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May 19, 2011

Mr. Sammler’s Planet: Bellow

Mr. Sammler’s Planet is a great novel—one of the ten best English-language novels since the death of George Eliot—but it presents the generous undecided reader with two immediate problems. First, what exactly is it about? The Saul Bellow Society convenientlysummarizes the novel, but their précis misses entirely its central quality—the articulate and provocative opinions of its title character. Artur Sammler is “just a mass of intelligent views,” to which he gives voice “at all times.” His “screwy visions” are the beginning, middle, and end of the novel, but they raise a second problem. How seriously are these opinions to be taken?

The novel reads at times like Victor Davis Hanson’s self-acknowledged rant last Friday about the moral and cultural depression into which America is sinking. Living in the late ’sixties, a “frightful moment” in history, Sammler finds himself thinking about “the collapse of civilization, about Sodom and Gomorrah, the end of the world.” Although they may not be “the worst of all times”—for all we know, we may be living in those times—the ’sixties created the sensation that “things are falling apart.” Now in his seventies, Sammler comes to his forebodings honestly, through firsthand experience. He survived Nazi Germany’s war against the Jews, although his wife did not. “Like many people who had seen the world collapse once, Mr. Sammler entertained the possibility that it might collapse twice.”

Sammler has suffered what the Austrian essayist Jean Améry callslosing trust in the world:

He had learned in Poland, in the war, in forests, cellars, passageways, cemeteries. Things he had passed through once which had abolished a certain margin or leeway ordinarily taken for granted. Taking for granted that one will not be shot stepping into the street, nor clubbed to death as one stoops to relieve oneself, nor hunted in an alley like a rat. This civil margin once removed, Mr. Sammler would never trust the restoration totally.
Having already been blinded in one eye after being struck by an SS officer’s rifle butt, he and sixty or seventy other Jews were ordered to dig their own mass grave, strip naked, and then were fired upon, and fell in. Much later he struggled out from under the weight of the corpses, crawling out of the loose soil. But he declines to be called a Holocaust survivor, “since so much of the earlier person had disappeared. It wasn’t surviving, it was only lasting.”

Nearly thirty years later, having emigrated to America, Sammler is now “hors d’usage, not a man of the times.” To stand apart is a conscious decision, almost a vocation. “A person’s views are either necessary or superfluous,” he says—and Sammler has made himself into the kind of man whose views are as necessary as death. The first great commandment of American culture is “don’t contradict your time. Just don’t contradict it, that’s all.” If the times call for rage, then rage; if sex, then sex. “Unless you happened to be a Sammler and felt that the place of honor was outside.” Because he refuses to march in the parade of self-congratulation, he feels “separated from the rest of his species, if not in some fashion severed—severed not so much by age as by preoccupations too different and remote.”

His preoccupations are bookish. He has been “trained by the best writers to divert himself with perceptions.” And so the learned references fly at a dizzying pace: Charles Lamb, St. Augustine, Alfred North Whitehead, Kierkegaard, Aristotle, Hobbes, Vico, Hume, Marx, John Maynard Keynes, Krafft-Ebing, Max Weber, Schopenhauer (after whom Sammler is named), Tolstoy, Malraux, Sartre, Orwell, Meister Eckhardt, Trollope, Walter Bagehot, Toynbee, Freud, Burckhardt, Spengler, Max Scheler, Franz Oppenheimer, Adorno, Marcuse, Norman O. Brown, Ortega y Gasset, Paul Valéry, Ulysses, Bakunin, Oscar Wilde.

Since he is a double outsider—the one-eyed king in the realm of the blind—Sammler is suited by training and position to take the temperature of the times. Mr. Sammler’s Planet impressed its first critics with the accuracy of its reading, which nearly forty years have not distorted. The ’sixties “opened a jeweled door into degradation,” starting the descent “from hypercivilized Byzantine luxury straight into the state of nature.” What it amounts to, he says, is “limitless demand,” “the Baudelaire desire to get out—get out of human circumstances,” “a peculiar longing for nonbeing,” the “human being at the point where he attempted to obtain his release from being human.”

So far so good—so powerful and convincing, in fact. I can’t read too much Bellow without getting the garlic of his style on my breath; my prose begins to smell like his. Three years ago, at the Ready Steady Blog, Mark Thwaite reacted similarly to Mr. Sammler’s Planet:

After reading that astonishing voice, I’m in no mood to read anything else. So much else is so wooden, so lifeless. . . . [I]t is his viscous, crowded, Yiddish-inspired, slang-rhythmed, rolling, greedy sentences . . . that make him such a great writer.
Nobody else writes like Bellow, and nowhere else does Bellow write so well, with that “long Jewish mental discipline, hereditary training in lawful control,” and the easy familiarity with European literature, classical philosophy, political history, scattering ideas as if his mind were a bursting piñata.

Yet just here is the toughest nut to crack. I am surprised that Thwaite, who rarely misses an opportunity to declare his progressive sympathies, missed this one. Sammler’s views may be necessary to his moral and mental balance, they may be crowded and inspired and rolling, but they can also be as ugly as a segregationist’s. In developing his view that “a sexual madness was overwhelming the Western world,” Sammler explains:

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.
Just in case you think the racial slur is a one-time thing, the novel’s plot is bracketed by an encounter with a Negro pickpocket who fascinates Sammler. When he sees the old man watching him, the thief corners Sammler and hauls out his penis, his “metaphysical warrant,” as our hero later describes it:
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 beyond the supporting, demonstrating hand, suggesting the fleshy mobility of an elephant’s trunk, though the skin was somewhat iridescent rather than thick or rough.
Diverted by perceptions, indeed! At the end of the novel, Sammler’s son-in-law Eisen, an Israeli, knocks the pickpocket off his feet, at Sammler’s request to “do something,” intervening in a fight and preventing the Negro from choking a college student who snapped a picture of him in the act of riffling a purse. Sammler fears that Eisen has crushed the man’s face. “What have I done!” he thinks. “This is the worst thing yet.”

Depends upon how you look at it. For Sammler is also given to expressions of another anti-social disease. He had, he observes, been “trained in the ancient mode of politeness” just as, once upon a time, “women had been brought up to chastity.” He heaps scorn upon Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil,” which infuriated the American Jewish community when the idea was introduced in reports on the Eichmann trial first published in the New Yorker in 1963. Sammler’s comment: “Everybody (except certain bluestockings) knows what murder is.” He does not have a high opinion of intelligent women. The late husband of his niece Margotte taught at Hunter College, a women’s college until 1964. Now and then, among his students, Ussher Arkin would encounter “a powerful female intelligence, but very angry, very complaining, too much sex-ideology, poor things.”

And again the views are inscribed within the plot. Angela Gruner, his niece, is one of several characters in the novel who obliges Sammler to listen to her problems, confessions, details of her sex life. Her father Elya Gruner, who had saved Sammler and his daughter by finding their names on a DP list and bringing them to America in 1947, is dying; Angela has alienated and angered him by her sexual antics; but rather than pursuing a reconciliation, she is consumed with worry about her boyfriend Wharton Horricker, who has rejected her after she, in response to an offhand suggestion from him, had engaged in group sex in his presence. Sammler is disgusted: “Diversions, group intercourse, fellatio with strangers—one can do that but not come to terms with one’s father at the last opportunity.”

What is to be done about these toxic assets in the economy of the novel’s meaning? Friendly critics, following the lead of an early essay by Allen Guttmann, have sought to insert an “ironic distance” between Sammler and his author. Guttmann makes a hash of the differences, though:

Both men are secular Jews, but Sammler has a stronger attachment to the State of Israel than Bellow has demonstrated. Both men are immigrants, but the novelist came to America as a child and was formed more by Chicago than by his Canadian childhood. Sammler, on the other hand, arrives after the Second World War, which he barely survives.[1]
Bellow had already demonstrated his attachment to the Jewish State, covering the Six-Day War for Newsday with partisan fervor. Nor was he an immigrant. He was born on this continent, not quite two years after his parents and three older siblings had emigrated from Saint Petersburg to Canada, and the family moved on to Chicago when he was nine.

Even if Guttmann had had his facts straight, it is not clear how an “ironic distance” between Sammler and his author redeems a novel dedicated to the airing of his views from the charges of racism and misogyny. And it will not do to say that his faults merely reflect the times, because Sammler has gone out of his way to insist that he is not a man of the times. 

The only possible defense, it seems to me, is the attitude of Anne Elliot:

She prized the frank, the open-hearted, the eager character beyond all others. Warmth and enthusiasm did captivate her still. She felt that she could so much more depend upon the sincerity of those who sometimes looked or said a careless or a hasty thing, than of those whose presence of mind never varied, whose tongue never slipped.
Sammler acknowledges that “he had taken positions, he had said things he hadn’t meant, meant things he hadn’t said.” He is not a good man—the good man of the novel is Elya Gruner, Angela’s dying father and the man who rescued Sammler from homelessness—not because he is a bad man, but because he has devoted his life to something else than moral perfection: speaking his mind, and reducing his views to necessity. If an idea turns out to be careless or hasty—or even, God forbid, racist or misogynist—this may only indicate that it is not a necessary view, and that Sammler, a “registrar of madness,” is in the process of rendering it superfluous.

Update: In my original post, I confused Margotte Arkin and Angela Gruner. (I have silently corrected the blunder above.) Both women are Sammler’s nieces, but otherwise they are quite different. Margotte is his landlady, having invited Sammler to share her apartment after the death of her husband Ussher Arkin three years prior in an airplane crash. Margotte is a German Jew, living on a small reparation payment from the West German government for the loss of her family’s property in Frankfurt, and is a minor-league “bluestocking,” a parody of Hannah Arendt. “She was sweet but on the theoretical side very tedious,” Sammler reflects, wishing to avoid a conversation with her about the black pickpocket, “and when she settled down to an earnest theme, one was lost.” 

Angela Gruner is the granddaughter of Orthodox Jews who has embraced “paganism.” She is “corrupt.” Her own father, watching her approach “with all her flesh in motion—thighs, hips, bosom displayed with a certain fake innocence”—would mutter “Bitch” or “Cow” or “Sloppy cunt!” She stands for the age’s “liberation” from all sexual bonds, taboos.

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