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Tuesday, March 25, 2014

bellow and sammler

“For his part, Max Horkheimer was careful to avoid any overt expressions of his political convictions, which might have jeopardized the support of his father or the trust of his professors. Horkheimer had learned long before to cultivate a rich interiority in which he could safely pursue his genuine concerns.”
How I wish that I had learned to cultivate a rich interiority! Instead, I’m a blabbermouth – my interiority is always dribbling out of me, which is a nasty and embarrassing habit. I was not destined to be one of the sleek ones in this world, an escaper of nets, an elegant coder of elegies, rubbing the right elbows.
Novelists are generally of the blabbermouth kind. Their rich interiority is for show. But what a triumph if they can convey the Horkheimer type – a man whose actions are carefully calculated not to land him in the hot water that his opinions would surely make for him. The faucet, to continue with that hot water commonplace, is not turned to on, save on rare occassions. Silence, cunning exile – such were Stephen Daedalus’s vows, although he was too much the student, too much the Hamlet manque, not to indulge himself in the right company.
I’ve been reading Bellow’s Mr. Sammler’s Planet, lately, and thinking about the paradox that this is at once a book loaded with sexism and racism, full of neo-con turns (when they were still young), and yet quite an amazing novel – even for a person like me whose entire belief system falls under what Stanley Crouch, Bellow’s friend, called the “degeneracy” of American life. Crouch is writing about the sixties, and there’s a pretty heavy paradox riding on his phrase, since of course if America was degenerating in the sixties, then it must have been hale and healthy before the sixties, in the era of Jim Crow apartheid. Crouch was selected to write the intro to a recent edition of Mr. Sammler’s Planet under some obvious publisher’s equation – a black writer introducing the novel could ameliorate phrases like:
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.”
Bellow had become a George Wallace Democrat in the late sixties; “sexual niggerhood” is not some poetic phrase that only a literalist or leftist would interpret as bigoted in the slightest. Causuistry of that kind diminishes Bellow rather than defends him.
But the thing that Crouch’s introduction gets wrong (as does so many other reviews and essays about this novel) is the casual exchange of Bellow for his character, Mr. Sammler. Whether Sammler is endowed with Bellow’s opinions or not, as a successfully realized fiction, those opinions undergo an essential change when put in Sammler’s mind. For it is not the case that a rich interiority can resist or remain uninfluenced by the material circumstances of the experience that circumscribes it. If the book were merely the opinions of a rich celebrity on the sexual depravity of women and African Americans, the book would be forgotten – it would be like one of the numerous conservative screeds so regularly published by Saul Bellow’s son, Adam, for the Free Press. Who can tell one Glenn Beck book from another?
There’s a moment in Mr. Sammler’s Planet where Sammler says about Ulysses that it is entirely in medias res – and this is what I think Bellow was up to here. Instead of a scion of Central Europe in Dublin – Bloom – we have a scion of Central Europe, a survivor of the Nazi death squads, in New York in the sixties. Sammler, with his nobility and his bigotries, his rich interiority and his doubts of its worth in the face of what he knows from his horrendous exterior experience, transcends Bellow’s opinions and lives through Bellow’s real talent.
It is difficult to describe how a novel that is so opinionated is, at the same time, so free of its opinions. I am tempted to seize on Bakhtin’s idea of dialoguism as a sort of spar to save me from a sea of contradictions. It is, on the other hand, rather odd that the book can be described as dialogic when the text is so monologic – so centered on Sammler’s meditiations and description of the world of Manhattan. What dialogic means is that there is an interplay of points of view, and that this interplay is essential to these points of view – it is not accidental to them, they are not pre-formed before the interplay. This is harder to grasp in that my language seems to undercut me, insisting  on making the phrase “point of view” into something hard and isolate, a substance – rather than an aspect, an unfinished moment. But this is what makes a novel, or at least a novel that is still visibly connected to high modernism, work. And it is why Crouch, or Irving Howe (in his review of the book) or James Atlas (in his smarmy biography of Bellow) or maybe even, at times, Bellow himself are so mistaken to transpose Bellow and Sammler. This isn’t to say that Bellow doesn’t breath down his elderly deathsquad survivor’s neck – for instance, there is clearly a contradiction between Mr. Sammler’s often acute visual description of things and the fact that one of his eyes has been knocked out by a blow from a riflebutt in Poland in 1940. I can’t believe that Bellow didn’t experiment (as anybody would) by closing one eye and walking down the sidewalk, which would have at least given him a glimmer of the way in which a one-eyed man would see the world. Sometimes Sammler truly is one eyed, sometimes the fiction breaks down. And this is similarly true with the thoughts that are mulled in his rich interiority. One feels the engineering hand at certain points.     


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