Bellow, Saul (Vol. 3)
Bellow, Saul 1915–
Bellow, a Canadian-born Jewish-American novelist, short story writer, playwright, and essayist, is one of America's most celebrated writers of fiction. Life and death, reason and emotion are among the principal themes of his vital, disciplined, and intellectual novels. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)
Bellow's controlling images and myths tend to be social ones; ideas, political and philosophical are not something intrusive in his work, but the atmosphere, the very condition of life. He feels most deeply where his thought is most deeply involved, and his characters come alive where they are touched by ideas. It is for this reason that the most moving passages in his books are discussions, the interchange of opinions and theories as vividly presented as a love scene or a fight. But his books are never "problem" novels in the sense of the socially conscious twenties. Even The Victim (which remains in many respects my favorite), though it takes off from the problem of anti-Semitism, does not aim at establishing the smug sense of our innocence and the other's guilt, but suggests in its muted fable the difficulty of being human, much less innocent, in a world of injustice.
Leslie A. Fiedler, "Adolescence and Maturity in the American Novel" (copyright © 1955 by Harrison-Blaine, Inc.; reprinted by permission), in The Critic as Artist: Essays on Books 1920–1970, edited by Gilbert A. Harrison, Liveright, 1972, pp. 120-30.
Bellow has been highly sensitive to the often hypnotic influence of the preceding age's great literature on the writers of our day. His own fiction, certainly from Augie March on, could be viewed as a sustained attempt to shake off that influence…. [As] Bellow sensibly observes, [the] very agony of being modern, once an immediate intuition of reality, has frozen into a fashionable posture and thus has become, even in a world where there is cause enough for agony, peculiarly irrelevant to life….
A superficial glance at Bellow's … novels might lead one to conclude that the author of The Victim and Dangling Man belonged very much in the contemporary tradition of alienated writing which he … castigates. But even his earliest novels are quite distinct both in moral tone and in intellectual purview from that fashionable literature of alienation whose attitudes range from truculent resentment to anarchic rebellion. And while Bellow has built all six of his novels around victimized protagonists, what he had been attempting to do is to turn the clichés and conventions of victim literature inside out. In Herzog, this act of literary self-transcendence is at last fully achieved….
In general, Bellow's handling of narrative method has been exploratory, tentative, but not obtrusively experimental. He has not been impelled to shatter traditional literary molds because, unlike the writers of the avant-garde, he has no orthodox belief about the nature of reality, such as a faith in the impossibility of meaning, which would serve as an imperative for an antitraditionalist program.
His first novel, Dangling Man (1944), is probably the least interesting from a formal point of view, though its thematic concerns are archetypal for Bellow's fiction: the Dangling Man will continue to swing through all the novels until he is finally set down on convincingly solid ground at the end of Herzog. The most obvious literary influence on the first novel is Dostoevski. The general plan of the book would seem to derive from Notes from Underground: Bellow's novel, like Dostoevski's, is presented as the journal-confession of a frustrated intellectual who focuses in himself the general condition of anomie suffered by individuals in modern society…. In the subsequent novels, Bellow generally avoids … neat symbolizing; it is clear that his imagination is most at home in the vivid creation of concrete situations, not in tracing timeless mythic patterns.
But Dangling Man, despite its penchant for schematizing and its relative sketchiness, reveals an important aptitude of Bellow's which contributes much to the imaginative richness of his later work. He demonstrates a high degree of responsiveness to the creative innovations of other writers and—in contrast to his use of Dostoevski—an unusual gift for assimilating them thoroughly into his own mechanism of sensibility without overt imitation….
Herzog, like Bellow's other books, is a complex novel without being a difficult one. Its imaginative revisiting of the past would seem to an unsophisticated reader to be merely an extended use of the technique of flashback that has been worked into bleary-eyed tedium by contemporary novelists. In point of fact, Herzog's flashbacks, unlike the popular device they appear to resemble, supply illumination in depth. They are as pregnant with meaning and at times as psychologically revealing as the impressive achievements by other writers in stream of consciousness or interior monologue. But, in contrast to these characteristically modern conventions, they do not stand out as part of an elaborate, pioneering discipline for the capture of consciousness, designed, as it were, to make the reader's way an arduous one.
And what is true in this particular matter of transcribing consciousness is largely true of Bellow's whole relationship with literary tradition and formal experiment. He shares many of the aims of the preeminently modern novelists, but he tries to realize them in forms that are not obtrusively modern. Despite the obvious thematic similarities, each of his novels is very different from the others because each represents a different kind of attempt to infuse fresh life into a traditional narrative form or novelistic sub-genre by using it in unexpected new ways. All his novels, with the partial exception of Henderson the Rain King, seem conventionally "realistic." But what Bellow has done—coming as he does after a great age of literary revolution—is to explore the possibilities of revitalizing prerevolutionary forms, putting to use, wherever appropriate, the awarenesses and technical resources made available by the major iconoclastic literature of the earlier twentieth century. The inventor of Augie March and Henderson is a master of literary combinations and permutations, or, to use a more appropriately organic metaphor, of the art of crossbreeding narrative genres….
Bellow … has sought in his fiction for ways to recover a civilized self, assuming that, for all that has gone wrong with our civilization, we can still learn within its context how to live decent, satisfying, really human lives. Significantly, Herzog's grandiose and unrealized ambition is to write a book "with a new angle on the modern condition, showing how life could be lived by renewing universal connections; overturning the last of the Romantic errors about the uniqueness of the Self; revising the old Western, Faustian ideology." Precisely revision, not rejection or revolution, has characterized the relationship of Bellow's fiction to both literary and moral traditions.
The moral pattern of all his work, first sketched out in Dangling Man, most vitally realized in Herzog, is clear enough. Perhaps the best résumé of that pattern is Bellow's play, The Last Analysis, which delightfully transposes virtually all the major themes of his fiction into a farcical key. Every one of Bellow's heroes suffers, like Bummidge in the play, from "humanitis"—which, as Bummidge's secretary explains, is "when the human condition gets to be too much for you." The term is appropriately mock-clinical: being human is a difficult business in Bellow's view, but he sees it as an evasion to paste down the difficulty with a quasi-scientific label like "neurosis" which implies that the problem can be handled by a professional, a therapist. Every man is his own analyst, Bummidge suggests, and this is pretty much the condition of each of Bellow's protagonists….
[One] might say that there is a stubborn core of innocence in all Bellow's heroes. Each is a kind of Huck Finn with no faithful Jim to guide him, a person in some ways impressively knowing about the world, yet always looking at it with eyes of youthful wonder, insisting upon grasping it in his own way. The irrepressible desire for life, however deadening experience has been, which characterizes Bellow's protagonists, is the expression of this innocence, or, from another point of view, the means of preserving it….
The opposite of innocence as the word applies to Bellow's heroes is not worldliness or corruption but simply thinking you know what the score is. Bellow's innocents at home and abroad are always looking about in perplexity: there doesn't seem to be any scoreboard around.
Robert Alter, "The Stature of Saul Bellow" (originally published in a slightly different version in Midstream, December, 1964), in his After the Tradition (copyright © 1969, 1968, 1967, 1966, 1965, 1964, 1962, 1961 by Robert Alter; published by E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc. and used with their permission), Dutton, 1969.
Bellow has the most powerful mind among contemporary American novelists, or at least, he is the American novelist who best assimilates his intelligence to creative purpose. This might have been foreseen at the beginning of his career, for he has always been able to turn out a first-rate piece of discursive prose; what could not have been foreseen was that he would also become a virtuoso of fictional technique and language….
For the most part … Herzog marks a notable advance in technique over Bellow's previous books. He has become a master of something that is rarely discussed in criticism because it is hard to do more than point toward it: the art of timing, which concerns the massing, centering and disposition of the characters and creates a sense of delight in the sheer motion of the narrative….
What Bellow did was to leave behind him the bleak neutrality of naturalistic prose and the quavering sensibility of the Jamesian novel: the first, he seemed to feel, was too lifeless and the second insufficiently masculine. Beginning with Augie March—but none of this applies to his masterful novella, Seize the Day—Bellow's prose becomes strongly anti-literary, a roughing up of diction and breaking down of syntax in order to avoid familiar patterns and expectations. The prose now consists of a rich, thick impasto of verbal color in which a splatter of sidewalk eloquence is mixed with erudite byplay. Together with this planned coarsening of texture, there is a great emphasis on speed, a violent wrenching and even forcing of images, all the consequence of his wish to break away from the stateliness of the literary sentence. Analytic refinement is sacrificed to sensuous vigor, careful psychological notation to the brawling of energy, syntactical qualification to kinesthetic thrust. (One is reminded a bit of action painting.) Psychology is out, absolutely out: for to psychologize means to reflect, to hesitate, to qualify, to modulate, to analyze. By contrast, the aim of Bellow's neo-baroque style is to communicate sensations of immediacy and intensity, even when dealing with abstract intellectual topics—to communicate, above all, the sense that men are still alive. Toward this end he is prepared to yield niceties of phrasing, surface finish, sometimes even coherence of structure….
Bellow's style draws heavily from the Yiddish, not so much in borrowed diction as in underlying intonation and rhythm. Bellow's relation to Yiddish is much more easy and authoritative than that of most other American Jewish writers. The jabbing interplay of ironies, the intimate vulgarities, the strange blend of sentimental and sardonic which characterizes Yiddish speech are lassoed into Bellow's English: so that what we get is not a sick exploitation of folk memory but a vibrant linguistic and cultural transmutation.
Irving Howe, "Herzog" (originally titled "Odysseus, Flat on His Back"; copyright © 1964 by Harrison-Blaine, Inc.; reprinted by permission), in The Critic as Artist: Essays on Books 1920–1970, edited by Gilbert A. Harrison, Liveright, 1972, pp. 181-91.
It seems to me … that there is an essential connection between the fact that Herzog is Saul Bellow's most Jewish novel, in language, allusion, narrative materials, and that it is his great dissent from the intellectual vogue of "wasteland ideologies" and apocalypses…. Herzog is Bellow's most autobiographical novel and that is both a strength and a weakness. But what is more to our purpose is that it is his most personal novel as well, in the sense I have used the word to distinguish messianism from apocalypse. Herzog continually attempts to counterpose against the great, killing abstractions of modern intellectual life the concrete particulars—poignant, saddening, ludicrous, sordid—that constitute the individuality, the vividly recollected specialness, of one man's life. His expressed hope for human value in an infinite and indifferent universe reflects the commonsense commitment to the world of familiar experience that has informed both Jewish law and Jewish messianism….
What Bellow has absorbed from the Montreal ghetto-milieu of his boyhood is a certain feel for experience, an imaginative tone, style, and viewpoint, but it is clear that he has not been touched by the impelling central myths of Jewish tradition, which more often than not had already dwindled into superstition and pious reflex in the immigrant generation from which he sprang.
Robert Alter, "The Apocalyptic Temper" (originally published in a slightly different version in Commentary, June, 1966), in his After the Tradition (copyright © 1969, 1968, 1967, 1966, 1965, 1964, 1962, 1961 by Robert Alter; published by E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc. and used with their permission), Dutton, 1969.
Saul Bellow's heroes are walking syntheses of modernism—in American-cut clothes. They catch on so readily because they seem better pictures of ourselves than we have had taken before. But they are modern with a difference: they think themselves problem-solvers rather than illustrators of dilemma and are full of surprise and anger when "natural" solutions fail to work. Some critics take Bellow's tongue-in-cheek word for it that these heroes are passive. After all, they seek everybody's advice and follow almost anybody's lead. But this public meekness deceives; at home they are hurriers, worriers, and scramblers. Even when spinning their wheels, they are high-energy men.
Bellow's heroes incorporate layer upon layer of ideal human images from the past seventy-five years. At bottom is the portrait of the artist, hypersensitive, imaginative, and increasingly knowledgeable. The suffering candidate for sainthood whom [one can find] in Faulkner, Greene, and Silone lies immediately atop…. Crisis as the test of the soul and dynamics opposed to essences come from the war period. Civilian reaching for imaginative play after the decline of militancy indicates a late accretion. And, running through all the layers, intensity remains as the mark of being alive. Bellow has done the most encyclopedic job in fiction so far of absorbing and redirecting the cultural inheritance. No wonder that, like the Fifth Symphony in Howards End, he appeals to all conditions….
Bellow's heroes are the heirs of modernism because they feel one of its major drives and problems: they want to be self-created, and fear that they may be…. Bellow's [characters] are accidental revolutionists. Merely following their own bents, trying energetically to give their lives the freedom and scope that modern literature suggests as possible, puts them out of touch with family and personal past. And the distance results only in part from any individual act; much comes automatically with time, rapid change, and wide choice of interests….
Bellow shades identity nearer than any other contemporary novelist toward the logical meaning of the word. His brand exists more inside the skin. Though the hope of managing events or liking people never disappears, he aims primarily at getting emotions tuned. Results count and hurt, but so do simple feelings of stability or joy or control….
Bellow's inner moments, unlike Virginia Woolf's, have the feel of persisting for a while. So he creates the strange sense at the end of Seize the Day, Henderson, and Herzog that some great portable revelation, just missed by the reader and unspecifiable by the researcher, has occurred….
Bellow assumes conditions to be fairly favorable and thus puts even more pressure on the soul to live up to its heroic calling. At the same time the situation gives nothing automatically. Everything, even minimum security, has to be fought for, won, and defended. The hero never gains sure control of himself or his surroundings, but he does orient by putting his problem in every possible perspective. Like the British tragicomic heroes, he wears out more problems than he solves. And in Augie March, Henderson, and Herzog doing so provides an energtic form of pleasure and a sense of heroic superiority which need never test itself against equals. The Bellow system at its working best is self-justifying and self-regulating….
The Bellow vision of the self-creating, self-vindicating man thus has both size and appeal. It offers a way out of not alienation, as Marcus Klein says, but out of the rigid streamlining for action necessary in Warren and Snow. (They are not alienated.) However, the system operates at its working best only intermittently; its sputterings make the stories. Self-creation occurs mostly through the higher play—games which promise purposeful assertion. After The Victim Bellow's heroes never lack a vision of this or some capacity for practicing it. Augie ventures, Wilhelm speculates in lard, Henderson goes on safari, and Herzog writes letters correcting the world. Even in their deeper distresses, the protagonists can still draw on this attractive power. Though they often cannot use it in ways that will prove satisfying, they retain room for maneuver. They can be trapped, but not totally….
[A] saving respect for probability, event, other people, and ideas keeps Bellow from sounding like Thomas Wolfe. Bellow's awareness about the continuity of modernism accepts the facts, but its emphasis on intensity makes for a difficult balancing act. The realism of the age, beefing up hope, has to engage the evidence for despair. More than most, Bellow has shown himself able to teeter on these wide-apart rocks without falling into the creek. He can identify with pain almost as completely as Greene without making a full commitment to its value. His endless balancing depends on seeming to make author and suffering hero identical while actually establishing crucial differences; it suspends the inner story in awareness of other equally dynamic processes—motives, alternatives, highs, lows, and conflicts-to-come. Though Bellow can say, "I suffer; therefore I am," with the best moderns, he hates more to stop after having said it….
After Dangling Man, with its supernumeraries, the Bellow hero takes little interest in anyone who is not fabulous, who does not have his prime quality in excess. Even when characters appear not very remarkable, like Padilla or Clem Tambow, Augie declares them so by fiat. In modern British comic novels, eccentricity ordinarily marks individuality; in Bellow, it accentuates representativeness. Imaginative detail proliferates within a fixed stance and does not signal dynamic possibilities. These rest solely in the protagonist. His associates cannot change; they can only illustrate more of themselves….
[Bellow's] way of putting the human problem represents a real shift of emphasis. Bellow is the first major American novelist since World War I not to begin from a sense of betrayal. Nothing in The Victim corresponds to Hemingway's abstract talk, Fitzgerald's big rich, or Warren's impressive fathers. Bellow starts from vulnerable imagination and sensitivity operating in a world not especially devoted to perpetuating either. To Leventhal the city as obstacle means crowds in the automat, job specialization, impersonality, long trips on the Staten Island ferry….
The Adventures of Augie March appeals because it eats its cake and has it too. It celebrates the bourgeois virtues of talent and drive while diverting them to imaginative play. The indispensable step was to get around the culture's channeling of aggressiveness into competitiveness, but, with his questioning about cultural clichés, Bellow sensed what Salinger did not—that no time in American history had ever been so favorable for doing so. Paradoxically, the more business succeeds in its aims, the more it enhances the value of play. A luxury civilization looks for the enlivening….
A psychiatrist has proved that no real person could continue reacting as Augie does. He is undoubtedly right, and, if more people believed him, questions about Augie's plausibility and shadowiness could not be put as they often are. For Augie is not a character in the ordinary fictional sense; he is more a stylized prime motive, the impulse necessary to keep the exploration going. He is also a voice, a commentator telling us how to take all this, and a master introducer of some fascinating people he thinks we ought to meet before deciding finally what the world is like….
In the end, an old esthetic division remains. Along with a liking for Bellow goes a dislike—or at least a discomfort at staying too long in his world. The "stability of instability" often creates the effect of living in a surreal melodrama. The people around the hero are so egregiously wrong. The sole guardian of unspecifiable faith, he keeps defining it so personally that potential allies have to drop out….
If Bellow has any one thing to say over and over, it is that his hero's drive creates a distorting lens, which he knows distorts but has no way of measuring how much. The knowledge distinguishes him—that and his hope of grinding a truer lens.
In restoring a high value to sensitivity and "flash," Bellow comes back to some of the old difficulties, leavened, of course, by comic self-awareness. Only occasionally does the hero meet his peers. If Bellow escapes alienation, he heightens aloneness. Perhaps no one can legitimately quarrel with that conclusion. Yet, if it does not make us nervous, it keeps us so. For no other contemporary touches Bellow in portraying Irritable Man, whose crossness is the converse of his aspiring to include so much life. Bellow is the poet of self-chosen discomfort.
James Hall, "Portrait of the Artist as a Self-Creating, Self-Vindicating, High Energy Man: Saul Bellow," in his The Lunatic Giant in the Drawing Room: The British and American Novel Since 1930, Indiana University Press, 1968, pp. 127-80.
Like Herzog, Mr. Sammler's Planet is something of a cultural event. The ideas in it are magnificent. And yet … I have reservations. For the first time, really, the ideas in a Bellow novel overshadow the tale. Many readers will be happy with this, for the ideas are timely, but I miss his usual story.
The subject of Mr. Sammler's Planet is the subject of all of Bellow's fiction: crime and guilt. Remember Joseph's crime of withdrawal from his fellows? Leventhal's crime against Allbee? Henderson's crime against the cook? Heroes overwhelmed by guilt. When Herzog lowers the gun outside of Madeleine's apartment, and when the police court frees him (on a different charge, but imaginatively the same), the spell is broken, the hero is freed. And so Mr. Sammler, having been the victim of the Nazis' murderous intent, has taken a life, has crawled to light from beneath the bodies of his fellows, including his wife's, and has killed, joyfully, to survive. He thinks of it often, he tells us, but not brokenly. He has remained sane in the midst of violence….
Bellow's conception in Mr. Sammler's Planet is clear: to surround his lucid, honorable old man with a host of comparatively young, modern characters all seeking to be limitless…. As in The Adventures of Augie March, Bellow supplies his bland protagonist with colorful companions. Just as Augie was surrounded by obsessed adults, so Sammler is surrounded by obsessed young adults….
We should have seen it coming. Herzog threatened with all his heart to live a life of reason, and we didn't believe him. Disinterest was implicit in the painful excesses of the earlier heroes. Drowning in their own tears, they would naturally feel the need to turn off the faucet. It was, you remember, the dry, controlled little guys who got along. The result is the creation of Bellow's first, full-fledged hero, embodying what I take to be the virtues Bellow now believes in. Mr. Sammler is normative, sane; while the early heroes fear for their sanity, it is the secondary characters here who are mad.
Keith Opdahl, in Commonweal (reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), February 13, 1970, pp. 535-36.
In his first two short novels Saul Bellow presented heroes who served as acutely impressionable centers of consciousness reflecting the dislocations of metropolitan life. In both Dangling Man and The Victim distortions of contemporary values and victimization by environment are greatly simplified, but the simplifications are fruitful in delineating the milieu in which later Bellow characters are to function….
Certainly the Camus novel to which Dangling Man is a counterpart is The Stranger, and the similarity goes far beyond the incidental fact that Camus avowedly adopted for that book certain stylistic techniques from the American novel. Both Dangling Man and The Stranger describe the absurd experience rather than suggest a specific absurd metaphysics, and Meursault and Joseph ultimately arrive at absurd stances as a result of the same ironic, although apparently indiscriminate, clustering of circumstances. These experiences seem to fit no logical pattern: they are simply there, and their presence announces itself with the same apparent lack of reason to both reader and participant. An effect of immediate involvement is achieved in both novels through the use of narrators who observe without attempting to analyze; Bellow accomplishes this sense of involvement through the device of Joseph's journal, and Camus through having Meursault tell his own story directly to the reader. Both writers have taken a form usually intended to reach profound depths of introspection and have used it in a way that is predominantly objective….
Joseph adopts none of the minor badges of social defiance which often denote the rebel, for the small arenas of nonconformity do not interest him…. Just as [Joseph] refuses the socially obvious representation of his differences, so too he refuses obvious philosophical positions; life is neither good nor bad, but an experience, and his anxiety stems from the desire to see that experience as a reflection of forces which are ultimately compassionate and creative. The vision which he requires is frequently thwarted, however, by what he calls "treasons: There were so many treasons, they were a medium, like air, like water; they passed in and out of you, they made themselves your accomplices; nothing was impenetrable to them"…. Everywhere he turns Joseph finds these treasons and betrayals, which constantly hammer at the life he is struggling to define….
With the possible exception of Asa Leventhal in The Victim, all of Saul Bellow's heroes are consciously questing figures, and Joseph introduces this gallery of contemporary knights…. Joseph's quest is not wholly successful, and he must confess that he has not done well "alone" in the world. Thus, in the final pages of the novel he gives himself up to the regulation of army life with shouts of joy for regular hours, "supervision of the spirit," and regimentation. His idiopathic freedom has isolated him so painfully that he at last seeks social accommodation within the ranks of the army. While our final view of Joseph is not essentially heroic, it is of a sympathetic character who possesses all the sensitivity of spirit prerequisite to the creation of an absurd hero, and his return to the world ironically foreshadows the more successful reconciliations of Henderson and Moses Herzog….
At the heart of Bellow's work rests the conviction that man's problems derive from a profound dislocation of his social and political universe. While Dangling Man opens with the vision of a character intensely determined to put such dislocations to rights, The Victim opens with the inverse picture of a middle-class magazine editor who appears unaware of any fundamental disharmony in his universe; Asa Leventhal's greatest concerns seem to be an illness in the family, a vacationing wife, and a dirty apartment. Despite his apparently contented surface, we soon learn that Asa has come perilously near falling spiritual prey to the same grey environment which Joseph was regarding when Dangling Man opened….
It is through Kirby Allbee that Asa will achieve an awakening that will allow him "to know what he is, to know what he is for, to know his purpose, to seek grace"…. Several years before the novel opens, Kirby Allbee had secured Asa Leventhal an interview with his employer. Whether at Allbee's instigation or from natural maliciousness, Mr. Rudiger mercilessly attacked the young man, and Asa, in turn, flew back at him with all the stored-up vehemence of weary, fruitless months of job seeking. Shortly after this encounter, Kirby Allbee was fired. Years later, having exhausted his dead wife's insurance money, Allbee returns as a kind of alter ego antagonist to remind Asa of his "guilt." At first Allbee seems only a hopelessly degenerate anti-Semite, but he becomes a significant catalyst, forcing Asa to break out of his complacent mold and to admit, if only on the Conradian level of potentiality, the fact of his guilt….
Asa Leventhal is not totally unaware of the suffering and evil which dominate the modern world; he knows something of what it is to be a "victim." He merely chooses not to concern himself with this aspect of life, and the isolation into which he recedes is not unlike that glacial, betraying hardness of the heart which characterized many of Nathaniel Hawthorne's characters. Allbee accuses him of keeping his spirit "under lock and key," where it is unnecessary to have to make the kind of reconciliations which Joseph tried to make in Dangling Man….
Both Dangling Man and The Victim are brief, arresting trajectories written in a terse prose which, after two novels, readers came to expect from Saul Bellow. The Adventures of Augie March, therefore, appeared to many to be more of a departure than it really was. Its flowing, demotic language, its bumptious hero, and its mammoth episodic structure make it a modern picaresque, and it has in fact been compared to all the great picaresque novels of the past. As the story of a young boy cast adrift in life and gradually proceeding toward a defined system of values, it is perhaps closer to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn than to any other picaresque novel. As an analysis of rebellion and of man's lonely attempt to spin a life of his own, the book grew logically from the themes of Bellow's first novels. While in his earlier works Bellow saw this spinning concentrated in a single dramatic episode, he now sees it in its full organic process. From his earliest recollections as a fatherless child in the Chicago slums, Augie has had, like Huck Finn, to improvise, to live by his wits and his instincts, and often to travel incognito. Both Huck and Augie have a profound and premature knowledge of human depravity, and yet both approach the world with a remarkable tenderness; their resilient good humor is perhaps their best defense against nihilism and self-pity….
Augie is drawn many ways in the course of this novel—to deceit, sacrifice, love, theft, and pain. At moments he seems to have some of the qualities and a measure of the fate of Nathanael West's parodic Lemuel Pitkin—another picaresque "voyager"—but something always brings Augie back to a middle ground, and he says no—though often at the last minute—before he is drawn over the brink. He flirts with every kind of radicalism which a big city offers, but such digressions never stir "the right feelings," and Augie drifts away from them…. Even while he is learning from such people as Cousin Anna and Grandma Lausch, Augie is continually saying "no," refusing to be limited by loyalties which threaten his independence….
What Augie [finally describes] is a life lived without appeal, a life in which, other truths being denied, pain and disappointment not only become something to live for; they may even be a source of joy. Augie has paraphrased, in this vision of "axial lines," the absurd formula embodied in the figure of Sisyphus. Augie's greatest desire is to be no more and no less than human, retaining a moral vision in terms of the axial lines he has discovered….
In Seize the Day—a collection consisting of a novella, three short stories, and a one-act play—Saul Bellow returned to the terse prose and muted action which characterized Dangling Man and The Victim. In the novella which gives this book its title, we are presented with a painful picture of a morbid gerontocracy obviously intended to represent the same oppression and dehumanization which Bellow constantly endeavors to expose in his work. Tommy Wilhelm, the pathetic failure who is the hero of "Seize the Day," seems to have wandered up almost every dead end which the world has to offer. His early career as a screen star was a hopeless joke; his marriage has ended in a torturous separation; a once rejuvenating love affair has simply faded away; and he has resigned, out of pride, a lucrative and well-established sales position with a large Eastern manufacturing company. Like Bellow's Joseph, Tommy Wilhelm is a dangling man, suspended between jobs and between loves; and like Leventhal he is a strange kind of victim-victimizer….
[In the end the] Bellow hero can run no longer; beaten and exhausted, Wilhelm is forced in his extremity to find a meaning to life or to die. In his final, desperate adventure he finds himself moving "toward a consummation of his heart's ultimate need," a need for existence itself. The movement from isolation to affirmation of existence in the world is reiterated in Henderson the Rain King as ["gruntu-molani"]. Henderson himself is able to carry the principle farther because his energies and ambitions demand to know the form and the goal which existence should adopt. All Bellow heroes begin by trying to throw off responsibility and the chaotic weight of the world, but love for mankind finally brings them back to the business of living in the real world, even when the real seems chaotic and destructive….
All of the variety of Bellow's earlier work and all of his concern with the individual who is able to maintain his intention in the face of an opposing reality come together to form an intense and unified testament to the absurd hero in Henderson the Rain King. Joseph dangles and drops; Leventhal is only partially awakened; Augie's vision wavers with the buffetings of fate; and Tommy Wilhelm's consummation comes as the result of a push from the crowd. Only the prodigious Henderson is a consistently and devotedly conscious seeker, and the consummation of his quest creates a feeling of magnificence unknown in Bellow's other novels—even in the more complex resolution of Herzog. But Henderson is closely related to Joseph, Leventhal, Wilhelm, Augie March, and Moses E. Herzog in that they are all faced by the crossroads where "one path leads to the society, the other away from the community." Henderson is able to rejoin society on satisfactory terms, reinforcing Richard Lehan's observation of the tendency for the new existential hero to take the path toward society, as in the case of Camus's Rieux, Tarrou, and D'Arrest, and Bellow's Leventhal and Wilhelm. Like Camus's later heroes and like Tommy Wilhelm and Asa Leventhal, Bellow's Henderson is an example of the contemporary absurd hero's possession of a new and strangely ennobling compassion.
Much of Henderson the Rain King—especially the opening description of Henderson's bizarre life as the pig-raising, law-breaking, violin-playing scion of an ancient and distinguished American family—is clearly reminiscent of the picaresque tradition. But when Henderson journeys into the heart of a symbolic Africa, the novel—while maintaining all the elements of a picaresque—also moves into what might be called the grail tradition. In bringing rain to the dry land Henderson has lifted the curse from the realm of the Fisher King, and he flees to safety with the risen King. The wasteland which he cleanses is Biblical and Shakespearian as well as contemporaneous with the wasteland of T. S. Eliot. The novel is filled with references to fertility myths, and Henderson is a pilgrim in progress. In the faithful guide Romilayu, he has his Sancho Panza, Queequeg, Virgil, and Hopeful. While all of these ingredients are significant to the structure of the novel, it is well to heed Bellow's own advice to "symbol hunters" and to avoid taking such obvious analogies too seriously. Henderson is a questing figure, a clumsy knight-errant, and finally a Rain King, but Bellow repeatedly urges us to see him as a human being rather than the embodiment of myths….
The comic turn which Bellow often introduces should remind us of the danger of becoming overly serious when dealing with his work. Henderson himself keeps us aware of the ridiculousness of the serious when, as the "Sungo," he runs about an African village in great ballooning green silk pants and sprinkles water on the grateful natives; everyone awaited this blessing from the Sungo….
Bellow warns us that the quest myth does not totally explain Henderson's experience, and it in large part fails to do so because Henderson does not have recourse to the same spiritual absolutes available to the grail-seeking knight; just as Updike showed us a saint without God, so Bellow shows us a knight without God. To emphasize this quality of the hero Bellow has interjected into the myth and fantasy of his novel tones of what [Richard Chase] has called dire realism and significant modernity. Henderson's modernity is emphasized in the opening chapters of the novel, when we see him blundering through the contemporary frustrations and enigmas faced by all Bellow heroes….
Part of the wisdom that Henderson finds is in the knowledge that he cannot raise himself into any other world, that no matter how much a prison his life and his deeds seem, he must live in the world, and while he admits, "I don't think the struggles of desire can ever be won"…, he continues to reap the profits of the struggle itself. Dahfu has warned him that there is no issue from the dreary circles of fear and desire unless man is willing to take life into his own hands. Freed by his new realizations, he concludes, "I must begin to think how to live," and among other things he knows that he "must break Lily from blackmail and set love on a true course"…. Despite the apparent ridiculousness of his decision—its social absurdity—he determines to enter medical school and learn to serve humanity by healing. The role of healer (like that of Dr. Rieux in The Plague) seems to be a logical one for the absurd man who has returned to society….
Through the symbolic prophet Dahfu, Henderson enters a new world of the self, and after becoming naked before the Wariri he is reclothed in Rome. On the journey home he is attracted by a small orphan who is being sent to live with relatives in Nevada. When the plane lands in Newfoundland to refuel, he gathers the boy up in his arms, trying to give him something of the warmth and joy which he now feels for life…. What Henderson has found is the way back to the world and to a life of service, and his victory comes suddenly after he has dedicated himself to a struggle which seems hopeless but which he must maintain in order to be true to himself….
At first glance, Saul Bellow's Herzog would appear to be a return to an earlier narrative mode, recalling Joseph's digressive journal and his long dialogues with self, or even the tormented but essentially static trials by conscience to which Asa Leventhal is subjected. Herzog owes much to those early exercises in what Bellow himself has called "victim literature," but it owes an equal debt to the picaresque structures and optimistically assertive conclusions of The Adventures of Augie March and Henderson the Rain King. Moses Herzog is both victim and victimizer, whose own worst enemy is his "narcissistic, masochistic, anarchic personality" …, but he is also the comic hero—bumptious, often self-contradictory, occasionally roguish. Like Augie March, he is "a sentimental s.o.b." in an unsentimental and selfish world; like Henderson, a dedicated opponent of the wasteland mystique and a comic champion of extreme emotional versatility. Augie's picaresque wanderings through Montreal, Chicago, Mexico, Rome, and Paris were presented in a realistic manner which owes much to the American naturalists who have influenced Bellow; Henderson's voyage was the stuff of romance—more fantastic and more highly charged with symbolic nuances. Like Conrad's Marlowe or Hemingway's African hunters, Henderson moved into an Africa of the heart which exists without relationship to time and space. Herzog is a wanderer in the mind as well as the heart—the picaro flat on his back; his actual travels to Europe, the abortive trips to Martha's Vineyard and Chicago, the retreat to the ruined house in the Berkshires—these are sharply detailed and memorable episodes, but the real pilgrimage is more internalized even than that of Henderson, for whom Africa was a subsuming metaphor. In Herzog there is no metaphorical representation of the quest; there is only the quest itself.
Thus, Bellow unites the two traditions in which he had formerly worked—the meditative, highly ratiocinative but essentially impotent victim, and the comic, instinctual rebel. Though the fusion is not entirely successful, the effort itself makes Herzog Bellow's most ambitious novel to date…. Herzog becomes the extreme extension of all Bellow's earlier themes and devices—beginning with the victim, morose, almost paranoid, consumed by self-pity, tottering on the brink of nihilism and alienation, but clinging (like Augie and Henderson) to a transcendent view of man's fate, though all life seems to negate that vision; and finally mastering the courage to live in terms of the resulting tension. If there is fault in the execution, it is that Herzog's determination to fasten himself to the real in life-giving combat is heavily dependent on that very "virtuosity" which Bellow ironically cites as a false source of hope….
Herzog's compulsive letter writing offers a brilliantly versatile conceit for the absurd predicament: these letters are the calling cards by which he attempts to revisit the world from which he had once abdicated, and they also chronicle the absurd conflict of his intention (heart) with the hostile reality which he encounters. Nonetheless, so long as Herzog maintains the conflict only on paper, until he is willing to engage it fully and consciously in life, he is only an absurd man—not an absurd hero. Only when he has learned to live in terms of the conflict does he earn the name Moses, archetype of prophets, or Elkhanah, the one whom "god possesses."…
Like most of Bellow's heroes, Herzog must learn to face both inner and external reality; he must rejoin the world. The result of his failure to do so is spiritual, emotional, and intellectual sickness. In the critical interim, he becomes masochistic and depressive; he experiences "the sickness unto death"…; he is "'no better than any other kind of addict—sick with abstractions'"…; and in this condition, when an airlines stewardess offers him a drink, he feels "incapable of looking into the girl's pretty, healthful face"….
Bellow's knights progress in orderly file from one novel to the next—increasing in complexity of treatment if not, consistently, in depth. If Bellow has, in effect, only written one book from six different points of view, the book has constantly improved, although it would seem to have reached its most extreme extension in Herzog. Further elaboration on the theme might well force the novelist to yield to the rhetorician—a danger already apparent in the concluding pages of both Henderson the Rain King and Herzog….
Perhaps Herzog's victory is only temporary, but we leave him in the conclusion of the novel a far wiser man than any of Bellow's earlier heroes, one who has now affirmed and legitimatized the absurd struggle on all levels of experience—emotional, spiritual, and intellectual. Perhaps now Bellow has prepared himself for the novel of dialogue, which can begin with the engagement toward which his diverse knights have struggled—in short, perhaps he can move beyond affirmation of the absurd experience to examine the consequences of those "tensions" which he has detailed with such skill and integrity.
David D. Galloway, "The Absurd Man as Picaro," in his The Absurd Hero in American Fiction, University of Texas Press, revised edition, 1970, pp. 82-137.
Generally, in depicting man as a creature who can never or only rarely know his essence, God, or ultimate truth, whose only choices are severely limited, to prefer lions to pigs or to stop writing letters, Bellow's attitude is strongly compassionate. Man, often estranged, misunderstood, victimized by others and by himself, has a rough time. The novel of compassion in contemporary terms, terms which frequently deny the possibility of a reigning truth by which man can be judged, plays close to sentimentality, close to the dissolution of all perspective in a wash of indiscriminate sympathy. In the same way, the drama of domestic problems, no matter how serious, can begin to sound like soap opera. Bellow is often close to sentimentality, generally insistent enough on man's comic combination of heart and folly to seem trivial, but the density of his depiction of experience, the comic multiplicity of his perspective, the richness of his historical understanding, and his usual abolishment of heroic pretense avoids both sentimentality and triviality. In fact, some of his work, like Herzog, gains particular force from its flirtation with sentimentality, for he manages to incorporate a responsiveness to all experience, a refusal to inhibit tightly or exclude, that makes the fiction seem particularly rich and compassionate. In addition, the fiction defends the idea that history, the story of what has been and is, is a more rewarding study than philosophy, the account of what man means. And Bellow, even in Mr. Sammler's Planet, is pre-eminently a novelist of human history, of the origin, the development, and the consequences of the Romantic sensibility in terms of contemporary urban man. At his best, Bellow avoids the fable, the metaphysically directed form, or the metaphysically essential statement about man, and shapes his material from the dense and complex historical flux that is also a central part of his subject.
James Gindin, "Saul Bellow," in his Harvest of a Quiet Eye: The Novel of Compassion, Indiana University Press, 1971, pp. 305-36.
All Herzog is able to do is battle with his demons and let the future look after itself. But Bellow, through his fiction, has been able to articulate the variety and richness of the world without being overwhelmed by it and without on the other hand imposing upon it the rigid categorisation of the traditional novelist who only includes as much of the world as is necessary for his plot. Bellow has in fact succeeded in constructing a work which is an attack on the structuring activity of the mind; in conveying a sense of the infinite mystery of human beings in a book which is a critique of the traditional link between motive and action; in keeping close to the twists and turns of a man's thoughts and feelings without either putting him in a straitjacket of theory or allowing the book to fall apart in chaos. He has done all this because his book is not called Saul Bellow but Herzog.
Gabriel Josipovici, "Herzog: Freedom and Wit," in his The World and the Book: A Study of Modern Fiction, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1971, pp. 221-35.
The Jew is more vulnerable than others, more sensitive, more troubled by the relation between his true self and the society in which he lives, more anxious to find out the truth about the problems which enmesh him. Such a Jew figures in so many American Jewish novels, and especially in those of Saul Bellow…. Bellow's heroes are seekers, searchers, generally agonizing intellectuals who respond to the dilemmas posed by experience by testing their reading and thinking against the reality they encounter and in doing so constantly modifying the messages they derive from their reading and thinking…. Augie March's Jewishness, like the Jewishness of most of the families with whom he comes into contact (the Einhorns, for example), is not solidly grounded in Jewish custom and culture, for there is little enough of these in the novel and only the most casual intermittent references to Jewish religion or tradition: his Jewishness is embodied in his 'adventures', in his questing, his restlessness, and—this is something we find so often in Bellow—his shoring himself with massive cultural supplies from European literature and history to try to provide a world of knowledge and feeling to which he can finally belong. Bellow's heroes are well-read (even when, like Augie, they are without formal education) and continuously reflective, so that his are novels of ideas as well as symbolic novels of alienation. This is particularly noticeable in Herzog (1964), where the hero, a university teacher of literature, is a disturbed and victimized intellectual who reacts to his personal misfortunes by writing never-posted letters to living and dead celebrities and formulating and re-formulating generalizations about all aspects of life and its meaning. Before Herzog, Bellow published Henderson the Rain King (1959), where the hero is not a Jew at all but a millionaire Protestant. Yet, though there are no Jewish characters in this novel, it is in a sense the most Jewish of Bellow's works. Henderson, who finds his life in America unsatisfactory and goes on a quest to Africa to try to discover what it is he really wants, is symbolically a Jew: in his alienation, his questing, his wry self-mockery, his capacity for engaging with other cultures and applying their wisdom to himself, he is acting out a Jewish role. The Africa he visits is a symbolic Africa, an Africa which never existed, and the African characters he meets—notably the wise and doomed King Dahfu of the Wariri—are legendary figures from a kind of secular African haggadah.
In the novel immediately preceding Henderson, the short Seize the Day (1957), Bellow presents Tommy Wilhelm, overwhelmed with financial and personal disaster, wrestling to discover the meaning of it all and achieving some kind of katharsis of grief in identifying himself with (and mourning for) an unknown dead Jew. This is a sort of rediscovery of Jewish identity at a symbolic level…. In Mr. Sammler's Planet (1970) he brings an elderly survivor of the holocaust to modern New York to let him observe and reflect on the meaning of life in the world he now confronts, and his alienation is ironically emphasized by bringing him into friendly and intellectually rewarding contact with an Indian scientist, who comes from a wholly alien background and thinks in different categories. As so often with Bellow's heroes, Mr. Sammler's Jewishness is marginal—he was never orthodox, was already orientated to western culture when a young man in Poland, and he had lived in London and been a friend of H. G. Wells before the war. Yet his Jewishness is also central, for both his fate and his response to it are Jewish.
David Daiches, in The Jewish Quarterly, Spring, 1973, pp. 91-2.
More than a quarter-century has passed since the publication of Saul Bellow's first novel, Dangling Man, but it continues to define, better than any other single work, Bellow's humanistic concerns and his novelistic ambitions. Not only does the work occupy an illuminating position in Bellow's own writing; it also stands as a landmark of modern fiction. With its publication, the novel of ideas was successfully domesticated in the United States, and the era of the Jewish novelist began; for the first time in our history, the Wasp with his baggage of Eden dreams and perpetually offended innocence was to yield his domination of American literature. Countering the tradition of the new and the cult of the naïve, the Jewish writer was to speak, though sometimes with irony, of philosophy and science, of European traditions, of intellection, and of a God far older than that worshipped by the Pilgrim fathers. He was also to speak preeminently of the American city, for he had no links with the illusory agrarian past which squats like clumsily outmoded functional furniture in the Protestant-American subconscious…. Whereas Bellow has decried what he terms the fashions of alienation, he has done more than any other American writer to define the milieu from which contemporary man takes his fragmented definition; indeed, so finely etched and authoritative is this description that the word "Bellovian" has become a popularly accepted critical term.
The Bellovian hero is, like Joseph, a dangling man, suspended between worlds, between ideas, institutions, commitments or value systems. He is not a rebel in the conventional, romantic sense, although he may possess the instincts of rebellion; but he characteristically has a sense of separation from a world of treasons…. The Bellovian character moves through a series of recognition scenes, muted epiphanies, in which he learns to recognize these treasons; he often finds that his contemporaries accept them as "reality," that they are content to live with shabbiness, chicanery, violence and imposture. Bellow's heroes, however, all possess a deep, almost mystical impulse to resist such a vision of life…. Bellovian man resists limiting commitments, is suspicious of secondhand versions of reality, and struggles—often clumsily, comically—to defend his inner voices. Such a man is doubly the outsider, for he is an outsider first by spiritual circumstance and second by intellectual choice. Having made his choice, having declined to accept treason as his accomplice, the hero then faces the ultimate Bellovian dilemma, for simultaneous with his willed divorce from the world comes a gnawing sense that only through community, through an acceptance of reality, can man achieve definition. Hence, Joseph recognizes at the end of his lonely estrangement from the world, "I had not done well alone. I doubted whether anyone could. To be pushed upon oneself entirely put the very facts of existence in doubt." In Bellow's writing there is what I take to be a deeply religious need to reaffirm the values of community; his Huck Finns, while they may play at lighting out for the territory, ultimately go home again, like Tom Sawyer. In consequence, the Bellovian hero gets to have his existential cake and eat it too….
Bellow has had, essentially, one story to tell: in a great writer such a proclivity is called consistency; in a lesser one it is known as repetitiousness. Through Herzog, at least, I clung to my faith that whereas Bellow persisted in rewriting the same novel, at least that novel was better in each new reincarnation, however badly the machinery of confrontation and affirmation creaked beneath the thin skin of his plots. I am less easily persuaded by Mr. Sammler's Planet, a work which, despite its distinctive touches of genius, ultimately shows the bankruptcy of Bellow's novelistic imagination….
It is never difficult to find virtues in a work by Saul Bellow, and it is always a temptation to quote at length from the cultural generalizations of his richly articulate heroes. Mr. Sammler's Planet is no exception: it is an intelligent and beautifully written work, but the great novel is more than the sum of its parts, and Mr. Sammler's Planet is ultimately rather less.
The novel's greatest asset, of course, is its avuncular hero, an aged Polish Jew whose intellect was shaped on the fringes of the Bloomsbury group and whose soul was tempered by the horrors of Nazi persecution. To create such a hero in the 1960's, when the classic American emphasis on youth was at its most strident pitch, was itself an act of novelistic courage….
Every Bellow hero is spiritually a displaced person, but only Mr. Sammler is both literally and figuratively so; age, education, and sophistication set him apart from the modern urban world, which he moves through with eager curiosity but with an essential air of detachment. From the hospital windows, a moving bus, or the windows of his own cramped room he gazes with his single good eye at the sterile landscape of the modern city, collects his impressions, but refuses to concede that such an apparently hostile landscape is the final statement of man's spiritual condition….
Bellow need not be a proponent of avant-garde experimentation, but on the other hand, every great artist is essentially an experimentalist, and one sign of Bellow's failure as a novelist is his disinterest in formal experimentation or, to put it another way, his apparent contentment with a narrative formula which dangerously constricts his vision. One begins to sense in him something Sammleresque—a contentment with the ways of the past, a dis-ease with the present, an avuncular superiority over unwashed radicalism. It is not a role that becomes him.
David Galloway, "Mr. Sammler's Planet: Bellow's Failure of Nerve," in Modern Fiction Studies (© 1973, by Purdue Research Foundation, West Lafayette, Indiana), Spring, 1973, pp. 17-28.
Henderson the Rain King has yet to be recognized as the miracle of creative alchemy that it is, a novel in which Bellow has forged and welded together a wealth of artistic material into a world complete unto itself. This fictional world, a real unreal world into which the reader is transported, has been fashioned from Bellow's studies in anthropology, his profound involvement with William Blake, his propensity to introduce literary and topical allusions and, above all, his fascination with the ideas and methods of Wilhelm Reich. It is Bellow's imaginative energy, manifest especially in the speed and farcical exuberance of the language used, that has set all these elements spinning together. The axis of this whirling world is the Reichian thrust of Henderson's quest for humanness….
Seize the Day (1956), Henderson the Rain King (1959) and Herzog (1964) are saturated with Reichianism; in The Victim (1947) and Mr. Sammler's Planet (1970) no significant Reichian elements are in evidence. One can assume that Reich was an important influence on Bellow all through the fifties and the early sixties.
The manner in which the ideas of Reich affected Bellow the novelist needs to be carefully and clearly understood…. Bellow did not allow himself to fall completely under the spell of Reich. His Reichianism was at once more playful and more serious, and his sensibility absorbed what it needed for its creative purposes.
In Henderson the Rain King Bellow indulges in a kind of līlā (the Indian spirit of divine creative play), enjoying himself hugely as he tosses around and exploits all the wildly comic extravagances of Reichianism, while at the same time exercising a subtle, almost invisible control over its use as a serious form of therapy. The farcical adventures of Henderson take on a meaningful dimension in the light of the ideas and methods of Wilhelm Reich.
Henderson the Rain King tells the story of Henderson's quest for the human, a story which is also a detailed account of his peculiar illness, his frantic running around all through the jungles of America and Africa seeking a cure, and his complete therapeutic transformation after he has been treated by the Reichian King Dahfu of the Wariri….
Structurally, Henderson the Rain King can be divided into three parts that indicate the separate stages of Henderson's struggles towards therapeutic salvation. The first section, set for the most part in America, presents the signs of Henderson's illness in chaotic fashion; in the Arnewi section a preliminary diagnosis is made but the patient's leap into disastrous action compels him to leave before treatment; at the end of the Wariri section, which takes up two-thirds of the novel, we are shown a radiant Henderson in harmony with himself and with the world around him….
The adventures that befall Henderson in Arnewiland are merely a prelude to his soul-shattering experiences among the Wariri. The five Arnewi chapters are important, however, for Bellow's strategy as a novelist. For one thing, they introduce and accustom the reader to Bellow's Africa and establish its fictional reality. Also, the Arnewi section allows Bellow to elaborate on significant physical symptoms of Henderson's illness and to indicate the armor blocks that prevent the free flow of the orgone energy within him….
Henderson, in Reichian terms, is an armored individual in dire need of orgone therapy. The basic task of such therapy is to destroy muscular armor, to reestablish plasma mobility, and to dissolve the attitude of holding back….
The blowing-up of the cistern is a dramatic incident that is also a clever transitional device, a piece of skillful craftsmanship. It enables Bellow to take his protagonist out of the older, simpler Arnewi world to the more complex, more savage, more modern Wariri universe. It also allows Bellow to remove Henderson from the sphere of Queen Willatale's influence in order to suggest that her impact on him is somehow limited. For Henderson's condition is such that words and advice cannot really be effective. According to Reich, word language and concepts cannot penetrate the pathological depth-forms of expression. To understand one's condition intellectually is not enough. What Henderson needs is a more savage and a more dynamic form of therapy. He could not be cured by Lily with her love and her moralizing. Nor does Queen Willatale with her sympathy and her genital power and her grun-tu-molani help him.
It is King Dahfu of the Wariri who treats Henderson, cures him, educates him and guides him to truth and vision. Dahfu is a magnificent creation, a strange synthesis of King Gelele of Dahomey, of William Blake, and above all, of Wilhelm Reich….
Henderson the Rain King, it is apparent, is so completely charged with Reichianism that almost every page, every narrative sequence, every piece of description is full of it. The reader fails to sense it at times because Bellow has transformed and successfully disguised it….
Henderson, of course, is bursting with orgone energy. In the Wariri section, Bellow accelerates references to the strange directions this energy takes in Henderson, to familiarize the reader once more with its workings…. Any inhibited aggressive impulse, according to Reich, directs the energy towards the musculature of the peripheral extremities where it becomes manifest. Anxiety and fear, however, reverse the flow of the excitation so that the direction is towards the center of the organism. One can now understand what happens to Henderson under the stress of terror….
Henderson's feat of lifting and carrying Mummah causes clouds to form in the windless sky. This is no African mumbo-jumbo but a direct consequence of cosmic orgone engineering. Bellow's creative magic is in evidence here. The rain-making ceremonies seem to belong to a primitive Africa and may appear to have been derived from Bellow's anthropological reading, but they are in fact a vivid and comic dramatization of the Reichian method of "cloud-busting" and rain making….
The therapeutic process by which Henderson is treated is the climactic core of the novel, the section in which Bellow's creative energy asserts itself triumphantly. The therapy sessions are totally farcical and uproariously funny….
The talk sessions between King Dahfu and Henderson serve several important functions. They allow Bellow to project his own ideas (some derived from Blake) about man, his greatness and his nobility. They also allow Bellow to project Reichian concepts and offer the reader a deeper diagnosis of Henderson's condition….
Like orgone energy, Reichianism flows smoothly through Henderson the Rain King establishing a vital continuity among the three sections of the novel. No armor blocks are in evidence for Bellow is in absolute control over his fictional material. He can adapt it, modify it, play with it, poke fun at it, and take it seriously when it suits the needs of his fiction. So complete is Bellow's creative confidence that he can take up a daring, though apparently exotic, idea of Reich's and introduce it without violating the surface reality of his narrative.
Eusebio L. Rodrigues, "Reichianism in Henderson the Rain King," in Criticism, (copyright 1973 by Wayne State University Press), Summer, 1973, pp. 212-33.
It has seemed to me for some time that we have in Saul Bellow a more hopeful variant of the romantic disposition than we had any right to expect. Surely, with a very formidable body of work behind him, he has shown us how difficult it is even for the most sensible of men to abandon the idea of nature to which American writers have been so uniformly compelled. He has, moreover, modified that idea and enlarged the context in which it is conventionally treated. Whether in so doing he has succeeded in making the idea more persuasive, or has stripped it of a singularity we always thought it had, we cannot decide confidently as yet. What is clear is that an element one could discern even in an early novel like The Victim has moved steadily to occupy a central position in Bellow's more recent fiction. What I propose to examine here is the idea of nature in Bellow and its relation to two others: the idea of social reality, and the idea of character conceived both in its moral and aesthetic dimensions. To do this, it seems a good idea to focus on Bellow's 1970 National Book Award winning novel, Mr. Sammler's Planet, for it is a compact volume with rather few characters and a carefully limited perspective on everything. It has, in addition, a sympathetically drawn protagonist whose intelligence is so fine as to filter a very great range of ideas and events. In Mr. Sammler's Planet, the idea of nature must necessarily be evoked as a complex and tantalizing thing, for the mind that entertains it is nimble and endlessly active. While it treats the idea of nature not as a learned treatise might, but as a learned work of fiction infrequently can, Bellow's novel allows us to consider the degree to which the idea can be compelling in a culture like ours.
Probably the most striking and insistent note sounded in Mr. Sammler's Planet is the protagonist's cry of alarm against what he calls '… the peculiar aim of sexual niggerhood for everyone.' What he means by this is not as simple as one might expect, for Sammler, no less than Bellow, seems rather confused about just what constitutes 'sexual niggerhood.' Clearly the expression depends for its resonance on the stereotype of the black man as somehow more intimately 'tuned in' to the rhythms of his own pulse than other men and as therefore more at ease with the demands of his own sexuality…. Why Bellow's Sammler should be as exercised by the whole thing as he is we may justly question, however, for he is rather attracted by just those kinds of spontaneity and avowals of potency one is apt to identify with the stereotyped image of the black experience we have come largely to accept. It is not that Sammler is, or has been, an erotic type, if we may use so imprecise a term, or that his is a forcefully expressive personality of the sort we may mistake for erotic command. He is very much concerned, though, with what his intellectual enemies the existentialists call authenticity, and if he is less aggressive than they are about the wearing of masks and socially sanctioned ritualizations of concealment, he is never far from cynicism about the games most of us play, and we are not surprised to hear him say, 'To be nearer to nature was necessary in order to keep in balance the achievements of modern method.' In the long run, one has a good sense of what Sammler thinks on the subjects of war, peace, brotherhood, family, the responsibility of intellect, and the like, but one will be hard put indeed to locate a consistent pattern in these views. Not that we have any right to demand that Bellow provide one, of course, for what he does give us is a rich and believable character whose ambivalence moves us to the degree that it resists easy resolutions of every kind. Where the character Sammler succumbs to such resolutions, to patterns that would explain every particular view and experience, he strikes us as a little pathetic, hardly persuasive….
In all the talk of 'sexual niggerhood' we overhear in Mr. Sammler's Planet, and despite the vivid evocation of a virile black man subversive of established western values, we are given very little sense of those particular social conditions that make possible the phenomena Sammler reacts to so unhappily. We never really understand why the black man, not merely in his person but as an emblem of values and life-styles, should have been permitted to move into the centre of western culture and to emasculate its older traditions.
What we can say, then, is that if the black man is not at the very centre of Bellow's novel, the styles and values associated with him most definitely are, and to the extent that they weigh heavily on Mr. Sammler, they must concern us. These values and styles, only loosely imagined in the course of the novel, are about as close as we can come to what Bellow thinks of when he turns to the idea of nature…. A Jew who has but barely escaped death in a Nazi concentration camp a quarter of a century earlier, Sammler is a gentle man, almost passive really, but in his heart he wishes he were a bit less civilized, less passive, that Jews in general had been less prone to play the role of victim to conquerors of every type. Nature for Sammler is purpose combined with the strength and energy to realize its wishes, grasp for its dreams no matter how unpleasant or occasionally indecorous. That this nature is necessarily envisioned as a little mysterious and frightening in Bellow's work is no surprise, for even substantial physical size and strength are insufficient to convince Bellow's protagonists that they are men capable of confronting the real world in all its harshness….
So the nature Sammler looks upon in the guise of a handsome black thief is a nature ruthless and sordid, and all the more attractive for being so. In a sense one may say this nature is conceived as a corrective to the humane sentiments and gentle manners in which Sammler feels somewhat enclosed, though at the same time he is very much at home with old-world manners and assumptions. What Sammler suspects is that the other nature, the nature one associates with the divine flow of things passively regarded, is not really the sort of thing one can rely upon in the modern world, much as one would like to, and much as Sammler relies upon it from time to time. The nature to which Whitman and other American writers have delighted in yielding themselves is here rejected as inadequate, for it is unrealistic in its trust and in its failure to discriminate between a sense of the universe and a sense of social fact. That Sammler never successfully formulates or understands the distinction on an intellectual level only attests to the great difficulty western humanistic intellectuals have had in thinking in such terms….
But we have not determined as yet precisely what is this nature to which Sammler is drawn and whose incarnation is the black thief. Is this nature no more than reality bluntly conceived? I should have to say that it is not, for reality would seem to me at least a complex of events and objects and living things which cannot be evaded or denied. Mr. Sammler's black man is something else altogether, for he can be evaded, can be denied. In his actuality he is as strange, as unrevealed to Sammler as though he had never seen him. Nature for Sammler is a fictive realm which can endow human beings with wondrous attributes otherwise undreamed of by cautious old-world Jews committed to esoteric speculations of an altogether otherworldly sort. Which is to say that for Sammler, nature is an idea, and as an idea it is available to manipulations whose basis in subjective need in no way compromises the persuasiveness of the idea. It is a nature practically protean in the number of shapes it can be made to assume. In Sammler's hands it serves at once to assuage a sense of alienation, of otherness, and to enforce it as a badge of distinction. On the one hand he will insist upon the viability of mystical experience, unorthodox though it may be, upon the necessary dissolution of that multiplicity we perceive in the physical world, upon the sensation of oneness with all that exists. This is the perspective of Meister Eckhart, so forcibly impressed upon us in Mr. Sammler's Planet. On the other hand we have a nature which is nothing if not multiplicitous, a nature which is movement, passion, struggle, disorder, the singular personality impressive precisely in the degree of its defiant singularity.
To ask which nature Sammler prefers is to compound the confusion. I think it is possible to conclude that he thinks he is on the side of Meister Eckhart and the mystics, but that he actually occupies several positions at once…. What is so baffling in our experience of Bellow's work, though, is that virtually all of his resolutions, certainly in the works of the last fifteen years or so, amount to simply getting things straight or rearranging the terms of a problem so that it at least appears more manageable, or less important. What does the mystic do if not banish problems conceived at a secular level? To seek to move beyond desire, for example, is to avoid having to determine appropriate objects which can satisfy that desire. Whether the character is Henderson the rain king, Moses Herzog, or Artur Sammler, we have in Bellow's more recent fictions the exaltation of a will to banish conflicts whose resolutions imply decision and discrimination. A decision is made at the conclusion of Henderson the Rain King, but it does not emerge from the novel itself, nor from anything the main character has learned in the course of his adventures. The decision is willed rather than achieved, and it is asserted largely at the expense of fundamental realities the novel has resolutely impressed upon us. I do not know any serious commentator who has found that novel's conclusion satisfactory. There is nothing like a concluding decision reached in Herzog, nor is there one in Sammler. Both decide, basically, that there is little point in the endless discriminations and explanations to which their lives have been largely committed….
I do not think Bellow's view of society is shallow—surely Mr. Sammler's Planet communicates the texture, the very feel of contemporary life as vividly as any novel we can name. What we must say, though, is that it is not sufficiently historical. We do not know what are the forces that have brought us to the moment the novel documents. In fact, there is no development of any kind in Bellow's novel, for while presenting to us a central figure who is nothing if not historical, Bellow is definitely more concerned with the revelation of the human condition. This condition we understand all too well in the first twenty-five pages of the book. As we read on, we come more and more to feel the absence of 'a coherent community' as an aspect of the human condition, despite perpetual reminders as to the uniqueness of the present moment. The abstraction of 'the human condition' finally is identified with reality itself, so that it becomes almost impossible to think of 'common world' or 'coherent community' as concrete potentialities within the domain of contemporary experience. The novel, in other words, denies us the possibility of a social reality that is not a direct reflection of a corrupted nature, conceived here largely in static, immutable terms….
The novel definitely stresses the cultural domain as the source of Sammler's distinction—continually he is referred to as a survivor of a very special kind, an old-world Jew with expectations and manners derived from an earlier world originally more orderly and decorous, later more unequivocally cruel and murderous, than the contemporary scene. Yet Sammler's mysticism does not seem at all a necessary outgrowth of his derivation from an old-world European tradition, the essential flavour of which was anything but occult and mysterious even in its darkest ravages. It seems to have emerged full-blown from nowhere, a wondrous flowering in old age. It is described in the novel not as an evasion of reality but as a commitment to a deeper, more abiding reality than mundanity impresses. That is to say, while Bellow wishes us to relate to Sammler as the product of a special cultural and social environment no longer available to us except by way of historical imagination, he evokes the character, in all his attitudinal dimensions, as a force of nature, something marvellous and unaccountable….
What Bellow is giving us, in other words, and what Sammler sees, is a universe in which the very idea of nature has been altered, confused, deliberately turned around in such a way that it does not mean what it used to. And as the idea of nature has been wilfully perverted, so is it difficult any longer to think of social reality in the customary ways. Obviously, to think of the one idea is in some sense to compare it to the other, and this has become more and more difficult to do. The self has no secure home either in nature or in society, for neither constitutes a firm reality to which it can relate with confidence….
For Bellow, insofar as his position is clear at all, there is an authentic selfhood that is individual and perpetually resistant to the claims of social conscience, indeed even of the social-reality principle. This resistance is an aspect of Sammler and constitutes perhaps the most favourable aspect of his character structure, in Bellow's view….
Authentic selfhood, radical integrity, consist for Bellow in the capacity to think of the mundane behaviours conditioned by social reality as fundamentally inane and finally insignificant. The specific and the finite are to him in the long run hideous and intransigeant, especially in the degree of their relativity, the fact that they do not have an absolute value to which all of us can readily attest. When he looks about him at the range of human possibility, at the varieties of actual human behaviours and values clashing as fanatical ideologies, he feels sick at heart, and yields to the desire to step, perpetually, back. He wants to think of nature as of something antecedent to civilization, something the social process cannot really touch, though it can obscure it a little. What is so terrible, though, is that Bellow cannot really imagine this nature. It comes to us always besmirched, corrupted, deliberately exotic as though conscious of its own implausibility. In The Victim, it is communicated in the guise of the panting dog owned by a [Puerto Rican] janitor, but it finally calls to the mind of Bellow's protagonist sexual adventurism and depredations of various kinds that Bellow finds not only exotic but disgusting. In Henderson the attempt to make contact with nature, one's own and the broader nature conceived generically, is involved in disciplined identification with the spirit of the lion, an identification Henderson himself never really achieves. In Sammler the most potent image of nature is the black thief riding the New York City bus line, dressed in impeccable western splendour but described as '… this African prince or great black beast'. What these various images of nature have in common is the element of primary animal vitality, but none of them is generated in a context that espouses the return to nature in an authoritative way. The emotional context in each case is clouded by guilt and by a self-consciousness all the more poignant in Sammler for being so complexly developed.
That guilt and self-consciousness colour Bellow's fictions should come as no surprise, for what neither he nor his protagonist-spokesmen can freely abide is the decision to pursue selfhood apart from the more general responsibilities social reality customarily enjoins upon us…. For Sammler, though guilt may not be precisely the word to describe his characteristic reflections, there is a distinct discomfort associated with his sense of distance from the life of his fellows….
What Sammler is strongly impressed by is culture, but lacking a firm grasp of social reality, he is unable meaningfully to impress it upon others. How can they relate to Sammler if not as to a magical figure to whom one periodically pays homage without doing him the honour of adopting him as a model? His notion of culture is so special a thing, so rarefied, and though he speaks of judging the social order, he has virtually no sense of how men and women may be expected to live under particular conditions, what demands it is legitimate to make of them. Of experience, mostly brutal and alienating, he has had a bellyful, but he has become too much the adept at converting it to moral lessons and exempla to make use of it in establishing intimacies with others. He is a touching figure, but the odour of death does cling to him, as he himself suspects. It is not just that he is old, that his life has largely run its course, but that he thinks of himself as old in a special sense, as inhabiting another order, of being in touch with arcane truths not permitted people who consider themselves contemporary. Convinced that nature is corrupted at its very source by imposing social organizations that have been taken in by individuals and elaborated as communal structures of consciousness, he has decided that it is better to transcend nature than to work to improve it. He does not want to deal with a reality that is continuously uncivil and unlovely, though the novel makes it clear he will go on dealing with it, evasively to be sure, but persistently nonetheless. He will accept that perversions of nature are the most exotic and exciting things around, that he is almost as susceptible to their fascination as are most of his contemporaries, but he will insist all the while that there are mystic archetypes, human bonds we know and ratify in the blood, unutterable realities beside which social reality and perversions of nature are as insubstantial shadows. Of course, the tension is a necessary one for the would-be mystic, who cannot completely transcend the things of this world. Were he to be successful in such an enterprise, he'd have nothing left to transcend, nothing to sustain his ardour…. His devotion is more to truth than to reality, a preference not without dire consequences for the novelistic project, at least….
Can it be that the failure of the modern world to furnish models of strength wedded to integrity and civility has forced upon Bellow the stratagems he employs? Is it fair to say that the moral impoverishment everywhere illustrated in the daily routines of the social order has literally driven writers like Bellow into fragmentary and confused elaborations of an idea of nature that cannot possibly deal with our shared experience in a satisfactory way?…
To demand an aesthetic response to human experience, a response that includes recognition of enduring, natural human obligations is to ask of most of us, alas, more than we can manage, or want to. Sammler is not an acceptable model for most of us, nor are his ideas of nature, social reality and authenticity such that we ought to acquiesce in them indiscriminately. He is, however, a portrait of a very special and moving individual who raises a great many questions about our lives. Saul Bellow may not know any more certainly than Mr. Sammler the precise shape and direction of his own sentiments, nor the social implications that may follow from them. But there is no doubt that he knows the terror and confusion that beset those of us who try to take in and respond responsibly to the contemporary experience.
Robert Boyers, "Nature and Social Reality in Bellow's Sammler," in Critical Quarterly, Autumn, 1973, pp. 251-71.
All of Bellow's books—whether melancholy realism, moral fable or picaresque fantasia—represent for him a new departure, a chosen risk in form and perception….
Behind Bellow's writing there is always a serious intention, but as he grows older he becomes increasingly devoted to the idea of the novel as sheer spectacle. His last few books comprise a hectic and at times ghastly bazaar of contemporary experience; they ring with the noise of struggle; characters dash in and out, glistening with bravura; adventures pile up merrily, as if the decline of the West had not been definitely proclaimed; the male characters plunge and rise, mad for transcendence; the women (a little tiresomely) are all very beautiful and mostly very damaging. And the language spins….
Bellow has also found a good solution to a technical problem which keeps arising in the contemporary novel. Most readers, I imagine, groan a little when they see a novelist wheeling into position one of those lengthy and leaden flashbacks in which, we know in advance, the trauma will be unveiled that is to explain the troubles of time-present. These flashbacks, by now one of the dreariest conventions of the novel, result in a lumpiness of narrative surface and blockage of narrative flow. But Bellow has managed to work out a form in which the illusion of simultaneity of time—a blend of past with the present-moving-into-future—is nicely maintained. Instead of the full-scale flashback, which often rests on the mistaken premise that a novelist needs to provide a psychiatric or sociological casebook on his characters, Bellow allows the consciousness of his narrator to flit about in time, restlessly, nervously, thereby capturing essential fragments of the past as they break into the awareness of the present. Through these interlockings of time—brief, dramatic and made to appear simultaneous—he creates the impression of a sustained rush of experience….
One of the most pleasing aspects of Herzog is that Bellow has brought together his two earlier manners: the melancholy and the bouncy, the "Russian" and the "American," Seize the Day and Augie March. Herzog is almost free of the gratuitous verbalism which marred Augie March, yet retains its vividness and richness of texture.
There is a similar marshaling of Bellow's earlier themes. For some years now he has been obsessed with that fatigue of spirit which hangs so dismally over contemporary life. Seize the Day show a man utterly exhausted, unable so much as to feel his despair until the wrenching final page. Augie March shows a man composing a self out of a belief in life's possibilities. Of the two books Seize the Day seems to me the more convincing and authentic, perhaps because despair is easier to portray than joy, perhaps because the experience of our time, as well as its literature, predisposes us to associate truth with gloom. In any case, what seems notable about Herzog is that nothing is here blinked or evaded, rhetoric does not black out reality …; yet the will to struggle, the insistence upon human possibility, is maintained and not as a mere flourish but as the award of agony….
For all its vividness as performance, Herzog is a novel driven by an idea. It is a serious idea, though, in my judgment, neither worked out with sufficient care nor worked into the grain of the book with sufficient depth. Herzog, he tells us, means to write something that will deal "with a new angle on the modern condition, showing how life could be lived by renewing universal connections, overturning the last of the Romantic errors about the uniqueness of the Self, revising the old Western, Faustian ideology …"….
Bellow has touched on something real. Talk about "the decline of the West" can be elitist rubbish. The posture of alienation, like any other, can collapse into social accommodation. Cries of despair can become mere notes of fashion…. Suppose Bellow's assault upon alienation becomes fashionable: will it not then suffer a public fate similar to that of the ideas he attacks?
Bellow is being just a little too cavalier in so readily disposing of a central theme of modernist literature. Surely, as it was manifested in the work of writers like Joyce, Flaubert, Eliot and Baudelaire, the sense of alienation expressed a profound and even exhilarating response to the reality of industrial society. (An imagining of despair can be as bracing as a demand for joy can be ruthless.) And does not the sense of alienation, if treated not as a mere literary convenience but as a galling social fact—does this not continue to speak truthfully to significant conditions in our life?
I raise these matters because Bellow, as a serious writer, must want his readers to consider them not merely in but also beyond the setting of his novel. When, however, one does consider them strictly in the context of Herzog, certain critical issues present themselves. There is a discrepancy between what the book actually is—brilliant but narrow in situation and scope—and the sweeping intentions that lie behind it; or in other words, between the dramatic texture and the thematic purpose. In the end one feels that Herzog is too hermetic a work, the result of a technique which encloses us rigidly in the troubles of a man during his phase of withdrawal from the world. The material is absorbing in its own right; it is handled with great skill; but in relation to the intended theme, it all seems a little puny.
Bellow has conceived of the book as a stroke against the glorification of the sick self, but the novel we have—as picture, image, honest exposure—remains largely caught up with the thrashings of the sick self. One wants from Bellow a novel that will not be confined to a single besieged consciousness but instead will negotiate the kind of leap into the world which he proclaims, to savor the world's freshness and struggle against its recalcitrance, perhaps even to enter "politics in the Aristotelian sense."
From book to book, ornament and variations apart, Saul Bellow has really had one commanding subject: the derangements of the soul in the clutter of our cities, the poverty of a life deprived of order and measure. His work has in part continued the line of sensibility established by T. S. Eliot in The Waste Land, for in Chicago and New York one can ask as urgently as in London, "what branches grow out of this stony rubbish?" But Bellow has also diverged, in the more original portions of his work, from the Eliot line of sensibility, for he has come to feel that the once-liberating perceptions embodied in Eliot's great poem have, through the erosion of popularity, become clichés. Bellow now writes from a conviction that even today men can establish a self-ordering discipline which rests on a tentative-sardonic faith in the value of life without faith….
There is always a danger in the work of an urban novelist like Bellow that his books will turn into still another tiresome afterword to the literary talk about Angst and Alienation; but what has saved Bellow from that fate has been his fierce insistence that, no matter how heavy the cloud of despair hanging over this (or any other) time, we can still find some pleasure in sociability and our bodies, or, at the least, still experience that root sense of obligation which the mere fact of being human imposes on us.
More and more, in recent years, Bellow has found himself cast as an adversary—not always openly, sometimes too cagily—of the dominant styles of our culture. Growing older, entering those hard years when one realizes that the middle of the journey is past, Bellow has not only become a master of his own special idiom, that verbal impasto which mixes demotic richness with mandarin eloquence; he has also found his place, no longer a dangling man, as person and writer, and set forth on a stubborn, uncertain quest for the cup of wisdom, that cup, if it exists at all, in which the veteran artist hopes to squeeze some essence of contemplation out of the wastes of experience….
Of all the "American Jewish writers" of the last few decades Bellow is not merely the most gifted by far, but the most serious—and the most Jewish in his seriousness. In him alone, or almost alone, the tradition of immigrant Jewishness, minus the Schmaltz and Schmutz the decades have stuccoed onto it, survives with a stern dignity.
Irving Howe, "Down and Out in New York and Chicago," in his The Critical Point (© 1973; reprinted by permission of the publisher, Horizon Press, New York), Horizon, 1973, pp. 121-36.
Bellow is positively hypnotized by the part of human life he knows best, as a novelist should be, and he sees everything else in this focus. But without being detached and "impartial" about the long Jewish struggle for survival, he is fascinated and held by the texture of Jewish experience as it becomes, as it can become, the day-to-day life of people one has created. This is very different from writing about people one names as Jews but who, no matter how one feels about them, are just names on the page. Texture is life relived, life on the page, beyond praise or blame….
[The] air of having lived, of experiencing the big city in every pore, of being on the spot, is the great thing about Bellow's fiction. It is this living acrid style—in the suddenly chastened, too glibly precise, peculiarly assertive bitterness of postwar American writing, with its hallucinated clarity about details, its oversized sense of our existence of too many objects all around (what desolation amidst wonders!)—that made us realize Bellow as an original. He is a key to something that would emerge in all the American writing of this period about cities, the "mass," the common life. This was not the "minority" writing of the poignant, circumscribed novels of the 1930s…. Bellow had come out of a ghetto in Montreal, the Napoleon Street that makes one of the deeper sections of Herzog. But what made him suddenly vivid, beginning with what was later to seem the puton of The Adventures of Augie March (1953), was his command of a situation peculiarly American, founded on mass experience, that was as far from the metaphysical wit in Kafka as it was from the too conscious pathos of the Depression novels. With Bellow an American of any experience could feel that he was in the midst of the life he knew.
What was perhaps most "American" about it was the fact that despite all the crisis psychology in The Victim, Seize the Day, Herzog there was a burning belief in commanding one's own experience, in putting it right by thought. Each of these narratives was a kind of survival kit for a period in which survival became all too real a question for many Americans. The Jewish experience on that subject—and what else had the experience been?—seemed exemplary to Americans, especially when it came armed with jokes. Goodbye to Henry Roth and how many other gifted, stunted, devastated Jewish novelists of the Thirties. In book after book Bellow went about the business of ordering life, seeing it through, working it out. He was intimate with the heights-and-abyss experience of so many intellectual Jews, the alternating experience of humiliation and the paradise of intellectual illumination. And it was this depiction of life as incessant mental struggle, of heaven and hell in the same Jewish head, that made Bellow's readers recognize a world the reverse of the provincial, a quality of thought somber, tonic, bracing, that was now actual to American experience yet lent itself to Bellow's fascinatedly personal sense of things….
Above all, the Bellow persona was an hallucinated observer of what Sartre called the "hell that is other people"—he brilliantly sized up the strength in other people's arms, lives, faces, seeing what they had to say to the predominating self's vision at the heart of each Bellow novel…. Bellow influenced himself far more than others ever did, which is why book after book added up to what he had experienced and learned. The key belief was that right thinking is virtue and can leave you in charge of the life that is so outrageous to live.
The process of self-teaching thus becomes the heart of Bellow's novels, and the key to their instructiveness for others. One could compile from Bellow's novels a whole commonplace book of wisdom in the crisis era that has been Bellow's subject and opportunity. His novels are successively novels of instruction as well as existential adventure tales….
Thinking is for Bellow the most accessible form of virtue. The "reality instructors" have become indistinguishable from the worldliness with which they are clotted. Bellow's recurrent hero, by contrast, is so concerned with thinking well that the imbalance between the hero and his fellows becomes an imbalance between the hero's thinking and the mere activity of others. Bellow is not a very dramatic novelist, and unexpected actions tend to be dragged into his novels—like Herzog's half-hearted attempt to kill his wife's lover—as a way of interrupting the hero's reflections. But evidently Bellow's personae attain their interest for him by their ability to express the right opinions. And not surprisingly, the protagonists of Bellow's novels are the voices of his intellectual evolution. A Bellow anthology would take the form of a breviary, an intellectual testament gathered from diaries, letters to public men and famous philosophers that were never mailed, arias to the reader à la Augie March, the thoughts of Artur Sammler that are neural events in the privacy of one's consciousness because they cannot be expressed to others—they are too severe, too disapproving.
Alfred Kazin, in his Bright Book of Life: American Novelists & Storytellers from Hemingway to Mailer (© 1971, 1973 by Alfred Kazin; reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Co. in association with the Atlantic Monthly Press), Atlantic-Little, Brown, 1973, pp. 128-35.
No American writer since the war has given us as levelheaded, vibrant, and true a description of contemporary life as Saul Bellow and no one has delineated so clearly and so deeply the relationship of the way we live now to what we read now, of character to ideas, personality to books. The Bellow protagonist often bears the most intense feelings through an arena of the most palpable cultural props. Survival depends equally on how he feels and what he thinks, which are inseparable. In carrying this weight of seriousness, Bellow runs counter to the popular (and populist) image of the novelist whose mistrust of ideas and even words qualifies him as still another rugged saint of adventure. In American literature physical acts are eloquent (Hemingway, Faulkner) but the reflective consciousness is often muted. But if Bellow is a novelist of intellect, he is not an intellectual novelist. He eschews the thesis novel, one which proceeds because of an idea; this he considers "French" (Gide, Sartre, Camus). Bellow sees his characters in their personal reality, sees them as selves, or better, souls, whose thought moves with the inevitability of an emotion. This is, in his view, the "Russian" way with ideas (Tolstoy, Dostoevsky). If there is something unfamiliar to the American common reader in this mind and body involvement—as opposed to one or the other—there is something perhaps even more unfamiliar to the uncommon reader in the grounds of the argument. For no one has so persistently and successfully gone against the grain of modernism, which is still a kind of orthodoxy in the universities and even the quarterlies. In this respect Bellow is the postmodernist par excellence in that his very inspiration often comes from a resistance to its celebrated aesthetic ideology, with its tendency toward monumentality and its perhaps inevitably concomitant tendency toward coldness….
The central thrust of Bellow's fiction is to deny nihilism, immoralism, and the aesthetic view. He wishes to make art possible for life. Where the artist-hero sought isolation, the Bellow protagonist longs for community, and ironic distance gives way to the nearness of confession as we are on a personal standard. The noli me tangere of modernism gives way to "I want, I want," the cold exquisiteness of modernist art to a superjournalistic accessibility. This is the formal meaning of the breakthrough of Augie March, where stasis gives way to speed, radiance to ordinary daylight, spatial form to temporal form; narrative is back and the formal meaning reflects a moral one. Augie's excited belief in the "axial lines of life," though somewhat undercut by the subsequent narrative, is typical of the reassessment of common possibility which is the burden of Bellow's mature work. If the artist-hero proper is nowhere present in Bellow, what may be called the citizen-hero is often there: the dangling man and Augie have hopes for a colony and a school; Herzog wants "politics in the Aristotelian sense"; Artur Sammler had desired an international fellowship. The aesthetic gives over to the ethical, the artist to the thinker—one may even say, the beautiful (in the French sense of le beau) to the good. Indifferent to myth, Bellow brings us into the wildness of current history, the liberal arena. For authenticity of vision we are given not the collective unconscious but the "glittering eye" of full historical consciousness, since the emphasis is not on the artist but on the event, not on "divine impulse … surface polish … the law of numbers" but on issues, description, and emotion recollected in some semblance of tranquility. Bellow is the heir of the first modernists, the romantics, rather than the archmodernists. Like Keats, he is certain of nothing but "the holiness of the heart's affections"; he has not lost belief in the self or even the soul. In Bellow we may have trouble locating good and evil, but we are never beyond it. Immoralist activity, the ultimate nihilistic act, may be temptations, but they are temptations which it is necessary to overcome. Perversity is not a metaphor of release from civilized inhibition, as it is in Death in Venice and its bedfellows, but a form of mishigas, tolerable comic madness. Bellow, like others in the postmodern period, illustrates what one wit has called the power of positive sex. What is perhaps the quintessential symbolist poem, "L'Après-midi d'un faune," in its rendering of a fugitive animal sensuality, is about coitus interruptus. The effective missionary style of Herzog reminds us that morality pays.
The general characteristics of modernism—alienation, fragmentation, break with tradition, isolation and magnification of subjectivity, threat of the void, weight of vast numbers and monolithic impersonal institutions, hatred of civilization itself—are obviously authentic in one way or another. Any definition of postmodernism assumes them, as does any postmodern writer. What Bellow does is resist total absorption by them and repudiate the modernist orthodoxy of "experimentation" which derives from this view…. Above all, he tries to dramatize states of emotion and consciousness which prove that there is more to it than that. His prose—of course it varies from book to book—reflects the tension involved in this resistance, balanced as it is between affirmation and skepticism, the manic and the depressive, action and revery, common sense and mystical feeling, the ordinary and the abstruse, the colloquial and the learned, Yiddish inflection and latinate elongation. From Augie March on there is always an energetic temperament, a personal voice speaking through the contraries, making them one. There is neither the sort of irony that implies the split between public and private, nor is there coterie appeal. A writer for whom the mundane does not eclipse subjectivity but intensifies it, Bellow, in this sense, transcends Stephen Spender's distinction between the modernist novel of sensibility and the antimodernist novel of sociology, the novel of poetry and the novel of prose. While Pound was trying to purge the language of poetry of abstraction and to make poetry as well-written as prose, Joyce and Virginia Woolf, in reaction to Bennett, Galsworthy, and Wells, showed that prose could be as well-written as poetry. Bellow shows that prose can be as well-written as prose. His creative repudiation of the modernists makes him a virtuoso in spite of himself.
Daniel Fuchs, "Saul Bellow and the Modern Tradition," in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 15, No. 1, Winter, 1974, pp. 67-89.