Saul Bellow, Mr. Sammler’s Planet

Mr. Sammler's PlanetMr. Sammler’s Planet by Saul Bellow

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

To expect artists to be free of the prejudices of their time, as well as a few special hatreds they brew out of their own particular derangement, is not only immature, but it is also unethical: it can’t help but imply the moralizing critics’ own self-proclaimed superiority to history and human frailty. In Inside Story, Martin Amis reports on Bellow’s jokey distinction between ethics, which is about money, and morals, which concern sex. I propose a more serious division. Ethics: striving to understand our own place in how the whole thing—life, history, the cosmos—can’t help but fit together at any given moment. Morals: being entirely ignorant of where we stand, and ignorant of this very ignorance, while we wag our accusing finger at everybody else. The latter, while contemptible, is not wholly avoidable, as I shake my own digit at the moralist.

I introduce Saul Bellow’s notorious 1970 novel, Mr. Sammler’s Planet, with these disagreeable reflections because everybody knows, especially people who never got past the first chapter, that it is the book where it all went wrong, a racist and sexist tirade against “the ’60s” that heralded the author’s neoconservative turn. I myself read the first chapter or so in my righteous youth and threw it aside with just this conviction. But if you can summon the patience, as I did this week, to read the entire 260 pages, and to collate it with what you know about the history of modern thought and art, you will find a much more complicated picture. Not a more redemptive one—I’m not here to convict or exonerate the author—but a provocatively ambivalent study of the 20th century.

First, while he is known to be an opinionated author, Bellow is not his hero, Artur Sammler, and Sammler’s opinions cannot be read for Bellow’s. Sammler is Bellow’s thought experiment: take a Polish Jew trained to love high culture (his mother named him after Schopenhauer), situate him in his early adulthood as journalist in interwar Bloomsbury with its advocacy of sexual and scientific progressivism, assail him with the Holocaust (which claims his wife, threatens his daughter, and makes him both victim and killer) in middle age, bring him in old age to a teeming late-’60s Manhattan where Bloomsbury’s modernist progressivism now walks the street in fancy costume available to every citizen—and send him to Israel for the Six-Day War on top of all that. What will a man who has endured such a whiplash century think as he perambulates the explosive metropolis on the eve of the moon landing? Something like this:

The labor of Puritanism now was ending. The dark satanic mills changing into light satanic mills. The reprobates converted into children of joy, the sexual ways of the seraglio and of the Congo bush adopted by the emancipated masses of New York, Amsterdam, London. Old Sammler with his screwy visions! He saw the increasing triumph of Enlightenment—Liberty, Fraternity, Equality, Adultery! Enlightenment, universal education, universal suffrage, the rights of the majority acknowledged by all governments, the rights of women, the rights of children, the rights of criminals, the unity of the different races affirmed, Social Security, public health, the dignity of the person, the right to justice—the struggles of three revolutionary centuries being won while the feudal bonds of Church and Family weakened and the privileges of aristocracy (without any duties) spread wide, democratized, especially the libidinous privileges, the right to be uninhibited, spontaneous, urinating, defecating, belching, coupling in all positions, tripling, quadrupling, polymorphous, noble in being natural, primitive, combining the leisure and luxurious inventiveness of Versailles with the hibiscus-covered erotic ease of Samoa. Dark romanticism now took hold. As old at least as the strange Orientalism of the Knights Templar, and since then filled up with Lady Stanhopes, Baudelaires, de Nervals, Stevensons, and Gauguins–those South-loving barbarians. Oh yes, the Templars. They had adored the Muslims. One hair from the head of a Saracen was more precious than the whole body of a Christian. Such crazy fervor! And now all the racism, all the strange erotic persuasions, the tourism and local color, the exotics of it had broken up but the mental masses, inheriting everything in a debased state, had formed an idea of the corrupting disease of being white and of the healing power of black. The dreams of nineteenth-century poets polluted the psychic atmosphere of the great boroughs and suburbs of New York. Add to this the dangerous lunging staggering crazy violence of fanatics, and the trouble was very deep. Like many people who had seen the world collapse once, Mr. Sammler entertained the possibility it might collapse twice.

Not, I’m sure, what we might think, but then we didn’t have Sammler’s experience. Some readerly confusion—my own youthful confusion, for example—can be excused. All the hero’s important social data is buried in Sammler’s ambling lucubrations, because Bellow does not tell this story in A-to-B fashion, Fielding-Dickens-Twain-style, as in The Adventures of Augie March. This is a day-in-the-life (or two-days-in-the-life) novel, a stream-of-consciousness novel, Joyce-style—or, in Bellow’s own nod to Bloomsbury, Woolf-style. The advantage of modernist form over traditional novelistic form can be seen in the relative lengths of Augie and Sammler: with a stream-of-consciousness day-in-the-life narrative you can pack a whole life into 260 pages, while the linear bildungsroman chronicle dooms you to 600 or more—though what you gain in compression you may lose in clarity. Either way, Bellow can do both, well and beautifully, and it’s a shame such high artistry gets lost in all the political talk that accrues around his name.

The novel’s comic plot is superb, its farcical and melodramatic excesses so naturalized by Sammler’s streaming consciousness that we hardly notice the artifice-verging-on-fantasy. It takes place over two days. Sammler is living in an apartment with Margotte, his widowed niece, a lonely progressive with whom he debates Hannah Arendt’s thesis on the banality of evil and other intellectual matters. Meanwhile, his disturbed middle-aged daughter Shula, who also endured the Holocaust in childhood, harasses him to write his memoir of H. G. Wells, whom he knew slightly in London, while she wanders the city as a bathetic eccentric; her father, we learn, has had to rescue her from an abusive marriage to a disturbed Russian Israeli named Eisen, whose near-death at Stalingrad left him in a state of functional psycopathy.

Sammler and Shula’s patron is his nephew Elya Gruner, a rich gynecologist of ostjuden background whose recently deceased wife, of German Jewish extraction, tried to enculturate and ennoble with class. Elya has a sentimental interest in the old country, which is why he rescued his uncle and cousin from a displaced-person camp and brought them to America after the war. Elya’s children, however, the get-rich schemer Wallace and the sexually dissolute Angela, prove disappointing to the old man. Due to his age and wartime experience, all the characters take Sammler as a kind of oracle or confessor, though he disclaims this role with a humility that conceals his relish in spectatorship at humanity’s various affairs.

For Sammler, though half-blinded in the war, is a flâneur—an aesthetic eye afoot in the metropole. The novel begins notoriously when Sammler several times observes a black pickpocket on the city bus, a man who both fascinates and repulses him, whom he seeks out to watch at work. When the thief notices that Sammler is watching—they are usually the two tallest people on the bus—he follows him back to the lobby of his apartment and wordlessly threatens him by exposing his penis. The scene—and its attendant animal language: “a tube, a snake…the fleshly mobility of an elephant’s trunk”—give the novel its reputation for racism. The racist tropes, however, belong to Sammler.

The exposure scene is balanced and answered at the novel’s end. Sammler’s mad son-in-law Eisen, who’s come to New York from Israel to begin an artistic career, bashes the thief in the face with a bag full of his homespun metal Judaica. This event calls to Sammler’s mind his own blinding during the war, when a Nazi smashed a rifle butt in his face, and its assault-by-Jewish-emblem may remind the reader of Sammler’s time in Israel during the Six-Day War, where he walks among the Arab corpses in Gaza, victims of Great-Power-backed Israeli arms. It recalls too the other half of Sammler’s Holocaust story, the story not of the violence done to him but of the violence he inflicted. First he was forced by the Nazis into a pit of corpses, among them his wife; he was buried alive, but he climbed from that hole, an experience of return that has left him feeling only half alive, a visitor from the other side. After he survived, he became a Partisan and killed a soldier:

There at very close range he shot a man he had disarmed. He made him fling away his carbine. To the side. A good five feet into snow. It landed flat and sank. Sammler ordered the man to take off his coat. Then the tunic. The sweater, the boots. After this, he said to Sammler in a low voice, “Nicht schiessen.” He asked for his life. Red-headed, a big chin bronze-stubbled, he was scarcely breathing. He was white. Violet under the eyes. Sammler saw the soil already sprinkled on his face. He saw the grave on his skin. The grime of the lip, the large creases of skin descending from his nose already lined with dirt—that man to Sammler was already underground. He was no longer dressed for life. He was marked, lost. Had to go. Was gone. “Don’t kill me. Take the things.” Sammler did not answer, but stood out of reach. “I have children.” Sammler pulled the trigger. The body then lay in the snow. A second shot went through the head and shattered it. Bone burst. Matter flew out.

[…]

Mr. Sammler himself was able to add, to basic wisdom, that to kill the man he ambushed in the snow had given him pleasure. Was it only pleasure? It was more. It was joy. You would call it a dark action? On the contrary, it was also a bright one. It was mainly bright. When he fired his gun, Sammler, himself nearly a corpse, burst into life.

Christopher Hitchens reads the pickpocket thread of the novel as Bellow’s analogy between Black Power anti-Semitism and Arab countries’ war on Israel, but the textual evidence suggests instead an anxiety that the post-Holocaust pursuit of Jewish strength may make Jewish people into oppressors, even ecstatic murderers, even racist killers, in their turn. And in his remorse for having inadvertently set the murderous Eisen onto the thief, Sammler reflects at the kinship between his and the thief’s dandiacal dignity:

The black man? The black man was a megalomaniac. But there was a certain—a certain princeliness. The clothing, the shades, the sumptuous colors, the barbarous-majestical manner. He was probably a mad spirit. But mad with an idea of noblesse. And how much Sammler sympathized with him—how much he would have done to prevent such atrocious blows!

The old man is the pickpocket’s equal and double, the elegant thief is Sammler’s semblable, son frère. Sammler doesn’t, anyway, identify himself with Europe, still less with whiteness, as he reflects, “he himself, a Jew, no matter how Britannicized or Americanized, was also an Asian,” which brings us to the novel’s main plot, bookended by the episodes with the pickpocket.

First, Elya Gruner has gone to the hospital for what will prove a fatal aneurysm, a looming death that overshadows the two-day narrative, both because it reminds the elderly Sammler what waits for us all and because the death of his and his daughter’s benefactor threatens their ability to live in America. Shula, for her part, has stolen a manuscript about the colonization of the moon from a distinguished Indian professor, Dr. Govinda Lal, to give to her father to goad him to write his Wells memoir, and perhaps also to arrange a meeting where she may seduce the scientist. Added to this, Wallace Gruner is convinced that his dying father has secreted ill-gotten money somewhere in the family’s house—money the physician made performing illicit abortions or medical favors for the mafia.

These plot lines converge eventually at the Gruner domicile, where Sammler and Lal discuss the future of human life and Wallace accidentally floods the house from a pipe in the attic he’s disassembled to look for concealed cash (“how apt it was that Wallace should flood the attic. Why, it was a metaphor for Elya’s condition,” Sammler thinks as Bellow invites the reader to congratulate him for his richly patterned imagery). The novel concludes in the hospital, as Sammler fails to convince Angela to reconcile with her estranged father, and then himself cries to God over Gruner’s corpse in a concluding paragraph that has been praised as one of Bellow’s best pieces of prose:

“Remember, God, the soul of Elya Gruner, who, as willingly as possible and as well as he was able, and even to an intolerable point, and even in suffocation and even as death was coming was eager, even childishly perhaps (may I be forgiven for this), even with a certain servility, to do what was required of him. At his best this man was much kinder than at my very best I have ever been or could ever be. He was aware that he must meet, and he did meet—through all the confusion and degraded clowning of this life through which we are speeding—he did meet the terms of his contract. The terms which, in his inmost heart, each man knows. As I know mine. As all know. For that is the truth of it—that we all know, God, that we know, that we know, we know, we know.”

If the pickpocket subplot discloses a stranger and subtler Bellow than his reputation would suggest—a potential non-racist; an anxious, almost-non-Zionist—what about the balance of the novel? For one thing, despite its insistent lunar motif, the narrative as a whole seems to endorse its hero’s solar misogyny. The novel’s profusion of female figures together add up to a portrait of woman as all misdirected intellectual energy and distressingly abundant, if not prolific, flesh (the widowed Margotte, the spinster Shula, and the licentious Angela are all without children).

Females were naturally more prone to grossness, had more smells, needed more washing, clipping, binding, pruning, grooming, perfuming, and training.

This, unlike Sammler’s racism, finds no obvious narrative redress. In his social theorizing, Sammler worries that culture, whether high or low, will overwhelm civilization when it is extended to every indigene of the excitable metropole, as it did in the Nazi period. Civilization, by contrast to personal and relative culture, is emblematized by impersonal, universal science: “Outer-space voyages were made possible by specialist-collaboration.” This is why the character who represents science in the novel is a foreigner to the U.S. just like Sammler; civilization knows no strangers, only protocols for peaceable, productive communication. (Though this, like the novel’s other cross-race relation, is ironized: since Sammler sees Jews as “Oriental” in his 19th-century typology, he and Lal commune as fellow “Easterners”; and since Lal suffered an existentially violent threat to his people at the partition of India, both the Jewish journalist and the Punjabi scientist commiserate in the Muslim threat to their respective nations—here is the novel’s real Zionist moment, not the distressing, dystopian episode actually set in Israel.)

The feminine stands in Sammler’s view for all that is inertly gross and irrational in the cosmos—the “generative female slime,” as he calls it in reference to Elya’s gynecological profession. As culture is the irrational substrate of civilization, so woman is the crazy matrix of man, which means that the upcoming moon voyage with which the novel is so obsessed stands less for civilizational achievement than for humanity’s final rendezvous, ironically effected by Apollonian science, with the Dionysian energies unleashed by modernity, just as the novel’s lunatic women incite so much of its Dostoevskean plot. There is, then, no dividing Sammler from Bellow on the gender question, no excusing Bellow—or his creature—from the accusation that they are rank misogynists.

The novel has a single cutting reference to Adorno (“Side excursions into Adorno, Marcuse, Norman O. Brown, whom he found to be worthless fellows”), but Sammler plainly fears the dialectic of Enlightenment: reason’s self-abolition through its very extension to every natural domain, which re-mires the mind in nature. The gaudy princes and princesses of decadent postmodernity, who weirdly combine nature and artifice in their both oversexed and overrefined erotic revolution, enact this civilizational apocalypse against which Sammler proposes to pit his faith in individual moral choice and in a God whose covenant enjoins such a commitment (“I have strong impressions of eternity”). He tells Dr. Lal:

“It was charged against the Christian that he wanted to get rid of himself. Those that brought the charge urged him to transcend his unsatisfactory humanity. But isn’t transcendence the same disorder? Isn’t that also getting rid of the human being? Well, maybe man should get rid of himself. Of course. If he can. But also he has something in him which he feels it important to continue. Something that deserves to go on. It is something that has to go on, and we all know it. The spirit feels cheated, outraged, defiled, corrupted, fragmented, injured. Still it knows what it knows, and the knowledge cannot be gotten rid of. The spirit knows that its growth is the real aim of existence. So it seems to me.”

This judgment against all forms of pagan and Christian and modern self-destruction, this summons instead to life and moral growth, together bring us to the question of the novel’s conservatism. Is this the book where Bellow makes his apparent turn to the right? It depends on how much we can trust Sammler.

To whatever extent the old man speaks for what he thinks of as the “old politeness,” for civilization, for a senescent sexual pessimism that led him to be heckled by a student-in-revolt at the novel’s opening (“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”), Sammler himself understands this to be a lie. As Anglophile and journalist, he started on the side of bohemia, of Baudelaire, of Bloomsbury; and to “basic wisdom” he adds a wartime pleasure in killing that far exceeds what he is shown to observe on New York streets. He may deride the Gruners’ gay interior decorator with “his Oscar Wilde hairdo,” but Bloomsbury, as Jennifer Wicke once observed, is “Wildeanism lived in coterie fashion, Oscar as a group,” which is why, Wicke goes on, Bloomsbury’s gay economist John Maynard Keynes crafted the policies that produced the affluent urban carnival Sammler wanders with such overt dismay and covert fascination.

Sammler occupies the structural position of the queer, the artist, the decadent, the criminal, the alien, the flâneur—everything the novel is famous for seeming to despise. The Holocaust may have shattered his progressive optimism, but it couldn’t make him any more of a solid, respectable, WASP citizen, hence his self-acknowledged kinship to the black thief he’d first wished to abject.

But Sammler, hypocrite acteur, looks forward to a new kind of conservatism, the one that would undo Keynes and universal Bloomsburyism, when he elegizes the “Eastern Jew” turned American bourgeois Elya Gruner. He tells an uncomprehending Angela while her father expires:

“Anyway, there is Elya’s assignment. That’s what’s in his good face. That’s why he has such a human look. He’s made something of himself. He hasn’t done badly. He didn’t like surgery. You know that. He dreaded those three- and four-hour operations. But he performed them. He did what he disliked. He had an unsure loyalty to certain pure states. He knew there had been good men before him, that there were good men to come, and he wanted to be one of them. I think he did all right. I don’t come out nearly so well myself. Till forty or so I was simply an Anglophile intellectual Polish Jew and person of culture—relatively useless. But Elya, by sentimental repetition and by formulas if you like, partly by propaganda, has accomplished something good. Brought himself through.”

Gruner stands for the social mobility that comes from hard work, not government largesse, and if he is no less a criminal than the black pickpocket, still, he did it to advance himself and his family in America. His children’s seduction by ambient irrationalism is the only failure with which Sammler might charge him; subtract that, and we see, in Sammler’s bushy eye, a model American life. This hymn to hard work, duty, family, and the occasional ethical lapse in the name of success is the sound not of the ’60s but of the ’80s, not of Keynes but of Reagan. In that way, and despite its severe qualification of Zionism, we might account this a conservative novel, one ahead of its time.

Again, though, are we to conflate Sammler’s views with Bellow’s? Bellow must take some of the blame if readers think opinion is this essayistic novel’s main event, because Mr. Sammler’s Planet is at times alarmingly discursive. For example, Sammler’s climactic speech to Govinda Lal, though it goes on for pages, doesn’t add enough to what the novel dramatizes in action or situates as Sammler’s thought, which Bellow always implicitly invites us to contest: “All postures are mocked by their opposites.” Bellow does sometimes sound merely preachy as his seeming spokesman Sammler defends moral choice over a life of defeatist aestheticism.

Still, the novel’s form is Bloomsbury through and through; it often reads like a more pungent Mrs. Dalloway, an aesthete’s fluid divagations among the appearances rather than a paean to hard work and enterprise. How much we understand this as authorial confusion and how much as deliberate irony will determine a final judgment. If the novel’s form is so opposed to its content—if the novel, that is, cannot in its ideological lexicon account for its own aesthetic design—then it fails the test of ethics proposed in my first paragraph above, despite Bellow’s extraordinary extravagance of language and sensorium and character. But what a failure!

2 comments

  1. Interesting review. I’ve read several of Bellow’s books but not this one. My overriding impression is that he was the literary equivalent of a great barroom talker, the sort of person who has a fascinating way with words but is not necessarily a good storyteller (I make an exception for “Seize the Day” though). Also, it’s hard to tell but I get the feeling he’s gone somewhat out of fashion. His stylistic approach, blending all kinds of high and low culture references, maybe seems pretentious to readers nowadays. And his attitude to women probably doesn’t help his popularity either.

    • Thanks, and that’s a great description of his work’s appeal. I think there was a time when Bellow was genuinely popular because he was addressing the issues of the moment and somewhat “dirty” books were still a novelty (not that he was Roth-level). But despite no longer being popular as such, I don’t think he’ll be forgotten either—he’s still in print in Penguin Classic and Library of America editions—since he writes too well for writers to ignore and since he’s so foundational to Jewish-American literature.

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