Most of Saul Bellow's novels employ polarities that structure the dramatic development of each work. The central character becomes conscious of these polarities after he encounters various antagonists who either illustrate one of these dimensions or force the hero to acknowledge them as part of himself. On the one hand, there are the characters who challenge and perhaps even repudiate the definition of self that the hero has formulated. On the other hand, there are the "reality instructors" who may present alternative philosophical perspectives, but ironically their very life style seems to call these options into question. In some works the same individual is the vehicle for repudiation and redemption, but in most works different characters perform these roles.
Bellow has never been circumspect about the themes he explores and the justifications he seeks. From Dangling Man to Mr. Sammler's Planet, the Bellow hero has been faced with the challenge of reconciling the views he has of himself with those that others have of him. The major narrative structure is controlled by the hero who must decide whether to conform to the pattern of existence that surrounds him, or to explore new possibilities. He may ultimately not discover what he seeks, but the search itself is of prime significance. In Dangling Man, The Victim, The Adventures of Augie March, and Seize the Day only ambiguous resolutions are attained. In contrast, Henderson the Rain King, Herzog, and Mr. Sammler's Planet end much more optimistically; however, only in the last of these do we discover a character who has not merely contemplated a new lifestyle, but one who has actually attempted to put it into practice.
Bellow's novels contain many similar elements: each focuses on a character who appears to be alienated from his environment, each explores the psychological alternatives of commitment and disengagement, and each challenges the hero to demonstrate his personal worth as well as his faith in humanity. Even though these appear to be serious themes, Bellow always treats them with irony, linking his work to the cynical tradition of Jewish fiction. (pp. 75-6)
Bellow began his fiction writing career by arguing against the values of an established tradition, one which admired physical strength and stoicism. He advocated an alternative approach, which commended the more feminine virtues associated with the heart and the emotions…. Bellow has never diverged very far from this central position, since the idea of exploring the inner emotions of his characters and providing the justifications for their humanistic feelings remain his basic themes.
As Dangling Man progresses, it suggests the themes, conflicts, and essential plot that Bellow has consistently employed in his fiction…. [The] image of the dangling man represents the modern hero who has severed his ties with the values of the past, but who has not yet discovered those objectives for which he may be asked to die. The appropriateness of Joseph's position is thus emphasized, for he is given the opportunity of devoting the totality of his energy to deciding the nature of his future commitment. (pp. 76-8)
Serving the opposite function of the character who appears to repudiate the hero's definition of himself is the character who appears in each of Bellow's works to assert or represent the posture more closely aligned with the author's personal beliefs. These role players annunciate philosophically viable options, even if they, themselves, are unable to demonstrate the validity of this position. Bellow starts out rather hesitantly giving credence to this possibility in his first novel. For in Dangling Man , the Spirit of Alternatives is obviously an alter ego, a psychological construct...
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that Joseph creates for himself to suggest other possibilities than those he had considered to justify his lifestyle. It is an awkward literary device, although it also represents the novel's most interesting philosophical confrontation. It, more than any other interaction within the novel, relates most directly to the traditional Bellovian question, what does it mean to be human:
"I'm talking about happiness."
"I'm talking about asking to be human. We're not worse than the others."
"Those who proved it possible to be human."
By having parts of the mind engage in conversation, Bellow was able to experiment with a motif that became a central part of his later fiction…. What the reader discovers is that the search for a purpose and the expression of grace, which Joseph recognized from listening to Haydn and later from his conversations with the Spirit of Alternatives, remain the central objectives of all of Bellow's heroes from Joseph to Artur Sammler. What changes is how this discovery is represented and what is ultimately achieved once this knowledge has been attained by the character.
Dangling Man begins with this search for self and it ends with an even stronger conviction about the validity of this enterprise; where it fails is in establishing, for the central character, an option that seems to have advanced him beyond the early stages of uncertainty. (pp. 79-80)
In Bellow's second novel, The Victim, the polarity that structures the dramatic development takes on greater depth and far more significance than it did in the first work. In The Victim the question of what it means to be human is tested out. Unlike Joseph in Dangling Man, Asa Leventhal in The Victim is not able to ignore the implications of his assailant's remarks, for he is constantly hounded by a half-realized figure from his past who accuses him of vindictiveness. (p. 80)
Through these repudiators or antagonists, Asa is forced to acknowledge the validity of a statement made by Schlossberg, the reality instructor in the novel. Schlossberg maintains that it is essential for man to realize what it means to be human and that he must also contribute something if life is to have meaning…. [Schlossberg] brings us back to a position similar to that advocated in Dangling Man. He, too, recommends choosing dignity and grace. To be human means to acknowledge one's limitations and to care for others who may need your assistance, it does not, however, mean sacrificing your own integrity to ensure someone else's survival. (pp. 81-2)
In The Adventures of Augie March Bellow introduces a new facet into his fiction: the picaresque. The polarities suggested earlier are still evident, but certainly not as central as they were in the first two novels. In this work Augie is also caught between different value systems, but since the novel is picaresque, he only has to deal with one conflict at a time.
There are many repudiators and many reality instructors in The Adventures of Augie March. They appear on almost every page as they bounce Augie back and forth through various experiences until he asserts himself and moves on to new adventures in his attempts "to refuse to lead a disappointed life."… In the early chapters Grandma Lausch and Einhorn have the greatest influence on Augie's character. They represent Bellow's admiration for a passing tradition…. However, there is also something perverse and grotesque about these two reality instructors. They cheat, lie, and exploit their positions and those institutions they feel ought to serve them. They are also crippled or almost blind, suggesting their limitations as total human beings. In these two characters, Bellow has created his first absurd spokesmen. (pp. 82-3)
The more perceptive observations and the more significant philosophy is communicated by Bateshaw and Mintouchian. (p. 84)
Mintouchian repeats the Bellovian objective to accept yourself, to take life in your own hands, and to struggle to make something worthwhile out of your assets…. [Bateshaw, on the other hand,] is insane because he envisions himself as a Godlike figure who will do away with the boredom of mankind…. By making Bateshaw insane, Bellow is undercutting the Utopian ideal which Bateshaw envisions establishing. He is poking fun at the presumptuous idea of man creating a better world than the one he lives in now. (pp. 84-5)
Seize the Day employs polarities similar to those of the earlier fiction, but they ultimately lead toward different resolutions. While Augie remained fairly aloof and ultimately uncontaminated by the conditions surrounding him, Tommy Wilhelm in Seize the Day is not so fortunate. Tommy seeks to follow the American dream while still attempting to pursue his image of personal integrity. This commitment to conflicting values leads Tommy to the brink of despair. The progression toward reconciliation of his dilemma is structurally linked to the opposition provided in the novel by the ambiguously defined characters who play the roles of antagonist and reality instructor. (pp. 85-6)
Tommy's first serious "mistake" results from his attempts to repudiate his father's values and to establish his own. His father, Dr. Adler, is equated with superficial respect and monetary success in the novel. Bellow obviously does not revere these values and consequently satirizes Dr. Adler's stature….
In contrast to Dr. Adler, Dr. Tamkin provides the alternative posture. While Dr. Adler represents the limitations of a closed, conformist perspective, Dr. Tamkin illustrates the opportunism of an aggressive personality waiting to exploit any gullible victim who comes along…. He is another one of these reality instructors who annunciates an ambiguous position that can lead to either the character's success or failure. (p. 86)
Instead of being "cured" by the doctors who surround him, Tommy Wilhelm continues to manifest his symptoms of alienation until he accidentally walks into the funeral, where he acknowledges that he does not want to die and that the only thing he possesses is the present moment. (p. 87)
The novel abandons Tommy on the brink of this intuitive insight about his emotional relationship with the rest of humanity. We never discover what he accomplishes with this vision. The next novel, Henderson the Rain King, partially restates the process of discovery and partially explores consequent alternatives.
Henderson begins by trying to define the gnawing pain which expresses itself only by the the urge ("I want") which it elicits. What he wants and how it is achieved formulate the major plot development of the novel. The action is precipitated by life-denying antagonists and the alternatives of behavior are formulated by various reality instructors. In this instance, however, the repudiators play a far less significant role, while the more positive assertions are defined more extensively and more clearly….
In Henderson the Rain King, three central repudiators appear: the octopus, his first wife, Frances, and Miss Lenox, his housekeeper. The octopus gave Henderson his first vision of death and made him realize that he did not want to die…. The vision of this octopus of death impels Henderson to seek an answer and an outlet for the ever-present desire that haunts him. The octopus is seen as a form of repudiation, for it challenges Henderson to recognize that his life style is unsatisfactory and finally self defeating. (p. 88)
Henderson realizes that he must seek beyond [his] awareness of death, to formulate his essential being. In order to achieve this objective, he travels to an Africa of the mind, for there life is less encumbered by the superficialities of civilization. In this rarefied atmosphere Henderson hopes to confront that reality which had remained so elusive to his grasp. While being stripped naked, both metaphorically and literally, Henderson meets two reality instructors who provide him with guidance and insight.
Queen Willatale, the leader of the Arnewi tribe, carefully defines Henderson's character. She informs him that he has "a large personality. Your mind is full of thought. Possess some fundamental of Bittahness … You love send…. Sendations…. Grun-tu-molani, the old queen said…. You want to live. Grun-tu-molani. Man want to live."… For the first time in Henderson's life, someone has spoken the truth to him. She sees that Henderson possesses a great capacity for suffering as well as a large desire to live to the fullest. He wants to live, indulge his sensations, share his experiments and understand his motivations. Since he is basically childlike, he must experience his disappointments and physically endure his mistakes before he will understand and consequently change his behavior. Willatale thus defined Henderson's most enduring quality, his vitality for participating in life's struggle for survival. (pp. 89-90)
To state that Henderson achieves all of [his] objectives would be ludicrous, but the novel does suggest that Henderson is on his way toward attaining a far more satisfactory image of himself than he possessed prior to his voyage to Africa. First, he reformulates the urge that had driven him there. "I had a voice that said, I want! I want! It should have told me she wants, he wants, they want. And moreover, it's love that makes reality. The opposite makes the opposite."… The shift from concern for self to concern for others and the recognition that love rather than suffering constitutes reality, are two essential dimensions of Henderson's new character. (p. 91)
Herzog is Bellow's first intellectual hero. Prior to Herzog Bellow had created bungling heroes who did not really understand their predicaments nor solve their own dilemmas. Reality instructors and repudiators were constantly employed to formulate the alternatives with which the central characters of these earlier novels had to struggle. In Herzog and Mr. Sammler's Planet these roles are still evident, but much more closely associated with the heroes themselves, than previously…. Intellectually Herzog recognizes the consequences of his beliefs and attachments. Unfortunately he is not an integrated person yet, and thus treats parts of himself from an objective point of view, with the type of detachment that allows him to conceptualize facets of himself as separate from his inherent personality…. The urge and desire expressed from Henderson through Herzog are finally satisfied [when Herzog states that he is "responsibly responsible to reason"], so that Herzog can respond to the question, "But what do you want?" By saying, "But that's just it—not a solitary thing. I am pretty well satisfied to be, to be just as it is willed, and for as long as I may remain in occupancy." (pp. 91-2)
In Herzog the reality instruction is both the most pronounced and the least acceptable. The insight that is provided by those who have made it in the world is of little use to Herzog, and to a great extent supports his sense of paranoia…. Their teaching and form of truth are the harsh realities of the contemporary world that Herzog seeks to evade by pursuing his studies in Romanticism. He would prefer to remain removed from the daily turmoil that those who are considered sane are engaged in, but his psyche does not allow for total isolation. (p. 94)
By writing letters and conversing with his reality instructors, Herzog becomes aware of what his basic responsibilities are and how he is to proceed beyond his neurosis. The process is laden with traps, but the outcome also offers the only possible salvation, a reintegration of self and environment that Herzog defines as the true occupation of man. (p. 95)
Mr. Sammler's Planet, like so much of Bellow's fiction, can be seen as both optimistic and pessimistic. The optimism emerges from the perseverance of the hero and from the resolutions of the plot. Most of the negativism derives from the depressing social and interpersonal relationships that constitute much of the narrative. Sometimes, as in The Adventures of Augie March and Henderson the Rain King, there is a nice balance between these two points of view, while at other times, the predominant thrust is in the less optimistic direction. However, it is only in Dangling Man and Mr. Sammler's Planet that this pessimism becomes pervasive, and to an extent hinders the reader from accepting the message that is supposed to provide the resolution.
The problem seems to stem from Bellow's own rather ambiguous attitude toward his material. In Mr. Sammler he has constructed a sympathetic listener who is old enough to be detached from the experiences around him, yet alive enough to be concerned about the future. If this were his essential posture, the reader would be able to accept its implications, but Sammler is used in ways that transcend these dimensions. He does not remain the detached observer of events, but becomes directly engaged in them. He does not objectively comment on what he perceives, but provides derisive commentary, particularly about the youth who appear antagonistic toward his values. It is because of this dual use of the character that the novel cannot be seen as a clear-cut diatribe against contemporary life, nor as a philosophical formula for future existence. Instead, it becomes a provocative challenge for the reader, who is thus forced to separate the observations of the author from the personal prejudices that are part of the central character's posture. (pp. 95-6)
There is the great temptation for the Bellow hero, as indicated in Mr. Sammler's Planet by Dr. Lal, to escape from the world and to begin again with the best that has been evolved from life on this earth. On the other hand, there is the recognition that this is a romantic notion which does not really face the critical issues that are involved. Many contemporary novelists accept the posture of alienation that allows their heroes to separate themselves from the mainstream of external events and to function on a different plane, feeling justified in ignoring the problems of the majority, who are consequently treated as not worthy of consideration. Bellow may also have a similar inclination, but he curbs his antagonism sufficiently at least to suggest the possibility that his central character may re-enter the mainstream of life even if only to be the thwarted again. (pp. 96-7)
As suggested at the beginning of this exploration, Bellow's fiction has been seeking a resolution to the problem of what it means to be human. In Mr. Sammler's Planet, he comes closer than anywhere else to providing a tentative answer to that ongoing quest. In Sammler's eyes Gruner has accomplished this feat; in the reader's eyes, Sammler may be on his way to doing the same. Certainly Bellow plans for us to see Sammler in these positive terms. He is called "a symbolic character. He personally was a symbol. His friends and family had made him a judge and a priest."… As spiritual symbol and legal custodian, Bellow obviously intended Sammler to represent those virtues of character so elusive in the contemporary world.
Sammler demonstrates that he is entitled to the high praise accorded him by his family and friends, because he remains in contact with the higher virtues even though he is surrounded by the lower ones. What distinguishes Sammler from Bellow's previous heroes is that he is a man who is nearing the end of his life, with few illusions left, but one who still entertains the possibility that man will attain a high position in the future. While the former heroes, even the older ones like Herzog and Henderson, were just beginning their true occupations and newly found selves by the end of each of these works, Mr. Sammler is in the more fortunate position of being able to reflect back on his life and find it essentially acceptable. There is the one flaw, the pleasurable beating of the enemy that took place during the war, but for the rest, Sammler … has fulfilled the terms of his contract. He thus combines the three roles focused on in this discussion. He repudiates his former self and creates a more humane personality. He learns from and ultimately demonstrates the validity of the reality instruction, here provided by Elya Gruner. And finally, he earns his hero status, since he exemplifies and defends the dignity of man. (pp. 99-100)
Saul Bellow has always worked toward the improvement of mankind. What is remarkable is that even though Bellow foresees man's future as dependent on the possibilities for intimate human interaction and honest communication of emotional states, in none of Bellow's novels is there a successfully delineated relationship between husband and wife or children and parents. There are intimations of better futures than those described in the works themselves, but there is no dramatized success to be found. Part of this is to be expected, given the predilection of the age to accept pessimism as truth and optimism as self-delusion, but with so much reliance on community and shared experience, one would expect a greater focus on these possibilities within the texts themselves. Bellow seems to have little faith in the compatibility of man and wife and describes marriages as either breaking up (Herzog), ending in divorce (Seize the Day), having reached a state of apathy (Dangling Man), or conveniently at the periphery of the novel's experiences (Augie March, Henderson, Mr. Sammler, and The Victim). What one concludes from this is that Bellow is better able to postulate a resolution of compatibility, as he does in Henderson and The Victim, than actually to describe it. He appears to have an abstract faith in human compassion, but has yet to document the proof for this conviction. Sammler comes closest to exemplifying this posture, but even he is not what he would prefer to be, a wholly compassionate man. (pp. 100-01)
Ralph Berets, "Repudiation and Reality Instruction in Saul Bellow's Fiction," in The Centennial Review (© 1976 by The Centennial Review), Vol. XX, No. 1, Winter, 1976, pp. 75-101.
Saul Bellow has been something of a resident alien among recent American novelists. While his work is soaked in American experience, it does not appear to develop out of the tradition of any of his immediate predecessors in American fiction. He has said some kind words about Dreiser, but he is not a direct descendant of Dreiser or of any of the other naturalists. His work does not emerge out of the generation of Fitzgerald and Hemingway, nor does it spring from the social realism that Bellow grew up with in the thirties. Critics, trying to locate Bellow in a literary context, usually link him with French or Russian novelists or with a Jewish tradition that is not specifically American. While Bellow has certainly been more cosmopolitan than most American novelists, he has not simply turned away from the American tradition. From the beginning of his career, he has consciously tried to avoid what he sees as the extremes of the modern American tradition and at the same time to contain those extremes as the central conflict within his own work. (p. 462)
On the surface [the] cosmic gloom and the simultaneous obsessions with self-perfection and power [characteristic of naturalist and realist fiction] may seem paradoxical…. [The] extreme pessimism on the dark side of Calvinism has always co-existed with an American version of the romantic quest for self-perfection. It is just these polar extremes which have held Bellow's attention throughout his career. He not only sees them as the shaping forces of American literature but of American history and culture as well. Most importantly he sees them as the continuing terms of conflict within the American psyche. While Bellow rejects both orthodox optimism and orthodox pessimism, both the idea of human impotence and romantic striving after self-perfection, the tension between these contrary forces supplies much of the drama of his work. His minor characters are for the most part grotesque incarnations of one or the other of these extremes. His central characters contain these extremes as the terms of their psychological conflicts. It is here that Bellow's efforts to create an image of the human self can best be seen in relation to the naturalists and realists. Bellow's heroes contain both the heroic self and the ordinary self. (p. 464)
The most consistent aspect of Saul Bellow's fiction is the psychology of his heroes. From Joseph, the dangling man, to Artur Sammler, Bellow's central characters all have pretty much the same psychological conflict. Each of his heroes hungers for what he instinctively knows is a decent life, for love, for human brotherhood, for communion with God. At the same time each is betrayed by the demands of his own ego, which insists upon absolute freedom, absolute power, absolute understanding. The traitor ego seeks to create an ideal self and flies beyond all limits. It will settle for nothing short of self-perfection. Joseph, Bellow's first hero, speaks of a "bottomless avidity" which drives him to prize himself "crazily" and to reject any life that falls one thousandth of an inch "short of its ultimate possibility". In varying degrees all of Bellow's later heroes have this same raging ego, endlessly barking "I want, I want". It drives them in pursuit of special distinction, personal destinies, separate and unique fates. In its most extreme form, it perverts the instinctive need to be at one with other men and with God into a desire to control all other men and to become God.
But while Bellow's heroes are ego driven towards a perfect freedom, they live the negation of their desire. They cannot create their own natures and for the simplest of reasons. They have inherent natures, finite and imperfectible. That is the message that external reality brings. The world keeps saying "death", and for all of their evasions, Bellow's heroes, on one level of their being, believe it…. All of Bellow's heroes believe in death, and they also believe that they owe it to themselves to be immortal. This conflict determines the way that they characteristically see the world. In their frustration they condemn all reality. (pp. 465-66)
For Bellow's heroes the recurrent image of this reality of death is the modern city. They see the buildings, the institutions, the multitude of unknown bodies as the substance of death itself. The city exists as a machine for mass-production and mass-murder. To be a part of it is to be swallowed into nothingness, to lose not only the hope of immortality but also the hope of a unique or individual life.
And just as the ego is inevitably in conflict with external reality, it is inevitably in conflict with another part of the self. The flipside of "bottomless avidity" is bottomless contempt. All of Bellow's heroes despise themselves for falling short of perfection…. What lies behind this is a perverse urge for pure states. If the self cannot be perfect then let it be worthless. The essential dynamic of Bellow's heroes arises from the pull of these two extremes. On the most active level of their being, they are romantic egoists drawn to some pure and absolute freedom. Denied this pure state, they turn in disgust from their environment and from their own natures. (p. 466)
As a primary defense, all of Bellow's heroes turn from what they think of as reality and attempt to live in a private world of protective illusion. They strike a coward's bargain and submit to the suffering of an interior life in order to escape greater suffering and death outside…. In almost every Bellow novel there is a moment when the hero literally turns his face from death and looks out the window. (p. 467)
As a fortification against death and a hostile environment Bellow's heroes literally hole-up…. They all discover that holing up is a lot like digging their own grave. They run from death in the streets to a metaphoric death within the walls of their own being. (p. 468)
Bellow's heroes seek out a temporal hideout, just as they do a spatial. The past becomes another safe box, another fortification against death. Tommy Wilhelm, Henderson, Herzog, Sammler all retreat into the past partially in an attempt to resurrect their own dead within the memory. But here again the flight from death leads only to death. Instead of bringing the dead back to life, Bellow's heroes take up residence with them. Henderson sums it up: "the dead are my boarders, eating me out of house and home"…. Bellow's heroes also seek a kind of personal immortality in the past. Over and over again they return to the scenes and memories of their childhoods as a permanent retreat against time. As a result there is a childishness about them which a number of critics have pointed out. Even Henderson, the six-foot-four-inch excommando, streetfighter, and hog-puncher, confesses that he has "never been at home in life", that all his "decay has taken place upon a child"…. As children, as strangers to the world, Bellow's heroes can avoid choosing any fixed purpose in life. Like Joseph, they all long to give themselves away, to know their purpose, but at the same time they are afraid to commit themselves to any fixed state of being and drift into "endless becoming". To mature is to admit change and consequently to admit death. To "be" is to accept limits and consequently to admit death.
Behind the walls, Bellow's heroes boil over in an inner fury of self-revenge and self-justification. They retreat from external strife into internal strife which is staged as an enclosed drama. The life of the mind becomes a substitute for creative life. One part of the self replays its experience before another critical self that continually analyzes and evaluates the performance. (pp. 468-69)
But since perfect isolation is impossible this side of death, Bellow's heroes are periodically forced and attracted towards the society around them. Just as their interior lives become a kind of drama with the divided self as actor and audience, their public lives degenerate into theatre. Here again they are cast as actor and audience. The actor's main job is to put together a convincing disguise. This becomes a parody of their own desire to create an ideal self and of the heroic quest for self-perfection undertaken by the central characters in the fiction of the naturalists and realists. (p. 469)
Social life becomes a conspiracy of appearances. Each individual is reduced to a series of impressions that he makes upon an audience of jailers; he is never free of the necessity of making the strongest and best impression. At the same time each is a jailer, measuring and evaluating the impressions his neighbor gives out. (p. 470)
Now if Bellow had stopped here, if he had allowed his heroes to die within the walls of their conflicts, his view of reality and of the individual's relationship to it would be very close to that of the naturalists and realists. But Bellow refuses to abandon his central characters to a futile and destructive quest for perfection or to an anonymous death within the ordinary self. Throughout his career he makes a desperate effort to push through this impasse, and in doing so he moves away from both the spirit and the law of the naturalist-realist tradition. The resolution that Bellow's heroes move towards springs from a triumph over the ego rather than the simple destruction of it. They go beyond their own striving for absolute perfection and in so doing experience the sense of a new reality. The external world comes to them not as a paradigm of death, but as a mystery. This mystery has little to do with hope or despair or with any intellectual formulation of these states. Bellow's heroes see that both pessimism and optimism are rackets, and their commitments, like Bellow's, are to something "far more rudimentary than any 'position' or intellectual attitude might imply". What they arrive at is not an explanation but a sense of mystical atonement with life and reality which is independent of any final judgment of good or bad. (p. 472)
One of the recurrent moments of freedom that Bellow's heroes realize springs from a sudden emotional acceptance of the inherent limits of life. It begins with a surrender to the knowledge that there is no way of beating these limits, that striving against them is futile. For a moment the self emerges from the ego, with its demands of absolute freedom, and experiences reality. (pp. 472-73)
Just as Bellow's heroes break through to moments of union with the world of objects, they have isolated visions of their union with the rest of mankind. Here they see their fellow men not as a multitude that bears them down but as brothers. (p. 474)
The concept of humanity as a "larger body" or a "single soul" is central to the morality that is implicit in all of Bellow's novels. All of his heroes want to embody what in the simplest terms can be called "true nobility". The meaning of this quest is explored most fully in Henderson the Rain King and Mr. Sammler's Planet. Henderson's whole life moves towards the recognition that nobility is real. It is a part of the human mixture, a capacity within everyman for "high conduct". As Henderson puts it "the eternal is bonded onto us. It calls out for its share"…. And Henderson knows, as do all of Bellow's heroes, "that there will never be anything but misery without high conduct"…. The problem is that the eternal is by no means the only thing that is "bonded on to us". The ego carries us after power; it demands that we make ourselves interesting, original, unique, perfect. It makes the creation of the self a pursuit of madness…. What is needed is the recognition that the self cannot be created out of nothing; it must be created in imitation of models. If we are following the ego we choose debased models or debase the models we choose. If we are giving the eternal its share we choose proper models, "archetypes of goodness"…. (pp. 475-76)
That Mr. Sammler's Planet should end in prayer indicates the growing importance of the religious sense in Bellow's work. The heroes of his later novels all experience what Sammler calls "God Adumbrations"…. Since Seize the Day, the force and significance of these "adumbrations" have increased with each subsequent novel. None of Bellow's heroes arrives at any intellectual belief in God. It would even be inaccurate to say that any of them achieves or has faith. God is not a conclusion. He has nothing to do with proofs or convictions. Bellow's most recent heroes simply experience in isolated moments of illumination a sense of God's presence. In fact this mystical sense of God's presence frees them from the necessity of proofs, explanations, intellectual constructions and from the mental burden of holding the world together. (pp. 476-77)
No one who has read Bellow with care will make the mistake of believing that his central characters achieve any state of final beatitude. Even within "the hollowness of God", Herzog knows that "the bitter cup [will] come round again, by and by"…. The ego cannot stand much of reality, of humanity, of God. For Bellow's heroes the moment of mystical union can never become a place of permanent residence. It is at best a corrective to the pure states of egomania and despair and to the illusion that these states correspond to reality, a reminder that the true country lies beyond the American Eden and also beyond the American Wasteland. In refusing his claim to these mystical estates, Bellow, inevitably, has been accused of selling his heritage.
Through the late sixties and early seventies, Bellow's reputation began to slide among the young and among some of the older critics who praised his first work. The more hostile bluntly accused him of selling out to the middle-class. He had betrayed the tradition kept alive by the naturalists and realists, the tradition of shouting "No, in thunder" as the phrase now has it. But no one need worry about Bellow's integrity. He has not slept with the "fat Gods". In fact he offers the most sustained and most penetrating criticism of contemporary American life of any novelist of his generation. Bellow's sin is that he has refused to be a prophet. But who can really blame him for this in a country where prophecy appears to be the one resource that is infinitely renewable. It is difficult to "speak in thunder" without announcing either the New Jerusalem or the "abomination of desolation". But as Bellow has remarked, "Prophecy is nice work if you get it". (pp. 477-78)
M. A. Klug, "Saul Bellow: The Hero in the Middle," in The Dalhousie Review, Vol. 56, No. 3, Autumn, 1976, pp. 462-78.
Bellow has been, right from the start, as much concerned with the invisible worlds opened up by thought and feeling, intuition and intimation, as he has been our busy chronicler of the mundane….
The culture criticism is there sure enough, a spirited reading of the times for all of us to accept or quarrel with, but the fundamental engagement of thought is, in the first place, self-directed, and we, the readers, are let in on it only as it were afterwards. For while the novel of ideas, as Bellow has been developing it, exists to inform and entertain and communicate with us all, its primary aim is heuristic, designed as it is to enable the author to think himself through to clarity about certain preoccupying notions….
As [Bellow's] career advances into more open explorations of the spiritual side of things,… [his] beliefs—or movements in the direction of belief—are becoming more pronounced, let out from under the cover of spoofing and ironic humor that have served to keep them somewhat disguised or restrained, and the author a bit too remote from his own metaphysical hunches. (p. 47)
Dangling Man (1944), Bellow's first novel, was, among other things, a meditation on the dilemmas of freedom and fate. "How should a good man live; what ought he to do?"—these are the questions that nag at Joseph, the book's central character, and complicate his life. (p. 48)
[One] does not read Dangling Man today with a great deal of pleasure or growing insight. That is not because the philosophical problems Bellow was pondering in the book are without interest but because he was unable to find the most appropriate fictional terms for them. The language of the novel is formal to the point of being wooden, a derivative code of sensibility that Bellow himself later came to acknowledge as unnatural to him and pretty much a failure for his purposes. Then, too, the novel carries much too heavy a burden of thought for its thin fictional frame: Joseph's introspection so outpaces his story as to turn the book into a kind of unanchored or disembodied monologue. Other problems arise from the journal form in which Dangling Man is written; this may have been right enough for the idle, house-bound side of Joseph but not for his more animated instincts, which could be kept alive only through contact with a wider world. Such contacts are not easily accommodated in the literary form Bellow employs in his first novel, however; almost of necessity the kinds of extended journal entries upon which Dangling Man is based are the product of a soul turned in upon itself, entrapped within a merely mental existence…. Joseph's monologues let in little company and less love, and, as a result, his sense of himself as a potentially good man is seriously frustrated, as is Bellow's initial attempt at defining and fictionalizing a virtuous life.
Some of these problems—problems of literary style and strategy but also of moral conception—begin to lift in The Victim (1947), Bellow's second novel and a more successful book. In telling the stories of Asa Leventhal and Kirby Allbee—and one dare not detach the one from the other: that is the major didactic point of the narrative—Bellow began to move out of the cramped cell of the interior life and into the more public spaces of social existence. He is concerned in The Victim with determining the crossing points of success and failure, with what it is that condemns one man to be a bum and allows another to win through to something that approximates a normal life. In particular, he is drawn to the most subtle movements of conflict and victimization that attach themselves to these themes, especially as they tend to play themselves out against the pressures of urban life, of family duties and devotions, and of the rough-and-tumble of the work world…. [The] novel not only presents but actually begins to resolve some of these problems, even if not in a way that easily lends itself to a clearly defined moral philosophy. Such a task, Bellow, working at this stage of his career closer to naturalistic and psychological concerns than philosophic ones, could not take on. The victories over victimization that appear in this novel tend to be provisional ones, therefore, and arise more out of the moment's need than from more considered reflection. For that latter development, Bellow was still going to have to wait awhile. (pp. 48-9)
The first of [Bellow's] big books, The Adventures of Augie March, appeared in 1953 and signalled a breakthrough on several fronts. In his first two novels Bellows had been working within closed forms and nonrhetorical styles, which is to say, within the kinds of formal constraints that tended to pen in his characters and put checks on their ability to move out from under one kind of restriction or another…. With The Adventures of Augie March … he opened up the novel to new and far racier currents of feeling, wrote "catch-as-catch-can," and threw over determinism, both in its technical implications and as controlling theme. (pp. 49-50)
From its first sentence—"I am an American, Chicago-born,… and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way"—to its last, The Adventures of Augie March declared itself as Bellow's most American book to date. Its inspired blend of impulses sanctioned by Walt Whitman and Mark Twain, its democratic assertions of open-road advances and high-spirited adventure, of celebratory if comic selfhood—all these gave the novel an expansive, exuberant style that was something new not only for Bellow but for twentieth-century American fiction. Moreover, its easy way of incorporating aspects of Jewish street and family life into the narrative seemed exactly right for an urban novel and added a certain jauntiness it otherwise would not have had. The Adventures of Augie March was truly a new departure, a great improvisatory attempt to fasten on to "the surplus and super abundance of human material" and release it into an equally ample, naturally accommodating language. That language—a mix of high and low styles, of racy syntax and colloquial phrasing, of perky but probing intelligence—was Bellow's particular achievement in this novel…. (p. 50)
Seize the Day (1956), the author's fourth novel, has often been acclaimed his most "perfect" piece of fiction. That it may be, at least in formal terms, but in order to achieve this perfection, Bellow had to return his art to the reduced and comparatively restrained scale of his earliest work. Seize the Day followed The Adventures of Augie March by three years, but in terms of its more contracted fictional locus, its precise observance of the workings of time, its highly ordered, carefully narrated plot, and its more meticulous style, the novella links itself quite naturally to Bellow's first two books. Seen against these, though, and within the limitations it set for itself, Seize the Day must be regarded as a culminating and not a regressive work, for in this slim volume Bellow manages to combine and bring to a greater intensity of representation some of his major concerns in Dangling Man and The Victim. (p. 51)
Seize the Day is also linked to The Adventures of Augie March by its extension of the theme of anxiety over personal frustration into a full-blown, whimpering defeat. Not death, life's natural and inexorable limitation, but disappointment, the steady smothering of a man's best talents and efforts, is what Augie kicks against: "Not that life should end is so terrible in itself, but that it should end with so many disappointments in the essential. This is a fact." It is a fact that erodes the hope of Tommy Wilhelm's every day and brings him, at his story's end, to weep uncontrollably at the wasting away of a man's life—his own.
Bellow's major fiction after Seize the Day turns away from the spare, carefully managed forms of the early novels and the novella to the more open and expansive ways of The Adventures of Augie March. That is as it should be given the centrality of ideas that comes to characterize the author's work from this point on and, under its impact, brings his fiction—and, with it, the American novel—into a phase of maturity it had not previously known.
A significant foreshadowing of Bellow's turn to the novel of ideas can be gleaned, once more, from The Adventures of Augie March. "In the end, you can't save your soul and life by thought," Augie is told by Einhorn, the earliest and most important of his mentors, "but if you think, the least of the consolation prizes is the world."… Bellow expanded on this idea in his acceptance speech upon receiving the National Book Award for Fiction in 1965 (this time for Herzog):
There is nothing left for us novelists to do but think. For unless we think, unless we make a clearer estimate of our condition, we will continue to write kid stuff, to fail in our function, we will lack serious interests and become truly irrelevant.
Following his own imperative to enliven fiction with a commanding intelligence, Bellow has given us in each of his last four novels a new kind of character, one so actively engaged by thought as to make thinking a large part of his business with the world and, in a heightened way, a restored part of the human definition. (p. 52)
The result has been invigorating and unusually lively, as one might expect from fiction refreshed by both imaginative and intellectual play. The stress here must remain on fiction, too, for while each of the four novels is in its way a substantial attempt to think through to some "clearer estimate of our condition," these are not severely analytic or abstractly philosophical books…. It is true that, for a novelist, Bellow is powerfully drawn to ideas and likes to go off on mental travel, but when he takes one of his characters out on a safari, as he does in Henderson the Rain King, the trek is through more than a mental landscape. The novelistic data—the smell of the night air, "the stars flaming like oranges," a sudden shower of frogs—remain sharp, too sharp, happily, for thought to ever dissolve them into abstractions. The poet in the novelist, we might say, insists on retaining a sense of life's concreteness and mystery, even as the thinker in the novelist tries to convert these into manageable ideas. Usually the poet wins out, for, as Bellow conceives of it, thought is a necessary but not a sufficient part of the human equation; it is complemented by strong surges of feeling, intuition, intimation—by all of those imaginative leaps of spirit that do not fit the categories of rationalism and that, indeed, tend to oppose them…. The result—the Bellovian novel of ideas—is philosophic in its emphases, then, but not in its methods of thought. The major work of truth-seeking and truth-telling, while dependent upon reason, neither begins nor ends with it.
Where does Bellow locate truth and how do his principal characters move towards it? In Henderson's case, "truth comes in blows"—through a knock on the nose, a wrestling match with a warrior-king, a face-to-face encounter with a lion. (pp. 52-3)
Herzog is a far more substantial intellectual than Henderson—as mental types the two are not really very comparable—but he is driven by much the same thing—"a striving for true wakefulness"; a felt obligation to "live," to "complete his assignment, whatever that was"; and, behind all of these and constantly empowering them, a resolve to face up to "the biggest problem of all, which was to encounter death." If there is an abiding philosophical task in all Bellow's fiction, in fact, it is the one put forth by Plato ages ago when he announced that philosophy is the study of death. Bellow's willingness to accept this Platonic challenge—the most difficult of all—and to try to find literary terms for it has added urgency to his fiction and, almost certainly, pointed it toward reflections on the soul. (p. 53)
Henderson the Rain King is a comic novel—perhaps Bellow's best…. [But] there is at the same time an unmistakable seriousness about these matters on Bellow's part that comes through all the spoofing clearly enough.
Herzog, written in a style that alternates between "philosophical piety" and a "clever goofiness," also aims to lighten its burden of speculative weight by comedy and, for the most part, it succeeds marvellously in doing so. (pp. 53-4)
The natural piety of Herzog's life—the confident resolve "to be, to be just as it is willed, and for as long as I may remain in occupancy"—finds both its source and its sanction in [a] religious notion of "assignment," which carries through Bellow's fiction and, more than anything else, seems to indicate the author's most abiding sense of how we come into possession of truth. In an age of spiritual exhaustion, when "all the old dreams were dreamed out," the soul's deepest wisdom, as Herzog comes to learn, still finds its expression in the oldest and most permanent of Jewish dreams: "Evidently I continue to believe in God. Though never admitting it. But what else explains my conduct and my life? So I may as well acknowledge how things are, if only because otherwise I can't even be described."
The seriousness of these ideas, at least when held by people of stable intellect, tends to deepen rather than to dissipate with age. It was entirely appropriate, then, that the hero of Saul Bellow's next novel, Mr. Sammler's Planet, should be an intellectual well into his seventies, beyond the claims of most kinds of worldly aspiration and given to the pleasures of the contemplative life…. (pp. 54-5)
Mr. Sammler's Planet, in its efforts to raise and answer [the question: "What is the true stature of a human being?"], extends Bellow's thinking—in its social, cultural, historical, moral and religious dimensions—beyond any points it had reached in his previous novels…. Mr. Sammler's Planet is a post-Holocaust novel-perhaps the most important of its kind written thus far by an American author—which means, among other things, that it is a study of Western culture in extremis and drives all of its considerations with severity and almost to exhaustion….
[One] of these considerations we have already met in Bellow's earlier novels—it pertains to the death question. Given "the sexual madness [that] was overwhelming the Western world," "no one," as Mr. Sammler sees it and laments it, "was prepared to acknowledge death," to make "sober decent terms with death." That refusal—more than a childishness, it was a blasphemy, an impiety—not only condemns Western culture to unseriousness but to a kind of frenzied chaos. (p. 55)
[Mr. Sammler's Planet is] Saul Bellow's most Jewish novel. That is an issue that is hardly to be debated, for while one can find prominent aspects of Jewishness in the earlier books—with the exception of Henderson, all of Bellow's major characters and many of his minor ones are Jews—no single novel before this one registers so completely the range of Jewish concerns and the tonalities of Jewish sensibility. Bellow began to open his prose to a recognizably Jewish idiom as far back as The Adventures of Augie March; he worked out something of the psychology of anti-Semitism in a still earlier book, The Victim; and Herzog unquestionably brought to its fullest flowering in American fiction the portrait of a certain kind of Jewish intellectual. When one adds as well his distinctively Jewish brand of humor, the strong emphases on fraternal ties and family feeling, and the centrality of ethical questions, it is clear that Bellow has been, all along and despite certain protestations to the contrary, an overtly Jewish writer…. Mr. Sammler's Planet, consummating work that it is, not only gathers these various elements into a heretofore unachieved unity but provides them with an historical context, an epistemology, and even the beginnings of a theology, the result being a novel so fundamentally rooted in Jewish consciousness as to bring one to wonder if perhaps a new day was about to arrive, not only for Bellow but for American culture. (pp. 56-7)
[In its mental work Humboldt's Gift] takes off in so surprising a direction as to leave most of us behind. Charlie Citrine, the protagonist of Humboldt's Gift, is preoccupied by many of the same questions that absorbed Bellow's earlier heroes—the problem of "determining what a human being is"; "the question of death (the question of questions)"; whether intimations of "the existence of a soul [are] a tenacious illusion or else the truth deeply buried"; how "to do good"—but some of the teachers to whom Charlie looks for answers are of a kind the likes of which a Moses Herzog or an Artur Sammler could never take seriously. Chief among these is Rudolf Steiner, whose Knowledge of the Higher Worlds and Its Attainment Charlie is drawn to but can never get straight: "There were passages in Steiner that set my teeth on edge. I said to myself, this is lunacy. Then I said, this is poetry, a great vision." Which is it to be? The issue remains unresolved, badly so, and as a result the novel—despite its success in winning Bellow the Pulitzer Prize and helping to gain him the Nobel Prize—is, in crucial ways, at loose ends with itself. The high note on which Humboldt's Gift ends, in fact—"Now we must listen in secret to the sound of truth that God puts into us"—is a carry-over from Mr. Sammler's Planet more than an insight gained from any fresh thinking accomplished in this novel. Indeed, judged on the level of thought—which is to say, judged by Bellow's own standards for literature—Humboldt's Gift is a diffuse and disappointing book.
Criticism can explain why this is so, but it cannot account for its causes or do more than speculate on what they might mean for the author's future work. (pp. 57-8)
This much, though, is clear: in pursuing his metaphysical hunches Bellow has been drawn all along in two somewhat diverse ways, each dictating its own mode of attaining truth. Following the first, he is moved to affirm both "an inordinate faith in the power of rationality" (his own definition of "Jewish transcendentalism") and the conviction that human life is rooted in and takes its directions from a received "bond." These ideas, never worked out systematically but given a recurring fictional life in the novels, are recognizably close to Jewish covenant thought; doubtless they arise from it. Herzog and Mr. Sammler's Planet derive clearly from such an orientation, which is to say, from a power of mind that seems to enable Bellow to accommodate the contingencies of his "local residence" with his longings for transcendent truth and to bring both under the governance of a critical, but humane and compassionate, intelligence.
There is also another side to Bellow, though, the "spellprone" and "mediumistic" side, which encourages a kind of magical thinking, as seen from time to time in Seize the Day and Henderson the Rain King. Until Humboldt's Gift, though, this "thaumaturgical" or "mystical" cast of mind was usually tempered by Bellow's tough intelligence and not indulged lightly unless for comic effect. Yet while there is plenty of comedy in this last novel, it usually does not hang together with the anthroposophical speculations, which for the most part are presented as serious business, as an informing "light-in-the-being." So unexpected a leap from a reasonable, historically-grounded metaphysics to metempsychosis is both startling and troubling … it does not promise to bring Bellow any closer to his desired knowledge of the soul. To attain that and, as a thinker-infiction possibly even to keep from coming undone, he may have to wind back to points he touched in Mr. Sammler's Planet or else return (at least in imagination) to Jerusalem, as much a piety as a place and one that revealed to Bellow more about the origins of radiance than he is ever likely to get from the doctors of spiritualist philosophy…. (p. 58)
Alvin H. Rosenfeld, "Saul Bellow, on the Soul," in Midstream (copyright © 1977 by The Theodor Herzl Foundation, Inc.), Vol. XXIII, No. 10, December, 1977, pp. 47-59.
We can probably learn more about a writer from his difficulties than from his triumphs. His struggles reveal his intention and the obstacles that he must overcome to realize it. Most critics, I think, would agree that Saul Bellow's greatest difficulty lies in his plots….
Bellow has two modes: intense, closely textured, moral; and light, energetic, open. The Victim, Seize the Day, and, yes, Herzog represent the former while Augie March, Sammler, and Humboldt represent the latter…. Bellow fears the dangers of constriction, of polishing the life out of a work. (p. 15)
[What] are the obstacles to plot that Bellow must face? What are the elements of style, theme, or vision that cause him difficulty? (p. 16)
Bellow's most obvious obstacle to plot lies in the fact that he is a realist—perhaps the reason that he wants a plot in the first place…. Plot in Bellow's work is hard won, wrested from a confusing density and multiplicity of people, ideas, events, and sensation. It's so hard won that we might well claim that the struggle is the plot, as all the protagonists seek to move from the overwhelming richness of experience to some kind of peace and clarity….
Bellow loves energetic, driven characters who have a size and vitality that make them hard to control—so hard to control that the protagonist finds himself bullied by them, shoved about, as each tries to pull him his way.
And then the characters are inseparable from their ideas, which also fill Bellow's pages with a confusing abundance. Bellow often has sought a plot that would contain a number of ideologies and has imagined a quest that is mental, as he seeks to dramatize nothing less than the act of thinking. And yet there are too many thoughts finally for the plot line to be easy, since it is an idea after all which provides the shape of a novel. (p. 17)
[Another] obstacle associated with his realism [is] his commitment to ordinary life and the virtue of moderation…. In novel after novel, Bellow, like Henry James, portrays a special but ordinary phenomenon—a certain light or mood or psychology, the "sense" of a character such as Augie March, or the way a mediocre man in America tries desperately to "seize the day" or be outstanding. (p. 18)
When at his best, [Bellow is] … successful in achieving order within his chaotic imaginative world. It's fascinating to note that Bellow often describes the victory of his protagonist as a clearing away of the extraneous. He leaves his protagonist ready to begin—issues defined, emotions controlled, the oppressive diversity of the world somehow stilled. Bellow turns the obstacle on its head, in short, by making the confusing richness of his world the source and mainspring of his plot….
Perhaps the best example of Bellow's success is Herzog, much maligned for its formlessness…. At the center of Herzog's experience is the contrast between a personal life and a civil one, the private man locked into his feelings and the citizen acting within the institutions of society. Herzog's unmailed letters, the most obvious device of the novel, crystallize this division, since the letters express emotions that can't find their way into action and, though unmailed, are the message of the private man to the "public" realm. In simple terms, Herzog moves from the mess of his private life—which he'd romantically hoped to make exemplary—to a faith in the public realm. (p. 19)
Bellow has found another obstacle to plot far less easy to resolve. As he struggles with the modesty of his subject, he must wrestle, too, with the ambition of his themes. In many ways, Bellow harkens back less to the realists of the nineteenth century than to the romantics, for his fiction attempts to see beyond society to the nature of reality itself. Bellow writes what we must call a novel of perception or revelation in which (as we might expect from a novelist who describes his plot as a coming to clarity) the protagonist desires more than anything else—more than getting the girl or the job or the whale—to see. One of Bellow's greatest tasks is to invent plots or situations that will permit this revelation, Joseph's diary, Leventhal's interviews, Augie's passive listening; again and again Bellow presents the Jamesian conversation, two people groping to "see." Thus Henderson goes to Africa and Herzog reviews his experience. The Bellow protagonist is desperate for insight. (pp. 20-1)
[However] active the host of characters and memories, it is matter, the visible world, that fascinates the hero. If he's not on a couch or at a rooming house window, he's on a train or in a cab or on a plane, looking and looking and looking.
We can understand this staring if we remember that Bellow grew up in the naturalistic tradition which saw force or energy as a reality to be touched and felt, and controlling the intimate lives of man…. [Augie March] has a vision of a Darwinian world of pure force that is in theory simply indifferent or impersonal, but that becomes (as in the naturalistic novel) something malevolent, almost demonic. (p. 21)
Bellow's sense of this reality, which is clearly natural to his imagination, must have been reinforced by his interest in the experiments of Wilhelm Reich, who also saw the universe streaming with force capable of destruction. But Reich saw this energy as benevolent, too, and so did Bellow, who having portrayed the "white anger," asks a logical question: do our "spiritual qualities"—art, charity, love, generosity—have similar biological roots? Is there any way that love is built into the physical world in the way that struggle is built into the Darwinian one? (pp. 21-2)
Bellow has for the most part learned to be content, working his metaphysical bias into the texture of his work. Certainly the sense he conveys of something behind matter, pressing, a feeling that the physical world is permeated with something beyond our sense, enriches his style. At his best, Bellow conveys a sense of the transcendent within the physical world. The protagonist's painful awareness of the mystery of his being adds another dimension, a depth and richness to a simple scene. (p. 23)
In purely aesthetic terms, Bellow's belief in the transcendent is probably a draw—neither an overwhelming obstacle nor his greatest strength…. But many of Bellow's readers are put off by his transcendentalism. Like Augie, they have "resistance" in them, and it is true that a social or economic issue in the Bellow novel very quickly becomes a metaphysical or religious one, creating a certain confusion. (pp. 23-4)
Dimly aware of large forces within himself, [Bellow's] protagonist feels the urgency of a man driven by uncontrollable emotions. He talks to himself. He watches his actions with a horrible fascination. How many of the protagonists are out of control? Joseph in Dangling Man suffers his rages, and Leventhal his hypochondria. Tommy Wilhelm must yield to his emotions while Henderson runs amuck. Herzog's letters dramatize how feelings may flow wildly and without recourse—the novel finds its center in his need for release.
In this sense the Bellow hero seeks to discover the health and strength that would permit him to act, making a traditional plot possible. On the other hand, Bellow finds a plot in the quest for therapy, in the question invariably asked by the protagonist: what is wrong with me? How may I rid myself of this burden?
The answer to this question, as well as the greatest obstacle to plotting in Bellow's work, is found in a pattern we can trace in all of the novels—a pattern based on the relationship of the protagonist to another male, often a father figure. (p. 24)
But what makes this pattern striking is its climax, which in almost every case involves an embrace and violence or death…. (p. 25)
What can we make of this pattern? Since it appears in every novel, and in some a couple of times, we're probably justified in calling it a compulsion. At the very least, it forms a pattern to which Bellow's imagination returns. Or is the encounter, similar to the childhood rape described in Herzog, a traumatic experience Bellow's fiction is designed to exorcise? While I suspect this to be true—Freud argued that all art serves to express and thus purge the artist's emotions—our concern here is Bellow's art and the use to which he puts such a pattern. Surely, since he repeatedly returns to it, the pattern creates an obstacle with which Bellow must wrestle and precisely the kind of formal requirement that challenges and channels the imagination.
Bellow has had to be ingenious in discovering stories and themes to accommodate this pattern. Allbee's suicide is a mark of his self-hatred, for example, and since he represents the physical world, the sweet gas he releases in the oven epitomizes his threat to Leventhal. Herzog on the other hand is masochistic, so that his threatened murder of Gersbach would destroy him, too. Bellow actually discovers a kind of logic in the pattern, for the father figure almost always represents the world, either as a cynic—the worldly instructor—or as a representative of matter. In the child's mind, of course, the father is the world, for the father's image is imposed indelibly on his mind, helping to shape his emotional life. Thus the father has much to do with the masochism the protagonist seems to share, and the desire to be free of an oppressive world becomes a desire to be free of the image of the father who is associated with that world and who does the protagonist harm.
It's not the father per se who creates difficulty in Bellow's plots, however, or even the violent encounter, though Bellow must surely have had to juggle a great deal to get it in. Rather Bellow has had to struggle with the emotional effect of the scene on his protagonist, for the protagonist tends to feel much better after the violence or death. (pp. 25-6)
I think the real story in a Bellow novel is one of catharsis, in an almost classically Freudian sense. The intense confrontation purges either an unconscious hostility, as the "father" dies, or a masochistic desire for pain as the protagonist himself almost "dies." Perhaps the point is that both emotions, which are related, are purged at once….
But my point is the way Bellow inverts such an obstacle, making what would be a limitation work for him. (p. 26)
Bellow is … successful in working with this experience in the book that has received the greatest praise, Seize the Day. Not a little of the power of that novella, I'd argue, derives from the fact that Bellow treats the climax as cathartic and so creates a plot in which the events and the emotions coincide. Seize the Day has the unity and solidity of a totally achieved fiction, the ease and grace of a work which makes a strength out of what might have been a limitation or obstacle. For what Tommy Wilhelm needs more than anything else is to break down, to cry, to purge himself of all sorts of pent-up emotions…. [When] he stumbles into the funeral parlor and sobs before the corpse of the stranger, his tears answer his need to cry. Bellow uses the need for catharsis. He uses the corpse, too, not just because it provides a stunning image with which to conclude the novel, but because it summarizes so many of the themes expressed. Standing before the dead man Tommy seems to feel all the pent-up emotions and to proclaim all the themes at once….
In all of these climaxes, the distracting world is shut out and the energies of novel and protagonist sharply focused. In a way, since all of the novels move to such an experience, it is this climax which demands a plot. The confrontation with violence or death is so expressive of emotion, so definitive, that it requires a dramatic action that rises to a climax. (p. 27)
How many successful plots must a novelist invent? In a way, Bellow is a victim not only of our present distrust of any plot, but of our incredibly high demands for the ones we do accept. The New Critics have taught us to demand that a conclusion end a novel in a memorable way, summarizing all that went before and illuminating it, crystallizing the whole book in a single glowing image or scene. Never mind that such a scene near the end of a long traditional novel might well break the tone. We're perfectionists when we talk about structure and accept only an inspired unity. It's fitting, in view of such conflicts and inconsistencies, that Bellow forge his successful plots from the very obstacles that have plagued him. (p. 28)
Keith Opdahl, "'Stillness in the Midst of Chaos': Plot in the Novels of Saul Bellow," in Modern Fiction Studies (© copyright 1979 by Purdue Research Foundation, West Lafayette, Indiana), Vol. 25, No. 1, Spring, 1979, pp. 15-28.
It should not be surprising that Saul Bellow, our novelist most concerned with the relation between ideas and life, worries about the place of the intellectual in contemporary America, a society that prizes its achievers while it patronizes and occasionally pities its thinkers. What is surprising is that Bellow, at least partially, agrees with the practical American's criticism: if the life of the mind has value, and it surely does for Bellow, its value does not lie in solving the problems of day-to-day living…. Bellow's intellectual heroes are acutely aware of the reasons for their alienation from the rest of society, but they are unable to think their way through to an accommodation with it. Thinking leads only to more thinking—not to action. (pp. 29-30)
Although Bellow's protagonists are unable to accomplish anything that significantly reshapes their world, a number of them do manage to save themselves from Humboldt's fate by coming to an accommodation with the world as it is. Often, this accommodation requires a new sense of self and of the protagonist's relation to the human community. Except for Joseph, who frees himself from despair by joining the Army, Bellow's heroes lift themselves out of their malaise by discovering within themselves an essential force for life. (p. 31)
Although sumptuously fitted out with wealth and education for a successful voyage through life, Henderson sails with everything but a compass. Like the Flying Dutchman, he cannot arrive in a safe harbor until he is redeemed. Henderson is intensely aware of his need for redemption, but he does not know what will redeem him. "I want, I want" is his perennial despairing cry, despairing because the "I want" has no object. (p. 32)
Even though its protagonist is a fifty-five year-old man, Henderson the Rain King is a Bildungsroman. Henderson progressively learns about and purges himself of the taints that separate him from a pure love. He must learn how to love in order to do good. Henderson's earlier loves are not pure; they are tainted with ego and with self-aggrandizement; hence his well-intentioned actions tend to separate him from those he loves. (p. 34)
Whether Henderson is redeemed by feeding his imagination on the lioness Atti or by feeding it on Dahfu, the lion-like King of the Wariri, is a question difficult, and perhaps unnecessary, to answer. What is obvious is that Henderson's purgatory completes itself in redemption. Henderson's love for Dahfu, for Romilayu, for Lily, for the lion-cub, and for the unnamed orphan on the trans-Atlantic airplane is a pure generous love untainted by the self-asserting, self-regarding, self-destructive characteristics that contaminated the loves of the first fifty-five years of his life. The trek back to civilization in the grips of a burning fever is clearly meant to symbolize the final refining fire, and Henderson's very human, very natural comedy concludes with a celebration of community joined by love.
Mr. Sammler, like Henderson and like Bellow himself for that matter, longs for a human community. Henderson the Rain King is an optimistic book which ends when Henderson, who has discovered how to love, returns to America confident of his place within the human community. Henderson's redemption, however, takes place in an imaginary land, some vague idyllic location in Africa where the king speaks English, has attended medical school, and communes with lions. Mr. Sammler's Planet is set in a more realistic environment and is a much less joyous book. However, because of the realism, it concludes with an even more powerful affirmation. (p. 36)
Bellow has refined his naturalism since Henderson the Rain King. What Sammler is affirming [at the end of Mr. Sammler's Planet] is not the natural goodness of heart that Henderson achieves following his purgatory, nor is it the sentimentalist's natural goodness that we all could achieve if only we would. What Sammler asserts is not natural goodness but "natural knowledge," the Biblical moral doctrine that we all know good and evil (it is our post-lapsarian heritage). To know good and evil we need not study books or attend universities; we need not listen attentively to learned rabbis or to distinguished philosophers of ethics. We need not even go back to nature as Henderson does. Knowledge of good and evil is more accessible than that; we need only heed the "inmost heart."…
[In] Sammler's view, and here he is speaking for Bellow, in a world in which the very possibility of accomplishment is problematical, how man responds to his impotence is a more important ethical test than whether he can overcome it. (p. 37)
Bellow is not a law-giver; he does not usurp Moses' function and itemize the terms of the contract, the requirements of ethical behavior. Bellow is a novelist, so he presents us with a character who is meeting the terms of the contract. For Mr. Sammler, this means behaving as though actions mattered, living as though the world would be a better place if one takes responsibility for others, even though reality shows again and again one's best intentions going for naught. In an environment by turns hostile and indifferent, maintaining this faith in human responsibility is Mr. Sammler's moral nobility.
Although Sammler is an intelligent and learned man, a student of the Enlightenment, Bellow gives us no indication that Sammler's intellect is responsible for his moral faith…. Mr. Sammler acts responsibly toward his fellow man, not because his reason dictates that it is in his best interest to do so, but because the tradition in which he was raised, a tradition that has become so ingrained in his soul as to make decent behavior seem natural, commands that a man act responsibly within a human community.
A tradition of moral action is part of the soul's natural knowledge in many of Bellow's characters. They don't ask, "Am I my brother's keeper?" Instead they ask, if they ask anything, how shall I be my brother's keeper? (pp. 37-8)
But there are occasions when tradition does not speak loudly, when the soul does not know what it wants. On these occasions, some of Bellow's characters attempt to think their way out of their dilemmas. At best, they come to a clearer understanding of their situation. They also become aware of the limits of the intellect, because they cannot think up solutions. (p. 38)
If Bellow believes that the intellect is a weak and ineffective ethical guide, what alternative force is it that enables Bellow's heroes to act with decency? The answer is as yet far from clear. Tradition is part of the answer, but his recent writing indicates that his final answer may have something to do with mysticism. Mr. Sammler has taken to reading Meister Eckhart, and Charlie Citrine is studying Rudolf Steiner. (p. 39)
There may also be an element of Hasidism in Bellow's mystical ethic. While rabbinical Jewry stresses that the moral leader of the community is the scholar, the man who has studied the Law in all its infinite variety of complications, the Hasidic Jews believe that the spiritual leader, who may or may not be learned, embodies the Law in his behavior. Hasidim are both moralists and mystics; the Hasidic leader has been changed by God, and the sign of that change, the charisma, is his moral character. The natural knowledge that guides Mr. Sammler, and that Henderson, Herzog, and Citrine attain at the ends of their novels, is consistent with this Hasidic doctrine of redemption by God. They reach their knowledge of good and evil without extensive study; it is as if they discover something they knew all along. The sign that they have been touched by God is their warmth, generosity, concern, and love. They embody the Law in their behavior.
Bellow's most recent book, To Jerusalem and Back, though not a novel, shares with his fiction a concern for ethics and a critique of the role of the intellect. The book is a volume of observations and reflections prompted by a visit to Israel in 1975. Israel interests Bellow, not merely because he is Jewish, but also because the country is so intensely moral—not always virtuous, but always concerned with the ethics of political actions. (pp. 39-40)
Israel is like Bellow's fictional world in another respect besides the incessant concern for ethics. Israel is filled with intelligent talkers. (p. 40)
[Bellow sees intelligent discussion as] invariably informed, convincing, and logical; it is pleasant to engage in; but intelligent discussion fails as a reliable means of understanding the present or for predicting the future. This indictment of intelligence is handed up by a superbly intelligent novelist. (p. 41)
As Bellow nears the end of To Jerusalem and Back, the character of the book changes somewhat. He is listening and observing less, and reflecting on what he has heard and seen more. At he reflects, his thesis comes ever more sharply into focus. It is a thesis Bellow resists, one he does not want to believe in, but it is the same thesis that has informed much of his fiction. As important as thought is for Bellow, he reluctantly recognizes that reason is unable to cut through the most complex, the most important, human problems. If Israel is to hope for survival, it cannot expect its intellect, prodigious as it is, to discover a solution to its moral and political problems. Reason, intelligence, scholarship, when applied to the Middle East conflict, all lead to hopelessness. (p. 43)
The question that remains is whether there is an alternative force in which to place faith after the limitations of the intellect have been recognized. Henderson has nature and Sammler has God; what can Israelis place their faith in? Bellow does not answer this question directly, but there are hints and vague implications that suggest that he is not entirely without hope. To know how to read these hints, we will have to glance back at his novels. In Herzog, we read that "evolution is nature becoming self-aware—in man, self-awareness has been accompanied at this stage with a sense of the loss of more general natural powers, of a price paid by instinct, by sacrifices of freedom, impulse."… If heightened self-awareness has resulted in a weakening of natural power, an enfeeblement of the instinct and a restriction of freedom, is it possible that the reverse could be true—that a decrease in self-awareness would mean an increase in strength and freedom? I think Bellow might answer in the affirmative. (p. 44)
Bruce J. Borrus, "Bellow's Critique of the Intellect," in Modern Fiction Studies (© copyright 1979 by Purdue Research Foundation, West Lafayette, Indiana), Vol. 25, No. 1, Spring, 1979, pp. 29-45.