Amos Oz, who observes that Israel contains as many visions of Heaven as it has immigrants; with the sixty-year-old barber of the King David Hotel who won the heart of Hubert H. Humphrey (whose signed photos adorn the barber shop wall); with Professor Sholem Kahn of the Hebrew University, who reflects on the rootlessness of modern man;...

(The entire section contains 1715 words.)

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