Saul Bellow Bellow, Saul (Vol. 13) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Bellow, Saul 1915–

Bellow, a Canadian-born Jewish-American novelist, short story writer, essayist, playwright, editor, and translator, is regarded by many to be the most important spokesman of the post-war generation. The realization of selfhood in a time when the concept of individualism is degenerating has been the task of nearly all of his protagonists, of whom several—Herzog, Henderson, Augie March, Mr. Sammler—have come to stand for tooth-and-nail optimism in the face of chaos and despair. Augie's famous cry "I want! I want!" expresses the primal knowledge of Bellow men, those who will survive, who will not surrender. Chester E. Eisinger provides an excellent summary: Bellow "knows that man is less than what the Golden Age promised us, but he refuses to believe that man is nothing. He is something, Bellow says, and saying it he performs an act of faith." A recipient of three National Book Awards, he won both the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction and the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1976. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 6, 8, 10, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

Peter M. Axthelm

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Moses Herzog, the hero of Bellow's most brilliantly realized confessional novel,… arrives at a unique kind of perception—one which is in relation to nothing and, at the same time, to everything. An examination of this seemingly paradoxical state and of how it is achieved provides an understanding of what may be the ultimate possibility for the modern confessional hero.

Herzog's perception relates to nothing, in that it is a simple, quiet decision to stop his confession, a signal that his internal storm has at last been calmed; it simultaneously relates to everything, in that it indicates a profound understanding of his past and present existence. It contains nothing in the form of a momentary vision or an affirmation of one special value, but its development includes glimpses of almost everything in man's intellectual repertory. Finally, it relates to nothing because, conceived in isolation, it affirms the joy of isolation; yet this isolation simultaneously connects Moses Herzog with everything—in his rare state, both his mind and the world are at peace. (pp. 129-30)

Before he arrives at this unprecedented level of peace and self-understanding in his hero, Bellow considers many traditional themes of the confessional genre. Two of these themes are developed to an extent which requires some discussion before we can turn to a specific treatment of Bellow's work. First, the intellectual hero who has been developing throughout the course of the confessional novel reaches a rich maturation in Herzog; second, Bellow approaches the problem of suffering with the sensitive insight of Jewish tradition.

"Your intelligence is so high," a friend tells Moses Herzog, "—way off the continuum."… Herzog employs his great mental capacities not only as a thinker or philosopher in the sense of the Sartrean hero, but also as a near-encyclopedic source of intellectual references and allusions…. It is one of the triumphs of Herzog that it is able to encompass such a wide range of facts and thoughts without becoming irrelevant or dull. The technique of having the hero write letters to many scholarly colleagues gives some degree of unity to his observations, but the manner in which they remain consistently vital to his personal problems is chiefly attributable to the remarkable use of irony.

In part, Bellow's irony resembles that satirical humor used so effectively by his modern Jewish counterparts, such as Salinger in "Franny" and Philip Roth in Goodbye, Columbus. It also includes an ironic view of the hero, undercutting his approaches to profundity in the manner of Dostoevsky and Sartre's use of the sharp letdown. (pp. 131-32)

The most distinctive aspect of the irony in Herzog is not that of the author, but of the hero. He, too, can satirize others…. This satirical ability frequently adds life to basically gloomy scenes. (p. 132)

More important than his satiric wit, however, is Herzog's capacity for self-directed irony. "There was a passionate satire in him," and this quality is one of the basic tools of his self-scrutiny. Just as the author undercuts the hero's own early attitude, Herzog gradually comes to revel in an irreverent treatment of the generalizations which he and other intellectual historians had long held dear. (p. 133)

Through his enduring irony, [Herzog] maintains control over his wide-ranging thoughts, never allowing his intellectualism to separate him from his most pressing problems. In fact, his intellectual comments become an integral part of his mind, reflecting its whims as well as its suffering. Eventually, they lead him, in a gradual and painful progression, toward a harmonious relation of his mind with the world. (p. 134)

The Jewish legacy of suffering is an important theme of Herzog, and it is interesting to note its special nature. The Jewish hero is not, like the Underground Man, "passionately in love with suffering"; he cannot share the malignant pleasure which Dostoevsky's hero finds in his humiliation and pain. However, he accepts suffering as his inevitable fate, and he takes a certain pride in knowing how to suffer. The Jew doesn't "love" suffering, but in a sense he needs it to feel his identity. (p. 135)

Bellow qualifies the theme of his hero's Jewish heritage in two important ways. First, the same element of irony which directs Herzog's intellectual excursions has a similar effect on references to his race. Herzog speaks of his ancestors in short phrases which remind us that he is a member of a suffering race, without attempting to blame any of his personal suffering on that race. Perhaps the finest example of this rueful humor is his lament about Madeleine: "She's built a wall of Russian books around herself. Vladimir of Kiev, Tikhon Zadonsky. In my bed! It's not enough they persecuted my ancestors!" (p. 137)

Bellow's second modification of the Jewish theme occurs in its relation to the novel as a whole…. [For Bellow], suffering is not the "only certainty." Herzog's ultimate act is not one of submission to pain but one of transcendence. Suffering presses upon him, and he accepts it; yet he also refuses to become immersed in it. His Jewish background is intrinsically related to his suffering, but the two are not synonymous. (pp. 137-38)

The essential point is that, for Bellow, Jewish tradition is meant to define, not to determine; it is important only as long as it elucidates the nature of an individual's problem…. Bellow's heroes will not be placed on a stockpile. They never cease to affirm their individual natures, and they accept their suffering, as well as their joy, as an intensely personal fact.

The Jewish theme, as applied to Herzog, introduces two central aspects of his confession. He is, on the one hand, an outcast, a descendant of the Wandering Jew; at the same time, he is deprived of the cultural continuity which sustains the Jews—he cannot hope for his child to achieve the peace which he himself has been denied, because that child has been snatched from him…. The essential solution to his alienation must be sought far from the "oceanic" realm, in his own personal world. (pp. 138-39)

[Arthur Koestler's] Darkness at Noon, in which the hero frequently compares himself to Moses, and [William Golding's] Free Fall, with its relation to the Fall from Paradise, suggest that the confessional hero's quest for reconstructed values leads him toward mythic patterns. In Herzog, Bellow brings modern man even closer to myth. The hero's life is the quest of a modern Moses for his own Promised Land. Herzog seeks fulfillment by leading his wife Madeleine and his friends Valentine and Phoebe Gersbach to the peaceful country life of Ludeyville. His flock soon deserts him, and his quest proves disastrous. Left alone, he sees himself as "a broken-down monarch of some kind." His confession is a renewal of his search, a pilgrimage through his disintegrated life toward a state of true peace and perception. The theme of this mental journey remains linked to the story of Moses, but its structure of rambling meditations and memories is organized on the pattern of the Odyssey.

When he begins his first search, Moses Herzog is married to a woman named Daisy. "Stability, symmetry, order, containment were Daisy's strength," he recalls. "By my irregularity and turbulence of spirit I brought out the very worst in Daisy."… In seeking a life more attuned to his own spirit, Herzog is attracted to a woman even more unpredictable and passionate than himself. His relationship with Madeleine is described as a constant, raging battle, in which he proves hopelessly overmatched. The nature of their struggle is elucidated by the symbols which come to represent their battle standards. (p....

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David R. Jones

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Despite its initial success, [The Adventures of Augie March] has not worn well…. [Difficult] questions continue to disrupt considerations of the novel. Bellow's strategy … is a reckless one, to fling an individual out across the surface of a very large work. Any such book depends for its success on the resiliency of that individual, on his ability to become, like a new coat, comfortable with time. There is also a problem of focus, for Bellow parades American types and deformities past the reader in considerable number, and we often have to peer over their heads to get a glimpse of Augie. As if to complicate matters, we must continually adjust our register to accommodate the two Augie Marchs, narrator and...

(The entire section is 1701 words.)

Irving Malin

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In the stage directions [for The Last Analysis], Bellow indicates that the action of his play occurs in a "two-story loft in a warehouse…." The setting seems perfectly ordinary. Is there, however, an additional meaning? Can we see the symbolism of the physical facts? The play, as we shall learn, deals with the various stories told (or retold) by the hero. These stories are "double" in effect because he needs in his present condition to create (or recreate) a new self—to shed his skin. He tells certain stories for his own mental well-being. "Loft." Luftmensch (remember Augie March). Left. I free-associate, but I think Bellow does the same. Surely, his play is about the "upper depths"—the...

(The entire section is 1029 words.)

Earl Rovit

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The problematic theme to which Bellow has been irresistibly drawn from Dangling Man to Mr. Sammler's Planet is that of trying to reconcile virtue with the fact of self-consciousness: can modern man attain "dignity," can he live a "good" life when he must assume the traditional function of God, when he himself must judge his own frailties, cowardices, and ignoble motives?…

For Bellow, a story-line seems more than anything else a weblike scenario that he weaves more and more tightly around his captured protagonist; it is primarily a method of presenting the stifling power of the human predicament in order to measure his hero's ability to endure the harrowing weight of his own...

(The entire section is 843 words.)

Seymour Epstein

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The failures of Western civilization and the pleasures of it spin out the thematic thread that runs through the novels under discussion here. As a theme, it is as worthy as any being worked in contemporary fiction, and proof of this is in the unity and persuasiveness of Bellow's oeuvre as compared to any of his contemporaries who might be considered at the same level of seriousness. (p. 36)

Bellow's first three novels—Dangling Man (1944), The Victim (1947), and The Adventures of Augie March (1953)—are interesting, varied, but essentially diverse in theme. Augie March, that large, trumpeting announcement of Self, is in many ways a prototype of Bellow's subsequent...

(The entire section is 3210 words.)