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Masthead Logo The Iowa Review Volume 10 Article 2 Issue 4 Fall
1979 Strange Things, Savage Things: Saul Bellow's Hidden Theme Keith M. Opdahl
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Recommended Citation Opdahl, Keith M.. "Strange Things, Savage Things: Saul Bellow's Hidden Theme." The Iowa Review 10.4 (1979): 1-15. Web. Available at: https://doi.org/10.17077/0021-065X.2512
This Contents is brought to you for free and open access by Iowa Research Online. It has been accepted for inclusion in The oI wa Review by an authorized administrator of Iowa Research Online. For more information, please contact [email protected] "Strange Things, Savage Things": Saul Bellow's Hidden Theme Keith M. Opdahl
sum from among the words that might up Saul Bellow in the way that or "The South" does William Faulkner "courage*' does Ernest Hemingway, we Iwould choose "sensuality''?surprisingly, I admit, since seldom think of treats sex Bellow in this light. Bellow with neither the explicitness of John Updike nor the mysticism of Norman Mailer. His protagonist struggles not to to over or sex get the girl but get her away from her. Because is something on Bellow's women impose the men?I think of Stella tempting Augie in The a Adventures of Augie March or Ramona in Herzog entertaining distracted and a resentful Moses?the Bellow protagonist is really something of prude. mere use If the existence of this theme is striking, however, Bellow's of it to are even more so. and the degree which it has shaped his work By "sensual" Imean that area of life that encompasses both intense sensation and sexuality, terms the first somehow becoming the second. And in these the sensual in not a matter Bellow's work is of human relations (a subject explored by nor Victoria Sullivan) of sexual hygiene (see Robert Boyer's "Attitudes toward a matter Sex in American 'High Culture' "), but of setting and metaphysics. Sex is everywhere and nowhere; it permeates Bellow's imaginative world with an overwhelming presence and yet is seldom remarked by the protagonist. In a sense are same character the very real Bellow's protagonists all the and suffer same are so predicament: they victims of the forces that lie behind sexuality, women to that the anger of their is nothing compared the threat that lies just beyond the vision?the threat of an immense and angry force to which sexuality belongs. Bellow uses in to define our in the universe. To his sex, short, place most the sensual exists on a continuum with the imagination, interestingly, so energies that drive the universe and is related to them: the sensual may hint at what we dramatize at times our which we are, may creaturely existence, must to be central fact Bellow makes concrete in his master accept healthy?a us our ly evocation of faces and bodies?and may at other times remind of or sees as a perishable physical being, which the mind the spirit cosmic to our man putdowrr, the dying animal which consciousness is tied. Is really an so a accident of nature? Bellow doesn't think for minute, and the special sex a potential in for tenderness and force, love and exploitation makes it litmus test of reality. a And what kind of evidence exists for such reading? The best evidence lies as we to in the structuralist approach, seek the central tale which Bellow new a returns, dressing old bones in clothes. Sensuality provides remarkably coherent explanation of the evolution of Bellow's fiction. But Bellow's imag
University of Iowa is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve, and extend access to The Iowa Review ® www.jstor.org embodies this theme as and so too when we them do the ery well, plumb motives of his characters. To seek evidence for this theme is soon to suffer an a embarrassment of riches, for Bellow has hidden his theme in peculiar way, as to or more to though he sought be found out, perhaps accurately hoped hide our it, like Poe's Purloined Letter, in the foreground of vision. Bellow dismiss es so the sensual in his work by making it central, and he does not because or a he thinks it irrelevant is himself prude, but because of the metaphys ics?the ambitious his view. To examine the theme of sensu metaphysics?of to career a ality in Bellow's work is realize that his has been shaped by one fascinating and ambitious attempt to solve by means of his imagination most our of the hoariest and vexing of philosophic problems.
Like just about everything else in this world, Bellow's fiction could be given a a Freudian interpretation. Each of his protagonists suffers from problem that makes sex one of the novels' centers. I don't mean a Masters and kind Johnson at a more or of disability, though Herzog hints one, but general emotional intellectual anxiety expressed indirectly. All the protagonists suffer some sort a of sensual guilt, for example: Joseph of Dangling Man remembers boyhood fear that he contained "something rotten," and sexuality makes Asa Leventhal in The Victim extremely nervous. The protagonist of Henderson the Rain King women begins his narrative by discussing the he has abused, and Herzog has a reaction to strong sexual abuse?his face gets hot and his breath becomes as troubled well it might since he's recently discovered he's been cuckolded. Bellow's fiction is also Freudian in the way it plays off male against female. woman a Again and again, the is replaced in the protagonist's life by male, a and particularly by father figure. Leventhal has lost his wife Mary for a a summer, leaving gap Allbee fills. Tommy Wilhelm has put women behind him to seek a father, while Henderson flees his wife for the African Prince women a Dahfu. In Mr. Sammler's Planet the compete with dying man for Sammler 's attention. Charles Citrine must in Humboldt's Gift learn to shut out as the world?defined in part his sexy girlfriend?and Joseph in Bellow's first novel is left alone all day by his working wife, which encourages the visit of a dubious male.
Bellow's women are most in their absence then: the "present" protagonist so a often feels childishly abandoned, and seeks not much lover as a parent, a especially father who will love and express confidence in him, sending him a sense as forth with of his worth. In this Bellow's fiction is presexual, the a protagonist seeks the personal strength that would make sexual relationship But then the father also awakens certain intense possible. figure emotions, for
2 many of the novels find their climax in the violent death of the father figure, a resented or mixed currents of affection and suggesting sensuality perhaps, hostility. Such patterns reveal depths that may be troubled, particularly since the so avert a protagonists obviously their eyes. They live in world charged with a onto sexuality they don't dare recognize, perhaps because they project it the on as world. Joseph of Dangling Man (1944) comments everything but sex, his to long wait for the draft inWorld War II gives rise thoughts of determinism and death. And yet he describes few scenes that don't have a sexual tinge?a are a party in which tipsy women hypnotized and insulted; family dinner in a an which Joseph spanks his nubile niece; series of dreams in which "ancient on figure"?pushy, ingratiating, repulsive?kisses Joseph the lips. Joseph is in fact a fastidious young man, and his growing bad temper, which finally makes as as him volunteer for the army, providing the novel's plot, derives much an anything from his rejection of unclean world. "I go in the body from to to nakedness clothing and in the mind from relative purity pollution," he as says of his daily rising. The pollution ismalice, but it is also sexuality, Joseph describes almost in sexual terms. mother-in-law everything Joseph's "powders are herself thickly, and her lips painted in the shape that has become the awoman universal device of sensuality for all women." A lamp post is bending over a to curb. Joseph spanks his niece "with her long hair reaching nearly the floor and her round, nubile thighs bare." Is Bellow aware of this theme? I suspect not, at least in this first novel. For an when Joseph visits the sensual Kitty, with whom he'd had adulterous affair, and finds her with another man, he shuts it from his thoughts, feeling rather a sense of the world's uncleanliness as he returns home in a streetcar general a . . . a a filled with "a young soldier and girl both drunk," and women in short of the conductor out on skirt, whom, Joseph says, remarked^'she's business,' a to showing his yellow teeth in smile." On his way Kitty's he had imagined a the city to be "swamp where death waited in the thickened water, his lizard jaws open." a Students of Bellow's work will recognize connection between Joseph's dreams, moreover, and the homosexual rape described in Herzog. In Dangling an at Man Joseph dreams of himself in alley dusk: set to Suddenly I heard another of footsteps added mine, heavier one even and grittier, and my premonitions leaped into fear before I felt a touch on my back and turned. Then that swollen face that came rapidly toward mine until I felt its bristles and the cold me on a pressure of its nose; the lips kissed the temple with laugh a and groan. Blindly I ran, hearing again the gritting boots. The roused dogs behind the snaggled boards of the fences abandoned to themselves the wildest rage of barking. I ran, stumbling through drifts of ashes, into the street.
3 as a An almost identical event in Herzog is described homosexual rape, in is which the young Moses, in an alley at dusk before snarling dogs, attacked an this red from behind by unshaved stranger. "And between the boy's thighs it out skinless horrible thing passed back and forth, back and forth, until burst recounts an actual foaming." Is it possible that Bellow here experience, perhaps as as mortar is said to be traumatic Hemingway's famous wounds? Bellow more than is but he much autobiographical in his fiction generally thought, of is also capable of using the experiences and psychologies friends?Augie March and Mr. Sammler's Planet both grew out of the experiences of others. But occasion is to Bellow's either the important understanding imagination way, is wounded for if it is not autobiographical (and Bellow's protagonist every use bit as much as Hemingway's), Bellow's of it in such graphic, terrorized terms in novels twenty years apart is even more telling: first and last, Bellow sex is absorbed by the combination of impersonal and violence. Few first novelists are in control of their material, and the young Saul Bellow was no exception. Much of the strength of his second novel, The Victim, to so however, derives from his successful struggle control his theme, that the Man. The novel published three years later is light years beyond Dangling is more and the theme of the material consciously sexual, sensuality shapes as an in character plot, oppressively rich and colorful world is personified the of Kirby Allbee?"all being"?who encroaches upon the protagonist's life. too That protagonist, Asa Leventhal, is all vulnerable because of his loneliness over not to (his wife is visiting her mother) and his guilt his nephew's death, not scares to mention the job he fears he does deserve. Sensation him death, so that as Allbee creeps ever closer to him, reading his mail, touching his hair, a oven to taking whore in his bed and finally using his attempt suicide, he feels himself drowning in the physical world. Allbee's promiscuous and unstable a as physical presence makes The Victim parable of the flesh, though he person summer. on ified the oppressively hot As he closes in Asa, his charges of seem to injustice (he claims Asa cost him his job years before) pale compared the physical assault. I don't think we've realized how painful the protagonist finds simple physi cal sensation. Colors sounds faces loom as to a child pierce, threaten, they might or a so to the psychotic. The protagonist is senitive the physical world that as color red, Augie says, "would make you giddy and attack your heart with a like a sickness . . . and rot." The power almost causing spat blood, spasm world to Bellow is unclean, a view that grows from his intense description an (since intense, isolated detail seems naturally hallucinated), but which also a derives from sexuality and violence. On hot morning Leventhal is awakened cries outside his window where a man tries to a woman while two by grab her watch amused. The scene haunts Asa: soldiers, presumably companions,
4 ... he did not know what went on about what really him, strange near trem things, savage things. They hung him all the time in or seen a bling drops, invisible, usually, from distance. But that did not mean that there was to be a or that sooner or always distance, one or on later two of the drops might not fall him.
It is Leventhal's moral sense?his gut feeling that the physical world will somehow punish him for his sins?that makes this powerful. He lives, in that era a summer before air conditioning, in literal hell. The "drops" of violent are the mechanical of sex we can associate sexuality harsh, impersonal, grab with the naturalism of Bellow's youth, the epitome of which is the crowd, the out one summer steaming millions of which the pushy Allbee steps night. To as the Bellow protagonist the crowd is the flesh, in the park in which Allbee appears, in the softness of all those bodies and in the way those eyes stare, as never to note revealing Bellow fails all kinds of desire. The crowd reminds the protagonist of the species, extending back in time through countless number, to the of our and the the hint and mystery origin strange guess, smell, some of kind of purpose. The crowd is thus sexuality and metaphysics, the ot our a our mystery flesh made real; and while it evokes deep sympathy for vulnerability, it also evokes the impersonal lunge of the species, the blind, mechanical and sometimes violent need to the creature the reproduce, "using as individual," Rogin reflects bitterly in the story "A Father-To-Be." "The us own life force occupied each of in turn in its progress toward its fulfillment, on our us own mere trampling individual humanity, using for its ends like dinosaurs or bees." to The crowd's potential for violence, its testimony the blind process of sex true reproduction, in which is technology, makes it the antagonist of many as next seems to was of the novels, in the work Bellow have begun (though it not an published until 1956) "Seize the Day." For after Tommy Wilhelm, ex-salesman down on his luck with a divorce and a mistress and a failed nerve, has been two fathers?his real one and a one who cheats rejected by spurious out an man. him?he stumbles into the street, angry and broken And there he sees the epitome of the life force that has done him in: in the "gassy air" of upper Broadway, Bellow writes,
almost motionless under the leaden of . . . sawdust spokes sunlight stores. footprints lay about the doorways of butcher shops and fruit And the great, great crowd, the inexhaustible current of millions of every race and kind pouring out, pressing round, of every age, of of human and every genius, possessors every secret, antique in face the refinement of one motive or future, every particular essence?I LABOR, I SPEND, I STRIVE, I DESIGN, I LOVE,
5 I CLING, I UPHOLD, I GIVE WAY, I ENVY, I LONG, I SCORN, I DIE, I HIDE, IWANT.
The gentle Tommy has literally drowned in this "inexhaustible current," and what is more, he suffers from the life force within, for it has led him to make his mistakes?to to become a movie actor for quit college example?and even to be as his are turned In "Seize self-destructive, aggressions upon himself. are more the Day" the world and the forces that drive it quietly expressed than in The Victim, but are in fact more dreadful, tackier?like the storefronts of crueler and less amenable to upper Broadway?and survival; "the strange are things" that Leventhal fears here dramatized in people, most of whom hide a a fierce will behind sneaky pretense. Tommy is so hemmed in, so defeated, so to not unable find hope anywhere, really, that his climax involves acceptance of the world but transcendence of it. sure We can't be where Bellow got his idea of the "life force." Clearly it owes to as to own much Theodore Dreiser and just much Bellow's imaginative perception. Charles Darwin is central. But it also owes a great deal toWilhelm not a Reich, who only defines world charged with sexuality, but who also like Bellow saw an intimate connection between the life force and character.
to a woman in the course of his and as sex Tommy barely speaks story, yet, or plays about the fringe of his consciousness?in his wife's wrath in the cruel curve of a bather's is a classic case of genitalia?he Freudian anxiety, traceable to sexual repression. He embodies the Reichian psychology, in which the is a world charged with orgone energy, life-giving power that is physical and associated with sexual energy but which the neurotic blocks, so that it makes more to him sick. Tommy needs than anything open himself?he's locked in a armor. by kind of emotional He is rigid and constricted: he has trouble so breathing because his chest is tight. When at the end he manages to flow in good Reichian fashion, when he has been beaten everywhere, having lost on and stumbles into a funeral to money grain speculation, parlor weep openly a before the corpse of stranger, his rigidity like his pretense is dissolved. If he is publicly humiliated in this final, powerful scene, he is also publicly true, the businessman's Authur Dimmesdale, and for the first time is open, full of feeling, with the relief and the triumph of purged emotion.
time was By the of The Adventures of Augie March in 1953, Bellow highly conscious to of his sexual theme, and it led him develop striking parallels a between his characters and their setting in way reminiscent of Balzac. If the masses represent the impersonal, fierce and sexy life force, then it is telling that as on a Augie (described by Bellow "fantasy holiday") lives happily among
6 the free of Leventhal's and Wilhelm 's masses, conspicuously gloom pain. at Augie is home among all the things Leventhal feared?mental weakness, sex. as a man violence, He defines himself of love who accepts everything life a brings his way. Nothing bothers him, for he is, he tells us, physical creature, at totally uninhibited, completely home in his body. While theMachiavellians terms who surround him make decisions in of thought and power, weaving to a incredible ideologies, Augie listens his flesh, and is hotblooded, spontaneous creature were to of his glands. "We susceptible love," the illegitimate Augie says of the Marches. Like his Momma and the retarded G?orgie, Augie is full of amorousness." "blood-loaded, picturesque What makes The Adventures of Augie March even more remarkable, however, uses to is the way in which Bellow his plot "test" Augie's sexy character. Even here, in a novel with vivid characterization, sex is important for what itmeans. new Behind the accommodation that critics loved, and the rough energy that was an he showed still possible in the Jamesian Fifties, Bellow had attempted was not to was to ambitious experiment. Augie only be happy, he triumph. was to He show that goodness is physical, first of all?the point of the a "blood-loaded, picturesque amorousness"?and that in world of harsh force, can as a on a the good prevail. Thus Augie is beat up Jew winter after a nature are a noon?and shrugs it off. A good heart and loving practical in Darwinian are as much a of our universe as world; they part physical competi tion. of Grandma Lausch 's militant "it wasn't Maybe, Augie says fierceness, so to necessary lie." man It is Augie's fellow who would make lies necessary, of course, but the to novel stresses that such forceful, predatory people almost have to be hard match the harsh life force flowing about them. Sex is atmospheric in Bellow's work because Bellow's imagination is substantial?it works in terms of sub toward some essence and stances, metaphorically, pointing always yet always perceiving the connection of that reality to people. Augie March finds much of on its power in the way it proceeds this parallel course, the Machiavellians to a harsh universe even as to it. responding they appear represent to a And what is this force which they respond? Bellow is realistic novelist, catching the quiver of power stations and subways and the elevated. Cities do as are an pulse, just Augie describes them; they charged with energy not always a distinguishable from flying grit. But Bellow's idea of force is cluster of many other ideas as from human malice to a sense of cosmic well, ranging petty evil, from the Darwinian idea of fierce conflict to what Leventhal sees in the sun: care was "something inhuman that didn't about anything human and yet one a implanted in every human being too, speck of it, and formed part of him to that responded the heat and glare ..." Our capacity for cruel indifference mates us to the indifferent universe. But do other mate us to a capacities different kind of universe? Bellow follows Wilhelm Reich in equating cosmic
7 to a to biological force. Is there physical equivalent man's spiritual energy? Because is so seldom the to the goodness sexy, question well-meaning, gentle is a one as well. protagonists practical a A more fastidious protagonist might well have felt in Augie's world need case for cleansing, and such is certainly the with many of the other protago a nists. They would have felt need for peace, too, for Augie's world is exhaust man out a ing: the young isworn by sensation. No wonder he yearns for quiet to place enjoy what he calls the "axial lines" of harmony. Bellow's confession was a that The Adventures of Augie March "fantasy holiday" masks the fact that itwas the first of a new set of novels, comprising a second stage in the evolution canon. can of his Dangling Man and The Victim and "Seize the Day" be viewed as rejections of the physical world. Joseph's final immersion in the army? a to certainly "crowd"?is bitter and despairing. Leventhal's need accept the flesh is belied by the symbolism of the gas that almost kills him, seeping from oven. no Allbee's suicide And Tommy Wilhelm finds help in the human creatures around him. But by the time of The Adventures of Augie March, Bellow had swung to the view we must a views that accept the flesh, and that?in way reminiscent of the can even of Wilhelm Reich?we find salvation in it. Thus Augie is physical, next and Bellow's novel also celebrates the physical. And why did Bellow His intense world offers as a reason as change? unpleasantly convincing any: the sensational world is close to intolerable without some and redeeming value, a not indeed, its very intensity suggests hidden power: might it reasonably be to a expected yield up kind of wisdom? The liberal in Bellow had a hand too, for what Bellow's quest amounted to was terms in the end nothing less?in the of his imagination?than discovering a good in the midst of evil, theme that makes Henderson The Rain King as as exciting intellectually it is funny. The story of an American millionaire's to an where he meets two is sexiest trip imaginary Africa, tribes, Henderson the reason an of all of Bellow's novels?perhaps the Bellow published essay at the same time his readers Henderson worries warning against "symbol-hunting." desperately about his teeth, well known for their sexual connotations, and has a to run-in with equally sexy frogs. He flees Africa because of his trouble with wives woman to his and the fact that he scared another death. He is jealous of his friend's marriage, and when he enters the African interior, for which we two out might read his interior, he finds tribes living sexual stereotypes, one meek and loving and the other fierce and active. a Eugene Henderson is really flattering version of Freudian anxie defined as a cosmic Because of the two one ty?anxiety yearning. tribes, a a not to see governed by queen, the other by king, it's impossible Henderson as a sexual allegory. And yet Bellow goes much deeper than stereotypes, for uses he these tribes for metaphysical purposes, too, as each reacts differently
8 to the African a different version of what or at least drought, suggesting is'real, a a different way of controlling it. The first tribe, the Arnewi, embody loving in a harsh desert. The second the are about as goodness tribe, Wariri, gentle as the Pittsburgh Steelers, and in fact represent the harsh force, the malicious willfulness, amongst which Augie sought to survive. The Wariri beat their Henderson tells us customs of the as gods?and perform "savage night. "Just to a Bellow hoped snatch loving goodness from the coals of force in Augie so a source March, he would find of good in Henderson among the abominable Wariri. source was And the of that good really rather reasonable, for Prince Dahfu totem. keeps pet lions under the palace?the lion being the tribe's Although the lions have eyes like "circles of wrath," embodying the angry element sees are Bellow in reality, they also graceful and self-sufficient. Their beauty a lies in their total impersonality and indifference?qualities that would be tonic to an anxious worrier like Henderson. In Henderson needs simpler terms, the kind of strength the lion has: Henderson's "badness" is clearly the result of his personal weakness. And while Henderson had fought with his wives, even Dahfu cherishes his, all forty of them, and despite the fact that if he fails one of them sexually he will be strangled. to Dahfu's ease is thus remarkable and gives the precise definition Hender son's Bellow never it is and who anxiety. Although says so, sexual, Henderson, a is cured by female lions, finds in his deepest Africa what amounts to sexy as joke: Henderson Rain King inherits Dahfu's family, with all its duties and to a conditions. "Your Highness," Henderson croaks dying Dahfu, "What have you pulled on me?" too on a as Henderson like Augie March proceeds double track, Henderson lives sees same as among certain qualities in people and those qualities principles or nervous (either physical metaphysical) in the setting. The charge of Augie's a Chicago becomes glittering, metallic desert light. Augie had glimpsed the "axial lines," which could be found "with the help of love," and without he existence is Hender which, says, "your merely clownery, hiding tragedy." son a to a glimpses strange pink light which he says speaks him, lovely light contrasts an that with the cold look of death in octopus' eyes. Bellow here we cast to as indulges what might call the medieval his mind, for just he sought to a cosmic in terms in the earlier so he express principle metaphoric novels, now embodies similar abstract in a concrete form?a a principles cow, lion, a bear?that is comic and thus camouflages what I think is Bellow's secret, means a which is that he such things after all. Might goodness survive in naturalistic universe? It certainly might if it finds its center in the flesh, among a savage tribes and wild beasts. Henderson rejects theWariri in confusing shift mars was that the novel, but Bellow's fantasy clear: the destructive Henderson would discover goodness in the midst of destructiveness, and the key element, at least in Bellow's dramatization of the theme, would be sexual.
Bellow's last three novels are filled with a repugnance toward sex that marks a new and different direction in his thought. No longer does he embrace the we our Lawrentian idea that must "accept" the conditions of biological life, to including mortality. No longer does he accept the notion that avoid the a to to disadvantages of the flesh?death, disorder, limit freedom?is avoid life or to a an itself, including love family, and become monomaniac pursuing idea to the exclusion of all else. In Henderson, rather, Bellow feels that the world may indeed be "evaded"? one or must that is, transcended in way another. In fact the world he portrays be transcended, for it is unclean, cluttered, trivial, destructive of human life. we Looking back from these later novels, realize that every novel has been a driven to moment of peace in which the protagonist finds the world shut out ever and his perceptions, those painful perceptions, reduced. More and more sex to Bellow dramatizes the world's triviality in sexual terms, showing a to be grotesque, comic, awful. An inept professor sends diaphragm his a an man to vacationing wife; black pickpocket forces old view his genitals; a uses the foot to masturbate in a restaurant. Bel beauty protagonist's classy low's rejection of the world reaches the point at which the world is not even to important enough be evil?it's superficial, rigid, thin, and best portrayed a by the ridiculous machinations of contrived plot. not to new at once: But Bellow did leap this idea it is the tension created by the shift that makes Herzog (1965) one of Bellow's very finest novels and one perhaps of the great novels of the world. The old attitudes linger in Herzog, so that almost balances an of that is every paragraph appreciation beauty a a transcendent in its delicacy with revulsion with world that must finally be rejected. More importantly, Bellow finds his drama in this tension, as he a portrays protagonist who is himself in transition from the old "personalist" view?based on a or Lawrentian bias?to a rational biological new, (and view. Thus the ultimate in this novel is not comparatively abstract) antagonist Herzog 's ex-wife Madeleine, who kicks him out of the house and then abuses to cure his daughter June, but Herzog 's girlfriend Ramona, who hopes Her sex. a zog 's grief with her comforting Ramona espouses form of body-mysti cism, arguing that Herzog need only follow the bidding of his flesh and he will be whole. Ramona, moreover, is only part of the sensuality in this novel. Herzog is a cuckold, lives among such sex-crazed citizens as a cabbie who describes his a previous evening's intercourse, and travels in subway scrawled with graffitti. a Having brooded about report that Madeleine and Gersbach have locked June a to sex a in car, Herzog is propelled Chicago by the crimes he witnesses in New York court room.
10 And the texture of the novel is charged with sexuality, too: Herzog notes in a a crowd?"the of women and blotted of crowd?always big legs eyes men, was sunken mouths and inky nostrils" while above "an escaped balloon fleeing like a Even the climax of the as the man sperm." book, Herzog gazes upon who stole his has a curious sexual as the hidden wife, flavor, Herzog, "looking down his open shirt front" as Gersbach bathes Junie, "saw the hair-covered heavy soft flesh of Gersbach's breast." not Herzog is only touched by the "strange things, savage things" Leventhal fears in The Victim, he is immersed in them, as he muses that the model of all ocean creation is the and then describes himself watching Madeleine "as were though he submerged, through the vitreous distortion of deep water." we To the theater imagery which shapes this book must add that of water: Moses swims in a medium that is the essence of Here for sensuality. example, are and Madeleine on a New York street. Herzog are "Aren't you coming? What you doing?" said Madeleine. Per was was a haps he not yet fully awake. Herzog loitering for moment near the fish arrested the odor. A store, by thin muscular was Negro pitching buckets of ground ice into the deep window. were as were The fish packed together, backs arched if they swim ming in the crushed, smoking ice, bloody bronze, slimy black lobsters were crowded to the feelers green, gray-gold?the glass, bent. The was of the morning warm, gray, damp, fresh, smelling river. on the metal doors of the Moses Pausing sidewalk elevator, received the raised pattern of the steel through his thin shoe soles; a like Braille. But he did not interpret message. The fish were was arrested, lifelike, in the white, frothing, ground ice. The street warm and flavored the overcast, gray, intimate, unclean, by pol luted river, the sexually stirring brackish tidal odor. over "I can't wait for you, Moses," said Madeleine, peremptory, her shoulder.
the sense of immersion the sensations we Bellow obtains by noting usually out our air on our filter of consciousness: the feel of the skin, the pressure of the uneven on our shoesoles. is a medium in which ground Light Herzog an swims, effect Bellow achieves by making it damp and fragrant, something felt by the skin. But the point is Bellow's double effect of loveliness and dissolution, of the exquisite and the over-ripe, of this world and, because of some one. on the Braille "message," other, deeper The bloody fish the "white, contrast frothing, ground ice" with the delicate feel of the raised pattern beneath his shoes. The foreground is soiled, disturbing; the distance is delicate are and fragrant, full of hints. The fish themselves both lovely?colorful, rich,
11 lifelike?and awful, corpses bent with their bloody bronze. Bellow actually describes the air it first as fresh"? twice, seeing neutral?"warm, gray, damp, as and then impure, "unclean, flavored by the polluted river, the sexually stirring brackish tidal odor." In what is Bellow's finest novel, then, Bellow mixes beauty and revulsion, so and he does not only in his descriptions. Moses' appreciation of this beauty to makes Madeleine impatient?it isMoses' receptivity sensation, his passive unmans enjoyment of the world, that distracts and him. The Madeleines of this a world demand fiercer stuff than a love of beauty. Almost overwhelmed by must some to harsh and unclean world, Moses discover way cope with it: the as "story" of this book is finally the record of those attempts, Moses undergoes an cure attempted by Ramona and then overreacts, muddling his way finally to sense ease at no the of the end, dramatized by the fact that he's longer afraid of her sexiness. Moses Herzog might be the only cuckold in history who doesn't worry about his sexual even as it the sex seems the powers; shapes structure, only not thing in this novel pondered. But then Moses consciously rejects the a warns physical world: noting that Tante Taube has sheeplike look, he himself a . . .was to some that "such figurative habit of mind likely ruin him day." Moses seeks the virtues of which he rationality, coolness, dry citizenship, now to prefers the physical and imaginative preoccupations of the Romantics not as he'd studied. If the novel does quite achieve this dryness?ending it a next as began in kind of tension?Bellow's novel succeeds, Arthur Sammler inMr. Sammler's Planet brings Herzog 's desire to fruition. Elderly and rational, a his passions totally checked, Mr. Sammler is surrounded in New York by bunch of creeps whose unbounded desire finds expression in sexuality. He is man can shouted down at Columbia by students who charge that the old know nothing because he's impotent. He's figuratively raped by the black pickpocket on sex and mentally raped by the people who insist telling him about their lives. is obsessed with while violence floats about the Everyone sex, city?the culture is as indeed it was at the so that the much breaking down, time, criticized Sammler might be the best book that Bellow could have written a during such period. sense: Bellow's story really makes good in the midst of the confused New to to York scene, Mr. Sammler seeks only do the decent thing, say farewell to a to return a now dying friend and stolen manuscript. But Bellow appears not bad-tempered, and rejects the world completely, only in the secondary more sex characters?the dying man's daughter is concerned with her life than are sour her father's death?but in his descriptions, which and full of revulsion. "The was Sammler "it was horrible." Bellow sunlight yellow, sweet," thinks, to begins describe the meat wholesaler's area in New York with an eye to its color and vitality: "The sides of beef and pork, gauze-wrapped, blood-spotted.
12 a man Things edible would always be respected by who had nearly starved to death." But the is too and as Sammler notes rats as as subject much, big dachshunds, his attitude turns: "You were not sure whether the rawness came or . . . to were from the tidewater the blood. Try stroll here. The pavements waxed with fat." an Such passages reflect almost programmatic advance in the rejection of the are physical world begun with Herzog. Most people asleep, Sammler notes, and adds that "individuals like Sammler were only one stage forward, awakened not to but to aesthetic of the environment"?a sense of purpose consumption physical beauty Sammler rejects because of its "doggish hind-sniffing charm." to Mr. Sammler rejects figurative thinking too, leaning away from the flesh a so too world of pure thought. And does Charles Citrine in Bellow's latest novel to date, Humboldt's Gift (1975). To Citrine too the world is crazy, two was consisting of males, the great dead poet Humboldt, who made desper ate a a by Philistine culture, and the living but equally desperate Cantabile, at small time Chicago hood who smashes Citrine's Mercedes and forces him gunpoint to watch him defecate. The clutter and contrivance of the novel our some reflect Bellow's rather low opinion of American culture, and embody as were of Bellow's best and worst writing, though Bellow Faulkner, mixing it all up. Citrine's memories of Humboldt, with whom he quarreled and broke, are as Bellow at his best (and may have been written as early 8 or 10 years as as a before publication). The Cantabile material, well plethora of other characters and events?the sex who the Thrax pot Renata, betrays Citrine, pal ter and the divorce lawyers, who betray him too?all of these characters blend to to produce the kind of frantic, superficial, sliding world that might belong or the sleazier movie In the of of pop music, say, companies. age Watergate, a our course, such world might be reality. a Can Charles Citrine "accept" such world? He almost drowns in it, but to consciously develops the ability turn away from it to his own mind. The world pursues him (as another ex-wife demands money), chases him down, threatens to drown him, but he grows in his power to shut it out, a power based on a religious faith deriving from Rudolf Steiner and American Transcenden a talism. Finally manipulated and rejected by Renata, Citrine finds peace in much more spartan way of life. come Thus Bellow has full cycle. The later sections of Humboldt's Gift have a touch of the black and white abstractness of Dangling Man. And Charles are to Citrine, confronted with gangsters who comically equivalent World in to War II, succeeds doing what Joseph sought: dismiss the distracting world and to get down to his own business, conducted pretty much in his own head. art not Bellow's latest has suffered, I think, only because he is abstract, having lost interest in the physical world that supplied his rich detail, but because his to low opinion of the actual world permits him indulge in coincidence and
13 contrivance as a type of realism. To Charles Citrine, the world is third-rate melodrama, and barely to be tolerated. What can we make of all this? I don't want to say that every word Bellow writes is obsessed with the sensual, of course. Like every good realist, Bellow as to is bemused by phenomena such the American's inability listen (Augie or or March) the adoption of roles (Herzog) the mediocrity's need for distinction ("Seize the Day"). He plays with imagery and lighting, and loves ideologies of all kinds. And yet it's clear that in every one of the novels the world pursues the hero, tormenting him and using him, distracting him from what he knows is important. Bellow's genius lies in the variety of ways he has dramatized this one of which contains some of the sensual. oppressive world, every component As Bellow has found himself caught between mind and flesh, the intellectual to a and the instinctual, he has sought discover mysticism of matter, seeking to the good that balances the pure force of naturalism, and then has shifted a out man matter spiritual mysticism that shuts the social world of and makes mere appearance. to as a Both impulses belong the fact that Bellow's greatest strength writer not is his incredible sensitivity to the physical world, which gives only his to intensely evocative description but the pain that drives him understand on matter. In his novels Bellow has taken nothing less than the burden of the a Twentieth Century, seeking tangible (imaginative) evidence of reality be so sides the naturalistic one. If goodness resides in matter, be it, though Bellow was never able to be more than about it. If resides in vague goodness spirit, then so be that too, Bellow feels, and so writes in Humboldt's Gift one of the few novels in which private religious experience is incorporated fully into the novel. But perhaps the greatest significance of this theme is in Bellow's art, and particularly in the very fine unity it has achieved. To acknowledge the sensual to theme is bridge the rather large gap between the social side of Bellow's awareness and the two distinct that often make critics metaphysical, emphases to two a measure appear talk about different writers. Sex is sensitive of social a status, and perhaps barometer of social health. But it also transcends the social, as structure. rooted it is in physical Sex pulls the mysteries of the flesh and so the spirit into the city street, especially in terms of the crowd, and unifies our various identities as creatures and citizens.
Bellow's and characters are also as we've settings strikingly parallel, seen, so too are as and the plots and Bellow's metaphysical ambitions. For just Bellow so most clearly awaits what his imagination will bring him, the basic activity a matter of his fiction, the real action of the story, is of this very looking: the as protagonist stares at the world, though he too like Bellow awaited the or we striking image or metaphor epiphany his imagination would bring. If we one don't get many extended human relationships, do get the infinite
14 man matter. at a between and The protagonist looks the physical world like a child staring at corpse, trying to penetrate the mystery of its stillness, and as a if that mystery is charged with sexuality, appearing mechanical device in a or as a a dead world symbol in spiritual one, the mystery is all the greater. The plot within which the protagonist does his staring parallels the imagery as well, especially in the confrontation with the world that forms just about so all the novels. For it's remarkable, finally, that many Bellow novels should build to a violent embrace between the protagonist and another male. Wilhelm men. and Sammler pray before dead Henderson holds the dying prince in his arms. an Joseph dreams of the figure of death and Leventhal wrestles with on must Allbee bent death. Sammler watch the pickpocket bludgeoned, and even near must Augie March the end of his novel fight for his life. Again and as scene again, the form varying, Bellow imagines the climax of his story this of violence and death and male embrace. scene even And yet the transcends the theme of sensuality. Hostility, tender scene contains all these It's a the ness, regret, sexuality?the things. fantasy, root occasion of the all sorts of emotions we work, expressing vicariously forbid ourselves in conscious life. Each novel imbues the scene with a different conscious and the scene has its own lover meaning, yet meaning?the supreme is death. The father is dead or will die. The world dies?the world is death? scene the contains all of these meanings and yet transcends them, creating its own scene meaning in the experience offered, in the fact that by living the we vicariously express certain hidden feelings. As he kneels before the dying son own a scene father, the feels his life affirmed and strengthened. Is it of or reconciliation is it the fantasized death of an enemy? Or is it the fantasy of the only embrace American males permit themselves?in combat? Does it a hark back to childhood trauma? However we interpret this element, we've got to recognize its presence and the way it informs Bellow's fiction. Certainly it offers another explanation of the richness of Bellow's style and the power, lying far below the conscious ideas, of his fiction.