Saul Bellow

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John L. Brown (review date winter 1995)

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SOURCE: Brown, John L. Review of It All Adds Up, by Saul Bellow. World Literature Today 69, no. 1 (winter 1995): 148-49.

[In the following review, Brown asserts that the essays in It All Adds Up “reveal the richness and the variety, and occasionally the contradictions and the discursiveness, of the outstanding novelist of his brilliant generation.”]

Does it all add up? Not really. For this collection [It All Adds Up: From the Dim Past to the Uncertain Future], as Bellow himself implies, is just too scattered and heterogeneous. Its thirty-one essays (all previously published in periodicals such as Life,Holiday, and Esquire or given as lectures) span his entire career. The earliest, “Spanish Letter,” dates from 1948, four years after his first novel, Dangling Man. The last ones, “Writers, Intellectuals, and Politics” and an homage to William Arrowsmith, appeared in 1993. Closely linked with Bellow's fiction, they reveal the richness and the variety, and occasionally the contradictions and the discursiveness, of the outstanding novelist of his brilliant generation.

The introduction, “Mozart: An Overture,” presents motifs that will constantly resurface. Bellow feels a deep empathy with the composer, for “with beings such as Mozart, we are forced to speculate about transcendence.” And “transcendence,” especially the “transcendence of art,” will be a preoccupation throughout the essays, which are organized in six sections: 1) “Riding Off in All Directions,” which includes “In the Days of Roosevelt” (1983), a recollection of the New Deal; 2) “Writers, Intellectuals, and Politics,” with a revealing “Interview with Myself” (1976) and Bellow's Nobel Prize lecture from 1976; 3) “The Distracted Public,” with the Jefferson lectures (1977) and “There Is Simply Too Much to Think About” (1992); 4) “Thoughts in Transition,” with “Israel, the Six-Day War” (1967) and “New York, World Famous Impossibility” (1970); 5) “A Few Farewells,” to friends who have died, including Berryman, Cheever, Rosenfeld, and Allan Bloom; 6) “Impressions and Notices,” with “Half a Life” (1990) and “A Second Half Life” (1991).

We can understand that Bellow, nearing eighty, his literary productivity slowing down, could feel “bitter dissatisfaction” in rereading some of these pieces (issued, perhaps, on the urging of his publishers?). Nevertheless, both he and his public have reason to be more than satisfied with many of them, especially those containing lively autobiographical allusions. His memories of Chicago, “my city,” are particularly appealing. In a sense, Chicago is the hero of Augie March, the novel in which Bellow most fully achieved his ideal of “the marriage of the colloquial and the elegant.” Later, however, in “Chicago, the City That Was” (1983), he laments that it is no longer the “recklessly spontaneous” city of his salad days. He hopes it may survive, and he cannot imagine “what America would be without great cities.” For despite occasional praise of the rural charms of Vermont and Tuscany, he is essentially “a city kid,” a Jewish city kid. Although certainly not simply “a Jewish novelist,” he remains deeply aware of his ethnic heritage.

Bellow has reservations about New York, as we read in “A World Famous Impossibility” (1970). He had arrived in Manhattan at the end of the 1930s and was soon frequenting “the Partisan Review crowd,” of whose views he was often sharply critical. They had made their reputations “on the ground between literature and politics, with diminishing attention to literature.” He criticized this position even more vehemently during his “Paris years” (1948-50) when he became acquainted with “the dandruff of Existentialism,” a doctrine he charged was engendered by “the decomposition of the bourgeois carcass.” His contacts in Greenwich Village, on the Rive...

(This entire section contains 717 words.)

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Gauche, and in the university gave him a disdain for “putty-headed academics and intellectuals.” He accused the universities of “disabling, confusing, and alienating students” and regrets that so many contemporary writers have become professors and have withdrawn from the real world.

Bellow is pessimistic about modern society: “The decline and fall of everything is our daily dread.” The media are partly to blame, since “they distract the public with a plethora of information.” The essential role of the artist is to combat such “distraction,” to awaken a concern, “the heart of my seemingly endless sermonizing” with “the human essences forgotten in a distracted world.” He pleads romantically for “the transcendence of art” as “an attempt to find in the universe what is fundamental and enduring” and to lead us “to sacred states of the soul.” “The soul? What's that?” ironically quip “the putty-headed.”


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Saul Bellow 1915-

Canadian-born American novelist, short story writer, editor, critic, playwright, lecturer, and memoirist.

The following entry presents an overview of Bellow's career through 2003. For further information on his life and works, see CLC Volumes 1, 2, 3, 6, 8, 10, 13, 15, 25, 33, 34, 63, 79, and 190.

Bellow is regarded as one of the most celebrated authors of the twentieth century. His fiction typically addresses the meaning of human existence in an increasingly impersonal and mechanistic world. Writing in a humorous, anecdotal style, Bellow often depicts introspective individuals sorting out a conflict between Old World and New World values while coping with personal anxieties and aspirations. The Adventures of Augie March (1953), Herzog (1964), and Mr. Sammler's Planet (1970) each won the National Book Award. Bellow won a Pulitzer Prize in 1976 for Humboldt's Gift (1975) and has been widely recognized as a highly original contemporary stylist.

Biographical Information

The son of Russian-born parents, Bellow was born June 10, 1915, in Lachine, Quebec. He developed an interest in literature while confined to a hospital for a year during his childhood. At seventeen, Bellow and his friend, the future newspaper columnist Sydney J. Harris, ran away to New York City, where they unsuccessfully attempted to sell their first novels. After briefly studying at the University of Chicago, Bellow graduated from Northwestern University in 1937 with honors in sociology and anthropology. He briefly undertook graduate study in anthropology at the University of Wisconsin. During World War II, Bellow attempted to join the Canadian Army but was turned down for medical reasons; this experience provided the basis for his first published novel, Dangling Man (1944). In 1943 Bellow worked on Mortimer Adler's “Great Books” project for the Encyclopedia Britannica. Bellow then returned to New York, where he briefly earned a living as a freelancer before accepting a teaching position at the University of Minnesota in 1946. In 1963 Bellow accepted a permanent position with the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago. He served as a war correspondent for Newsday during the 1967 Arab-Israeli conflict, and he has taught at New York University, Princeton, and the University of Minnesota. He continues to write fiction and essays and has received numerous awards for his work.

Major Works

Bellow's novels are characterized by the “Bellow hero”—a term referring to the typical Bellow protagonist who is a Jewish, male, intellectual urbanite struggling to find meaning in a materialistic and chaotic world. In developing his characters Bellow emphasizes dialogue and interior monologue, and his prose style features sudden flashes of wit and philosophical epigrams. With The Adventures of Augie March Bellow established himself as a leading American novelist. The book is a picaresque narrative chronicling the adventures of a compelling and sympathetic protagonist, Augie March, from his childhood in Chicago to his adult years in Mexico and Europe. In Henderson the Rain King (1959) Bellow relates the voyage of an arrogant millionaire who travels to Africa to confront his anomie and fear of death. With Herzog Bellow fuses the formal realism of his early works with the vitality of his picaresque novels of the 1950s. Herzog is an animated but tormented Jewish intellectual who has difficulty maintaining human relationships, especially with women.

Mr. Sammler's Planet has often been identified as Bellow's most pessimistic novel. Mr. Sammler, an elderly man, has experienced the promises and horrors of twentieth-century life. He offers an extensive critique of modern values and speculates on the future after observing a pickpocket on a bus. Although many critics disagreed whether Mr. Sammler succeeds as a perceptive commentator who ruminates on contemporary existence, Bellow's portrayal of this character has generally been commended. Humboldt's Gift centers on the conflict between materialistic values and the claims of art and high culture. The protagonist, Charles Citrine, is a successful writer who questions the worth of artistic values in modern American society after suffering exhaustive encounters with divorce lawyers, criminals, artists, and other representative figures from contemporary urban life. He also recalls his friendship with the flamboyant artist Humboldt Fleischer, a composite of several American writers who despaired in their inability to reconcile their artistic ideals with the indifference and materialism of American society. Citrine finally concludes that he can maintain artistic order by dealing with the complexities of life through ironic comic detachment.

In The Dean's December (1982) Bellow directly attacks negative social forces that challenge human dignity. Set in depressed areas of Chicago and Bucharest, Romania, this novel focuses on Albert Corde, a respected journalist who returns to academic life to revive his love of high culture. Corde rebukes politicians, liberal intellectuals, journalists, and bureaucrats in both democratic and communist nations for failing to maintain humanistic values. In More Die of Heartbreak (1987) Benn Crader is a botanist who becomes engaged to the wealthy daughter of an avaricious surgeon seeking to use him to undermine Benn's Uncle Vilitzer, a corrupt political boss. Ravelstein (2000) is regarded as a fictionalized account of Bellow's close friendship with the prominent conservative critic Allan Bloom, who died in 1992. Ravelstein is an eccentric, brilliant, private man; when he realizes that he is dying, he asks Chick, the narrator, to write his biography and Chick agrees.

Bellow has also written several works of short fiction. The novella Seize the Day (1956) focuses on Tommy Wilhelm, a middle-aged man who yearns for wealth and fame but has failed in both his business and human relationships. However, by coming to terms with his mortality—a prominent theme in Bellow's fiction—Wilhelm gains a better understanding of himself and an appreciation of others. In the short fiction collected in Mosby's Memoirs and Other Stories (1968) and Him with His Foot in His Mouth and Other Stories (1984), Bellow depicts sensitive everyday characters and intellectuals who struggle to maintain their dignity and reaffirm faith. In The Actual (1997) Harry Trellman becomes an intellectual consultant for the aging tycoon Sigmund Adletsky. When Amy Wustrin, Harry's true love, suddenly becomes a widow, Sigmund brings Harry and Amy together. In 2001 a selection of Bellow's short stories, Collected Stories, was published. Another wide-ranging collection of Bellow's essays, It All Adds up: From the Dim Past to the Uncertain Future, was published in 1994. These selected essays, travel pieces, lectures, literary appreciations, and autobiographical recollections reflect Bellow's diverse interests.

Critical Reception

There have been many assessments of Bellow's fiction and reviewers note that he is one of the most scrutinized writers in contemporary American literature. Scholars have traced his development from an initially formal, realistic style to a more lively, discursive manner. His cultural and social commentary has also been a topic of critical discussion, and Bellow has been praised for producing insightful and compelling fiction that explores such issues as mortality, memory, family relationships, and friendship. Critics have also examined how his work addresses the gap between private and public experience, the effects of materialism and technological progress, and the role of the artist in society. Herzog received praise for its exploration of various Western intellectual traditions, its poignant evocation of events, and its colorful minor characters. Reviewers have applauded Bellow's resiliency and adaptability, his philosophical musings, and his longevity, noting that his career stretches over more than fifty years. More Die of Heartbreak has been praised as a witty and compassionate meditation on friendship and mortality. Humboldt's Gift has been hailed as a compelling work that treats spiritual matters within the context of a commercial world. Other reviewers have panned this novel, faulting passages they deemed unrealistic. Several critics have asserted that the beliefs of protagonist Citrine reflect those of Bellow himself. Most reviewers have described Bellow as an artist who affirms Judeo-Christian religious and social values in his work. He has been analyzed as a Jewish writer, and the theme of Jewish assimilation into American society has been a recurring theme in his fictional works. Ethan Goffman wrote: “By exploring Sammler's personal history as embedded in a larger Jewish history, [Mr. Sammler's Planet] gradually unveils a counternarrative of terror inflicted upon marginalized peoples culminating in a moment of identification between Jew and black.” Despite debate over Mr. Sammler's validity as a social commentator, critics generally agree that Sammler is one of Bellow's most fully realized protagonists. Some commentators have alleged that Bellow's novels lack convincing plots, while others have viewed Bellow's treatment of women and people of color as inadequate at best. Another major topic of debate has centered on the autobiographical aspects of Bellow's fiction, with some critics bemoaning the similarities between the lives of Bellow's protagonists and the author's own. Overall, critics have favorably assessed Bellow's literary achievement and have celebrated his works as a valuable contribution to American literature.

Sanford Pinsker (essay date spring 1995)

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SOURCE: Pinsker, Sanford. “Saul Bellow: ‘What, in All of This, Speaks for Man?’” Georgia Review 49, no. 1 (spring 1995): 89-95.

[In the following essay, Pinsker elucidates the central concerns of Bellow's fiction, contending his novels and short stories matter “not only for those who care about the state of American fiction but also for those worried about the spiritual condition of America itself.”]

An artist, Saul Bellow once remarked, is a person obliged to see, and then to note what has been observed with a certain style. Bellow's greatness as an American writer rests on the clarity of his vision and the lively, thickly textured paragraphs his vision produces. In an age when the American novel often seems to have fallen on thin times, Bellow is a notable exception, not only because fiction remains for him what it always was—namely, “a sort of latter-day lean-to, a hovel in which the spirit takes shelter”—but also because he is one of the few contemporary writers unembarrassed to use the word soul or to talk about the need for spiritual exercises in a shoddy cultural moment. These preoccupations speak to his Jewishness much more than do his urban Jewish characters or nostalgic reminiscences of an immigrant Jewish childhood, for there is a strongly religious component to Bellow's intimations of higher spheres and the ways that they touch on the dailiness of daily life.

That Bellow's protagonists struggle, often comically, to make connections between the metaphysical and the quotidian is true enough; but the fact that they continue their efforts to discover and act upon what one character calls “the terms of our human contract”—which in our hearts “we know we know we know”—is even truer. Bellow's protagonists collect data about the mental designs that, taken together, comprise an urban landscape; Bellow himself always submits that data to the inevitable question underlying his most important fictions: “What, in all of this, speaks for man?” The rumination appeared, significantly enough, in Bellow's first novel, Dangling Man (1944), and it has remained an abiding concern ever since.

Ironically, because Bellow does not flinch from bringing a full measure of his considerable intellect to the conduct of soulful investigations, he has been both unduly praised and unfairly damned as a “novelist of ideas.” Granted, a portion of Bellow's characters are bona fide intellectuals, and they go about their business in heady ways that some readers find off-putting; but to stop at, say, Moses Herzog's “mental letters” to significant dead thinkers or Artur Sammler's memories of the Mitteleuropean culture before the Holocaust is to miss the human comedy that invariably surrounds and then ambushes Bellow's brainier protagonists. The truth is that Bellow regards most intellectuals with healthy doses of skepticism and nearly all political thinkers with a deep distrust. A recent essay entitled “Writers, Intellectuals, Politics: Mainly Reminiscence” charts the course of his early reading in Lenin and Trotsky, his dalliance with Marxist politics, and finally his conviction that none of this feverish activity had much to say about the condition of man's soul—and, indeed, often evolved in ways that thwarted that soul's growth. Intellectuals do not fare much better, although they at least showed him the giddy directions that a “struggle for conversation” could take; but these same intellectuals were wrong (he now thinks) to equate cultural heroes with the ideas at their command, as if intellectuals and writers were the same breed. They are not, Bellow insists, largely because each has a very different agenda:

Science has postulated a nature with no soul in it; commerce does not deal in souls and higher aspirations—matters like love and beauty are none of its business; for his part, Marx, too, assigned art, etc. “to the superstructure.” So artists are “stuck” with what is left of the soul and its mysteries. … The powers of the soul, which were Shakespeare's subject (to be simple about it) and are heard in Handel or Mozart, have no footing at present in modern life and are held to be subjective. Writers here and there still stake their lives on the existence of these forces. About this intellectuals have little or nothing to say.

We have art, the poet Theodore Roethke once observed, so that we might experience other people's experiences. Much confusion and a good deal more mischief have resulted because many readers continue to equate an author's creations with their creator, as if fiction were merely a species of autobiography. If Asa Leventhal, the testy and hypersensitive protagonist of The Victim (1947), strikes readers as a difficult sort, or if Artur Sammler, the blunt critic of sixties' counterculture in Mr. Sammler's Planet (1970), gives vent to politically incorrect thoughts about women and blacks, some readers are quick to blame the sentiments on Bellow himself. Moreover, they often wonder how is it that a writer so drawn to metaphysical realms and so intrigued by the project of the soul's reclamation should populate his fictions with such stinkers. Bellow's answer—namely, that perfect characters, like perfect people, are in short supply—is a good one. If that will not suffice, the only other choice is to look at Bellow's oeuvre, for it is there, in novel after novel, story after story, that one can see how a vision and style achieve definition.

Granted, reading Bellow's life work (a dozen novels and three collections of short fiction, along with assorted plays, essays, and nonfiction) can be a daunting proposition; fortunately, there are a number of entry points that are both accessible and highly revealing. One is Seize the Day (1956), an elegiac tale of fathers and sons that is arguably Bellow's tightest, most perfectly executed fiction. Set in an Upper West Side hotel that caters to well-heeled retirees, the story recounts a day in the life of Tommy Wilhelm, a middle-aged man whose misspent youth and bad adult decisions reduce him to childish dependence. He pleads for his father's help, but the stiff-necked, no-nonsense Dr. Adler will have none of it. If Tommy can change his name from Adler to Wilhelm (this in the days when he fancied himself an actor), then he will have to look elsewhere for the money, the patriarchal blessing, and—most of all—the fatherly love he demands. Not surprisingly, Tommy finds a willing candidate for these roles in Tamkin, who is simultaneously surrogate father and psychotherapist, quack and con man. From Tamkin, Tommy receives ambivalent, highly comic instructions in the arts of “seizing the day” and, then, putting the results to good use by playing the commodities market. For Tommy, Tamkin represents the last, desperate straw, and the former stays with the latter's speculations in rye and lard until the last dime. When Tamkin's foolproof system fails, most readers are hardly surprised. Tommy has seized the day and found it bone dry.

What makes Seize the Day so remarkable, however, is not its plot line, but rather the Olympian detachment Bellow brings to Tommy's sloppy sentimentality and the highly structured patterns of imagery that surround Tommy's “drowning.” Tommy himself is a marvelous creation, for while he is certainly an antihero, a man emblematic of his disaffected, alienated age, he genuinely cares for his loved ones and bears the burdens of experience with depth and sensitivity. Tommy, in short, has measures of heart (however misdirected or misapplied) his father seems never to have felt; and at the end of the novella, the reservoirs inside that heart break in a catharsis Bellow's cadenced but ambiguous prose calls “the consummation of his heart's ultimate need.” As for Tamkin, he will reappear in a variety of guises as the essential arithmetic of sensitive losers and dangerously attractive con men plays itself out in novels such as Herzog,Humboldt's Gift,The Dean's December, and The Bellarosa Connection.

Another entry point might be “The Old System,” a story that critics single out (along with “The Silver Dish”) as among Bellow's most accomplished short fiction. Like Seize the Day, it has a soulful, elegiac quality, this time set into motion when Dr. Samuel Braun, a distinguished scientist, looks at the lives of his dead cousins Tina and Isaac. He is trying in particular to make sense of what the “old system,” through which they exercised their furious, immigrant passions, might mean “within the peculiar system of light, movement, contact, and perishing in which he tried to find stability.”

Since Bellow's most congenial turf is the large canvas of the novel, it is not surprising that many regard “The Old System” as a dress rehearsal for Mr. Sammler's Planet. Both works feature elderly protagonists, and both are extended meditations on life's ultimate meaning. Even the ambiance and essential attitude of its respective protagonists seem similar. Moreover, because style is always at the center of Bellow's work, much can be learned by comparing his description of Samuel Braun on the winter afternoon recounted in “The Old System” with that of the Artur Sammler who paddles around his New York City apartment. First, Braun:

… every civilized man today cultivated an unhealthy self-detachment. Had learned from art the art of amusing self-observation and objectivity. Which, since there had to be something amusing to watch, required art in one's conduct. Existence for the sake of such practices did not seem worth while. Mankind was in a confusing, uncomfortable, disagreeable stage in the evolution of its consciousness. Dr. Braun … did not like it. It made him sad to feel that the thought, art, belief of great traditions should be so misemployed. Elevation? Beauty? Torn into shreds, into ribbons for girls' costumes, or trailed like the tail of a kite at Happenings. Plato and the Buddha raided by looters. The tombs of Pharaohs broken into by desert rabble. And so on, thought Dr. Braun as he passed into his neat kitchen. He was well pleased by the blue-and-white Dutch dishes, cups hanging, saucers standing in slots.

He opened a fresh can of coffee, much enjoyed the fragrance from the punctured can. Only an instant, but not to be missed. Next he sliced bread for the toaster, got out the butter, chewed an orange; and he was admiring long icicles on the huge red, circular roof tank of the laundry across the alley, the clear sky, when he discovered that a sentiment was approaching.

And now, Artur Sammler:

New York was getting worse than Naples or Salonika. It was like an Asian, an African town, from this standpoint. The opulent sections of the city were not immune. You opened a jeweled door into degradation, from hypercivilized Byzantine luxury straight into the state of nature, the barbarous world of color erupting from beneath. It might well be barbarous on either side of the jeweled door. Sexually, for example. The thing evidently, as Mr. Sammler was beginning to grasp, consisted in obtaining the privileges, and the free ways of barbarism, under the protection of civilized order, property rights, refined technological organization, and so on. Yes, that must be it.

Mr. Sammler ground his coffee in a square box, cranking counter-clockwise between long knees. To commonplace actions he brought a special pedantic awkwardness. In Poland, France, England, students, young gentlemen of his time, had been unacquainted with kitchens. Now he did things that cooks and maids had once done. He did them with a certain priestly stiffness. Acknowledgment of social descent. Historical ruin. Transformation of society. It was beyond personal humbling.

Bellow chooses his titles carefully, and “The Old System” is no exception, for it means to suggest a contrast between systems old and new, between the melodramatic excesses of the Jewish immigrant experience and the newer order represented by scientific inquiry. Dr. Braun would prefer a tidy, high-tech explanation that would account for an Isaac, a Tina, but none is forthcoming: “One could not help thinking what fertility of metaphor there was in all of these Brauns. Dr. Braun himself was no exception. And what the exception might be, despite twenty-five years of specialization in the chemistry of heredity, he couldn't say. How a protein molecule might carry such propensities of ingenuity and creative malice and negative power.” Braun's author, however, knows better. To understand human personality at the extremes of love and hatred—and perhaps more important, to understand how these emotions are inextricably connected—requires more than is dreamt of in philosophy or logged into a computer.

“The Old System,” then, is Dr. Braun's long, dark afternoon of the soul. Like Herzog, he means to “have it out, to justify, to put into perspective, to clarify, to make amends”—not by compulsively writing a series of mental letters (as Herzog does) but by narrowing his focus on his significant dead to Isaac and Tina. Mostly, though, he “dangles”—to use a charged word from the title of Bellow's first novel—teetering uneasily between attraction and repulsion, affection and disgust, certainty and doubt. He can neither give himself over to the expansive, volatile emotions that characterized immigrant Jewish life, nor entirely dismiss the tugs of memory. Images intrude: a sycamore tree beside the Mohawk River, a gray-and-blue hawk fish, an old coarse-tailed horse pulling a wagon, and with them vivid memories of Aunt Rose, the “original dura mater—the primal hard mother”—and his cousins Isaac and Tina.

Small wonder that he is overwhelmed by the sheer excess that memories of his extended family represent: “And Dr. Braun, bitterly moved, tried to grasp what emotions were. What good were they! What were they for! … Oh, these Jews—these Jews! Their feelings, their hearts!” Ultimately, Braun, like other Bellow protagonists, fumbles his way toward richer, albeit tentative, human truths: “It was only an intimation of understanding. A promise that mankind might—might, mind you—eventually, through its gift which might—might again!—be a divine gift, comprehend why it lived. Why life, why death.” A promise filled with qualifying “might's” is perhaps the best we have—it is certainly the most that Bellow's tough-minded honesty will allow for—but given our gloomy modern condition, such promises are infinitely precious.

Not enough has been said of Bellow's essentially religious vision, although much, probably too much, has been made of his Jewishness—as if he numbers himself in the long history of Jewish writers who wrote commentaries on the Pentateuch or the Talmud, rather than as one formed by the rhythms of American social-realists such as Mark Twain, Theodore Dreiser, and Sinclair Lewis. Bellow is a conspicuous case of immigrant gratitude, and should he find himself among writers a bit too eagerly and reductively glib in their America bashing, he has no qualms about announcing himself to be an unashamed patriot.

Does this imply that Bellow sees the American landscape through rose-colored glasses? Hardly. He can be a stubborn critic of all that is unworthy of the large promises on which our republic was founded, and his protagonists often find themselves at odds with all that is greedy, corrupt, and finally dehumanizing about modern urban culture. What we need, Moses Herzog half playfully insists, is a “good five-cent synthesis,” one that would provide “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; investigating the social meaning of Nothingness.” It is a grand, nutty dream, the stuff that makes subsequent Bellow protagonists—Sammler, Charlie Citrine, and Benn Crader—tick, but this may only be to say that Bellow's urban comedians are men of moral vision rather than accountants of hard fact. They tend to be dreamy and easily distracted, quixotic figures tilting against the world's windmills. Taken together, their respective sagas are chapters in what one protagonist calls “the intellectual Comedy of the modern mind.” More than any other writer, Bellow elbowed characters of enviable intelligence and moral sensitivity into the pages of American literature; even more remarkable, he accomplished this high-wire act without sacrificing the pleasure that fiction ought properly to afford.

Bellow's style, one the late Irving Howe described as “a yoking of opposites, gutter vividness with university refinement, street energy with high-culture rhetoric,” became as identifiable as a thumbprint. One can luxuriate in the essential rhythms of this style by slipping into nearly any thickly textured paragraph from The Adventures of Augie March, for this was the novel that sprung Bellow free from his near bondage to the claustrophobic Russian novel and the ways that it confined his earlier protagonists to extended bouts of angst and recrimination. By contrast, Augie is Huck Finn set down in the Chicago slums and energized by America's sheer possibilities. “Look at me,” he joyfully proclaims, “going everywhere!” And, indeed, he does leave the pinch of immigrant circumstances to explore life in Chicago's opulent suburbs, to hunt iguana in Mexico, and finally to declare himself as the Columbus of the “close at hand” in postwar Europe.

Augie is charming, eminently adoptable, but as one character remarks, “There's opposition in him.” One might say the same about Bellow himself, not only because he is instantly suspicious when ten intellectuals share the same enthusiasm—whether it be for existentialism or metafiction, for fashionable brands of nihilism or trendy Continental theory—but also because he tends to play each new novel against the one that came before, balancing what he calls “a few true impressions against the multitude of false ones that make up most of what we call life.” Meanwhile, The Adventures of Augie March is both romp and triumph, as well as the long novel one should savor before joining Henderson the Rain King on his comic misadventures through a mythic Africa cobbled from Bellow's graduate school days as an anthropologist and his sendup of Conrad's Heart of Darkness. Then, and only then, should one go on to tackle works such as Herzog or Humboldt's Gift.

We read Bellow because his work matters—not only for those who care about the state of American fiction but also for those worried about the spiritual condition of America itself. Although Bellow largely shies away from public platforms—he is neither a talk-show gladiator nor the sort of writer who inspires a large cult following—his words have a way of cutting through the fog to define where we are as a people, and perhaps more important, where we need to go. He can be self-deprecating, as he is in the introductory remarks to It All Adds Up, his latest collection of essays, but one needs only to read the piece he wrote (composed, if you will) for a bicentennial tribute to Mozart to realize just how thin his disguise as a Mozart “amateur” in fact is. Bellow begins by “sizing up Mozart as if I were thinking of writing a novel in which he might appear as a character” and ends with a paragraph that says a great deal about who and what Mozart was, but even more about Bellow himself:

What is attractive about Mozart … is that he is an individual. He learned for himself the taste of disappointment, betrayal, suffering, the weakness, foolishness, and vanity of flesh and blood, as well as the emptiness of cynicism. In him we see a person who has only himself to rely on. But what a self it is, and what an art it has generated. How deeply (beyond words) he speaks to us about the mysteries of our common human nature.

Bellow is one of the few contemporary American writers one can confidently imagine still being celebrated at our tricentennial. As long as people care about the power of vision as transcribed into words (and, yes, beyond them), his work will continue to be read and studied—by would-be writers and would-be critics, but perhaps most of all, by that infinitely precious band of common readers who know the Genuine Article when they see it.

Principal Works

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Dangling Man (novel) 1944

The Victim (novel) 1947

The Adventures of Augie March (novel) 1953

Seize the Day (novella) 1956

Henderson the Rain King (novel) 1959

Recent American Fiction: A Lecture (lectures) 1963

Herzog (novel) 1964

The Last Analysis (play) 1964

*Under the Weather (plays) 1966; also produced as The Bellow Plays

Mosby's Memoirs and Other Stories (short stories) 1968

Mr. Sammler's Planet (novel) 1970

The Portable Bellow (short stories, novels, and drama) 1974

Humboldt's Gift (novel) 1975

To Jerusalem and Back: A Personal Account (memoirs) 1976

The Dean's December (novel) 1982

Him with His Foot in His Mouth and Other Stories (short stories) 1984

More Die of Heartbreak (novel) 1987

The Bellarosa Connection (novella) 1989

A Theft (novella) 1989

Something to Remember Me By (novellas) 1991

It All Adds up: From the Dim Past to the Uncertain Future (essays and criticism) 1994

The Actual (novella) 1997

Ravelstein (novel) 2000

Collected Stories (short stories) 2001

*Originally first performed in London in June 1966, Under the Weather is comprised of three one-act plays—A Wen,Orange Soufflé, and Out from Under.

Richard K. Cross (review date spring 1995)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1788

SOURCE: Cross, Richard K. “Clearing the Mind of Cant.” Modern Age 37, no. 3 (spring 1995): 251-54.

[In the following favorable review, Cross surveys the range of essays in It All Adds Up.]

Now in his eightieth year, Saul Bellow is our best living novelist, the principal heir among the writers who emerged after World War II to the great figures of the Hemingway-Fitzgerald-Faulkner generation. From the mid-1950s through the mid-1970s, years that saw the appearance of Seize the Day,Henderson the Rain King,Herzog, and Humboldt's Gift, no other novelist residing on these shores (Nabokov was living in Montreux for much of that time) could touch Bellow. Not much attention has been paid to his work apart from the fiction, although from the 1940s onward a steady stream of autobiographical reflections, evocations of place, and social criticism, as well as essays and lectures on the state of our culture, has issued from his pen. It All Adds Up is the first collection of these occasional writings. Greatly as the pieces differ from one another in form, matter, and the audience for which they were originally intended, the book does not impress one as a gathering of fugitives.

Bellow notes in his preface the many alterations of outlook he has experienced in the course of a long writing life, not least during his sixties and seventies—“enlightening decades,” he observes, in which “I learned many things I should have known earlier.” It is the more remarkable, then, that through all these turns one should have so powerful a sense of the underlying consistency of the author's character. In his Romanes Lecture at Oxford, Bellow speaks of the peculiar voice, the “tone under the words,” that marks an authentic writer: “It seems to issue from the bosom, from a place beneath the breastbone. It is more musical than verbal, and it is the characteristic signature of a person, of a soul.” He has the novelist in mind, but it is the distinctive Bellow voice, forever trying to form thinkling particulars of street knowledge and resonant intuitions of transcendence into chords, that makes this non-fiction collection add up as well.

Let me offer an example. In “My Paris” (1983) he relates an incident that took place in that “heavenly city of secularists” thirty-five years earlier:

Arthur Koestler ribbed me one day when he met me in the street with my five-year-old son. He said, “Ah, You're married? Is this your child? And you've come to Paris?” To be Modern, you see, meant to be detached from tradition and traditional sentiments … and, of course, from the family. But it was not to be Modern that I was living on the rue de Verneuil. My aim was to be free from measures devised and applied by others. I could not agree, to begin with, on any definition. I would be ready for a definition when I was ready for an obituary.

In the course of that same Parisian sojourn Bellow accomplished a decisive formal breakthrough on his novel The Adventures of Augie March, whose protagonist declares: “[I] go at things as I have taught myself, free-style.” The Bellow we encounter in this essay is a Chicago-bred Stephen Dedalus-cum-Bloom—“aux anges in Paris, wandering about, sitting in cafes, walking beside the liniment-green, rot-smelling Seine.” In “My Paris,” as elsewhere in the collection, the essential writerly virtues are Tolstoyan: one “should write clearly, take a moral view of his subject, and be capable of giving the most intense attention to his subject and his characters” (“The Distracted Public”).

American artists have commonly gone to Europe—one thinks of Hawthorne, James, Pound, a host of others—looking for a kind of sustenance denied them in their own country, a land without the traditions or institutions of a literary culture. “In busy America there was no Weimar, there were no cultivated princes,” remarks Bellow in “An Interview with Myself.” Our literature has been largely an affair of “obstinate geniuses” working in isolation. For that matter, in this century the Europeans too have had to make do with a severely attenuated culture, one characterized by “the prevalence of nihilism, the absence of the noble and great” (“The Distracted Public”). “We have to go back to the Bible, to Plato, to Shakespeare,” Bellow declares in his second Jefferson Lecture, “to see what man once was.”

To the young the absence of a traditional culture may at first seem liberating. Only with time do the costs become clear. “Deprived of the old ways of life, or dependable customs and saving inertias, we have no alternative but to think”; unfortunately much of what passes for thinking, particularly the varieties of warmed-over Marx and Nietzsche, is dismal. Hungry for the bread of wisdom, we are asked to settle for “conceptual stones.” A veteran writer like Bellow, who “has seen orthodoxies come and go, … has learned that he must trust the communications coming from his own soul. … [H]e has made himself lighter by putting off, by setting aside, the ideas and doctrines that dominated this century” (“The Jefferson Lectures”). In Bellow's case that meant in the first instance looking behind the mystique of the October Revolution, “whose echoes of freedom and justice you could not choose but hear” (“Writers, Intellectuals, Politics”) if you were the son of Russian Jewish immigrants in Depression-era Chicago. One can begin to gauge the depth of Bellow's engagement with the Revolution when one learns that he was to have an audience with Trotsky in Coyoacan on the very morning the old Bolshevik was struck down. (For those of us who came along a generation later it requires an effort of imagination to enter into this frame of mind. The trendy radicalism of our own student days was a far less serious affair.) Never an organization man, Bellow remained largely aloof from hands-on politics; only in the course of the 1940s, however, did he manage to free himself intellectually from Marxist categories.

Except for corners of certain English departments, Marxism belongs to the day before yesterday. There are, however, more current forms of ideology—“ideology” retains for Bellow the sense of false belief conducive to submission—that continues to perplex him, for example, all the “consciousness raising and sensitivity training [that] are meant to force us to be born again without color, without race, sexually neutered, politically purified, and with minds shaped and programmed to reject ‘the bad’ and affirm ‘the good'” (“There Is Simply Too Much to Think About”)—to become, in effect, a nation of Michael Jackson clones. Even more troubling is “a society that produces a fairy-tale superabundance of material things. Ancient fantasies have been made real. … To contemplate this can make us tremble for the humanity we miss in … the incredible upswelling of inventions and commodities that carries us with it” (“Writers, Intellectuals, Politics”).

At the root of Bellow's social criticism is his belief that ideological correctness, technological/commercial materialism, and the like estrange us from our “first soul” (“A Second Half Life”). Bellow is, wonder of wonders, an essentialist! He does not claim that the human essence is especially admirable; there is, as Socrates reminds Phaedrus, a dark horse as well as a white one in our makeup. Still, our native soul is greatly to be preferred to any plastic self others might fashion for us. A prodigy like Mozart, whose genius has the look of having been pre-formed, “as if he had brought it all with him” (“Mozart: An Overture”), may offer us some help in recollecting ourselves.

The primary justification of art, Bellow tells us in his 1976 address to the Swedish Academy, consists in its power to penetrate “what pride, passion, intelligence, and habit erect on all sides—the seeming realities of this world” and to recall us to true being, that “other reality [which] is always sending us hints, … persistent intuitions [that] will, without art, be hidden from us.” He cites Conrad's appeal, in his preface to The Nigger of the “Narcissus,” “to that part of our being which is a gift, not an acquisition, … and to the subtle but invincible conviction of solidarity that knits together the loneliness of innumerable hearts.” Toward the end of his Nobel Lecture Bellow returns to these words and concludes: “We must look for that gift under the wreckage of many systems.” An artist should write not with the intention of inculcating doctrine but of transcending it: “The degree to which you challenge your own beliefs and expose them to destruction is a test of your worth as a novelist” (“The French as Dostoyevsky Saw Them”). At his best the artist should be open to what Milan Kundera calls “the wisdom of the novel”—whatever it is in the act of writing that makes a work of fiction smarter than its author, the source of which is evidently transpersonal and ultimately mysterious.

Given the high valuation Bellow places on literature, it is natural that he should be distressed by the way it is treated in our universities. Academics seldom know what a real passion for poems and novels is; “their business is,” as the author has it in Humboldt's Gift, “to reduce masterpieces to discourse.” The astonishing thing is that, roughhew our students' education as we will, “steady and intelligent people emerge somehow, like confident swimmers from the heaving waters. … They survive by strength, luck, and cunning” (“An Interview with Myself”). They survive, in the end, because they are capable of entering, core to core, into a state of intimacy with artists, of taking masterworks into themselves “as if they were communion wafers” (“A Half Life”).

It should not surprise readers to learn that Bellow had a pious upbringing, with considerable stress upon study of the Torah. “The religious vein was very strong,” he remembers in an interview with Keith Botsford, “and lasted until I was old enough to make a choice between Jewish life and street life.” To this day the yearning for a spiritual axis and the allure of grainy naturalistic surfaces remain the poles of Bellow's sensibility. Every book he has written testifies to his “conviction that we [are] all here on a very strange contingency plan. … The systems fall away one by one. … But you never actually finish with [the] demand that you account for your being here.” Whether this probing of the radical mystery of our being represents, as he supposes, “the highest point a modern man can hope to achieve” (“A Half Life”) and whether art is invariably our most effective means of conducting the inquiry are issues on which we may well differ from the novelist. Whatever our views on these matters, we cannot but admire the honesty, vigor, and intelligence with which Bellow has pursued the quest.

Jerrald Ranta (essay date fall 1995)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8751

SOURCE: Ranta, Jerrald. “Time in Bellow's Seize the Day.Essays in Literature 23, no. 2 (fall 1995): 300-15.

[In the following essay, Ranta addresses the roles of Gregorian and Jewish calendar time in the novella Seize the Day.]

The ongoing critical study of time and history in Saul Bellow's works has largely neglected Seize the Day, as can be seen in Judie Newman's major study of history in Bellow's works, which mentions Seize the Day only briefly.1 Accordingly, this study will examine selected time-referents in the novella, and because time-referents can also be cultural-referents, the discussion also addresses the roles of both Gregorian and Jewish time in the story. Though temporal concerns in Seize the Day itself have not been studied, there is no lack of criticism that can shed light on the problem. Of greatest use are Bellow's own essays and interviews, several of which are quoted below. Newman's “Conclusion” is also useful for the focus it brings to the subject; this study assumes the validity of and subsumes in its method several of her conclusions: that Bellow's “novels display an extremely precise attention to the specificity of history” (185); that “even quite minor temporal notations … are of major functional importance” (186); that “time is … both the formal backbone to Bellow's novels and the thematic centre” (186); and that “Bellow … clearly indicates the desirability and importance of careful, even close, reading, with due attention to detail, though without symbolic over-inflation” (180). Other writers also provide useful guidance—e.g. Ruth Miller, whose observations about “Bellow's style” point the direction taken in this study: “Bellow deplores realism, insisting there is no way to distinguish between appearance and reality, and yet there is no metaphor or simile or allusion, no description at all, that does not rest wholly on concrete details, or verifiable facts. Bellow means anytime and anyplace, yet his focus is always on the literally identifiable street on an exact day …” (83-84). As for Jewish time in Seize the Day, L. H. Goldman, quoting Wiesel (7), observes that, “In the philosophy of Judaism, life is viewed ‘as a network of continuity’ whereby the present is inexorably bound to the past” (“Philosophy” 56). This is true of Tommy Wilhelm's “day of reckoning.” The organization of the discussion derives from an attempt to answer the question of whether Bellow had a particular calendric “day” in mind for Wilhelm to “seize” and on which the story is set; and, both as and after that question is answered, the time-related issues that answering it raises will be discussed.

To begin with Gregorian time: the season, month, and day-date of Wilhelm's “day of reckoning” appear to be easily identified. The narrator says that “it [is] early summer” (31) and also refers to “late spring weather like this” present weather (43). Wilhelm says: “It's the end of the lilacs. … When they burn it's the beginning of the summer” (44). According to Fr. John L. Fiala, “On the eastern coast” lilac-time “begins in later May and extends into June (11). June seems the more likely month for the story. As for the day-date, Margaret tells Tommy on the telephone, “It's already five days past the first” (111)—that is, the sixth of the month. So Wilhelm's “day of reckoning” possibly falls on June 6. But what year?

Wilhelm suggests both 1955 and 1956. The first is suggested when he tells Mr. Perls that he “was with” the Rojax Corporation “from the end of the war” (V-J Day was September 2, 1945) “for almost ten years” (35). By this dating, he would have been with Rojax for ten years sometime in the fall of 1955. But he did not quite make it, apparently leaving in early 1955. And 1956 is suggested when Wilhelm tells Margaret on the phone that “Paulie is going to be ten years old” (113). If Paulie is the child of his father's homecoming at “the end of the war,” which seems plausible, then he was born in early to mid 1946 and will be ten in 1956, and the year of the story appears to be 1956. That these two time periods do not fit together reveals that Wilhelm is at least being fuzzy about, if not actually misrepresenting, the occurrence of events in time in at least one of them: he may be doing so to impress Mr. Perls rather than to deceive Margaret. In any case, this recognition of how Wilhelm relates to time is important to understanding Bellow's handling of time in the novella—indeed, to understanding Wilhelm's story in general, because it reveals a blurring of time in the story, which must be analyzed in order to determine if the day of the story has special meaning.

Following through, one can look at June 6 for 1955 and 1956—as possible days for the story. However, June 6, 1955, was a Monday, and could not be the day of the story because, when Dr. Tamkin and Wilhelm arrive at the brokerage, Tamkin reveals that “yesterday” he “closed out one of the lard contracts and bought a hedge of December rye” (81), which he could not have done if “yesterday” were Sunday, as the market would have been closed. And, although June 6, 1956, was a Wednesday, it seems unlikely that it would be the day of the story because Wilhelm and Tamkin bought the lard “four days ago” (8), and that many days ago was a Saturday, and again the market would have been closed. Thus, what appear to be two likely days for the story to happen on—days which are apparently pointed to by the time-referents in the book—turn out not to be the day. Clearly, insofar as time is concerned, the realism of the story is not historically realistic. Seize the Day is not the “journalistic sort of novel” that “specializes in information,” which Bellow wrote against in 1962 (“Facts” 1).

This lack of historical accuracy goes beyond just the day-date. For instance, although one can draw on the actual figures on lard in the commodities market in such sources as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Commodity Year Book for the months of June in 1955 and 1956, it is not possible to make the price figures and their behavior, and the time-referents, for Wilhelm's and Tamkin's lard investment, fit exactly the historical record on lard for those months and years. This also holds true even if, to be thorough, one includes the month of May for those years.2 At best, what one finds are approximate fits. While there are many ways to illustrate this, it is sufficient to note that the novella's market information maintains and contributes to the blurring of time in the story. Apparently, Bellow did not attempt to fit the story into a verifiable, historical moment on the lard market because it is not about a specific commodities market day. If the day has any significance, it lies elsewhere.

Obviously deliberate, the blurring of time recurs frequently throughout the novella—e.g., in the discussion of when mother Adler died (27), in Wilhelm's thinking he is forty-four years old (39) whereas Margaret suggests he is forty-seven (112), in the confusion about whose turn it is to pay for lunch (98), and in Wilhelm's thinking in a single thought that he is going to “the baseball game [sic] on Saturday (a doubleheader [sic] at the Polo Grounds)” (84)—and has appreciable consequences. It heightens the fiction; it contributes to the atmosphere of confusion, so important to the story. But most importantly, it functions in the definition of Wilhelm as a character who, in respect to time, is the kind of modern, literary character whom Bellow described in 1962 as a “creature” who is “oddly dispersed … whose outlines are everywhere … and who is impossible to circumscribe in any time scheme” (“Where” 443). The uncertainties of time in the story reflect—and provide a temporal context for—the uncertainties in Tommy Wilhelm. Thus he tells Margaret, “I couldn't tell you what day of the week this is” (111). He is as unanchored and adrift temporally as in every other way in his life.

But can the reader tell what day of the week it is? It is a weekday because the brokerage is open, and the previous day was a weekday because Tamkin shifted some of their money on that day, which means that the brokerage was open. Therefore, the day is not Monday. Also, “four days ago” (8) was a weekday, because that was when the pair bought the lard. If Wilhelm is counting days backward without the intrusion of a weekend, which seems likely, then the day of the story is not Wednesday or Thursday, as “four days ago” from the former was Saturday, and “four days ago” from the latter was Sunday, on both of which days the brokerage would have been closed. So, if the time-referents mentioned so far are reliable, the day of the story is either Tuesday or Friday. If it is Tuesday, then “four days ago” would have been Friday, and a weekend would have intruded since the pair bought the lard. But in describing the purchase, the narrator says that, as soon as they “bought this lard … the price at once began to fall and was still falling.” The narrator also says that, “In the mail this morning there was sure to be a call for an additional margin payment. One came every day” (8; emphasis added). Considering that the market would have been closed over the weekend, and that there would not have been any new price reports over the weekend, and perhaps no new calls “for additional margin,” the language of these expressions seems inappropriate for a Tuesday. The sense of a continuous, unbroken drama suggested by the language does not agree with the sense of suspension of activity suggested by the possible intrusion of a weekend. The language seems more appropriate for a Friday.

The question of whose turn it is to buy lunch also points to Friday:

Dr. Tamkin slid the two checks across the table. “Who paid yesterday? It's your turn, I think.”

It was not until they were leaving the cafeteria that Wilhelm remembered definitely that he had paid yesterday too. But it wasn't worth arguing about.


It should be remembered that the pair did not lunch together on the first day they went to the market; Wilhelm excused himself and returned to the brokerage to check on the extent of the power of attorney he had signed (59). Also, if the day of the story is Tuesday, they would not have gone to the brokerage on Saturday and Sunday either, due to its being closed, so it is not so likely that they would have lunched together on those days. Therefore, a pattern of their taking turns buying lunch would not have been established by Monday—and if such a pattern had just been established on Monday, surely it would be remembered on Tuesday. This makes it seem unlikely that Tuesday is the day of the story. On the other hand, Tamkin's saying, “It's your turn, I think,” suggests the possibility of an unbroken series of days on which, at least for two or three days, they took turns paying for lunch, and on which there was no confusion as to whose turn it was. Therefore, if the day of the story is Friday, and if they did not have lunch together on Monday, and if Wilhelm pays “today” (Friday), as well as “yesterday” (Thursday), then he would have bought lunch on Tuesday—perhaps to make up for what he did on Monday?—and Tamkin would have paid on Wednesday. This works if the day of the story is Friday.

So the day of the story is possibly a Friday, the sixth of some month, perhaps either May or June, but certainly in the time when the lilacs are either burning or will soon be burning, in either 1955 or 1956. But, this still does not work out on the Gregorian calendar. May 6, 1955, was a Friday, but was too early in respect to the end of the lilacs. Then, June 6, 1955, was a Monday, while May 6, 1956, was a Sunday, and June 6, 1956, was a Wednesday, none of which works for reasons given above.

But what happens if one looks at the “problem” from the point of view of Jewish time? What about Friday, May 27, 1955, which was the sixth day in the Jewish month of Sivan (in the Jewish year, 5715), and which was not only in the lilac season, but more importantly was the first day of Shavu'ot, a major, two day, Jewish, religious holiday?3 Isaac Klein says this is the day on which, “according to rabbinic interpretation of the Bible …, the Ten Commandments were given [to Moses on Mt. Sinai]. … Shavu'ot … commemorat[es] this event and emphasiz[es] the Torah's sanctity” (147). Further: “Shavu'ot is thus the festival that bids us emphasize the primacy of the moral law and the normative character of Judaism” (148). Also: “there is a legend that [King] David died on Shavu'ot” (150). All of this suggests that Jewish time has profound significance in the story—and must be taken into account.

In proceeding, however, it must be noted that identifying Wilhelm's “day of reckoning” as possibly being Sivan 6 (the first day of Shavu'ot in 1955; Jewish 5715) is not reason to ignore the importance of the Gregorian time-referents in the story. To do so would be to forget where Wilhelm thinks he is in time and what he believes is important to him. There are at least three major Gregorian time-referents in the story, whose meshing—or not meshing—with Sivan 6 (May 27, 1955) has to be noted. These are the lard prices for the week from Monday, May 23, to Friday, May 27, 1955, Wilhelm's references to the baseball schedule of the Brooklyn Dodgers, and his allusion to “the Fulbright investigation” in chapter I (9). To be brief, a check of the appropriate records shows that neither the lard price time-referents nor the references to the Dodgers' schedule fully reflects the actual, historical happenings; there is only partial agreement—approximation. Importantly, what this reveals is that, if Sivan 6 (May 27, 1955) is the day of the story, it too is concealed by blurring; the story is not about what happened to Wilhelm on a particular Shavu'ot, but about how he is “oddly dispersed” and “is impossible to circumscribe in any scheme of time” (Bellow, “Where” 443).

However, even though the novella's account of commodities market activity and the Brooklyn Dodgers' baseball schedule do not precisely reflect the historical record for May 27, 1955, Wilhelm's allusion to “the Fulbright investigation” touches on something more substantial. Wilhelm as an investor, and the kind of investment that he makes, closely fit the description of a kind of investor and investing which were frequently observed in the stock market, which differs from the commodities market, in late 1954 and early 1955, and which were part of an “investigation” of so-called “unhealthy” stock market activity conducted by the Senate Banking and Currency Committee in early 1955. Chaired by Senator J. William Fulbright, this committee released its report to the public on May 26, 1955. The report was written up in the New York Herald Tribune (see Dale), the New York Times (see “Text”), and the Wall Street Journal (see “Stock Market Study”), and presumably other newspapers across the country, on Friday, May 27, 1955. In chapter I of Seize the Day, when Wilhelm recalls an earlier conversation with Tamkin, he remembers asking him, “Who hasn't read the Fulbright investigation?” (9). Perhaps the “investigation” reported on May 27, 1955, is what Bellow has Wilhelm refer to; it had produced at least one, longer, earlier publication treating factors influencing the stock market, and there had been earlier articles about it in the papers (for instance, see Crane). Conceivably, the kind of speculator mentioned in the report, like Wilhelm, occasionally showed up in the commodities market, too. It is at least a striking coincidence that Wilhelm's “day of reckoning” apparently falls on the same day that the Senate Banking and Currency Committee's report appeared in the newspapers, which is also Sivan 6, the first day of Shavu'ot.

It also has to be noted that, as one might expect, Jewish time is relevant to the story in other ways than purely religious ones. For instance, Margaret's suggestion that it is Sivan 6 comes in the telephone conversation with Tommy when she observes that he has sent her “a postdated [support] check” (111). The implication is that he sends her support checks according to the Jewish rather than the Gregorian calendar, and the question is, Why would he do this? The answer is that there are frequent, regularly recurring leap years in the Jewish calendar when an additional month is added to make that calendar, which is a lunar calendar that is affected by the occurrence of certain holy days, agree with the solar year. During those years, Margaret—who may have been the one to decide that the support checks would be paid according to the Jewish calendar—would receive one more check than she would according to the Gregorian calendar.

Another non-religious use of Jewish time concerns Wilhelm's age. When he is at breakfast, he thinks of himself as “forty-four” years old (39). But on the phone Margaret says, “But in eighteen years you'll be eligible for retirement” (112), which, if retirement is thought to come at sixty-five years of age, suggests that Wilhelm is forty-seven. Perhaps one should look at the discrepancy in this way: Wilhelm thinks he is “forty-four” according to the Gregorian calendar, which is a solar calendar of twelve months, whereas Margaret counts (or has counted) his age in Jewish months, including an extra month for each of the (approximately) twenty-four leap years that have occurred since he was born, and then divides them by twelve into Gregorian years. This combined Jewish-Gregorian time-measurement gives her approximately forty-seven years as Wilhelm's age, and a weapon to use against him. It recalls Tamkin's remarks about counting: “Now, counting and number is always a sadistic activity. Like hitting. In the Bible, the Jews wouldn't allow you to count them. They knew it was sadistic” (69).

It is the religious nature of Jewish time, however, the associations with Shavu'ot, that provides the most extensive and interesting “readings” for Wilhelm's “day of reckoning.” For instance, Wilhelm's going up to Tamkin's room, where possibly the most meaningful message he receives is in the form of the titles Science and Sanity (one of Alfred Korzybski's books) and the Wall Street Journal, both texts that he might benefit by studying, his (god-like?) telephoning down to the lobby (“Can you locate Doctor Tamkin in the lobby for me?” [106-07]), and his later reminding Margaret of the sixth commandment, “Thou shalt not kill” (112), have the quality of being ironic, Jewish time-and-cultural-referents—as Wilhelm the actor acts out both God's and Moses's roles on Shavu'ot. Similarly, the dead man in the coffin, for whom “a huge funeral” (115) is being held, and who was perhaps an important person, is auspiciously being buried on the alleged day of the death of King David, who molded Israel into a nation, and whose “return … has become the dream of its future and the object of its most ardent hopes” (Cornill). The “Star of David” in the window of the funeral chapel, which was present in earlier versions of the novella, also associated David with the scene.4 Wilhelm's ‘mourning’ is in synch with religious-historical matters of which he is apparently unaware. Moreover, it becomes clear why, from Bellow's viewpoint, it is “impossible to circumscribe” a modern literary character “in any scheme of time.” He or she is scattered in time in ways that are all but inexpressible.

The blurring of time in the novella is part of Bellow's way of representing this. Indeed, it may not be appropriate to call it blurring; bi-calendric double-vision might be a better term. In any case, it derives in part from the fact that Jewish-America is bi-calendric. Thus Gregorian calendrism surfaces in relation to the dating of World War II and of mother Adler's death,5 and Jewish calendrism emerges in Wilhelm's and Mr. Rappaport's conversation about Yom Kippur and in the apparently veiled announcement that the day is Sivan 6. For Bellow to tell Wilhelm's story so that it incorporates bi-calendrism is to be realistic to Jewish-American experience. Even that the bi-calendrism is not pronounced is apparently true to Jewish-American experience; as Goldman points out, “the Bellow protagonist … has no interest in Jewish affairs … never celebrates a Jewish holiday” (“Jewish Perspective” 5). Also: if Sivan 6 is the day of the story, Bellow would want to leave this ambiguous, and not announce it, as doing so might have the undesired effect of turning the story too strongly in the direction of being, not an American, but either a purely Jewish-American or a purely Jewish story. It is sufficient that there is a strong, possible, religious significance about the “day of reckoning.”

It is in reading the story in the light of the traditional, religious phenomena associated with Shavu'ot that one becomes certain the “day” must be Sivan 6. For instance, on one hand, there is all of the counting and number-oriented thinking in the book, some of which has been discussed above, and much of which has something to do with time. On the other hand, if Sivan 6 is the day of the story, then the period of Jewish calendar time that has just come to an end in the story is, as Klein relates, “called Sefirah (‘counting’). The name is derived from the practice of counting the ‘Omer’ [that is, counting the days], which is observed from the night of the second Seder of Pesah [Passover; which occurs seven weeks before Shavu'ot] until the eve of Shavu'ot” (142). Klein says, “it is suggested” that “the festival of Shavu'ot, unlike any other festival, depends on the counting of the days preceding it” because “when the children of Israel received the glad tidings of their liberation from Egypt, they were also told that fifty days thereafter they would receive the Torah. This news was so thrilling that they started counting the days” (135).

In terms of the novella, Sefirah is the period during which Wilhelm has quit his job at Rojax, paralleling the Israelites' liberation from Egypt, and come to live at the Gloriana. And his praying for “mercy” and wanting something to happen to save him is in synch with the Israelites' expecting to receive the Torah. Further, the story of how Wilhelm got into the market, a main conversation from which he recalls early in chapter I (8-10), as well as the implied “history” behind his writing a postdated check for Margaret, an act that is approximately contemporary with (or maybe even a little previous in time to) the recalled conversation with Tamkin, are evidence of the nature of Wilhelm's “counting”—with ironic dislocation—near the end of Sefirah. One can imagine the “counting of days” that went into the check, which is “dated … for the twelfth” (111)—apparently the 12th of Sivan, or, in Gregorian time, for either Thursday, June 2, or Friday, June 3, right before a Dodgers' Saturday game at Ebbets Field, to which Wilhelm would want to take his sons, by which time he clearly “counted” on succeeding on the market. Finally, his receiving the poem from Tamkin ironically parallels in time—and re-enacts in worldly forms—Moses's and the Israelites' receiving the Ten Commandments.

According to Klein, “the Sefirah period is a time of sadness,” and he cites several, major, historical causes for this, including the sorrow suffered during the crusades and the grief of the Holocaust (142-45). In the story, the sadness of Sefirah for Wilhelm is visible in the account of what appears to be the end of Sefirah and Shavu'ot eve for him; note the generalized counting that is focused on days and money, the ironic dislocation of “counting,” and where Wilhelm goes, as if to “receive the Torah”:

For the last few weeks Wilhelm had played gin almost nightly, but yesterday he had felt that he couldn't afford to lose any more. He had never won. Not once. And while the losses were small they weren't gains, were they? They were losses. He was tired of losing, and tired also of the company, and so he had gone by himself to the movies.


The lingering sadness of Sefirah also echoes in the sorrowful lines of verse Wilhelm recalls, in his thoughts about his sons and Olive and his mother, and in the scene in the funeral chapel, which is associated with the long-felt loss and desired return of King David.

Still further, Klein observes that: “The fruits of the field ripen during … Sefirah [in Israel], and it is, therefore, a period of uncertainty—of hope and prayer that our physical sustenance will be continued in abundance” (142). In the novella, there is the picture of the desperate Wilhelm, needing “not less than fifteen grand, after taxes” (80), hoping and betting against the odds that the price of lard will rise before it makes one significant drop, distrusting Tamkin, praying for “mercy” (26). Indeed, his hope and prayer are not purely those of the gambler but are in synch with the seasonal patterns inherent in Jewish faith. For Shavu'ot, Klein says, is a “harvest festival … because of its agricultural aspect,” which is emphasized in scripture (147), and which is echoed in the story in an ironic form in the speculators' concern for future grain harvests and other agricultural products (lard, eggs), and in the abundant food and eating imagery (Wilhelm's two breakfasts; the food in the cafeteria at the beginning of chapter VI; Tamkin's “piled” tray at lunch). Even Wilhelm's having yogurt for lunch (91) takes on special significance in that, as Klein notes, “it is customary to eat dairy dishes on the first day of Shavu'ot” (151). Similarly, his eating an egg for breakfast (36), his and Tamkin's almost having bought eggs on the market, and Wilhelm's unintentionally becoming a mourner at the book's end, all take on special significance in the light of Klein's remarks about eggs and “round foods.” He says, “Eggs are a symbol of life and hope. … In addition, as symbolic representation of … the wheel of fate from which no one escapes, round foods assuage the mourner's sense of guilt, reminding him that death is the fate of all human beings” (287). Ironically, Wilhelm's life is informed by a religious code, perhaps absorbed from his mother, of which he is apparently largely unconscious—and now all is focused on a holy day that he is unable to “seize.”

Although, as Goldman says, “the Jewishness of Bellow's protagonists is equivocal because it is unaccounted for,” it is also true that Wilhelm, as she says of Bellow's protagonists in general, is “the basically assimilated Jew who still retains vestiges of his heritage” (Moral Vision xv, 75). The problem is that she notices only the “vestiges” of which he thinks and speaks, and overlooks that he also “retains vestiges of his heritage” in what he does, without speech or thought, in his behavior, his actions. The present reading points to the unconscious as the repository and source of such “vestiges” altogether, and finds support in what Bellow says about the unconscious in “A World Too Much with Us”:

The general view now seems to be that the writer's true province is the unconscious. It is from the unconscious that he brings in his truffles. No one can doubt the existence of the unconscious. It is there all right. The question is what it contains. Is it only the seat of animal nature, of instinct, the libidinal forces, or does it also contain elements of higher life? Does the human need for truth, for instance, also have roots in the unconscious? Why, since the unconscious is by definition what we do not know, should we not expect to find in it traces of the soul as well as of aggression?

(“A World” 9)6

Has something in Wilhelm's unconscious deliberately chosen Sivan 6—the first day of Shavu'ot—as his “day of reckoning”? Regardless, in Seize the Day, Bellow is suggesting that the unconscious functions not only as a source and a repository, but also as a kind of timing mechanism, a clock. Unconsciously, Wilhelm the actor acts out his own ironic version of Sefirah and Shavu'ot.

Also useful to this reading of Seize the Day are the things Klein says about water, which provide a Jewish-cultural context that is associated with Shavu'ot for the many water images in the book—one that the critics have not noticed yet.7 This imagery could well concern the Torah and the experience of “receiving the Torah,” given that Shavu'ot commemorates Moses's receiving the Ten Commandments (a main part of the Torah), and given the connection between water and the Torah that Klein points out:

The value and meaning of the Torah to the Jewish people, and, in this case, the relevance of our reading from the Torah in the synagogue, is beautifully expressed in an aggadic interpretation of the verse “and they travelled three days in the wilderness and found no water” (Exod. 15:22). Water, according to the interpreters, is a metaphor for Torah.

(27-28; emphasis added)

Again, in describing the making and significance of a “miqweh …, a gathering of water for ritual immersion” (518), Klein says: “water is a symbol of the life forces of the universe; by using it we therefore affirm that God alone is the author of life, and to Him and Him alone do we turn for continued life for us and our descendants after us” (520). Bellow may have intended the many water images in the book as metaphorical expression of God's presence in the world and of His love for man.

In this case, the book's final paragraph—toward which all of the water images flow (Scrafford 64, 69)—might be intended to locate Wilhelm metaphorically on the spiritual plane at a time and experience parallel to Moses's receiving the Ten Commandments. It is not that he is actually receiving “Torah from Heaven,” as Moses is said to have, but, according to Jewish tradition, nothing less than God's love (the Torah in some form) could provide “the consummation of his heart's ultimate need” (128).8 Yet Wilhelm is unaware of the unique moment in time that he inhabits. Thus, Goldman depicts Wilhelm in general as “too absorbed in his personal problems to see the world about him” (Moral Vision 229). And Bellow himself speaks of Wilhelm as “the bon enfant making his last hopeless stand. … So much for Tommy Wilhelm, who trustingly (or lazily) surrendered his soul to the milder, vaguer view” (Gray 647).

Moreover, there is still more to Wilhelm's “day” of which he is unaware: the novella's treatment of time also includes a “modern” scientific version of man's activity in time, and what has been said about time in the book so far has to be viewed in relation to this, too. For it provides a secular answer to the question: If Wilhelm is not seizing the (holy?) day, what is he doing? And Alfred Korzybski's Science and Sanity, which Wilhelm glimpses on his angry visit to Tamkin's room (116), and which could be viewed as a kind of silent message to him, speaks to this. There is much that is relevant to Seize the Day in Science and Sanity, which appeared in three editions (1933, 1941, 1948) before the publication of Bellow's novella, and which may have been a source for some of his ideas and material. What is most useful here is that Korzybski defines “man functionally as a time-binder, a definition based on a … functional observation that the human class of life differs from animals in the fact that, in the rough, each generation of humans, at least potentially, can start where the former generation left off—a definition which … corresponds to empirical facts” (39). The emphasis on function, which is echoed in the novella in the title of Tamkin's poem (75), in Tamkin's telling Wilhelm, “The functionalistic explanation is the only one” (69), and even in the imperative to “seize the day,” is crucial, as Korzybski presents time-binding not as a dispensible trait but as “the typical functioning of the human nervous system” (354). In brief, this is what Wilhelm and the other characters engage in at every moment in the story, although they are all as unaware of it as they are that it is Shavu'ot. This invites the reader to interpret the book's title concept, as well as much, if not all, of the action and plot, “scientifically,” using Korzybski's terms and ideas. For “money,” he says, and he means the pursuit of it as well as the fact of it, “represents a symbol of all human time-binding characteristics” (549). “‘In gold we trust,’” he writes, “becomes the motto, with all its identifications and destructive consequences” (549), and this reflects exactly what has become of the characters.

Wilhelm's life-long failure to connect meaningfully with his father, as well as all of his shorter-term failures to connect profitably with others (Maurice Venice, Rojax, Tamkin, Mr. Rappaport, even “the German manager” of the brokerage), identifies him as an unsuccessful, time-binding Everyman, who, possessed of the various problems of human behavior that Korzybski defines in Science and Sanity, has been and is unable to “start where the former generation [or any potential helper] left off” and to go on successfully from there. This applies to Wilhelm on both the worldly and the spiritual levels. Man's problems are many and, according to Korzybski, have much to do with the improper use of language (that is, basically through “identification,” which leads to “mis-evaluation” and “confusion in making abstractions”) and with accompanying or consequent, negative conditions (e.g., “copying animals,” “infantilism,” “un-sanity”).9 The reader might glimpse some of the motifs and themes of the novella in these terms—e.g., the animal imagery associated with Wilhelm, and his “thinking,” as Margaret says, “like a youngster” (112). Also, money as a main “symbol for all human time-binding characteristics” explains why character, action, and setting in the story are focused on time and money, a retirement hotel and its moneyed clientele, the hotel's supporting environs, and the commodities market. Money somehow matters in Wilhelm's relations with most if not all of the other characters in the story, including, as will be shown, the corpse in the coffin.

“Identity,” which powerfully influences Wilhelm's failures at time-binding, and which Korzbyski defines “as ‘absolute sameness'” (194), and which he says is the cause of many of man's semantic and “psychophysiological” problems, is essentially confusing words for the things that they represent. For, “whatever we might say a happening ‘is’ … it is not” (751). “The animal, the primitive, the infant, the ignorant man”—all terms that can be, and perhaps have been, used to describe Wilhelm—“identify the two; [and] live in a delusional world” (755). In other words, Korzybski provides a description of what is hellish about Wilhelm's life. “Identity” resulting in “mis-evaluation” occurs in both minor and major forms throughout Wilhelm's “day.” It lies behind his uncertainty—e.g., his telling his father to “keep [his] money” (55) and then asking his father to pay his hotel bill for the month (74), and his constant flip-flopping in his attitude toward Tamkin. It drives his misperceptions—e.g., his believing that Tamkin is indeed going to Maine for a vacation on the basis of what Mr. Rowland says (104-05), and his believing that he sees Tamkin in front of “the funeral parlor” (115).

Most importantly, it determines what Wilhelm does when, upon returning to the brokerage with Mr. Rappaport, he sees a price for lard on the board, and assumes not only that his investment is just as it was when he and Tamkin went to lunch (Tamkin might have changed it while Wilhelm and Mr. Rappaport went for cigars) but also that the lard figures are correct and that they pertain to him and his investment, and then, unable to find Tamkin, he makes a few calculations and concludes that, “as he had dreaded, he was wiped out” (104). Further, deciding that “it [is] unnecessary to ask the German manager” (104)—that is, it is “unnecessary” to check with the one person present who could tell him the real status of his investment, he then assumes that Tamkin is responsible for what he himself has just assumed to be true, and angrily sets out to find him.10 Korzybski describes such a moment, as follows:

When belief is too strong, although this is never justified according to the best modern knowledge, we very easily fall into identification, delusions, illusions, and the like. It should be emphasized that the last-mentioned pathological states are always compound. They involve at least two components. One of these consists of some ignorance somewhere; the other of strong affective belief in the “truth” of our mistaken notions. The stronger the affective tension is, the more dangerous the semantic disturbance becomes.


Thus Wilhelm triggers the destructively “dangerous … semantic disturbance[s]” of his final conversations with his father and Margaret. His behavior during and after assuming that he has been “wiped out” is his major moment of failure in time-binding on his “day of reckoning.” While it might be argued that he is finally time-binding—“seiz[ing] the day”—in a spiritual manner at the very end of the book, the reader does not really know the true nature or extent of what is going on then. In Korzybski's view, too, to assume that one can and does know, and to explain it all, as critic after critic has done, is an exercise in “identification,” “mis-evaluation,” etc. The deep ideas buried in the story warn against this way of reading it, and in a passage that holds for all writers, Bellow warns against such knowledge: “The fact is that modern writers sin when they suppose that they know [what a “human being is”], as they conceive that physics knows or that history knows” (“Some Notes” 29).

In sum, then, Bellow appears to have borrowed from Korzybski's theories to present a scientific account of man-in-time that stands in contrast to Wilhelm's view of himself in time, that probes deeper than the location of his “day of reckoning” in Gregorian, historical time, and that stands in opposition to the Jewish religious view of him, with its own unique time system, as a child of God with long soul-roots going back in time. Properly viewed, Wilhelm's “day” is multi-dimensional—Gregorian (measured midnight to midnight), Jewish (measured sunset to sunset), scientific (according to Korzybski, the “day” as a unit of measurement needs to be replaced [211]), worldly, religious—and he is spread out ineffectively (“oddly dispersed,” Bellow says) in all of its dimensions. Time, in this sense, is not linear, not a matter of simple “cause and effect,” but of “simultaneity and polarity.”11 Thus, while science's view of man-in-time is foregrounded in the story, in contrast to the Jewish religious story of man-in-time, which is backgrounded, science's (Korzybski's) view of man-in-time is treated ironically in the novella, whereas the sense of Jewish time provides a sympathetic temporal backdrop for Wilhelm's suffering. Wilhelm himself, largely ignoring such things and identifying himself with Gregorian time, unable to conceive of, let alone to experience, Tamkin's “here and now” (89-90), registers time rawly—defenselessly—as a “day of reckoning” or, in Bellow's words, a “last hopeless stand.”

Apparently unaware of the Jewish significance of his “day,” and largely unconscious of his ingrained Jewishness, Wilhelm is still the failed time-binder—presented with Korzybski-flavored irony—at the very end of the book. In the last conversation of the story, which occurs right before the famous, final paragraph, several speakers engage in “identification,” and ironically the object of their attempt to “identify” is Tommy Wilhelm. It should be recalled that this is a “huge funeral” (115), which suggests that the dead man may have been someone important, a successful time-binder, perhaps wealthy and influential—and, in his own way, a modern King David. In passing, that is, the reader is invited to compare and contrast Wilhelm not only to the dead man (the present) but to King David (the past).

In other words, given that the day may be Shavu'ot, the final moment of the story has the quality of a tableau hinting at the classical beginning and the contemporary end (or state) of the nation of Israel in America; metaphorically, it is a funeral—the “dead” (Wilhelm and the speakers) are burying the dead:

He [Wilhelm], alone of all the people in the chapel was sobbing. No one knew who he was [emphasis added].

One woman said, “Is it perhaps the cousin from New Orleans they were expecting?”

“It must be somebody real close to carry on so.”

“Oh my, oh my! To be mourned like that,” said one man and looked at Wilhelm's heavy shaken shoulders, his clutched face and whitened fair hair, with wide, glinting, jealous eyes.

“The man's brother, maybe?”

“Oh, I doubt that very much,” said another bystander. “They're not alike at all. Night and day.”


The use of the word “carry” recalls both Wilhelm's note to his father asking him to “carry me this month” (74), along with his father's refusal to do so (a failure at time-binding for Wilhelm), and the image of one man carrying another man on his back, which is used several times in the book, and which is not only a financial metaphor but an ironic image of time-binding. The “identifications” that Wilhelm “must be somebody real close,” or even “the man's brother, maybe,” also suggest the time-binding theme, and the possibility that Wilhelm may have been involved in the dead man's apparently successful time-binding. The third speaker's desire “to be mourned like that” is an instance of self-centered “infantilism,” and the remark of an unsuccessful time-binder. The final speaker, who, like a good scientist, has apparently looked closely at both the corpse and Wilhelm, expresses doubt about Wilhelm's “identity” in such a way as to deny him any participation in the deceased's success or time-binding. This speaker's response to the preceding speaker can be described as “doubt of doubt,” which, Korzybski says, “becomes scientific criticism and imparts the scientific tendency” (440).

Ironically, it is science that casts Wilhelm out from the imagined participation in the dead man's time-binding; science says that the dead man (King David?) cannot “carry” Wilhelm “on his back.” Moreover, the final speaker's final words put this casting-out in a time-metaphor: Wilhelm is as different from the corpse as “Night and day.” Given all of the things that have been said above about the word and concept “day,” one might wonder where this speaker is coming from. Is his a Gregorian “day,” a Jewish “day,” a scientific “day,” etc.—or is he coincidentally, with unintentional irony, using a figure of speech that has no real meaning—another “mis-evaluation”? Is this Wilhelm of “the milder, vaguer view, as Bellow puts it, finally a victim not only of his own but of others “mis-evaluations”? In any case, foregrounded science has the last word on Wilhelm's “identity,” but lacking a human voice, the backgrounded Jewish temporal-cultural-spiritual perspective is wordless, although possibly present in the water images, which finally become the “sea-like music” (118). The “Star of David” may have been revised out of the story but perhaps the Torah still flows to Wilhelm via the “great star fluid …” (116).

The only direct clue in the book that the day of the story may be Sivan 6 (Shavu'ot) is Margaret's remark about the date. No one, including the narrator, mentions Shavu'ot. But, of course, the Jewish significance of the “day” does not have to be validated by anyone's voicing it. The many parallels to Shavu'ot in the story speak for themselves. And they finally include the parable-like, final image of a suffering man, the age old dilemma of his mode of survival unresolved, weeping over the corpse of a man who apparently solved that problem, somewhere beside the road on which (like taxis) ancient religion is going one way and modern science the other way. Both religion and science could “carry” him, but he is not going anywhere. Nevertheless, something is “pour[ing]” into him, although it is not clear what. Perhaps this is so because the story is finally not about what becomes of Tommy Wilhelm.

What may finally be important might be what Bellow points to in his “Nobel Lecture”: “There is another reality, the genuine one, that we lose sight of,” that “is always sending us hints, which, without art, we can't receive. Proust calls these hints our ‘true impressions.’ The true impressions, our persistent institutions, will, without art, be hidden from us” (321). In relation to this, as one who is “without art,” and is thus suffering, Wilhelm and his “day of reckoning” represent an occasion for the reader to “receive” some “hints” about (not from) that “other reality,” “hints” about how it is present and working in our lives, whether we are aware of it or not. Bellow's intent may not have been to reassure the reader that Wilhelm's Jewish faith is finally restored, or that he acquires a new American one, but more simply that there are excellent reasons in life for having faith.


  1. The treatment of history in Bellow's works is summarized up to 1984 in Newman's “Introduction” and extended in her discussion of five of Bellow's novels. Her remarks on Seize the Day, identifying Wilhelm's “day” as a “day of atonement,” are on p. 11. Goldman is especially helpful on the Jewish, historical perspective in Bellow's works.

  2. The sources used to arrive at these generalizations were Jiler and the New York Times' “Week's Grain Market.” “Future Prices” was used to check some of the Times' figures, especially for the week of May 23-27, 1955, which become important below.

  3. See Simon for a discussion of the Jewish calendar and a correlation of the Jewish and the Gregorian calendars from 1800 to 2000, Gregorian. Because a traditional Jewish day is measured from sunset to sunset, which adds a Jewish twist to the concept “seize the day, Sivan 6 actually spans two Gregorian days, which are measured from midnight to midnight. In 1955, Sivan 6 spanned Friday, May 27, and Saturday, May 28, sunset to sunset. Given the blurring of time in the book, it seems sufficiently accurate to say Sivan 6 is the day of the story, as this appears to be what Margaret does. For the record, in 1956, Sivan 6 fell on a weekday that would not work as the “day” of the story. However, it is not the year of the story that matters, but the day; it has been necessary to determine the year in order to determine the day. Steers says that Bellow was born on June 10, 1915; if this date is correct, he has had several birthdays that coincided with Sivan 6, the last, before the publication of Seize the Day, in 1951. Such a coincidence might have inspired his locating Wilhelm's “day” on Sivan 6.

  4. This “Star of David” is present in the version of Seize the Day published in Partisan Review 23 (1956): 295-319, 376-432, where the sentence in question reads: “The white of the stained glass was like mother-of-pearl, the blue of the Star of David like velvet ribbon” (431). But by the middle nineteen-seventies it had been revised out, so that the edition used in this study says: “The white of the stained glass was like mother-of-pearl, with the blue of a great star fluid, like velvet ribbon” (116).

  5. Isaac Klein's discussion of “the [Jewish] Laws of Mourning” (Chapter XX) helps the reader to see the Jewish significance of Wilhelm's remembering “the year, the month, the day, the very hour of his mother's death” (27): “Jewish tradition added a further ritual to help meet the crisis of bereavement—the recurrent commemoration of the anniversary of a death. Each year, on the anniversary of death, we keep Yahrzeit, a solemn day of remembrance in prayer and meditation. … The Yahrzeit occurs on the anniversary of the death, not of the burial …” (294; emphasis added). Consciously or unconsciously, with or without ritual, Wilhelm keeps Yahrzeit for his mother.

  6. Also, see Simmons.

  7. For instance, see Scrafford.

  8. For my understanding of the Hebrew original for the praise “Torah from Heaven” (see Klein 147-48), I am indebted to Dr. Paul Flesher of the Department of English at the University of Wyoming.

  9. These are Korzybski's terms—evidence of the new, “non-aristotelian” language that he believed he needed in order to write and to practice therapy effectively. See “Chapter I: Aims, Means and Consequences of a Non-aristotelian Revision” and “Chapter II: Terminology and Meanings” (7-37).

  10. The critics have passed by this section of Chapter VI, assuming with Wilhelm that he has been “wiped out” and that Tamkin is a cheat and a crook, and ignoring the implications of Wilhelm's conclusion, “It was unnecessary to ask the German manager” (104), for everything that occurs after it in the story. Moreover, with Tamkin having Wilhelm's power of attorney, it is possible for Tamkin to show up sometime after Wilhelm leaves the funeral chapel with a different and more positive story about their investment than the one Wilhelm has assumed to be true. Bellow's intent clearly was that Wilhelm should go into a tailspin at the end of the book as a result of his own weaknesses and habits.

  11. Miller 84; Newman 185. Also, there is more about time in Science and Sanity with relevance for Seize the Day than there is space to treat here. For example, see Korzybski's “three periods of human development” (194), which subsume man-in-time on a vast scale and shed light on the novella's animal imagery, on Wilhelm's infantile behavior, on the differences between Tamkin and Wilhelm as types of people, on the novella's attention to language, and on all of the characters' constant engagement in evaluation of each other or some thing. Also, further non-temporal materials that relate to Seize the Day are scattered throughout Science and Sanity. Sicherman sees that Bellow treats Korzybski ironically, and recognizes the relevance of his ideas on “copying animals” and “infantilism” to Seize the Day, but she overlooks the many other ways in which Science and Sanity sheds light on the novella, and mistakenly dismisses Korzybski as a “Tamkin-like popularizer” (17-18, 27, n. 11).

Works Cited

Bellow, Saul. “A World Too Much with Us.” Critical Inquiry 2 (1975):1-9.

———. “Facts That Put Fancy to Flight.” New York Times Book Review 11 Feb. 1962:1.

———. Seize the Day. New York: Viking, 1956; rpt. with the author's corrections Penguin, 1975.

———. “Some Notes on Recent American Fiction.” Encounter 21 (1963):22-29.

———. “The Nobel Lecture.” American Scholar 46 (1977):316-25.

———. “Where Do We Go from Here: The Future of Fiction.” Michigan Quarterly Review 1 (1962): 27-33; rpt. in The Theory of the American Novel. Ed. George Perkins. New York: Holt, 1970.

Cohen, Simon. “Calendar.” The Universal Jewish Encyclopedia. Ed. Isaac Landman. II. New York: The Universal Jewish Encyclopedia, 1940. 630-41.

C[ornill], K[arl] H[einrich]. “David.” The Jewish Encyclopedia. Ed. Isidore Singer. IV. [New York]: KTAV Publishing, [1964?]. 457-58.

Crane, Burton. “Institutions Play Key Market Role.” New York Times 1 May 1955, late city ed.: sec. 3, p. 1.

Dale, Edwin L. “Probe Reports ‘Unhealthy’ Stock Market Speculation.” New York Herald Tribune 27 May 1955, late city ed.: 1, 11.

Drury, Allen. “Senators' Report Asks More Curbs on Stock Market.” New York Times 27 May 1955, late city ed.: 1, 9.

Fiala, Fr. John L. Lilacs: The Genus Syringa. Portland, OR: Timber Press, 1988.

“Futures Prices.” Wall Street Journal 23-27 May 1955.

Goldman, L. H. Saul Bellow's Moral Vision: A Critical Study of the Jewish Experience. New York: Irvington, 1983.

———. “Saul Bellow and the Philosophy of Judaism.” Saul Bellow in the 1980s: A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. Gloria L. Cronin and L. H. Goldman. East Lansing: Michigan State UP, 1989. 51-66.

———. “The Jewish Perspective of Saul Bellow.” Saul Bellow: A Mosaic. Ed. L. H. Goldman, Gloria L. Cronin, and Ada Aharoni. New York: Peter Land, 1992. 3-19.

Gray, Rockwell, Harry White, and Gerald Nemanic. “An Interview with Saul Bellow.” Triquarterly 63 (1985):632-50.

Jiler, Harry, ed. Commodity Year Book: 1957. New York: Commodity Research Bureau, 1957. 200-204.

Klein, Isaac. A Guide to Jewish Religious Practice. New York: Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 1979.

Korzybski, Alfred. Science and Sanity: An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics. Lakeville, CT: International Non-Aristotelian Library, 1958.

Miller, Ruth. Saul Bellow: A Biography of the Imagination. New York: St. Martin's, 1991.

Newman, Judie. Saul Bellow and History. London: Macmillan, 1984.

Scrafford, B. L. “Water and Stone: The Confluence of Textual Imagery in Seize the Day.Saul Bellow Journal. 6 (1987): 64-70.

Sicherman, Carol M. “Bellow's Seize the Day: Reverberations and Hollow Sounds.” Studies in the Twentieth Century 15 (1975):1-31.

Simmons, Maggie. “Free to Feel: A Conversation with Saul Bellow on One Writer's Search for Authenticity in His Life and Work.” Quest (Feb-Mar 1979): 34, 36.

Steers, Nina. “‘Successor’ to Faulkner: An Interview with Saul Bellow.” Show 4 (Sept 1964): 36.

“Text of the Senate Banking Committee's Report on Its Stock Market Study.” New York Times 27 May 1955, late city ed.: sec. 1, p. 8.

“Week's Grain Market.” New York Times May-June 1955 and 1956. [Regular Monday report in the Business-Financial Section of the late city edition, varying pages]

Wiesel, Elie. A Jew Today. New York: Vintage, 1978.

Further Reading

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Aharoni, Ada. “Is Saul Bellow's Fiction Radical?” Studies in American Jewish Literature 14 (1995): 72-9.

Considers the radical aspect of Bellow's fiction.

Allen, Brooke. “The Adventures of Saul Bellow.” Hudson Review 54, no. 1 (spring 2001): 77-87.

Provides an overview of Bellow's life and work.

Borklund, Elmer. “How It Adds Up for Saul Bellow.” Sewanee Review 105, no. 3 (summer 1997): 436-39.

Surveys critical reaction to Bellow's oeuvre.

Corner, Martin. “Moving Outwards: Consciousness, Discourse and Attention in Saul Bellow's Fiction.” Studies in the Novel 32, no. 3 (fall 2000): 369-85.

Argues that the main characters of Bellow's fiction journey from the “separateness of individual life to the morally sustaining connectedness of a shared humanity.”

Cronin, Gloria L. A Room of His Own: In Search of the Feminine in the Novels of Saul Bellow. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2001, 193 p.

Full-length study of the feminine presence in Bellow's novels.

Orwin, Clifford. “Philosophy, Eros, Judaism.” Perspectives on Political Science 32, no. 1 (winter 2003): 11-13.

Explicates the role of Judaism in Ravelstein.

Ozick, Cynthia. “Saul Bellow's Broadway.” New Criterion 14, no. 1 (September 1995): 29-36.

Assesses the literary and cultural significance of Bellow's fiction.

———. “Throwing Away the Clef.” New Republic 222, no. 21 (22 May 2000): 27-31.

Provides discussion examining the genre of Ravelstein, rejecting the label of roman à clef to describe the book.

Additional coverage of Bellow's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Thomson Gale: American Writers; American Writers: The Classics, Vol. 2; American Writers Retrospective Supplement, Vol. 2; Authors in the News, Vol. 2; Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction: Biography & Resources, Vol. 1; Bestsellers, Vol. 89:3; Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography, 1941-1968; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8R; Contemporary Authors Bibliographical Series, Vol. 1; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 29, 53, 95, 132; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 6, 8, 10, 13, 15, 25, 33, 34, 63, 79, 190; Contemporary Novelists Ed. 7; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 2, 28, 299; Dictionary of Literary Biography Documentary Series, Vol. 3; Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook, 1982; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors: British Edition; DISCovering Authors: Canadian Edition; DISCovering Authors Modules:Most-studied, Novelists and Popular Fiction and Genre Authors; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century Ed. 3; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Novels for Students, Vols. 4, 14; Reference Guide to American Literature, Ed. 4; Reference Guide to Short Fiction, Ed. 2; Short Stories for Students, Vol. 12; Short Story Criticism, Vol. 14; Twayne's United States Authors; and World Literature Criticism.

Ethan Goffman (essay date winter 1997)

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SOURCE: Goffman, Ethan. “Between Guilt and Affluence: The Jewish Gaze and the Black Thief in Mr. Sammler's Planet.Contemporary Literature 38, no. 4 (winter 1997): 705-25.

[In the following essay, Goffman explores the significance of the black thief in Mr. Sammler's Planet, maintaining that the thief “is a compact, dramatic version of a recurring Euro-American mythologization: blackness as the primitive, the carnal, the return of the repressed.”]

Representations of blackness as dangerous, primitive, and highly sexualized, deeply implanted in European and American society, inescapably infiltrate Jewish American literature. Perhaps the most concentrated such image appears in the form of the black thief in Saul Bellow's Mr. Sammler's Planet (1970), a work lumped by Mariann Russell together with Bernard Malamud's The Tenants and John Updike's Rabbit Redux as reducing blacks to “a convenient metaphor for the disturbing elements in white society and … in the last analysis, not an image of black culture, but a mirror image of the prevailing white culture” (93). Have Jews, themselves so long the objects of dehumanizing stereotypes, assimilated to the point where the Jewish gaze is indistinguishable from dominant American society? In Mr. Sammler's Planet, with its depiction of a black pickpocket and the violence he inflicts upon a Jewish observer, it becomes hard to separate Jewish and dominant cultural anxieties regarding social breakdown, anxieties especially acute at the end of the tumultuous 1960s.

Placing Bellow's novel in an immediate context of social disruption and black anti-Semitism, L. H. Goldman claims that “because this work lacks the detailing of events that led to this disruption in [black and Jewish] relations, the statement that is preserved for posterity is a racist one” (187). Goldman assumes that Bellow's depiction of black primitivism and violence is a reaction to black nationalist rhetoric, especially as directed against the figure of the Jew. Certainly the portrayal of youth rebellion and ethnic struggle in the 1960s in New York City is closely related to contemporaneous social events; yet black nationalism and the breakdown of the black-Jewish alliance are not dealt with in Mr. Sammler's Planet. Rather the black thief is a direct symbol of anxiety about crime, more generally rooted in a larger ideology which renders blackness as the antithesis of civilization. Goldman is right in perceiving the black figure as an allegorical presence symptomatic of social breakdown, but wrong in implying that a Jewish perspective explains the thief's symbolic nature. Rather, the thief is a compact, dramatic version of a recurring Euro-American mythologization: blackness as the primitive, the carnal, the return of the repressed. Any Jewish perspective, at least in the novel's initial thematic development, is eclipsed by that of dominant society.

If, however, Mr. Sammler's Planet symbolically reduces blacks to icons of primitivist energy, its portrayal of Jewish history undermines this mythologized sign of Otherness, revealing the arbitrariness of racialist distinctions.1 By exploring Sammler's personal history as embedded in a larger Jewish history, the novel gradually unveils a counternarrative of terror inflicted upon marginalized peoples culminating in a moment of identification between Jew and black. The story of Artur Sammler's life is schizophrenic, a psychotic, nonsensical record of events featuring wild swings—from cultivated European to Holocaust victim to materially secure American—which eradicate social boundaries along with notions of a stable civilization. Through the course of the novel an alternative emerges to the dehumanizing reductions of the thief, an unfolding sympathy, although only in muted form, since the contradiction between black as frozen symbol and black as historical subject is never resolved. The irrational fluctuations of Jewish history elicit an anguished search for meaning, a submerged guilt never explicitly analyzed by Sammler (despite his incessant social analysis). By the conclusion, a Jewish concern with the outcast, a disgust at the disproportionate violence inflicted upon the thief, leads to a cry for sympathy, for an end to the brutality which dominant ideology once brought to Sammler and now brings (albeit indirectly) to the thief.

The novel's thematic structure is unwieldy, based upon an interplay between civilization and barbarism, opposing concepts between which Artur Sammler is precariously balanced. To Sammler, civilization emanates from the European Enlightenment, while barbarism, symbolized by blackness, is epitomized by the twin events of the Holocaust and the upheaval of the sixties. Yet Nazism, the antithesis of civilization, originated far from Africa on Europe's fertile ground. The Holocaust depended upon mind, bureaucratic planning, control of every detail of its victims' bodies to the point of obliteration. Conversely, sixties radicalism, as depicted in Bellow, emphasizes freedom of the body, a playing out of all physical and sexual impulses, an invasion of the physical, the dark Other, into the substance of the New World.

Although Sammler is a product of a cultural philosophy that rejects Jewish particularism in favor of European civilization, his Holocaust experience obstructs such a position. Europe may just as easily be the source of a new, and terrifyingly efficient, kind of barbarism. Drawing upon Max Horkheimer's and Theodor Adorno's characterization of the Enlightenment's incessant drive toward total mastery, Kurt Dittmar argues, “The Holocaust, the system of the German concentration camps, was based on the ultimate self-sufficiency of purely rational organization (Mind) and at the same time on the ultimate reduction of human existence into mere corporality (Body), thus presenting itself—and this indeed is Bellow's perspective—as the final result, the ultima ratio of the Enlightenment” (79). An arrangement privileging mind over body, driven to organize, classify, dissect, and control is unbalanced, out of harmony with the human state in relation to its environment. Prior to the Holocaust, Sammler supported Enlightenment idealism in a specific form championed by H. G. Wells, as he explains in a speech at Columbia University:

the project was based on the propagation of the sciences of biology, history, and sociology and the effective application of scientific principles to the enlargement of human life; the building of a planned, orderly, and beautiful world society: abolishing national sovereignty, outlawing war … a service society based on a rational scientific attitude toward life.


Sammler can no longer countenance this utopian dream. Hyper-rationalism—organization, bureaucracy, centralized planning—was twice a failure in extreme-opposite versions, the Nazi one of absolute racial hierarchy, and the communist, which gave all power to a small elite which claimed for itself a primary control over history.2 The status of such intermediate solutions as the (pseudo)-socialist bureaucracy which extends over Western Europe is of no concern to Sammler, who dismisses the entire rationalist project as “a kind-hearted, ingenuous, stupid scheme” (41). In rejecting his prewar optimism, Sammler follows the only path possible after his encounter with the Nazis, after surviving the mass grave they dug for him and his kin (137). Wells's manuscript lies buried in this grave, as does Sammler's conception of European civilization.

Europe is the origin point of this failed civilization and of its antithesis, Nazism, the nihilistic endpoint of such schemes. America, too, is defined by a barbaric opposition to civilization, a liberalism taken to nihilistic excess—an extreme represented by the black thief. Yet the parallel implied between Nazism and sixties radicalism is exaggerated, at the very least. Even aside from their enormously different results, the two movements are irreconcilable in basic character. Nazism's starting point is exclusion, clear demarcation followed by escalating marginalization of the Other. Sixties radicalism, while it may have led to an excess of (sometimes violent) rhetoric, defined itself through inclusion, through acceptance, and (at least partial) incorporation of an increasing array of Others, most notably of the black Other.

The assumptions against which sixties radicalism revolted are defined in Sammler's initial cosmology, wherein Europe is the source of the highest ideals of civilization, while Africa represents an opposition against which Europe may be defined. In Henderson the Rain King, published eleven years prior to Mr. Sammler's Planet, Africa acts either as an antidote to civilization—a lesser (orientalist) civilization with its own ancient wisdom—or, as it imitates the West, as a debased version of European civilization. In the earlier novel, women remain at home, a hindering influence simultaneously representing the constraints of civilization and lacking the emotional maturity and wisdom to travel beyond those constraints; in Mr. Sammler's Planet these traits are extended to America's callow, uninformed youth. The primal figure of such primitivist debasement is the black thief.

Bellow's America is a site of struggle between two metaphysical world-views, one represented by Europe, the other by Africa. New York City, the archetypal scene of cultural hybridization defined amid struggle, is “like an Asian, an African town. … You opened a jeweled door into degradation, from hypercivilized Byzantine luxury straight into the state of nature, the barbarous world of color erupting from beneath” (7). Hybridization is portrayed here not as the creation of new artistic forms and aesthetic sensibilities but as a mishmash of misplaced societies, a surface decadence covering primitive emotionalism. Sammler continues to be informed by his European rationalist roots; from his perspective no “real” civilization is possible; in place of European culture one finds a “hypercivilization,” which should be read as “pseudocivilization,” as glittering facade, orientalism hopelessly entangled with African barbarism.3

New York's radical decadence, which privileges body, sensation, physical experience, seems puny after the horrific destruction of the Holocaust. Yet the novel is incessant in its attacks upon the cult of youth, portrayed as hedonistic, narcissistic, ignorant, and—a crystallizing symbol for all of these—sexually wanton. Sammler's Columbia speech draws the ire of a young radical who declaims to the crowd, “Why do you listen to this effete old shit? What has he got to tell you? His balls are dry. He's dead. He can't come” (42). Sixties radicalism is represented as a barbaric carnival, intolerant of those who might question its premises; youth has no wish to hear the arguments of this civilized and justly cynical old man. Freud's reduction of the human experience to sexuality, as popularized by Wilhelm Reich, is taken literally here: one is one's sexuality. Physical pleasure is the common denominator of our hedonistic society, channeled, though Sammler ignores this point, by capitalism to the most basic of pleasures, bought and sold or otherwise exchanged. America's radical youth, despite their radicalism, are products of the very society they criticize; the sexual revolution is a consumerist utopia, the search for ultimate individual fulfillment, one end result of Enlightenment's privileging of the self.

Sammler's critique of sixties radicalism is directed against a youthful culture which partakes of only a latter-day debasement of European philosophy. Psychosexual urges, instant gratification, arrested development—this is the philosophy of the youth movement. Sammler judges this debasement of Western heritage to be the legacy of the sixties counterculture, America's contribution to world culture.4 The youthful characters in Mr. Sammler's Planet are all, to one extent or another, versions of this debased creature in a perpetual state of immaturity. So Sammler's niece Margotte engages in pseudointellectual discussion beyond her understanding; his daughter Shula steals a manuscript on Wells's The Future of the Moon (symbolically stealing the rationalist inheritance); his nephew Wallace floods his house searching for hidden money; Wallace's friend Feffer generates wild aerial photography schemes; Sammler's niece Angela follows a debauched path of sexual experimentation ending in divorce and insists upon divulging every detail to Sammler. This host of straw figures is perfectly happy to dispense blame upon themselves: “I'm a different generation,” says Wallace; “I never had any dignity to start with” (241); “I was a dirty little bitch,” admits Angela (153). There's something conniving even about these confessions, as though by admitting their weaknesses Wallace and Angela have abrogated responsibility and can continue their self-indulgences. They place themselves within an array of little Others, self-caricatures nibbling away at the foundations of Western society as represented by Sammler. Wallace's excuse, his category of Otherness, is youth, “a different generation” which has never experienced the trials of a Sammler. Angela adds to youth the category of femaleness which, throughout Bellow, signifies an irresponsibility, a debased understanding.5 Femininity is that category of Otherness which the masculine protagonist can never escape, an incessant disturbance which he perversely thrives on, defining by contrast his own somber wisdom.

More ominous than female Otherness—indeed the overarching symbol of Otherness from which all others emanate—is blackness, the African darkness transposed to America. Besides its sexual connotations, an extrarational force already awakened by femininity, blackness conveys the threat of violence. Sexuality, of course, endangers one's self-control, drawing the masculine to the feminine, destabilizing the neat categories which order the world. Marriage is the institution which controls sexuality, places it in its proper category and allows the ordered propagation of society. The disruption of categories, the sexual freedom of the sixties, is, in Mr. Sammler's Planet, linked to blackness. Angela's orgiastic behavior, her flouting of propriety, exemplifies “a sexual madness … overwhelming the Western world” (66), a madness exemplified by the dark, primitive peoples with their assumed violations of Western marriage norms. When Shula steals the Wells manuscript,

suddenly she too was like the Negro pickpocket. From the black side, strong currents were sweeping over everyone. Child, black, redskin—the unspoiled Seminole against the horrible Whiteman. Millions of civilized people wanted oceanic, boundless, primitive, neckfree nobility, experienced a strange release of galloping impulses, and acquired the peculiar aim of sexual niggerhood for everyone.


The symbolic meaning of blackness could not be more explicit: the primitive, the rawest physical urges, absolute sexual abandon. The repressed returns not in a brief eruption but in an oceanic gushing, the heart of darkness unleashed in the putative heart of civilization. The passage makes sarcastic use of the “radical” point of view, which considers “the unspoiled Seminole” as the archetype of innocence, of freedom prior to the constraints of civilization, of “the horrible Whiteman.” That vast terrain of the primitive, the ocean of the preconscious, which awaited Henderson's investigation as well as his play, takes on an utterly different character transposed outside its boundaries. The African belongs in Africa: only there can he be a prince. Displaced to America, the African takes on a role which in Bellow seems proper only for the white (male) explorer and so threatens the boundaries of civilization.

Blackness as oppositional to civilization is, of course, a myth, having nothing to do with any biological or cultural characteristics or with African American society in its day-to-day functioning. Black culture, diffused into white society, loses its social and communal meanings and becomes a hollow symbol, an instrument of rebellion. In twentieth-century America, the evolving adaptations of black music by flappers, hipsters, and hippies employ the myth of blackness as transgression. James Baldwin critiques the mystique of black sexuality:

But why should it be necessary to borrow the Depression language of deprived Negroes, which eventually evolved into jive and bop talk, in order to justify such a grim system of delusions? Why malign the sorely menaced sexuality of Negroes in order to justify the white man's own sexual panic?


The equation of blackness with forbidden sexuality, with taboo forays, with a dangerous mixture of sex and violence, is a creation of white society to account for its own suppressed needs. Where blacks provide such services, in an underground economy of prostitution and drug dealing, it is under duress from a system which provides few options. The underground economy is a creation of dominant society, which conceals services it nevertheless demands. Similarly, the various black styles adapted by white society, especially as they move from the fringes to the mainstream, are transformed into a consumer-culture version of rebellion, a product draped upon the body, emanating from the stereos and mouths of the middle class.6 And yet in Mr. Sammler's Planet the archetypal symbol of the blatant hedonism created by this wealth is a black man, the mythic meaning of blackness condensed onto a physical—and by definition dehumanized—object.

As a hypermythologized symbol, the black thief may seem active, dynamic, larger than life, yet spied upon by Sammler he is reduced to an object of spectacle and gossip, the exemplar of primitivism under the scrutinizing gaze. Dominant mythologization renders its object simultaneously larger and smaller than life. Sammler imagines the criminal spying his “civilized face,” a projection marking Sammler as a product of Europe, of Old World customs crammed uncomfortably into a New World setting. Still he observes, fascinated, from the vantage point his height gives him, the pickpocketing—invading notions of personal autonomy and property—on this barbaric New York City bus. He imagines himself imagined as “a tall old white man (passing as blind?)” observing “the minutest details of his crimes. Staring down. As if watching open-heart surgery” (5). Sammler constructs his own gaze as that of the scientist, the physician engaged in the minute details of biology, engrossed in veins and blood and pumping muscle, the diagrammer of scientific rationalism as it grasps the living heart, the center of life. Yet having survived the Holocaust, Sammler, as symbolized by his blindness in one eye, can no longer idealize such a version of civilization, such detached observation. His awareness of the limitations of his own gaze parallels an increasing rationalist distrust of its infallibility. The day of the privileged unidirectional gaze is over; the exemplar of European civilization becomes gradually conscious that the Other is in fact sentient, is bitterly watching his own objectification. The black Other gazes back, analyzes Sammler, and plots a reaction (rather like the freed colonies warily watching their European former masters).

Sammler's perspective on the black thief, the perspective of the narratorial consciousness, is limited to two seemingly opposite stereotypes, the criminal and the African prince—seemingly, because the criminal is merely an aberrant version of the prince due to displacement from his African environment. The black appears to Sammler gorgeously attired, with stately bearing, an Americanized gangster version of the prince:

The dark glasses, the original design by Christian Dior, a powerful throat banded by a tab collar and a cherry silk necktie spouting out. Under the African nose, a cropped mustache. Ever so slightly inclining toward him, Sammler believed he could smell French perfume.


This is an orientalized version of the African, a corruption exhibited with the stately demeanor of civilization through careful grooming, a Europeanized scent, a designer label. From these trappings of “civilization” his African power threatens to burst forth, as repeatedly conveyed through animal imagery, beginning with his first appearance, when he displays “the effrontery of a big animal” (5), a primitive power barely contained, indeed paradoxically enhanced, by his designer suit. Stolen from Africa, the prince is utterly misplaced, reduced to the pettiest of crimes, while still exuding his royal aura. He brings to mind Harlem Renaissance poet Helene Johnson's description of a black dancer, a minstrel figure initially ridiculous whom the poet finally imagines dancing in Africa “black and naked and gleaming. / … Gee, I bet he'd be beautiful then all right” (79). Johnson compares this figure to a bottle of sand from the Sahara desert displayed in the Harlem library: “That's what they done to this shine, ain't it? Bottled him. / Trick shoes, trick coat, trick cane, trick everything— / all glass—.” The black criminal too is a displaced figure alienated from his surroundings, or rather recreated as something new, a discordant bricolage adapted to its new environment yet somehow not adapted.

If Sammler draws one set of conclusions from this figure, his younger, more Americanized relatives draw another, one consistent with the rationalist gaze yet also with the naiveté of a youthful liberalism. Margotte's reaction is one of incessant analysis:

To Margotte it was fascinating. Anything fascinating she was prepared to discuss all day, from every point of view with full German pedantry. Who was this black? What were his origins, his class or racial attitudes, his psychological views, his true emotions, his aesthetic, his political ideas? Was he a revolutionary? Would he be for black guerrilla warfare?


Margotte epitomizes the worst rationalist excess of “German pedantry” mixed with the superficial sophistry of America. To her, the discussion is a game, one in which she ostensibly delves more deeply, and hence sympathetically, into the black's point of view than would a European, but which undercuts any seriousness by its childish disregard for the consequences of her questioning. Like Sammler on the bus, she slices and analyzes this figure, verbally dissects him, reducing him to a specimen upon a table. Her easy mention of guerrilla warfare displays the irreverence of the New Left. Several times removed from any reality of blood and bullets, she is free to explore violence through rhetoric.

Sammler, unlike Margotte, faces the reality of the criminal as their confrontations intensify. The criminal's forceful display of his genitals is effective as a symbolic device of the primitive state, the “sexual niggerhood” overtaking America, though quite absurd as a plausible response to Sammler's intrusiveness. Black male sexuality threatens the edifice of “civilization” signified by the abstract phallus, the ideological construction of a monolithic civilization naturalized as the only rational social order. The phallic order is neuter, mental, removed from any actual sexuality. In opposition to this abstract construct is the myth of blackness whereby, according to Frantz Fanon, “[i]n relation to the Negro, everything takes place on the genital level” (157). The repressed physical returns projected onto the black so that “one is no longer aware of the Negro but only of a penis; the Negro is eclipsed. He is turned into a penis” (Fanon 170). This extreme dehumanization, the reduction of a human being to a part, is literally true in Mr. Sammler's Planet. The black thief, as he moves toward cornering Sammler, is transmuted below the level of the human. In the actual revelation of black-as-penis, animal metaphors abound: the genitals emanate an otherworldly aura, exist as a mysterious organism, huge and alien: “It was displayed to Sammler with great oval testicles, a large tan-and-purple uncircumcised thing—a tube, a snake; metallic hairs bristled at the thick base and the tip curled … suggesting the fleshly mobility of an elephant's trunk” (49). This fantastical description is of nothing real but emanates from the imagination, from a simultaneous fear of and fascination with sexuality (that submerged mystery released in modern America), from a terror of the black Other, of one's own exaggerated, all-consuming sexuality objectified as an alien, uncontrollable thing. Blackness represents also the youthful libido, the sexual revolution, a love fest denied Sammler, earlier repressed by that civilization he so admires, now represented by an organ with which he cannot compete. The snake/organ is the serpent which disturbed the garden of Eden, “that which, in God or Adam, remains beyond or outside the sublimation of the Word” (Kristeva 143). Taboo sexuality is unleashed, a disturbance in the symbolic order, a threat to the hierarchy of power. The organ's uncircumcised state flouts the safe and clean and known, establishing an identity alien both to Jewish tradition and to rationalistic Western medicine, the twin pillars of “civilization.”

Within Bellow's version of the debased ideology of the sixties, the organ goes well beyond its biological functions, threatening the demarcations of the symbolic order. To Sammler it appears as “a prominent and separate object intended to communicate authority. As, within the sex ideology of these days, it well might. It was a symbol of superlegitimacy or sovereignty. It was a mystery” (55). It is Slavoj Zizek's Thing, “das Ding, the impossible-real object of desire. The sublime object is [to Lacan] ‘an object elevated to the level of das Ding’” (194). It is, to Sammler, “the transcending, ultimate, and silencing proof” (55). This transcendence cannot itself be defined or given form. To Zizek, “[w]hat the object is masking, dissimulating, by its massive, fascinating presence, is not some other positivity but its own place, the void, the lack that it is filling in by its presence” (195). The fetishized, religious object stands in for an emptiness, takes on an imagined meaning whose dimensions it cannot possibly conform to. Kafka describes the sage who envisions “some fabulous yonder, something unknown to us, something that he cannot designate more precisely either, and therefore cannot help us here in the very least.” Similarly, the thief's penis is given a symbolic weight it can in no way bear or resemble (of a mystery so undefined that even the idea of resemblance is impossible). Added to this is the historical weight given its black alienness, its representation of a history and meaning marked by a vast divide between the dominant cultural gaze and the actual subjects of that history.

The penis, then, transgresses conventional structures and repressions, subverting the dominant order. If on the bus the thief breaks the invisible contract of property rights which rules daily interaction, what he represents is hugely disproportionate to this minor transgression. Sammler's relatives, in discussing the penis, glamorize its size and power. Through seeking meanings appropriate to their voyeuristic version of rationalist curiosity, they participate vicariously in transgression (though the novel, in its initial description of the organ, has already fetishized and mythologized it far more than do the relatives). Told about the incident, Feffer exclaims, “‘Stupendous! … What the devil was it like?’ He was also laughing. … ‘How big a thing was it? You didn't say. I can imagine’” (121). Any danger inherent in the situation is overlooked; the thief becomes a novelty act. Wallace, too, interrogates Sammler: “Was it sixteen, eighteen inches? … Would you guess it weighed two pounds, three pounds, four?” (185). The penis becomes an object of imaginative speculation, of bizarre exaggeration regarding the nature of the Other. The satiric edge is obvious, pointed not at the thief but at Wallace. The humor derives superficially from the speculative fantasies of youth culture, but this is merely the innocuous-looking tip of an enormous iceberg, the barely hidden substratum of racial fantasies themselves a mask for dominant cultural anxieties. Perhaps that we're now able to satirize these fantasies is a sign that their psychic dominance is subsiding. Still, their continued existence can only mean a continued mythologization of blackness, albeit transformed from threat to escapade. Blackness remains defined by the wishes of dominant culture; African Americans are reduced from a specific group with its own history and culture to mythic icons.

African American society, then, is notable by its absence in Mr. Sammler's Planet, which sets up a myth of blackness lightly deconstructed by humor satirizing white youth. To Sammler, though, blackness remains threatening; the thief's pinning of Sammler is certainly not a comic moment but a crystallized representation of Western civilization's besiegement. Yet the novel's climax undermines the primal power of blackness, creating an instant of cathartic sympathy with the criminal. Blacks remain marginalized, to Sammler a recurrent object of mystery, yet finally realized as always susceptible to the repression authorized by dominant society. The youth upon which the novel heaps such scorn appear right to trivialize the thief's power; the real power remains in the service of the privileged.

By 1970 the Jewish image had shifted to the point where a Jew could be represented as brutally enforcing the dominant order, a dramatic change when one remembers that Mr. Sammler's Planet was written a mere twenty-five years after the Holocaust. No longer the abject victim, the Jew takes on a new role in the person of Eisen, policing a social order which has long oppressed Jews. Eisen, whose name means “iron” (he is given no first name), and who forges artworks out of bronze metals commemorating Israel's 1967 victory, is described by Sander Gilman as one who “like Israel, has strengthened himself, has become a ‘muscle Jew'” (373). The Israeli warrior is both a reaction to centuries of oppression and humiliation and a return to the narrative of the biblical Hebrews who fled from slavery and, through military valor, claimed the Promised Land. The Jew is no longer a sickly, stunted bookworm but a prime physical specimen triumphantly reclaiming Israel not only as soldier but as farmer draining swamps, making the desert bloom.7

The surprisingly critical attitude apparent in Mr. Sammler's Planet toward the muscle Jew is bound up with the protagonist's Holocaust experience. As an exemplar of European civilization, Sammler had his Jewish awareness forced upon him by the rise of the Nazis. The meaning of his lineage is determined entirely by external forces. His birth heritage is that of a highly assimilated Jew eagerly adopting the attitudes of a version of rationalism which believes in dialogue rather than violence. The tradition of talk rather than action, of refusing violence when possible, is also integral to European Jewry, to the shtetl culture. In escaping the Holocaust, becoming a partisan warrior, Sammler has forced upon him a new identity removed from all he's believed in. He renounces every attempt at compassion or understanding. When a German prisoner pleads, “Don't kill me. Take the things. … I have children” (139), Sammler shoots unhesitatingly. The detailed portrayal of the prisoner—the description of his physical characteristics, of his fear—creates sympathy, humanizes this component of the Nazi war machine (a humanization of which the Germans deprived their Jewish victims). The situation justifies Sammler's killing yet also brings him closer to the level of the oppressor, not just in his actions but emotionally. War may preclude mercy, yet Sammler moves far beyond killing through necessity. Reconstructing the act, he remembers he learned “[t]o kill the man and to kill him without pity, for he was dispensed from pity” (141). Such an amoral nihilism echoes the Nazis in puny microcosm, derives from the regularized efficiency of their slaughter. Beyond this the act is one of revenge, beyond revenge of barbaric pleasure described by Sammler as “joy” (140), for “he himself knew how it felt to take a life. Found it could be an ecstasy” (141). This is the ecstasy of complete domination over another, the climax of the will to power, control taken to one possible extreme.

Sammler's transformation from peaceful intellectual to blood-thirsty killer is compelled by an extreme situation which demands complete remaking of self. Marked for extermination, first by the Nazis, then by the advancing Russian forces, Sammler becomes “[o]ne of the doomed who had lasted it all out” (140). He joins Bigger Thomas in a state of existential deprivation from which the only salvation is murder: “And now the idea that one could recover, or establish, one's identity by killing, becoming equal thus to any, equal to the greatest. A man among men knows how to murder. A patrician” (145). Bigger Thomas murders from a state of absolute deprivation, both material and intellectual. That Sammler, the epitome of privilege and education, could be reduced to such a condition forces a recasting of definitions. “Civilization” becomes a problematic term; its constructed nature is unveiled, as differences between Jew and black and black and white dissolve. We are what society makes us, following a script written externally. Civilization is not an innate quality; once acquired it is not always retainable. We are creatures of circumstance. In his astonishing plunge from the civilized elite planning a utopian future for humanity to the outcast Other considered fit only for extermination, Sammler exemplifies vulnerability to external definition.

If Europe is the site of Sammler's plunge to a condition of absolute nihilism and America the site of a hybrid corruption of misplaced cultures, Israel, the remaining great hope for world Jewry, fares little better. Discussing Bellow's depiction of Israeli military power, Andrew Furman remarks, “Ultimately, Bellow uses Sammler's sensitive perspective toward Eisen's violence and the violence of the Six-Day War to illustrate the very real moral costs of Israeli might” (53). Sammler's later reflections over his own acts of violence, as in his ironic comment that one establishes “one's identity by killing,” are in concert with his reaction to Israeli violence, leaving little room for faith in the redemption of the international Jewish reputation through military triumph. Visiting the Sinai battlefield in 1967, Sammler reflects sardonically, “It was a real war. Everyone respected killing” (251). The ideal of the noble warrior-Jew is derided by the Arab corpses Sammler witnesses: “The clothes of the dead, greenish-brown sweaters, tunics, shirts were strained by the swelling, the gases, the fluids. Swollen gigantic arms, legs, roasted in the sun. The dogs ate human roast” (250). The only comparable carnage in Mr. Sammler's Planet occurs at the Nazi mass gravesite, replicated in miniature through Sammler's act of killing. Violence begets violence; the Holocaust begets, but also justifies, Sammler's killing; the persecution of the Jews and their continuing danger excuses Israel's wars. The focus on the Sinai carnage should not be interpreted as a simple condemnation of Israel, for its urgent situation is dramatized. Sammler, though described as “No Zionist,” hurries to Israel when “for the second time in twenty-five years the same people were threatened by extermination” (142). Self-preservation is the final determinant of Jewish action.8

Israel is a scene of Jewish angst, of wrenchingly contradictory attitudes regarding that country's critical role in Jewish survival and the fierce new image it provides for a people long characterized as nonviolent. Eisen, like Sammler a crippled Holocaust survivor, finds his identity among the muscle Jews. If Sammler's blinded eye forces an increase in the perceptiveness of his remaining good eye, and an awareness of its limitations, Eisen's crippled leg is a straight-forward symbol of stunted emotions, of the inert helplessness inflicted upon the Jewish people. Sammler considers that “Eisen certainly deserved to be cared for, and that was one of the uses of Israel, to gather in these cripples” (155). In fleeing to Israel, Eisen establishes the manhood denied him by history through reclaiming a singular, mythic image, a warrior redemption. His journey to America is motivated by a similarly simplistic goal: material success (155). He strives to become the postwar international Jew, using his newfound mobility to build identity through whatever means is most convenient. Sammler, by contrast, flees to America to reestablish his intellectual moorings in a new context; though demoralized and besieged from all sides, he attempts to reshape some moral ideal. In New York City, Eisen and Sammler, their life stories so parallel, their characters so different, meet under the sign of the black Other. Although the thief is portrayed as powerful and dynamic, as everything the ghetto Jew is not, he in fact occupies the position to which the Jew was relegated in Europe: ghettoized, immobile, an object of dominant society's projections.

Now characterized by mobility, both geographic and intellectual, Sammler and Eisen have taken on the freedom of the international post-Enlightenment elite. Emotionally this freedom takes a quantum leap in the hands of Sammler's youthful relatives; devoid of notions of history or responsibility, for them the Other has lost its taboo status. Their thrill-seeking, voyeuristic attitude propels a confrontation with the thief. Feffer, through his photography, focuses the scientific eye on the thief not out of rationalist inquisitiveness but for his own material benefit and self-aggrandizement, the final extension of the privileging of self characteristic of the Enlightenment, intensified and externalized in capitalist, consumer-oriented America. The thief becomes a commodity to be framed, packaged, and sold to Look, the magazine for the curious eyes of the masses. The naive Feffer ignores the lesson of his own contemporary history, of civil rights marches and black nationalism, that African Americans will not act endlessly as passive objects. The black figure as active subject fully emerges in the thief's assault on Feffer.

Yet black power proves something of a charade. Despite their presence in the American psyche, despite the civil rights movement and Black Power, African Americans remain largely segregated, disadvantaged, at the mercy of dominant cultural whims. Finally the Other, whose mysterious strength seems to increase until the novel's climax, is revealed as helpless before the forces which created it. Society controls and channels both actual black communities and the commodity of blackness. At the scene of the assault, the state, though well equipped to prevent and punish violence, doesn't need to intervene. Eisen, once an object of the ultimate state terror, now himself undertakes the job of legitimized violence, of containing the Other. Sammler, by contrast, feels helpless: “extremely foreign—voice, accent, syntax, manner, face, mind, everything, foreign” (287). Psychologically he returns to the outsiderhood which the Nazis had imposed upon him, sharing with the black the status of victim. This is the alienation of the Diaspora Jew whose conscience contests the muscle Jew. When he realizes the coming brutality, Sammler urges, “Don't hit him, Eisen. I never said that. I tell you no!” (291). More than the helpless Diaspora Jew, Sammler chooses—from a position offering real choice—against violence. As the pickpocket lies bleeding on the asphalt, Eisen replies to Sammler's objections: “You can't hit a man like this just once. When you hit him you must really hit him. Otherwise he'll kill you. You know. We both fought in the war” (291). The warrior Jew, the Jew remade as violent enforcer, is compelled to savagery. Sammler, who assumed the warrior mentality when fighting the Nazis, proves unwilling to do so as an agent of dominant society. If in the Holocaust Jews are devoid of choice regarding their dehumanization—able to choose only passive death or, in a few cases, brutal violence—Eisen and Sammler are now able to make a broader moral choice. By actively opposing Eisen, Sammler renounces his wartime self, the partisan of the Polish forest who joyfully slaughtered a German soldier. He has chosen the inheritance of the Diaspora Jew, nonviolence when possible.

In the America of Mr. Sammler's Planet, Jews no longer occupy the position of outsider; it is African Americans who are the marginalized, victimized presence. As Feffer and the thief, Jew and black, battle for power, the outsiders watching and debating are largely Jewish. Jews are now the privileged, observing the spectacle of the Dark Other, deciding his fate. Jewish thoughts, emotions, motivations are the focus here. The primitive black figure begets violence by the Israeli Eisen, the warrior Jew. Only in defeat is the black humanized, displayed for the watching crowd as an object of sympathy as he “bled thickly on the asphalt” (291). A flicker of the common past emerges in the figure of the Other surrounded and bleeding, the Other who was once the Jew. Yet the thief remains passive, described only briefly, an object for the moral judgment of Jews.

Eisen's speech—“When you hit him you must really hit him”—reveals the dilemma of Israel, of national conflict driven by desperation, resulting in cycles of brutality. The Jewish situation relative to African Americans provides an oblique commentary on that of Israel. On the one hand, guilt generated by the Arab-Israeli conflict becomes a mechanism of humanization which applies toward the black thief. On the other hand, the thief remains exteriorized, a mechanism, an object for reflecting Jewish concerns. The absence of African American society in Mr. Sammler's Planet leaves the thief an empty sign of blackness, a symbol that can only preserve conventional stereotypes. Though humanized through his final vulnerability, he is, throughout the novel, an emblem of exotic excitement, of primeval fear, and finally of Jewish guilt. Jewish history, the mechanism driving Sammler to nonviolence and pity, provides only a brief, problematic connection to the thief. The meaning of Jewish suffering and marginalization as it relates to moral choice, to American identity, remains unresolved. The American Jewish community, poised between a history of ghettoization and a comfortable assimilation, a hitherto almost unimaginable living out of the American dream, faces diminishing reason to care about another ghettoized people. Although the Jewish past continues to shape Jewish perceptions and reactions, almost imperceptibly history fades and so too, perhaps, does the meaning of the term “Jewish American.”


  1. Since modern anti-Semitism is primarily a racialist doctrine, this essay treats stereotypes of, and discrimination against, Jews as ideologically akin to such treatment of blacks.

  2. See The Dean's December for Bellow's depiction of communist bureaucracy.

  3. See Edward W. Said's Orientalism, particularly his discussion of a mythological “classical Oriental grandeur” (79) which may surpass Europe in style but never in cultural and moral value.

  4. This critique prefigures that of Allan Bloom, Bellow's University of Chicago colleague, who describes the end product of centuries of rationalist thought as an atomistic, atavistic individual saturated by sexuality and rock music, “A pubescent child whose body throbs with orgasmic rhythms; whose feelings are made articulate in hymns to the joys of organism or the killing of parents; whose ambition is to win fame and wealth in imitating the drag-queen who makes the music. In short, life is made into a nonstop, commercially prepackaged masturbational fantasy” (75).

  5. Bellow has often been attacked for shallow, misogynist portrayals of women. Ada Aharoni, while admitting that, as perceived through the consciousness of the always male protagonists, Bellow's women “do not have the same depth of emotional, moral, and intellectual complexity as the heroes,” argues that as they have evolved, the novels have “given us a vast and rich gallery of convincing and vivid women of all kinds” (95). In a similar defense of Bellow, Gloria Cronin upholds his portrayals of women as ironically deconstructive: “in spite of Bellow the author, the text has its own agenda as it deliberately examines the Western intellectual traditions of misogyny that have so clearly marked Sammler and Bellow both” (100).

  6. Such rebellion is often of style more than substance, chosen from a luxury of options (except when the Vietnam War provided a discernible threat to the children of the middle class). So Alice Walker declared, in 1967, “there are so few Negro hippies because middle-class Negroes, although well fed, are not careless. They are required by the treacherous world they live in to be clearly aware of whoever or whatever might be trying to do them in” (255). How different from the host of privileged youth who surround Sammler, flaunting their sexuality, engaging in wild schemes, oblivious to their protected status.

  7. The antithesis of the warrior Jew is the figure of the Fool, a representative of the Diaspora, the ghetto Jew. The Fool's meekness and patience are celebrated, though often with a measure of parody, in such figures as Isaac Bashevis Singer's “Gimpel the Fool.” The satire becomes bitter in Isaac Loeb Peretz's “Bontsha the Silent.” Rather than being a moral triumph, Bontsha's silence is portrayed as a lack of character.

    The utter futility of Jewish silence became evident in the Holocaust, when millions of Jews went to their deaths afraid to protest. Jean Amery, an Italian Jew interned at Auschwitz, refused to submit nonviolently to Nazi beatings and developed a philosophy of “returning the blow,” of retaliating in any form possible. He reflects upon punching the prisoner foreman: “My human dignity lay in this punch to his jaw—and that it was in the end I, the physically much weaker man, who succumbed and was woefully thrashed, meant nothing to me” (90-91). By contrast, Israel operates from a far more powerful position.

  8. Bellow's nonfiction work To Jerusalem and Back (1976) pleads for “the survival of the decent society created in Israel within a few decades” (25) but is riven by guilt at the treatment of Arabs. The Egyptian dead described in Mr. Sammler's Planet reappear, in virtually the same language, in Bellow's experience as a battlefield correspondent, when he sees corpses that “swelled, ballooned, then burst their uniform seams. They trickled away; eyes liquefied, ran from the sockets; and the skull quickly came through the face” (Jerusalem 59). Such a grotesque image makes martial glorification difficult, to say the least. Bellow agonizes over Israel's militarism but stringently maintains his final justification for Israel—the need to assure that the Holocaust not repeat itself, for Jews “amongst the peoples of the earth, had not established a natural right to exist unquestioned in the lands of their birth” (26). Furman further discusses connections between Mr. Sammler's Planet and To Jerusalem and Back.

Works Cited

Aharoni, Ada. “Women in Saul Bellow's Novels.” Saul Bellow in the 1980s: A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. Gloria L. Cronin and L. H. Goldman. East Lansing: Michigan State UP, 1989. 95-111.

Amery, Jean. At the Mind's Limits: Contemplations by a Survivor on Auschwitz and Its Realities. Trans. Sidney Rosenfeld and Stella P. Rosenfeld. 1980. New York: Schocken, 1986.

Baldwin, James. “The Black Boy Looks at the White Boy.” Nobody Knows My Name. New York: Vintage, 1961. 216-41.

Bellow, Saul. The Dean's December. New York: Harper, 1982.

———. Henderson the Rain King. 1959. New York: Penguin, 1976.

———. Mr. Sammler's Planet. New York: Viking, 1970.

———. To Jerusalem and Back: A Personal Account. New York: Viking, 1976.

Bloom, Allan. The Closing of the American Mind. New York: Simon, 1987.

Cronin, Gloria L. “Searching the Narrative Gap: Authorial Self-Irony and the Problematic Discussion of Western Misogyny in Mr. Sammler's Planet.Saul Bellow: A Mosaic. Ed. L. H. Goldman et al. Twentieth-Century American Jewish Writers ser. 3. New York: Lang, 1992. 97-122.

Dittmar, Kurt. “The End of Enlightenment: Bellow's Universal View of the Holocaust in Mr. Sammler's Planet.Saul Bellow at Seventy-Five: A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. Gerhard Bach. Studies and Texts in English 9. Tubingen, Ger.: Gunter Narr Verlag, 1991. 63-80.

Fanon, Frantz. Black Skin, White Masks. Trans. Charles Lam Markmann. New York: Grove, 1967. Trans. of Peau Noire, Masques Blancs. Paris: Seuil, 1952.

Furman, Andrew. “Saul Bellow's Middle East Problem.” Saul Bellow Journal 14.1 (1996): 40-67.

Gilman, Sander L. Jewish Self-Hatred: Anti-Semitism and the Hidden Language of the Jews. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins UP, 1986.

Goldman, L. H. Saul Bellow's Moral Vision: A Critical Study of the Jewish Experience. New York: Irvington, 1983.

Johnson, Helene. “Bottled.” 1927. Black Sister: Poetry by Black American Women, 1746-1980. Ed. Erlene Stetson. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1981. 78-79.

Kafka, Franz. “On Parables.” Trans. Willa and Edwin Muir. The Complete Stories. Ed. Nahum N. Glatzer. New York: Schocken, 1971. 457.

Kristeva, Julia. “About Chinese Women.” Trans. Seán Hand. The Kristeva Reader. Ed. Toril Moi. New York: Columbia UP, 1986. 138-59.

Peretz, Isaac Loeb. “Bontsha the Silent.” Trans. Hilde Abel. Great Jewish Short Stories. Ed. Saul Bellow. New York: Dell, 1963. 128-37.

Russell, Mariann. “White Man's Black Man: Three Views.” CLA Journal 17 (1973): 93-100.

Said, Edward W. Orientalism. 1978. New York: Vintage, 1979.

Singer, Isaac Bashevis. “Gimpel the Fool.” Trans. Saul Bellow. The Collected Stories. 1982. New York: Noonday, 1996. 3-14.

Walker, Alice. “The Civil Rights Movement: What Good Was It?” 1967. Eight Modern Essayists. 5th ed. Ed. William Smart. New York: St. Martins, 1990. 249-56.

Zizek, Slavoj. The Sublime Object of Ideology. London: Verso, 1989.

James W. Tuttleton (review date June 1997)

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SOURCE: Tuttleton, James W. “An Expert Noticer.” New Criterion 15, no. 10 (June 1997): 80-2.

[In the following review, Tuttleton traces Bellow's literary development and contends that The Actual “is about a great many things that are not as simple as they at first seem.”]

Saul Bellow's most recent publication, The Actual, brings his literary production—in a publishing career now spanning more than half a century—to some eighteen volumes of prose fiction, criticism, travel writing, and reminiscence. In his longevity, at least, he has rivaled William Dean Howells, and it may turn out that Bellow will have done best, for our time, what Howells did well for nineteenth-century America—that is, to have provided a reasonably realistic and representative portrait of the moral and social tendencies of his time. Hippolyte Taine called Howells “a precious painter and a sovereign witness,” and a like tribute may be voiced in respect to Bellow. In any case, both men in old age earned the “distinction” of being called “the Dean of American Letters.” In Bellow's case, its literal relevance may lie in his having poured himself, so fully, into The Dean's December (1982).

Bellow most likely will be remembered for his comic, freewheeling novels: Adventures of Augie March (1953)—which won the National Book Award; Henderson the Rain King (1959); Herzog (1964)—another NBA winner; Mr. Sammler's Planet (1970)—ditto; and Humboldt's Gift, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1975. Still, in certain moods, I confess to a partiality for Bellow in a minor key. He launched his literary career, more than fifty years ago, with that genre sanctified by Henry James as the “blest nouvelle.Dangling Man (1944) dealt with the Kafkaesque situation of a young man awaiting induction into the army in World War II. It established Bellow, in the generation of the Forties, as a master of the foreshortened glimpse and so prepared the way for the splendid brevities of Seize the Day (1956), A Theft (1989), The Bellarosa Connection (1989), and now The Actual.

Thanks to the big books of the Fifties, Bellow's readership vastly expanded. His reputation, like that of Bernard Malamud, peaked in the late 1960s, with the huge postwar American hunger to understand contemporary Jewish life and experience. Although his characters almost always moved in and out of a Chicago underworld culture of petty thievery, small-time graft, and civic corruption, they were usually winsome seekers for the good life, street-smart, wise-cracking comedians spouting, in mixed-up and mangled fashion, Plato, Virgil, Dostoyevsky, or Sholem Aleichem. Out of an odd mix of great philosophers, historians, and artists, Bellow created an appealing affirmation of modern life. His was a secular humanism based on the accumulated wisdom of Jewish experience, providing an alternative to the commonly felt postwar pessimism and despair.

In due course, Bellow fell out of favor with certain New York critics, who resented his failure throughout the Sixties to parrot the familiar leftist pieties still de rigueur in those years if one wanted to be taken as a serious novelist. Mr. Sammler's Planet and The Dean's December were especially grating to the Left because they showed the collapse of the “Great Society”—the Liberal Dream of presidents Kennedy and Johnson—into a crime-ridden, drug-infested, race-torn society run by venal manipulators and the charlatans of identity politics. The Dean's December was doubly vexing in that it showed Eastern Europe, the workers' paradise, to be the rotten shell of a once-vibrant culture. Bellow's clarifying vision of Sixties America expressed in fictional form something like the Neoconservative critique of bankrupt liberalism then arising in the West. The gathering power of those fictional achievements, together with the depth of his social observation, won him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1976.

During the 1980s, Bellow seemed largely to bask in the glow of his laureate status. Him with His Foot in His Mouth and Other Stories (1984), like his earlier Mosby's Memoirs (1968), was a provocative short miscellany, but it was mostly notable for an emergent elegiac tone that suggested an older writer beginning to throw his backward glance o'er travel'd roads. Elegiac memory deepened into the theme itself in The Bellarosa Connection, where the narrator—the founder of the Mnemosyne Institute of Philadelphia—undertakes to memorialize the rescue of some Italian Jews from the Nazis, thanks to the intervention and misunderstood “connections” of Billy Rose, the show-biz impresario.

By the 1990s, as Bellow approached and then passed the octogenarian landmark, this tone of elegiac retrospection became even more acute. It All Adds Up: From the Dim Past to an Uncertain Future (1994), a nonfiction collection, returned Bellow to the Montreal of his birth and to the Chicago of his youth. Reminiscing about his search for aesthetic bliss, Bellow rose to a spirited defense of art, contesting, among other things, the viewpoint of those Marxist intellectuals and left-wing reviewers who, years before, had faulted him for not being radical and who hung on to Stalinism, indeed even after the Hitler-Stalin non-aggression pact had shown the moral bankruptcy of the Communist Left.

But The Actual is even mellower in its tender retrospections than its recent predecessors. Despite its brevity, it is about a great many things that are not as simple as they at first seem. One of these is the narrator, Harry Trellman, a retired Jewish-American businessman who has lived a life of emotional self-concealment. A man who never wished to be known, Harry has lived in exile from others, in fact even from himself. The fact of his spiritual camouflage Bellow symbolizes in Trellman's impassive, even Oriental-looking face and his pronounced “Chinese lip.” Trellman, in any case, is drawn into the orbit of a retired billionaire businessman, Sigmund Adletsky, who has spotted Harry's most impressive personal gift—the capacity for identifying the hidden motive beneath people's idiosyncratic social behavior. Adletsky recruits Harry for a kind of informal “brain trust.” He wants, as occasional advisers, men such as Harry who are first-class “noticers.”

Not much happens in the course of The Actual. Trellman ruminates at length on the people who move in his social circle. He spends a lot of time thinking of his first love, Amy Wustrin. She is a decorator whose philandering husband, Jay, after years of neglect, bugged her bed, caught her in flagrante delicto with some lover, and then sued her for adultery. After his death, Jay was wrongly buried in her father's cemetery plot and must now be exhumed and re-buried elsewhere. Trellman has known both Jay and Amy since childhood and envied Jay his marriage to Amy, although he never told her of his love. Even so, Harry has been having imaginary conversations with Amy since they were fifteen. She is the central fact of his emotional life, although she evidently does not know it.

The rich Adletsky and his wife, “Dame Siggy,” decide to purchase a lakefront apartment, and are obliged to dicker with the Bodo Heisingers, who want to sell the fake antique furniture with it. Adletsky hires Amy to advise them. He also picks Harry's brain about the Heisingers. This couple is mainly notable because Madge Heisinger had tried to ice her husband. The plot failed when her hit man, Tommy Bales, dropped the gun. She and the hit man went to jail for four years, but Bodo, after divorcing her, forgave her and remarried her when she got out of the slammer. Heisinger is a recurrent Bellovian type: “one of those men who dote on impossible women.” Even so, Harry ruminates:

These were all commonplace persons. I would never have let them think so, but it's time to admit that I looked down on them. They were lacking in higher motives. They were run-of-the-mill products of our mass democracy with no distinctive contribution to make to the history of the species, satisfied to pile up money or seduce women, to copulate, thrive in the sack as the degenerate children of Eros, male but not manly, and living, the men and women alike, on threadbare ideas, without beauty, without virtue, without the slightest independence of spirit—privileged in the way of money and goods, the beneficiaries of man's conquest of nature as the Enlightenment foresaw it and of the high-tech achievements that have transformed the material world.

Commonplace they are, but Harry notices, them, watches them, studies them. He is looking for “signs of a higher capacity.” Although he finds precious little to encourage him, he expresses the burden of Bellow's advancing age as he prepares himself “to make my peace with my species.” Perhaps he is more like Bodo than he realizes—“thinking of the time remaining, a decade or so: ‘the final years,’ as biographers refer to them—a period of ‘mature’ acceptance, reconciliation, openhandedness, general amnesty.” But Harry's fear of death is also displaced onto troubling images of his friend Jay Wustrin being exhumed: the decomposing body laid out in a suit, the tie, the knotted shoelaces.

There is, of course, one person that Trellman cares for—Jay's ex-wife Amy. The billionaire Adletsky, a good noticer himself, intuits this and sends Harry off to attend her during the exhumation process. In the end, Harry's evasiveness dissolves. In fact, sitting in the limousine, he makes a better-late-than-never marriage proposal—even as the noisy backhoe is digging the new grave for Jay. What makes Amy so important is that she is “actual.” She is “the actual.” Other women exist—but only to remind Harry of her. There is only one Amy.

This view of Amy produces some rather interesting philosophical seeds that Bellow is content to drop without cultivating. Evidently he intends to suggest that whatever may be the appeal of the merely subjective Amy (with whom Harry has talked things over for forty years); whatever may be the attraction of the imaginative Amy (with whom he continually conversed during their long respective marriages); or whatever may be the appeal of the platonic idea of Amy, Bellow's protagonist finally embraces the actual woman.

Is there a connection here with his art? In my reading, Bellow himself has always embraced the actual, always married his art to the actualities of the here and now. For this expert noticer of the hidden motive, the actual has always yielded just enough evidence of a higher capacity in people, just enough evidence of even a spiritual grandeur in humanity, to accommodate a “mature acceptance” of the species. The result is a fictional celebration of the world as created, despite its human imperfections, an act of life even at the edge of the grave.

James Wood (review date 16 June 1997)

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SOURCE: Wood, James. “Essences Rising.” New Republic 216, no. 24 (16 June 1997): 41-5.

[In the following favorable review, Wood calls The Actual a slight book, but maintains that it possesses “its own nervous perfection.”]

This novella is a ricochet from a talent that has already hit many targets: it has an interrupted energy. The Actual is slight, without the obvious weight of Bellow's major work. Yet it has its own nervous perfection. Like all his work, it is about our wrestle for the essential amid the piles of our emotional slack. Like several of his stories, it has at its buried center a portrait of a sharp, canny, limited old man, accustomed to power—the type of old commander whose abrasions and self-satisfactions enrage and delight Bellow. The Actual tells us that love is what matters; in this, too, the novella hangs from the branches of Bellow's more complicated work, offering in miniature the fruit of his deepest concerns.

The old man is Sigmund Adletsky, a very rich Chicago businessman, now in his 90s. He has dinner one evening with Harry Trellman, the narrator of the story, and summons him to his corporate palace. Harry is as vigilant as any of Bellow's narrators—a cognitive scout, riddled with sense-impressions. He cannot help noticing everything, and prides himself on this. At Adletsky's office, for instance, he reports on changed business fashions: “You no longer face an executive across his desk. You sit with him on a divan. Beside you is a coffee table with a demitasse, a dish of sugar cubes.” He sees that Adletsky is like Napoleon on St. Helena, exiled and bored. “Now old age was Adletsky's exile.” Harry is worldly, careful and clever. Adletsky, in his boredom, asks Harry to act as a kind of intellectual informer for him—to provide the old man with advice, entertainment, cultural scraps. Harry will be a kind of brain trust for Adletsky. Harry agrees.

Harry Trellman is middle-aged. He has been abroad for a while, in the Far East, and has now returned to Chicago. His sadness is his lifelong unrequited love for Amy Wustrin. She is “the actual” of the book's title—Harry's actual. He has loved her since high school, has watched her marry his old school friend Jay Wustrin—a large, confident, sexually accomplished, elephant-skinned lawyer—and watched her get divorced from him. When the book opens, Wustrin has recently died, and Harry, after decades of passionate expiration, sees his chance. “Half a century of feeling is invested in her, of fantasy, speculation, and absorption; of imaginary conversation,” he admits to us. Unexpectedly it is Adletsky, whom Harry assumed to be uninterested in such things, who brings them together.

Though The Actual has a rationed power, it has plenty of sentences on which Bellow has breathed. True, Chicago is taken for granted here, as it is not in the big novels. Lake Michigan, the streets, the scathing weather—all are quieted in this book. We are not in the Melvillean world of Humboldt's Gift, which nudged Lake Michigan into queued adjectives: “the limp silk fresh lilac drowning water.” Still, Chicago may be quiet, but Bellow's people are not. Even in a mere 100 pages, his observations of physical detail have all the familiar comedy and the emphatic oddity. Amy Wustrin, in particular, sheds enticements. Bellow has often described women superbly. Renata, for instance, in Humboldt's Gift: “Her throat was ever so slightly ringed or rippled by some enriching feminine deposit”—a description that alters one's vision of a woman's neck, and which wittily rewards the body with its own mysterious metaphysical agency (“feminine deposit”). Bellow, via Harry, dotes on Amy. Harry can tell us “how she raises her profile to the spray” when she is in the shower, how, “when she shrugged, the soft breasts in her sweater added weight to her shrug,” and how her imperfections arouse:

The imperfect application of her lipstick was another point of identity. That was the whole power of it—the beauty of this flesh-and-blood mortality. Just as mortal was the shape of her bottom when she walked, a mature woman swinging a schoolbag. She didn't walk like a student. There was also the faulty management of her pumps. They dropped on the minor beat. This syncopation was the most telling of all. It bound the other traits together. What you were aware of was the ungainly sexiness of her movements and her posture. The years between, with their crises and wars and presidential campaigns, all the transformations of the present age, have had no power to change her looks, the size of her eyes, or the brevity of her teeth. There's the power of Eros for you.

And once again Bellow sees old age. There is Adletsky, tiny but firm; and his wife, “small and light—something like a satin-wrapped pupa.” Bellow sees the way in which very old and elegant ladies, when sitting, seem to become detached from their legs, which suddenly appear to be too stilt-like to support a body. All this, in one flicked aside about Mrs. Adletsky: “Her bird legs, aslant, were laid together or set aside until they should be called upon to move,” “Set aside”—the beauty of the observation lies in those two words. Mrs. Adletsky recalls Rappaport in Seize the Day, the ancient investor whom Tommy Wilhelm helps across the road, holding his “big but light elbow … the large hollow elbow.”

There is a way in which Bellow's interest in physical markings turns all of his characters, of whatever age, into old people. His love of the Dickensian grotesque ages everyone. For the old wear their stretched essences on their bodies: their moral camouflage is faulty, their deformities fixed. Their bodies speak to us, as in Herzog: “the strong marks of decay: the big legs of women and blotted eyes of men, sunken mouths and inky nostrils.” Likewise the rest of Bellow's people. Humboldt is not old, but he seems so: “he was gray stout sick dusty.” Victor Wulpy, in “What Kind of Day Did You Have?” is aging but not old; yet his body is physically disheveled, “he wore his pants negligently.”

Bellow reads bodies with Victorian judgment, as phrenologists would read skulls, dividing them into zones of power and motive. His characters are seniors in moral struggle, and their bodies are enormous, helpless gestures toward this. In The Actual, Harry tells us that, although he is Jewish, he has a vaguely Asiatic face, sometimes Chinese-looking, sometimes Japanese-looking. He has the finalized features of an old man—“a pair of fat black eyes, a wide mouth with sizable lip.” His Asiatic face is part of his equipment as a careful noticer, the inscrutable Oriental vigilance that gives nothing back: “I seemed to … drown my emotions in my face, Chinese-style.” Yet Harry's face expresses its function, for its Asiatic appearance marks it precisely as—in the Western myth—the face of one who sees carefully, through narrowed eyes. (Victor Wulpy, an art critic who misses nothing, has “narrow visual canals.”) Harry's face is his destiny.

The comedy of Bellow's physical descriptions is that, although he insists on our free agency as intelligences and souls, he insists also on the imprisonment of our bodies. Physically, we are all victims, helpless account-keepers. This is why his comic protagonists are so often large, bearish, panting, fat-chested, clumsy men with delicate sensitivities—such as Tommy Wilhelm, Humboldt, Wulpy, Benn Crader in More Die of Heartbreak (who is “built like a Russian church—bulb-domed”) and Harry Trellman in The Actual, who tells us that “I myself was both larger and heavier than my parents, though internally more fragile, perhaps.”

That Bellow's characters wear their moral age so visibly, as a tree stump is ringed in years, tells us something about his metaphysics. In his fictional world—and The Actual offers a fine example—people do not stream with motives. They are embodied souls. There is very little activity in Bellow's world, even ordinary activity; indeed, a sign of his lovely strangeness is that it is almost impossible to find in his writing a sentence such as “He put down his drink and left the room.” This is because Bellow's people do not have personalities but souls—souls that vibrate dynamically inside the body, throwing out signals and markers on the skin.

Though they want to live in the present, the world of ordinary activity, Bellow's people generally live in memory or in anticipation. Everything important has already happened to them, and they must lug around the sunken Atlantis of their pasts. Or they are in cognitive hiding, waiting for the completion of the here-and-now. Tommy Wilhelm's tragedy is precisely that he cannot “seize the day,” cannot grasp the present. He is caught in a crevice of becoming. Suspended between his memory of past slights and the fear of future failures, he is trapped between his destiny and his will. In a smaller way, Harry Trellman is similarly arrested. He cannot join ordinary life because he is in waiting. He has spent his life waiting for Amy: “It was a lengthy intelligence job for me, cracking one cipher after another. Held up here for a week, there for a decade, I always knew where she was located and what she was up to, more or less.” His uncanny powers of vigilance, honed on Amy, are a kind of evasion of life as much as an involvement.

These expressive humans act like Bellow's prose, logging impressions with broken speed. If their bodies can be read by us, their minds are in turn constantly reading the world, even if the messages received are aborted or confused: “Pausing on the metal doors of the sidewalk elevator, Moses [Herzog] received the raised pattern of the steel door through his thin shoes; like Braille. But he did not interpret a message.” The world presses on Bellow's characters like Braille for those who do not need it. Reality is both a code and a distraction, and the task is to sort out the necessary from the superfluous. Old Adletsky would seem to have sorted things out; but, of course, he has really been engaged in superfluities, in money-making rather than soul-making. “He is very old now and small—light enough to fly away into the everlasting. His sons and grandsons, however, still report to him. His judgment in business matters, old style, is as sound as ever.”

“Old style”: Bellow's fiction is full of stern fathers and father figures. The relationship between father and son is one of the analogues, for Bellow, of intellectual inheritance. Here The Actual suggests a mellowing. Herzog remembers his father like this: “At three in the afternoon, half dressed, he came out for his tea, silent, his face filled with stern anger.” In Seize the Day, Tommy Wilhelm suffers the burden of his cruel, withholding father, Dr. Adler, who refuses to help his son financially, despite his riches. Tommy feels that “the fathers were no fathers and the sons no sons.” Bellow suggests that contemporary intellectual confusions are partly a matter of perverted inheritance.

The difficulties we have had, in the modern age, are difficulties of intellectual patrimony. We are like spoiled children, saturated in wealth we do not know how to spend wisely. Herzog, writing his letters to the dead philosophers, stands before old ideas like a son before his father, hoping for a sign. He is childlike: “Dear Doktor Professor Heidegger, I should like to know what you mean by the expression ‘the fall into the quotidian.’ When did it happen?” “Dear Herr Nietzsche”; “Dear Mr. Kierkegaard”—these are silent parents. The connections have broken. Tamkin, the psychologist, tells Tommy: “From Euclid to Newton there was straight lines. The modern age analyses the wavers.” The satisfactions that these parents offer do not quench the soul: “‘When a dog is drowning, you offer him a cup of water,’ Papa used to say, bitterly,” recalls Herzog. Nine years earlier, in Seize the Day, Bellow used a cup of water to signal a breakdown in communication and inheritance:

Every other man spoke a language entirely his own, which he had figured out by private thinking; he had his own ideas and peculiar ways. If you wanted to talk about a glass of water, you had to start back with God creating the heavens and earth; the apple; Abraham; Moses and Jesus; Rome; the Middle Ages; gunpowder; the Revolution; back to Newton; up to Einstein; then war and Lenin and Hitler. After reviewing this and getting it all straight again you could proceed to talk about a glass of water. “I'm fainting, please get me a little water.” You were lucky even then to make yourself understood. … You had to translate and translate, explain and explain, back and forth, and it was the punishment of hell itself not to understand or to be understood, not to know the crazy from the sane, the wise from the fools, the young from the old or the sick from the well. The fathers were no fathers and the sons no sons.

This is a great swipe at the maddening Bourse of modern life, everyone speaking an inessential language, or different data, to everyone else. Perhaps Bellow had in mind Emerson's passage in “Self-Reliance,” in which he uses the image of a cup of water to complain that our individuality has been surrendered to collectivity, that “now we are a mob.” Emerson laments that “man does not stand in awe of man, nor is his genius admonished to stay at home, to put itself in communication with the internal ocean, but it goes abroad to beg a cup of water of the urns of other men. We must go alone.” Emerson and Bellow seem to say opposites: Emerson, that we have not enough privacy and cannot breathe; Bellow, that we have too much privacy and cannot breathe. Yet they are saying the same, which is that we do not have the right soul-privacy, the essential grounding that would enable us to communicate with ourselves and with each other. Remember, warns Emerson in the same essay, that “the whole world seems to be in conspiracy to importune you with emphatic trifles.” We must separate what is necessary from what is trivial. This is one of the great themes of Bellow's writing; in this regard, he is our Emerson.

The Actual sets up a father-son relationship between Adletsky and Harry. But for once, communication is not arrested. At first Adletsky seems to resemble old Dr. Adler in Seize the Day. He is tough, shrewd, unimaginative. He describes an acquaintance like this: “He's got a condom over his heart. There's nothing human about bank officers.” And Adletsky seems to have a condom over his own heart, blind to Harry's sadness. Harry decides that Adletsky and his kind (including Amy's late husband) were “commonplace people … They were lacking in higher motives.” And there follows a marvelous Bellovian tumble of accusations, the prose collapsing the ceiling and the basement, to manage an august raciness: “They were run-of-the-mill products of our mass democracy, with no distinctive contribution to make to the history of the species, satisfied to pile up money or seduce women, to copulate, thrive in the sack as the degenerate children of Eros, male but not manly, and living, the men and women alike, on threadbare ideas, without beauty, without virtue, without the slightest independence of spirit. …”

But Harry is wrong in one respect. Adletsky has employed Amy as his interior design consultant. Somehow, without exactly asking either Amy or Harry, he has divined that Harry's reason for remaining in Chicago is his obsession with Amy. His heart may be sheathed, but he sees that Harry's is not. Harry jokes that “at ninety-two, Adletsky was pioneering in compassion, a new field for him.” But this crabby pioneer arranges for Harry and Amy to share one of his limousines, alone. It is here that Harry unburdens himself to Amy, confesses that there is nothing stronger than first love. Bellow finds a new sweetness and simplicity, as he has Harry describe this love:

I had fallen in love with her when I was an adolescent schoolboy. This tremendous feeling came, as they say, “we know not whence.” Everything—but everything!—was as before … this love, straight and simple, an involuntary music, was an embarrassment to a little crook like me … this love, direct, from nature, came over me.

Harry, who was put in an orphanage when he was a little boy, and who mentions his father only once in the book, has discovered that Adletsky has acted like a father should, that the old patriarch has not been entirely without “higher motives.” And Bellow tells us something that his work has never been too complicated to disdain, that (as Woody puts it in the story “A Silver Dish”) “the goal, the project, the purpose was … that this world should eventually be a love world, that it should eventually recover and be entirely a world of love.”

This calm nudity of statement—“love, direct, from nature”—might put us in mind of the unwounded nineteenth century. This is Bellow's patrimony, of course. He has written that when we read “the best nineteenth and twentieth century novelists, we soon realise that they are trying in a variety of ways to establish a definition of human nature.” In most contemporary literature, however, “this power to understand the greatest human qualities appears to be dispersed, transformed, or altogether buried.” He is like the great Russians in his determination to deliver his characters from the inessential.

And Bellow's characters speak nakedly; he is unafraid to allow them the flourish of the explicit. For it is precisely because we cannot say exactly what is essential, or exactly what God is like, or exactly what the actual is, that we can be explicit about our daring vagueness. It is at this moment that the best Bellovian comedy begins. We are delivered from the comedy of the inessential to the comedy of the essential; our metaphysical cloudiness, and in particular our fierce, clumsy attempts to make these clouds yield rain, is full of hilarious pathos. Fifty years ago, Bellow had the hero of his first novel, Dangling Man, wonder aloud: “But I must know what I myself am.” Almost half a century later, Zetland, in “Zetland: By A Character Witness,” asks himself: “What were we here for, of all strange beings and creatures the strangest?” Well, Bellow's work tells us, we are here to seek what we are here for. That is our actual.

Alfred Kazin (review date 26 June 1997)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3134

SOURCE: Kazin, Alfred. “Struggles of a Prophet.” New York Review of Books (26 June 1997): 17-18.

[In the following positive review, Kazin delineates the central thematic concerns in The Actual.]

Saul Bellow will be eighty-two this summer. Not long ago, he told Playboy, he had been near death after partaking in the Caribbean of a fish that turned out to be toxic. But here he is [in The Actual], sharp as ever when he writes about low doings in Chicago and then adds his now customary outrage at the piggishness and mediocrity of American democracy.

Forty-four years ago Bellow's breezy young character Augie March noted, “I quit thinking long ago that all old people came to rest from the things they were out for in their younger years.” Augie was right. In the Bellow world the protagonist is never at rest, and never seems much older than Bellow was in 1944, in Dangling Man, when he began the struggle to establish his own world of thought. This has always been the struggle to reach a higher plane of existence, and it has kept him contending with and curtly opposing people he considers necessarily inferior. These he has bitterly to seek out in order to observe the smallest details of their being, thus enabling him to stand “free” and be true to himself.

The Chicago Jews in his new novella The Actual are now far better off and more highly polished than they were in The Adventures of Augie March,The Dean's December,More Die of Heartbreak, and other extensions of what becomes a personal epic whenever Bellow writes about Chicago. Though their names (with the exception of the most interesting character in the book, the billionaire Sigmund Adletsky) are now racially indistinct—Harry Trellman, Amy and Jay Wustrin, Bodo Heisinger—few are less crude and few display more “soul” than they used to, “Soul” is an odd quality in Bellow's catalog of Chicagoans: not many characters have it. Few can survive his harsh skepticism about human nature. The Actual wearily begins, “The usual repertories of stratagems, deceits, personality rackets, ringing the changes on criminal cunning, are hardly worth examining. … That a slip of the tongue will lead you back to the mischievous id needs no more proving.”

The picturesque and vaguely endearing Sigmund Adletsky, ninety-two, shrunken but ever watchful, has made his pile by dominating a large part of Chicago. On the side he builds super-resorts for the very rich so that they can relax on exclusive Latin American beaches. Only to his tiny, frail, equally aged wife (he calls her “Dame Siggy”) is Adletsky benevolent. Foreign governments and native corporations have learned not to tangle with him. In all departments of life, except with Dame Siggy, he is watchfulness itself. This is a quality Bellow has long considered essential when dealing with the heartlessness of Chicago. It is one he loves to work up in his fiction.

Adletsky steals the show in The Actual. He owns a stretch limo that variously reminds the narrator, Harry Trellman, of a grand piano and an ocean liner, Harry says in awe: “One thing I learned in my contacts with the old man: Wealth so profound can have no adequate human equivalent. He is very old now and small—light enough to fly away into the everlasting. His sons and grandsons, however, still report to him.” Such wealth has raised him high over the aggressively successful shysters in The Dean's December and More Die of Heartbreak, who tried to be “reality instructors” to the once too-sensitive Bellow protagonist.

Harry Trellman has returned to Chicago from mysterious financial shenanigans in Burma and Guatemala. “I never care to specify my trade,” he says. His “unfinished emotional business” is that he has been madly in love since high school with Amy Wustrin, now an interior decorator and a divorcée. Harry's dream love of forty years has survived the fact that her second husband, a careless, inveterately adulterous lawyer, managed to tape Amy's one extramarital experience (she screamed at the culminating moment). That is how Jay managed to divorce her and escape paying alimony.

Adletsky meets Harry at a party given by a fashionable Wasp hostess, where neither Jew feels at ease. Adletsky is soon impressed by Harry's ability to see through their mannered hostess and her rambunctious exhusband. “I kept an eye on you as you watched that scene. I haven't had much time for social life or psychology items. But now I'm out of planning, acquisitions—I'm out of business action. I go around with my wife on her circuit. Anyway, I thought I'd like to become acquainted with somebody like you—a first-class noticer, obviously.”

Adletsky, imitating Franklin D. Roosevelt “in one respect,” promptly hires Harry to be his personal “brain trust.” Harry is a natural disciple, too smoothly accommodating to be easily believed in. And I don't, I know more about Jay Gatsby's business—deliberately vague as that was—than I ever will about Harry's. Maybe Bellow doesn't think the details are necessary; they would be too nasty and distracting. This is not a book in which top-heavy American wealth gets much scrutiny. And Harry's longing for Amy Wustrin is the weakest, least convincing element in a story set against Bellow's customary background—rough doings in Chicago.

Harry is not much of a character, but he is the narrator because he possesses sharper powers of observation than anyone else. To notice so exactly is the heart that keeps a Bellow narrative pulsing. When he first returns to Chicago he stumbles on Amy without recognizing her, and she promptly calls him a dirty name.

“Hey, go easy, Amy,” I said. “In all the time we've known each other, I've never run into you downtown. And under the el tracks when the weather is overcast, everything turns gray.”

Because she was as gray-faced as a maid-of-all-work—an overworked mother. She had run out to do a quick errand, returning a pair of shoes her older daughter had changed her mind about. The thick, dried urban gumbo of dark Lake Street made everything look bad. Yes, she was unidentifiable below the black girders.

He remembers the first time he called on her:

She had a style of her own with hats—they were set back from her forehead. There are foreheads that can't tolerate the pressure of a hatband.

The house was not the usual brick. It was Indiana limestone. The porch was one thick slab of it. When Amy came out on the graystone porch, I inhaled her personal odor. Part of it was Coty's face powder. I ask myself whether Coty is still using the fragrance it used in the fifties. When we embraced and kissed in the park, the odor of the damp fur was much stronger than the powder.

After impressing Adletsky at the party Harry boasts, “I had brought out the observer in him.” Adletsky says chummily: “It's not so much a skill, is it, Mr. Trellman. It's a way of life.” Harry: “If you have it, it's because you've always had it.”

To be a super-sharp observer in this untrustworthy world is, more than anything else, proof of the inescapable gift that marks those of the Bellow characters who seem to speak for Bellow himself. In his little masterpiece Seize the Day, significantly placed in New York (a town seen as too large and unwieldy to have a strong protagonist), the miserably inferior Tommy Wilhelm is beset by forces on Broadway that he helplessly feels are part of his descent and collapse. These he cannot name any more than he can control and direct them. Not one of Bellow's sharp observers, he is lost. The Victim, impersonally told, is the extraordinary fable of a Jew-hater's moral domination of a Jew, Asa Leventhal, who is also not an observer capable of contending in the battle of life. Leventhal cannot easily free himself of the kind of “guilt” to which Jews are susceptible, a weakness that enabled Nazis to capture Jews inwardly before they murdered them. At the close of The Victim Asa Leventhal's tormenter, Allbee, admits, “I'm the type that comes to terms with whoever runs things.” As the man rushes off, Asa betrays the moral bewilderment that keeps him a “victim.” He pleads—“Wait a minute, what's your idea of who runs things?”

To be the observing type for Bellow is to be on top, to show yourself strong. Tommy Wilhelm and Asa Leventhal are victims because they are not as smart as most of Bellow's personal surrogates—Joseph in Dangling Man Augie March, Moses Herzog, the husband in The Dean's December, Kenneth Trachtenberg in More Die of Heartbreak. Of course they are talking from Chicago, a town that enthralls its poets, novelists, and University of Chicago pioneer sociologists because its crassness and dynamism force them to react. Already in 1895 the gentlemanly novelist Henry Blake Fuller, pointing to Chicago as the symbolic city of the brazen Nineties, said the town “labors under one disadvantage: it is the only great city to which all its citizens have come for the one common, avowed object of making money. There you have its genesis, its growth, its end and object.”

Chicago as a rough beast is a familiar complaint—or boast. Nelson Algren said writing about Chicago “was like making love to a woman with a broken nose.” In More Die of Heartbreak we read of a character whose “face was charged with male strength in all the forms admired in Chicago.” In The Dean's December, Corde says to his sister Elfrida:

Black or white or ocher or green, there weren't many people in Chicago who bothered their minds with anything like justice. Puzzling, how few, You didn't even realize this until you met a person who did have it on his mind as a primary interest, and then it dawned on you how rare such a primary interest was.

The great exception to all this (and Bellow's most direct representative) is old Artur Sammler. Sammler lost an eye to the Nazis who were shooting Polish Jews into a pit, and he saved himself by crawling over corpses. In London he came to know H. G. Wells, and he is ending his days in New York living on the kindness of relatives while trying to write a book on Wells. He is remarkable, one of Bellow's great characters, because he has large, considered views on everything that has gone rotten in the dying century. He condemns the degrading mass age with a tight-lipped contempt in which one cannot miss Bellow's distinctive passion, his absolute horror at what modernism has come to—the nihilism he equates with the sexual revolution and the mediocrity of average opinion. Sammler is affronted by Hannah Arendt's having used the words “the banality of evil” in connection with the Holocaust.

The idea of making the century's great crime look dull is not banal. … The Germans had an idea of genius. … What better way to get the curse out of murder than to make it look ordinary, boring, or trite? … Intellectuals do not understand. They get their notions about matters like this from literature. … Do you think the Nazis didn't know what murder was? That is very old human knowledge. The best and purest human beings, from the beginning of time, have understood that life is sacred. … Banality is the adopted disguise of a very powerful will to abolish conscience. …

This rings true. When Sammler condemns the nihilism that he sees behind the sexual revolution, he can be taken seriously because he makes connections between what he observes and his accumulated insights. This is a favorite theme for Bellow that is unconvincingly replayed in The Actual.

Amy thought that Bodo somewhat resembled Jay, her ex, her late husband. Both felt that nihilism was sexy and seemed to believe such that there was no real eroticism that didn't defy the taboos. Neither Jay nor old Heisinger was sharply intelligent. Very sexy men frequently were stupid, and shared stupidity is an important force when it is presented in the language of independence or emancipation.

Nothing in the story suggests Amy is capable of such judgments. This is Bellow speaking. In Sodome et Gomorrhe Proust wrote that even socially favored Jews, as they get older, tend to turn prophet. It has been clear for some time that Bellow, for all his remarkable career and great gifts as a storyteller, has reached the prophet stage. It seems to be the task of many former radical Jews in America today to sigh over the mediocrity of our national arrangements. Bellow as an interim disciple of Trotsky was not even much of a radical, since the Trotsky so much admired for his personal culture and blazing oratory was, in his ideals, just another bloody-minded utopian who theorized himself into a corner. What you never get from Trotsky is an account of a concrete social malady about which you can do something. Naturally his ex-followers still despise “liberalism.”

There are brilliant visual effects in The Actual, but not much of a plot. Bellow is not a novelist of society, not even when he describes corrupt, desperately ambitious nouveau riche Chicago on the lakefront. He is a novelist obsessed with personal freedom—his obsession is to demonstrate how entangled, tortured relationships between man and woman, husband and wife, end in the husband's trying to rise to his fundamental relationship—with himself. The women are ancillary; we usually hear a lot about their deep-seated odors and they are portrayed so impatiently that Amy in The Actual, supposedly much beloved by Harry, reads to me like a wistful attempt to redress the usual imbalance. In any event, Harry is “prepared by now to make my peace with my species. For most of them, I am aware in hindsight, I generally had a knife within reach.”

There is even a happy ending—Harry proposes to Amy. This is the “actual,” the end of the road, when the long love dream slides into reality. Just a flourish. We're not enough convinced of Amy's attraction for him, or her reality, to be interested in whether she accepts. What a contrast with the murderously attractive superbitch Madge Heisinger, wife of Bodo Heisinger, owner of the magnificent lake-view apartment Adletsky is mildly interested in buying. When Bellow has need of a plot to get his intensely personal characterizations moving, the story he tells can be fanciful and melodramatic. Here there are plot touches—there is no overriding social idea. The prophet worries about kinkiness, but has no criticism of the criminality that makes huge wealth “profound.” Bodo, who is rich but hardly as rich as Adletsky, has made a killing on “repulsive, menacing space alien dolls.” Kids get hurt, but who cares? His wife listen to this hired a man to kill her husband, but Bodo knocked the pistol out of the man's hand. Madge went to prison along with the hired killer, but Bodo forgave Madge, got her out of prison, remarried her.

Adletsky and Dame Siggy bring along Amy the interior decorator to appraise the furniture when they visit to consider buying the Heisingers' apartment. Madge Heisinger insists on the Adletskys buying the furniture. Amy is not much impressed with it. When tea is served Madge deliberately pours Amy's tea right into her lap. Why? So that Amy will have to retire to the bathroom. There Madge intrudes and explains why she is so desperate to get the Adletskys to buy the furniture at her price. She wants money for the man she hired to kill her husband, not because she cares for the man but because she still feels guilty for having hired him in the first place.

Except for Amy's getting near-burned by the tea in her lap, Madge's scheme is without follow-up or meaning. What does make you read on, as always, is Bellow's commitment to make the most of what there is to describe. People—this is a favorite thought of his—are not so much character as nature. Character is socially formed, something presentable to the world (perhaps even to oneself). Nature—the low, bottom, excruciatingly physical truth—shows itself, above all, in faces. Bellow even quotes some Russian lines to this effect: “The face of man is the most amazing thing in the life of the world. Another world shines through it. It is the entrance of personality into the world process, with its uniqueness, its unrepeatability. Through the face we apprehend, not the bodily life of a man, but the life of his soul.”

Maybe Bellow made this up—he relishes Russian-sounding reflections on the spirituel—but he certainly likes to show his overriding interest in the face and everything it shows of force or weakness. In The Actual:

And, now, in came Madge. Amy remembered having met her once or twice. … She was slender, not too hippy. Prison must have kept her in condition. She had a good bust, an oval face, a well-shaped head. She was very fair, a golden babe whose hair was pinned tightly, almost to the point of strain, and braided at the back. Amy had seen her silk suit in an Escada window—five thousand bucks on her back, plus matching sapphires on the fingers and hanging from her ears. The few golden hairs that broke loose from control seemed independently strong. In the wilderness … you could make a trout fly of such hairs and attach it to a bent pin. In jail for forty months, she had probably worn dungarees or smocks. But now there wasn't a shadow of prison anywhere. Merely a change of scene and costume. She was very handsome. … It was only the woman's nose that was wrong—too full at the tip to be entirely feminine.

Madge doesn't lead us to anything very interesting, but the detail offers the kind of independent texture that makes Bellow's intensely visual approach so dramatic and rich in irony. Near the end of the story there is a brilliantly observed bit when Amy and Harry, in Adletsky's gigantic stretch limo, roll into a cemetery to watch as her ex-husband Jay Wustrin is transferred to another plot from the grave between Amy's parents that he had bought in order to provoke her when he died. We are, I take it, supposed to see this as a Chicago-style joke.

But the Chicago soil is so sandy that “the graves go into the ancient lake bottom, twenty or thirty thousand years old.” Only Bellow would have added about Wustrin's former grave “A considerable amount of soil had come out—dark-brown earth mixed with human qualities.” And that, as Bob Dole the candidate used to say when he got to the end too soon, is “what it's all about.”

Philip Hensher (review date 9 August 1997)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1131

SOURCE: Hensher, Philip. “Riches in a Little Room.” Spectator (9 August 1997): 28-9.

[In the following review, Hensher deems The Actual a brief and amusing novella.]

A curious sort of volume, this; readable from end to end in not much more than half an hour, a novella [The Actual] which is probably a half or a third as long as some of Chekhov's short stories, it nevertheless contains levels of feeling and implication which seem to belong to a much longer and more spacious book. Its leisurely manner, its casual way with its characters and themes suggest a novel with plenty of time to waste, and the brevity of the book comes as an abrupt surprise. It is, perhaps, slightly reminiscent of another short book, written late in its author's career, about the super-rich, Graham Greene's Doctor Fischer of Geneva; but where that was a neat, black fable, this is a real novel in miniature, with loose ends and richly detailed characters. It is exactly like Bellow's long novels, with their unclassical proportions and appealing lumpiness, but all in 20,000 words. It would be hard to know what to add to The Actual, and, after having read it twice, harder to know what to take away.

Naturally, it's all, as Baldrick would say, a cunning plan; to build up your characters and your plot through careful irrelevancies and casual memories, to let a trivial conversation drift on with every appearance of aimlessness are ways in which the ingenious novelist can convincingly reconstruct the world around him. The labyrinthine manner of The Actual conforms to the real world, we are persuaded, because it conforms so little to the demanding structures of art; and when, on reaching the end, we look back and find it has formed a perfectly satisfying and symmetrical whole, we are surprised, since, in reading it, it has seemed only to be the casually shaped anecdote of a professional hanger-on.

Harry Trellman, an importer of Chinese artefacts, comes unpredictably to the notice of Sigmund Adletsky. To Adletsky, Trellman is ‘a first-class noticer’; a man who not only knows and recalls which college obscure athletes went to, the date individual banks were established, but someone who notices and remembers the curious hidden dynamics in social groups. A useful sort of man. To Trellman, Sigmund Adletsky is more or less what he is to the rest of the world, an ancient trillionaire, ‘a name instantly recognised everywhere’. He and his wife, Dame Siggy—‘something like a satin-wrapped pupa'—are fabulously exotic, through wealth and their extreme old age; she ‘would judge a woman's behaviour by standards from the days of Franz Josef and still more or less observed by nonagenarians’.

Adletsky is in the process of buying an apartment from a monstrous pair, the Heisingers; he is a manufacturer of hideously vulgar toys, she—just about forgiven—has recently served a prison term for trying to have her husband killed. The negotiations, which are long and protracted due to the Heisingers' insistence that the Adletsky buy their furniture at an inflated rate, are attended by the Adletskys' interior designer, on whom the Heisingers hope to place pressure.

Amy Wustrin, the interior designer, has her own history in all this; her second husband, Jay, a not very successful lawyer, divorced her in shameful circumstances. Briefly, he fancied himself as a ‘swinger', persuaded her to have sex with other men—including the narrator, Harry Trellman—and then divorced her on the grounds of her adultery. Trellman's feelings for Amy, however, are rather more substantial than anyone quite suspects, or than he can admit to without embarrassment: ‘Love object would be the commonest convenient term to indicate what Amy became to me. She has been the only love of his life, and now, in encroaching old age, he is almost reconciled to nothing. He has always been someone whose motto is ‘I'm not going to let them lay all kinds of feelings on me’; now, there is only one feeling, if that, left to him.

This intricate pattern, made up of three couples—the Adletskys, the Heisingers, and Amy and Harry—sets off an extremely strange action, made up of two bizarre set-piece episodes. In the first, Madge Heisinger spills hot tea over Amy in the course of the endless negotiations, and traps her in the bathroom with an extraordinary business proposition. In the second, Amy's awful dead husband, Jay, is exhumed from the cemetery plot where he is buried next to his mother-in-law and reburied in solitude, while Amy and Harry watch, bringing their long-suspended relationship to some sort of resolution.

The odd thing is that this resolution is only brought about with the intervention of other people. Amy and Harry are united by the planning of Adletsky, whose immense wealth and benevolent interest in the two of them gives him the fairy-godmother role. But his conscious benevolence is neatly balanced by the idiocy of the dead Wustrin, who only bought the plot where he is buried for his father-in-law, and was buried there himself by mistake, simply because his children found the deed to it. And yet Wustrin plays the key part in bringing them together, and his motives, which throughout are absurd in their transparency, become quite irrelevant. What he wanted to achieve, what he achieved; two different things. As Trellman observes at the beginning, ‘It's easy enough to see what people think they're doing.’

So what? the reader may say. An ordinary story, set among people made extraordinary only by money. As Harry says of the others:

They were run-of-the-mill products of our mass democracy, with no distinctive contribution to make to the history of the species, satisfied to pile up money or seduce women, to copulate, thrive in the sack as the degenerate children of Eros, male but not manly, and living, the men and women alike, on thread-bare ideas, without beauty, without virtue, without the slightest independence of spirit.

But for once the disgust is misplaced. I think the embittered paragraph about the run-of-the-mill products strikes a slightly wrong note, making us think that the generosity we find everywhere else in the book is not Harry talking, but Bellow. It's true that most of the people in the story are fairly difficult to like; even Harry, who is so chilly he refuses, as a child, to let himself enjoy The Count of Monte Cristo, or Jay, who has parties for all the women he has ever seduced. But, oddly, the generosity of the style, the unstoppable interest in the history of all the characters make up for their unpleasantness. We are not always convinced that Harry would be capable of writing this relaxed, amused book, of serious, ancient charm, but, by now, it shouldn't surprise us to find that Bellow is.

Karl Miller (review date 22 August 1997)

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SOURCE: Miller, Karl. “Jay Wustrin's Remains.” Times Literary Supplement (22 August 1997): 23.

[In the following review, Miller discusses the characters in The Actual as typical Bellovian characters and views Bellow as a lyrical and romantic author.]

A very astute, very old Jewish trillionaire is counselled here [in The Actual] by an astute Jew, no longer young, no longer poor, who has resumed relations with a first, never forgotten love. For Harry Trellman, a businessman, an importer, Amy Wustrin is “the actual”. “Other women were apparitions” for this narrator. “She, and only she, was no apparition.” This is the centre of things in Saul Bellow's latest work of fiction. Not that there are all that many things for it to be the centre of. It is a short book—no different in kind from one of his long stories—and an oblique one. Are we to suppose, romantically, that only the first love matters? But its scenes from Chicago life are all of them worth hearing about.

Amy and Harry dated at high school, then drifted apart. She married Harry's friend Jay, a lawyer and pretender, one of those hustlers, gangsters and confidence men who stand close to the narrator or hero of Bellow's tales of mystery and imagination. He is a seducer of women, the sad emblem of an age of emancipation, according to the narrator, whose views on the subject are in line with those of Mr Sammler in the Bellow book of thirty years ago, a verdict on the space-travelling carnival 1960s; courteous, old-world Mr Sammler is given to reflections on the rise of the individual in the modern world, and on “the peculiar aim of sexual niggerhood for everyone”, which has come about in his own time. Jay, who had chosen to be buried next to his hostile mother-in-law, is now due to be reinterred, in order to make room for his senile father-in-law. The story moves towards the transfer of the corpse, which is witnessed by Harry and his date from within the cocoon of the trillionaire Adletsky's limo. The scene suggests that Amy will live up to her promising first name.

Burials and reinterments are a thing of Saul Bellow's. In one of his stories, a woman wants to dig her husband up for a last look. “She said she just had to see him again.” Humboldt, in Humboldt's Gift, is climactically reinterred, together with his mother, in a cemetery scene which alludes to the necrophile raptures of the mother's-boy escapologist, Houdini. Saul Bellow is an Illinois Old Mortality whose taste “for graves can seem to incorporate a taste for escaping from them, and for the boundless beyond. In Mr Sammler's Planet, a novel much possessed by the idea of “earth-departure”, the “actual” is at one point equated with the eternal. This new reinterment bestows, however, no such thoughts on the remains of Jay Wustrin, who can sometimes look, from the dualistic point of view established in Bellow's earlier fictions, like Harry's lower self. Harry may be fit to rise, but no one would want to see Jay again.

“It is of course impossible to guess what people know about one another”, claims Trellman. It may not be possible to know what people know about one another, but it is surely possible to guess, as Trellman's opening sentences have already admitted, in conveying that it's easy to see what people think they're doing and not hard to make out what “they really are up to”. In the course of a Listener interview which appeared in 1969, Saul Bellow, in person, went so far as to remark that the individual “understands what is in his own heart, and in the hearts of others, somehow”. So what does Harry know, and what do we know about Harry? Is the importer an impostor? He says that he has been a dissembler, that he is secretive. Amy says that he lets on to no more than a tenth of what he “really thinks or, knows”. And he hasn't always been in a position to observe what he reports.

A key scene in the retailing of which Harry's powers as an observer are apparent, but from which he was absent in the flesh, ensues when wildfire Madge, who once took out a contract, no marriage contract either, on a husband who later remarried her, tips a cup of tea into Amy's thickly tweeded lap. The tea is spoken of as lukewarm and as scalding. The plant aloe vera is applied to the hurt. But Harry has to check with Amy later in the book: “Did Madge Heisinger really pour tea in your lap? Were you scalded?”

Old Adletsky, who maintains a think-tank or intelligence service, has hired him for the high quality of his gossip—for the higher gossip of which the novel itself appealingly consists. But we may sometimes wonder how much of this unreliable narrator to believe, and wonder, too, about the paradox of the Cretan liar, who told people not to believe him. It doesn't seem right to believe that Harry Trellman is Saul Bellow. But neither can it be right to see them as standing at a distance from one another; the physical descriptions can now and then be found to match, and we may be meant to notice this. Harry sees the often merely sour Adletsky as astute: does he think, as novelists are apt to do, that the rich are interesting? The book contains many references to their brand-named luxury goods and gains: one Chicagoan owns “several Goya portraits, as well as some Picassos of my favourite kind”, which is pitching it high, and may or may not be meant to seem like part of Harry's pitch. Do we take his word for it when he calls “commonplace” most of the people he is gossiping about—among them, the elsewhere prodigious Adletsky—or Amy's word for it when she tells her resumptive boyfriend, in a language we associate with more than one of the heroes or narrators of Bellow's previous books, that he has led a “high-level mental life”? These puzzles are intriguing. To make what we can of them it is worth turning to those of his previous novels where similar questions could be asked.

At the centre of many of them shines a solar ego. They transmit a strong personality, a strong will. In a discussion of Bellow's typical characters. Nicholas Spice has referred to them as “variant hypostases of a central Bellowian godhead”. Out of this godhead there can issue a confessional comedy of the paranoid response, in which a narcissistic hero, or consciousness, is affirmed and ironized—as here: Trellman is aware, in hindsight, that for most of his species he “generally had a knife within reach”. Not all of Bellow's fictions answer to this account, but some do. It rests on the notion of an authorial presence which invests his narrators and heroes, together with their symbiotes and dualistic opposites: on the bi-partite notion, in other words, of a strong self and of a mutability of the self. The novels and stories in question are dominated by the author and his avatars.

In order to speak generically of these arrangements, it might be appropriate to resort to the ancient categories and call him a lyrical writer, and a romantic one. The formal properties of the novels and stories in question, their dramatic structure, their endings and non-endings, are accommodated to the fact that their author has yet to end; it's as if each of them can only stop when the writer does. Somewhere in these intimations of deferment, and immortality, may lie a reason for the “looseness” benignly identified by Spice, and perhaps, too, for the writer's interest in the closures effected by funerals.

Those of Bellow's characters who aren't avatars, who are comparatively remote from the rays of this perpetual sun, are brilliantly evoked, and are the subjects of a proliferation of first-rate sub-stories or sub-plots: but it may be equally true to say that it is sometimes possible to mix them up and to forget—as can happen with characters in Dickens—which book they belong to. The books they belong to are works in which the writer may seem, for the most part, to be talking about himself and his enemies, and about first and further loves, in which he can, from time to time, be experienced as a divided consciousness, as a diversity to which enemies have access. This is not true of all of his fictions, nor are they always as soulful, as ethereal and eternal, as they are at times. And it is not true of the one which is the most expressly dualistic, and which could well be reckoned one of his best. The Victim unequivocally ends, is quite tightly plotted, and would encourage no one to find in the mutuality and division of the pair of characters at its centre any unmistakable lyric cry.

These arrangements add up, in other hands, to a way of writing poetry. But they are also, and have long been, a way of writing novels, one which Bellow's marvellous literary achievement has served to perpetuate, as the axis created in Anglo-American fiction by Martin Amis's admiration for his work would seem to show. No more Bellowian book, in the generic sense, than Money. Over here in England too, the godhead.

Marvin J. LaHood (review date winter 1998)

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SOURCE: LaHood, Marvin J. Review of The Actual, by Saul Bellow. World Literature Today 72, no. 1 (winter 1998): 132.

[In the following review, LaHood offers a laudatory assessment of The Actual.]

Saul Bellow can write. He has a Nobel Prize (1976) to show for it. He is also the only novelist to win three National Book Awards—for The Adventures of Augie March (1953), Herzog (1964), and Mr. Sammler's Planet (1970). Add to these laurels a Pulitzer Prize for Humboldt's Gift (1975) and the National Book Foundation Medal for distinguished contribution to American letters (1990), and he is probably America's most decorated author. Would such a revered and honored author risk all on a novella? The answer is yes.

The Actual is hardly a risk, however. It is pure Bellow. It is the brilliant first-person narrative of Harry Trellman, a Chicago intellectual, who has been in love with Amy Wustrin, his high-school sweetheart, for forty years, but has never claimed her for his own. It takes an aged billionaire, Sigmund Adletsky, to get them together at the end. Trellman is a memorable Bellow protagonist, mainly because his novella-long self-analysis is so trenchant. Of his friends and acquaintances he says: “These were all commonplace persons. I would never have let them think so, but it's time to admit that I looked down on them. They were lacking in higher motives. They were run-of-the-mill products of our mass democracy. … But although I had such feelings and made such judgements, I couldn't rid myself of the habit of watching for glimpses of higher capacities and incipient powerful forces.”

This is not just Trellman's mature insight but also Bellow's. And what are the “higher capacities” that Bellow sees in the human race after a lifetime of most careful observation? They are exemplified in Trellman. It is his astuteness in observing people that catches Adletsky's eye and causes him to bring Trellman in close to him. The other higher capacity in Bellow's vision of humanity is our ability to love, even though we often do it clumsily and ineffectively. Trellman has loved Amy always, yet has seldom seen her, and never courted her after high school. He says of their relationship: “It now becomes clear … that I had been in daily contact with Amy, year in, year out, getting support from her in imaginary consultations.”

In their conversations at the end of the story, while exhuming and reburying her ex-husband, just before Trellman finally proposes, he tries to explain this feeling to Amy by calling it “an actual affinity.” She replies: “You never did have any use for the way other people spoke, or speak. Everything has to be translated into your own language. But what made it actual?” He answers: “Other women might remind me of you, but there was only one actual Amy.”

This is a very romantic ending for an eighty-two-year-old author to have conceived. But it is pure Bellow, great Bellow. Our minds and our hearts, properly used, are what being human is all about. Perhaps The Actual is Bellow's last acknowledgment of this.

Faye Kuzma (essay date summer 1998)

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SOURCE: Kuzma, Faye. “The Demonic Hegemonic: Exploitative Voices in Saul Bellow's More Die of Heartbreak.Critique 39, no. 4 (summer 1998): 306-23.

[In the following essay, Kuzma views More Die of Heartbreak as a text shaped by nihilism and the discourse of fashionable cynicism.]

Saul Bellow's novel More Die of Heartbreak opens with the observation of its narrator Kenneth Trachtenberg that his maternal uncle Benn Crader is obsessed with a cartoon by Charles Addams, author of Monster Rally. The cartoon depicts a couple in a cemetery. The man, Gomez, asks: “Are you unhappy darling?” and the woman, a witch named Morticia, replies: “Oh yes, yes! Completely.” That her unhappiness could motivate such an affirmation is incongruous—as if to say the couple is content with being miserable or that they are monsters to one another and happy with what they have made of themselves. For Benn Crader, the cartoon epitomizes modern life.

The cartoon image of the two lovers standing in a graveyard subverts the romantic notion of love as transcendent with a comic cynicism that considers unhappiness to be the only certain result of male-female relationships. That same cynicism generates Ken Trachtenberg's description of a couple as “A pair of psychopaths under one quilt” (238), likening love to a pathological disorder. Defining human emotion in terms of disorder comically echoes the Freudian formulation of love as overvaluation. Ken explains the implications: “if you saw the love object as it really was, you couldn't love it. That's the clinical view of things” (265).

Viewing humans from a clinical perspective—impersonally or literally—is akin to regarding them with the cynical disaffection found in the Addams cartoon. Judie Newman describes More Die of Heartbreak as a critique of nihilism in all its popular, vulgar, and even comic forms (9).1 In an interview with Alvin Sanoff, in 1987, the year the book was published, Bellow cited films such as Psycho as representing a spreading nihilistic vision, concluding that “a lot of things that used to mean so much to us—love, murder, family relations—have been emptied of meaning and feeling” (52). He cites the character Benn Crader as one of the “serious people [who attempt to] hold their own against this nihilism” (52), yet Crader is gradually seen to embrace the precepts of nihilism as they are immersed in the discourse of fashionable cynicism.

The clinical detachment of science provides no guarantee of objectivity.2 In fact, because the “objective” view of science leaves out the feelings and values on which relationships are built, it constructs a world in which ethical laws of value no longer apply, a world of discrete facts that no longer cohere. As Benn notes, “‘once a man has scrapped the old ethos, he has to kick and stomp it and try to finish it once and for all'” (182). The old forms of coherence are lost, and in their place arises a fashionable cynicism that constantly pokes fun at the old ways of constructing meaning.

More Die of Heartbreak is the story of Benn Crader's seduction by the exploitative forces disguised as fashionable cynicism. Benn, a world-famous botanist, is depicted as a sole survivor from an age when the dignity of individuals was not suspect. Thus, he is—farcically—the only man alive who has not ditched the old ethos; a man of science who nonetheless cultivates a mystical communion with the plants he studies. For various reasons, Kenneth—and just about every other character in the book—hopes to take him in hand.

Most notably, Dr. Layamon, Benn's new father-in-law, takes Benn in hand to secure his daughter Matilda's financial future. As his name comically suggests, Dr. Layamon is an exploiter. He hopes to capitalize on his knowledge that Benn's mother was once cheated out of the homestead by her brother, a corrupt political boss named Vilitzer, who was the executor of Benn's mother's estate. Vilitzer used insider information about zoning to sell the property at a huge profit. According to Layamon's scheme, Benn is to threaten the now-ill Vilitzer with litigation in the hope of achieving an out-of-court financial settlement.

Layamon—and those of his ilk—assume that “realism” should dictate one's relationships with others, even family members. His daughter, Matilda, for instance, explains that Vilitzer is “a realist and [Benn] shouldn't apply [his] standards to people who piled up millions, because all along the line standards like [his] gave them the openings they needed” (262). The realist's standard is summed up when Benn confronts Vilitzer (281-286) by saying he could have dealt more fairly with his own sister. Vilitzer yells “‘the operational word is merciless’” (Bellow's emphasis, 282). Ironically, Vilitzer, who has devoted his life so entirely to the “high service of money” (284) that he cheats his own family out of its inheritance, considers Benn's ineptitude in business a sign of “alienation from your fellowman” (285).

Benn later admits to having “entered into it” (333). In other words, he has accepted the hands-off stance of science as a personal standard, a decision that results ultimately in moral defeatism. When confronted with the merciless, realist's standard of Vilitzer or the Layamons, impartiality is moral paralysis. Withholding judgment when judgment is called for produces a world in which people no longer respond humanly or humanely to one another. That is why Terrence Rafferty's comparison of Ken and Benn to Beckett characters perched on garbage cans is particularly apt.3 No longer sufficiently exercising the strength of their convictions, Ken and Benn have settled for a couch-potato ethical condition, delivering the messages fashionable cynicism dictates.

More Die of Heartbreak is a parody not of a specific text or author but of fashionable cynicism as a mode of discourse. Despite its pretense of impartiality, the narrative unmasks the relentless, almost demonic pursuit of self-interest carried on in the name of value-neutral discourse and fashionable cynicism. If one adds in the cultural pessimism and nihilism that “speaks through” apparently neutral discourse, the narrative of More Die of Heartbreak looks scary indeed: a dark comedy of nihilism enacted through the popular language of fashionable cynicism becomes a “demonic hegemonic.” Persistently, the narrative unmasks questionable assumptions to parody fashionable cynicism as it produces a world bereft of feeling, a world where it is no longer possible to convey one's deepest longings or to share in another's sufferings because in doing so one might use language unrecognized by the dominant culture.

The way language, already “imprinted” with a residue of meanings and ideological implications, comes to a speaker was of central importance to the Russian thinker. Mikhail Bakhtin (1895-1975). Language constantly picks up nuances and shades of meaning and is never a transparent whole for Bakhtin. He describes it as the site of competing ideological perspectives or discourses. The dominant culture's language is privileged discourse; its power derives from the assertion of its own positions as indisputable statements of truth. Every discourse carries ideological implications that commit the speaker to a certain official “party line.” Once having formed an utterance, we are engaged in a dialogue with what Bakhtin calls the “already said.” That is not dialogue in the usual sense, but a dialogue with the ideological shadings that adhere to words; thus, it is a double-voiced utterance.4

In describing the particular kind of double-voicedness that makes for parody, Gary Saul Morson writes: “A parodic utterance is one of open disagreement. The second utterance represents the first in order to discredit it, and so introduces a ‘semantic direction’ which subverts that of the original” (66). In More Die of Heartbreak, as in other Bellow novels, the narrator's allegiance to popular ways of thinking and talking is the object of parody.

As the discourse of the narrative suggests alternate directions for thinking and acting, it moves its narrator both toward and away from self-awareness. Although Ken is like a mouthpiece, parroting the fashionable sayings of cultural pessimism, his study of his uncle derives from his passion to discover a different mode of relating to others, one prizing human dignity. That is made all the more difficult under the influence of the “demonic hegemonic”—the perverse tendency of modern language to shape feeling and action so that human dignity is not a given. As absurd as it seems, Ken is caught attacking postures and attitudes he cherishes and defending positions he has left behind.

Dialogism in the narrative not only influences the form of Ken's utterances but ultimately shapes his identity as well. Every utterance generates a commitment, a responsibility to live up to the viewpoint framed by one's language. The narrative, however, acts as a means of reconsidering—and moving away from—long-held unexamined assumptions and of forming new alignments and escaping the compelling discourse of the moment.5 The narrative thus holds out the prospect of self-transformation or transcendence—if Ken, or for that matter the reader, can manage to see around the demonic hegemonic that has taken possession of popular forms of talking and thinking.

Bakhtin describes the fluctuating characteristic of meanings within discourse, but he does not rule out the possibility of arriving at meaning or determining right action by working through the implications of one's discourse. Bakhtin's concept of answerability holds the speaker accountable to “answer” objections generated by the kind of thinking that informs other modes of discourse.6 In Bellow's novels, the narrators shuffling between the competing forms of discourse that define daily existence is the specific form of Bakhtin's answerability that takes place. Yet, prior to More Die of Heartbreak, a Bellow's narrator typically “settled” the matter by actively selecting a form of discourse that shaped an alternate vision. From Seize the Day to Herzog, his narrators enacted a quest away from ties to received knowledge and head culture. In More Die of Heartbreak, Ken and his uncle are increasingly drawn into the vortex of the popular culture that they would escape.

The narrative becomes as ironic as Bellow can make it. False formulations, strident rhetoric, and self-justification form the terrain of consciousness over which his narrators stumble in their search for an alternate vision. Kenneth Trachtenberg, like his fictional forebears Henderson, Herzog, Citrine, and Sammler, pursues the contradictory intellectual and rhetorical tasks to which his discourse commits him. Although Ken is spokesperson for modern thought and action, his scholarly “project” is to discover from his Uncle Benn the source of traditional values. All the while, however, he badgers his Uncle Benn to be more up-to-date in his relations with women and so becomes one of the prevailing forces antagonistic to his uncle's humanism.

Ken's advice about women is one of Bellow's parodies of fashionable cynicism; the advice repeats or reifies key phrases in contexts that expose their implications. The narrative exposes the gap between a lived set of values and the privileged discourse that forcefully compels identification with its norms. Because they preclude the process of answerability, the norms embodied in fashionable cynicism are shown to be particularly questionable.

In More Die of Heartbreak, fashionable cynicism proves to be a language that presents questionable norms as Truth, thus naturalizing them. In the popular discourse of fashionable cynicism, that leads to some troublesome contradictions. On the one hand, fashionable cynicism embraces rejection of conventionality, yet that rejection itself becomes a convention to which one must conform. Thus it is comic that Ken should assert the right of nonconformity by moving to the culturally impoverished Midwest (rejecting thereby the dictate to settle in a metropolis where culture flourishes). Securing a position teaching Russian literature at the same university where his uncle teaches botany, Ken seeks moral guidance from his unworldly uncle in defiance of the expectations of family and friends.

At the same time, Ken's quest for old-fashioned morality is ironically circumvented by his attempt to be up-to-date. He hopes both to rediscover the source of Benn's humanism and to “try to make clear to [Benn] the latest motives at work, and console him with insights more available to members of my generation” (86). In particular, when advising his uncle in his love life, Ken imposes questionable norms that make a cynical outlook appear the only possible or logical response to the difficulties he experiences in his relationships with women.

With nearly every sentence, Ken voices questionable norms. Each time the discourse of fashionable cynicism applies such norms in the narrative, the result is a demonic hegemonic whereby characters become monsters to one another. I will discuss four of those norms that receive particular emphasis in the story.

The narrative recognizes as a norm that man is now free to engage in sexual relations without a corresponding sense of commitment. Men may now engage in what Ken calls “an eroticism matching superpower politics” (28). He notes that “[f]ree and liberal sexual contacts have now become conventional” (83), and intimacy is engaged in casually, a sort of “sexual Tylenol” (301). Whereas conventional morality once prohibited promiscuity, Benn feels pressured to conform to a sex-on-demand society. For no better reason than his own failure to find a language to turn her down, Benn has a one-night stand with a neighbor, Della Bedell, who as her name farcically suggests, is eager to form sexual liaisons with even her most casual acquaintances.

Later, when Benn learns that Della has died of heart failure, he feels pangs of guilt, as Judie Newman puts it, at “having behaved like a monster” (14). Ken's response is to dismiss Benn's troubled conscience by explaining that women are now encouraged to make advances toward men (85). When “objectivity” and “impartiality” take on the status of god-terms, a man need not entertain any twinge of conscience because women such as Della must face the consequences of asserting their equality with men.

That is, just as men have done, women will have to become accustomed to being “rebuffed” (86), as Ken puts it. That notion is “naturalized”—made to seem the necessary outcome of a reasoning process—as women are assumed to be experiencing the same trials men have so long endured. Yet, as the narrative also dramatically makes clear, women are defined by an object standard of beauty as external; they are commodified by a culture bereft of a language of feeling.

By means of what Bakhtin calls reification, the narrative emphasizes the process of commodification as Ken seeks to negotiate between the prevailing fashionable cynicism and his uncle's remorse at not having treated Della humanely.7 That occurs as a word is reified—repeated until the way it is used becomes the central point—so that its ideological implications are exposed. Benn self-consciously picks up “rebuffed” from Ken: “‘I should have rebuffed her right away, without sampling’” (my emphasis, 86). Bakhtin wrote that reified words are repeated in a narrative in such a way that they serve to critique a mode of discourse.

Thus, the clinical “rebuffed,” together with the mercantile “sampling” discredit each other, especially in the context of the traditional social order that Benn represents. Benn's high regard for his first wife establishes a baseline against which terms such as “sampling” go beyond impropriety to suggest how an “objective” standard undermines human interactions. Imagining Benn's dilemma, Ken comically rehearses possible renditions of an objective or clinically neutral rebuff:

Anyway, he is unable to tell her, “You're a very attractive lady, but I don't feel right in the bed of a comparative stranger”; or “Just because I am a contemporary man and you are a contemporary woman …” Or: “The accident of being neighbors is not reason enough for this. Unless we have more in common than this carnal moment, this will be one more dead end.”


In each version, a clinically unemotional view severs the words from their substance rooted in emotion—as becomes painfully clear in Ken's “answer” to the exposed lack of compassion found in the reified word “rebuffed.” Fashionable cynicism sets in motion a train of thought that dismisses Della's humanity. Ken says: “She's set up to be made a fool of—the way she dresses, wears her hair, the way she speaks. Not like a woman taking herself seriously. How could you take her seriously?” (86-87). Instead of presupposing human dignity and worth, Ken speaks with a sneering superiority that transforms Della into a cartoon figure, not worth bothering one's conscience about.

A second norm explored by the narrative is the high value placed on a cosmetic view of external beauty and its corresponding female sadomasochism. American consumer culture places such emphasis on “external perfection and high finish” (254) in women that female self-abuse is naturalized as a normal response of women attempting to be the object of male desire. That standard operates in Ken's thinking, and it is largely responsible for much of the suffering experienced by Dita Schwartz, the female character who most qualifies to be called his soul mate.

Dita Schwartz undergoes tortuous cosmetic surgery in her bid for Ken's affection. She subscribes to external standards set by a clinical and socially accepted form of what Ken defines as “sadomasochism (raging abuse inflicted or endured, and identified with love or pleasure)” (187). In a society in which a woman's external appearance is prized above any indication of inner strength or moral feeling, having one's skin flayed can seem entirely natural, not an instance of socially legitimized sadomasochism.

Moreover, an unfeeling response to her gesture may escape notice in a society trained in fashionable cynicism and clinical analysis. Although Dita cannot afford to attend a Swiss clinic (205-06), she nonetheless so aspires to the type of unblemished beauty Kenneth admires that she places herself in the hands of a doctor Kenneth calls a “sadic dermatologist” (250). Using the reductive terms of fashionable cynicism, Ken calls Dita's botched surgery “Just her proletarian luck” (208). In this parody of Marxist discourse, Ken eases his own conscience by contending, cynically, that the economic structure is set up so that a working-class woman's health is devalued. In the context, however, Marxist discourse is shown to carry out exactly that which it condemns.

Rather than responding humanly to Dita's suffering, Kenneth disconnects emotionally, “answering” the plea her suffering represents with the voice of his head culture. In a parody of academic discourse, he expounds on the self-imposed exploitation that occurs in a commodity-oriented society. In the context of a deeply felt and mutually shared friendship, his dramatic analysis fails to sound the depths of genuine concern:

These torments and martyrdoms to which women submit their bodies, the violent attacks they make on their own long-hated faults or imagined deformities! Gladly assaulting themselves. The desperate remedy. The poor grinding their own faces.


That kind of general lament for the lower class may be fine for the lecture hall, it is woefully inadequate as an “answer” to the suffering of a close friend or lover. The unfeeling character of a person using analysis—even when taking feelings into account—becomes apparent. Yet, such detachment both typifies Ken's response to those around him and characterizes the prevailing mode of response inscribed in the impartial discourse of a postmodern era.

Ken initially maintains the impartial stance of the academic, even in his most intimate relationships, although his narrative shows in what ways his language falsifies his own lived out emotions. Eventually, while physically tending to Dita's needs—removing her blood-soaked bandages and slowly nurturing her back to health—Ken responds humanly to Dita. In the process, he acknowledges that Dita “had ten times more heart in her [than he or Treckie, the child-woman with whom he is infatuated], and this produced a kind of beauty we are unfamiliar with” (208). Ironically, Dita's willingness to suffer to become more appealing—externally—to Ken enables him to look beyond her mummifying bandages and monstrous appearance to discern a depth of feeling and beauty—internally.

A third norm established by the narrative is that sexual matters should be discussed with a kind of Masters and Johnson's clinical frankness. Open and frank discussion reduces the importance of sex. In such a world, a father like Dr. Layamon, in a grotesque parody of “civilized candor” can call up his daughter's sexual history in the name of clinical interest. Yet, as the narrative makes clear, frank revelations of sexual practices can be readily misconstrued. Thus, Benn's sexual practices are scrutinized and thereby made to appear odd.8 Curiosity disguised as clinical interest permits exploitative prying into matters once deemed intensely private; in this context, scientific interest is shown to be anything but disinterested. By prying, Dr. Layamon exploits Benn's vulnerability as an older man married to a younger woman; repeatedly, the doctor makes explicit references to Benn's sexual past, comparing Benn to his older male patients who request phallic prostheses (159). The no-holds barred style of talking commits the doctor to a monstrous disregard for the feelings of others.

That becomes evident as Dr. Layamon—the novel's most obvious representative of a clinical viewpoint—gives Benn a tour of the gynecological ward where he works. In an attempt at male camaraderie, the doctor crudely refers to his elderly female patients as “‘old snatch'” (222). Scientific detachment in the doctor's case means assuming no essential human value or worth. Intimating a kind of shared voyeurism and realist viewpoint that bonds all men, Layamon acts out his monstrous disregard for his patients by casually exposing their genitals to Benn. Layamon is a caricature of the clinical profession. From a Bakhtinian perspective, however, his crude language is not just a style of talking; it commits him to a form of behavior that promotes social change. In this case, the discourse embodies indifference toward the feelings of those he is there to heal.

Layamon's discursive behavior persistently discredits the claims coming from his ideological conditioning. The profanity he utters, for instance, seems aimed at expressing a liberal outlook. However, the doctor asserts that he and Benn must speak frankly with one another as “women never will” (140). Thus, in reality, the doctor's language conceals not a boundary-breaking, forward-thinking radical ideology so much as the same old sexism repackaged in hard-driving street talk.

Ironically, Ken's apology for the doctor further indicts him. Excusing the doctor's behavior at the clinic on the grounds that he knew not what he said, Ken observes, “Out of every ten sentences [Dr. Layamon] spoke, only three seemed to come from his conscious mind, and the rest were from some other source” (161). The remark simply underscores the point that Layamon is not sufficiently alert to the implications of his language. Becoming a “dummy for subconscious forces” (161), he unquestioningly couches the truth-claiming phrases of fashionable cynicism in “impartial,” clinical discourse.

Without the traditional “checks and balances” provided by conventional discourse—with its emphasis on propriety and conscience—popular language is seen to unleash a discourse of vulgar realism. Because the usual safeguards no longer apply, it seems only natural that a modern era should also produce, as a fourth norm, a distrust of emotions.9 This distrust is most apparent, of course, in matters of the heart. And Ken, who is a dummy for the same kind of subconscious forces Layamon is prone to, assumes that a person's feelings should be left out of decisions involving the emotional life. Feelings are no longer taken into account when making decisions that affect others. Even when marrying, Ken suggests: “There are people who advise you to leave the heart out of it altogether” (241). As subjective data, the emotions are suspect; they “shouldn't figure”; they're “untrustworthy” (241).

That idea is further played out in a parody of the academic's habit of coining phrases. Ken can discover no precedent, in the language of science, for expressing sentiments. So, where does he go to find a language adequate to the task? To the military. Borrowing the concept of a theater of war from military discourse, Ken speculates that there is no longer any inner space or what he ironically calls an “inner theater” in which the emotional life can be cultivated (44). Because language gives form to experience, when the language of the dominant culture is silent about feelings and makes their expression seem contemptible, there is little room to experience an emotional life.

The power of the dominant culture to rule out the emotional life—the dimension of the Thou—is seen most ludicrously in the not-so-sterling character of Mrs. Tanya Sterling, the mother of Ken's girlfriend Treckie. As a caricature of the professional woman, Mrs. Sterling is all business. Although using the ostensible neutrality of clinical discourse that claims a disinterested viewpoint, she has, in reality, what John A. T. Robinson characterizes as an instrumental relationship to others.

The way we treat others says a lot about where we are in terms of moral and ethical development. The normal course of human moral development, Robinson explains, moves away from viewing others as a means to an end (instrumental) to working harmoniously with others (functional), and finally, to consciously imagining the experience of others (personal). In a world where clinical neutrality, empty irony, and irreverence toward the old morality attack the dignity of humans, instrumental relationships predominate.

An instrumental response to others is parodied in Mrs. Sterling's proposal of marriage in the language of business. If, as Ken notes “So many modern thinkers agree that ‘overvaluation’ is the secret of love” (54), a courtship might as well be conducted as a business transaction. After meeting with Ken to propose marriage as retaliation against a willful daughter, Tanya Sterling leaves a telephone message on Ken's answering machine. Her neutral-sounding language belies her vindictiveness. Even so, her substitution of business terms and contractual language (italicized in the passage below) for the affectionate exchanges of courtship ironically unmasks her view of Ken as strictly a means to an end:

Housewares show is closing and as of this time I have not received the courteous reply I expected, I made you a bonafide proposition. Have retained private investigator in Seattle. Please communicate with me.

(emphasis added, 247-48)

The clipped, no-words-to-spare sentence fragments and impersonal tone indicate the business discourse. She opens with the telegraphic “Housewares show is closing.” The absence of any form of address betrays her view of Ken as the point man for executing her own plans of revenge. She has no time for what Ken elsewhere calls a “small-time endearment” (84). Applied to personal relationships, the contractual language of business affords no protection against the exploitation of people the language nevertheless enacts.

One need not bother to conceal this instrumental view of others or a view of marriage as a bargaining chip in one's war with a headstrong daughter. Tanya not only contends disinterestedly, “I made you a bona fide proposition,” but she expects a prompt reply. In the contractual terms of business, she notes that “as of this time” she has not received his response; she has nonetheless hired a private detective to collect evidence that would ruin any case Treckie might make in attempting to maintain the right to care for her own daughter. Clearly, Mrs. Sterling is open about her actions because she assumes Ken will have instrumental motives similar to hers and will accept her plan unquestioningly.

The narrative repeatedly demonstrates how an undisguised instrumental purpose can pervade the most seemingly impartial discourse. Because the clinical view that sponsors such discourse refuses to recognize any coherent moral perspective, the most naked use of others to advance personal interests goes largely unacknowledged, and analysis becomes another name for instrumental reasoning. Commenting on his father's behavior as a common philanderer, Ken observes: “The world crisis was everybody's cover for lasciviousness and libertinage (two little words you seldom see)” (41). What is significant is the effect of the presence—or in this case the absence—of particular forms of discourse. Hearing the harsh moral judgment implied by the word “libertine” is clearly punitive; it starts in motion a traditional set of norms, one that establishes limits and social consequences for adultery. Nonjudgmental language, on the other hand, can do little to “awaken” conscience. The nonjudgmental language that gives free reign to fashionable cynicism abhors guilt and produces an entrenched culture of rationalization and empty irony.

As if it were not enough that modern discourse fosters instrumental relationships, objective discourse also shapes a person's inner speech. Because discourse shapes consciousness, the dominant culture infiltrates the most private sources of identity. As Ken puts it, “Voices, live or dated, approach from the air and speak to you, or for you” (22). In this sense, an ideological battle is waged in Ken's “inner theater” of war. It is, however, the kind of battle of which the central participant—the self—may not be aware:

Outer forces inject themselves into us, penetrating the very nervous system. When the individual discovers them inside his own head, their appearance seems to him entirely natural and what these forces say he can truly understand, just as Hitler and the population of Germans spoke a common language.


The reference to Hitler in this passage calls up the irrevocable consequences—in moral terms—of even the most seemingly innocuous embrace of discourse. Because the ideology of the dominant culture asserts itself in and through one's inner speech, at a subconscious level, a modern person's perspective and thought processes are regularly acted on by the zeitgeist of fashionable cynicism and nihilism. Seemingly a transparent window to the soul, one's inner speech may actually simply replay the “tape” of messages and viewpoints inscribed in the language of fashionable cynicism. In this sense, the outer force (read ideological vision) implicit in fashionable cynicism appears second nature.

The battle taking place in one's “inner theater” of consciousness may be lost partly, then principally, through failing to be alert to the forces of language. What is lost is a sense of answerability, according to which the voice of the dominant culture must be made to “answer” the claims of experience. The result is nothing less than a mid-life crisis that sends Benn racing off into an Arctic wilderness, to pursue expanses of “nothingness” and numb his need for genuine human contact.

As a consequence of his failure to answer the prevailing fashionable cynicism, Benn has fallen prey to psychic numbing and self-division. He becomes subject to what Ken calls the “Layamon phenomenon” (139), a phenomenon that makes Benn, like the doctor, “a dummy for subconscious forces” (161). Early in the narrative, Benn refers to a voice that spoke when he was a child, telling him to buy the junk man's copy of Great Mother Earth. A child's voice not yet fully aligned with the dominant culture is a more authentic voice than the “voice-over” of pragmatic assessment and instrumental reasoning.10 For so long, Benn has listened to the voices representing “outer forces” that they appear—ironically—more authentic to him than the voice of his own deepest inspiration.

Thus, Benn refers to this voice as originating not from the first self, as one would expect, but the “second person” (58). That suggests that he identifies with the commentary of the dominant culture over all other voices—even those of his first yearnings and discoveries.11 As an adult looking back, Benn begins to distrust his own experience and fails to recognize as authentic the thrill he experienced in first studying botany.

Increasingly attuned to the fashionable cynicism of the dominant culture, Benn becomes more detached and undergoes a strange doubling process. Late in the narrative, for instance, Ken describes his eyes: “the figure eight form of the eyes, so impressive hitherto, now seemed to me the mark of a displaced person” (305). And again, “The looks he [Benn] gave me were oddly divided” (307). Rather than resolve that inner division, Benn submits to male “exactions (‘You've got to come across as all other men do’)” (198). Repeatedly singling out such gender prescriptions within impartial discourse, the narrative presents a carnivalesque violation of ontological boundaries as Ken's “full-blooded man” is expected to assume a position of power through “virile action” and “an eroticism matching superpower politics” (my emphasis, 28). In this case, the high seriousness accorded political action is parodied by transferring its authority to sexual activity; Bellow in this way mocks discourse that assumes, as an article of faith, that masculinity necessitates this doubling.

Parodying is also seen in the way Ken naturalizes the self-division Benn experiences by romanticizing it. Thus, in his self-appointed role as adviser to Benn's botched love life, Ken dismisses Benn's having left an older woman named Caroline Bunge virtually at the alter. He explains away Benn's action as simply the impulse of “that second person inside you'” (84). Benn, unable to justify his actions so readily, responds that his second person “‘sometimes acts like a demon'” (84). The word “demon” is reified, emphasizing motive in a self-conscious way. Benn refigures his own behavior, not in terms of the change agent whose ground-breaking violation of old taboos signals a departure from oppressive convention but in terms of good and evil; in other words, the effects of one's actions on others. That retrieval of the word “demon” is countered, however, by Ken's romantic view of the demon—not as the monster Benn considers it—but as the dark and excitingly unpredictable side of men.

Although evil is not the inevitable expression of our humanity, it will flourish if the moral and social conditions are right. The fashionable bad boy image of the demon lover—whose lack of concern for others is part of his attraction—is one such condition. Thus, even while admitting that the term “demon” and the context of moral action may be applicable, Ken manages to absolve Benn: “‘All right, what if there should be a demon in you. Would you rather have a baby-sitter?’” (84).

Ken formulates what for Benn becomes Bakhtin's internally persuasive word as, so what if there's something morally reprehensible about the behavior? According to the lowered estimation of human behavior established by fashionable cynicism, the “screwer of other men's wives” (41), such as Ken's father Rudi, is implicitly more dashing, more attractive—basically more romantic—than the decent man who could be trusted to care for children. Such a man does not have to answer to the usual constraints of morality because in his personal life he is accomplishing a “historical thing,” (37) and establishing a “world political” (39) posture.12 With comic irony, Ken says his father surrendered to the “Given” (a primitivist sensibility) in becoming “an outstanding cocksman” (65) with a “world-historical cock” (40). Placing one's personal life in such a context dismisses personal obligations and responsibilities.

Once Benn begins to share a common language with the dominant culture, he must play by its rules. Benn admits: “I entered into it also” (333). Thus, Ken describes a “proliferation of a multitude of false worlds to whose rules people were earnestly committed” (187) and notes, a “world is imposed on you by a corrupted vision” (235). Benn's response to viewing Psycho illustrates how that happens.

Hitchcock's Psycho, a film that has gained a cult following, lives up to the expectations of cultural pessimism by revealing how the mild-mannered, respectable Norman Bates could turn out to be a matricide. Norman Bates is so apparently normal, in fact, that the horror seems inescapable; the viewer is plunged into a world where futility and madness form the implacable reality (Rowe 7). Under the influence of such a vision, the polite and unassuming Benn develops a “negative fetish” that transforms Matilda Layamon from Poe's Helen to Medusa (144).13 Benn cannot shake that otherwise fleeting association because he is in the grip of a nihilistic vision.

Embracing a nihilistic vision results in a loss of humanity. To opt for or to be silenced by the authority of dominant thinking is to become, ultimately, its passive object: a dummy for subconscious forces. In the following passage, Benn is described in passive terms suggesting that he is a dressmaker's form on display in a shop:

Uncle had been installed as a member of the Layamon family, dressed in tailor-made tweeds; that plant observatory, his head fixed up by a hairstylist; surrounded by illuminated cabinets of Royal Doulton or Rosenthal china. …

(my emphasis, 327)

That use of figurative language places Uncle Benn on display, commodified as a trophy not very different from Bates's long-dead mother preserved through taxidermy. The “other,” Benn in this case, becomes a voice through which a discourse speaks.

Ken's comment about 900 phone numbers that give out information or programmatic messages for a fee also recalls impersonal contact with a disembodied authority. All such phone calls are lumped together in the narrative to parody the commercial notion that equates a phone call with an actual human presence (as in the ATT phrase, “reach out and touch someone”). Ken makes no distinction between suicide counseling and audio-porn calls: “Depressed, you dial a voice to talk you out of committing suicide, to recite a prayer, or to bring you to a sexual climax” (22). Throughout the narrative, phone calls not only increase the effect of distancing, but also become an analogy for the way language operates when impartiality and detachment rule. The voicing of a discourse replaces genuine concern and response to another full-bodied human presence. More die of heartbreak, in this sense, because they are unable to form fully personal relationships; the self ceases to exist without the other.

With an emerging awareness of how a culture impressed by “objective” and “impartial” language has ruled out the emotional life, Ken ironically considers himself as the leader of a mass movement. That self-importance is also evident as he describes his narrative variously as a “project” (120) that he and Benn share, an “urgent project” (22), a “crucial project” (33), an “assignment” (15), and a response to the need to make one's life a “turning point” (68, 98). Yet, the narrative does not quite become the turning point in consciousness that Ken imagined.

The way consciousness has been shaped is, however, central. Ken recommends Admiral Byrd's diary Alone, which summarizes Byrd's tendency to see others as predictably transparent. The truly modern person is alone by virtue of a mode of discourse that privileges detachment. The numbing smugness of ironic detachment or the numbing distance imposed by ostensible “neutrality” produces “zero conditions manifestly prevailing” (278). Voicing the assumption that is basic to the modern view, Ken asserts that freedom from the traditional restraints of conscience is necessary for the pursuit of truth: “Abolish the claustrophobia of consciousness (the thing that Admiral Byrd's companions suffered from): the classic modern challenge” (33). Yet, this loosening of traditional restraints has produced strictures unheard of before. The result is frightening; self-interest and instrumental reasoning rear up, causing what Ken describes as a “hospital for emotional-frostbite amputees” (99). Given the psychic numbing that is partly the result of assuming the detachment of impartial discourse and partly the product of the dark vision of fashionable cynicism, it is punningly right that Benn departs for the North Pole at the narrative's end.

At the end of the story, Benn attends the funeral of his uncle Vilitzer, who died shortly after the threatening visit of Benn and Ken (who sought recompense for Vilitzer's having sold the family homestead for a huge profit because he had insider information about rezoning). Benn describes his planned research trip to the North Pole as an attempt to overcome the desire to “drown myself right here, off Miami beach” (334). Benn describes the North Pole as representing a kind of blank in which one does not have to be conscious of anything but immediate survival.

It is curious to note the way in which the North Pole is discussed in the narrative, which also emphasizes the North Pole as a place where consciousness might be freed of the standardizing pressure of the dominant mode. At first, Antarctica, or the South Pole, is identified as the site of the lichens Benn studies (22). Benn cannot conduct research at the North Pole; vegetation cannot take root there because it does not exist as a land mass but only as glacial covering. Why then does Benn travel north?

Throughout, the narrative moves gradually away from mention of the South Pole and toward the North Pole. Dr. Layamon speaks of a news item in which a couple apply to marry in Antarctica, but immediately afterward, he refers to that spot as the North Pole (163). Likewise, although the lichens Benn is studying are first identified with the Antarctic, by the end of the narrative, they are associated with the North Pole (315). Thus, in a parody of Ken's view of his narrative as a historical turning point and consciousness-raising effort, the narrative, by the end of the story, has literally turned Benn around. Farcically, however, Benn's turn-around is not the result of a radical transformation in consciousness but of giving in to the standardizing forces within language.

The presumed moral and ethical disinterestedness of science have become such god-terms of modern discourse that people may repeat the trendy phrasing of fashionable cynicism, little questioning the norms that such language enforces. The narrative unmasks the demonic compulsion of the new orthodoxy to prize cultural critique over devotion to friends and family members.

Moral and ethically detached discourse appears to act as a mechanism to release the horror of applying instrumental norms to the most intimate personal relationships. Family members thus are not exempt from the detachment adhering to impersonal discourse. If love is merely “overvaluation,” a product of social evolution, it then follows that expressions of love for family might be considered indulgences in sentiment or nostalgia. Ken parrots the prevailing mood when he claims Benn overvalues his family and cautions him “what those fairy tales were to you in childhood, your family in the good old days are to you now” (46). Voicing the assumption inherent in noncommittal or objective language, Ken delivers the prevailing realist judgment that strong emotional attachments are something one outgrows. He further makes a trivializing and disparaging analogy by comparing relatives to old Christmas cards that clutter the mantelpiece:

Uncles, aunts—parents, for that matter—collect dust on the mantelpiece like old Christmas cards. Noticing them in July, you say to yourself that it's time to throw them out, but you don't get around to it. Eventually they wilt and turn yellow, they die and go into the incinerator.


Even parents have been shoved into the background of consciousness and forgotten until, with other throwaway items, they “die and go into the incinerator.” To regard family members with the same peripheral awareness reserved for outdated holiday greetings would necessitate a carapace-like obliviousness to their humanity.

The mature, realistic individual, it would seem, cultivates the instrumental view of others found in a language stripped of any coherent moral perspective. Reason itself seems to demand overlooking or minimizing the feelings of others in the name of the impartiality prescribed by “objective” discourse. Such perverse reasoning is comic, yet horrible, and that is the vital connection that for Benn gives the Addams cartoon the force of social commentary. The comic perversity of Morticia's satisfaction at being made unhappy by Gomez may be said to be matched only by the perverse reliance of modern people on language that shapes human experience in reductive and terrifying ways. Kenneth experiences that directly in what he calls “thought murders” (233) and the “cancellation phenomenon” (12), which forbid the whole gamut of personal responses to a fellow human. Thus, Kenneth becomes painfully aware that, although he has fathered Treckie's child, he does not exist for her. He describes that awareness as “one of the commoner human experiences” (319). Because language conveys emotions, their inaudibility within clinically neutral discourse has the effect of annihilating them.

Although Ken seems incapable of understanding his actions except in the dry intellectual terms of a “turning point,” he seeks to restore human beings to the world of meaning described by his Russian theorists, who considered “every human being as a center of living powers and as a possibility of infinite perfection [who] is capable of possessing absolute significance and worth” (292). In More Die of Heartbreak, the reader glimpses that capability only tenuously amid the counter forces of ideological conditioning that I call the demonic hegemonic. Discovering the infinite worth in the life of another human being is a joint project with and against the forces of the dominant culture.

It does not matter, then, how far Benn travels in his attempt to isolate himself from fashionable cynicism. As Ken observes, humans exist in vital connection to others and cannot help but share in the prevailing vision of the way things are. That is the double-edged potential of language: to construct a reality that opens up possibilities for authentic relationships and also to produce “false world” and “fabrications.”14 Every individual must negotiate the boundary between those extremes, for as Ken notes, we find our way through “the invisible human meanings quaking in the urban air ocean, which we have to breathe, like it or not” (307). Unable to make his way at the Layamons, Benn will not be able to travel far enough to escape the culture of irony and detachment built into the language of modern times.

As with other Bellow characters who are at the mercy of language that dictates to them, Benn and Ken struggle together to find their own way through language to an authentic expression of lived experience. If Benn seems to have lost the battle waged in the inner theater, Ken seems to have gained a partial victory. He tells his uncle that love is “‘one of those powers of the soul that won't be conscripted'” (265). In so saying, Ken rejects instrumental relationships that aim only at self-serving, monologic pleasures.

More Die of Heartbreak parodies the fashionable cynicism that, however light-hearted, urges individuals to speak in a detached way even when the situation calls for an expression of fellow feeling. Fashionable cynicism may illuminate shortcomings in unexamined conventions or become its own convention of perennial skepticism, fostering only disenchantment and the recital of banalities. In a nuclear age, more may be said to die of heartbreak than from the effects of radiation because no one who uses language escapes its truth-claiming and standardizing pressures that establish norms not only for personal behavior but for relationships with others.

Bellow's fiction continually points to an ongoing effort to answer prevailing opinion and discover an authentic relatedness to others beyond privileged discourse. Perhaps such humanizing possibilities can be fully realized only when a society's language sanctions an awareness of social life as an expanding web of connections and responsibilities.


  1. Newman interprets More Die of Heartbreak from a Jungian perspective as a rejection of nihilism. According to Newman, Bellow principally rejects popular forms of nihilism that she calls passive as opposed to more profound forms she distinguishes as active.

  2. Helmut Thielicke points out that the apparent objectivity of science (positivism) is shot through with a nihilistic bias that limits legitimate discussion to verifiable facts, as if not verifiable experiences were of no account (79). Ruling out judgment on the basis of ethical norms and values, however, effectively prohibits their exercise. We cannot act in an ethical way until we can stake out the consequences of our actions in ethical terms.

  3. Rafferty is not alone in his criticism of the novel. A reviewer in “Didactic Drone Deflects Bellow,” for instance, equates the narrator's voice with Bellow's historical voice. Understanding the book to be a critique of nihilism helps explain what are considered major weaknesses. For instance, Daniel Fuchs has complained that the narrator, Kenneth, is the “least integrated Bellow voice” (30). Although he attacks the products of nihilistic thinking, Ken is himself guilty of the kind of unwarranted cynicism the novel critiques. His language commits him to views counter to his beliefs—thus in reality he is not fully integrated and his narrative embodies the source of modern malaise. Fuchs also notes the book's “indiscriminate spreading around of hip lingo” (31). That flow of fashionable cynicism from many mouths illustrates its prevalence while also demonstrating one of its effects. People lose their distinctiveness when everyone totes the official line inherent in a privileged discourse. Stephen Tanner has noted that the rationalizing in the book is a mode of characterization (284). In addition, Paul Gray has noted that the genius of More Die of Heartbreak “lies in Kenneth's fumbling, long-winded attempts to get it told” (71). Interpreted as inept, such strategies actually dramatize the point that authenticity dies in the relentless—even demonic—assertion of ideology through language

  4. According to Bakhtin, the novel is particularly suited to detect the values and assumptions of a given discourse. In The Dialogic Imagination he notes that common opinion—as expressed in the typical modes of address a social group utilizes—can be “unmasked” in the novel by the simultaneous appearance of alternate points of view (301-302). The truth-claiming ideologies exposed by such viewpoints are thus “destroyed as something false, hypocritical, greedy, limited, narrowly rationalistic, inadequate to reality” (311-312). For a discussion of Bakhtin's treatment of parody, see Morson.

  5. In Mikhail Bakhtin, Katerina Clark and Michael Holquist argue that Bakhtin's notion of self is complex. They describe this according to Bakhtin's concept of alterity—otherness—writing: “Consciousness of self [for Bakhtin] is possible only if experienced by contrast” (92). The self is thus only knowable in relation to the other (91).

  6. Helen Rothschild Ewald defines Bakhtin's concept of answerability as a response (incorporating a double-voicedness or simultaneous awareness of two discourses) but also as accountability or responsibility (340-41).

  7. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist define Bakhtin's term reification as a word viewed as an object in itself rather than simply as part of an utterance. “When a word is reified, it conveys information as part of a message, but it is also notable for its placement, and may seem misplaced, as it were, out of its usual context. For that reason, it calls up that usual meanings or the most common use of the term as these intersect or collide with the new context where it appears” (Dialogic Imagination, 432).

  8. By the modern standards that legitimate a kind of clinical curiosity, the fact that Matilda discusses Benn's sexual preferences with Ken might not be deemed a betrayal. Matilda reveals that Benn prefers the foot of the bed and a particular corner (292). While there is nothing really perverse in such preferences, focusing on them in such a way makes them appear so.

  9. Bellow discusses the besieged status of modern people in “The Civilized Barbarian Reader,” an ironic commentary on the cultural authority scholars have assigned to adversarial behavior (Bellow's article appears in an expanded version as the forward to Bloom's book). Much of the autobiographical material in the article portrays Bellow as a cultural outsider who has cultivated a resistance to the mainstream (i.e., those who defend capitalism). Historically, theories sanctioning capitalist activities include assumptions of Thomas Hobbes, Charles Darwin, and Herbert Spencer. Those theories have influenced modern social theory. Marshal Sahlins, an anthropologist who critiques sociobiology, has noted: “‘natural selection,’ when transposed to the level of behavior, becomes a familiar language of social exploitation” (91).

  10. Judie Newman has noted Benn's fragmented personality, arguing that Benn fails to unite the unconscious with the conscious/feminine with the masculine self in archetypal integration. In the narrative of More Die of Heartbreak, this fragmentation is also a moral issue. Ken asks, “‘which of the two or more persons makes your decisions. Or wouldn't it be better to say a demon, or demon—an inner spirit?’” (58).

  11. Later in the narrative, Ken seems to mix up the two voices (that of the demon and the authentic self). Ken and Benn discuss the Monster Rally cartoon depicting Morticia's delight in being made unhappy by Gomez. Although Benn maintains that the cartoon speaks directly about the contemporary situation, Ken traces the theme of marital unhappiness back to Shakespeare. Citing Hamlet's denial of having loved Ophelia on the basis that “wise men know well enough what monsters women make of them,” Ken interprets “monster” to mean cuckold. When Benn rejects that interpretation, Ken says: “‘You're the monster that deforms [Matilda] in your mind—that's how you see it'” (268). That latter interpretation is more in keeping with the allusion to Shakespeare, for Hamlet recognizes his own mental incapacity to express love.

    In the scene, Hamlet is referring to his own duplicity. Although he once loved Ophelia, his schemes to revenge his father's death preoccupy him to such an extent that he no longer has the imaginative or mental life to express or experience love. So, while telling Ophelia to place herself in a nunnery, he admits to having sinned against her, confessing to “more offenses … than I have thoughts to put them in” (Act III, Scene i, 11, 124-25). Benn's linking the cartoon to the contemporary situation is appropriate because, as Elaine Safer points out, the cartoon “mocks the idealization of women, the heroic quest, the glorious classical tradition and its ramifications, including its emphasis on science as a positive means of understanding the universe and human nature as well” (207).

  12. For the modern person, the historically appropriate thing to do may, as in the case of Ken's father, Rudi, be set out according to the premises of primitivism. Rudi surrenders to the “Given,” the prevailing sentiment that establishes “a force of nature” (38) as divine. Borrowing forceful street lingo, Ken mocks his father for becoming “an outstanding cocksman” (65) with a “world-historical cock” (40).

  13. For an excellent discussion of how Matilda is first idealized and then attacked, see Dieter Schulz, 45.

  14. The word “fabrications” is reified in the text. It usually refers to people, for instance, who are busy keeping up appearances (219); modeling themselves after the most attractive stars and intellectuals (255); and becoming “‘fabricated persons'” (330). There are also references to false worlds (187), false situations (198), and images of beauty that the mental life produces (57). In a conversation with a Newsweek interviewer, Bellow stated: “‘The disorder in the novel I've just written is embodied in a distinction between true and fabricated persons. A true person has access to his inmost nature, a fabricated person acts through masks'” (“Bellow: The Quest” 79).

Works Cited

Bakhtin, Mikhail. The Dialogic Imagination. Trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Austin: U of Texas P, 1981.

Bellow, Saul. “The Civilized Barbarian Reader.” New York Times Book Review 8 Mar. 1987; 1, 38.

———. More Die of Heartbreak. New York: Morrow, 1987.

“Bellow: ‘The Quest Never Stops.’” Rev. of More Die of Heartbreak, by Saul Bellow, Newsweek 8 June 1987: 79.

Bloom, Allan. The Closing of the American Mind. New York: Simon, 1987.

Clark, Katerina and Michael Holquist. Mikhail Bakhtin. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1984.

Ewald, Helen Rothschild. “Waiting for Answerability: Bakhtin Composition and Composition Studies.” College 44.3 (Oct. 1993): 48.

“Didactic Drone Deflects Bellow.” Rev. of More Die of Heartbreak, by Saul Bellow, Chatelaine Sept. 1987: 10.

Fuchs, Daniel. “More Die of Heartbreak and the Question of Later Bellow.” Saul Bellow Journal. 11.1 (1992): 21-34.

Gray, Paul. “Victims of Contemporary Life.” Time 15 June 1987: 71.

Morson, Gary Saul. “Parody, History, and Metaparody.” Rethinking Bakhtin: Extensions and Challenges. Ed. Gary Saul Morson and Caryl Emerson. Evanston, IL.: Northwestern UP, 1989, 63-86.

Newman, Judie. “From Psyche to Psycho: Saul Bellow and the Degradation of Love.” Saul Bellow Journal 11.1 (1992): 9-20.

Rafferty, Terrence. “Hearts and Minds.” New Yorker 27 July 1987: 89-91.

Robinson, John A. T. “Can a Truly Contemporary Person Not Be an Atheist?” The Twentieth Century. Ed. Donald S. Gochberg. New York: Harcourt, 1980, 422-37.

Rowe, Thomas M. “The Dark Fire: Poe's Links to Hitchcock.” The Poe Messenger 15.1 (Autumn 1985): 4-10.

Safer, Elaine B. “From Poem to Cartoon: Comic Irony in Saul Bellow's More Die of Heartbreak.Critique 34.4 (Summer 1993): 203-19.

Sahlins, Marshal. The Use and Abuse of Biology: An Anthropological Critique of Sociobiology. Ann Arbor: Michigan UP, 1976.

Sanoff, Alvin P. “The Reigning King of Literature.” U.S. News and World Report 7 Sept. 1987: 52-53.

Schulz, Dieter. “The Poe Connection in Bellow's More Die of Heartbreak.Saul Bellow Journal. 11.1 (1992): 41-51.

Tanner, Stephen. “The Religious Vision of More Die of Heartbreak.Saul Bellow—the 1980s. Ed. Gloria Cronin and L. H. Goldman. East Lansing: Michigan State University, 1989: 283-96.

Thielicke, Helmut. Nihilism. New York: Harper, 1961.

Martin Corner (essay date spring 2000)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6744

SOURCE: Corner, Martin. “The Novel and Public Truth: Saul Bellow's The Dean's December.Studies in American Fiction 28, no. 1 (spring 2000): 113-28.

[In the following essay, Corner traces Bellow's progression from examining “individual consciousness to public truth” in The Dean's December.]

Can the novel, at the end of the twentieth century, still speak public truth? This is a question that has haunted Saul Bellow's fiction since Joseph, in Dangling Man, could find no connection between his private experience and the historic realities of war. But it is more than an issue for a single writer. The conscious problem of our culture since Bellow's first fiction appeared in the 1940s has been the survival of the individual before the dominating public realities of political and economic power, and this is a problem that Bellow, in his first novel, forcefully identified. For the novel as a literary form, however, the problem has been the inversion of that. For fiction, the secure ground has been private experience; more and more the novel has withdrawn into the particularities of individual consciousness, has surrendered the larger issues to politics, history, and cultural theory. Though Bellow's fiction recognizes the novel's historic investment in individual experience—his own work is centered on a succession of powerful individualities, such as Henderson, Herzog, and Sammler—it has nevertheless always been his aim to characterize the public life of the age, to make some statement of larger truth. The public understanding of contemporary experience is an aspiration that neither Bellow's characters nor their creator have ever abandoned.1

But how can the novel move from the private and subjective to public statement? The Dean's December engages this problem directly, and, I shall argue, embodies an answer. This is a novel which, since its publication in 1982, has often been unfavorably judged as displaying what are claimed to be Bellow's characteristic failings: of characterization, of tone, of the achievement of a proper distance between creation and polemic. Bellow has been accused of writing a solipsistic fiction, dominated by the consciousness of one individual who is presented uncritically and who, in important respects, may be Bellow himself. The result, it is argued, is a univocal fictional world, in which other characters, events and places are reduced to the perceptions and meanings of the central consciousness; where, finally, public reality is excluded by the weight of an idiosyncratic individualism which is Bellow's own (see, for example, the discussions by Jonathan Wilson and John Updike).2 My contention is that in The Dean's December Bellow shows himself aware of this danger. He tries to plot a route from individual consciousness to public truth, and he does so by freeing both the central character and the novel itself from an inappropriate burden of totalizing explanation, so as to clarify the true resources of the novel for engaging with the public reality of the world.

For the novelist the road to public truth necessarily lies through private consciousness, and Bellow's point of departure is Dean Corde, who is attempting the same journey. Like the novel, Corde is trying to move from the enclosure of private awareness to truthful general statement, to the word that his time needs to hear. But how should he measure his success? Bellow has a clear criterion; there is for him one fact of shared experience which tests both the individual's ability to engage with the common terms of existence and the novel's ability to declare the truth of the age, and that is the fact of death. For Bellow death is the central public fact of the age, the hard kernel of twentieth century history. The life of the time is written in loss and death, on a scale and with a pervasiveness that confound both individual consciousness and the resources of fiction.3 It is in these terms that one must give an account of Chicago in the 1970s and of Bucharest under Ceausescu; the bottom line, in both cases, is human dereliction, violence, murder. Bellow's practice insists that we will know when an individual has found a way through to this common reality; there will be an adequation of consciousness to the enormity of the public fact. In the same way it will be possible to recognize fiction that has breached the bounds of individualistic subjectivity to enter the common domain; the lineaments of the age will be recognizable in the novel's adequacy to historic loss and death.

If loss and death are the object, the test of the public truth to be attained, they also identify for Bellow the means for the attainment of that object; it is through an enactment of loss that the individual, and the novel as an expressive form, discovers a route from private awareness to public understanding. This movement begins in apparent strength. Like Bellow in his fiction, Corde begins in possession of impressive discursive resources for a truthful and inclusive account of his world. As he draws on the understandings of historians, philosophers, social theorists, criminologists, a totalizing truth seems within reach; Corde in his essays, like Bellow in his intellectually acute and articulate fiction, promises us the summative truth of our age. But this power is stripped away, laid aside under the pressure of loss and of death, and only thus can the reality of public truth be attained. A word exists for this paradoxical fulfilment of power through its relinquishment, and that word is kenosis: an emptying, a pouring out.4


What must be relinquished, both by Corde and by the novel itself, is any claim to a totality of explanation. Bellow is clear that the strongest bid to be the voice of public truth in the contemporary world comes from the discourse of theorizing interpretation in its various forms, journalistic and academic. Drawing as it does on a conglomerate of ideas and interpretations from historians, political scientists, psychologists, philosophers, and social theorists, this discourse aspires to an inclusive account of the world: its ambitions are total. Yet for Bellow its failure is equally total; no real understanding is conveyed.5

This force is represented in the novel by Dewey Spangler, whose aspiration it is to rise above the level of journalism to become a philosopher-commentator in the tradition of André Malraux, able to cast an interpretative eye across all areas of contemporary experience from society to politics to developments in the arts, linking private experience and public event in a seamless account of the twentieth-century world. In the article that he writes after his meeting with Corde in Bucharest, Spangler ranges through personal reminiscence, psychology, recent history, contemporary social politics, technological change, even urbanology. He invokes the intellectual inheritance of the West by naming Rousseau, Kant, Ortega, Benda and Malraux.6 Nothing is excluded and everything may be evidence for a conspectus that acknowledges no limits.

As his treatment of Spangler shows, Bellow has profound objections to such inclusive enterprises. But the hubris of theorizing interpretation is not for him its only, or even most important, failing. It can only attain to the totality that it seeks by becoming depersonalized, by adopting a position away from any specific location in the world. Theory claims to speak for everyone, to be general truth; but this everyone is also no one. The most inclusive account of things is everyone's truth and no one's, without rooting in the understandings of any particular life. This Bellow exemplifies in Spangler's article. Though it starts from friendship and personal reminiscence, it is, as Corde instantly registers, an act of betrayal; it makes of the personal simply more grist to the mill of high-level theorizing, more evidence for the total interpretation toward which it aspires. Nor is this a specific deficiency in Spangler; all that he is doing is to follow the grain of the discourse that he inhabits, which is founded on the exclusion of the personal and the individual, even when it speaks of the personal and the individual.

It is that exclusion which makes theorizing discourse a tempting answer to the individualist enclosure of the novel, and Bellow has on occasions succumbed to that temptation. But The Dean's December stands as a surrender of the ambition to total explanation, both for the main character and for the novel itself. Through an individual and a textual kenosis, Bellow's text works to clarify the true weight of the novel in the public discourse of its time.


Corde begins as the articulate, concerned humanist, the interpreter equipped with all the necessary tools; he feels the historical obligation of the American man of letters to speak the word required by his time. But he finds himself in Romania, where his equipment is less obviously apposite, and his initial sense of the redundancy of his interpretations becomes a deeper loss as he lives out a rehearsal of death.

Through the days of Valeria's dying he is dispossessed of the grand theoretical ambition to make inclusive sense of the world; and this takes place in a country where dispossession is the unrelenting daily reality of people's lives. In Bucharest Corde sees the layered debris of dead eras, held vestigially in the aging memories of those who are themselves relics of the past. Beneath Ceausescu's Romania lie early idealistic communism, Iron Guard fascism, the nineteenth-century Paris-worshipping bourgeoisie, the ancient inheritance of Byzantium. Under the weight of the present dictatorship all these are as flat as the corpses of the rats squashed in the earthquake. To be a Romanian, Corde realizes, is to live within historical stripping and divestment, to be haunted by worlds that have been denounced, ignored, torn away or buried.

On a personal level, there is the same dispossession. Valeria has lost her early political hopes, her government job, her standing in society, her husband, her daughter, and now her ability to speak or to move; finally she confronts, with full awareness, the loss of her life. Minna is about to lose her mother, Gigi her sister. Back in Chicago Ricky Lester has lost his life, and his wife her husband; even Dewey Spangler, following surgery, is forced to take a forward look to his own dissolution, and Corde's cousin, Max Detillion, is moving down the same track, facing “neither virus nor bacteria, but erotic collapse” (71). Dewey makes Corde aware of his own accumulated losses: the early promise only partly fulfilled, the brilliant career he might have had. Even the Chicago in which they grew up has vanished under the polished grandeur of the present, and the youthful Dewey has also gone: “since then each of them had died at least three or four times” (122).

Corde's own experience is a progressive divesting, beginning with his hurried departure from Chicago and his arrival in Bucharest. There the normal supports of his life are withdrawn. A man of words, he has no Romanian and cannot speak; a journalist addicted to events, he cannot read the newspapers. He is unable to feed even on simple observation; for fear of the Securitate, Minna warns him not to walk the streets, and he is effectively confined to one room. Worst of all, his ideas and theories no longer fit the world in which he finds himself; as an explainer and interpreter, he is deprived of the power to interpret or explain. Guesswork is all that remains to him, hunches about why the hospital-manager Colonel behaves as he does, or why the concierge Ioanna both betrays Valeria's family and loves them. In all these ways, Corde has to learn to do without, and the ineluctable cold of a Bucharest apartment in late December gives all these deprivations a tangible force.

At the heart of Corde's kenosis, though, is a vicarious dying, a rehearsal of death. This is foreshadowed by his uncomfortable memory of falling into the sea while fishing with the child Mason Zaehner on Cape Cod. Though less finally than Valeria in the hospital or Rick Lester as he plunges from the window, Corde has had the experience of seeing the world pass from his control, of falling into what might have been a final dispossession: “the great weight of the dark green water, and the sky upside down, vast clouds, bottoms up … he couldn't get a grip in the slime of the breakwater, and the boy was too small to help” (54).

But Corde's true induction into death comes through his involvement with the deaths of Ricky Lester and Valeria. Corde admits himself touched by Lester's death to a degree that he would not have expected: “his feelings took him by surprise. Something seemed to be working its way upward. … The pressure on his heart was especially heavy, unpleasantly hot and repulsively melting. He had no use for such sensations; he certainly didn't want the kid's death bristling over him like this” (33). It is as though the boy's death has entered Corde's body. He tries to understand this in his usual way, by converting the experience into a general theory: “Corde believed that it was the evil that had overtaken the boy that did it” (33), an evil which characterizes contemporary reality as a whole. But his reaction to Ricky's corpse is inescapable personal; there is a look on the dead boy's face that he cannot explain except as the instant recognition of absolute loss.

Valeria's dying takes Corde even deeper into death. He has time to imagine all the stages of dispossession as they must be for her, the loss of the power to speak, to see, to move, to write even a few letters on a page: “no control, thought Corde. Can't manage” (129). After her death, Valeria's rings are sawn from her fingers. Corde imagines her cremation as a final and brutal stripping-down: “at this very instant Valeria might be going into the fire, the roaring furnace which took off her hair, the silk scarf, grabbed away the green suit, melted the chased silver buttons, consumed the skin, flashed away the fat, blew up the organs, reached the bones, bore down on the skull” (218).

Corde shares this reduction as he lives through the dereliction of these days; the unnatural heat and cold of the crematorium, the wintry desolation of the cemetery, the presence of the impoverished and decayed mourners from a defunct world all work on him to dissolve his resistance to a brutal and invasive reality. Interpretative ingenuity seems beside the point. Meanings become irrelevant and only the crudest choices have any weight: “as between frost and flames, weren't flames better?” (211).


Corde lives through a rehearsal of death and comes to know the reality of loss. Yet his experience makes it no easier for him to say what his times need to hear. Confronted as he is by the death-founded realities of communist Romania and of Chicago hardened to the casual killing of a young woman locked in the trunk of a car, he finds that he has less and less to say. Alongside his personal kenosis, his sharing in the dispossession of the dying, Corde loses his aspiration to offer a totalizing account of his world; he ceases to believe in the power of discursive interpretation to encompass contemporary reality.

Corde is “a man of words,” but now words seem not to help him any more; they seem “words of the wrong kind” (65). Deprived of Western papers, he only half-misses his daily fix of news: “he was really in two minds about the news. At home he read too many papers. He was better off without his daily dose of world botheration, sham happenings, without newspaper phrases. Nothing true—really true—could be said in the papers” (58). Corde feels betrayed by that currency of theorizing discourse which overlooks the immediate and the particular in favor of the total, which becomes an evasion of the truth of experience: “the increase of theories and discourse, itself a cause of new strange forms of blindness, the false representations of ‘communication,’ led to horrible distortions of public consciousness” (124). Yet he knows that theorizing is a perpetual itch with him; it threatens to swamp his conversation with the American ambassador, who “listened to Corde's explanations (or bombast), but obviously he didn't care to discuss Western humanism, civilized morality, nihilism East and West” (68). Corde himself acknowledges that “this kind of abnormal, professorial Plato-and-Aristotle stuff is the kiss of death” (104).

But where is the way out of this facile pseudo-understanding? In his Harper's articles Corde has attempted to escape the depersonalizing clutch of theory through descriptions of the horrors of contemporary Chicago: the prison, the County Hospital, the drug rehabilitation center. Here Corde the journalist works from the literary tradition of naturalist description, a tradition which in its time made a bold claim to be public truth. Naturalism claims authority by recording a public world as it is, with all its deformations; and Corde detects in himself a sense that this is his mission, “as if he had been sent down to mind the outer world, on a mission of observation and notation” (208). This is a tradition that claims to discard theorizing; it makes sense of the world by displaying an unarguable, objective reality:

The ancient County Hospital, yellow, broad and squat. The surrounding neighborhoods have decayed and fallen down. In the plain of collapse, this mass stands almost alone. Beyond the clearings the giant forms of the business district are gathered close. Between the antennae of the Sears Tower a rotating light blinks out. The weather is gray.


Dereliction, decay, desertion, exclusion: it is as though the objects themselves were their own interpretation. Theory is not needed; brutal realities speak for themselves.

But Corde finds himself as uneasy with these passages of supposedly unarguable truth as he is with his freewheeling theorizing. No less than his interpretations, these descriptions reflect his own compulsions; behind them lies a reading of reality no less personal or a priori. Naturalist description deals in the representative; it converts particulars into instances of some precedent truth. In that sense, it is a kind of theorizing. Its apparent objectivity is therefore vulnerable to the personal view, the private obsession, and Corde finds himself guilty in that respect. He sees that his descriptions did not come from meticulous observation and “nonattachment,” but from “objectivity (no, impartiality) intoxicated” (163); his very wish to be detached has become driven and obsessive. “Something had come over him” (165), and that something was an emotional need to heighten and intensify.

Each detail of his account of the dialysis ward at the County Hospital now strikes him as self-indulgent, as loaded with personal need and impulse, and so betraying the public truth that the articles were supposed to convey: “I am guided by a Filipino nurse through old tunnels, baked dry by mammoth boilers. The pipes drip rusty water. By the door of the morgue, wheeled stretchers line the walls. The dried blood would be scraped from them if there were staff enough, but there is no money” (166). Pathos is now in the ascendent, and feeling has come to operate as a false guarantor of truth. This Valeria has spotted: “he went over the passages marked by Valeria to see whether they formed a pattern. She would have been more interested in his emotions, his character, than in Chicago” (165). The pattern revealed is an emotional one; she has marked his outbursts and understood that the manner of the article has more to do with Corde than with Chicago. He asks himself why Harper's should be expected to print “this sort of stuff” (168).

In such passages pathos overlies theory, but only to conceal it; and Corde comes to see that neither theory nor pathos will give him the truth of his world. As he looks back from the forced detachment of Bucharest, Corde realizes that the more intensely he felt about the fate of the Chicago underclass, the more his analysis of their lot went askew: “something went wrong. He wrote about whirling souls and became a whirling soul himself, lifted up, caught up, spinning, streaming with passions, compulsive protests, inspirations. He experienced, as he saw when he looked back, a kind of air anarchy” (192). The discursive anarchy of limitless interpretation is found to be complicit with an inner anarchy of feeling, and both reflect, rather than describe, the anarchic world that they set out to understand.


By such a route Corde comes to distrust the project of totalizing interpretation. In the theoretical looseness and emotional indulgence of his commentary on the contemporary world, Corde now sees yet another feature of its disorder, of the end-time in which every indulgence is permitted. This strikes him most painfully after Valeria's death and burial, at the end of his conversation with Vlada. Even his concern for virtue and vice now seems to him no more than whimsically personal, another self-indulgence within the general disintegration: “I personally think about virtue, about vice. I feel free to. Released, perhaps, by all the crashing. And in fact everybody has come under the spell of ‘last days.’ Isn't that what the anarchy of Chicago means?” (274).

It is Minna's grief at the death of her mother that brings home to Corde just how stripped he is of the power to interpret and explain. In the face of her loss no explanations or generalizations will help, and there is no place for factitious emotion; at this most painful moment in his wife's life, the expert explainer is reduced to silence. She appeals to him: “Can you help me to deal with this a little? … It's black in the room, and even blacker and worse outside. It goes on and on and on, out there.” Corde is the one who should have the answers, but “swamped with death he was supposed to bail out with a kitchen cup of psychology” (252-53). The virtuoso of human meanings does his best; he talks of schizoid modern personality, of Jung's comparison of the civilized psyche to a tapeworm, identical in all its segments. But from Minna comes the most direct denunciation of his entire discursive habit: “What comfort is it to hear that everybody is some kind of schizophrenic tapeworm? I tell you how horrible my mother's death is, and the way you comfort me is to say everything is monstrous. You make me a speech. And it's a speech I've heard more than once … You lecture me. You lecture. I could make you these speeches now” (259-60).

Corde leaves Bucharest stripped of his journalistic-academic ambition, to give an inclusive interpretation of his world. Yet this kenotic reduction leaves him free to recognize what theory might have prevented him seeing: the enormity of the fact of death, on a personal level in his wife's loss, and by extension as the founding reality of the public world. Death so encountered is not a theory or an explanation but absence; nevertheless an absence which is pervasive and corroding. It constitutes a link between private experience and public truth; through Valeria's death and Minna's loss, Corde comes to recognize a deadly presumption underlying human affairs: that some are properly consigned to death. Whether in Bucharest or Chicago, the deep unspoken division in human society is between the doomed, those who are tacitly assumed to be disposable, and those who do the disposing. Minna is blinded by her grief, but that is the public truth of things:

He saw how it was, undisguised, when she looked at him—the blank of death. Her mother's death had taught her death. Triviality was insupportable to her. Her judgment was rigorous, angry. She wanted no part of his journalism, articles, squalor. Suburban pimps or smart-ass lawyers beneath contempt and the great hordes, even of the doomed, of no concern to her, nor the city of destruction, nor its assaults, arsons, prisons and deaths.


The theorizing is brushed aside, but for Corde the fact of recognition remains: whether in Bucharest or Chicago, it is taken as read that there are those for whom death is proper.

Corde sees this with increasing vividness as the novel proceeds, but he does not translate his insight into theory or make it the pivot of an explanation of his world. It comes to him as a recognition out of numerous specific encounters; its impact is silencing, it leaves him less willing to speak. The Corde who has this recognition is no richer than he was before; his stock of understandings has not been increased, his ability to verbalize in the manner of Spangler is diminished, not enhanced. The kenosis continues even in the moment of public and historical recognition. But this stripping-away allows for the re-emergence of a world no longer hidden behind the project of totalizing interpretation. He goes back to Chicago released to a personal truth: “the world began to edge back again, to reveal itself … he was minutely aware of things, and the source of this awareness was in his equilibrium, a very extensive kind of composure” (278). At the core of this equilibrium is a new capacity to face death, learned among the shades of Bucharest. He sits on the porch of his Chicago apartment and looks across the lake: “Did the bars remind you of jail? They also kept you from falling to your death” (286). Death is still there, and the bars will not save him for ever; but he finds in himself a way of contemplating death that is not horror at the murderous anarchy of the Chicago streets or the political massacres of Eastern Europe. Looking across the water is “like being poured out to the horizon, like a great expansion. What if death should be like this, the soul finding an exit. The porch rail was his figure for the hither side. The rest, beyond it, drew you constantly as the completion of your reality” (286).

Corde's rehearsal of death has not ended with his departure from Bucharest, yet without the Bucharest experience he would not have reached this point. That was where, most brutally, the pouring out began; but he has to go further, and when he reaches Mount Palomar with Minna, he is reminded of how radical that emptying has to be. They ride up to the telescope, into the great dome, and Corde recalls the dome of the crematorium:

He came inevitably back to the crematorium, that rounded top and its huge circular floor, the feet of stiffs sticking through the curtains, the blasting heat underneath where they were disposed of, the killing cold when you returned and thought your head was being split by an ax. But that dome never opened. You could pass through only as smoke.


There mortality had all the worst implications; it was both final confinement and futile dissolution. But at Mount Palomar “the living heavens looked as if they would take you in. Another sort of rehearsal, thought Corde. The sky was tense with stars, but not so tense as he was, in his breast. Everything overhead was in equilibrium, kept in place by mutual tensions. What was it that his tensions kept in place?” Human tension is no longer antithetical to the nature of things, a species of anarchy; instead it is part of an order larger than itself, “as if you were being informed that what was spread over you had to do with your existence, down to the very blood and the crystal forms inside your bones” (306).

At the close of his journey through the novel Corde has found a way of contemplating death, a balance within that may be adequate to the personal fact of loss. He has also been shown the common grounding of worlds as different as those of Bucharest and Chicago in the consignment of some to death. But his mystical inner vision is unshareable (he does not even offer it to Minna), and his recognition of what cultures will always deny is exactly that—a recognition, not an abstraction out of which explanations can be spun. Certainly neither the vision nor the recognition provides him with any language in which to deal truthfully with the public pain of Chicago. Corde's mystical gaze has been eastward across the lake; but “at his back [is] the city, unquiet, the slum and its armies just over the way: blacks, Koreans, East Indians, Chippewas, Thais and hillbillies, squad cars, ambulances, firefighters, thrift shops, drug hustlers, lousy bars, alley filth” (279-80). There violence, desolation and death are not suspended; Corde, in his moment of private illumination, has (literally) turned his back on them.


So Corde's project fails: he does not find a way from individual consciousness to a truthful and adequate public statement. His induction into death as a constitutive given of human affairs does not issue in the defining truths that his Harper's articles had groped for; the mystical language of inner composure has nothing to say to public violence and social desolation. But Bellow's novel goes beyond the frustration of Corde's enterprise. Starting as it must from the focused individuality of his vision, it builds beyond that to a level of statement that engages with the central historical realities of the twentieth century.

The necessary step is for the novel to undergo its own kenosis; to relinquish, like Corde, any ambition to a totalizing interpretation of the world. This begins in Corde's abnegation of interpretative authority; what Corde gives up, the novel can hardly retain. But the novel's self-divestment goes further than that of the main character. There is also a kenosis specific to the text, and it has to do with the dominance of individual awareness. Though Corde provides the perspective from which the world of the novel is seen, his control is not complete; subtly but pervasively, the novel relinquishes the limitation of that perspective, moves beyond it into an area that Corde does not construct. Though Bellow never forgets that the novel begins from individual perception, his delicate management of point of view enables him to establish a level of common experience, and with that the possibility of public truth. Formally this is done by constant movement between the main character's perceptions and observations that, though available to him, do not depend upon him. A passage such as that describing the arrival at the cemetery illustrates this very clearly. My italics indicate only those parts of the passage that depend strictly on Corde:

So they set off in a group. They walked through the cemetery. It was dense with stones and obelisks. The newer monuments were protected from the weather by heavy plastic sheets fastened with belts and ropes, and rattling in the wind. In Chicago, middleclass families covered their furniture with this material; here it was the obelisks and their fresh gilt inscriptions that were protected. No melancholy pleasant winter sunshine now, the weather again turned dark, windy. At the Raresh grave more mourners were waiting.

Considering the season, the color of the grass was surprisingly fresh. Could there be some special source of warmth underneath? There were tapers in large numbers, leaning every which way. Some were sheltered in lanterns but the gusts came down on the rest. The old cousins had seated themselves on benches, and the gypsy beggars crowded up behind—a wild lot, but that was customary, so no special notice was taken of their demented behavior.


The kenosis exemplified here is of the novel itself. As Bellow's narrative steps away from Corde, it leaves behind his project of inclusive interpretation, his inability to resist each significant detail, each telling contrast or comparison. The project of inclusive interpretation is identified as a function of Corde's individuality; this is how his mind naturally engages the world. But the novel opens up a territory beyond that, an area not of interpretation but of common recognition. Beginning from Corde's experience, from his induction into death, the novel deploys that experience to illumine a public world; what he has learnt as an individual functions within the novel as a perspective from which the historic truth of dispossession and loss becomes visible. But it is made visible not as explanation, not as theory, but as a directed perception of a world.

It is here that the novel finds its authority for public statement. Because it is rooted in individual perception, the perspective of the novel will have location and direction; it will be recognizably partial, unable as a form to aspire to total interpretation, whatever the ambitions of the individuality it represents. But because fiction can go beyond the individuality which is its point of origin, it is able to establish common ground and the truth of that ground. We, as readers, are also perceivers of Corde's world; we share his perceptions but we also go beyond them in the interweaving of Bellow's narrative. We are invited into an area of common perception; and in that area we can make common connections and discover shared meaning.


It is in this dimension of the text that Bellow is able to realize a truth that transcends the enclosure of individualism, whether of character or of novelistic form. How this transition is accomplished is well illustrated in a passage such as the following, also from the scene in the cemetery. A workman attempts to place Valeria's ashes in a niche in the memorial stone:

Regulations must have changed since the stone was raised. The cylinder was too large. Uncle Teo and others moved in to examine the difficulty. There was just a shade of difference in the dimensions and if only a few chips of granite were knocked away from the opening the tube might slide in. On instructions from Uncle Teo and the cousins, the workman applied his chisel, tapped once or twice and then swung his hammer widely—two, three blows. Fragments sprang from the back of the monument, and then the material around the socket crumbled. This was not granite, it was cement. The rounded shoulder of the monument came off, slid down. Gigi did not faint away but she slumped against Corde … Now the lashed sheets of plastic over the surrounding obelisks clattered hard as if to give it away that it was not solid marble they were protecting but a façade.


Almost nothing of this (after the first sentence) is Corde's; though the manner is that of naturalism, there is now nothing of the controlling obsession, the distortion toward pathos, that marked Corde's account of the County Hospital. Instances are not being stacked up as evidence of some prior judgment, nor are details being made to carry Corde's personal feeling. Bellow's description is entirely particular; yet the passage conveys much of the truth of Ceausescu's Romania, a public truth of history overshadowed by the pervasive twentieth century realities of loss and death. The domination of arbitrary rules; the surviving strength of families and connections; shoddiness and general incompetence; individual resourcefulness against the odds; the sham appearance of grandeur; violence; decay; the casual disregard of human feeling; the mounting human cost in loss and disappointment, enduringly born: all this and more is there, and it comes not from Corde but from the texture of the narrative as it lays aside the priority of his perspective and establishes common ground beyond it. There is in this a kenosis of the text which is typically that of the novel; as it relinquishes its dependence on its founding strength, its access to individual awareness, so it attains a larger truth.

The truth of the common ground opened within Bellow's novel is the presence and power of death as a working presumption in human societies, however much they, in their different ways (America or Romania) trumpet the possibilities of life. This truth begins in Corde's recognitions but goes beyond them; as Bellow takes us beyond Corde's interpretations, into the crumbling poverty of underclass Chicago or the desolation of a Bucharest cemetery, he enforces a constitutive truth of the century, a truth of the public realm. But Bellow's novel rises to this level of public statement not by theoretical interpretation or by becoming a texture of symbol (none of these details ceases to be what it is); instead it offers us particulars in which we see a pattern that has meaning but which is not dependent on any previous interpretation. Whatever abstractions or generalizations follow, they will be ours. There is a parallel here between the position of the controlling consciousness in the novel, and the position of the reader. Just as the novel must begin from some individual perspective, so reading can only take place from the perspective of the reader. But as the novel is able to go beyond the individuality that founds it, so our reading has to go beyond the meanings and interpretations that we bring to the text; and in both cases, the movement is into an area of common reality that does not negate the individuality either of character or reader but connects individuals in the recognition of a shared world.

Corde's personal preoccupations prevent him from speaking the truth about Chicago; but through that same individuality, partial and personal as it is, Bellow advances to a shared reality and captures a public truth of its time. Most importantly, this is the truth of the complicity of twentieth century societies with a silent presumption for death; but he also, and rarely for a Western writer, catches some of the truth of a particular society at a particular time. Bellow's novel captures the surreal semi-detached satellitism of Ceausescu's 1970s Romania, of a communist state lazy in its ideology but energetic in its brutality, built on a past not obliterated but contemptuously disregarded, on the relegation of humane instinct to a matter of bureaucratic indifference. He catches the combination of patriotic idealism with foreign coercion, of spurious claims to independence with ruthless internal repression, of headline-winning grandiosity with poverty and squalor. Bellow's novel conveys all this not as a matter of theory but as recognition; yet it is more than an individual truth. According to the manner of the novel, we are given entry to this world through the eyes of an individual, but what we see is the public truth of a society rooted and mired in its history, complicit in all its aspects with the pervasive realities of loss and death.


  1. For example, Bellow's comment in his essay “There Is Simply Too Much to Think About” (1992): “We feel heavy when we recognize the limits of our effectiveness in the public sphere, when we acknowledge the weight of the burden laid upon us and the complexities we have to take into account—when we become aware of the impoverished state of public discussion” (171). Saul Bellow, It All Adds Up (New York: Penguin Books, 1995), 170-77.

  2. John Updike, “Toppling Towers Seen by a Whirling Soul,” Hugging the Shore: Essays and Criticism (London: Penguin Books, 1985), 255-63; Jonathan Wilson, “Bellow's Dangling Dean,” Literary Review 26, no. 1 (1982), 165-75.

  3. That Bellow sees death as the public fact that challenges consciousness is clear from a comment such as this, from his essay “The Distracted Public” (1990): “In an age of enormities, the emotions are naturally weakened. We are continually called upon to have feelings—about genocide, for instance, or about famine or the blowing up of passenger planes—and we are all aware that we are incapable of reacting appropriately. A guilty conscience of emotional inadequacy or impotence makes people doubt their own human weight” (156). In It All Adds Up, 153-69.

  4. The primary text is Paul's Epistle to the Philippians, 2: 6-8, where the idea is related directly to the experience of death; Paul interprets Christ's kenosis, his emptying himself of the glory of God, as defined by his acceptance of crucifixion: “who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant … and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross” (RSV 1946).

  5. See, for example, this comment from “The Distracted Public”: “Of course, the ceaseless world crisis, otherwise known as the chaos of the present age, is not the work of the communications industry and its Information Revolution; but for our peculiar pseudoknowledge of what is happening, for the density of our ignorance, and for the inner confusion and centerlessness of our understanding, for our agitation, the communicators are responsible. Intellectuals and universities, from the ideological side, also have much to answer for” (160).

  6. Saul Bellow, The Dean's December (London: Penguin Books, 1982), 293-99. Hereafter cited parenthetically.

Penelope Fitzgerald (review date 15 April 2000)

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SOURCE: Fitzgerald, Penelope. “When I Am Old and Gay and Full of Sleep.” Spectator (15 April 2000): 43-4.

[In the following review, Fitzgerald proclaims Ravelstein a novel about friendship.]

Old age, on the whole, is not a time to be recommended, but very old novelists are allowed to write about what they like and at the age of 85 Saul Bellow [in Ravelstein] is interested in illnesses and their recent treatment and patients who are ‘blindly recovery-bent, who have the deep and special greed of the sick when they have decided not to die’. If they have things left to do, that will be a way of keeping themselves alive.

His Mid-Western narrator is Chick, Old Chick, an unassuming scribbler with Bellow's own familiar, puzzled, confiding, deeply beguiling voice, talking half to us, half to himself. He has undertaken to write a memoir of his younger friend, Professor Abe Ravelstein, a scholarly but grossly successful teacher and writer. Unlike Chick, Ravelstein is a human being on a giant scale. Even his hands tremble, ‘not with weakness but with a tremendous eager energy that shook him when it was discharged’. All his life he had wanted—in fact, needed—the best of everything: Vuitton luggage, Cuban cigars, solid gold Mont Blanc pens, Lalique wine-glasses. Naturally this had got him into financial trouble. Chick had suggested that he might try a book based on his lecture notes. Abe did so, and became tremendously rich. It is rather difficult to envisage this book, which is said to have sold millions in both hemispheres, but Ravelstein belongs, like Bellow's Henderson the Rain King, to a mythical world which seems to await discovery behind the real one, or is perhaps the more real of the two.

Bellow once wrote that

it's obvious to everyone that the stature of characters in modern novels is smaller than it once was and this diminution powerfully concerns those who value existence. I do not believe that the human capacity to feel or do can really have dwindled or that the quality of humanity has degenerated. I rather think that people appear smaller because society has become so immense.

One of his responses has been to create figures of legend. Abe is only truly himself in Paris, and in Paris at the Crillon and in the Crillon in the penthouse suite. He is bald, he spills his food on the floor, one of his feet is three sizes larger than the other. In a sense, he is treated as a figure of fun, although his success ensures respect for him, and access to high places. Three generations of his students have done well in life, having taken his advice to forget about their families and listen to what he has to tell them about Plato, Maimonides, Machiavelli, Shakespeare, Rousseau and Nietzsche. It sounds a strangely old-fashioned course, but we're told it wasn't an academic programme. It was more free-wheeling than that.

Chick wanders in and out of time, but finally makes it clear that this book about writing a book is dated five years after Ravelstein's death. ‘When I said Kaddish for my parents I had him in mind too.’ During Abe's lifetime he has often appealed to their common Russian Jewish background—‘we had nothing of greater value than this legacy, which was the vastest and most terrible of legacies', but Abe has been adamant in believing in this world only. He has studied Jewish history seriously, but what more can he do?

This does not mean that he is a materialist. ‘You know that he goes for people who have basic passions—who make the tears come into his eyes.’ This interpretation is from Nikki, Ravelstein's handsome youngish lover from Singapore. Whereas Chick has had two marriages, one wretched, one ideally happy, Abe is homosexual, maintaining that ‘a human soul devoid of longing was a soul deformed, deprived of its highest good, sick unto death’.

Eventually his friends are reduced to sitting with him or guiding his wheelchair as they watch him die of Aids.

You would have thought that [he] would want a solemn ‘last days of Socrates’ atmosphere. He had taught the Apology and the Crito so many times. But this was not the time to be somebody else—not even Socrates.

Chick is left with a kind of waking vision of his friend in his university apartment, listening to music, putting on his wondrous custom-made boots, then going outside and laughing with pleasure and astonishment because the birds are making too much noise for him to be heard. I started by saying that this book was about illness, but I see that in fact it is about friendship.

Jonathan Yardley (review date 9-15 April 2000)

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SOURCE: Yardley, Jonathan. “Bellow's Gift.” Washington Post Book World 30, no. 15 (9-15 April 2000): 1-2.

[In the following review, Yardley contends that Ravelstein is less of a novel than a portrait of Bellow's friendship with the writer Allan Bloom.]

It is by now common knowledge in literary and publishing circles that Saul Bellow's new book [Ravelstein], though it has the form of a novel, is in fact a memoir of his intellectual sparring partner and intimate friend Allan Bloom, who died several years ago at the age of 62. Bloom, who achieved notoriety and wealth late in life with the publication of The Closing of the American Mind, was in some respects an unlikely object of Bellow's most heartfelt affections. Yet theirs was a rich friendship, out of which—and as a memorial to which—Bellow has fashioned a rich, loving and affecting book, his first full-length novel since More Die of Heartbreak (1987).

Bloom appears here as Abe Ravelstein: scholar, lecturer, provocateur, mentor, bon vivant. Younger “by twenty years” than Chick, the narrator, he knows that an early death awaits him (he is HIV-positive) and has asked Chick to write his biography: “Ravelstein's legacy to me was a subject—he thought he was giving me a subject, perhaps the best one I ever had, perhaps the best one I ever had, perhaps the only really important one.” He does not want an intellectual biography—“He clearly didn't want me to write about his ideas. He had expounded those fully himself and they're available in his theoretical books”—but a memoir, a reminiscence, which Chick quickly realizes requires “a piecemeal approach.” This book, of course, is what comes of his labors.

Ravelstein/Bloom and Chick/Bellow are intellectually compatible but, in their most private lives, singularly unalike. Chick is a connoisseur of women, most recently married to the lovely Rosamund, many years his junior, a former student of Ravelstein's. Abe is homosexual, though “there were very few indications in his private quarters of [his] sexual preferences” and “he couldn't bear the fluttering of effeminate men.” For this and many other reasons, writing his life's story is a daunting undertaking:

I began … to give some thought to the memoir I had promised to write and wondered how I would go about it—his freaks, quiddities, oddities, his eating, drinking, shaving, dressing and playfully savaging his students. But that isn't much more than his natural history. To me he was brilliant and charming. Others saw him as bizarre, perverse—grinning, smoking, lecturing, overbearing, impatient. Out to undermine the social sciences or other university specialties. He was doomed to die because of his irregular sexual ways. About these he was entirely frank with me, with all his close friends. He was considered, to use a term from the past, an invert. Not a “gay.” He despised playful homosexuality and took a very low view of “gay pride.” There were times when I simply didn't know what to do with his confidences. But then he had chosen me to do his portrait, and when he spoke to me he spoke intimately but also for the record.

For all their differences the men “were close friends—what else needs to be added?” It was “our sense of what was funny that brought us together, but that would have been a thin, anemic way to put it. A joyful noise—immenso giubilo—an outsize joint agreement picked us up together, and it would get you nowhere to try to formulate it.” It is a measure of how faithfully Bellow has portrayed this friendship that this book rings with its laughter and joy, indeed at times is as funny as anything Bellow has ever written, no small accomplishment in and of itself.

The book has no plot to speak of and should not be read by anyone in search of one. We know from the outset that Ravelstein is about to die, and it takes only a few pages for the reader to understand that he has in his hands the book that Chick is struggling to write. Though there is a mild surprise toward the end, when Chick contracts a virulent disease, while on a Caribbean holiday, its purposes are primarily thematic: to remind Chick of his own mortality and to give him an obstacle against which to struggle while meeting his “responsibility” to Ravelstein, i.e., “in order to keep my word I would have to live.”

The book, then, is not a novel but a portrait, presumably written as a novel because this is the form to which Bellow is most accustomed and because it permits him to embroider upon the “truth” in order to make it all the more true. The “piecemeal approach” that Chick chooses to use permits him to accumulate impressions and details as they occur to him, as they seem fit, rather than requiring him to fit them into some tight and orderly pattern. The result is close to impressionistic, though the vigor of Bellow's prose and the raucous humor that echoes through all these pages bear little resemblance to pointillism or any other such artistic device.

For most of his life Ravelstein labored not in obscurity but within the tight confines of his circle of colleagues and student disciples. But now, in his last hours, all that has changed:

“He was now very rich. He had gone public with his ideas. He had written a book—difficult but popular—a spirited, intelligent, warlike book, and it had sold and was still selling in both hemispheres and on both sides of the equator.” Chick gives the book no title, but it is of course Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind: “The popular success of the book drove the academics mad. He exposed the failings of the system in which they were schooled, the shallowness of their historicism, their susceptibility to European nihilism. A summary of his argument was that while you could get an excellent technical training in the U.S.A., liberal education had shrunk to the vanishing point.” The book is the expression, the summation, of everything about its author:

He lived by his ideas. His knowledge was real, and he documented it chapter and verse. He was here to give aid, to clarify and move, and to make certain if he could that the greatness of humankind would not entirely evaporate in well-being, et cetera. There was nothing of the average in Ravelstein's life. He did not accept dullness and boredom. Nor was depression tolerated. He did not put up with low moods.

He is an extraordinary character, one to take his place alongside Augie March and Henderson and, most particularly, Humboldt, the poet whom Bellow modeled upon another lost friend, Delmore Schwartz. He is a lover of the finest material goods, yet he is also an absentminded klutz who buys a $4,500 jacket (“A beautiful flannel, it was silky as well as substantial”) in Paris and promptly does it in:

Abe went for his third espresso serre when the waiter set it down; his big, unskillful hand gripped the little cup as he carried it to his mouth. I would have given big odds on the outcome if a bet had been offered. Brown stains appeared on the lapel of his new coat. It was unpreventable—a fatality. He was still drinking the espresso; his head was far back. I kept my mouth shut, turning away from the large brown blot on the Lanvin coat. Another sort of man might have sensed at once that something had happened—someone, perhaps, who took money more seriously and who would feel somehow the responsibility involved in the wearing of a $4,500 garment. Ravelstein's neckties from Hermes or Ermenegildo Zegna were dotted with cigarette burns. I tried to interest him in bow ties. I said they would be protected under his chin. He saw the point, but he wouldn't buy ready-mades: he had never learned to tie a “papillon” (as he called it). “My fingers are too unsteady,” he said.

That amazing paragraph contains almost everything one could want to know about Ravelstein, about Chick's knowledge of and love for Ravelstein, about the abiding friendship of these two cranky, difficult and somehow luminous men. The relationship between the two was emotive yet never physical—on that point Chick is absolutely emphatic—yet real, deep love was at its core. “Love is the highest function of our species—its vocation,” Chick writes. “This simply can't be set aside in considering Ravelstein. He never forgot this conviction. It figures in all his judgments.”

As it does as well on every page of this book. Bellow, who is now midway through his ninth decade, still feels with the intensity of youth, and here shows us that friendship, however platonic, can provoke longing and passion just as does love. Surely his memoir would please his subject; as for the reader, it is hard not to feel privileged at being allowed a glimpse into a human connection as intimate and rewarding as this one.

Jonathan Levi (review date 23 April 2000)

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SOURCE: Levi, Jonathan. “Tabletalk.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (23 April 2000): 16.

[In the following review, Levi discusses the insights and revelations found in Ravelstein.]

Ever since the publication of the Inferno, in which Dante betrayed his beloved teacher Brunetto Latini to an unsuspecting public by casting him among the Sodomites, outing your dead friends (especially those with tenure) has become a literary genre unto itself.

Saul Bellow (whose current colleagues include Dante translator Robert Pinsky) is the latest practitioner with the appearance of his twelfth novel. Ravelstein, a roman-à-clef about his friendship with the late Allan Bloom (a former colleague), who wrote the bestselling, conservative masterwork The Closing of the American Mind, before joining Ser Brunetto in the afterlife.

And yet the drama of Ravelstein is no more of the tabloid variety than is Canto XV of the Inferno. The schadenfreude certain bored insiders might feel at revelations about a Bloom, whose unenlightened ideas they can now deride as hypocrisy, is tepid at best. The most dramatic revelations are of the poet, the fiction-making memoirist himself. Bellow's Ravelstein is a Frankenstein monster created, as is all great literature, from pieces of the dead. And its power originates in its creator and his complex affection, born of not quite un-jealous admiration—memories digested and re-digested, never bilious and often energized by a love that dares speak its name—friendship.

The novel opens in Paris, in a luxury suite in the Hotel de Crillon with two old men at breakfast-time in June. Chick is 10 years the senior, a writer with a young wife sleeping in a bedroom a floor below. Ravelstein, the political philosopher, reclines on the sofa, his Oriental protégé sleeps following a night of watching kung fu movies on TV.

Paris, the suite, the protégé are all the fruit of Ravelstein's recent windfall. Prodded by Chick, Ravelstein has set his lecture notes up in print and, mirabile dictu, they have spawned a best-seller. “After the first surge of the feelings, the strong tickle at the heart of a life vindicated by an incomplete victory over many absurdities, everything had come together to place Abe Ravelstein, an academic, a lousy professor of political philosophy, at the very peak of Paris among the oil sheiks at the Crillon, or among CEOs at the Ritz, or playboys at the Hotel Meurice.”

But to call Ravelstein “lousy” is to miss the oversized quality of a worthy successor to the Hendersons and Herzogs of Bellow's past. Ravelstein is one of the last of the big time slobberers, a man of ravenous appetite, in food, in clothes, in protégés. “Ravelstein was one of those large men—large, not stout—whose hands shake when there are small chores to perform. The cause was not weakness but a tremendous eager energy that shook him when it was discharged.”

In Paris, Ravelstein talks, Ravelstein dresses, Ravelstein cruises the Rue St. Honoré for Lanvin, all in the company of his Boswell—for Ravelstein has suggested that Chick take up the chronicle of Ravelstein's life. Neither man is prone to bons mots. Although they are both in love with the beetier of the Borscht Belt comics, neither is particularly good at, reenacting those vaudeville routines. What they revel in is the life of ideas, the sharing of the breath and the brain of the Rousseaus, Platos and Diderots long dead.

But there is more to the peripatetic ruminations of the pair than ideas. There are other characters—the sleeping wife and the sleeping protégé, as well as the remembrance of wives and protégés past. More than ideas, what drives the lives of both men is a deep, abiding belief in the power of love. Ravelstein, according to Chick, “rated longing very highly. Looking for love, falling in love, you were pining for the other half you had lost, as Aristophanes had said. Only it wasn't Aristophanes at all, but Plato in a speech attributed to Aristophanes. … Without its longings your soul was a used inner tube maybe good for one summer at the beach, nothing more.”

For Chick, the “serial marrier,” there is the memory of a past longing, of his recently divorced third wife, Vela, a Eastern European chaos physicist of considerable beauty. There is also the memory of other Eastern Europeans who surrounded Vela and Chick, including a shadowy Romanian named Grielescu, whose European manners hide a fascist youth.

Summer in Paris is short. The sybaritic pleasures enabled by the intellect inevitably are betrayed by the body. Returning home to receive an award, Ravelstein collapses with Guillain-Barre syndrome—an attack on his nervous system brought on by HIV. And lo and behold, the intellectual pleasures of the Greeks give way to the nostalgic memories, of the Jews. For that, after all, as they approach the short end of their lives, is what Ravelstein and Chick are: nothing more than a pair of alter kockers. Even as he grows increasingly weaker, Ravelstein continues to prod Chick on his Jewishness. Slowly Ravelstein wakens Chick to the horror of his friendship with Grielescu, his marriage to Vela. Slowly Ravelstein outs the Jew within Chick, as surely as Bellow—the gossip mongers will say—has outed Bloom.

Another chronicler, James Boswell, also turned to the Jews, in the form of the medieval Rabbi David Kimchi, to defend the role of gossip. Kimchi interpreted the passage in Psalm I—“His leaf also shall not wither”—“to mean that even the idle talk of a good man ought to be regarded.” What fun Dr. Johnson, Brunetto Latini and perhaps even Allan Bloom might be having, even as we read, in some warm, well-lighted place, roasting leaves and engaging in idle talk about the men left behind. As Chick concludes, “You don't easily give up a creature like Ravelstein to death.”

Christopher Hitchens (review date 27 April 2000)

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SOURCE: Hitchens, Christopher. “The Egg-Head's Egger-On.” London Review of Books (27 April 2000): 21-3.

[In the following review, Hitchens provides a thematic analysis of Ravelstein and calls the book “a novelistic and realistic memoir” of the late author Allan Bloom.]

Novelists can be lucky in their editors, in their friends, in their mentors and even in their pupils. Sometimes they are generous or sentimental enough to fictionalise the relationship. In Keep the Aspidistra Flying, George Orwell gave his friendless, dowdy and self-pitying protagonist Comstock one true pal: the editor and patron Ravelston, proprietor of the small yet reliable magazine Antichrist. This Ravelston—some composite of Sir Richard Rees and John Middleton Murry—was a hedonistic yet guilt-ridden dilettante, good in a pinch, and soft on poets, but too easily embarrassed by brute exigence. Saul Bellow—who has already shown a vulnerability to exigent poets in his wonderful Humboldt's Gift—now presents us with Ravelstein, a hedonistic kvetch [in Ravelstein] who manifests patience towards none. As is known to all but the meanest citizens of the republic of letters, the novel is an obelisk for the late Allan Bloom, author of the 1987 shocker The Closing of the American Mind. This book, which was a late product or blooming of the University of Chicago Committee on Social Thought, argued that the American mind was closed because it had become so god-damned open—a nice deployment of paradox and a vivid attack on the relativism that has become so OK on campus these days. Bloom's polemic swiftly became a primer for the right-wing Zeitgeist; a bookend for the shelf or index sternly marked ‘all downhill since 1967’. And even then, there were those who detected a Bellovian lending, or borrowing as the case might be.

When The Closing of the American Mind first came out, Robert Paul Wolff, then a professor of philosophy at Amherst, wrote a short review in Academe, the journal of the American Association of University Professors. Let me quote from his prescient opening staves:

Aficionados of the modern American novel have learned to look to Philip Roth for complex literary constructions that play wittily with narrative voice and frame. One thinks of such Roth works as My Life as a Man and The Counterlife. Now Saul Bellow has demonstrated that among his other well-recognised literary gifts is an unsuspected bent for daring satire. What Bellow has done, quite simply, is to write an entire coruscatingly funny novel in the form of a pettish, bookish, grumpy, reactionary complaint against the last two decades. The ‘author’ of this tirade, one of Bellow's most fully-realised literary creations, is a mid-fiftyish Professor at the University of Chicago, to whom Bellow gives the evocative name ‘Bloom’. Bellow appears in the book only as the author of an eight-page ‘Foreword', in which he introduces us to his principal and only character.

Right away one thought of Herzog, the super-kvetch of all kvetches. But here again, in his foreword to Bloom or ‘Bloom’, Bellow kept us guessing. As he phrased it (teasingly?):

There are times when I enjoy making fun of the educated American. Herzog, for instance, was meant to be a comic novel: a PhD from a good American university falls apart when his wife leaves him for another man. He is taken by an epistolatory fit and writes grieving, biting, ironic and rambunctious letters not only to his friends and acquaintances, but also to the great men, the giants of thought, who formed his mind. What is he to do in this moment of crisis, pull Aristotle or Spinoza from the shelf and storm through the pages looking for consolation and advice?

Rather archly, perhaps, Bellow went on to smile at the simplicity of some of his public:

Certain readers of Herzog complained the book was difficult. Much as they might have sympathised with the unhappy and comical history professor, they were occasionally put off by his long and erudite letters. Some felt that they were being asked to sit for a difficult exam in a survey course in intellectual history and thought it mean of me to mingle sympathy and wit with obscurity and pedantry. But I was making fun of pedantry!

Well, taking things all in all, I think we had better be the judge of that. Because now we have an ostensibly full-out novel, this time under Bellow's real name, which reveres pedantry and is all about the life and death of Allan Bloom. Indeed, with its many real names and actual locations, it constitutes a novelistic and realistic memoir of him. And it is related, partly in anguish, by a Herzog character—‘a PhD from a good American university’ whose wife has just left him for another man, or at any rate for other men.

For some reason that I cannot pretend to decode, this Boswell is named ‘Chick’. He it is who proposes that Ravelstein write the egghead bestseller (‘It's no small matter to become rich and famous by saying exactly what you think’) and who in return accepts Ravelstein's commission to become his—probably posthumous—biographer. So far, so accurate: Bellow was the egghead's egger-on, and also his angel in the publishing world, and here we find the second half of the debt redeemed. The story is authentic too, as far as it goes, about Ravelstein/Bloom's egghead allegiances. Bloom was an adept or disciple of the Chicago philosopher Leo Strauss, a German-Jewish émigré who was, according to your bias, sinister or arcane. Modelling himself on Aristotelian and Machiavellian theories of the covert formation of princes, Strauss never sought public renown and insisted on close explication of the occult element in classic and classical texts. His American disciples, of whom Francis Fukuyama is probably the most celebrated, achieved a brief nearness to real power during the Reagan and Bush Administrations, one of them (William Kristol, son of Irving) being the Aristotelian mentor of Dan Quayle. The giveaway in Straussian critiques is the employment of the term ‘regime’ to denote styles of rulership. Bellow captures this neo-cultist element quite deftly:

But Ravelstein knew the value of a set. He had a set of his own. Its members were students he had trained in political philosophy and longtime friends. Most of them were trained as Ravelstein himself had been trained, under Professor Davarr, and used his esoteric vocabulary. Some of Ravelstein's older pupils now held positions of importance on national newspapers. Quite a number served in the State Department. Some lectured in the War College or worked on the staff of the National Security Adviser. One was a protégé of Paul Nitze. Another, a maverick, published a column in the Washington Times. Some were influential, all were well informed; they were a close group, a community. From them Ravelstein had frequent reports, and when he was at home he spent hours on the telephone with his disciples. After a fashion, he kept their secrets. At least he didn't quote them by name.

That's the first and almost the last we hear of the crucial and seminal Felix Davarr, who as Leo Strauss is mentioned only once in The Closing of the American Mind, where he makes the oddly trite observation that the moderns ‘built on low but solid ground’. Bloom's reticence, though, is appropriate: it is that of the close-mouthed and knowing initiate, while Bellow treats Strauss as if he were like Anthony Powell's Sillery: no more than a don with a number of influential ex-pupils. When Alexandre Kojéve is mentioned a few pages later, he is drawn in the same rather lifeless terms as ‘the famous Hegelian and high official who had educated a whole generation of influential thinkers and writers’. Someone who had really done that could once have expected a more lapidary (or do I just mean less tired?) sentence from Bellow's pen.

The cynicism of Strauss's theory and practice was summarised in his antithesis between Athens and Jerusalem. I am certain to vulgarise the recondite here, but Straussians believe in religion and not in God. Philosophy is the high calling of the élite: a strenuous and contemplative effort directed at the moulding of a cultural and political leadership. Obviously, superstition and piety are mere encumbrances in the discharging of this elevated task. But the masses, of whom no such effort can be expected, must draw their ethical and disciplinary rations from the commissary of the supernatural. ‘Chick’/Bellow shows no grasp at all of this dialectic, which he repeatedly expresses as Ravelstein's fascination with Athens and Jerusalem, as if Plato and the Talmud were equal treasures from the bran-tub of antiquity.

That of course was the ad hoc conclusion of the autodidact and omnivore Augie March, Bellow's most superbly rendered fictional creation. March passes long stretches on the periphery of the University of Chicago, and at one point makes a sort of jackdaw living by stealing ‘great books’ on commission for scholars like the lanky Hooker Frazer. His first major haul is ‘a big Jowett's Plato’ but he soon diversifies: ‘Two volumes of Nietzsche's Will to Power I had a hell of a time swiping, for they were in a closed case at the Economy Book Store; I also got him Hegel's Philosophy of Right, as well as the last volumes of Capital from the Communist bookshop on Division Street, Herzen's Autobiography, and some de Tocqueville.’ The influence of the University on the city, especially on its outcast or indigent element, can be felt all the time in The Adventures of Augie March. There is Padilla, the impoverished Mexican who gets a scholarship to develop his genius for mathematics, and there's Clem, amassing erudition in a fly-blown rooming-house.

In Augie March, too, we sense Bellow's interest in gurus and savants and mentors. Here's the disabled local fixer and broker William Einhorn:

The first superior man I knew. He had a brain and many enterprises, real directing power, philosophical capacity, and if I were methodical enough to take thought before an important and practical decision and also if I were really his disciple and not what I am, I'd ask myself: ‘What would Caesar suffer in this case? What would Machiavelli advise or Ulysses do? What would Einhorn think?’ I'm not kidding when I enter Binhorn in this eminent list. It was him that I knew, and what I understand of them in him. Unless you want to say that we're at the dwarf end of all times and mere children whose only share in grandeur is like a boy's share in fairy-tale kings.

When Einhorn's father dies, his self-educated and slum-bred son reaches for the ‘deep-water greatness’ of the ancients and strains pathetically but nobly for an elevated note and a high calling. In his dignified filial death-notice for the neighbourhood paper he writes without embarrassment: “‘My father was not familiar with the observation of Plato that philosophy is the study of death, but he died nevertheless like a philosopher, saying to the ancient man who watched by his bedside in the last moments …” That was the vein of it.’

I can't resist adding two more themes from Bellow's triumph in 1953. One is a hatred of workhouse condescension towards the underclass: ‘Something in his person argued what the community that contributed the money wanted us poor bastards to be: sober, dutiful, buttoned, clean, sad, moderate.’ And the other a real demotic admiration for the Greeks, for their ancient willingness to face things as Augie tries to face the humilations of jail and the Stygian gloom of Erie, Pennsylvania and other wasteland spots:

Only some Greeks and admirers of theirs, in their liquid noon, where the friendship of beauty to human things was perfect, thought they were clearly divided from this darkness. And these Greeks too were in it. But still they are the admiration of the rest of the mud-sprung, famine-knifed, street-pounding, war-rattled, difficult, painstaking, kicked in the belly, grief and cartilage mankind, the multitude, some under a coal-sucking Vesuvius of chaos smoke, some inside a heaving Calcutta midnight, who very well know where they are.

By contrast, Ravelstein, and Ravelstein, are shadows on the wall of Augie March's cave. The great city of Chicago is now represented as a heaving Calcutta midnight, awash in feral delinquency. Ravelstein segregates himself in an apartment building, with the pretentious name of ‘The Alhambra', where his only contact with the world of the streets is a superannuated black skivvy: ‘As nearly as any honky could, he took into account her problems with her prostitute daughter, her jailed criminal son, and with the other son whose HIV troubles and scrambled wives and children were too complicated to describe.’ Why does one get the impression that Bellow would rather these people were ‘sober, dutiful, buttoned, clean, sad, moderate’? Ravelstein, meanwhile, looks on his students as the raw material of a future conservative hierarchy owing a debt to himself. (In a moment of lucid callousness we are informed that ‘if they weren't going to make it he didn't hesitate to throw them out.’) Also, we soon discover that this new maître, who possesses none of the coarse vigour of Einhorn, has ‘HIV troubles’ of his own.

Chaos, most especially the chaos identified with pissed-off African Americans, was the whole motif of The Closing of the American Mind. Bloom had taught at Cornell during the campus upheaval of 1968, and never recovered from the moment when black students produced guns to amplify their demands. (He also never reconciled himself to the ghastly fondness of the young for rock music. ‘Whether it be Nuremberg or Woodstock,’ he wrote in a passage of extreme dyspepsia comparing everybody to the Brownshirts, ‘the principle is the same.’) However, there was hope. A small group of classics students copied out and xeroxed a passage against ochlocracy from Plato's Republic and passed it out as a leaflet. Bloom sounds just like Bellow when he recalls this moment: ‘They had learned from this old book what was going on and had gained real distance on it.’

Actually, Glaucon's evening with Socrates would have been a poor shadowy guide to an American ‘regime’ which was then engaged in confronting a revolt of the helots, and in fighting a war far more cruel and unjust and irrational than the Peloponnesian. But what Bloom liked was the attachment to form. At least, he liked it most of the time. The worst thing he could think of to say about one of his academic antagonists was that he was ‘an assiduous importer of the latest Paris fashions’. By this of course he meant an interest in Sartre or Althusser or perhaps Foucault; it makes it all the funnier that when we first meet ‘Ravelstein’ he is in Paris on a vulgar spree of consumerism: Lanvin jackets, costly scarves, Lucullan restaurants and hotel suites; if you've got it, baby, flaunt it. Before too long there is a fast car with all the fixings being ordered for ‘Nikki’, the travelling companion, and we further learn that Abe (Ravelstein's seldom used first name) is en rapport with at least some young blacks for his fashion sense alone. By these signs, and a few others, Bellow makes it easy to know what ‘Bloom’ never admitted in his paeans to the Greek style: that for all his contempt for the counter-culture he was a live-dangerously homosexual.

As depicted by Bellow, this is perhaps the most attractive and sympathetic aspect of the man. But, as the novel fails to register, it was also a negation of his whole public stance. Allan Bloom thought, and Abe Ravelstein thinks, that sex—any sex—is a poor expression of Eros, but better than nothing at all. Heavy weather is made of this simple point:

Naturally there was a Greek word for it, and I can't be expected to remember every Greek word I heard from him. Eros was a daimon, one's genius or demon provided by Zeus as a compensation for the cruel breaking-up of the original androgynous human whole. I'm sure I've got that part of the Aristophanic sex-myth straight. With the help of Eros we go on, each of us, looking for his missing half. Ravelstein was in real earnest about this quest, driven by longing. Not everyone feels that longing, or acknowledges it if he does feel it. In literature Antony and Cleopatra had it, Romeo and Juliet had it. Closer to our own time Anna Karenina and Emma Bovary had it, Stendhal's Madame de Rênal in her simplicity and innocence had it. And of course others, untaught, untouched by open recognition, have it in some obscure form.

The ‘obscure form’ in which ‘Bloom’ really experienced it was of this kind:

One day he said to me: ‘Chick, I need a cheque drawn. It's not a lot. Five hundred bucks.’

‘Why can't you write it yourself?’

‘I want to avoid trouble with Nikki. He'd see it on the cheque stub.’

In the first proof of the novel that I read, Bellow went on to be explicit about the sexual elements that were masked by this accountant version of anonymity. He has since excised that paragraph, perhaps or presumably in deference to the unease produced by his candour about Bloom's escapades. (Pre-publicity for the book drew some moans of pain from the old-school Chicago hands.) However, the chief point is allowed to survive its euphemisation: Allan Bloom died of Aids, as was finally and reluctantly admitted by his admirers. Nor is this a detail. Bloom never mentioned the gay movement in his series of assaults on promiscuous Modernism. Throughout his posthumously published book Love and Friendship, a rather superior effort to analyse Eros and agape from Alcibiades to Emile, he hoarded his own views on pederasty well on the other side of the closet door. No ordinary reticence was involved here. The philosophical movement associated with Leo Strauss regards ‘sodomy’ as sterile and nihilistic, and as an unmanly betrayal of tribe and family. And the Straussian intellectuals have undergone a schism, every bit as sulphurous and Talmudic as the Trotskyist faction-fights that were known to Augie March and indeed the young Bellow. Professor Harry Jaffa, Strauss's most ardent disciple and Bloom's one-time collaborator in a volume on Shakespeare's politics, has authored a stream of polemics against homosexuality as a violation of ‘natural law’. This very trope currently forms the moral cement of the American Right. There may or may not be a suggestive and contradictory connection between ‘Ravelstein's’ secretive sex life and his attachment to arcane doctrines—between the erotic and the esoteric—but Bellow can't seem to be bothered with it.

This is perhaps because his narrator has problems of his own. Domestic traumas—heterosexual and banal ones, to be sure—are eating him up, and like Herzog he finds little release in pulling Aristotle or Spinoza from the shelf. Indeed, when he tries to scan anything at all, this happens:

One day when I was reading a book (my regular diet of words) she wandered into the room entirely nude, came to my bedside and rubbed her pubic hair on my cheekbone. When I responded as she must have known that I would she turned and left with an air of having made her point. She had won hands down without having to speak a word. Her body spoke for her, and very effectively too, saying that the end was near.

Bellow has always had a fierce instinct for the blunt messages that female pudenda can convey, especially in closure. The much younger and tougher Augie March had to endure the following:

In heat like this she preferred to go naked in her room. When I wanted to recall how she was, naked, I found I could do it very well. She saw my eyes on her lower belly and her hand descended to hold the edge of the robe there. Seeing that colourful, round-fingered hand descend, I bitterly felt how my privilege had ended and passed to another man.

The pubis-flaunting female in the present case—enough to drive anyone nuts, if not necessarily queer—is the coldly scientific and dedicated Romanian wife we last met in The Dean's December. By degrees, as Ravelstein sickens and dies, ‘Chick’ shuffles forward to become the subject and object of his own novel. He realises that his wife has outpointed him emotionally and also legally. Lamenting his own dullness, and also lapsing into terrible colloquialism, he kvetches: ‘You deaden your critical powers. You stifle your shrewdness. Before you know it you are paying a humongous divorce settlement to a woman who had more than once declared that she was an innocent who had no understanding of money matters.’ The spring-heeled and amoral Ravelstein is probably the near-perfect friend to have in such a fix; he mocks the wife's robotic ways and her frigidly perfectionist style, and suggests that her Romanian pals are probably Iron Guard fascists anyway. (He punctuates his monologues with the tic phrasing ‘thee-ah, thee-ah', which Bellow records skilfully without noting that such mannerisms are designed to make the speaker uninterruptible, and are thus an unfalling sign of the closet authoritarian.) Still, Chick's best-ever pal turns out to be his next wife, who realises that he is not just sick but actually in mortal peril after he eats the wrong fish on a Caribbean holiday, and who exerts herself to pluck him back from the lip of the grave. I'm sorry that the narrative breaks off before the latest big news in Bellow's life, which is his fathering of a daughter at the age of eighty-plus, with the same staunch and estimable woman who did the plucking.

Thin though this novel may be, and perfunctory in keeping its commitment as the unwritten memoir that Bellow promised to Bloom in a moment of weakness, it does exemplify some of the stoicism of the neo-conservative mentality. ‘Ravelstein’ doesn't whine as the end approaches. We don't actually see him die (Bellow's own near-death experience follows, perhaps, too hard upon) but we witness him in the humiliating shipwreck of his last illness and he remains a wise-cracking atheist and materialist. ‘Chick’ chooses to see this as a pose, and to take literally Ravelstein's expiring gags about a reunion beyond the grave, which strikes me in the light of a slight but significant breach of faith. Say what you will about the Straussians, they aren't hypocrites or weaklings and they don't burble about heavenly rewards to make up for when the mind has gone. Indeed, they have made rather a pointed study of the dignified hemlockian terminus. Bloom should have been allowed this last nobility.

Bellow's own attitude to Jerusalem is given a mild work-out in these pages. In the past few decades he has had a fluctuating relationship with the neo-conservative movement. He first endorsed the bogus work of the pseudo-demographer Joan Peters, who argued that there had been no Palestinian population to be dispossessed in the first place, and then honourably withdrew his encomium when the facts about the book became known. He signed up with the grandiosely titled Committee for the Free World, run by Midge Decter and Norman Podhoretz, and then let his sponsorship lapse when the same outfit published hysterical slanders against Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal. In the argument about standardised courses in ‘Western Civilisation’, he intervened with the now notorious remark that the Papuans had no Proust and the Zulus had no … was it Zola? He wrote a crabbed and resentful account of a visit to the Holy City, which seemed to some of us to be an Arab v. Jewish allegory of the fears and resentments—about black populism and demagogy in New York and Chicago—which have been more cheaply annexed by Tom Wolfe but which found an outlet also in Mr Sammler's Planet. In Ravelstein he presents the Jewish experience principally and unexceptionably as one of survival. With a tinge of self-pity, though, he also advances it as something that non-Jews can't be expected to understand. Even great humanists like Maynard Keynes, when you con the list of ‘great books', disclose their rodent prejudice. ‘I had a Jewish life to lead in the American language, and that's not a language that's helpful with dark thoughts.’ There's a quavering note here which, ironically in its way, contrasts with Abe Ravelstein's robust and amoral and defiant and very American style; a style redeemed from being merely reactionary by its understanding of the ancients, and the understanding (to which it incidentally or accidentally assists us) that intellectuals never sound more foolish than when posing as the last civilised man.

Louis Menand (review date 25 May 2000)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2405

SOURCE: Menand, Louis. “Bloom's Gift.” New York Review of Books (25 May 2000): 17-18.

[In the following review, Menand argues that Ravelstein is a novel not only about friendship and mortality, but also focuses on the male heterosexual ego.]

Saul Bellow and Allan Bloom were friends. They taught together at the University of Chicago, and Bellow wrote the foreword to Bloom's phenomenal best seller, The Closing of the American Mind, which came out in 1987. In spite of its popularity, The Closing of the American Mind was a quirky book. Many writers tried to imitate its success as a diatribe against American higher education, but very few tried to repeat its argument. For in many ways the book was a kind of personal fantasy—a contrarian reading of a handful of old philosophy texts offered as the explanation for the “relativism” of today's professors and the soullessness of today's youth, a condition whose supreme expression, in Bloom's view, was rock music: “a muddy stream where only monsters can swim.”1

Just why The Closing of the American Mind caught fire will always be a bit of a mystery—it must have come as a surprise to readers who got that far to learn that much of what was wrong with American culture could be traced to certain theoretical deformations in the later work of Martin Heidegger—but the book's success may have had something to do with the sense people had that they were encountering, in Bloom, an authentic character. Bloom didn't seem a man engaged in ordinary department politics. He clearly believed this stuff, and he was not a writer who took many hostages. When he said that American democracy had lost its soul, he meant it, and could spend all day telling you why. He professed to be defending thought from political exploitation, and, to his credit, he was true to the claim. He declined to take part in the culture wars his book precipitated.

Robert Paul Wolff wrote a famous review of The Closing of the American Mind in which he explained that “Allan Bloom” was really the fictional creation of Saul Bellow, in the tradition of Moses Herzog, and that his “book” was a satirical send-up of Chicago-style Great-Books pedantry—a “coruscatingly funny novel in the form of a pettish, bookish, grumpy, reactionary complaint against the last two decades.”2 The conceit seemed a telling one, and it stuck. For a person who works up an erudite, all-purpose, single-variable, and essentially fantastic theory for why the world is going to hell is, indeed, exactly the kind of person Bellow has spent his career imagining.

Bellow himself is not a theorist. He is a novelist who is fascinated by theorists. The premise of his work (I think) is that the world is always going to hell, since each of us, over our lifetimes, is forced to suffer the gradual extinction of the world we were thrown into by birth, whatever world that was, Sensations fade, friendships break apart, people we love leave us or die, and nothing ever completely replaces them. Existence is, ineluctably, a terrible thing. Bellow has a special disaffection for the modern world, because the organized obliteration of the past seems to him to be its singular obsession, and because he finds its rationalizations and consolations meretricious—though people continue to gobble them up and spew them out. Still, there is no cure for living, because the world, whatever we do or say, keeps on turning. Bellow is a nostalgist, and not in a simple sense. He is a nostalgist in the profound sense that almost every human being is instinctively a nostalgist. We hate change, because we fear death.

Most people, in Bellow's fiction, give in. They pretend that the modern world, which really has no use for them, is their world all the same. Some people—the inner-city hustlers and their white counterparts, the big-shot lawyers and the gangsters—see right through the rationalizations and the consolations and grasp the essential fact that the whole enterprise of modern life is backed by nothing. These are people blessed by a perfect lack of affection; they are the socially adaptive sociopaths, born survivors, good for all possible worlds. But then, finally, there are the lonely and self-conscious maladaptives, the sensitives whom modern life makes sick, they can't help it, and who react by building mad theoretical tree houses, which they try to inhabit at the cost of enduring the rest of their generation's contempt for their refusal to flatter the present. To the extent that there are heroes in Bellow's books, the tree house builders tend to be the ones.

All these character types are male, Modernity, evidently, is a guy problem. Which is not to say that women are unimportant on Mr. Bellow's planet. Women are crucially important: sexual happiness is the principal ratification of male success and the only adequate compensation for male unsuccess. For the sensitives and the maladaptives especially, women are the focus of all desire, the real thing for which books and ideas and theories are just the wretched surrogates. Unfortunately, as we all know, la donna è mobile. Underneath all the neurotic complications of female sexual attachment, the essential impulse is the primitive one: they dally with the sensitives, but in the end, they go with the gangsters.

One imagines that a man like Allan Bloom must therefore have been something of a scandal to Bellow. For Bloom was a mad tree house builder and a gangster at the same time. He was thoroughly disenchanted with the modern world and thoroughly at home in it, a man who spent the millions he made from the publication of a cultural jeremiad on wall mounted television screens, high-end audio systems, four-star hotel rooms, and Armani suits. He was a philosopher who air-expressed his neckties to Paris for cleaning. He was an atheist who regarded the fear of death as a contemptible bourgeois hangup. And he was homosexual. He short-circuited the entire Bellovian scheme. It is not surprising that Bellow found him completely fascinating. He must not have known entirely what to make of him.

There is a character based on Bloom (who died in 1992) in Ravelstein, Everyone knows this since Bellow himself has said it. But it is odd how quick people have been to read the book as a memoir—as an essentially plotless, meditative, lightly fictionalized tribute to an unusual man and an unusual friendship. After all, Bloom's name does not appear in its pages, nor does the name of his famous book. Anyone who picked up a copy of Ravelstein without having heard of Allan Bloom would recognize it as a familiar fictional genre: a novel in the form of a memoir written by one of the characters. Such a person would therefore assume that reading the book meant finding the novel inside the memoir, uncovering the story that is not told, or not quite told, within the story that is. Why did Bellow invent a name like “Ravelstein,” after all, if he did not wish us to understand that there was something to unravel?

The inner novel is not about Ravelstein. Ravelstein is, in fact, the least novelized character in the book. He is presented entirely from the outside, and (although, of course, he dies) nothing happens to him dramatically. He is seen through the eyes of the memoirist-narrator, whose name is Chick, and it is very much to the point that Chick cannot get imaginatively inside Ravelstein.

Chick is a successful Jewish writer who lives in Chicago, where he is associated with the university, and he is a more complicated fellow than he lets on. His manner is charming and unassuming, and in fact his tastes and impulses are quite conventional. But he is an intensely guarded person. His self-deprecation is a mask for his self-absorption, and his self-absorption centers on a deeply rooted fear of being taken for a fool. He reads widely and enjoys chatting about ideas, but he disowns any pretensions to being an intellectual. He craves emotional and sexual loyalty, but he is too cautious to do anything that risks humiliation or embarrassment. His take on other people is sharp and unforgiving, but he maintains a bland and noncommittal demeanor.

Chick is married to a brilliant physicist, originally from Eastern Europe, named Vela, and their marriage is the true subject of the book. Vela is a woman whose erotic endowments other men, and even women, cannot resist commenting on. She is perfectly conscious of her exceptional allure, and spends a lot of time and expense dolling herself up. But underneath the glamour, she is a heartless, uptight narcissist, a beautiful woman who doesn't allow herself to be seen in public without her makeup. She knows she has Chick sexually under a spell, and she abuses him accordingly. She makes him do the housekeeping; she pursues her career with indifference to his; she withholds herself sexually from him while she has affairs with other men.

Chick, though, is in denial. He even allows Vela to cajole him into a friendship with one Radu Grielescu, a distinguished scholar of religion rumored to have been a member of the fascist Iron Guard during the war and involved in the torture and murder of Romanian Jews. Grielescu is naturally eager for these rumors to be forgotten, and so he is pleased to be seen dining with a well-known Jewish writer like Chick in local restaurants. Chick obliges by remaining politely clueless about what their relationship is really all about.

Chick's eyes are opened to this and other truths about his marriage by Abe Ravelstein, a popular Chicago professor. Ravelstein is the protégé of an eccentric political philosopher named Felix Davarr, the practitioner of an exegetical method known as “esoteric reading,” which involves uncovering hidden subtexts in the works of the great philosophers. Ravelstein introduces Chick to the method by having him compare John Maynard Keynes's published reports on the Council of Paris, in 1919, with the gossipy letters he was sending back home to his Bloomsbury friends at the same time. As a personality, Ravelstein is everything Chick is not—magnificently and unabashedly klutzy, intellectually imperious, homosexual. Chick, so wan and so defended by comparison, finds him irresistible.

Vela, naturally, is hostile to this new friendship, since she sees that Ravelstein, by nature insusceptible to her particular charms, has her number; and, after taunting Chick sexually, she walks out on him, picking the day he returns from his brother's funeral to make her departure. Chick soon marries a pretty and devoted younger woman, Rosamund, a former student of Ravelstein's. At Chick's suggestion, Ravelstein publishes a book based on his unconventional philosophical views, and it becomes, unexpectedly, an international best seller, making Ravelstein rich and allowing him, for the first time in his life, to indulge his luxurious impulses without restraint. Soon after, Ravelstein dies, apparently of complications from AIDS. Before his death, he asks Chick to write a memoir of his life.

Chick, though, has not recovered from Vela's laceration of his self-esteem, and he harbors animosities toward some of their Chicago colleagues, such as Grielescu, as well. He leaves Chicago to take a job in Boston, but during a vacation in the Caribbean, he comes down with a severe case of food poisoning and nearly dies. His life is saved by Rosamund, who rushes her husband to Boston and sits tirelessly by his side for weeks in an intensive care unit until he recovers. During Chick's stay in the hospital, he has a series of hallucinations, in the last of which Vela tells him of her plans to have sex with a virile young Spaniard in order to find out what she has been missing in her marriage to him.

He plainly has not exercized her yet. Then he realizes that he can take his revenge on Vela by writing a book that exposes her true character (and settles a few other scores as well) by masking it as a memoir of Ravelstein—the man who, after all, not only taught Chick about the perils of sexual dependency, but showed him how a book can set you free. Ravelstein is the book Chick writes. Ostensibly, it is a book about friendship and mortality, written in a loose, gossipy, amiable style. Esoterically, it is, like most of Bellow's books, about the male heterosexual ego—its brittleness, its bottomless capacity for resentment, its inexhaustible neediness—and there is nothing particularly amiable about it. It seems to me a rather ingenious performance.

It is ingenious, that is, if the book is taken as a work of self-disclosure. For Bellow himself, of course, is a well-known Jewish writer from Chicago, was once married to a glamorous Romanian mathematician, is now married to a former student of Bloom's, recently almost died from an attack of food poisoning, and so on. And Grielescu and a number of other sometimes acidly etched characters are plainly modeled on real human beings once associated with Bellow, Bloom, and the University of Chicago.

It's true that this is not the first time Bellow has based a novel on people and events in his own life; and if personal vengeance is being wreaked in these pages, that is a motive not entirely unknown to literature. But the whole story is a lot closer to the autobiographical bone than one is accustomed to in Bellow's writing. It is hard, reading the book, not to feel that every fictional x is intended to be set equal to some real-life y.Ravelstein is a novel so à clef that not a single incident or character feels truly fictional, right down to the unfortunate Caribbean restaurateur who serves Chick the bad fish, and who is rewarded by being portrayed (no doubt with justice) as a greedy lout. Bellow did not wish to say something revealing about Allan Bloom in his book. He plainly had no idea—who would?—what made Bloom tick. He had some idea about himself, though, and he worked it up with subtle but unsparing honesty.


  1. The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today's Students (Simon and Schuster, 1987), p. 74.

  2. Wolff's review was published in Academe; it is reprinted, along with more than sixty other responses to Bloom's book, in Essays on ‘The Closing of the American Mind,’ edited by Robert L. Stone (Chicago Review Press, 1989), pp. 18-21.

John Leonard (review date 29 May 2000)

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SOURCE: Leonard, John. “A Closing of the American Kind.” Nation 270, no. 21 (29 May 2000): 25-30.

[In the following review, Leonard contends that it is the differences—not only the friendship—between Saul Bellow and Allan Bloom that animate Ravelstein.]

You will recall that when Augie March went to Mexico, he hooked up with an eagle, which he called Caligula. (He also ran into Leon Trotsky, navigating “by the great stars.” In this, Augie was luckier than his creator, Saul Bellow, who had an appointment in 1940 to see Trotsky on the very morning of his murder and ended up in Coyoacán looking at a corpse: “A cone of bloody bandages was on his head. His cheeks, his nose, his beard, his throat, were streaked with blood and with dried iridescent trickles of iodine.” But already I digress.) Suppose that instead of an eagle, Augie had grabbed a parrot, like a bag of Magical Realist feathers, and sneaked it back to Chicago. This might explain the marvel that knocks three times at the stained-glass window of Ravelstein.

(1) Abe Ravelstein, a political philosopher just out of intensive care and feeling shaky, is escorted by his friend Chick, a much-married older novelist, from the University of Chicago campus back to his apartment, stopping at every other corner to catch his breath. They happen, remarkably, on a flock of parrots in a clump of trees with red berries. Though not really interested in nature, Ravelstein needs to know: “What are we looking at?” Chick explains that the parrots, descendants of an escaped pair of caged birds, first built their long, sacklike nests in the lakefront park and later colonized the alleys; that “hundreds of green parrots” live in “bird tenements” hanging from utility poles; that the new “garbage-based ecology” involves raccoons and even possums, besides your usual rats and squirrels. “You mean,” says Ravelstein, “the urban jungle is no longer a metaphor.”

(2) Thirty pages later, two years after Abe's death, Chick thinks back to “the morning of the day when he and I had come upon the parrot-filled holly bushes where the birds were feeding on red berries and scattering the snow.” He re-experiences his friend's surprise: “You're just back from the dead, and you run into an entire tribe of green parrots, tropical animals surviving a midwestern winter.” And this time a grinning Ravelstein is made to say: “They even have a Jew look to them.”

(3) Finally, at the end of this lambent novel, this prayer for the dead, Chick seems to be channeling Ravelstein: “He loses himself in sublime music, a music in which ideas are dissolved, reflecting these ideas in the form of feeling. He carries them down to the street with him. There's an early snow on the tall shrubs, the same shrubs filled with a huge flock of parrots—the ones that escaped from cages and now build their long nest sacks in the back alleys. They are feeding on red berries. Ravelstein looks at me laughing with pleasure and astonishment, gesturing because he can't be heard in all this bird-noise.”

By now, Bellow's got it down like a scroll painting or a haiku. Indeed, for all that, Ravelstein is spiced with Western Civ's greatest hits—with long views from Athens and Jerusalem, as seen through the eyes of the noble dead (Plato, Rousseau, Nietzsche), the compulsive scribblers (Xenophon, Dr. Johnson, Joyce, Céline), the exemplary-prophetic (Job and Tolstoy) and the merely peculiar (Marie Antoinette and Whittaker Chambers), at whom, because “death does sharpen the comic sense,” we are even encouraged to laugh “like Picasso's wounded horse in Guernica, rearing back”—there is something oddly Oriental about the novel, as if it were told by an odalisque with a folding fan. Or, to be even fancier, as if it were a series of tai chi exercises, a sequence of strenuous poses. Thus, for Ravelstein's many eccentricities—a white crane flashing its wings. For Chick's many marriages—a master strumming his lute. For the price exacted by world history and personal choice—a wild horse shaking its mane. And, for a teller done with his tale, a hunter holding the tail of a bird. (“As birds went,” Chick says of Abe, “he was an eagle, while I was something like a flycatcher.”)

I'm about to suggest that Ravelstein is the story of two deaths—of the philosopher and the novelist—with only one Lazarus, who isn't Socrates. I will argue that as much as Saul Bellow enjoyed the company of Allan Bloom, they had profound differences on how to live and die, what happens afterward and the way we best explain each other. These differences, as much as their friendship, are what animate the novel. They are in fact what make it a novel and not a tacky roman à clef, shellacked to fix its gaudy colors. But first the tabloid tease.

Humboldt wanted to drape the world in radiance, but he didn't have enough material.

(Humboldt's Gift)

That Ravelstein is Bloom is obvious not only on the basis of internal evidence—the gift for teaching; the bestselling book; the messy eating habits; the expensive tastes and sexual secrets; gossipy friends in high places; contempt for relativism, feminism, black power, gay pride, the social sciences and rock and roll—but also on the basis of Bellow's own remarks at a memorial service for Bloom in 1992, included in It All Adds Up (1994), which reappear here almost word for word. (Mercedes will become BMW, and Michael Wu will become Nikki, and Persian carpets, Chinese chests, Hermes porcelain and Ultimo cashmere coats will turn into Armani suits, Vuitton luggage, Lalique crystal and Cuban cigars, but the chain-smoking, the Chicago Bulls and Plato's Symposium remain the same.) That Chick is Saul is equally obvious from the novels, the marriages and the gnarly grain of the prose, plus what we know from the news about Bellow's near death from food poisoning in 1994. Chick even paraphrases a passage in an earlier Bellow novel, More Die of Heartbreak, on how he imagines death: “I said that the pictures would stop.” Of course, while everybody who ever met him at the University of Chicago knew Bloom to be a gay diva, there's no closet quite like the Committee on Social Thought, and so at the memorial they chose to blame his death on liver failure instead of AIDS.

OK, Abe is Allan, Chick is Saul and we are told in the April Lingua Franca that Rakhmiel Kogon is Edward Shills and Radu Grielescu is Mircea Eliade. I am already wise to Vela, the Romanian-born “chaos” physicist who dumps Chick, because I met her before in The Dean's December, when she was a Romanian-born astronomer named Minna. Thanks be, she will exit in time to make room for Chick's new wife, Rosamund, about whom there's reason to worry, because if she really was a student of Bloom's, she should be feeling attenuated, if not invisible, since he is said to have looked right through even the brightest of his female students to likelier candidates for his coterie. This still leaves mysterious the secret identities of Battle, the Sanskrit-speaking ex-paratrooper who looks like “the Quaker on the oatmeal box,” and of Morris Herbst, who's written a book on Goethe's Elective Affinities in spite of his weakness for dice and cards. One supposes we must wait for the infinitely receding James Atlas tell-all bio.

Or maybe not. While sometimes interesting, this piggish snuffling after factoid truffles is usually distracting, approximately as helpful as being told that García Márquez patterned the six chapters of The Autumn of the Patriarch on Bartok's six string quartets and Virginia Woolf's The Waves, and invariably reductive in the cranky manner of Ruth Miller's Saul Bellow: A Biography of the Imagination (1991), in which she insists that all the novels are autobiographical, cookie-cut to an identical pattern: a family that's a pain. (They may love him, but they don't understand him; he's a spiritual orphan.) Alter egos who are the same compulsively talkative, intellectually alienated, wisecracking, soul-stricken and culture-freaked manic-depressive (Russian-Jewish Chicago street-smarties even when, like Henderson or Corde, they're not supposed to be). And women who do him wrong: “frumps,” says Miller, “predators, trollops, cheats, mousies, doxies, harridans, emasculators, manipulators, betrayers, or rigid unyielding martinets, paranoids, dollies, or chumps.” (Herzog wonders, “Will I ever understand what women want? … They eat green salad and drink human blood.”)

But this is to read each novel as though it were a grudge—a settling of private scores on the reader's time. If you want to know who is (or isn't) Isaac Rosenfeld, Harold Rosenberg, Meyer Schapiro, Dwight Macdonald, John Berryman or R. P. Blackmur—if it matters to you that Joe Alsop is taken in vain in The Dean's December—then Miller's where to go. She even interviewed Owen Barfield on anthroposophy. She will explain away Henderson the Rain King as a parodic acting-out, in Africa, of the Reichian analysis Bellow submitted to in the mid-fifties, while keeping an orgone box like an aspidistra in his Queens apartment. And explain away Herzog as the story of ex-wife Sondra and a perfidious Jack Ludwig. And explain away Humboldt's Gift as Saul's revenge on crazy Delmore Schwartz, who had accused him of selling out.

All this says zilch about what Bellow does to everything he notices, the glad coatings he gives to a terrible world, his Jackson Pollock trickles and streaks and spatters, the ciphers he finds, like Mr. Sammler, in straws and spiders, those magic acts of levitating language by which unhappy childhoods, scorched-earth marriages, erotic disasters, intellectual debacles or debauches, a plenitude of feeling, a hunger for transcendence, the death of a friend, the murder of a people or the decline of the West, are transmuted into agencies of sublime awareness. That style—snaky and hot, wrote Cynthia Ozick, “pumping street-smarts into literary blood-vessels,” a “profane and holy comedy of dazzling, beating, multiform profusion”; barbed, breezy, disheveled and surreal; salt-savoring and brain-fevered; the brilliant twitchy patter and the Great Books patois of colloquial and mandarin, sentimental and neo-baroque, Talmudic mutter and gangster slang; deep chords and stop-action; the long irony, the low laugh, the short fuse and a three-cushion bank shot into a side pocket where the anguish they speak is Yiddish—such a style miracle-whips.

Moses Herzog will cry out against “the canned sauerkraut of Spengler's Prussian socialism, the commonplaces of the Wasteland outlook, the cheap mental stimulants of Alienation, the cant and rant of pip-squeaks about Inauthenticity and Forlornness,” and “a merely aesthetic critique of modern history! After the wars and mass killings! You are too intelligent for this. You inherited rich blood. Your father peddled apples.” And while we are told in Humboldt that “a heart can be fixed like a shoe. Resoled. Even new uppers,” that's not what it feels like after we've heard Sorella in The Bellarosa Connection explain “the slapstick side” of the death camps:

Being a French teacher, she was familiar with Jarry and Ubu Roi, Pataphysics, Absurdism, Dada, Surrealism. Some camps were run in a burlesque style that forced you to make these connections. Prisoners were sent naked into a swamp and had to croak and hop like frogs. Children were hanged while starved, freezing slave laborers lined up on parade in front of the gallows and a prison band played Viennese light opera waltzes.

Some apples this father peddles.

Dear Doktor Professor Heidegger, I should like to know what you mean by the expression “The Fall into the Quotidian.” When did this fall occur? Where were we standing when it happened?


But so long as we think of Abe as Allan we are distracted. We are still fighting the Culture Wars, still reviewing The Closing of the American Mind. We can't forget that this is the man who accused Louis Armstrong of trashing Weimar, who compared Woodstock to Nuremberg, who fled Ithaca for Hyde Park in the parricidal sixties as if from Pompeii to Atlantis. Wolfpacks of Dread Relativism on dawn patrol! Student power! Student sex! We underline what Ravelstein says about Hayek, Bloomsbury, Islam, the Gulf War, the Grateful Dead, Mrs. Thatcher, the liberal arts and the inner city—“the chaos the life of such people must be,” he says after a chat with his cleaning lady; and, “Don't they give those people any training?” after a black nurse mentions in polite company that it's time for his AZT; but what do we expect from Chicago's dark South Side and its “noisy, pointless, nihilistic turmoil?”—as if we were writing articles of impeachment. Surely Saul Bellow, of all people, ought to prize diversity and inclusiveness. In the first twenty-seven pages of Augie March alone, mention was made of Heraclitus, Tom Brown's School Days, a coat factory, a laundry truck, Anna Karenina and Nabisco wafers; popcorn and Manon Lescaut, football and Yiddish theater, pickled fish and The Iliad. Why, in Ravelstein's Chicago, is it all right to love the Bulls but not the Beatles?

This is a mug's game. As male friendships in American literature go, Chick and Abe may not be in a league with Ishmael and Queequeg, Huck and Jim or Mason and Dixon, but they share a “sense of what was funny … A joyful noise—immenso giubilo—an outsize joint agreement picked us up together.” You and I might have our doubts about a man who sends his neckties air-express to be laundered by a silk specialist in Paris, who must sleep on Pratesi linens, “under beautifully cured angora skins,” and perk himself up in the morning with his very own espresso machine, while listening to eighteenth-century operas on compact disks through hi-fi speakers that cost $10,000 each, before venturing out to spend $4,500 on a Lanvin sports jacket the color of a Labrador retriever, on which he will sprinkle ashes from his incessant cigarettes, while delivering “little anti-sermons in a wacko style” about “mass democracy and its characteristic—woeful—product” or maybe the Treaty of Versailles. You and I might prefer to pledge a vow of Trappist silence than talk so eagerly on our mobile phones to well-placed inside-dopesters—former students, war criminals with training wheels—at the State Department, on the staff of the National Security Adviser or columnizing for the Washington Times. But Bellow has always indulged his taste for the flamboyant. And better Abe, so full of big ideas that go all the way back, than … well, in Augie, there was Einhorn, and in Seize the Day, Tamkin, and in Humboldt's Gift, Cantabile. Bald Abe, with his milky-white legs in his blue-and-white kimono “fit for a shogun,” in the Hotel Crillon penthouse in Paris, among oil sheiks and Michael Jackson groupies, hating his father and scattering his food, is a distinct improvement on these charlatan gurus. At least, like his main man Socrates, he will die without self-pity.

Chick encouraged Abe to write his book, which is why Abe is now rich and no longer has to pawn his Jensen silver teapot and his Quimper antique plates to his colleagues and admirers to pay for the Dunhill lighter or the Mont Blanc pen that he suddenly can't live without. Abe laughs at Chick's jokes. (Example: “Maybe an unexamined life is not worth living. But a man's examined life can make him wish he was dead.”) On the other hand, he seems to have an odd investment in Chick's guilelessness, especially about women. Whereas, while Chick likes to listen to Abe talk about anything—from Maimonides to Mel Brooks—he has his doubts about Abe's settled certainty on everything he talks about. (“Of course my needs were different from Ravelstein's. In my trade you have to make allowances, taking all sorts of ambiguities into account—to avoid hard-edged judgments. … In art, you become familiar with due process. You can't simply write off people or send them to hell.”) Nor should you invite them to the country. Abe, for whom “nature and solitude are poison,” is mystified by Chick's periodic idylls in the woods. (“He said, repeating the opinion of Socrates in the Phaedrus, that a tree, so beautiful to look at, never spoke a word and that conversation was possible only in the city, between men.”)

Yet if we refuse to embrace the contradictions of our loved ones, we will be left loveless. Nobody wants to wind up like Norman Podhoretz, whose only remaining friend is America. So we are finally won over to these two old men, cranky and horny, discussing Greeks, Jews, death and sex, in their very own parrot-filled agora. “I was free,” says Chick, “to confess to Ravelstein what I couldn't tell anyone else, to describe my weaknesses, my corrupt shameful secrets, and the cover-ups that drain your strength.” And Ravelstein, as though HIV-positive and dying of its complications and infections, nevertheless “insisted on telling me over and over again what love was—the neediness, the awareness of incompleteness, the longing for wholeness, and how the pains of Eros were joined to the most ecstatic pleasures:

He was not one of those people for whom love has been debunked and punctured—for whom it is a historical, Romantic myth long in dying but today finally dead. He thought—no, he saw—that every soul was looking for its peculiar other, longing for its complement. … there is a certain irreducible splendor about it without which we would not be quite human. Love is the highest function of our species—its vocation.

Thus, for Chick, even after flunking so many previous marriages, another gallant try with Rosamund. Thus, for Abe, even as the plague takes him, a devotion to Nikki that is reciprocated even after Nikki has stayed up till 4 in the morning watching kung fu movies from his native Singapore. But now we come to the distance between these strenuous poses.

For all that Chick tells us about Abe's disapproval “of queer antics and of what he called ‘faggot behavior,’” about how “he couldn't bear the fluttering of effeminate men,” about how “he despised campy homosexuality and took a very low view of ‘gay pride,’” he also worries the subject like a sick tooth's socket. Sometimes this nervousness is high-minded:

In matters of sex, I sometimes felt, Ravelstein saw me as a throwback, an anachronism. I was his close friend. But I was the child of a traditional European Jewish family, with a vocabulary for inversion going back two millennia or more. The ancestral Jewish terms for it were, first, Tum-tum, dating perhaps from the Babylon captivity. Sometimes the word was andreygenes, obviously of Alexandrian, Hellenistic origin—the two sexes merged in one erotic and perverse darkness.

At least as often, however, we are closer to wincing home. When Vela accuses Chick of having had corrupt sex with Ravelstein, “I laughed like anything. I told her I didn't even know how the act was done, and that I wasn't ready to learn, at my age.” He concedes that “you couldn't, as the intimate and friend of Ravelstein, avoid knowing a great deal more than you had an appetite for. But at a certain depth there were places in your psyche that still belonged to the Middle Ages. Or even to the age of the pyramids or Ur of the Chaldees.” Are we clear? Abe is “doomed to die because of his irregular sexual ways,” to be “destroyed by his reckless sex habits.” Ravelstein's sinful “taste for sexy mischief,” his relish for “louche encounters, the fishy and the equivocal,” combined perhaps with his impatience for hygiene, his “biological patchiness” and his “faulty, darkened heart and lungs”—“When he coughed you heard the sump at the bottom of a mine shaft echoing”—add up to a shadowing of “risk, limit, death's blackout” on “every living moment.” To be sure, “to prolong his life was not one of Ravelstein's aims,” but it is certainly one of Chick's, and has been ever since he chose, at age 8, not to die of peritonitis: “No one can give up on the pictures.”

So the white crane flashing its wings faces off against the master strumming his lute. Abe is an “atheist-materialist.” Chick, for all his passionate attachment to the faces of people and surfaces of things, for all his sense of “privilege” at being “permitted to see—to see, touch, hear” an “articulated reality” in “the interval of light between the darkness in which you awaited first birth and then the darkness of death that would receive you,” nonetheless believes that “the pictures must and will continue.” The dead aren't gone for good. Daily, he will talk to Ravelstein.

But only after he has gone there himself and then come back, “blindly recovery-bent,” with “the deep and special greed of the sick when they have decided not to die.” If the philosopher was teaching us how to go, the novelist, with the heroic help of his wife, will teach us how to stay. The last fifty extraordinary pages of Ravelstein take us from Abe's memorial service … to a Caribbean vacation for Chick and Rosamund … to a French restaurant, a toxic fish, food-poisoning and nerve damage to a bewildered Chick … to an emergency airlift, actually an angelic skyjacking, prestidigitated by resourceful Rosamund … to oxygen and Boston and a hospital “end zone” … to a falling passage through circles of hellish hallucination—nightmares of cannibalism, cryonics, bank vaults and Filene's Basement—to the light again and the wife who saved him. This may be the same light Saul Bellow once found in Jerusalem, whose filtering of blood and thought allowed him to imagine “the outer garment of God.” But the wife is the novelist's own, the mother-to-be of a brand-new child for an octogenarian adept of due process. About this woman, Lazarus will say: “Rosamund had studied love—Rousseauan romantic love and the Platonic Eros as well, with Ravelstein—but she knew far more about it than either her teacher or her husband.” [Emphasis added.]

There's a punch line, like the grandest of ideas dissolved by music into a form of feeling, like the opening of an American mind.

Adam Feldman (review date fall 2000)

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SOURCE: Feldman, Adam. “Soulmate in Bloom.” Gay & Lesbian Review 7, no. 4 (fall 2000): 46-7.

[In the following favorable review of Ravelstein, Feldman examines Bellow's friendship with Allan Bloom, asserting that evidence presented in the novel could potentially lead readers to conclude “that Bloom was the love of Bellow's life.”]

In his last book, Love and Friendship, Allan Bloom (better known for his best-selling opus, The Closing of the American Mind) wrote this about “intimate friendship”:

Although this overwhelming experience seems akin to the love affairs that are so frequent and so attractive in the various literary genres, it does not lend itself to literary depiction. … The eros of souls for one another, experienced by two human beings who can share insights into the nature of man and of all other things, is much less palpable, and hence less believable, than the eros of bodies.

Bloom knew the difficulties involved in writing about deep, nonsexual attachments. Those difficulties are front and center in Saul Bellow's Ravelstein, which offers a loose, memoir-like account of the author's relationship with Bloom himself, the philosophy professor who rose to national prominence in 1987 with his curmudgeonly bestseller. The Closing of the American Mind (to which Bellow wrote the foreword). The novel's Bellow figure is an aging writer and “serial marrier” named Chick, who's been charged by his brilliant, dying friend Abe Ravelstein (Bloom) with the responsibility of memorializing him in fiction. “I'm laying this on you as an obligation,” says Ravelstein. “Do it in your after-dinner supper-reminiscence manner, when you've had a few glasses of wine and you're laid back and making remarks.”

Ravelstein, the book Chick writes, complies with these instructions. Chick eschews conventional narrative in favor of a “piece-meal method” of getting at Ravelstein—a series of revealing anecdotes and character sketches, some of which are gently repeated several times. The narrative lurches back and forth in time, and features few of the conventions than one would expect from a friendship story: We never learn, for example, how Chick and Ravelstein met, though we know they met relatively late in life. This impressionistic approach contrasts with the more direct storytelling that Chick uses in depicting his vain ex-wife Vela (read “Bellow's exwife Alexandra”) and his lovely new wife Rosamund (read “Bellow's new wife Janis”). Louis Menand, in the New York Review of Books, points out that Ravelstein is “the least novelized character in the book … is presented entirely from the outside, and (although, of course, he dies) nothing happens to him dramatically.”

Yet it is impossible to read Ravelstein and not be struck by the enormous sense of loss that courses through its pages. Ravelstein and Chick were “close friends—none closer,” and if Chick resists the impulse to “novelize” Ravelstein, it may be because such work would necessarily entail a kind of reduction. Ravelstein—and Bloom—are allowed to stand on their own. “I have known and admired many extraordinary persons in the long life that I have been granted, but none more extraordinary than Allan Bloom,” said Bellow at Bloom's 1992 funeral. “Allan's is a clear case of greatness.”

Ravelstein dwells on that greatness. Almost every aspect of Ravelstein's physical body is enormous; his “long, long legs,” his “large face,” his “gross” ears, his “big, unskillful hand” with its “long fingers,” and above all his “bald, powerful head,” its very baldness mentioned repetitively, obsessively even, coming up at least a dozen times. His bald head, with its “white force,” is the repository of a massive intellect: “Ravelstein was a major figure in the highest intellectual circles.”

The book has received a lot of attention since its publication, much of it centering on Bellow's revelation that Allan Bloom was gay. Or rather, that he was “an invert,” since Ravelstein, according to Chick, “took a very low view of ‘gay pride,’” and “disapproved of queer antics and of what he called ‘faggot behavior.’” Readers looking for bedroom gossip about Bloom will be disappointed. Of Ravelstein's sex life Chick tells us very little: a vague allusion to Ravelstein's “sexual friendships”; a sly remark that “for reasons of all sorts” he was “big on soldiers”; and one brief passage about his “taste for sexy mischief … louche encounters, the fishy and the equivocal.” And his depiction of Ravelstein's relationship with his companion Nikki is curiously muted. (Bellow reportedly toned down the sexual nature of their union just prior to publication.)

The controversy about “outing” Bloom has been most acutely voiced by those on the Right who adopted The Closing of the American Mind as a weapon in the culture wars. But Ravelstein's sexuality is a non-issue in the book itself. Chick's reverence for the “great-souled” Ravelstein, with whom he was in “almost daily” contact, is unsexed. Their friendship is Platonic in the highest sense. “We were perfectly open with each other,” writes Chick, “I was free to confess to Ravelstein what I couldn't tell anyone else, to describe my weaknesses, my corrupt shameful secrets, and the cover-ups that drain your strength.”

Interestingly, however, that is not entirely true. Chick does keep secrets from Ravelstein, notably when it comes to Chick's marriages. He holds back from Ravelstein while married to Vela—a slight for which Ravelstein rebukes him—and keeps his relationship with Ravelstein's student Rosamund a secret for the first year that they're together. These lacunæ do not mean that Chick places his romantic relationships over his friendship with Ravelstein. On the contrary, it is precisely because he values Ravelstein's opinion so highly that he cannot risk subjecting his marriages to his friend's scrutiny.

Chick clearly loves his new wife Rosamund. He speaks very highly of her and is flattered by her attentions. Yet she pales, in literary terms, next to Ravelstein. Chick's descriptions of Ravelstein revel in honest detail, excitedly cataloguing “his eccentricities or foibles, his lavish, screwy purchases, his furnishing, his vanities, his gags, his laugh-paroxysms.” But on the subject of Rosamund his writing lacks vitality; it cagily adopts the tone of an approving patron, describing her as “a very pretty, well-brought-up, mannerly, intelligent young woman.”

Ravelstein succumbs to AIDS—“destroyed by his reckless sex habits”—about two-thirds of the way through the book, and Chick makes this death seem like a kind of choice: After all, Ravelstein had always despised “the death-dreading bourgeoisie” and valued the pursuit of pleasure over the fear of death. Not long afterward, Chick himself nearly dies from a bout with food poisoning. This, too, is borrowed from Bellow's life, but Bellow has compressed the timing, so now Chick's brush with mortality follows right on the heels of Ravelstein's exit instead of three years later, as Bellow's did. Chick credits Rosamund's devotion with his continued survival, and speaks reverently of her capacity to love. But while he recognizes the depth of Rosamund's love, he does not seem capable, exactly, of returning it in kind, “I realized that I owed my life to [Janis],” Bellow recently told the Canadian magazine Saturday Night. “Now that's not an erotic motive; that's more like gratitude.”

Was there an erotic motive in Bellow's relationship to Bloom? In Love and Friendship, Bloom offers this account of the friendship between Shakespeare's Prince Hal and Falstaff: “They are soul mates, and without any touch of solemnity, they prove the possibility of a purely spiritual association, based upon mutual admiration of intellectual gifts, without necessary admixture of anything bodily. … It is, really, an erotic relationship, the attraction based on the potential for shared insights.”

Ravelstein, with his gregarious overflow of body and mind, has more than a touch of Falstaff in him: a life-breather, feeding others with his energy, passing along his “vital force.” The lovely, intelligent Rosamund has no such force to give; the most she can do is stave off death. The book's dedication to Janis calls her “the star without whom I could not navigate,” but the gesture seems compensatory. On the evidence presented in Ravelstein, it does not seem unfair to conclude that Allan Bloom was the love of Bellow's life.

Adam Phillips (review date fall 2000)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3510

SOURCE: Phillips, Adam. “Bellow and Ravelstein.Raritan 20, no. 2 (fall 2000): 1-10.

[In the following review, Phillips asserts that Ravelstein is not a biography, but rather “a fiction about biography.”]

In Diana Trilling's memoir The Beginning of the Journey she tells a story about Saul Bellow to illustrate the effect that Lionel Trilling had on people. Lionel, she writes,

always retained a certain air of unassailability. There were people whom this seemed to disturb. In middle life, he lectured at the University of Chicago, and Saul Bellow, who taught there and with whom he had become pleasantly acquainted in the early fifties when Bellow was writing The Adventures of Augie March, invited him to have a drink after his talk. For their drinking place Bellow chose a bar in a desperate quarter of the city; it was the gathering place of drunks and deadbeats, a refuge of people who had been irreparably damaged by life. What other explanation of Bellow's choice could there be than the wish to test Lionel's ability to handle himself in such surroundings?

We may know what she means, we may be able to imagine what this bar was like, but her assuming our complicity in this description is, as it were, part of the problem. And it is a problem that Saul Bellow has been unusually alert to in his fiction. It is the problem of culture, and particularly so-called high culture, as a version of pastoral; but a version of pastoral that can be made to look unassailable because of the apparent complexity and subtlety and depth of its inclusions. A strangely modern version of pastoral, because it persuades us to forget that pastoral is what it is. At its worst it is a refuge masquerading as a profound engagement. If despite Diana Trilling's rhetorical question this scene seems emblematic in more ways than one—of two antagonistic Jewish (and not only Jewish) aspirations, of the composure of the cultured versus the disarray of what they hide from, of the need to know people by testing them rather than by taking them on their own terms—it is partly because it stages so neatly the preoccupations, the obsessions, of both Trilling and Bellow. The heroes of Bellow's fiction—and the Ravelstein of Bellow's title [Ravelstein] is no exception—are always wholeheartedly assailable, and above all attentive to other people's airs (and often their graces). And they are always men who live somewhere in themselves, in a desperate quarter; and are, as everyone is, irreparably damaged by life. But unlike almost everyone else, they are astonishingly articulate, and learned, and poignantly moving and amused about their various predicaments. However abject, they luxuriate in words and things (Humboldt, Bellow wrote, “spoke wonderfully of the wonderful, abominable rich”). Ravelstein, the great teacher dying of AIDS, is in this tradition of Bellow's grandly destitute, and is at the center of what is, remarkably, one of Bellow's finest novels.

Trilling is always trying to persuade us (and presumably himself) in his criticism that the culture he values isn't, and shouldn't be, a retreat from anything. And Bellow's fiction, one way or another, has always been about, has always dramatized, the romance of culture and learning. For Bellow the drama hasn't been only about connecting the prose and the passion, but more about seeing what the deadbeats and the professors make of each other. As both of them are sticklers for the noble life—and are keen to tell us what we should be doing to ennoble our lives—they are determinedly stylish about the crude and the vulgar (in this sense Trilling's composure and the brash eloquence of Bellow's heroes are mirror images of each other). They are, in their quite different ways, both enthralled by, and at their most fascinating about, sophistication.

Writing in Sincerity and Authenticity about how the novelists of the nineteenth century were “anything but confident that the old vision of the noble life could be realized,” Trilling refers to Bellow's Moses Herzog. “When, for example,” Trilling writes,

a gifted novelist, Saul Bellow, tries through his Moses Herzog to question the prevailing negation of the old vision and to assert the value of the achieved and successful life, we respond with discomfort and embarrassment. And the more, no doubt, because we discern some discomfort and embarrassment on the part of Mr. Bellow himself, arising from his sufficiently accurate apprehension that in controverting the accepted attitude he lays himself open to the terrible charge of philistinism, of being a defector from the ranks of the children of light, a traitor to spirit. We take it as an affront to our sense of reality that a contemporary should employ that mode of judging the spiritual life which we are willing to accept and even find entrancing when we encounter it in Shakespeare's romances.

As terrible charges go, one might think, there are probably worse ones. And yet, as ever, Trilling has located, in his elegant, Freudian way, a conflict. Or at least some kind of paradoxical tension in Bellow's work. If it is old-fashioned, if not actually regressive, to assert the value of the achieved and successful life, what else can be asserted in its stead? If the “reconciliations and redemptions”—in a phrase Allan Bloom, the putative original for Ravelstein, uses with reference to Shakespeare's romances—of these romances affront our contemporary sense of reality, then what forms of disarray are we going to put our money on?

Ravelstein, the political philosopher and worshipper of Eros, has devoted his life to teaching the best that has been thought and done about the ordering of the soul and the ordering of the polis; and he is now dying of AIDS. And he has asked his older close friend, a writer called Chick, to write his biography, the final testament to an achieved and successful life. Or rather, the contemporary genre in which the notions of success and achievement are both assumed and put into question. More than any of Bellow's other books, Ravelstein seems like a wholly successful example of an utterly implausible genre: a contemporary, Jewish Platonic dialogue. Like the tricky romance of taking Trilling to that bar—wondering whether it would end in tears, or just what it would end in—Bellow stages an impressive double act in this novel to explore the ways in which people are informed, in the most various senses of this word, by the people they love and admire. It is “the promise [Chick] had made years ago to write a short description of Ravelstein and to give an account of his life.” And as a kept promise of sorts—the book we read is an account of preparing to write this biography—it is an ironic vindication, against the grain of modern biography, that a short description of somebody, done with sufficient skill, can be an account of their life. Bellow intimates not (quite) that all biographers are failed novelists, but that all biographies are failed or ersatz novels.

The novel Ravelstein is, in other words, not a biography of someone called Ravelstein, nor of someone called Allan Bloom. It is a fiction about biography. And the much publicized connections made between Bellow's close friend Bloom and Bellow's (and Chick's) subject Ravelstein are to the point and beside it. They are, as it were, integral to Bellow's sense of, or joke about, biography in this book. Ravelstein, we are told on several occasions, loved listening to classical music played on “original instruments”: and what, we are made to wonder in a book about someone who wonders about virtually everything, does “original” mean? What is involved in this fantasy of origins? If Ravelstein is “like” Allan Bloom or “based on” Allan Bloom, he is also, unsurprisingly, like Moses Herzog, like Humboldt. And they are all, in their way, originals: original instruments, original voices.

It is one of Ravelstein's projects to divorce his students—who are always his devoted protégés—from what used to be called their backgrounds. “He hated his own family and never tired of weaning his gifted students from their families. His students, as I've said, had to be cured of the disastrous misconceptions, the ‘standardized unrealities’ imposed on them by mindless parents.” For Ravelstein, origins and originality are at odds with each other; he persuades his students to disown, as he has done, their supposed histories. But even though Ravelstein is, by definition, no Freudian—and, as a committed European, no Emersonian either (although Thoreau, as we shall see, puts in some interesting appearances)—his biographer-to-be, Chick, as he is aptly named, has a more familiar, literary-Freudian cast of mind. So he reads Ravelstein in a way Ravelstein would never read himself; that is, through a particular canon of literary allusions. “His lot, his crew, his disciples, his clones who dressed as he did, smoked the same Marlboros, and found in these entertainments a common ground between the fan clubs of childhood and the Promised Land of the intellect towards which Ravelstein, their Moses and their Socrates, led them.” Bellow has always been able to pack a sentence; and at its worst this can give his writing a kind of studied fluency, as though he wanted to be Flaubert letting his hair down. But here, as everywhere in Ravelstein, there is no straining for effect in writing about a character who is, for all intents and purposes, doing virtually nothing but that. “Crew” refers us to Milton's Satan, and “disciples” refers us to Satan's rival; “the Promised Land of the intellect” seems to marry Jerusalem and Athens. Ravelstein, we are told, was “Homeric,” a lover of Plato; a Jew who devoted his life to Athens until he began dying, when he turned back to his forefathers. Chick, though, is not the kind of person who thinks along Jerusalem and Athens lines. If he is anything, in this debate that Bellow has so shrewdly staged, he is literary rather than political. And Bellow, of course, is mindful of what is at stake in such distinctions.

There is, in Ravelstein's view, something childish about the way the literary tend, as it were, to overpersonalize things. But Bellow is at pains to indicate what biographers are often at pains to conceal: that writing about someone turns too easily into writing on their behalf. That biographers can be sly when they use their nominal subjects as novelists use their characters, as a way of saying something. Ravelstein is Chick's opportunity to voice his misgivings about the literary life, and the literary life story.

But Ravelstein might have argued that there was a danger of self-indulgence in it. Either you continue to live in epiphanies or you shake them off and take up trades and tasks, you adopt rational principles and concern yourself with society and politics. Then the sense of coming from “elsewhere” vanishes. In my case Ravelstein's opinion was that distinctiveness of observation had gone much further than it should and was being cultivated for its own strange sake. Mankind had first claim on our attention and I indulged my “personal metaphysics” too much, he thought.

As “Ravelstein might have argued …” ends up as “he thought,” Bellow conveys just how characters, other people, take on a life of their own in our words; that we are always speaking and writing from other people's points of view, on their behalf. And often speaking in their voices back to them. That we might be full of other people—engaged in endless mutual biography—makes a more private sense of self difficult to account for. For Chick the privacy of the self is the self: “my feeling was that you couldn't be known thoroughly unless you found a way to communicate certain ‘incommunicables'—your private metaphysics.” For Chick's Ravelstein, private metaphysics, “intimate metaphysics,” is the pastime of people intimidated by the publicness of public life. “A man,” Ravelstein believed, “should be able to hear, and to bear, the worst that could be said of him.” Being assailable is the point and not the problem. You make yourself out of what the world makes of you, and what you can make it make of you. It is purity that is danger. “He simply believed that a willingness to let the self-esteem structure be attacked and burned to the ground was a measure of your seriousness.” In other words, for Chick's Ravelstein shame is a protection racket.

So, much play is made in this novel by Ravelstein and Chick and Bellow of Chick's New England retreat in the country. In his “fieldstone house” with its “old maples and hickory trees” Chick hears very little about what other people think of him. But he has to bear what Ravelstein thinks and that, in a sense, is what Ravelstein is there for. And why, by the same token, Ravelstein has chosen Chick as his biographer. Chick always wants to hear what Ravelstein has to say, and he enjoys bearing it. Ravelstein, who is bored by the country, comes to see Chick out of curiosity; not curiosity about the country, but curiosity about Chick's pleasure in it. “He had come to the country to see me, and the visit was a concession to my unaccountable taste for remoteness and solitude. Why did I want to bury myself in the woods?” For Ravelstein this is quite literally a kind of death-in-life; and the preoccupation with death, the worry about it, he considers definitely “bourgeoisie.” The “great-souled” live in the knowledge of death, but they don't distract themselves with the terrors or the attractions of it. So for him, “the drama of the season lacked real interest. Not to be compared to the human drama … to lose yourself in grasses, leaves, winds, birds, or beasts was an evasion of higher duties.” Thoreau's “woods” that keep turning up in this book—“I was not out of the woods,” Chick remarks as he begins to recover from his own near-fatal illness towards the end of the book—are for Ravelstein a false solution to the problem of politics, to hearing and bearing what other people say about us; and how this informs what we can hear and say and think about ourselves. To be out of the woods is to be alive, and to be alive is to be in circulation. And once we are around other people our composure is on the line. “To lose your head,” Ravelstein believed, “was the great-souled thing to do.” It is only with other people that the great temptations of discretion and indiscretion are available.

And yet if Ravelstein were more of an allegory than it is—and occasionally it seems like more of an allegory than it is—there would be a simple schema at its heart. There is the solitude of Walden, and Ravelstein dying of AIDS: AIDS as the worst consequence of a certain kind of free association; private intimate metaphysics—burying oneself alive and working out how to get out and how not to—as the worst (or best) consequence of withdrawal. Ravelstein, believing what he believes, and dying in the way he is dying—“a serious person, not comfortable with himself,” as Chick says with Bellow's infallible ear for the non sequiturs of character—becomes for Bellow at once an ultimate form of contemporary nobility, and a test of his fastidiousness as a writer. Ravelstein's “tact” about his own homosexuality, and his contempt for certain contemporary manners—“He despised campy homosexuality and took a very low view of ‘gay pride'”—is matched by Chick's curious blandness about the whole subject. And both Ravelstein and Chick conspire in Bellow's familiar idealization of a certain kind of woman (what analysts refer to as the wished-for mother of infancy—Chick's young wife, Rosamund, for example, is someone with whom “there was no subject raised which she didn't immediately understand”). In writing about Ravelstein's homosexuality, Bellow takes the Greek tragedy approach: the terrible things happen off stage.

We are led to believe that Ravelstein has got up to all sorts of unmentionable things, but the main relationship in the book, with a much younger man called Nikki, is rather more of the loving and caring sort. Nikki is a man of traditionally impressive integrity. And though he is strongly drawn and, as usual with Bellow, remarkably vivid in his brief appearances, there is overall something overstylized about what we are allowed to see of Ravelstein's more passionately fraught life. This is particularly striking given how often Chick refers to and reiterates Ravelstein's devotion to the god Eros, to a virtual religion of longing and desire. You get the feeling that Chick (and perhaps Bellow) have Platonized Ravelstein's homosexuality rather more than Ravelstein would always have wished. It is not that there isn't enough fist fucking in the novel, but that there's a great deal of theorizing about the shady concealments people live by, and with: a too refined distrust of refinement. A gay bar, you imagine, would be a bar that Chick would not be keen to go to.

In generational terms Ravelstein's age would have made a certain kind of discretion the order of the day. And yet Bellow's sense of propriety, which is invariably accurate, serves another purpose here I think. Bellow has always written best about the love between men—and especially the hero-worshiping kind—and the love between the generations. And yet it is one of the curious effects of his fiction to make it virtually unthinkable that two men could actually desire each other rather than, or as well as, admire or look after each other. In Bellow's fictional world homosexuality is not so much invisible as implausible. And this again is where the putative connection between Ravelstein and Allan Bloom is also a cover story. Whatever Bloom's attitude was toward homosexuality, or indeed to his dying of AIDS, Bellow is still making his own decisions as a novelist about Ravelstein. And he keeps reminding us, throughout the novel, that biographies are rather like novels, and that this book, Ravelstein, is not a biography, but a story about a man who wants to write one. “I am bound,” Chick tells us, “as an honest observer to make plain how Ravelstein operates”; and he is referring both to the inevitable ambiguity of his terms, and to the canny ways this book, also called Ravelstein, operates. What Chick calls Ravelstein's “endlessly diverting character” is never observed operating sexually, so to speak; what is observed—and Bellow writes with astounding tenderness about Ravelstein's ill body—are the terrible results of Ravelstein's secret (at least to Chick) erotic life, Ravelstein may be diverting, but Chick is diverting us.

The complications that homosexuality throws Ravelstein into—both the character, and the book itself—are pertinent because Ravelstein is a novel peculiarly troubled by evasiveness. As a fictional character, Ravelstein, like many of Bellow's heroes, is someone forever exercised and energized by other people's concealments and duplicities. Bellow's heroes unmask their fellow men and women by force of character, through a kind of demonic intuition. They are never programmatically suspicious—they are never Freudians or Marxists—they have, rather like novelists, idiosyncratic powers of divination. So Ravelstein is often getting Chick to face various facts—a key word in the novel—about himself and other people; he idealizes the naiveté of Eros, the primal intelligence of longing, while exposing the pernicious naiveté of everyday life. Chick, for example, fails to spot the fascists among his acquaintances, refuses to see that his wife has put a hex on him, and so on. Ravelstein is an expert on moral cowardice. “Why does the century,” he asks, “… underwrite so much destruction? There is a lameness that comes over all of us when we consider these facts.” It is part of Ravelstein's “teaching-vaudeville” to assail and assault Chick with the plain facts of the time: the fact, say, that Jews have to live with the knowledge that quite recently a significant number of powerful people wanted to wipe them out entirely, and nearly succeeded. And yet the great glaring facts, the “world-historical ringside seats” that these Bellow heroes promote with such amazing eloquence, keep running up against the centering image of the book, Ravelstein's increasingly dying body. “Poor Ravelstein,” Chick says in an unguarded, awkward moment, “destroyed by his reckless sex habits.” We shouldn't evade the big questions, but we shouldn't use the big questions to evade the other questions. Bellow has always had a truth-comes-in-blows sensibility, but in Ravelstein there is a new uncertainty about which blows matter and why. And a strong sense that there is a difference between talking, however grandly and wildly and wisely, about recklessness, and living recklessly.

If Ravelstein turned out to be his last novel, it would be an extraordinary valediction. But we should hope that it isn't because Bellow is beginning to say new—and to use one of his words—serious things about, among many other things, evasion and recklessness. Evasion is not news, but our evasion of recklessness is.

Rita D. Jacobs (review date autumn 2000)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 550

SOURCE: Jacobs, Rita D. Review of Ravelstein, by Saul Bellow. World Literature Today 74, no. 4 (autumn 2000): 813.

[In the following review, Jacobs maintains that Ravelstein “is a minor exercise, albeit with an occasional flourish of mastery.”]

The art of the novel often involves transporting the reader into a hitherto unknown world, no matter how familiar the terrain may seem. And even when the novel closely mirrors reality, as graceful a novelist as Saul Bellow has usually been able to transport readers beyond the known. In fact, although there have long been attempts to identify characters in Bellow's novels with “real” people such as Delmore Schwartz and the lesser-known Jack Ludwig, Bellow has most often risen above the clichés of the roman à clef. But in some cases it is just too difficult to resist the autobiographical, both for the writer and the reader. In the case of Ravelstein it is very hard work indeed to keep the biographical information about Bellow's own life and that of his academic colleague and friend Allan Bloom out of one's mind.

The eponymous Ravelstein is a Rabelaisian academic: larger than life, judgmental yet generous, seemingly gluttonous yet with quirkily refined, if huge, appetites. His much milder anointed biographer, and the self-effacing first-person narrator, Chick, is an intellectual and emotional touchstone of sorts for Ravelstein. Although Chick tries to present his subject as superbly vital and multifaceted, he resorts early on to having to tell us that “he was a very complex man,” as though his powers of vivid description (and his confidence in the vital emergence of his character on the page) have deserted him.

The novel is fundamentally about love: Ravelstein's ravenous appetite for philosophy and gossip about love and Chick's love for his friend Ravelstein and for his much younger life-saver of a wife, Rosamund. The death of love and the intimate relationship between love and the death that it can cause in this time of AIDS round out the larger scope of the novel. Compared to other Bellow novels, and especially given the range and import of its subject, Ravelstein is an easy read. Of course, there are the literary and historical allusions, and digressions on the plight of being a Jew in the postwar world, but the prose is pared down and almost simple, and not deceptively so. Unfortunately, so are the characterizations: Ravelstein himself, despite all of Bellow's efforts, does not emerge as charming, fascinating, or, to my mind, even likable. At one point he bursts into a hotel suite where Chick's former wife, the evil Vela, is not quite dressed. She is unwilling to forgive him, and Chick responds, “Well, he's impetuous. With a man like Ravelstein it's … it's one of his charms that he acts on impulse.” It was a charm that eluded this reader.

The minor characters are notably flat, especially Ravelstein's companion Nikki, with the exceptions of Vela and, in the end, Rosamund. The final portion of the novel is a tribute to Chick's young wife, who early on appears to be a handmaiden to the brain power of the older men. In the end, she saves Chick's life. Herein is the story of the true power of love.

In the canon of Bellow's work, Ravelstein is a minor exercise, albeit with an occasional flourish of mastery.

Igor Webb (essay date spring 2001)

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SOURCE: Webb, Igor. “The Demands of a Soul.” Partisan Review 68, no. 2 (spring 2001): 324-28.

[In the following essay, Webb investigates Bellow's invoking of John Maynard Keynes in Ravelstein.]

Ravelstein is a celebrated professor [in Ravelstein] of political philosophy—a character based, so it has been said everywhere, on Allan Bloom, author of The Closing of the American Mind. I'd better say right away that I know precious little about Saul Bellow's personal life, that I've never met Allan Bloom, and that anyway I do not have the stomach to believe that you can simply translate any life into fiction. The connections and disconnections between Bloom and Bellow and the connections and disconnections between Bloom and Ravelstein may have a certain interest—but not for Virginia Woolf's common reader, with whom I'm happy to identify: we want to read the book, and expect the road into its thickets to be mapped by the book itself.

Okay: so, Ravelstein is a celebrated political philosopher. He is dying of AIDS, and wants to secure his legacy. To this end he asks his friend, an aging writer called Chick—the narrator of the novel—to write his biography. That's the rhetorical premise of the book, which turns out, however, to be a kind of Chinese box of motives and meanings.

For one thing, Ravelstein has a precise idea of what the book of his life should be like: it should be like John Maynard Keynes's memoir of Dr. Melchior, the Jewish head of the German financial delegation at the famously flawed Peace Conference of 1919 (Keynes headed the British financial delegation). Why does Ravelstein choose this apparently unlikely model?

Well, there's the question of the Jews—literally the Jews, meaning the men who headed both the French and the German financial delegations, the former the villain and the latter the hero of Keynes's account of the negotiations. Then, the Jews as European scapegoats, available for parody and vicious assault by the assembled leaders, especially, as Ravelstein likes to point out, Lloyd George (Eric Partridge traces the expression “He's a real pisser” to this remark of Clemenceau's about Lloyd George: “Ah, si je pouvais pisser comme il parle.”). And finally the Jews as modern history's untouchables. All of these things, especially the last, matter a great deal to Ravelstein and Chick as they cast an assessing eye on the dour end of an astonishing century, a century that, Ravelstein says, has universally declared that Jews have no right to live. Athens and Jerusalem are the points of reference for Ravelstein's life, and as he approaches death Jerusalem grows in importance. Still, I don't think any of this is the main reason for invoking Keynes.

Keynes's memoir begins by laying out the problem confronting the officials engaged in the Peace Conference. The Prime Minister, Lloyd George, intended to do all of the actual negotiations himself, without interference from any of his officials. Consequently, as Keynes tells it, no one was quite certain what if anything was happening or even when the conference would begin. But you couldn't wait too long because “the rooms in the Hotel Majestic were reputed to be of unequal excellence, and he who arrived last might fare worst.”

When I eventually reached Paris early in January 1919, it was as I had expected, and no one yet knew what the Conference was doing or whether it had started. But the peculiar atmosphere and routine of the Majestic were already compounded and established, the typists drank their tea in the lounge, the dining-room diners had distinguished themselves from the restaurant diners, the security officers from Scotland Yard burnt such of the waste paper as the French charwomen had no use for, much factitious work circulated in red boxes, and the feverish, persistent and boring gossip of that hellish place had already developed in full measure the peculiar flavour of smallness, cynicism, self-importance and bored excitement that it was never to lose.

This is the model. The main point, I gather, is that there can't be a better example of prose as the stamp of a certain cultural and world view. It's this kind of writing, intimate, precise, urbane, serious in a worldly way, resting on a coherent philosophical outlook—this is the prose Chick is supposed to mimic. Keynes's sensibility has obvious appeal for Ravelstein. We first meet Ravelstein, for example, when he's occupying the most expensive suite in the most luxurious hotel in Paris. Both Chick and Ravelstein have a very large soft spot for the best. Indeed the novel drops the names of the choicest shops for every kind of thing worldwide, as if the life of the mind aligned to Socrates requires discrimination from bottom to top, including of course such shops as Turnbull and Asser. To put it kindly, this is stretching a point, but history shows that readers prefer their novels to contain traces of the life of the extremely rich rather than of those who are extremely poor (and if we have to have the extremely poor, they'd better be quirky and poetic, like the people in Denis Johnson's novels). Ravelstein, in any event, has constructed for himself an ample life whose ton would be perfectly familiar to Keynes—a life in equal parts devoted to high policy and to gossip; a life, like Keynes's, comfortably off-center in its sexuality; a life vivid with classy appreciations, splendid acquisitions of beautiful things taken to have as much value as the great men, great events, and great ideas of any given moment.

But because of the rise of mass democracy, Ravelstein, Chick tells us, has had to battle a condition that Bloomsbury, with its achieved even inherited elitism and its exceptionalism and Fabianism, could not begin to appreciate. Ravelstein asks his students: “With what, in this modern democracy, will you meet the demands of your soul?” Ravelstein's reply is classically classical—he has an Aristotelian view of politics as the grandest expression of the passions, and a Socratic view of the passions as wrapped up in Eros, the essential human quality and faculty, the foundation, enactment, and end of human being.

The test of this latter notion doesn't occur until late in the novel, which for the most part wanders through Ravelstein's illness to his death. The peripatetic form seems right—for one thing there's Socrates; and for Ravelstein and Chick, following Socrates, ideas loom large over events; and then there's Keynes's intimate memoir, spoken to his old friends. In the last part of the novel, after Ravelstein dies, Chick and his young wife—Rosamund!—travel to the Caribbean, where he eats spoiled fish and contracts an almost-fatal infection, saved only by Rosamund's devotion, persistence … love. And so the novel ends.

It's not clear, from fairly early on, that Chick is up to the assignment Ravelstein imposes on him. In fact the book we get is a novel, not a memoir or a biography. As a novel it persuasively, gracefully portrays friendship as an imaginative coupling, the unmoored exhilaration of like minds humming after ideas and ideas-in-things. The fabulous Bellovian patter and genius for detail once more shows Bellow off as the master of rendering intelligence on the page. But love is not so happily rendered in Ravelstein. Rosamund is a student of Ravelstein's; but Ravelstein never catches on to her attachment to Chick before the wedding day, which means we never get any experience, as readers, of the courtship between the aging writer and the young student, we never get to see any of the telling details of love. Although Rosamund comes forward at the close as the loving savior of Chick's life, the power of love is not much more than a thought in the novel.

The reason for this is that Chick, as writer, harbors a kind of flightiness of sensibility that keeps him always at a good distance from committing that quintessential Bloomsbury act, represented by E. M. Forster's “Only connect.” “A man who knew me well,” Chick confides, “said that I was more innocent than any adult had the right to be.” This sounds like the sort of thing a character given the slightly absurd, foolish name “Chick” would say. And in fact, if Keynes weren't being pressed on us, I could swear there's a family resemblance between Chick and Ford Madox Ford's John Dowell, narrator of The Good Soldier, another book about the turn of sensibility from one age to another, and also a man more innocent than any adult has a right to be. Dowell, like Chick, chronicles the lives of people he claims to know intimately, people he tells us over and over he has been as close to as any human being can be to another. But Dowell turns out to be incapable of intimacy and not to have understood anyone very well.

Chick, like Dowell, is a man apparently short of gravitas; he lacks a certain essential weight to his perceptions and his habits. “I don't suppose,” Chick says after Ravelstein is dead—“I don't suppose that when he [Ravelstein] directed me to write an account of his life he expected me to settle for what was characteristic—characteristic of me, is what I mean, naturally.” But perhaps Ravelstein was shrewder than Chick supposes. “Ravelstein's legacy to me,” Chick says right at the beginning, “was a subject—he thought he was giving me a subject, perhaps the best one I ever had, perhaps the only really important one.” We are misled, and maybe Chick is misled, to think that that subject is Ravelstein, or Ravelstein as a study of how the philosophical life should be lived. And insofar as that goes, that's just one example of Ravelstein's trying to get his insubstantial friend grounded. But it emerges that the subject is only partly Ravelstein; the real subject is Chick's, that is, one's own, death. That's “the only really important subject.”

By the time Chick is set in contest with his own death, Ravelstein is dead, and can't help his old friend. Instead, his manner of dying, his ideas, and his student, the rose-of-the-world, come to Chick's aid. It's Rosamund's love for Chick, and her faith in love, that enable her to surmount the bureaucracy of the health care system and Chick's virtual indifference to the outcome of his struggle—and death itself.

Ravelstein is a political philosopher. He exhibits in grand gesture and entertaining voluptuousness how the philosophical life should be lived. Chick is at pains to make clear that he's not a philosopher, although he's read the texts. What he is is a writer. The difference between the two, the difference between Ravelstein and Chick, is subtly, amply illustrated in the novel, with Keynes as point of reference, through all those parts of the book that show us Ravelstein and Chick in dialogue. This difference takes on an ambiguous though more emphatic quality after Ravelstein's death, because whatever his devotion to ideas, Chick's sensibility, the dynamic of his being, is finally more visceral, more sensuous, more intellect and less intellectualism, less purposeful than Ravelstein's. It's not that he survives death because of the force of Eros even as lived idea so much as that he has things to do, that he's propelled by a distinctly Conradian discipline, at once fanciful and practical. He's a writer. Even Keynes doesn't bring him closer to a prose Ravelstein would like for himself; he writes neither biography nor memoir but a novel—an especially suggestive and entertaining one.

Bharat Tandon (review date 21 April 2001)

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SOURCE: Tandon, Bharat. “Boswell on Gatsby.” Times Literary Supplement (21 April 2001): 21.

[In the following unfavorable review, Tandon asserts that Ravelstein does not live up to its potential and that the book fails to captivate readers.]

When is a choice not a choice? This is a question which Saul Bellow's fiction has pursued with dedication and ferocity for over half a century. As early as Dangling Man (1944), his perception of the ironies of enforced leisure in a time of military purposefulness—“the derangement of days, the levelling of occasions”—made that novel so much more than the demotic Chicago Camus it could easily have been. And in later works, many with titles which now sound like landmarks in post-war American fiction, he has continued to explore the range of what constitutes human choice, always aware that one cannot avoid being enmeshed with the wills and desires of others, but that there are better or worse ways of dealing with the fact. As Stella says to the protagonist of The Adventures of Augie March, “you and I are the kind of people other people are always trying to fit into their schemes. So suppose we didn't play along, then what?” In this respect, Ravelstein feels like familiar Bellow territory—perhaps rather over-familiar. A meditation on biography and autobiography, the novel allows Bellow to focus on the question of what is most worthy of emphasis among an individual's actions, since “the simplest of human beings is … esoteric and radically mysterious”; but the detailing of that mystery is often diffuse, and eventually comes across as more admirable than enjoyable. Ravelstein is the first Bellow novel since Herzog (1964) to take a character's unadorned name for its title, although the resemblance largely ends there.

Martin Amis, probably Bellow's most famous British advocate, once noted that Bellow's names are “Dickensian in their resonance”, meaning, presumably, that like “Tulkinghorn”, they connote more than they precisely denote, and “Abe Ravelstein” is no exception. Alongside the evident marking of the character's Jewish heritage, the name suggests him as something to be unravelled, and this is the task which Chick, the novel's narrator, takes on himself. Chick's younger friend Ravelstein, a distinguished professor of political philosophy, has long been “at ease with large statements, big issues, and famous men”, a mentor to former students in high political office. But it is not until Chick suggests that Ravelstein publish his ideas in popular form that the philosopher makes the leap from intellectual respectability to remunerative accessibility—a timely move, considering his material tastes:

The glass top of the coffee table in front of it was about four inches thick. On it, Ravelstein sometimes spread his effects—the solid-gold Mont Blanc fountain pen, his $200,000 wrist watch, the golden gadget that cut his smuggled Havanas, the extra-large cigarette box filled with Marlboros, his Dunhill lighters, the heavy square glass ashtrays—the long butts neurotically puffed at once or twice and then broken.

In return, Ravelstein offers Chick the opportunity to become his biographer, to transmit the essence of him as a private person rather than a political thinker; however, the whole process of trying to tell the story turns out to be as much a matter of autobiographical reminiscence as of conventional biography. As he remarks to his younger second wife, Rosamund (herself a Ravelstein graduate), Chick may himself be more of a satellite of the great man than he has realized:

“What I'm probably trying to say that in Ravelstein's view I may have nothing more to do in this life than commemorate him.”

“That is an odd thought for anyone to have.”

“He felt he was giving me a great subject—the subject of subjects. …”

There is a characteristically evasive Bellow pun in the duplicity of “subject” here; Chick is feeling subjected to his topic, as Joseph in Dangling Man feels imprisoned by his freedom (“Long live regimentation!”). But the revelation of Ravelstein's impending death from an AIDS-related disease also points to a deeper mutual dependency between the two men, and occasions a long chain of reminiscences, from academic proselytes affecting the Ravelstein “look”, to the sorrows of Chick's first marriage; somewhat remorsefully, Chick comes to recognize that he has been part of a double act (“since I can't depict him without self-involvement my presence on the margins will have to be tolerated”).

Bellow has always been a writer more notable for smartening up than for “dumbing down”: the mock-Virgilian echoes in Augie March, Moses Herzog's written commerce with the living and the dead, point to a novelist willing to take his art seriously, however comical the modes in which it works in practice. In recent years, as some areas of literary studies have felt (often guiltily) beholden to other disciplines in order to justify their own existence, Bellow has come to sound increasingly belligerent and sidelined as when he commented, in an interview in 1991:

This continent is the Kingdom of Frivolity, while all the “towering figures” are in Eastern Europe. This is how literary-political intellectuals view the present world. It isn't contemporary literature alone that is threatened by this. The classics themselves are shooting, not drifting, Lethewards. We may lose everything at this rate. … My spirits are as high as ever. Not despair—anger. Contempt and rage. For this latest and longest betrayal by puffy-headed academics and intellectuals.

The vehemence of tone may be new, but the fundamental complaint is intimate with the forces which have driven his fiction from the beginning of his career.

Although he has written in styles approaching the fantastic—notably in Henderson the Rain King—his work continually braces itself against the actual and situated; since we are here and now, his novels often ask, what are we to make of it? In reaching towards the answers, he has developed what is now clearly identifiable as the Bellow style: a mixture of streetwise comedy and highbrow disquisition, aimed self-consciously to match the big nineteenth-century novels which he so admires, works whose range he thinks has been lost in much modern literature. What, in his best novels, saves his protagonists from irritating self-obsession is the keen irony with which Bellow sets their malaise in context; as much as the Hendersons and Herzogs may chime with some of Bellow's own thoughts and experiences, they are distanced from him by various existential banana skins which remind them that the world is bigger and other than themselves. Keats once wrote that “axioms in philosophy are not axioms until they are proved upon our pulses”, and when Bellow succeeds, he grounds his characters' inquiries in their pulses, in their lived lives. In contrast, the narrative and the gnomic never feel fully integrated or creatively at odds in Ravelstein.

Bellow's characters are continually finding their wills tied to other things, including other aspects of their own personalities, hence the prevalence of inner voices in his work, from Joseph's “Spirit of Alternatives” in Dangling Man to the Cartesian slapstick of Eugene Henderson's struggle with the “I want, I want, I want” within him. But a human will can only live in time within a finite human body, as Chick and Ravelstein concur:

Ravelstein had come to agree that it was important to note how people looked. Their ideas are not enough—their theoretical convictions and political views. If you don't take into account their haircuts, the hang of their pants, their taste in skirts and blouses, their style of driving a car or eating a dinner, your knowledge is incomplete.

As a result, Ravelstein is a twilight book, continually reminding a reader that its two protagonists are housed in frail and decaying bodies: as Ravelstein enters his final decline, Bellow does not flinch from his “singular, total, almost geological baldness” and his legs, “like prize-winning marrows because his ankles were so swollen—‘That fucking edema!’ he said.” After Ravelstein's death, Chick comes within a whisker of a similar fate by radically different means, red-snapper poisoning (“As was explained to me later in Boston, the cigua toxin was quickly excreted by the body but not before it had radically damaged the nervous system. Very much like Ravelstein's Guillain-Barré syndrome.”) In the face of this encroaching mortality, Chick's narrative becomes a nostalgic trawl through the resonances of Ravelstein's life and death not least for Chick's two marriages. “You don't easily give up a creature like Ravelstein to death”, is the novel's final sentence. There is a notable tradition of concentrating on biographical minutiae as a doomed stand against death—for instance, the eighteenth-century sentimental novel, and a work sitting in the shadows of Ravelstein, Boswell's Life of Johnson, in that the narrative gets noticeably slower, the closer its subject comes to his end.

However, it is not always enlightening to follow Chick as he tries to balance the duties of personal friend and public advocate for a life. Perhaps the central problem with the novel is that Ravelstein himself is neither accessible nor inaccessible enough, neither satisfactorily explored nor fascinatingly unknowable; in Chick's reminiscence, he is as distant from Johnson as he is from Gatsby, despite an echo of Fitzgerald which cannot be wholly coincidental (“From my bedroom window I looked across to what had once been Ravelstein's place. You saw the lights. There were no more parties.”) Of course, this being a Bellow novel, there are sequences of great beauty and accomplishment, whether Chick's final memory of Ravelstein listening to classical music amid the sound of feral parrots (“gesturing because he can't be heard in all this bird-noise”), or his philosophical wisecracks: “I was not about to get into the rink with this Sumo champion representing Platonic metaphysics. One bump of his powerful belly and I'd be out of the brilliant ring and back again in the noisy dark.”

The reference to “Platonic metaphysics” here is not accidental. Bellow has explored in previous novels the idea (given brilliant form in Dicken's fiction) that people might live on in the influence of their attachments and kindnesses: Henderson, for example, flees the Wariri with the lion cub supposed to contain the soul of dead king Dahfu. In Ravelstein, the central motif—one that is a little too hard to miss—is the metaphor from Plato's Symposium, of halved hermaphrodite souls (“So that generation after generation we seek the missing half, longing to be whole again”). Bellow fills the novel with doubles and double acts: the gay Ravelstein and the twice-married Chick, vaudeville comedians, two African-American Michaels (Jackson and Jordan), even Chick's first wife, Vela, checking herself obsessively in the mirror, like Anna Coblin in The Adventures of Augie March. Although he never quite gets round to proving “Our almost-instinct almost true: / What will survive of us is love”, Bellow sets isolation and separation alongside oases of solidarity so often that the inference is hard to avoid. There are glimpses in Ravelstein of the great novel on age, death and friendship it could have been, but—and this is almost unprecedented in Bellow's writing—it is hard to get as interested in Ravelstein and Chick as the author would like us to be. The structure is all in place, yet never quite coheres in practice to sustain Bellow's meditations.

Ravelstein is a chamber piece, and it would be unreasonable to expect all Bellow's novels to be as rangy, wise and heartbreaking as Augie March; nevertheless. Bellow has exacting standards. Ravelstein's belief that “all the great texts had esoteric significance” echoes Bellow's own assertion, from 1990, that one should “take certain masterpieces into yourself as if they were communion wafers”, and it is those standards which the new novel fails to satisfy. Similarly, Chick says of the distinctive quality of his friend's life: “It's no small matter to become rich and famous by saying exactly what you think—to say it in your own words, without compromise.” Not unlike Bellow's own achievement—but it is an achievement which has, unfortunately, found its best expression elsewhere.

Diana Hendry (review date 8 December 2001)

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SOURCE: Hendry, Diana. “The Crowded Wilderness Within.” Spectator 287, no. 9044 (8 December 2001): 57-8.

[In the following review, Hendry traces Bellow's favorite themes in the tales of Collected Stories.]

With Bellow nearing 90, there has to be ‘A Collected’, though personally I'd prefer three slim paperbacks. Apart from the frivolous thought that this volume [Collected Stories] is too heavy to take on the train and requires strong knees in bed, Bellow is such a brilliant writer that small helpings are sufficient. A feast like this has you reaching for the metaphorical Rennies.

It's to do with the fact that Bellow gives the reader meat for the mind rather than space for the imagination. It's also to do with the particular quality of his prose, aptly defined by P. J. Kavanagh. Writing in the TLS about Bellow's last novel, Ravelstein, Kavanagh described Bellow as the one who ‘manages to cram in all that concerns him most—which also concerns us’. It's the cramming in that makes you want to come up for air every now and again. The Collected Stories is for the library shelf, possibly everyone's.

I'm not sure why the publishers have added the afterword (originally the foreword to Something to Remember Me By) in which Bellow echoes Chekhov's ‘mania for shortness’. At the end of 400-plus pages? However there's an enjoyable marital antiphony with Bellow's wife, Janis, telling us in the preface that Bellow will ‘accept no protection from distractions', while the man himself complains, in the afterword, that public life in the States is ‘a mass of distractions’. Think of consciousness like a new territory with everyone trying to grab a bit of yours, ‘something like an Oklahoma land rush’.

Janis Bellow's preface gives us a glimpse of how the great man works and how he transmutes autobiography into fiction. (He really did have that nightmare that he gives to the narrator of ‘The Bellarosa Connection’.) But it's a cosy glimpse.

More than half of the 13 stories here feature some kind of Day of Reckoning. Hattie, in ‘Leaving the Yellow House’, realises her failure (sloth in life and love) while drunkenly writing her will. Mosby, who has spent much of his life making fun of others, is made aware of his own comedy of errors. Worse still, he has a fantasy that he's died but yet lives on, his purgatory being ‘to live life to the end as Mosby’ (‘Mosby's Memoirs’). The narrator of ‘Him with His Foot in His Mouth’ confesses his sins by letter, apparently to pre-empt the Swendenborg consequences that after death we will ‘feel the pain we inflicted on others’. Better to do it in the here-and-now.

In age, and with death looming, the best one can hope for is the Goethe-inspired notion that the process of disintegration will release you back into your original self or soul, although if you happen to be Cousin Mordecai, strapped upright in your chair because of fluid on the lungs, this is probably not much comfort. Still, you have to cheer, Bellow is the only writer who can write about the soul and make it sound trendy.

In other stories the reckoning involves the rediscovery of an early memory on which an entire character has been formed—sort of Wordsworthian ‘spots of time’ only transported to 20th-century Chicago, a city where a young, bookish adolescent is given a wordly baptism by a whore and a drunk while his mother lies dying (‘Something to Remember Me By’). In ‘By the St Lawrence’, the one new story of the book, an old man returns to his birthplace and its memories after a near-fatal illness (cf Ravelstein). The particular memories—a cousin visiting a brothel, a very messy death on a railway track—are those that have formed, or in this case misshaped, him.

Sometimes you wonder if there isn't a simple, homely, biblical root to Bellow and that you can find it in the chapter of Corinthians on charity and seeing through a glass darkly. The ‘dream condition’ as Bellow puts it, a ‘state of vague turbulence in which, with isolated moments of clarity, most of us exist’ (‘Him with His Foot in His Mouth’).

The fascination of Collected Stories is spotting the driving preoccupations as they recur. In Bellow it's the struggle to maintain an inner life against what Geoffrey Hill has recently described as ‘a crowded wilderness of acoustical din’; whether our age is to see ‘a new birth of spirit or the agonies of final dissolution’; the importance of staying of the world rather than retreating from it; the emphasis on memory—not to mention looking after your cousins. And, above all, that concern with ‘essence', with who we are and what we are here for—each ‘a kind of being filled with death knowledge, and also filled with infinite longings’ (‘Zetland: By a Character Witness’).

The nickname ‘the Forest Ranger’, given to Bellow by Martin Amis's children, couldn't be more apt. Bellow's the Ranger of that mysterious forest, the human condition.

Stephen Amidon (review date 10 December 2001)

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SOURCE: Amidon, Stephen. “Seize the Day.” New Statesman (10 December 2001): 49-50.

[In the following review, Amidon identifies the unifying themes of the works in Collected Stories as the role of memory and the process of Jewish assimilation into American society.]

There seems to be a bit of mischief going on in the title of Saul Bellow's new book [Collected Stories]. It is not, you will notice, The Collected Stories—there are a number of novellas and short stories missing from this otherwise generous book, ranging from such classics as Seize the Day to the less well-known “A Father-to-Be” and “The Gonzaga Manuscripts”. Why, then, “collected”? Why not “selected”? Could it be that the author is giving us a sly thematic nudge here, using a literary commonplace to indicate a unifying concern?

My guess is yes. Collection here means recollection. For Bellow's vibrant and unforgettable characters are in fact collectors of stories, just as others might hoard butterflies, Picassos or grievances. They are on the lookout for memories, gathering them in, jealously bringing them out for a guest to examine, occasionally bestowing them as gifts on those they love. In the aptly titled “Something to Remember Me By”, for instance, an elderly man recounts a sad and funny Depression-era story of lost innocence as a form of inheritance for his only daughter. “I haven't left a large estate, and this is why I have written this memoir, a sort of addition to your legacy.” That his story turns out to be self-deprecating, with the teller wandering the bitterly cold streets of Chicago in a dress after a run-in with a crooked whore, makes it all the more generous. In “A Silver Dish”, a 60-year-old man memorialises his recently dead father by telling another shaggy-dog story of the Depression, this one involving a father-son wrestling match on a rich woman's dining-room floor, which finds its harrowing echo 40 years later when the son climbs into his father's death bed to calm his agonised thrashes. The story recollected in “Him with His Foot in His Mouth” is offered as a form of penance, with a failed musicologist sending a cockeyed letter of apology to the librarian he brutally insulted four decades earlier.

If the acquisition of memory is the object of these stories, then their subject is more often than not the process of Jewish Americanisation. In “The Bellarosa Connection”, a professional memory specialist, the “founder of the Mnemosyne Institute in Philadelphia”, searches out the story of Harry Fonstein, a European Jew who was saved from Hitler's death camps by the unlikely figure of Billy Rose, a Broadway entrepreneur and Americanised Jew, who spurned all attempts Fonstein made to thank him once he arrived in the United States. The unnamed narrator, also thoroughly American, succinctly describes the seemingly irreconcilable differences between the two sorts of Jewry in those postwar years. “We were bigger in my generation because we had better nutrition. We were, moreover, less restricted, we had wider liberties. We grew up under a larger range of influences and thoughts—we were the children of a great democracy, living it up with no pales to confine us … Were we giddy here? No doubt about it. But there were no cattle cars waiting to take us to camps and gas chambers.”

This rupture in American Jewishness is vividly animated throughout the book, whether it be the traditionalist brother feuding with his thoroughly integrated sister in “The Old System”, or the figure of Lustgarten in “Mosby's Memoirs”, who arrives in war-ravaged Europe with a sense of entrepreneurial entitlement (those old-world Gentiles owe him for what they did to the Jews), only to wind up sleeping in the imported Cadillac he cannot sell.

Reading these stories, you are struck not only by the comic profundity of Bellow's 20th-century take, but also by the wonderful economy with which he draws memorable characters as they, too, find their place in the American century. There are dozens of examples, but let us be content with Mendy Eckstein, who “had a peculiar relish for being an American of his time. Born in Muskingum, Ohio, where his father ran a gents' furnishings shop, he attended a Chicago high school and grew up a lively, slangy man who specialised in baseball players, vaudeville performers, trumpeters and boogie-woogie musicians, gamblers, con artists, city hall small-rackets types … Mendy's densely curled hair was combed straight up, his cheeks were high, damaged by acne, healed to a patchy whiteness. He had a wonderful start of the head, to declare that he was about to set the record straight. He used to make this movement when he laid down his cigarette on the edge of the pool table of the University of Wisconsin Rathskeller and picked up his cue to study his next shot.”

Perhaps the most memorable character here is the city of Chicago, which is to Bellow as Dublin was to Joyce, a municipality of sensuality and daily human drama that is perfectly willing to stand in for the rest of the universe. Corrupt, crowded, unmanageably busy, unnavigably vast and gripped by lousy weather, Bellow's Chicago possesses its own unique ways, “which came so natural that nobody thought to question them”. It becomes clear in reading these stories that “the moral law [is] never thicker, in Chicago, than onionskin or tissue paper”.

In “Cousins”, Ijah, a lawyer and media personality who made a name for himself with a seedy television show called Court of Law, meets his cousin Tanky Metzger, a hoodlum who wants Ijah to write a letter of reference to the judge who is about to sentence Metzger to prison. They meet in the Italian Village restaurant in the city's famous Loop, a place that “retained its Al Capone atmosphere—sauce as red as blood, the foot smell of cheeses, the dishes of invertebrates raked up from sea mud”. Here is Bellow's Chicago in a nutshell, a place where past crime and present corruption commingle seamlessly, where vivid memory mixes with the crush of current events—a place where stories are waiting to be collected with the same avidity as a loan shark's bad debts.

Gloria L. Cronin (essay date 2001)

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SOURCE: Cronin, Gloria L. “Those Dreadful Mothers.” In A Room of His Own: In Search of the Feminine in the Novels of Saul Bellow, pp. 37-49. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2001.

[In the following essay, Cronin asserts that there is a feminine presence in Bellow's novels.]

If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate: the “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is worth any number of old ladies.

—William Faulkner, Lion in the Garden

The androcentric text, by its very nature, is rarely able to see the feminine. In Bellow's middle to later novels in particular, however, even his most narcissistic monologists experience a melancholic absence, a place of emptiness, or an abyss that draws them to seek that missing element of the feminine which is symbolized in the Bellow text as the soul, the anima, the spirit of being, poetry, genuine feeling, the transcendental, or a literal woman.

Yet for all their yearning, these protagonists both seek and evade literal women who, as they are represented to us, quickly become only the women of androcentric representation. The maternal, mother matter, or maternal ground of the male protagonists' masculine physical and spiritual existence is erased or hidden from view, its only trace a nostalgically constructed sense of absence or lack in the Bellow text, a lack that then animates the comic quest of the Bellow protagonists.

Ironically, then, it is the Bellow monologist's narcissistic representation of his own masculine subjectivity that inevitably results in the erasure of the feminine in these mostly male-voiced monoglossias. As the male monologist fills the narrative with a constant recounting of his impressions, his remembered events, or his historical experience, he is able only to delineate who he is, where he is, and what he is talking about. Others whose presence is necessary to him he locates according to his own need. Through such an apparently seamless staging of the male subjectivity, all other voices are virtually preempted. Thus he creates the feminine absence he can rarely name, but almost always mourns because women in Bellow's novels are severely tailored to the androcentric desire and are contained almost entirely within the masculine gaze of the protagonist.1

It is this policing, egocentric voice engaged in self-representation (and much feminine misrepresentation) in Bellow's novels that constructs the patterns of masculinity and femininity these books simultaneously reveal and suppress. More specifically, it is the textual or semiotic apparatus of tripled masculine “looks” of the protagonist, the narratee, and the sympathetic reader that enable the kind of readerly voyeurism which feeds on the stereotypical women that recur in Bellow's novels. For some readers there is the ego ideal represented by the narrator or monologist with whom he or she identifies. Readerly desire, then, contributes to the doubling, if not tripling, of its effects. The alternative is a resisting reading, producing a rupture within the reading subject and the text that can be produced either by the inability of some readers to make this ego ideal identification or their deliberate choice not to.

Bellow's novels, however, are more complex and self-aware in their understanding of gender than are many androcentric novels. Bellow and several of his monologists seem to sense the nature of the melancholic absence that haunts them, even to the extent of locating the problem within their own masculine subjectivity. And even though they control the narrative gaze, traces of the feminine inevitably erupt. Sometimes the male protagonists actually recognize it, and sometimes they barely apprehend its possibility. Regardless, their common search for this elusive feminine is usually foreclosed by their joint failures to unthink their own imprisoning masculinities. For these same reasons, it could be said that masculinity in the Bellow text is also imagined poorly by the egocentric monologist. For all that he speaks, he rarely speaks himself. Rather, he speaks incessantly about himself according to the cultural pattern of the sequestered romantic individualist-dreamer who longs for solitude, autosufficiency, and mystical powers. Enclosed within such a social construction, as well as within the typically worldly masculinity he also inhabits, he frequently succeeds in erasing an undiscovered part of his own masculinity as well as much of femininity in what amounts to a double movement of human loss. Throughout every novel, from Dangling Man to The Bellarosa Connection,The Actual, and Ravelstein, the male protagonist attempts to untangle his own social construction by trying to reclaim the lost feminine within himself.2 In Ravelstein's case it is his significant other, Nikki.

Such storytelling as Bellow's produces the figure of woman cut mainly to the dimensions of the masculine symbolic. Just as in narrative cinema, woman in the Bellow novel is very often framed by the look of the male protagonist as an icon, a cut-out, the object of the male gaze, and even as a spectacle. It is an image made by a male writer and a male narratee mostly for the consumption of a male spectator/reader. The male protagonist, the bearer of the spectator's look, empowered by both a male narratee and a complicitous male reader, controls the events of the narrative by passing this look back and forth between men in a collusive trafficking in woman. This effectively triples the scopic drive of the novels in its textual and readerly production of woman as object.3

But phallocentric representations of woman in the Bellow text have a habit of breaking down. Despite the protective policing of representation within the masculine symbolic economy, she always threatens to escape from the protagonist's look and become real outside of an isomorphic male imaginary. Hence, the elaborate narrative strategies employed by the androcentric text for her containment, concealment, or complete erasure. In order to find the displaced or relegated feminine in the margins of the Bellow texts, we must look elsewhere and differently, there where there is no spectacle, as Cixous suggests.4 It is behind the spectacle produced by phallocentric representation of woman, somewhere in that elsewhere in the shadows and margins of the texts, that her traces may occasionally be seen.

A relatively large number of women are present in Bellow's texts. They are, however, built around a few disappointingly familiar stereotypes. The majority of them function as silent bit players or as prisoners on the scene of representation. Though many of them are as brilliantly imagined as any characters created by Hogarth or Dickens, and often much funnier, few of them are heard speaking in their own voices. More important, none, not even Clara Velde, speaks herself into an equivalent female subjectivity. Despite a few spectacular voicings here and there, they remain more spoken about than speaking, despite their sharp tongues, keen minds, impressive educations, distinctive personalities, and saving insights. Such remarkable creations as Grandma Lausch, Charlotte Magnus, Anna Coblin, Thea Fenchel, Madeleine Pontritter, Tante Taube, Renata Koffritz, Matilda Layamon, Treckie, Clara Velde, and Sorella Fonstein are unforgettable. Nevertheless, these women characters are mostly variations on the recurring images found in the traditional masculine representational economy. It is not that women are more negatively portrayed than the male characters. When men are negatively portrayed in the Bellow novel, however, the actual portrayals are not usually built on a narrow series of stereotypes as are the portrayals of women. Neither are they portrayed as disempowered or emptied of metaphysical content as are the stereotypical women. When Bellow's men fall from grace, they do not fall out of his sympathy or tolerance.

Furthermore, the male monologist exercises a very different kind of representational power when he creates negative stereotypes of women than when he creates a broad variety of negative representations of men. The difference lies in power relations between the genders, the larger historical representation of gender in Western culture, and the relationship between representation and social structures that these texts circulate and reinscribe.

Mothers, wives, mistresses, elderly women, sisters-in-law, and sexual consorts comprise the majority of Bellow's female characters, and only rarely do we see them outside of the emotional economy of the male protagonists' needs. There are, however, those female characters whose outlines do not fit within this bankrupt representational economy and, conversely, those who suggest the excess, multiplicity, and trace of a femininity. Their presence, sometimes literal and sometimes only a melancholic absence, always hovers around edges of Bellow's texts, suggesting that not all can be contained and controlled within the androcentric text.

The male protagonists' mothers include their biological mothers (living and dead), mothers-in-law, stepmothers, and surrogate mothers. One is immediately struck by the male protagonists' ambivalence toward these women. The feelings range everywhere from severe pity to contempt, hostility, revulsion, mistrust, great good humor, and love. As a group, however, the previously mentioned women are generally mentally inadequate, emotionally unstable, cunning, untrustworthy, scheming, coarse, physically grotesque, whorish, or decaying. Ultimately, they are repulsive or pitiable in the eyes of these fastidious, narcissistic protagonists. These women constitute that rejected mother, mother matter, or maternal ground and have been relegated to the realm of nature, whose rot and chaos threaten to contaminate the male protagonists' attempts to transcend it. They are typically of nature—gross, malformed, poorly socialized, mentally and spiritually inadequate, neurotic, decaying, dirty, irrational, promiscuous, loud, vengeful, destructive, and subversive. They are that untrustworthy maternal ground that always threatens to engulf the protagonist's body, strip him of higher resolves, overwhelm him with its erotic powers, undermine his aesthetic sensibilities, make inordinate demands on his material and emotional resources, strip him of his illusions of self-sufficiency, and threaten him with bodily decay. The male protagonist blames them for bestowing upon him an inadequate genetic endowment, or even for their absence. Above all, they threaten to fetter him in his quest for metaphysical abstractions.

We do not hear about Joseph's (DM [Dangling Man]) own mother, but we do see his revulsion and resentment of his mother-in-law, Mrs. Almstadt. He says he has always disliked her because she is foolish and unknowing (DM 19), not to mention babbling, tedious, oblivious, and ugly. He hates her thick face powder, her wrinkles, and her bathroom full of face packs and lotions (20). He is appalled by her constant talking on the phone and asks his father-in-law how he has ever managed to stick with her. He cannot tell whether she is malicious or merely guileless.

Asa Leventhal's (TV [The Victim]) dead mother arouses fear, hatred, and mistrust in him. With narcissistic anger he remembers her face as distracted and mad-looking, with nothing in it that is directed toward him. Her absence is coupled with a sense of his own erasure and is linked in the reader's mind with his condition of paranoia, “He dreaded [her face]; he dreaded the manifestation of anything resembling it in himself” (TV 46). Neither has he “forgotten his mother's screaming” (TV 47). Later he will project this instability and madness onto his sister-in-law, Elena, and her mother.

Augie (AM [The Adventures of Augie March]) loves his mother, Rebecca, but knows she has been morally compromised since he and his brother seem to be the random by-blows of a passing salesman. She is simple minded, meek, easily commanded, and gentle. He also remembers her as round-eyed, tall, and toothless. She wears circular glasses, ravelly coat sweaters, and men's shoes without strings on her large feet (AM 4). She is virtually a servant to Grandma Lausch, is bullied terribly by Simon, and is only intermittently attended to by Augie (3-4). Not even Grandma Lausch's dog treats her with respect.

Augie, however, has two more surrogate mothers, Grandma Lausch and Anna Coblin. Despite his obvious love for them both and the welter of comic detail with which he describes them, his misogynous gaze is not lost. He calls Grandma a Machiavelli of neighborhood politics, a plotter, a despot, a fierce contestant, who commands, governs, schemes, advises, and intrigues in all languages (AM 5). He describes her playing cards with “palatal catty harshness and sharp gold in her eyes” (5). His funniest terms for her include “Eastern Great Llama” and “pouncy old hawk of a Bolshevik” (10-12). He is highly amused by her masculine smoking, her autocratic manner, and her fascinating combination of guile and malice (10-12), and he laughs at her self-designation as “intelligentsia.” When she dies, he sees her as a pitiful fallen Pharaoh or Caesar and notes how old, powerless, and pathetic she has become. Although his heart goes out to her, realizing what she has meant to them in former years and how much they took her for granted, he can see her only as a pathetic old woman.

Periodically, Augie is sent to stay with Anna Coblin, his mother's cousin. She is one of nature's gross aberrations, according to his depiction of her. Although he has great affection for her, he is repelled by her physicality. She has, coupled with great size and energy, moles, blebs, hairs, and bumps of all kinds. She has a burning, morose face and a voice crippled by weeping and asthma. He describes her lying in bed with compresses, towels, and rags, cursing her enemies extravagantly, swollen, fire-eyed, her face framed in a “terrific” halo of red hair (AM 16-19). Augie remembers with great irony “she had the will of a martyr to carry a mangled head in paradise until doomsday, in the suffering mothers band led by Eve and Hannah” (16-17). In his eyes “she is in a desert pastoral condition of development and not up to the fancy stage of Belshazzar's feasts of barbaric later days” (22). He comments on her religious excesses and remembers that she was “a strong believer in eating” (21). She is also a filthy housekeeper who spends much of the day “shouting incomprehensibly on the telephone” (19). Her kitchen religion and hilariously distorted renderings of biblical stories amuse him, as does her strong grasp of her husband's business affairs.

Augie's description of Mrs. Renling is worse. He describes her as a lustful old woman who bribes him with elegant clothes while he squires her around. Augie thinks she is “dotty,” a false “flatterer” with “ungentle eyes” and “a smarting, all-interfering face” (AM 135). He despises her for her grievances, antipathies, doomedness, and nasty mouth.

Tommy Wilhelm (SD), like Asa Leventhal, has a deep-seated ambivalence toward his dead mother. In his moment of crisis and failure, he remembers her opposing his plans for an acting career. Though he loved her and feels badly about having disappointed her, he remembers that she denied him her blessing and instead bequeathed him her sensitive feelings, soft heart, brooding nature, and tendency to be confused under pressure. In short, he believes she has endowed him with his weaknesses. And though he laments that he can do nothing for her (SD [Seize the Day] 94), we wonder if he is really lamenting that in death she can do nothing for him.

Herzog's (H [Herzog]) mother is also dead, but we do see his stepmother, Tante Taube, and his sometime surrogate mother, Aunt Zipporah. Tante Taube, now in extreme old age, has a face “grooved with woe and age” (H 244). She has thin gray hair, no eyebrows, luminous, tame, protuberant eyes, a steady, slow, shrewd gaze, a pleated mouth, poorly made dental plates, a pendulous lip, an accent, a thickening neck, loose skin, and an arthritic body. Herzog thinks she looks like a woodchuck but remembers with boyish narcissism that she was an excellent cook who made strudel like a jeweler's work (243). Despite his grudging admission, given at her request, that she was a good stepmother to him, he can only associate her with food and with the collapse of nature.

Aunt Zipporah fares less well. Herzog is clearly in awe of her strong grudging character, flushed thin face, large hips, heavy steps, wit, terrible denunciations, harsh affection, malicious mouthy tongue, antagonistic nature, and powerful curses. He recalls her “nervous, critical awkward feet” and calls her “a stormy woman, a daughter of Fate,” whose visits to his childhood home “were like a military inspection” (H 147). To the adult Herzog she is funny because she is ugly, terrifying, and masculine.

Charlie glimpses Humboldt's mother (HG [Humboldt's Gift]) only once and briefly. He watches her staring out of a dim doorway “with some powerful female grievance” (5).

Mr. Sammler's mother (MSP [Mr. Sammler's Planet]) is mentioned only briefly as a culturally privileged, beautiful young woman, a freethinker whom Sammler blames for giving him his education in male privilege. He recalls her giving him a copy of a work by the notoriously misogynist and anti-Semitic Artur Schopenhauer on his sixteenth birthday, just as earlier she had named him for the philosopher. Sammler recalls how she herself brought “the nervous young Sammler his chocolate and croissants as he sat in his room reading Trollope and Bagehot, and making a ‘Englishman’ out of himself” (MSP 59). The adult Sammler blames her for this petted upbringing, which has made him “pleased,” “haughty,” “eccentric,” “irritable,” and worse still, “without compassion” (59).

Dean Corde's mother-in-law (DD [The Dean's December]), Dr. Valeria Raresh constitutes a special case. (And so does Dean Corde.) She is one of the rare women who escapes the fixed scene of masculine representation. Though she is first seen in an intensive care unit, half-paralyzed, and clearly dying, hooked into respirator, scanner and monitor, Corde never allows us to think of her as weak and helpless. Through Dean Corde's recollections of her emerges the picture of a powerful and heroic political figure. Corde describes her face as “criss-crossed every way with tapes, like the Union Jack. Or like windowpanes in cities under bombardment” (DD 4). He looks at her loose, long, fine white hair and wonders what it was once like. Then he is moved to pity by the big belly and thin legs, genuinely moved, but with a kind of get-it-over-with eager violence, and concludes that part of him is monster (5). He also concludes that she was a great woman (7). His picture of her is respectful, kindly, involved, and compassionate. Both Dean Corde and Valeria Raresh represent a better imagined masculinity and femininity, a difference that marks them off sharply from all the other pairs of sons and mothers. As he examines her bookshelves in the favorite room where she sewed, trying to know something of her and of her daughter to whom he is married, Corde remembers that she has always been fair and tactful with him, even when he was uncomfortable under her scrutiny. He remembers her in London, shopping at Harrods, and being undemonstratively accommodating. It is Albert, not Minna, who notices the pills in her pocketbook, her tripping, listing, and increasing lack of coordination. It is he and not Minna who monitors her exhaustion.

Mrs. Layamon (MDH [More Die of Heartbreak]) is only eight years Benn Crader's senior and is not a well-developed character. Benn suggests, however, that she is rather cold, extremely polite, and given to an unwelcoming kind of privacy. He is shocked when she lets it be known that she reserves her little office exclusively for herself. It is this office which contains the artificial azalea that tricks the botanist, Benn, into thinking it is real and thus demonstrates to him how badly his powers have been blasted by association with these money-hungry Layamons (MDH 180). Ravelstein's mother is described as a powerhouse, but not in any positive sense. She fails to protect him from his abusive father.

With the notable exception of Valeria Raresh, all of these mothers are depicted by the male protagonists as metaphysically inadequate, socially pitiable, and constituted of a myriad of shortcomings. Generally speaking, the portraits are remarkably consistent in their portrayals of women as loony, ugly, silent, powerless, powerful, scheming, vindictive, full of guile, decaying, or ineffectual. They are noticeably lacking in integrity, nobility, and intellectual horsepower. For the most part, they are regarded with ambivalence or hostility or both by their untrusting sons, regardless of whether they are loved.

Mothers not in maternal relation to the male protagonists fair badly also. Mimi Villars (AM) aborts her child. Simon March's mother-in-law is depicted as the willing victim of Simon's cruel, rejecting behavior, which she mistakenly interprets as humorous acceptance. Margaret Wilhelm (SD) is seen by Tommy as a castrating bitch; Ricey (HRK [Henderson the Rain King]) is an unwed teenage mother; Madeleine (H) is an enraged manic depressive; Renata (HG) appears to be an unsuitable mother; the wily Señora (HG) is a scheming, batty stage mother. Kenneth Trachtenberg's would-be mother-in-law (MDH) establishes new standards of disappointment in the mother department. Sensing that her daughter, Treckie, has made a mistake in passing Kenneth up as a husband, she decides to have him for herself. Acknowledging that she is ten years his senior (he thinks it is more like twenty), she suggests that a quiet marriage of pleasant nights would suit both their needs. Kenneth, however, comments nastily: “What stunning offers you get from the insane” (MDH 282). He notes her winsome teeth, which contrast dramatically with the sheer preposterousness of her “violent-bluish raccoonlike mask” (274). He thinks her eyebrows are made-up with a magic marker, and despises her Arabian musk perfume. She is full of charm signals, he reports, and has “a calculating manner like General Patton, who sat deciding from which side to hit you next” (277). He condemns her morally by concluding that like Uncle's friend, Caroline Bunge, she had probably seen more naked men than the surgeon general. Old Adletsky describes Frances Jellicoe as “built like a brick shithouse,” a woman whose cortisone swellings make her “look like Babe Ruth” (TA [The Actual] 10). Jay describes Amy Wustrin, the love of his life, as a “gray-faced maid-of-all-work—an overworked mother” who is almost unidentifiable under the black girders of the el tracks (19). Madge Heisinger fairs even worse. She is notorious, provocative, and murderous.

Jay Wustrin's mother is a great embarrassment to him. She would shake her “big brainless head” possessed of rich stupid black eyes. Furthermore, she seemed to be “sexually arrested” and in the final analysis strikes Harry as “an old country village woman” (41).

As a group, these women seem callous, destructive, mentally unstable, careless, ill-prepared, hysterical, wily, abandoning, sexually rapacious, castrating, and generally wacky. Nowhere in either group is there anything approaching a normal, adequate mother.

With few exceptions Bellow's mistresses are also loony and destructive. Aged women, however, bear the brunt of the most graphic and perhaps unkind representations. They seem to have all the fascination of reptiles for the male protagonists, who usually admire and love them inordinately. They are present from the earliest to the latest work, occurring in the single largest number in The Adventures of Augie March. Some are minor and others major presences in the life of the male protagonist, but none escapes his eye for the physically grotesque, not even the most loved, such as Mother March, Grandma Lausch, Anna Coblin, and Tante Taube. From the earliest to the latest novels, there is no softening of the grotesque detail with which these women are described. There is, however, a hardening of the gaze of the male protagonists of middle and later works with regard to the perceived erotic and passive-aggressive female scheming capacities of these old women. Each is ultimately viewed with disgust and in large part dismissed as metaphysically unusable, along with mothers, wives, and mistresses, sisters-in-law, and women friends. In nearly all cases, however, something of personal need and something of metaphysical endeavor draws the male protagonist to these women as powerfully as he is repelled by even the most loved of them. In these characters, as much as in any of the others, lies the clue to the real quest of the male protagonist for that elusive feminine he subconsciously senses, pursues, and fails to “see.” The category is large and includes Mrs. Almstadt, Joseph's mother-in-law, Asa's sister-in-law, Elena, and her mother, Mrs. Nunez, Asa's neighbor, Grandma Lausch, Anna Coblin, Mrs. Renling, Mrs. Lennox, Willatele, Wanda, Tennie, Zinka, Zelda, Zipporah, Tante Taube, Humboldt's unnamed mother, Margotte Arkin, the old Señora, Rebecca Volstad, Valeria Raresh the anonymous aging women of Dr. Layamon's female surgical wards, Della Bedell, Caroline Bunge, Sorella Fonstein, Amy Wustrin, and Madge Heisinger. And despite their old age and grotesquerie, they are still subjected to the searching, voyeuristic gaze of a male who loves some of them and fears and ridicules all of them for their apparently still dangerous and even more corrupt sexuality, that same erotic power manifested by younger women.

Asa (TV) decides Elena's mother is an ignorant, superstitious, ugly old immigrant woman who is using her daughter against his own brother Max, whom she blames for the death of her grandson. He looks fearfully at her “grizzled temples, thin straight line of her nose, the severity of her head pressed back on her shoulders, the baring of her teeth as she opened her lips to make a remark to her daughter” (TV). Asa is still convinced she is mad, vindictive, and crazy. Her smiling he interprets as “frightful glances of spite and exultation, as though he were the devil” (159). When he attempts to gain Max's complicity in this viewpoint, Max identifies his paranoia, “Well you've sure turned out to be a suspicious person” (216).

Aunt Zipporah fares less well. Herzog is clearly in awe of this “stormy woman, a daughter of Fate” (H 147) but mainly because she is ugly, terrifying, and masculine. Then there is the “fat-assed 200 pound” Auntie Rae, who appalls the young Herzog, who is forced to speculate upon her enormous rear end.

He describes Tennie (H), Simkin's wife, as a kindly elderly sister woman with bad legs, stiff, dyed hair, abstract jewelry, and butterfly-shaped eyeglasses. She is diabetic, and Herzog accuses her of wickedness, hypocrisy, and cunning. Aunt Zelda seems to Herzog the epitome of “female deceit” and a woman “lying from an overflowing heart” (H 41). He thinks of her kitchen of enamel and copper and can only see the molded female forms bulging from all sides and Aunt Zelda's face full of mistrust. After she has accused him of shouting at Madeleine and the baby, bullying, being sexually selfish, and burying Madeleine alive in the Berkshires, the resentful Herzog says: “I will never understand what women want. What do they want? They eat green salad and drink human blood” (41-42).

Mrs. Lennox (HRK), Henderson's housekeeper, is a batty old neighbor with a toothless old face who, like a seventeenth-century witch, lives in a tree with her cats. Her tree is hung with a myriad of mirrors and old bicycle lights, while her yard is strewn with junk. She is a dirty derelict, and, in the finish, Henderson literally shouts her to death in his kitchen, leaving a “don't disturb” note pinned to her clothing.

Humboldt's mother is a madwoman in the attic of her husband's nineteenth-century masculine world of capitalistic endeavor. Charlie is particularly hard on the old Señora. He says that there is a “serpentine dryness” about her eyes (HG 410), and that she is probably bananas. His pity is completely aroused the morning he sees her sans eyebrows and makeup on her way to the bathroom. To him she is the ultimate stage mother and schemer responsible for her daughter's “sexual monkeyshines.” He cruelly describes her unassailable, furious rationality, her whiskery lips, operatic nostrils, and chicken luster eyeballs (410).

Rebecca Volstad, the Danish lady whom Charlie meets while parenting the abandoned Roger, he describes as a haggard elderly lady with a bad hip who is desperate to find a husband.

Miss Porson (DD), secretary to Dean Corde, is described as an old gossip, a “gabby old bag, not worth a damn” (41). “In her late sixties, she was fleshy, but her bearing was jaunty. Her plump face, heavily made up, was whitish pink, as if washed in calamine lotion, and on some days she painted a racoon band across her face in blue eye shadow—the mask of a burglar or a Venetian reveler. She kept her pants up with heavy silver and turquoise belts. … Her erotic confidences and boasts set his teeth on edge” (143-44). He admits the only reason he keeps her on is that she has him hostage because of his hatred of administrative detail.

Della Bedell is passed around the listening circle of Kenneth, Uncle Benn, and the implied listener, as an excessive weekend drinker who is inappropriately forward with Uncle Benn. She is, according to these two, full of sexual predatoriness, belligerence, and shrillness. He delights in recounting to his audience how Benn has hightailed it to Brazil, causing Della Bedell to die of a heart attack brought on by sexual deprivation. Kenneth laughingly sums her up as “a fat little lady who hit the bottle” (MDH 88).

Kenneth talks of Caroline Bunge as “a big graceful (old style) lady, vampy, rich, ornate, slow-moving, a center-stage personality. Middle-aged, she still stood out like a goddess from a Zeigfield extravaganza, the Venus de Oro type” (MDH 75). He laughs at the way she speaks through her nose, uses mood pills, and wears heavy makeup. She is “détraquée” (76), and her general air “somnambulistic.” Because he cannot share the surrogate father, Kenneth signifies this rival for Uncle's affections as “a strange siren who took lithium or Elavil” (79). Harry Trellman and Sigmund Adletsky are another pair of classic misogynists sitting together and gossiping about various women, most of whom fall victim to their critical gaze as they are passed back and forth as barter-goods in the formation of this “intellectual” partnership.

“Good sports” and other men's mistresses and wives are frequently reduced to stereotypes of “good lay,” despite the fact that some of them are quite liked and quite complexly drawn. Mimi Villars (AM), Polly Palomino (HG), the woman designated only as the lover of the “tuxedo man” (HG), and Angela Horicker (MSP) offer themselves as obvious examples.

Sisters-in-law are represented with similar hostility and suspicion tempered only occasionally with grudging admiration. They seem to be strong-willed, heavy, spoiled, materialistic, compromising, unattractive, powerful, and often hostile toward their cerebral and sentimental brothers-in-law. Most stand condemned for their power and their lack of sexual or intellectual appeal for him. Some stand condemned for their husband's lack of spiritual peace, even when they are grudgingly admired. They include Elena Leventhal (TV), Charlotte Magnus (AM), and Hortense (HG).

The pattern is that of the classic witch, crone, sexual predator, mad woman, deceiver, mantrap, and siren. Not even old women are sexually neutral or innocent of wicked designs upon men. None of these women presents a pleasant picture, and in nearly every depiction, the text makes it clear that the problem is the flawed, misogynistic, male protagonist through whose eyes she is viewed.


  1. Maurice Blanchot, L'entretian infini, (Paris: Gallimard, 1969) quoted in Jacques Derrida, “Living On/Borderlines,” in Deconstruction and Criticism, ed. Harold Bloom et al. (New York: Seabury Press, 1979), 75-106. Blanchot observes that in such cases it is as if the masculine subject then acts in response to some felt need to “police” or “enforce” some unspoken order or law which insists that there is in operation some truth of equivalence about male and female subjectivity that must be sustained. In other words, the masculine seeing and speaking subject preserves this male homosocial world by controlling the phallogocentric orthodoxy of feminine representation, lest perhaps this other or feminine escape his verbal containments and wreak havoc within this isomorphic masculine symbolic order. This egocentric male voice then functions to preserve the stage for untrammeled masculine action precisely in order to maintain the illusion of the truth of equivalence. This feminine I am allowing you to see, says the egocentric monologist, is not my construction, but is the very essence or presence of the feminine that precedes existence.

  2. Michel Leiris, L'age d'homme. (Paris: Gallimard [Folio], 1939). The pain of this “lack” or perpetually reconstituted “absence” is explained by Michel Leiris in a broad postmodern historical paradigm or master narrative similar to Irigaray's. With Irigaray, he describes the founding fantasy of the Platonic and Judeo-Christian tradition as an active negation of the mother or the feminine as the material basis of biological, cultural, and historical life. Both Leiris and Irigaray talk of the relegation of woman to passive matter through an ever-increasing spiral of nonmaterial philosophical abstractions like God, Money, and the Phallus. Leiris in particular talks of the resultant anxiety these substitutions produce in men: the horror of such a lack or absence, the anxiety of presence and absence, the separation of form and content, spirit and matter, value and exchange. He also explains its most tragic accomplishment—the metaphysical separation of Man and Nature, Man and Mother. He calls the results of this matricidal founding fantasy of Western culture the history of the emergence of “Man” and predicts the end of such a history. What follows, he argues, can only be the quest for reunion with the feminine, the exploration of the maternal abyss, and movement towards new access for the feminine, made possible by the collapse of or production of the masculine selfsame in place of other.

  3. Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology. As Derrida explains, “Wherever there exists the traditional male subject present to himself in relationship to an object [woman or other], there exists metaphysics and its attendant phallologocentric representations.”

  4. Hélène Cixous, “Entretien avec Françoise van Rossum-Guyon,” Revue des sciences humains 168 (1977): 487; and Cixous and Clément, The Newly Born Woman, 72.

Morris Dickstein (review date 18 January 2002)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1922

SOURCE: Dickstein, Morris. “Spectacles of Personality.” Times Literary Supplement (18 January 2002): 29.

[In the following favorable reviews, Dickstein provides a thematic and stylistic analysis of the works in Collected Stories.]

Just as we have had an American E. M. Forster who, as first interpreted by Lionel Trilling, was more timeless and universal, less grounded in his social origins than the British version, there now seems to be a British Saul Bellow who bears small resemblance to the American original. While critics at home have concentrated on Bellow's material—the offbeat Jewish characters, the Roman candle of deep thoughts, the often bitter jeremiads against modern culture—his British admirers, led by the reverential Martin Amis, have drawn attention to the sheer spin of his inventive sentences. By extracting Bellow from his own polemics and from the ethnic ghetto of Jewish-American writing, they offer a challenging if partial view of work that American readers had long taken for granted. Bellow's Collected Stories, with a charming anecdotal preface by his wife, Janis Bellow, and an incisive introduction by James Wood, gives subtle support to the United Kingdom version of his career. Though Bellow is not well known for his short fiction, these stories, selected to highlight his later work, feel more disciplined, more written than his longer books. While Mrs Bellow's preface gives us a glimpse of the author at home, Wood closely scrutinizes “the happy rolling freedom of his daring, uninsured sentences”. (That “uninsured” is a neat Bellovian touch.) With a keen eye for Bellow's arresting metaphors, which he compares to metaphysical wit, Wood singles out prodigious descriptive details (“his baldness was total, like a purge”). He also makes the unsustainable claim that Bellow is, “with Faulkner, the greatest modern American writer of prose”. Had this title any substance, it could as soon be awarded to half a dozen other writers, beginning with Hemingway and Fitzgerald. But this is the British Bellow in a nutshell.

In the concentrated vividness of the writing and the breadth of its speculative reach, this is an extraordinary collection. But like all canonizing editions, it is revealing for its exclusions and its arrangement. The book arrives exactly sixty years after Bellow's first stories began appearing in Partisan Review, but there is no trace of those early writings here. The earliest stories are from 1951 (“Looking for Mr Green”) and 1957 (“Leaving the Yellow House”); they give little hint of Bellow's later manner. The first is a slightly allegorical, open-ended tale of Depression-era Chicago, written in the faintly Kafkaesque manner of Bellow's second novel, The Victim; the second is a brilliant, utterly depressing portrait of a fading woman, an alcoholic survivor down on her luck, that reads like a Western variation on his great failure-story, Seize the Day, published the previous year. Although that tightly scripted novella has always been a critical favourite, between the breakthrough of The Adventures of Augie March in 1953 and Humboldt's Gift in 1975, Bellow was seen as a loose-limbed, garrulous writer in the tradition of Whitman and Mark Twain. But in parts of Herzog set in the Montreal of his childhood, in his signature story “The Old System” in 1967, and with three long stories of the early 1980s from Him with His Foot in His Mouth and Other Stories, 1984, Bellow's work took a turn from the social to the soulful, the radically introspective. Filtering stories through intellectual protagonists who were versions of himself, he began unlocking old memories of family and friends, memories that grew more pressing as he grew older.

In Bellow's late fiction, narrative gives way to character sketches, numinous descriptive detail, and reflection on ultimate questions (“why life, why death … why these particular forms?”). Even more than novels like Herzog and Mr Sammler's Planet, which largely unfold in the minds of their central characters, Bellow's stories are almost devoid of present action. They are built instead around a man musing, reflecting, sorting out a mental galaxy of people in his life and their meaning for him. Some of his best subjects are colourful intellectuals like Isaac Rosenfeld or Harold Rosenberg, “Thinker Princes” whose deaths he mourned. Others came from the extended family that shaped his emotional being as he was growing up. Reminiscent of Fellini and late Bergman, this circus of memories took over Bellow's work, leading to his inspired portrait of his Chicago friend and colleague Allan Bloom in Ravelstein (2000). Bellow's short fiction became central to this retrospective project.

The sequence of the stories bolsters this late emphasis on memory. Instead of arranging them in chronological order, Bellow begins and ends the volume with his two latest stories, both framed by an old man remembering. In the previously uncollected “By the St Lawrence” (1995), his protagonist returns to his Canadian birthplace, as Bellow did, after a near-fatal illness, and even wonders whether he might not live out his days there. He visits a dying cousin, the last of his generation, who doesn't share his overweening interest in the past. In “Something to Remember Me By” (1990), a man revisits a day in 1933 when his mother lay near death, while he himself, at seventeen, was caught up in a humiliating sexual adventure. As “a high-minded Jewish schoolboy … with his eye on a special destiny”, he thinks: “I had this coming.” Bellow plays up the contrast between family—a mother whose death he cannot face, a brutal father, older brothers puzzled by his bookishness—and the street, with its pitfalls and freedoms. “At home, inside the house, an archaic rule; outside, the facts of life.”

Thinking back, the writer sees this as a calling; his work would straddle the life of feeling, forged inside the family, and the life of cities just beyond. He now understands that on his boyish errands he was taking “a reading of this boring, depressed, ugly, endless, rotting city”. Ageing writers often try to pinpoint the sources of their inspiration. But these reflective stories feel like a testament, an exorcism, yet also a way of using early experiences to fathom mysteries of death and life, the enigma of attachments. This was the programme Bellow had set for himself in family stories like “The Old System”, “The Silver Dish” and “Cousins”, three of the strongest pieces in this book, works that combine Proustian recollection with bold experiments in style. With their tremendous interest in archaic forms of Jewish family life, these stories belong to the ethnic Bellow, the metaphysical Jewish comedian long celebrated in America. But their pared-down writing, dotted with sharp sentence fragments, rolling cadences and physical details rich with spiritual intimations, highlights the prose master celebrated by Amis and Wood.

Finally Bellow's project transcends these differences, for his style cannot be separated from the world he is writing about. Braun, a biochemist, thinks back on his family in “The Old System”; he recalls them as “a quarrelsome congregation. Every question was disputed. There was rivalry, there were rages; slaps were given, families stopped speaking. Pariahs, thought Braun, with the dignity of princes among themselves.” This is Bellow the pointillist, building up his canvas with tiny strokes of recollection, deploying as his surrogate an inquisitive scientist who sees matters almost on the molecular level. The analytical distance is particularly impressive in rendering character. Of one proud, obese, difficult woman, he writes:

Tina willed consistently to appeal for nothing, to have no charm. Absolutely none. She never tried to please. Her aim must have been majesty. Based on what? She had no great thoughts. She built on her own nature. On a primordial idea, hugely blown up.

This is unlike any other writer, unlike Bellow's earlier work; it is at once spare and poetic, general but precise, eerily detached yet suffused with insight. Bellow's method, as always, is to anchor the inner being in its physical appearance, the form we choose to have.

Some sub-office of the personality, behind a little door of the brain where the restless spirit never left its work, had ordered this tremendous female form, all of it, to become manifest, with dark hair on the forearms, conspicuous nostrils in the white face, and black eyes staring.

Scanning these characters to fathom who they essentially are, the Bellow observer erases the line between the descriptive and the metaphysical, between his memories of a handful of proud, obstreperous Jews and the riddle of human nature itself. This foreshadows the turn towards ultimate questions at the story's end.

When Bellow's stories move from meditations on family to sketches of his intellectual heroes, the impact is immense. Zetland, based on his youthful soulmate Isaac Rosenfeld, comes from a family where people “read Russian novels, Yiddish poetry, and were mad about culture”. He is attracted to science, to philosophy, to metaphysics, wondering “what were we here for, of all strange beings and creatures the strangest?” But a reading of Moby-Dick turns him from abstraction towards literature: “It rushed over him. He thought he would drown. But he didn't drown; he floated.” Other Bellow characters have the same experience of being uplifted by art, wafted into the sublime. Still others, like Victor Wulpy in “What Kind of Day Did You Have?”, the longest story here, have always dwelt in a rarefied world of ideas. Based on the art critic Harold Rosenberg, an outsized personality by any standard, Wulpy is mythicized into a sovereign strategist of mind, a commander of comprehension.

Bellow rivals Thomas Mann in his gift for portraying intellectuals without demeaning or burlesquing them. His admiration here is laced with high comedy. Bellow stumbles only when he models the genius figure too obviously on himself, as he does in “A Theft” (1989), the only unconvincing tale in this collection, or in the self-regarding late novels like The Dean's December and More Die of Heartbreak. Victor Wulpy, on the other hand, is the type of universal mind that humbles Bellow, as it awes those around him, especially his much put-upon mistress, Katrina, through whose eyes we mainly see him. One of Bellow's best woman characters, Katrina is a suburban housewife with cultural aspirations who is slavishly devoted to this lofty creature. But Victor, as an aristocrat of the mental life, is beyond merely personal concerns. He is unfazed when his plane seems about to go down. He pays “no more attention to death than to a litter of puppies pulling at the cuffs of his pants”. He discusses his troubled daughter with the same radiant detachment he brings to any other subject: “Victor was not the type to be interested in personality troubles. Insofar as they were nothing but personal, he cared for nobody's troubles. That included his own.” Yet these stories are spectacles of personality played out against a backdrop of ideas, a pastiche of serious thinking. In the end, we see Victor's limitations as he himself comes up against the limits of life itself, “limits he had never until lately reckoned with”. Ailing, failing, “now he touched limits on every side”.

Finally, Bellow's stories about intellectuals form a unique body of work. Whether he uses them to reflect on their dead, to excavate family feeling, to stage their own excesses, or to lament the passing of a way of life, they give his late fiction an exceptional heft and intensity. Like his quarrelsome old Jews, they are pariahs with the dignity of princes. They remind us that whatever we do, in the political world as well as the contemplative life: “it has to be a powerful reading of the truth of existence. Metaphysical passion. You get as much truth as you have the courage to approach.”

John L. Brown (review date spring 2002)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1044

SOURCE: Brown, John L. Review of Collected Stories, by Saul Bellow. World Literature Today 76, no. 2 (spring 2002): 149-50.

[In the following mixed review, Brown outlines what he sees as strengths and weaknesses of the works in Collected Stories.]

The collection [Collected Stories] contains thirteen stories originally published in various magazines (The New Yorker,Partisan Review) between 1951 and 1992. The volume title's reference to “stories” is somewhat misleading, since several selections such as “Him with His Foot in His Mouth” (1985) are more the length of nouvelles than of short stories. One critic comments ironically that “Bellow is such a brilliant writer that small helpings are insufficient.” The adjective collected is also misleading, since the volume at hand is the third compendium of Bellow stories, having been preceded by Mosby's Memoirs and Other Stories (1968) and Him with His Foot in His Mouth and Other Stories (1984). Moreover, two of the texts in the present collection, “Leaving the Yellow House” and “Looking for Mr. Green,” had already appeared in Mosby's Memoirs and in Him with His Foot in His Mouth, which also includes “What Kind of a Day Did You Have?,” “Cousins,” “A Silver Dish,” and “Zetland by a Character Witness.” In 1991 Viking brought out three more “tales”: “Something to Remember Me By,” “A Theft,” and “The Bellarosa Connection,” all of which subsequently reappeared in another collected edition.

The only text in Collected Stories which has not appeared previously, “By the Saint Lawrence,” evokes the youth of Bob Rexler, son of a German refugee family which had settled in Lachine, Québec, the town in which Bellow himself was born. Rexler, after a brilliant career in the Jewish literary community of New York's East Side, returns in his old age to Lachine, to walk along the Saint Lawrence River and recall memories which resemble those of Bellow himself.

This history of overabundant reprinting may account for some of the deficiencies in the editing of the present volume. There is no bibliography, and there are no footnotes to accompany a text which clearly needs them. The reader is left free to find his own way. Neither is the introductory material of much assistance. A preface by Janis Bellow, the author's fifth wife, provides a cozy “family” tone, although critically it is less informative than any of the numerous reviews by critics American and British, not all of them flattering. One lady journalist describes the preface as “sickening” and dwelling sentimentally on domestic life: “Yesterday, my husband and I took a walk with our one-year-old daughter. … And we meditated ‘Will someone produce an accurate portrait of her father at work?’ Why not begin, I ask myself, with this little preface? I have before my eyes the image of a juggler—luminous and airborne balls, each one a different color, burning against an azure sky and kept aloft by the infinite skill of a magician.”

James Wood, in his introduction, hails Bellow, with Faulkner, as “the greatest modern writer of prose,” prose he deems “a registration of the joy of life, the happy rolling freedom of his uninsured sentences.” The prose found in this selection is “of august raciness, ripe with inheritance, the rhythms of Melville and Whitman, Lawrence and Joyce, and behind them Shakespeare.” What more could one ask? Wood is equally enthusiastic about Bellow's talent in creating memorable portraits of his characters, “a talent comparable to that of Dickens,” since Bellow sees humans as the embodiment of “a single dominating essence.” In Seize the Day, which Wood considers one of Bellow's best works, Tommy Wilhelm, as he studies the faces about him in New York, explores “their essence: I labor, I spend, I strive, I desire, I love, I die.”

Wood divides Bellow's work into two main categories: 1) long, loosely hung-together narratives such as “Cousins,” and 2) short, very concentrated texts which often embrace no more than one day, such as “A Silver Dish” or “Looking for Mr. Green.” Realistic memories of people and events are an essential element. As Wood points out, Bellow “reprieved Realism for a generation,” defending it against the postmodernism of le nouveau roman. For many of the characters, like Max Zetland, the city of Chicago is also the center of traditional Jewish culture. Bellow shares these opinions, for he constantly returns to Chicago in his stories. On one hand, it is “a city of confusion and vulgarity,” but it is also the city where Bellow and many of his characters discover “the magic of reading, while frequenting the public libraries.” For Wood, “these beautiful stories throw in burning centrifuges, the secular religious question: ‘What are our days of awe? And how do we know them?’”

Bellow's foreword to his 1990 collection Something to Remember Me By (with two other stories) now reappears, without modification, as an introductory “afterword.” It cites “a Japanese sage” who counsels his disciples to “write as short as you can,” and the author recalls his composition teacher in Chicago, “who wouldn't put up with redundance.” But clearly he did not take these admonitions too seriously, for Collected Stories contains one text, “The Bellarosa Connection,” which goes on for nearly sixty pages, and another, “Him with His Foot in His Mouth,” which runs for thirty-eight. He wants “to cram it all in” (in the words of the TLS reviewer), and “this cramming makes you want to come up for air now and then.” The “afterword” deplores the impatience of the modern reader who never “has enough time,” and Bellow admits that “whatever I read, my own or other people's work, all seems not short enough.” He also hints at the possible “death of literature” at a time when the all-invading mass media have taken over. In what he evidently considers a time of universal disorder, Bellow exhorts the writer to remain true to authentic human destiny. He will trouble no one with his personal vanity, and he will write “as short as he can.”

Collected Stories contains reprints of some of Bellow's best stories—and some which are not so good. It serves nevertheless, for the reader unacquainted with Bellow, as an accessible introduction to the star of the Jewish-American literary movement, but also, as James Atlas has made clear in his superb recent biography, one of the most outstanding writers of a gifted generation.

David K. Nichols (essay date winter 2003)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7662

SOURCE: Nichols, David K. “On Bellow's Ravelstein.Perspectives on Political Science 32, no. 1 (winter 2003): 14-21.

[In the following essay, Nichols deems Ravelstein a book about ideas, contending that “the biggest mistake that reviewers make is their failure to appreciate both the political and intellectual weight” of the novel.]

Saul Bellow has written Ravelstein as a tribute to Allan Bloom, who died in 1992, a teacher and philosopher most famous for his 1987 critique of education in The Closing of the American Mind. However, the inevitable speculation about the correspondence between Bloom the man and Ravelstein the character, or between Chick the narrator and Bellow the author, ironically may have distracted the audience from the text. Bellow has given us and given Bloom a story, and it is a story that deserves to be taken seriously. Chick begins: “Odd that mankind's benefactors should be amusing people. In America at least this is often the case. Anyone who wants to govern the country has to entertain it” (1).1 Chick clearly refers to his entertaining friend Ravelstein, whose story he is about to tell, but he may also be referring to himself as a novelist, who seeks to entertain, and if not govern at least enlighten his readers.

The biggest mistake that reviewers make is their failure to appreciate both the political and intellectual weight of Ravelstein. It is a book about ideas, and it is also a very political book. There is no doubt that when Chick recounts that during the Civil War people complained about Abraham Lincoln's funny stories and accused him of being frivolous, he reminds us of Ravelstein's critics and their failure to appreciate “that strict seriousness was far more dangerous than any joke” (1). He also tells us a great deal about what he, as an author, is about to do. Chick knows that his book may be taken as a light and gossipy portrait of a friend, a portrait too kind to satisfy Ravelstein's critics and too critical to satisfy his friends, but from the beginning Chick puts the reader on notice that frivolous stories may capture an important political teaching. The model for Chick's book is the funny and often crude stories of Abe Lincoln, the man his Secretary of War described as an ape.

If Lincoln's stories are the model, we must realize that the context for the model changes. When Chick turns from Lincoln the ape to H. L. Mencken and the Scopes trial, he suggests that times have indeed changed; what was a nasty slur in Lincoln's time had become a scientific fact. Not only was Lincoln an ape, but so are we all, or at least our ancestors. This is the meaning of progress, or it was for Mencken and the “debunkers and spoofers” who formed the “tastes and minds of [a] generation” (1).

At first it is tempting to see Chick and Ravelstein as the new Menckens, who will spoof and debunk our current myths and if successful form the souls of a new generation. But is that possible in an age where poetry has lost its power? Can souls survive “science, modernity and progress”? Is anyone who challenges these contemporary doctrines destined to be an absurdity?

On the surface there is little to suggest a kinship between the farm-belt politician who preached the virtues of free silver with an “old-style congressional oratory,” and who died because of his appetite for “huge Nebraska farm dinners,” and the academic philosopher dressed in Armani suits, who carefully studied classical texts and dined in the finest Paris restaurants (1-2). His protests to the contrary, Chick quickly pulls us beneath the surface to see the similarities between these two souls and their fates. These two sons of the Midwest each appealed to standards that had lost their legitimacy. Both were the subjects of extreme ridicule by their contemporaries, and both died as a result of their hungers and passions. One is left to wonder what implications to draw from Chick's conclusion that “Bryan went the way of the pterodactyl—the clumsy version of an idea which later succeeded—the gliding reptiles becoming warm-blooded birds that flew and sang” (2). Is Chick saying that Ravelstein, too, was a pterodactyl? Is Ravelstein's idea of philosophy threatened with extinction just as Bryan's old-time religion was destroyed by science, modernity, and progress (1)? Is Ravelstein the warm-blooded bird who will succeed where Bryan, the pterodactyl, failed? Or is Chick's task to rescue Ravelstein from the cold-bloodedness of the world of ideas or at least to put warmth and life into those ideas? Can Chick replace Mencken's form of democratic entertainment with Lincoln's? Can he exchange wit and irony for a more humane portrait of humor, self-reflection, and greatness? Or does Chick show us the path from a modern to an ancient sense of irony by which Ravelstein sought to rescue modernity from itself? And is the greatest irony that at the end of his life Ravelstein turns to his own old-time religion as an alternative to both the modern and the ancient worlds of ideas? It is with this footnote that Chick begins his portrait of a friend, and it is from this footnote that he takes us to the more serious matters of Ravelstein and Michael Jackson in Paris.

Ravelstein is pleased by the “pop circus” surrounding Jackson's presence (2). It was an appropriate entertainment for the conquering hero who had Paris at his feet. Chick notes that the “pompous bridges, palaces, [and] gardens of Paris … were the greater today for being shown by Ravelstein” (3). Ravelstein had at last achieved his rightful station in life at the top of the most luxurious hotel in Paris. Rightful because “[n]obody in the days before he struck it rich had ever questioned Ravelstein's need for Armani suits or Vuitton luggage, for Cuban cigars, unobtainable in the U.S., for Dunhill accessories, for solid-gold Mont Blanc pens or Baccarat or Lalique crystal to serve wine in—or have it served” (3). Ravelstein's nature had always entitled him to such luxuries, even if his bank account fell short. He was a large man whose hands shook, not from “weakness but a tremendous energy that shook him when it was discharged” (3). Chick's book is a portrait of that energy, an attempt to capture it the way a spiritualist might try to photograph ectoplasm. If it cannot be seen directly, Chick tries to show it in its effect on its surroundings. The Lalique crystal and the Mont Blanc pen do not make Ravelstein a great man; they are merely the pale reflections of his greatness. They provide a material reflection of Ravelstein's soul the way a religious man might find the reflection of God's love in the petal of a flower.

Chick may push the limits of credulity by interpreting everything—from Ravelstein's trembling hand to Michael Jackson and the whole of Paris—primarily in reference to Ravelstein's soul. But if he does, he does not stray far from Ravelstein's own self-understanding. When Ravelstein speaks of Jackson's refusal to eat the hotel food that had been good enough for Nixon and Kissinger, he is reminded of a story in the Bible of crippled kings living under the table of their conqueror, feeding on what fell to the floor (4).

Ravelstein has overshadowed Jackson by becoming a pop figure himself. Although the fans are in Paris to see Jackson, Jackson is relegated to a suite two floors below Ravelstein's. However Ravelstein had not achieved this status by pandering. As Chick describes it, there “were no cheap concessions, no popularizing, no mental monkey business, no apologetics, no patrician airs” (4). In some way, Chick cannot get away from the imagery of the Scopes trial, and we are led to compare Ravelstein's lack of monkey business with the “glamour monkey” in the suite below (4). Is one celebrity the same as another? Chick suggests that there is a difference because in Ravelstein's case “his intellect had made him a millionaire” and this is “no small matter” (4). One other difference is that Ravelstein, like Kissinger and Nixon, finds the Crillon's food acceptable. He has a kinship with these politicians who are alien to Jackson's world.

On the next page Ravelstein urges Chick to be more political, to take an interest in public life, and to that end he asks Chick to write about J. M. Keynes's account of the negotiations over German reparations in 1919. In addition to filling a lacuna in Chick's political education, the task is meant as preparation for Chick's portrait of Ravelstein. Ravelstein approves of Chick's sketch of Keynes, although he is “not quite satisfied” (6). Whatever Ravelstein's criticism, Chick is not willing to accept it, arguing that “too much emphasis on the literal facts narrowed the wider interest of the enterprise” (6). He speaks of Thomas Macaulay's essay on Boswell's Life of Johnson, etching in his mind the picture of “the poor convulsive Johnson touching every lamppost on the street and eating spoiled meat and rancid puddings” (6). This, we suppose, is the kind of portrait Chick wants to present of Ravelstein. Chick will play Macaulay to Ravelstein, who himself played Boswell to a philosophic tradition. But if things were not complicated enough in thinking about Macaulay's account of Boswell's account of Johnson, Chick adds another twist, “Crazy Morford,” his high school English teacher, who introduced him to Macaulay's work.

Chick says later in the book that he sees Ravelstein primarily as a teacher, although one who has little in common with Morford, the alcoholic who wore the same fire-sale suit every day and performed his duties in a lifeless and impersonal manner. Ravelstein was not much interested in Chick's description of Morford, perhaps because Morford the teacher was unrecognizable to Ravelstein the teacher. Chick leaves unanswered the question of why he invited Ravelstein “to see the Morford [he] remembered” (7). Or perhaps he asks a question that he has already, answered when he repeated the lines he learned in Morford's class, “How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable seem to me all the uses of this world,” and tells us how the memory of Morford the man was for him the embodiment of those words (7). In Ravelstein, Chick finds the embodiment of other words and of other sentiments. More than once Chick reminds us of the flatness of his world without Ravelstein and of Ravelstein's efforts to restore some depth and dimension to the world into which he was born.

Chick's description of Keynes and his Bloomsbury associates in many ways remind us of Ravelstein. Keynes is gay, although married. He is a cultivated man who loves to gossip and he is part of a “set,” a group of like-minded individuals. The most striking part of Chick's account of Keynes's description of the peace conference is his report of an anti-Semitic rant staged by Lloyd George against one of the German negotiators, a description that foreshadows Ravelstein's concerns about anti-Semitism and his own Jewishness (8).

Lloyd George's reaction is a reflection of the pervasiveness and depth of anti-Semitism in the twentieth-century world. Ravelstein mentions Lloyd George's later attraction to Hitler. As he explains, “Hitler was a dream of political leaders. Whatever he wanted done was done, and quickly” (11). There is something in human nature that desires tyranny, and that desire can lead to disastrous consequences. But it is Ravelstein and not Keynes who is aware of these dangers. The Bloomsbury group's objection to Lloyd George was cultural rather than political: “They wouldn't have really cared for a man as common as Lloyd George” (10). Ravelstein also did not like the Bloomsbury crowd's “queer antics,” and he concluded that they were not intellectually serious (8). Their lack of political and intellectual seriousness is what opened the group to become a recruiting ground for communists in later years. It also led to their failure to see the dangers posed by Germany. They failed to understand the connection between the Germany of World War I and Hitler's Germany. Despite his learning and culture, the Jewish German negotiator was defending an anti-democratic political system, and despite his crudeness and anti-Semitism, Lloyd George was defending a democracy that would give rise to Winston Churchill. Churchill may have liked Keynes, but he differed from Keynes in a decisive respect—he saw the character of the German threat.

The decisive political question of the twentieth century was the conflict between Western democracy and totalitarian despotism. Ravelstein admired Churchill because he was able to see and respond to this conflict. Chick may have been attracted to Ravelstein because Ravelstein was able to show him the connection between the political conflict and the ideas that lie behind modern democracy and modern totalitarianism. Ravelstein showed him the need for intellectual integrity. One cannot tolerate ideas that deny fundamental aspects of human nature and thereby threaten the foundations of civility and human decency. Through Ravelstein, Chick came to see that intellectual openness and passivity might lead to the most horrible and extreme form of intolerance. Part of Ravelstein's enterprise was to open modern minds to that possibility.

Ravelstein is like Churchill in that his cultivation and his love of gossip have an intellectual and a political anchor. Ravelstein's love of gossip with his former students sometimes leads to an ongoing seminar on the great political and philosophic questions, and his cultivation is grounded in an appreciation of the political and intellectual supports necessary for a civilized society. Nonetheless, culture remains important for Ravelstein. Keynes was wrong about the Versailles Treaty; he played into the hands of the Nazis, and he was not as good an economist as Hayek or Friedman, but Friedman “was a free market fanatic and had no use for culture” (11). Ravelstein could never settle for a view of human nature that reduced human behavior to economic calculation, nor was he attracted to the kind of person who held such views. A biographer of Friedman would be wholly inadequate to write a biography of Ravelstein. Despite his limitations, Keynes was simply a more interesting person, someone whom Churchill could describe as “a man of clairvoyant intelligence” (11). Chick may also be using this discussion to ask the reader to forget about Ravelstein's own particular political positions and to see him as a whole, as the human soul who so attracted Chick. Again, Chick is aware that many will criticize his book as mere gossip, and he uses this account of Keynes to show that gossip may reflect something deeper. In a very real sense it is social history and, Chick would argue in the case of Ravelstein, a reflection of his desire to know the full range of human experience and in some sense to tie it all together.

This desire for unity is at the heart of the book. Chick repeatedly returns to Aristophanes' account of love in Plato's Symposium. “In the beginning men and women were round like the sun and the moon, they were both male and female and had two sets of sexual organs. In some cases both the organs were male. So went the myth. These were proud, self-sufficient beings. They defied the Olympian Gods who punished them by splitting them in half. This is the mutilation that mankind suffered. So that generation after generation we seek the missing half, longing to be whole again” (24). According to Chick, this erotic longing for wholeness is what drove Ravelstein. This longing animated the spirited young men and women who were attracted to Ravelstein, and it distinguished them from the bourgeois who were dominated by fears of violent death.

After presenting this account of eros, Chick apologizes for speaking so simplistically of Ravelstein and even raises the question of whether Ravelstein did “share the view (attributed by Socrates to Aristophanes) that we are seeking the other that is part of oneself” (25). He also raises the question of precisely whose account of eros we are considering. A page earlier he had pointed out that it was not Aristophanes' account but Plato's in a speech attributed to Aristophanes. But now he complicates the issue further by his parenthetical suggestion that the speech was attributed to Aristophanes by Socrates. Is Chick engaging in a little esoteric playfulness? Is he again asking us to think about the relationship between author and subject? Is Chick Ravelstein's Plato? Is Chick suggesting that it is unnecessary to distinguish between Plato and Socrates, or is he trying to quietly make readers aware of that distinction? Or does Chick have more in common with the comic author Aristophanes than with either Plato or Socrates?

And what of the question Chick asks—does Ravelstein share Aristophanes' view of eros? Are we left in a world where “the sexual embrace gives temporary self-forgetting but the painful knowledge of mutilation is permanent” (24)? What of Ravelstein's philosophic enterprise? Was it not a more satisfying form of erotic quest? Whatever Ravelstein's position on the truth of Aristophanes' myth, Chick says, “Nothing could move him more than a genuine instance of this quest” (25). But that quest may be nothing more than a futile romantic illusion, an illusion itself based on a rather bleak view of human nature. “To be human was to be severed, mutilated. Man is incomplete. Zeus is a tyrant. Mount Olympus is a tyranny. … And the quest for your lost half is hopeless” (24). Chick eschews psychobiography, but it is hard not to think of Ravelstein's past, of his tyrannical father, and perhaps also of his own contradictions.

We must also think about the primary relationship in the novel, the relationship between Ravelstein and Chick. The book is being written at the request of Ravelstein, but Chick reports that Ravelstein suggested that the book might be a way for Chick to liberate himself. From what does Chick need to be liberated? Ravelstein says that it is “some sword of Damocles hanging over [Chick].” Chick responds that “It's the sword of Dimwitoclese” (13). Ravelstein's response points to Chick's obvious concerns with death—Ravelstein's death, the death of his many acquaintances in Chicago, and of course his own death. Chick's joke, however, points to a lack of knowledge or wisdom that Chick may overcome by coming to grips with Ravelstein's life.

Chick may also need to come to grips with those things that separate or distinguish him from Ravelstein. For example, Chick has no set of his own, and he is not so much a part of Ravelstein's set as an observer of it. With one major exception, Chick does not appear to develop close personal relationships with any of Ravelstein's students or friends. He points out that he is not one of Ravelstein's disciples. He is too old for that, and “Jerusalem and Athens are not [his] dish” (15). Chick also draws out the Lincoln analogy further when he explains that Ravelstein admired Lincoln because he was willing to take the extraordinary measure of suspending habeas corpus to successfully prosecute the Civil War. Lincoln understood that you could not follow due process in a time of national crisis. He did not shrink from harsh necessities. Ravelstein also sympathized with Lincoln because he had to endure the mobs of people who wanted to see him on one petty matter or another in the midst of that horrible crisis.

Chick appears to part company with both Ravelstein and Lincoln with regard to the question of due process. He argues that because he is a writer, he is not as willing to write people off as Ravelstein was. Writers, he argues, cannot so easily dispense with due process. They must “make allowances, taking all sorts of ambiguities into account—to avoid hard-edged judgments” (43). But Chick also suggests that “hard-edged judgments” may be necessary. Lincoln could not afford to make subtle legal distinctions regarding innocence, guilt, or due process. He had to fight a war to preserve the Union. Ravelstein, too, was engaged in a war. He wrote his warlike book defending “the greatness of humankind” against “bourgeois well-being” (53). For Ravelstein, the pursuit of love, not self-preservation, was the end of human life.

Chick, however, like Lincoln, is more than willing to spend time with a range of human types. He even borrows Lincoln's language of a “humanity bath” to describe his desire to expose himself to human variety (9). Ravelstein views this only as a waste of time. His sympathy to Lincoln extends only to Lincoln's occasional frustration; it does not extend to Lincoln's recognition of the need in a democracy to talk to the people, perhaps even to recognize a common humanity. But it is difficult to sympathize with people like Ravelstein's neighbors—“little bourgeois types dominated by secret dreads, each one a shrine of amour propre” (52). Ravelstein believes that “the great figures of human heroism looming tremendously over us are very different from the man in the street, our ‘normal’ commonplace contemporary” (52).

Not only does democracy require due process, it may also require a kind of moderation. If Marc Anthony “valued love above imperial politics,” then it might be said of Ravelstein that he valued love above democratic politics (53). That is why Chick reminds us that “Ravelstein's appraisal of the people he dealt with daily had this background of great love or boundless rage” (52). If Chick is open to Ravelstein's love, he is nonetheless suspicious of his rage.

Chick actually presents us with little evidence of Ravelstein's rage; it is at most a subtext. Ravelstein the culture warrior is dwarfed in this portrait by Ravelstein the lover of luxury. Both Ravelsteins could be seen as aristocratic alternatives to contemporary democratic politics, but it is possible that Chick makes a judgment as to which is more accessible and more edifying to a modern democratic audience. Serendipitously, in the central passage of the novel, Chick makes his one specific reference to the “chapter and verse” of a philosophic text: “See Plato's Republic, especially Book IV” (117). The reference is offered to explain what Ravelstein means by “those spirited people” to whom he is attracted (117). It is the spirited people who can defend the city because of their love of their own. They are the true patriots who will risk their lives for the city. Glaucon is the Republic's model for such a spirited young warrior, one who seeks a perfect unity in the city and the soul. It is Glaucon who is willing to accept communism and a complete deprivation of privacy.

Chick's portrait of Ravelstein, however, reminds us more of Adeimantus than Glaucon. Adeimantus complains that the guardians will “enjoy nothing good from the city as do others, who possess lands, and build big fine houses, and possess all the accessories that go along with these things” (Bloom 97). Adeimantus wants to enjoy the luxuries of life; he wants to enjoy things that are his own and that distinguish him from others. Why does Chick focus on the luxury-loving Ravelstein rather than the warrior Ravelstein? The love of luxuries is something that appeals to some democratic tastes, if not those of Ravelstein's bourgeois neighbors and colleagues, at least to the southside blacks who admire Ravelstein's wardrobe. The desire for distinction and refinement may be a poor substitute for philosophic eros or the search for one's soul mate, but it may for Ravelstein alleviate the mediocrity and blandness of bourgeois life. At the very least, Chick sees in Ravelstein's love of luxury an accessible metaphor for his quest for greatness.

In his commentary on the Republic, Bloom describes Adeimantus as “poetically inclined” (359). In this, if not in his love of luxury, Chick may be closer to Adeimantus than is Ravelstein. Bloom explains that the poet is not as powerful as he thinks. “Precisely because he must make his audience join in the world he wishes to present to them, he must appeal to its dominant passions. … The spectators want to cry or to laugh. If the poet is to please, he must satisfy that demand” (Bloom 359). Chick wants to please, and he wants to educate. He knows that the audience is not likely to laugh or cry at Ravelstein's philosophic discussions or his role in the culture wars. Nonetheless he thinks Ravelstein's story is a compelling one, certainly one that made Chick laugh and cry.

Early in the book Chick reports that Ravelstein had told him he should be more like the writer Louis-Ferdinand Celine, whose nihilistic character Robinson refuses to tell a woman that he loves her. “Robinson the nihilist is high-principled about one thing only, not to lie about the very, very few things that really matter. He'll try any kind of obscenity but he draws the line at last, and this tramp woman, deeply insulted, shoots him dead because he won't say I love you” (13). Ravelstein's critics thought that he was all too willing to draw lines or to take moral stands, but Chick saw a different man, one who was high-principled only about “a very, very few things that really matter” (13). When Chick asks Ravelstein the meaning of Celine's story, Ravelstein replies, “It means that writers are to make you laugh and cry. That is what mankind is looking for” (13). Ravelstein knows that Chick can give mankind what it is looking for, and in the process tell Ravelstein's story. That is what Chick can do for Ravelstein.

The book, however, is more about what Ravelstein did for Chick. Chick might have focused on Ravelstein's relationship with his students, and he has been criticized for his failure to do so. We do not see moving portraits of Ravelstein in the classroom, or Ravelstein engaged in intellectual disputes. We do not see the Ravelstein who attracted generations of students or legions of academic enemies. Or do we? How would one show the power of Ravelstein's attraction, the importance of his ideas, and his impact on students and colleagues? The influence of a man like Milton Friedman might best be seen in terms of his specific ideas and theories. But Ravelstein's influence was far harder to capture. That is why Chick presents it not in terms of abstractions but in terms of Ravelstein's influence on his own life.

Chick did not adopt Ravelstein's wardrobe or mannerisms, as did many of his students. If Ravelstein had ample confidence in his own intellectual superiority to Chick, he also knew that Chick was more than a student. Chick was not a young man attracted by an older, wiser, and most passionate teacher. In confronting Chick, Ravelstein was confronting an adult, one who was too old to become a disciple and one who was old enough to be a friend.

The task for Chick was to show that Ravelstein might have as profound an effect on him as he did on his students. Chick was attracted to Ravelstein the character, to his childish sense of humor and sweeping intelligence, but these attributes might have attracted anyone, especially young and impressionable students. But Chick tells us that Ravelstein made him more aware of the political dimensions of life, and perhaps more important, he helped Chick to recover his own erotic longings.

These two themes, eros and politics, come together in the story of Chick's wife Vela. In this book, we see Ravelstein the warrior primarily in his battle with Vela for Chick's soul.

Whereas Ravelstein defends an older view of eros and politics, Vela represents the epitome of modern scientific theory. Her study of chaos theory is the culmination of the attempt to subdue nature through the scientific method. It is based on the belief that the subjugation of nature is possible because nature itself is indeterminate. Order in nature is merely the product of our all-encompassing theory. Chick is attracted to Vela for the same reason that he is attracted to Ravelstein: each promises an intellectually coherent view of the world. Both offer Chick a picture of a whole into which he fits. Life is a series of pictures for Chick, but in Ravelstein and Vela he sees the possibility of a more elegant account of the world.

At some level, however, Chick has begun to suspect Vela's vision of the world, or at least to doubt that he has any place in her world. We are led to believe that part of Chick's initial attraction to Ravelstein was to fill a void in his life created by Vela. Thus, although Chick's disenchantment would have existed with or without Ravelstein's influence, Ravelstein increasingly tries to turn that disenchantment into action on Chick's part. The job is not as easy as it might appear. Chick's first impulse is to assume responsibility for the problem, to assume that he is incapable of being satisfied with Vela or with anyone. After all, Vela is beautiful, or at least she knows how to make herself beautiful. As Chick sees her, she is dedicated to her work and is highly accomplished in her field. Most important, the goal of that work is to understand the whole, to crack the deepest mysteries of the universe. Her outer beauty is a reflection of the inner beauty of her quest to comprehend the world.

What Ravelstein tries to show Chick, however, is the shallowness of Vela's quest and of her beauty. Vela is fixated on control; she believes that she can make herself beautiful, just as she believes she can make the world intelligible. Ravelstein knows that she is a failure on both counts. Her efforts to glamorize her appearance are attempts to camouflage her lack of true erotic force. Prodded by Ravelstein, Chick increasingly becomes aware of her neurotic efforts to appear the perfect beauty. Chick also comes to see how little her own work moves her. She hardly breathes when she sits in her study thinking; she might as well be dead.

Vela fears Ravelstein because on some level she knows that he sees through her. When Ravelstein barges into her room and sees her in her slip she is furious. Chick points out that she has revealed very little, but she is not persuaded. Any peek through a crack in the veneer she presents to the world is a threat. To let down her guard even for a moment is to risk discovery. Ravelstein knows her, however, not from this glimpse of her in her boudoir; he knows her instead from her relationship with Chick and perhaps even more from her choice of friends.

Radu Grielescu was a prominent scholar, “not exactly a follower of Jung—but not exactly not a Jungian” (105). Vela had hoped to substitute Grielescu for Ravelstein as Chick's friend. Chick even admits that he enjoyed Grielescu's company, but Ravelstein warned him that Grielescu's urbanity was a cover for a questionable past. Grielescu had been a member of the Iron Guard and according to Ravelstein only wanted to use Chick for cover, to rehabilitate his reputation.

Ravelstein knew the danger of letting Grielescu use this superficial civility as a shield against the political implications of his ideas and allegiances. The Iron Guard “hung people alive on meat hooks in the slaughterhouse and butchered them—skinned them alive” (124). Grielescu himself was a “Jew-hater” who had written of the “Jew-syphilis” that infected the Balkans (126). Ravelstein showed Chick that one must take people's ideas seriously. Inhuman ideas lead to inhuman politics. Civility and learning do not give one a free pass, even for crimes committed by others or in the distant past. Chick was reluctant to accept Ravelstein's hard-edged judgment, but in the end he admitted that Ravelstein had turned out to be right about Grielescu.

Why was Vela attracted to Grielescu? No doubt she liked his courtly attentions and his concern for appearances. But it was his study of mysticism that may have been most attractive to this woman of science. If the reality of the world is chaos, then order can only be found in the creation of myth. Mysticism and scientific omnipotence are not, as often assumed, the major antagonists of the modern world. They are in fact the strange bedfellows that make totalitarianism possible. Myth was used to demonize the Jews and, combined with the promise of the science of genetics and the scientific efficiency of the gas chambers, was the very essence of Nazism.

If it was hard for Ravelstein to convince Chick of Grielescu's connection to the Nazis, it was even harder for him to convince Chick of Vela's association with the greatest dangers of the modern project. Vela was explicitly apolitical, but her lifeless world was closely akin to the deadly spirit of totalitarianism. She was cold and controlling, and she would never recognize Grielescu's evil because she lacked any integrity of her own that would offer a perspective from which to judge. Vela would almost remind one of Aristophanes' myth, but she was driven not by Platonic eros but by something closer to Freud's conception of thanatos.

Ravelstein helps Chick to see the connection between Chick's lack of vitality and his attraction to Vela. Vela does not complete Chick. She does not satisfy his longing so much as she threatens to destroy his capacity for longing. She cannot provide a sense of wholeness for his life because she is incapable of comprehending the full range of human experience. She is incapable of comprehending either love or friendship. That is why she accuses Chick of having an affair with Ravelstein. She is like the whore in Celine's story who reduces all human relationship to physical gratification.

Ravelstein tries to explain this to Chick intellectually, but ultimately it is the revelation of Vela's infidelity that makes the greatest impression on Chick. It is then that Chick sees that Vela was never capable of any genuine connection with him or any other human being. Even so, he is still incapable of action. It is Vela who leaves him.

Although Chick was not able to leave Vela, by coming to understand his dissatisfaction with her he prepared himself for a new relationship. Vela was replaced not by Ravelstein but by Rosamund. Rosamund is the key to understanding the relationship between Ravelstein and Chick. She shows Ravelstein's effect on Chick as well as the fundamental differences between the two. Rosamund was Ravelstein's student and admirer, but she was not a mere stand-in for Ravelstein. Rosamund, like Ravelstein, could explain to Chick the debt Machiavelli owed to Livy, but more important, Chick says, “there was nothing I could say to this woman that she wouldn't understand” (151). This is much the same way that Ravelstein describes his friendship with Chick. Chick reports: “[Ravelstein] said he was more than content that I could follow perfectly well everything that was said” (94).

For Ravelstein, however, love and friendship are fundamentally different. Love is based on a radical sense of incompleteness, a longing for the other that will complete us but is somehow alien to us and will always remain so, except perhaps briefly in sex. Friendship is based on a shared understanding, an appreciation for an intellectual tradition and an ability to engage that tradition. If this intellectual sharing had its limits, they were less restrictive than those of love.

Ravelstein loves Nikki, but they do not share in an intellectual friendship. Chick tells us that Nikki was not a part of the conversations between Ravelstein and his friends or students. The relationship between Ravelstein and Nikki is a relationship based on inequality. Ravelstein himself describes it as a father-son relationship. Although Ravelstein may say this to play down its sexual component, he also reveals that its erotic character is heightened for him by the incommensurability of the relationship. It is driven by a longing that can never be satisfied. When Ravelstein buys Nikki an expensive BMW as a token of his love, his action reminds us of the way a father might show his affection for a son, a son with particularly demanding standards. To state the argument in terms that would no doubt be most obnoxious to Ravelstein, Ravelstein feels for Nikki the kind of appreciation and love that his own father never felt or showed for him. By giving the car to Nikki, Ravelstein creates the kind of relationship that he himself never enjoyed as a child. But just as Ravelstein can never make up for his own past, he can never enjoy the kind of relationship with Nikki that Chick enjoys with Rosamund.

Ravelstein doubts the possibility that such a relationship can exist. First, he believes young women's “longing for children, and therefore marriage, for the stability requisite for family life” and “a mass of other things … disabled them for philosophy” (140). Rosamund may be “earnest and hard-working”; she may even have a “good mind,” but like most women, she would not be capable of a philosophic friendship (140). Second, there is reason to question whether Rosamund could be seen by Ravelstein as an object of passion. He admits that she is attractive, but her desires may appear to be too conventional to Ravelstein. She seems too comfortable, with bourgeois family life to sweep or to be swept away by passion. She has neither the detachment necessary for philosophy nor the unquenchable desire that fuels eros.

Rosamund has another quality that distinguishes her from Ravelstein—her kindness. Chick is more than willing to acknowledge Ravelstein's “great-souled” generosity to his friends and students, but Chick also shows Ravelstein's capacity for cruelty. As Chick explains, “Abe took no stock in kindness. When students didn't meet his standards he said, ‘I was wrong about you. This is no place for you. I won't have you around.’ The feelings of the rejects didn't concern him” (42). Ravelstein claimed to be acting in the student's interests. “Better for them if they hate me. It will sharpen their minds” (42). But more important than care for students was Ravelstein's belief that he should not let himself be used by “idlers” (44).

Just as Chick does not show us Ravelstein in the classroom, he does not tell us the story of any of Ravelstein's student rejects. Instead he tells us a story of Ravelstein's cruelty to him. When Ravelstein complained of having no money to buy a decent suit, Chick takes him to his own tailor to have a suit made for him. Ravelstein recognizes the kindness of the gesture, but he is moved more by the fact that the suit falls far short of his or Nikki's standards. He wears the suit only once, makes fun of it with Nikki, and tells Chick, “I didn't think it fit for use” (33). He even suggests that Chick should have given him the $1,500 he had paid the tailor, “then I would have raised the rest for a decently cut garment” (33).

Chick says, “We were perfectly open with each other. You could speak your mind without offending” (33). Nonetheless it is difficult to imagine that Chick was not offended that Ravelstein's concern with fashion seemed to outweigh his concern for his friend's feelings. If he was not offended, then he was at least disappointed. Ravelstein's cruelty is in stark contrast to Rosamund's kindness. It is not only that Rosamund shows more concern for a wayward salamander than Ravelstein does for Chick's feelings; it is that Chick recognized that even “in having her own way, she put my interests ahead of her own” (182). Chick understands that such kindness should not be dismissed easily.

Chick is not unaware of the dangerous side of such kindness. Ravelstein might well have pointed out that it was Rosamund's kindness that led them to the Caribbean vacation that almost resulted in Chick's death. But as Ravelstein noted, Chick was always willing to take risks when it came to love. Chick would also point out that it was that same kindness and concern that motivated Rosamund to take charge of Chick's care and ensure his recovery. All relationships involve risk, but they are also the source of our vitality. Rosamund saves Chick's life in more ways than one. Ravelstein had begun to teach a lesson about love to Chick as he tried to rescue him from Vela. But it is Rosamund who Chick concludes knows more about love than either he or Ravelstein.

Chick takes pains to point out that he and Rosamund found each other without Ravelstein's help or prior approval. Chick was well aware of Ravelstein's propensity for matchmaking. Ravelstein considered it a part of his role as a teacher to bring together the appropriate soul types. But Chick was not Ravelstein's disciple, and one gets the impression that Rosamund was not among the inner circle of Ravelstein's students. Furthermore, Chick may have had a democratic reaction against Ravelstein's aristocratic penchant for arranged marriages. Surprisingly, Chick may have had more faith in erotic attraction than Ravelstein. At least he may believe that eros can help to make good matches. Longing and fulfillment do not have to be irreconcilable alternatives. Nor do we need to rely on philosopher kings to match us with a mate who provides a pale reflection of mythical happiness.

Ravelstein is also a book about faith, and by the end of the story both Chick and Ravelstein may be closer to Jerusalem than they were at the beginning. Chick has come to see the possibility of goodness in the world, first through his friendship with Ravelstein and later through the love and friendship of Rosamund. But Chick may not have had as far to go as Ravelstein, because Chick's relationship to his origins was never as problematic as Ravelstein's. We see this first and foremost in relation to family. Chick is there to comfort his dying brothers, and there is little in Chick's description of his childhood that reflects the bitterness that Ravelstein feels toward his family.

Chick claims, “God appeared very early to me” (96). He was aware of God through God's gift: “[T]his was the world. I had never seen it before. Its first gift was the gift of itself. Objects gathered you to themselves and held you by a magnetic imperative that was simply there. It was a privilege to be permitted to see—to see, touch, hear” (96). Chick knows that Ravelstein would not appreciate his “personal metaphysics” (98). Ravelstein would have said, “Either you continue to live in epiphanies or you shake them off and take up trades and tasks, you adopt rational principles and concern yourself with society, or politics. Then the sense of having come from ‘elsewhere’ vanishes” (97).

Chick, as mentioned earlier, was not one of Ravelstein's students. Ravelstein ordered his students to “forget about their families” (25), just as he “had hated and shaken off his own family” (26). This was a necessary first step to the world of philosophy, the world where Ravelstein had found a home. It was among his students and colleagues that Ravelstein created a substitute family, the family that gathered around his bed as he lay dying.

Ravelstein also argued that philosophers are necessarily atheists. He was said to have had great respect for Jerusalem but ultimately to have chosen Athens over Jerusalem. The woman he worshiped, Nehamah Herbst, not only refused to see the orthodox rabbi her mother had brought to her deathbed but also refused ever to speak to her mother again. Ravelstein described her as “pure” and “immovable,” a woman who refused to compromise her rational principles (144).

It is possible, however, that Ravelstein admired her so much because she set a standard that he was never able to meet. Ravelstein could never shake off his Jewishness. In part, the reason was that if Ravelstein could not believe in goodness, he could nevertheless believe in evil. He understood the hatred of the Jews and the atrocities to which it led. He also understood that the Jews were a race of teachers. As Chick reminds us, “For millennia, Jews have taught and been taught. Without teaching, Jewry was an impossibility” (101). Chick explains that “Ravelstein had been a pupil or, if you prefer, a disciple of Davarr” (101). He thus implicitly raises the question of the relationship between teaching and faith, a connection that is not unproblematic, but one that is respected by both Chick and Ravelstein. But if Ravelstein affirmed his religious heritage through his belief in evil and through the practice of his vocation, he was nevertheless unable to find much consolation or hope in religion. Ravelstein, to his death, may have remained a nihilist, a sometimes cheerful nihilist, but a nihilist nonetheless.

Or did he? Chick finds much meaning in Ravelstein's comment about who will follow whom into the next world. Although Rosamund cautions him against overinterpretation, he is unable to let go of the possibility that in the end Ravelstein himself was a believer. There is no doubt that Ravelstein believed in love and friendship, and that belief in turn was based on the belief in the mind and in the soul. Do these beliefs require that we believe that we came from somewhere else and that we will return? Do they not represent a kind of epiphany?

Such belief is not an easy thing. Chick himself is not altogether open to it until he is brought back from the edge of death. Not only did he have to come face to face with his own death, but also he had to face the meaning of a world that no longer believes in the dignity of the human soul. That is why he is obsessed with the cannibals whose rational utilitarianism finds no basis from which to distinguish between the human and the nonhuman. Through Rosamund's faith in him, he is saved from this inhuman world, a kind of salvation that is more important than his physical preservation.

It is the Chick who enjoys such salvation who is able to write the story of Ravelstein, for now he knows that it is not necessary to “easily give up a creature like Ravelstein to death” (233). He can celebrate the epiphany that was and is his friend Ravelstein, just as he can recognize that “the simplest of human beings is … esoteric and radically mysterious” (22).


  1. All page references, unless otherwise noted, are to Saul Bellow's Ravelstein.

Works Cited

Bellow, S. 2000. Ravelstein. New York: Viking.

Bloom, A. 1968. Notes and interpretive essay to The Republic of Plato, trans. New York: Basic Books.

Michael Davis (essay date winter 2003)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5401

SOURCE: Davis, Michael. “Unraveling Ravelstein: Saul Bellow's Comic Tragedy.” Perspectives on Political Science 32, no. 1 (winter 2003): 26-31.

[In the following essay, Davis discusses Ravelstein as a comic tragedy.]

Ravelstein begins with the word “odd”; it introduces a reflection on the amusing character of the benefactors of mankind. If this beginning is, as advertised, a “clever or wicked footnote” (2), its clever wickedness surely must consist in making us think of Abe Ravelstein as an exemplar of this oddity.1 A page later the narrator of the novel, Chick, says of the man he is memorializing, “Ravelstein was one of those large men—large, not stout” (3). This proves to be Ravelstein's leitmotif. “He was very tall” (4) (especially compared to his father who was a “fat neurotic little man” [17]). Ravelstein, a “tall pin- or chalk-striped dude with his bald head” (19) was “as big as any of [Michael Jackson's] body guards” (28). “This large Jewish man from Dayton” (94) was “a much larger and graver person” than Rameau's nephew (35). “Ravelstein's extended body was very large, he was nearly six and a half feet tall and his gown, which reached to the ankles of ordinary patients, ended just above his knees” (178). So, Ravelstein is larger than life—and larger than Chick.

Ravelstein was a bigger man than me. He was able to make a striking statement. Because of his larger size, he could wear clothes with more dramatic effect. I wouldn't have dreamed of disputing this. To be really handsome a man should be tall. A tragic hero has to be above the average in height. I hadn't read Aristotle in ages but I remembered this much from the Poetics.


Chick, of course, gets it wrong; it is not the tragic hero of the Poetics who must be tall; rather, the greatness of the great-souled man of the Nicomachean Ethics is explained by way of a likeness to the bodily greatness of those who are beautiful, “for the small are urbane and well proportioned, but not beautiful.”2 Yet perhaps Bellow does not get it wrong and means to suggest not only that Ravelstein will be a tragic figure, but also that his tragedy has something to do with megalopsuchia—greatness of soul or pride. That Ravelstein is meant to be a tragic figure is confirmed by another odd detail—“the strange shapes of his mismatched feet. One was three sizes bigger than the other” (18). This is Ravelstein as swell-foot—Oidi-pous. Bellow's novel thus begins by calling our attention to the simultaneously comic and tragic character of Abe Ravelstein. “You don't easily give a creature like Ravelstein to death” (233) for two reasons. Writing him up is clearly a celebratory act of love; at the same time, it makes visible a flaw so deep as to be paradigmatic of our humanity. Ravelstein is a big, attractive man with a big flaw. To understand the novel would be to unravel his comic tragedy.

Twice we are told by Chick that he will approach Ravelstein piecemeal (16, 37), and at first glance he seems as good as his word. His sketch seems to be a relatively unstructured series of loosely related impressions—Ravelstein in pieces. But by calling the last and shortest (214-33) of the novel's four divisions “one more brief vision,” Chick suggests that each of the other three (1-93, 94-159, 160-213) is meant to be taken as a unified vision with internal coherence. Ravelstein is a man of very specific pieces—pieces determined by his dominant loves—fine things, friends, and wisdom.

The unity of the first section of the novel is thus not surprisingly Ravelstein the “grandee in the new order of things” (29). He is the proud owner of a $20,000 watch and Lalique crystal; in Paris he stays in the luxury penthouse suite a floor above Michael Jackson at the Crillon and dines at superb restaurants; he throws pizza parties for his students to admire the surpassing excellence of Michael Jordan's game, orders a BMW as a gift for his lover, and possesses an extravagant sound system. Chick is generous with examples; their sum seems designed to convince us of Ravelstein's devotion to the fine—the kalon. “These days,” says Chick, alluding to one of Aristotle's virtues, “Ravelstein was a magnificent man” (29). The remark calls into question Chick's frequent celebration of his own ignorance of the great books and of the content of Ravelstein's thought. Jerusalem and Athens may not be his dish (15); nevertheless he makes liberal use of Aristotle and of the Nicomachean Ethics in particular. Ravelstein's magnificence shows up in his purchase of a $4,500 Lanvin jacket.

“What does this Lanvin jacket have that your twenty others haven't?” I wanted to say. But I knew perfectly well that in Abe's head there were all kinds of distinctions having to do with prodigality and illiberality, magnanimity and meanness. The attributes of the great-souled man.


Chick shrewdly sees that magnificence (megaloprepeia) is simply a preliminary version of greatness of soul (megalopsuchia). Both have to do with correctness in estimating worth—the former of things, the latter of oneself. But, as estimating one's own worth requires looking at oneself, willy-nilly it means looking at oneself from the outside—as an object of contemplation. Ravelstein's love of fine things is not really separable from his longing to fashion himself into a fine thing. The first part of the novel is thus devoted to Ravelstein's greatness of soul, the virtue that Aristotle says consists of being good and knowing it, so as to be able to take pleasure in one's own goodness. This kosmos or ornament of all the other virtues manifests itself in autonomy and a contempt for the ordinary. The great-souled man, says Aristotle, “wonders at nothing, for nothing is great to him” (1125a3). (In passing, one might wonder how this affects the stature of philosophy, which according to Aristotle must always originate in wonder.)

The first sentence of the second part of the book seems to point to its unifying principle: “A certain amount of documentation might be offered at this point to show what I was to Ravelstein and Ravelstein to me” (94), and a little later, “We were close friends—what else needs to be added?” (94). Ravelstein is a man devoted to his friends and to the idea of friendship. This second part of the book is filled with possible models for friendship: Chick and his wife Vela (“two solitudes” [103]); Chick and Vela's nominee for a replacement for Ravelstein. Radu Grielescu (“The fact was I enjoyed watching Grielescu. He had so many tics.”); Ravelstein and his lover Nikki (“in a special sense, family” [140]); Ravelstein and Morris Herbst (“friends for nearly half a century,” who “have so much to say to each other” but “had a few dirty jokes to tell each other first” [150-51]); the Battles, an aging married couple whom Ravelstein talks out of a joint suicide plan; but the friendship between Chick and Ravelstein looms largest—“he and I had become friends—deeply attached—and friendship would not have been possible if we hadn't spontaneously understood each other” (111). This mutual understanding presupposes a certain frankness: “You couldn't, as the intimate and friend of Ravelstein, avoid knowing a great deal more than you had an appetite for” (113), but not confidentiality, for “Ravelstein was crazy about gossip and his friends were given points for the racy items they brought. And it was not a good idea to assume that he would keep the lid on your confidences” (114). The principle of the friendship then is the naked truth (115); nothing is to be off limits. Chick characterizes this complete openness in an odd way:

[I]t was our sense of what was funny that brought us together, but that would have been a thin anemic way to put it. A joyful noise—immenso giubilo—an outsize joint agreement picked us up together, and it would get you nowhere to try to formulate it.


The friendship between Chick and Ravelstein is a sort of marriage (Vela actually accuses Chick of having an affair with Ravelstein [112], and Chick tacitly compares the two by indicating that whereas he and Ravelstein share the sense that everything is potentially funny, Vela finds nothing funny and laughs only when it is conventionally expected [218]). The two are as one in their sense that nothing is too sacred to be looked at and that most of what is held sacred is wonderfully absurd. “As a rule [they spoke] plainly to each other” (125). Ravelstein, for example, is openly critical of Chick's marriage to Vela and of his association with the Grielescus. Because death means “the pictures will stop,” and so life is the pictures—the surface of things in which one sees the heart of things (156)—the single thing to be held sacred is fidelity to the true character of the pictures. What Ravelstein so loved in Herbst's late wife Nehamah—“that she was pure and she was immovable”—is a version of what he loves in Chick. That “Nehamah not only refused to see the orthodox rabbi her mother had brought to her deathbed, but never spoke to her again” was for Ravelstein a sign that she was one of “the handful of human beings [who] have the imagination and the qualities of character to live by the true Eros” (144). That Chick does not make convenient concessions to the conventional in his thought even when it is hard on others and on himself is why Ravelstein enlists him to write him up after he dies: “I want you to show me as you see me, without softeners or sweeteners” (133).

Ravelstein's views of love and friendship are hard to distinguish.

The marriage of true minds seldom occurs. Love that bears it out even to the edge of doom is not a modern project. But there was, for Ravelstein, nothing to compete with this achievement of the soul.


[Ravelstein] thought—no, he saw—that every soul was looking for its peculiar other, longing for its complement. I'm not going to describe Eros, et cetera, as he saw it. I've done too much of that already: but there is a certain irreducible splendor about it without which we could not be quite human. Love is the highest function of our species—its vocation. This simply can't be set aside in considering Ravelstein. He never forgot this conviction. It figures in all his judgments.


The underlying principle of love here belongs not to Plato but to Plato's Aristophanes; it is love of one's own. But if you are to love your own, you must know what really belongs to you; you must know yourself. Accordingly, you must seek out another who will not spare you. Ravelstein and Chick share the same sense of what is funny because nothing is in principle excluded from what is funny. Trying to formulate the principle of their attachment would get you nowhere because the principle itself would not be in any sense final or sacred. In principle at least, the two share a fascination with all the pictures—beautiful and ugly.

This is connected to the principle underlying the third part of the novel, a principle at first glance hard to make out. Death is clearly important—this is the part of the book that is most specific about the details of Ravelstein's approaching death and contains as well the account of Chick's near-death experience. It is also the part of the book where their Jewishness is most prominent and where the central importance of Rosamund, Ravelstein's student and Chick's new wife, emerges. But what ties these things together?

Close to the beginning, Chick quotes something Rosamund remembers from her school days: “Associate with the noblest people you can find; read the best books; live with the mighty; but learn to be happy alone” (161). Chick more than once protests (not altogether convincingly) that it is his task to describe Ravelstein the person, that is, not his ideas. Now, to the extent that it is possible to describe a man who, although “he never presented himself as a philosopher, … had had a philosophical training and had learned how a philosophical life should be lived” (173) without speaking of his thought, the description would have to be of the act of thinking rather than its content. But the act of thinking, of being an observer apart from what is observed and sufficiently neutral to weigh its import, would be, as Aristotle suggests, autonomous. The contemplative life is essentially a life of isolation. Truly to think means to avoid wishful thinking—to look even at what is hardest to bear, the naked truth. Ravelstein accordingly prefers what he calls natural nihilists (Celine, for example) to intellectual nihilists, because “they don't tell themselves a lot of high-minded lies” but “accept nihilism as a condition and live in that condition”—they “live with their evils” (175).

The evil of evils that we cannot afford to conceal from ourselves is the attempt in the twentieth century to exterminate the Jews. Toward the end, Chick reports to Morris Herbst that Ravelstein talked constantly, mostly of Jewish things: “He talked about religion and the difficult project of being man in the fullest sense, of becoming man and nothing but man” (178). Herbst responds, “Well, of course he'll keep talking while there's a breath in his body left—and for him it's a top priority, because it's connected with the great evil” (178). These things go together—thinking and the existence of great evil. Chick interprets this to mean that

the war made it clear that almost everyone agreed that the Jews had no right to live. … Other people have some choice of options—their attention is solicited by this issue or that, and being besieged by issues they make their choices according to their inclinations. But for “the chosen” there is no choice. The Jews … were historically witnesses to the absence of redemption.


Ravelstein reflects on Judaism because to be a Jew at the end of the twentieth century is to have no choice but to live without the illusions engendered by one's inclinations—to acknowledge the ugly. The Jews are permanent outsiders—a solitary people; to reflect on Jewishness, then, is to reflect on solitude, and solitude is what the contemplative life looks like when it is emptied of ideas. Philosophy as the practice of dying and being dead means neutralizing one's conventional attachments, so as to be able really to look at the world. And this means to refuse “to sit on information simply because it's not intellectually respectable information” (188). One has to refuse to become like those wealthy vacationers—“people who [like] their reality to follow their thoughts” (189). Thought that follows reality will not simply recoil from the Holocaust or from cannibalism (193).

The first part of Ravelstein is about moral or political virtue—especially its culmination in greatness of soul. The second part is about friendship. The third is about philosophy. Chick's memoir of Abe Ravelstein thus imitates the structure of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, which provides three successive versions of the exemplary life: the life of moral virtue, the life devoted to friendship (that good without which no one would choose to live even having all the others), and the godlike autonomy of the contemplative life. Perhaps this imitation is intentional; perhaps it is simply the result of Bellow's deep reflection on the fault lines beneath even the very best of lives that determine the pieces into which they tend to break apart. In Bellow, as in Aristotle, these three pieces do not easily make a coherent whole; the best of lives threatens to be either a comic or a tragic impossibility.

Ravelstein's megalopsuchia proves rather comical, for it often borders on megalomania. When his neighbors from the floors above and below come to his door to complain because he is playing Rossini CDs at all hours at top volume on his $10,000 speakers, Abe says rather too smugly that “without music you couldn't swallow what life offered, and that it would do them good to submit and listen” (52). It never seems to occur to him that “these little bourgeois types” might rather choose on their own what they will listen to. It's hard to listen to Rossini and Mozart at the same time. And, of course, neither does it occur to him that one of them might be trying to think through a complicated problem in mathematics or perhaps even political philosophy. Chicago, it seems, is not big enough for two megalopsuchoi, who wonder at nothing and for whom nothing is great.

It is not always easy to distinguish Ravelstein's love of the fine from love of fashion. Part of him holds the idols of the cave in contempt; part of him is an idolater. So, on the one hand, he demands that his students break free from conventional family ties, and on the other, he proceeds to fashion them into a family—his “set.”

Ravelstein had produced (indoctrinated) three or four generations of students. Moreover, his young men were mad for him. They didn't limit themselves to his doctrines, his interpretations, but imitated his manners and tried to walk and talk as he did. …


And when he is bedridden just before his death, he is comforted when he sees those who have come to visit, “people with whom he was familiar, with whom he had affinities—something like relatives—the nearest thing to a family available” (158). He finds the Bloomsbury intellectuals snobbish and would condemn them as gossips were he himself not so fond of gossip. “When I do it,” says Ravelstein, referring to his willingness to reveal virtually any confidence, “it's not gossip, it's social history” (65). If Ravelstein's attachments are serious, on the basis of his own standards, they are too conventional; if they are ironic, then they are too self-forgiving. In either case they lack intellectual honesty. Loving life too much to be sufficiently hard on himself, he does not really approach the world with an open mind. He is insufficiently philosophic. The megalopsuchos takes pleasure in his own goodness, but, as he wonders at nothing, he has not sufficiently thought through the ground for his own high opinion of himself. He is a creature of the very conventionality that he holds in contempt.

On the other hand, neither is Ravelstein a solitary contemplative. Rosamund tells her husband, “He's far more sociable than you, Chick. He enjoys company” (152), and Ravelstein himself says, “Nature and solitude are poison” (154). To chide Chick for spending summers in New Hampshire, his “quiet green retreat where [he] think[s] and work[s]” (110), Ravelstein quotes Socrates in the Phaedrus on how the trees have nothing to teach him (100). Later he remarks on Chick's tendency to “check out the externals”: “You can count on nature doing what nature has been doing forever. Do you think you are going to rush in on Nature and grab off an insight?” (177). As a “political philosopher” (231), Ravelstein devotes “himself mainly to the two poles of human life—religion and government” (178); “he [has] little interest in natural life. Human beings absorbed him entirely” (142). This is certainly of a piece with philosophy that has been brought “down from the heavens and into the cities to treat the human things,” but only so long as the human things are understood to be the true objects of contemplation. That this is not quite what Ravelstein has in mind becomes clear in his criticism of Chick's attachment to nature: “Can you explain what Nature does for you—a Jewish city type?” (110). “For miles around you're the only Jew” (116). To be a Jew is to be a man of the city, and yet “on our own side of the Atlantic … as a Jew you are also an American, but somehow you are also not” (23).

Jerusalem and Athens are not Chick's dish, but in the end he cannot avoid them if he is to give an accurate report of Ravelstein. If Ravelstein “had to choose between Jerusalem and Athens[,] … he chose Athens” (173). Sight—theôria—trumps obedience. Ironically, being a Jew prepares one for Socratic philosophy; one knows as a birthright what it means to belong but also somehow not belong. Ironic detachment is the necessary condition for philosophy. And yet Ravelstein's Jewishness is more than the prolegomena to philosophy: “In his last days it was the Jews he wanted to talk about, not the Greeks” (173). Similarly, when Chick struggles to begin the memoir he promised to write, Rosamund tells him that he has been avoiding the most important problem—the Jewish question (167). In general and in particular this proves to mean that “it is impossible to get rid of one's origins, it is impossible not to remain a Jew” (179).

Accordingly, it is impossible to be simply or purely an observer. Ravelstein is a political philosopher with a certain contempt for the merely natural because mere nature is an illusion. In this regard he and Chick agree: “The grey net of abstraction covering the world in order to simplify and explain it in a way that served our cultural ends has become the world in our eyes”; what is needed is “a gift for reading reality—the impulse to put your loving face to it and press your hands against it” (203). Putting one's face to nature, then, means looking at human beings, or perhaps parrots.

Only once in the book does Ravelstein show any interest in nature. Encountering a flock of parrots—tropical birds that have escaped captivity and having adapted to Chicago winters live in nests that remind Chick of tenements—he says, “They even have a Jew look to them” (141-2, 169-70, 233). Only in their movement away from nature do beings become interesting to him. Of Ravelstein's “peculiar Jewish face,” Chick says, “You couldn't imagine an odder container for his odd intellect” (173). If it seems impossible to imagine a non-Jewish Ravelstein, is this not to say that the very thing that initially prepares him for the contemplative life ultimately guarantees its imperfect realization? Ravelstein loves company, but not simply for the sake of contemplation. Nikki is his heir.

We are told early on that Ravelstein wrote a “difficult but popular” book and that “it is no small thing to become rich and famous by saying exactly what you think” (4). In his way, Ravelstein combines political virtue and intellectual virtue; he is at once great-souled and contemplative. And yet, the two can exist neither separately nor together. The great-souled man is insufficiently attentive to the artificiality of the content of his love—too quick to dismiss mud, hair, and dung—to be really great-souled. The contemplative is insufficiently attentive to the fact of his own love—too quick to accept philosophy—to be really contemplative. Furthermore, even this pseudodetachment is at odds with the pseudograndeur of the great-souled. On the one hand, Ravelstein knows this; he never claims to be a philosopher, and his love of the kalon is deeply ironic. On the other hand, he represents the profound longing to put together these two halves of our humanity. As in Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, the problematic togetherness of these two is somehow represented by friendship.

If the conventionality of fame, of oneself as a phenomenon available to the world, is necessarily at odds with the naturalness of genuine thought, of oneself as a thing in itself, perhaps the limited audience of the friend can bridge the gap between the two. The friend is the other for whom one can be simply what one is—oneself. Although Chick is a little doubtful, from Ravelstein's point of view they are friends because “there's nothing I say to you that you don't immediately understand” (117), and even Chick himself says that “friendship would not have been possible if we hadn't spontaneously understood each other” (11). After Ravelstein's death, Chick “began to see that it had become [his] habit to tell him what had happened since we last met” (188). Yet, although it was their sense of what was funny that bound them together (118), “the fact that we laughed together didn't mean that we were laughing for the same reasons” (14). Chick sees that “the simplest of human beings is … esoteric and radically mysterious” (22), and the two agree that “when you destroy a human life you destroy an entire world—the world as it existed for that person” (156). The sign that these two souls are not altogether married is marriage. Twice Chick withholds information from Ravelstein—once about Vela and once about his intention to marry Rosamund.

I wasn't going to have Ravelstein vet Rosamund for me. I couldn't let him arrange my marriage as he did for his students. If he lacked all feeling for you, he didn't give a damn what you did. But if you were one of his friends it was a bad idea, he thought, for you to take things into your own hands. It troubled him greatly to be kept in the dark on any matter by his friends—especially by those he saw daily.



[H]e had been taken by surprise when he learned that in marrying Rosamund I had not bothered to consult him. I was willing to admit that he might know more about me than I myself knew, but I was not about to put myself in his custody and rely on him to run my life for me. It would also be unjust to Rosamund.


Of Vela, Ravelstein remarks,

You gave in—you tried to sell me a colored cutout of the woman like the cardboard personalities they used to hang in movie lobbies in the old days. You know, Chick, you sometimes say there's nothing you can't tell me. But you falsified the image of your ex-wife. You'll say that it was done for the sake of marriage but what kind of morality is that?


So the two are not perfectly one. And it is Ravelstein's own understanding of marriage that accounts for the incompleteness:

People are beaten at last with their solitary longings and intolerable isolation. They need the right, the missing portion to complete themselves, and since they can't realistically hope to find that they must accept a companionable substitute. Recognizing that they can't win, they settle.


More than he admits, Ravelstein's philosophical friendship with Chick, their “marriage of true minds,” is of this sort and therefore in tension with the other marriages of Chick, who is a “serial marrier.”

Out of friendship, Chick agrees to write a biography of Ravelstein. The task ought to be easy if they are true friends, for Chick should know Ravelstein inside out. But he cannot do it. When he comes close to dying himself, explicitly likens his disease to Ravelstein's (190, 224), and finally criticizes Ravelstein's understanding of love (the conviction that “figures in all his judgments” [140]), in coming to self-understanding Chick can finally give an account of Ravelstein. It is the difference between them that proves to make the difference. Rosamund, who “loved Ravelstein” and “was one of his great admirers” (41), who according to Ravelstein was “earnest, hard-working, had a good mind” but was disabled for philosophy because of a natural female longing for children, marriage, and the stability of family life (140), and about whom in the early days of their marriage Chick “discovered that, in having her way, she put [his] interests ahead of her own,” knows “far more about [love] than either her teacher [Ravelstein] or her husband” (231). Chick's life is saved by his wife, a woman totally devoted to him, on Thanksgiving—“a family day” (205).

Ravelstein, who “hated his own family and never tired of weaning his gifted students from their families” (50), for all his talk of Aristophanic eros, never quite acknowledges its hold over him. “Ravelstein urged his young men to rid themselves of their parents. But in the community that formed around him his role became, bit by bit, that of a father” (27). There is a certain self-ignorance about Ravelstein—he once says to his friend. “That's not my style, Chick, to lay down the law” (154)—that both enables his soul to long for the good in all its complexity and at the same time places him deeply at odds with himself. Friendship, which seems at first to offer the possibility of resolving the tension between the political and philosophical lives, in the end reflects this tension within itself in a dual demand—on the one hand, tyrannically dissolving another into oneself and on the other, selflessly dissolving oneself into another. In the end, Chick wants to say that the latter is the deeper, and that Abe Ravelstein was better for not having lived up to his own self-understanding.

Chick's “personal metaphysics,” to which he several times refers, has to do with acknowledging the hold that the world has on us despite our attempts to break free. Ravelstein's great virtue was that when you became set in your ways, seeing “nothing original, nothing new,” “he turned your face again toward the original. He forced you to reopen what you had closed” (180). But despite, or perhaps because of, this virtue, something remains closed in him. What qualifies Chick to write a memoir of Ravelstein is that his specialty is not “scientific speculation” but “ordinary daily particulars”—the phenomena and not the noumena or “things in themselves” (195). Ravelstein and Rosamund both chide him for too often getting lost in the details, but for Chick, God is quite literally in the details—“You couldn't study a Caribbean evening sky without thinking of God” (197).

What this means is that the phenomena have an unbreakable claim on us. After he has recovered, Chick has the following conversation with Rosamund:

“Why would it always be the worst things which appear to you so real? Sometimes I wonder if I'll ever be able to talk you out of being so sadistic to yourself.

“Yes,” I agreed. “It has a specific kind of satisfaction, the bad of it guarantees it as real experience. This is what we go through, and it's what existence is like. The brain is a mirror and reflects the world. Of course we see pictures, not the real things, but the pictures are dear to us, we come to love them even though we are aware of how distorting an organ the mirror-brain is.”


The painful seems more real, and so more valuable; it gives us the impression that only its reality could justify our love of this picture. If we mean by death that “the pictures stop,” and if the very act of picturing involves the love of the pictures, then to be alive is to love life. This is what Chick means when he says that despite our atheism, apparently the precondition for philosophy, it is a condition of having the pictures we love that we cannot imagine them stopping. Chick wonders whether anyone believes that the grave is all that there is since “no one can give up on the pictures.” When we are in our “atheist-materialist” mode, “we just talk tough” (122-3). This is the personal metaphysics that Ravelstein repeatedly attempted to wean him from. In the end, Chick places Rosamund above Ravelstein because she exemplifies it less grudgingly than their mutual teacher, who for all his talk of eros, in the end out of a will to have it all, proves to be insufficiently erotic.

A final word. It is by now obvious that I have yet to mention the name Allan Bloom. Of course, it is beyond question that Saul Bellow used Bloom as a model for Ravelstein. But, as I recollect, though a moderately big man, Bloom was nowhere near six and a half feet tall. Bellow seems to have consulted the pieces of the nature of the real Allan Bloom to paint his picture of Abe Ravelstein, in whom these pieces are exaggerated to tragic proportions. But even were this portrait meant to represent the admittedly larger-than-life Allan Bloom, it would be odd to find fault, for Bellow would have done his friend the honor of displaying in him the highest attributes of our humanity in the complexity of their relations with one another. Even if the pieces of Allan Bloom were at odds, that the pieces should be greatness of soul, the love of wisdom, and friendship is praise of a very high order and proof of why you do not easily give up a creature like Allan Bloom to death.


  1. Parenthetical page numbers refer to Saul Bellow, Ravelstein (New York: Viking Press, 2000).

  2. Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics 1123b6.

Algis Valiunas (essay date September 2003)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4003

SOURCE: Valiunas, Algis. “Bellow's Progress.” Commentary 116, no. 2 (September 2003): 51-5.

[In the following essay, Valiunas traces Bellow's development as an author through his first three novels—Dangling Man, The Victim, and The Adventures of Augie March—placing Augie March within the context of mid-twentieth-century American culture.]

On the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of The Adventures of Augie March, the Library of America has made Saul Bellow the first living novelist to be admitted to its literary pantheon. The anniversary volume includes not only that breakthrough 1953 work but the two lesser known novels that preceded it, Dangling Man (1944) and The Victim (1947). It thus offers a fitting occasion to ask how he got here from there.

Bellow has not exactly disowned his two earliest novels, but he has made it clear that they were apprentice efforts, and that only with Augie March did he begin to command the voice for which he is renowned. The difference between the first two and the third stems in part from his evolving attitude toward his own Jewishness. In his 2000 biography of the novelist, James Atlas records that during his senior year at Northwestern University, Bellow had sought career guidance from the English-department chairman, and was told to forget about trying to make a profession in the field: “You weren't born to it.” Although other intellectual disciplines might be suitable for Jews to pursue, English literature was the preserve of those who had some native claim to it.

Evidently, the encounter helped spur the young Bellow to demonstrate his ability to wield the language as deftly as anyone going, and the result was an early prose style chiseled to “a Flaubertian standard.” Only after he had proved his mastery of the high literary mode could he begin to write in his own distinctive idiom.

This is not to say that Dangling Man and The Victim are mere training exercises. If the Bellow style had yet to acquire its racy comic ease, the Bellow mind—the most formidable intelligence since Melville's to turn its attention to writing American novels—was already engaged. From the opening paragraph of Dangling Man, the reader is in the presence of a voice that claims the authority of irrepressible feeling and penetrating thought.

Bellow's protagonist, Joseph—he appears without surname and without even an identifying initial—is keeping a journal while waiting for the military bureaucracy to approve his induction into the wartime army. His wife, Iva, has taken over the role of breadwinner, giving him the leisure to pursue his solitary mental life. Thus dangling between peace and war, Joseph kicks around Bellow's Chicago, which already in this first work has the novelist's trademark on it: a Hyde Park rooming-house with a skulking alcoholic neighbor who flings his empties out the window and declines to shut the door when using the communal toilet; a beanery that used to hum with high-minded talk but now is dismally quiet; the house of a prosperous sibling whose fancy trappings reproach Joseph for his unworldly fecklessness even as they incite him to open disdain; the apartment of a kittenish young woman up the street who sets Joseph's blood to boil; a butterfly he spies on a March day, “out of place both in the season and the heart of the city, and somehow alien to the whole condition of the century.”

Even though Joseph will soon enough join the faceless millions in uniform whose sole thought is to avoid being pierced, splintered, or blown up, he refuses to be deterred from the essential concern of his life: “I must know what I myself am.” The political life, the life of the citizen who takes part in the general tumult of his time and place, he sees as unspeakable irrelevance. Nor has the war with all its mass horror changed the essential terms of the human arrangement: death has always been there, waiting for everyone. Real life is still to be had strictly on terms the individual sets for himself.

In the end, inevitably, there is an explosion. A confrontation with an officious bank employee leads to a bitter argument with Iva, a tirade against Joseph's drunken neighbor, and a narrowly averted brawl with his landlord, a retired army captain. Giving up, Joseph enlists. “Perhaps the war could teach me, by violence, what I had been unable to learn during those months in the room.”

If in such sentiments the deep thinker seems preposterously obtuse, speaking of war as if it were some especially challenging post-graduate tutorial, arranged for his benefit, Joseph's sense of what is at stake, Bellow suggests, is not entirely fatuous: the freedom to follow one's thoughts wherever they lead, to become whatever one wishes, is not negligible, and might just be the essential thing. It might even be the thing the war itself is ultimately about. Welcoming his submission to the hard rule of a mass life confronting mass death, Joseph celebrates with ironic zest: “Long live regimentation!” At least his wearisome dangling days are over.

Joseph is an early prototype of a whole succession of big-time reasoners in Bellow's work (the best known of whom is surely the eponymous hero of the 1964 Herzog), each of them destined to find out the hard way what true seriousness means. In The Victim, Bellow introduced a different but no less characteristic theme: the lurking menace of the city—New York, in this case—where the individual is threatened by the overwhelming human multitude, and associates from business acquaintances to blood brothers can turn mortal enemies.

Dominating the moral landscape of The Victim is the barrier between Jew and Gentile, so knife-edged in Bellow's rendering circa 1947 as to be all but unthinkable today. Asa Leventhal, an editor at a Manhattan trade magazine, finds himself hounded by the hard-drinking down-and-out Kirby Allbee, who emerges like an avenging apparition from an evening crowd and proceeds to blame Leventhal for all that has gone wrong with his life.

In an incident that Leventhal can barely remember, Allbee claims to have gone out of his way to set up a job interview that Leventhal botched so badly as to get himself thrown out by Allbee's boss and, not long afterward, Allbee himself fired, punished for Leventhal's churlish behavior. Worse, Allbee is sure that Leventhal went into the interview with the express intention of disgracing him for having drunk too much at a party and launched into a harangue on the perfidiousness of Jews. Even now Allbee cannot stop talking about the Jews, not even when the conscience-stricken Leventhal, troubled by the thought that he may inadvertently have caused Allbee's skid into alcoholism and poverty, takes the poor slob into his home and tries to help him back on his feet.

This bizarre pas de deux takes place against the backdrop of a teeming urban life, conjured up in the novel's superb opening lines. (It begins: “On some nights New York is as hot as Bangkok.”) For a man like Leventhal, accustomed to a steady round and intent on keeping his feet in the roiling city, it is radically disorienting to have to imagine his way into the lives of other human beings, especially “the lost, the outcast, the overcome, the effaced, the ruined.” Yet just when he is about to dismiss Allbee's hectoring importunity, he has a vision of the Gentile's descent from a comfortable existence not unlike his own, and is washed by fellow feeling. At one point, Allbee launches into a loony gloss on the New Testament injunction to love your neighbor as yourself. This, indeed, is Bellow's motif in The Victim, as well as the exacting yardstick by which he measures his characters. But he understands all too well that there is such a thing as an excess of compassion, and that it can sink you.

Behind the madcap story looms the Holocaust. Bellow mentions it but once, when Allbee taunts Leventhal with the Jews' alleged reputation for timid prudence, for staying out of the way of trouble; Leventhal replies, heartsick and angered, “Millions of us have been killed. What about that?” The unanswered question rings in the mind like the distant blows of a hammer, only to strike again when, years later, Leventhal encounters Allbee for a final time. They meet in a crowded theater. Elegantly dressed, Allbee has on his arm a well-known actress, past her prime but still beautiful. He has reached an accord, he tells Leventhal, with the powers that run things, and is no longer angry at the world. As he hurries back into the theater, Leventhal calls after him, “Wait a minute, what's your idea of who runs things?”

Allbee has gotten over his suffering; the victim has found another victim, and has come to terms with those mysterious governing powers. He knows his place among the millions. Leventhal, tormented by the particular six million, is unwilling to make his peace. There is no doubt who Bellow intends us to think is the better man, even if the lesser man has the wisdom of the world on his side, and will clearly have the easier time of it.

And then came The Adventures of Augie March, the book in which Bellow at last set himself squarely against the accommodating wisdom of the world even as he presented that world more enticingly than ever before. The novel shows Bellow in an altogether venturesome mode. Taking traditional literary vessels—Romantic autobiography and the Bildungsroman as worked by Rousseau, Goethe, Flaubert, and Tolstoy—he filled them to the brim with rumbustious life from the old neighborhood of Chicago's Jewish west side, then poured and poured until they overflowed with reclusive millionaires, wacky scientists, Trotskyists, union goons, clueless highbrows, daring hobos, rich girls with schemes for a vivid life, poor girls with schemes for getting rich, and other American types from sea to shining sea.

In language, style, and vision, Augie March is at once unabashedly Jewish and wholly American; it is impossible to say where the one leaves off and the other begins. The novel opens, famously, with “I am an American, Chicago born,” and closes with Augie's declaration that he is “a sort of Columbus of those near-at-hand.” Through Augie, Bellow intended nothing less than to reveal the thrilling vastness of the nation to Americans themselves, who may never have suspected the richness of its underbelly existence, or who had turned away from it in distaste and horror.

Unlike Joseph in Dangling Man, Augie embraces the freedom to recoil from the life that others are living—as well as from their efforts to get him to join them—and to make himself what he wants to be. True, since he has an agreeable disposition, he does allow himself to be talked into all sorts of things; but he is at heart an oppositionist who will not lop off some essential part of his nature to fit someone else's idea of what he ought to be.

Augie will need that refractory stubbornness, because almost everyone does know what is best for him. Grandma Lausch, the old harridan who boards with the Marches—Augie, his mother, and his two brothers, one an idiot, their father having skipped out long ago—exercises a sour tutelage over the boys, schooling them in the caginess and outright flim-flam required for urban survival. The Renlings, purveyors of gilt-edged sporting goods to the nobs in the North Shore suburbs, hire the young Augie to work in their store and proceed to “glamorize” him, dressing him up, paying for his riding lessons, insisting he take night courses at Northwestern, wiping out any hint of his unseemly provenance. When he bolts for Einhorn's poolroom, the toughs there sing the delights of the criminal life; Augie tags along until Einhorn himself, a crippled neighborhood magnate, warns him of the grief he is letting himself in for. Soon he becomes sidekick to a would-be smuggler of human cargo from Canada; when the smuggler gets caught, Augie has to hop freights from Buffalo back to Chicago and endure a beating from his brother Simon. Then he takes to stealing books for an intellectual clientele and winds up reading them himself, creating a serious cash-flow problem but transforming his life.

If criminality is not Augie's dish, reading discloses a world of spiritual possibility. The results make themselves felt in his prose style, flecked with allusions to the titans of mind and action alike. Socrates and Alcibiades become as real to him as the bagmen and scroungers he grew up among:

If you want to pick your own ideal creature in the mirror coastal air and sharp leaves of ancient perfection and be at home where a great mankind was at home, I've never seen any reason why not. Though unable to go along one hundred percent with a man like the Rev. Beecher telling his congregation, “Ye are Gods, you are crystalline, your faces are radiant!” I'm not an optimist of that degree, from the actual faces, congregated or separate, that I've seen.

Being an American, Augie figures out, even one from the dirt-end of town, enables one to be a Greek sage or warrior, or to cultivate any other strain one happens to share with one's distinguished predecessors.

While still in the process of writing Augie March, Bellow referred to it as a study of “the Machiavellian dialectic in American society.” By Machiavellianism he meant something more than the common notion of ruthless skullduggery—though that was part of it. In The Prince, Machiavelli had undertaken to liberate mankind—Bellow once called this “the biggest jailbreak ever”—from the confining morality of the Bible and classical moral philosophy. Whereas Moses and Plato and Jesus and Aristotle held men back from pursuing their “natural and ordinary desire to acquire” wealth, power, renown, or sexual pleasure, Machiavelli told them to grab all they wanted of whatever they wanted in the only life they were ever going to have. In a letter to his editor, Bellow said that “the greatest Machiavellian of them all” in his novel-in-progress was Augie's brother Simon, who wants to shine with distinction, to stand apart from the crowd, and to savor all the perquisites attending such a position.

As a boy, indeed, Simon considers himself fashioned for a rare and noble fate—for “What did Danton lose his head for, or why was there a Napoleon, if it wasn't to make a nobility of us all?” In time, however, his ambition decays into crassness. Simon works like a dog, ever angling for the main chance. When he marries into a rich family, he coaxes Augie into following his example. At first Augie obliges: he woos Simon's wife's cousin, curries favor with her elders, labors in Simon's coalyard. But the deal is inevitably queered, the family romance is off, and the brothers part ways, Simon to chase money and skirt, Augie to discover “the axial lines of life” where energy, nobility, and love converge, and where he will at last meet a fate good enough for him.

Augie March's life is anything but an august march, a ceremonious processional. It is a wild career. But it proves to be the life he wants, and his triumph at the end represents Bellow's imagination at its most joyous and avid. Augie does become nothing more or less than himself, and in so doing makes the reader want to hug America, and Bellow too.

In fact, many readers did just that. The critical reception of Augie March was a nearly unanimous whoop and halloo of delight—Delmore Schwartz in Partisan Review thought the novel better than The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Lionel Trilling wrote to Bellow's editor that “it's Saul's gift to see life everywhere,” and the novel won the National Book Award. But there were some dissenters. The English author V. S. Pritchett lamented Bellow's “self-intoxicating style,” while, closer to home, Norman Podhoretz, despite words of praise for the novelist's premonition of “what a real American idiom might look like,” had similar reservations: “The feeling conveyed by Mr. Bellow's exuberance is an overwhelming impulse to get in as many adjectives and details as possible, regardless of consideration of rhythm, modulation, or, for that matter, meaning.” As for Augie himself, Podhoretz dismissed him as a cartoon character who comes up grinning preposterously after being pancaked by anvil after falling anvil.

There is something to this. Augie March does occasionally verge on an overload of oddball rhetorical inventiveness, of descriptive coloration, of picaresque incident. But, to my mind, if Bellow errs on the side of richness, he does so in the manner of a picture by Hogarth. Augie is something like a naturalistic novel, but its naturalism has been given a comic soaking in rainbow dyes—as if Theodore Dreiser and Stephen Crane had fallen under the influence of Rabelais, another writer who loved to pile up words in fantastic heaps and who thereby honored language as evidence of a bountiful Creation. If I were pressed to name the one serious disappointment of Bellow's book, it would not be the language, or the portrait of Augie, but rather the portrait of the woman he marries, the dimly conceived Stella, scarcely more real than her namesake in Jacques Offenbach's opera The Tales of Hoffmann. Amid so much success, it is a forgivable flaw.

Bellow trumpeted, not without justice, the pleasure he had taken in writing Augie March, which spilled out of him in an exhilarating spontaneous gusher: all he had to do, he declared, was to stand there with buckets to catch it. But what happens to America when everyone, following Augie's example, just wants to be himself?

The ascent to pre-eminence in American culture of the superb spontaneous self was hardly Bellow's doing alone. In the 1940's, “third-force” psychologists—that is, neither Freudian nor behaviorist—were preaching the salutary release of hitherto suppressed vital energies, which would swell gloriously if only one lived in accordance with his true self. Carl Rogers, spearhead of the human-potential movement, insisted that previous psychotherapy had been wrong to focus on curing neurosis and promoting tiresome normality; the real task was to “assist the individual to grow,” in whatever direction gave him the most pleasure. Abraham Maslow plugged the wonders of “self-actualization,” of becoming “fully human.” A more sober student, the Harvard sociologist David Riesman, distinguished in The Lonely Crowd between the other-directed man, who wants what “the crowd” wants, from the inner-directed man, who lives according to his own lights. And then there was Wilhelm Reich, who pronounced the ultimate goal of all human striving to be the orgasm of primordial shattering intensity, which only a paltry few had ever known. While writing Augie March, Bellow had sought the benefits of Reichian therapy, and even kept his own orgone accumulator, a box that was large enough for a man to sit in and that gathered life-giving emanations from the erotically juicy atmosphere.

Other serious artists likewise found in the new expressive freedom a means of discovering their brilliant singularity. The poet John Berryman, a friend of Bellow's who praised Augie March in the New York Times Book Review, went from composing a very proper sonnet cycle in the late 1940's to pouring out The Dream Songs in the 1960's, immersed in the bottomless personal sorrow of his alcoholism while devising a variegated diction and many-angled syntax that took in solemn thought, passionate rant, fierce keening, and monkeyshines. Robert Lowell followed a similar track, from the imposing turgidity of the early collections Lord Weary's Castle and The Mills of the Kavanaughs to the casual, free-flowing frankness about his own manic-depression and marital woes that began with Life Studies and For the Union Dead. Perhaps the two finest poets of their generation, Berryman and Lowell came to write about their own naked lives in a language distinctively American, and clearly their own.

For still others, though, the new freedom meant license to scrawl and spew. Jackson Pollock spattered paint with the formal mastery of a happy drunk urinating in the snow—which did not stop anyone from hailing him as our foremost painter. Allen Ginsberg cultivated a demonstrative homosexuality and a no less demonstrative affinity for drugs; Jack Kerouac boasted that he had written the novel On the Road (1957) in three weeks. Pollock, Ginsberg, and Kerouac had their myriad epigoni and worshipers, confirming the judgment of the hipster writer Hunter S. Thompson that when the going gets weird, the weird turn pro; Thompson might have added that they take over the business, and make out like bandits.

Bellow himself came to view the culture he had unwittingly helped to unleash with mounting fear and loathing. Although Henderson the Rain King (1959)—the tale of a much-battered Connecticut millionaire who heads off to Africa in quest of primal adventure and wisdom—continues to partake of the spiritual ebullience of Augie March, a decade later Bellow had turned grim with disgust. Artur Sammler, the hero of Mr. Sammler's Planet (1970), is a Holocaust survivor living in New York who casts a cold eye—his other was blinded by a Nazi rifle butt—upon the current rage for noble savagery: “Millions of civilized people wanted oceanic, boundless, primitive, neckfree nobility, experienced a strange release of galloping impulses, and acquired the peculiar aim of sexual niggerhood for everyone.” The cult of noble energy, in which a solid man like Augie could find his spiritual destiny, had been overrun by hellbent barbarian hordes.

It is Artur Sammler himself who is the noble figure in this new world; in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. Sammler's austerity, refinement, sadness, and composure, polar opposites to Augie's ease, eagerness, brio, and affability, are the necessary stays against encroaching chaos and nihilism. This message, in 1970, did not go down well. The reception of Sammler, Bellow's second masterpiece, was tepid to hostile—too many in the literary world approved of even if they did not actually participate in the cult of the unencumbered self—and Bellow's stock promptly fell.

He soldiered on, assuming the Samuel Johnson role of defender of civilization. There would be no more exuberant Augies in the Bellow oeuvre. But the loss began to be felt: as his heroes came to resemble more and more nearly Bellow himself, his fiction grew increasingly abstract, as though he had lost interest in life except for the argument he was conducting against the despoilers of civilization.

The despoilers were, and are, real enough. The Dean's December (1982) measures the barbarism of Chicago, where thugs from the black underclass run a virtual terror regime beyond the reach of justice, against that of Ceaucescu's Romania, and does not find Chicago wanting. In More Die of Heartbreak (1987), the heroic botanist Ben Crader, who sees deeply into the ways of nature, speculates that AIDS might well be condign punishment for the behavior that is its precursor, a literal plague responding to the moral plague of diabolical sexuality.

Not until his most recently published novel, Ravelstein (2000), did Bellow relax the severity of his judgment. The narrator, Chick, reveres his friend Abe Ravelstein not only as a brilliant scholar and teacher but as a man in possession of a rare beauty of mind and heart, despite Ravelstein's inability to master his fevered sexuality (he is a ravenous homosexual who has been struck down by AIDS). Ravelstein is altogether Bellow's most complicated moral portrait, a wintry summation of a lifelong effort to capture in fiction everything it means fully to realize your own nature. For a moralist disillusioned with the unforeseen consequences of his most successful early work, this final twist of the screw is a remarkable achievement—and, I think, an enduring one. In the end, Bellow's tender, unquenchable, inconsolable love for the singular being who carves out his destiny, even if it is lightning-scarred and bound to shatter, even if it comes conjoined with lethal moral failure, may be the reason his work will be read and reread long after the imperial selves of our time have been justly forgotten.


Bellow, Saul (Vol. 2)


Bellow, Saul (Vol. 25)