Commentary Magazine


Mr. Bellow's Planet

Saul bellow’s new novella, the critics agree, is not one of his major works. As James Wood put it in the New Republic, The Actual1 while having “its own nervous perfection,” is “slight . . . a ricochet from a talent that has already hit many targets.” From a writer, now eighty-two years old, who won the 1976 Nobel prize for literature and has given us much of the best American fiction of our time, one is thankful even for a ricochet.

The Actual, however, is not so slight as to be utterly transparent. On its second page is a sentence that is likely to puzzle a reader unsteeped in Bellow’s work. The speaker is the book’s narrator, Harry Trellman, a middle-aged, divorced Chicago businessman. A man who has read much and thought much, Trellman remarks, in no apparent context:

A man’s road back to himself is a return from his spiritual exile, for that is what a personal history amounts to—exile.

Uncertain what to make of this, the reader reads on in the hope of eventual enlightenment. Like Bellow’s early novella, Seize The Day (1956), The Actual takes place in the course of a single morning and afternoon, during which we follow Trellman through a series of memories and encounters. Two other main characters appear in these. One of them, Sigmund Adletsky, is an aged multimillionaire who has retained Trellman as an adviser. The other is Trellman’s old high-school sweetheart, Amy Wustrin, with whom he has kept in touch over the years. Amy is now the Adletskys’ interior decorator and the divorced wife of Trellman’s deceased friend Jay Wustrin—who, as Trellman says, “married the only woman I had ever loved and made an utter fuck-up of their life together.”

In the course of this half-day, we are privy to conversations between Trellman and Adletsky, and between Adletsky and Amy; to a meeting, attended by Amy, between Mr. and Mrs. Adletsky and a raffishly wealthy couple by the name of Heisinger; and, finally, to a trip made by Trellman and Amy to the cemetery to attend Jay Wustrin’s reburial (a consequence of Jay’s buffoonish choice of a gravesite). When the body is back in the ground, Trellman relates: “I took Amy by the hand and said, ‘This may not be the moment for a marriage offer. It won’t be my first error with you. But I’ve never felt more connected to you than I do now, and I hope you’ll have me.’ ”

These lines, the concluding ones of the book—Amy’s response to them goes unrecorded—come as a mild surprise; for although Trellman has told us of his continued romantic feelings toward Amy and of his regret at not having married her when they were young (his “first error,” made because “I wasn’t about to join the middle class for Amy’s sake and be a petty bourgeois”), nowhere has he hinted that he is planning, after all these years, to propose to her.

Nor, at The Actual‘s end, has any more light been shed on Trellman’s remark about “spiritual exile.” Whatever he meant by it remains unlocated in his life. It is a theme that he—a “first-class noticer,” as Adletsky calls him, if also by his own admission a man “reluctant to put myself on record”—has not come back to.

But Saul Bellow is too meticulous a novelist simply to leave us without a clue. The one he provides comes toward the story’s end, when Trellman tells Amy in the cemetery:

Actually Jay was a generous friend. He never forgot my birthday. He made me fine gifts—a beautiful set of Jowett’s Plato, and The Decline and Fall in an old edition. I still own them, read them. I occasionally try to tell people what’s in them.

Amy, who thinks Harry is overintellectual, has just described herself to him as “not one of those women who are born to be deep . . . I have a high-average IQ, that’s all,” and is not about to be drawn into a discussion of books, let alone Roman history or Greek philosophy. “Tell me about the Burma money,” she replies, trying to steer Trellman back to the topic of a shady business deal that he and Jay were once involved in. The Plato she leaves to us.

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And it is with Plato that the haunting image of the soul’s exile in this world enters Western thought. Coming from a preexistent elsewhere with perfect knowledge of Beauty, Truth, and Goodness, of “knowledge absolute in existence absolute,” as Benjamin Jowett’s marvelous Victorian translation has it, the soul, we are told by Plato’s Socrates in the Phaedrus, enters the “living tomb” of the mortal body and “sinks beneath the double load of forgetfulness and vice.” Eons must elapse “before the soul can return to the place whence she came, for she can not grow her wings in less; only the soul of a philosopher, guileless and true, or the soul of a lover” can fly the nets of imprisonment sooner.

The Phaedrus is a paean to Eros; for next to the philosopher, who attains “the recollection of those things which our soul once saw when in company with God,” the lover alone, seeing the “godlike face or form” of the beloved, feels “a shudder run through him and some ‘misgiving’ of a former world steal over him.” The philosopher sees clearly, declares Socrates, the lover “but through a glass dimly”; but, among men forgetful of the things of the other world, he at least gets a fleeting glimpse.

And Harry Trellman, in his slow and methodical way, has been a lover. “I had fallen in love [with Amy],” he tells us,

when I was an adolescent schoolboy. The tremendous feeling came, as they say, “we know not whence.” Everything—but every thing—was as before. There were still kitchens with onions and potato peels in the sink, and streetcars grinding on the rails. . . . I couldn’t have expected Amy to mark time while I was inching [back] toward her. 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.

Although he has still not exactly gone on record, it is that Jowettian “whence” that gives Trellman away. In reading Saul Bellow, indeed, especially his later fiction, one sometimes suspects that one is reading a closet Platonist. The soul’s exile is the grand if frequently submerged theme of many of his novels and stories—novels and stories that on the surface, as a blurb on one of his books says, “crackle with smart, urban American energy.”

Although Bellow’s critics have not, on the whole, paid much attention to this aspect of his work, they have not neglected it entirely. Often, in commenting on his high-temperature fusion of the grit and glitter of contemporary American life with the strivings of the inner self, they have discussed his preoccupation with the latter in terms of “mysticism.” Expressing a common perception about Bellow’s fiction, for instance, the critic Edmond Schraepen has noted how his most overtly “mystical” novel, Humboldt’s Gift (1975), “reveals thematic antitheses which are related to a basic opposition between the distracting world and the transcendental.”

Still, there has been a tendency to minimize this “mysticism” of Bellow’s and to view its imagery as a literary device, used to express his characters’ sense of alienation from a materialistic civilization. Bellow himself, as the critics have observed, has encouraged this way of looking at things, undercutting his characters’ belief in a higher reality by ironically or parodically having them gravitate to the weird and the exotic. Charlie Citrine, for example, the highly intelligent narrator of Humboldt’s Gift, is nuttily attracted to the doctrines of the Austrian spiritualist Rudolf Steiner (1865-1921), who wrote such books as The Occult Significance of Blood and founded a movement called anthroposophy that has its followers to this day. A Plato, Steiner was not.

And “Platonism” is in any case not quite the right word for it. The conviction, as Wordsworth put it in his “Ode On Intimations of Immortality,” that “our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting” had already overflowed the bounds of Platonism in antiquity. It kept to them in the icy raptures of Plotinus; it spilled into new and ever-shifting channels in the Hellenistic mystery religions, in gnosticism, in the Catholic church, in rabbinic Judaism, in medieval Jewish, Christian, and Islamic philosophy, in Sufism and Kabbalah, in the neoplatonists and alchemists of the Renaissance, in Hasidism, in Protestant mystics like Jakob Boehme and George Fox, in—but perhaps here the soul itself began its contemporary shrinkage to a mere metaphor—romanticism and New England transcendentalism. It has run dry, or into the stagnant puddles of religious kitsch and the underground caverns of bizarre cults, in the anti-dualistic climate of our own century, in which the very word “soul” has become archaic or a quaint poetic synonym for the self, the belief in what it once signified now exposed as an elementary error in logic.

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Bellow, in any case, is probably fonder of the word “soul” than any major English writer since D.H. Lawrence or W.B. Yeats. Appearing fitfully in his earlier books, it first strikes one by its prominence in Humboldt’s Gift. Von Humboldt Fleisher, the gifted and alcoholic poet of the title, is obsessed, his friend Charlie Citrine tells us, by “the perennial human feeling that there was an original world, a home-world, which was lost. . . . He spoke of our species as castaways.” And Citrine himself, though he feels that he has betrayed his friend’s high spiritual purposes by selling out to middlebrow America, also has such intimations. He remarks:

More than ever I believed that the soul with its occasional glimmers of the Good couldn’t expect to get anywhere in a single lifetime. . . . A single span [of life on earth] could only make virtue desperate. Only a fool would try to reconcile the Good with one-shot mortality.

Like Charlie Citrine, Ijah Brodsky in Bellow’s 1984 story, “Cousins,” reflects:

We enter the world without prior notice, we are manifested before we can be aware of manifestation. An original self exists or, if you prefer, an original soul.

Start looking for them and you find such allusions throughout Bellow’s later work, often in mere snippets of narrative or phrasing embedded in the surrounding detail like the clues of a treasure hunt. Albert Corde, the central protagonist of The Dean’s December (1982), has read the Phaedrus many times and writes an article comparing the city of Chicago to the cave of Plato’s famous allegory. Arthur Sammler of Mr. Sammler’s Planet (1970) wants, “with God, to be free from the bondage of the ordinary and the finite.” Kenneth Trachtenberg, the narrator of More Die Of Heartbreak (1987) and the biographer of his uncle Benn Crader, a renowned scientist and “Citizen of Eternity,” speaks of the Socratic “daemon” or “inner spirit” within us. “My soul played the role of sitter in my body,” says the narrator of The Bellarosa Connection (1989). The narrator of “Something To Remember Me By” (1990) mentions his “lifelong absorption in or craze for further worlds.” And in a much earlier work, Henderson of Henderson the Rain King (1959) lifts an unacknowledged line from Wordsworth when he describes the child sitting next to him on an airplane as “trailing clouds of glory.” (“From God, who is our home,” goes Wordsworth’s next line.) One could go on.

They are almost always intellectuals, these protagonists of Bellow’s—if generally, like Harry Trellman, self-taught ones—and they have a sense of being strangers in this world. And yet typically, they do not hang out with others of their kind. They prefer the company of businessmen, promoters, politicians, mobsters, lawyers, scam artists, slightly mad scientists, disreputable relatives, oddballs, highly sexual women, often on the make. They are drawn to wealth and power, the glitz of expensive clubs, hotels, restaurants, offices. Though they have ideas, often “mystical,” about everything, what they think about most is power, money, sex, ambition, the brawls and bruises of the human marketplace. They are, as Blake said of Eternity, in love with the productions of Time.

Repelled by them, too. Arthur Sammler, erudite European, Holocaust survivor, loathes the gaudy carnival of late-20th-century New York. Albert Corde, dean of journalism, discovers upon returning to Chicago from abroad that it “looked as if the Antichrist had already descended on it,” its “engineers, advertisers, insurers, bankers, and stockbrokers” inhabiting a jungle in which they were “not animals fighting honorably for survival, they were money maniacs, they were deeply perverted, corrupt. No jungle, more like a garbage dump.”

Repelled—yet still drawn. Corde has “taken it upon himself to pass Chicago through his own soul. A mass of data, terrible, murderous. It was no easy matter to put such things through.” Sammler is mesmerized by a pickpocket on the Broadway bus, a “powerful Negro in a camel’s-hair coat, dressed with extraordinary elegance,” and is horrified to see him beaten even after he has exposed himself to Sammler sexually and mugged a young man in front of him:

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.

Well, why not? The soul, the wise old Diotima warns Socrates in The Symposium, yearning for the home-world, “turns to beautiful forms . . . at one place fair, at another time or in another relation or at another place foul.” Far more even than the senses, the soul worships beauty, grace, vitality, power. Bellow’s fiction teems with such sublimely suckered souls. As Kenneth Trachtenberg says of his uncle Benn Crader, the Citizen of Eternity who in More Die of Heartbreak disastrously marries the (gorgeously) wrong woman, “He has imaginative powers that let him see things that others don’t. . . . But even this does not prevent his being a fool.” And what most makes Crader a fool is sex—less the physical than the Platonic lure of it:

Emotional types, loving hearts like my uncle, exuberant high-energy characters, easily agitated, needy, greedy, they can’t see why one high gift should not be followed by another, by a succession of gifts. The demand then was for a sharer, a charming woman, such a woman as Swedenborg describes—made by God to instruct a man, to lead him to the exchange of souls. Maybe to teach him, as Diotima taught Socrates about love.

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But does Bellow believe this Platonic stuff? His literary career actually starts with a qualified rejection of it. Joseph, the surnameless protagonist of Bellow’s first novel, Dangling Man (1944), declines as a modern man to use the words “spirit” and “soul,” though he too feels banished from a higher existence, imagining men as “the feebleminded children of angels.” He prefers “mind,” or “the self that we must govern. It is our humanity that we are responsible for it. . . .”

But responsible to whom? For a soul, conceived traditionally, one is responsible to God. If our private self, however, unlike our public personality, is that representation of ourselves to ourselves that we alone must live with, to whom or to what can we be responsible for it?

When in the age of romanticism the soul becomes the self, this question is indeed what it becomes. The romantic self is a soul responsible only to itself, for—as Keats said when he wrote that “this world is a vale of soul-making”—it is self-made. And much of Saul Bellow’s early work—Dangling Man, The Adventures of Augie March (1953), Henderson the Rain King—is concerned with such soul-making, with the romantic construction of the self. More precisely, it is about that construction in America, the best and worst vale ever for the project—vast, inchoate, endlessly free, endlessly diverse and stimulating, containing the greatest supply of soul-making materials ever available and therefore the one most likely to distract the user from his task.

Joseph is defeated at this task. “I am no longer to be held accountable for myself,” he declares at Dangling Man‘s end as he receives his wartime call-up from the army. “I am grateful for that. I am in other hands, relieved of self-determination.” By contrast, the picaresque Augie March, as irrepressibly zestful for life as Joseph is wary of it, throws himself back into the fray, gulping down America as if it were a brew of psychic vitamins. And the ex-pig farmer Henderson, a kindly, Keats-reading, physical giant of a man who is working on a self as large, finds even America too cramped a work place and sets out for Africa to slake his thirst for experience.

Henderson constantly craves the new, the ever more real; his self, to use the language of our own contemporary culture, the culture of the romantic self popularized, is continually growing. In fact, it is an entire growth industry in itself. Yet the more it grows, and the more, like the figure reaching for the moon in Blake’s illustration, it cries, “I want!” the more the endlessness of the task exasperates him. Finally, it wears him out. Perhaps that is why, as his story draws to a close, he tries out a new—an old—metaphor. I have already mentioned the scene. A child is sitting next to him on an airplane:

As for this kid resting against me . . . why, he was still trailing his cloud of glory. God knows, I [had] dragged mine on as long as I could till it got dingy, mere tatters of gray fog. . . . You could never convince me that this was for the first time.

Henderson, in a word, gives up the idea of the romantic self and returns to the Platonic idea of the soul. For the self-in-progress can never be finished; the soul—although it may take a lifetime to recollect it—is already complete. This moment represents a kind of turning point, or point of turning back, in Bellow’s work. Soul now replaces self in his fiction, as it gradually does (so we must infer) in the life of Harry Trellman in The Actual.

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Harry gave Amy Wustrin up in the first place, he tells us, because “of the ordinary middle-class character of [the] connection,” which made him see “the feelings I had for her as sheer kitsch. And kitsch didn’t sort well with the advanced forms of personal development I was after.” For the self that seeks, like Henderson’s, “personal development,” the greatest fear is of standing still. Harry had not wanted to become like Jay Wustrin and his friends,

run-of-the-mill products of our mass democracy . . . 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 the spirit.

For Harry himself is a regenerate son of Eros. In Amy’s not particularly spectacular beauty, the chunky earthiness of her “flesh-and-blood mortality,” he has come to see, not the sexual opportunity that first attracted Jay Wustrin, but a glimmer of something else, something that “the years between, with their crises and wars and presidential campaigns, all the transformations of the present age, have had no power to change.” He is indeed on the constant lookout for such glimmers, straining with their aid, as he has phrased it, to “crack the cipher” of reality, unable to “rid myself of the habit of watching for glimpses of higher capacities and incipient powerful forces.” It is a trait, Trellman muses, that he perhaps acquired in the Jewish orphanage that his mother put him in as a child,

where I was taught (but at the time did not agree) that the Jews were a chosen people. This may be the nucleus of my belief that the powers of our human genius are present where one least expects them. . . . And very possibly it is a carryover from some vestigial Jewish impulse.

Although Harry may be mixing his Hebraism and his Hellenism, he is doing nothing that both Western civilization and Jewish religious culture have not done extensively before him; Bellow, certainly, has always seemed comfortable with the mix. In fact, the sense of utter ease that Bellow’s fiction has projected about both its Jewish and its non-Jewish affiliations—or, if one likes, about being both a Jew and an American—is what has made him, despite the rapid pulse of his prose, the calmest major Jewish writer of our century. Kenneth Trachtenberg may ask about his Uncle Benn’s fascination with “Ideal Beauty,” “What are Jews doing, getting into all this Greek stuff, anyway?” Harry Trellman, like Bellow himself, is unworried by the impurity of his intellectual bloodlines.

What has worried him until now is the specter of stasis, repetition, boredom. “[Even] Churchill in his final years was maddened by boredom and prayed for death,” he tells Adletsky with a kind of reflective horror. Such a prospect has struck him as intolerable, a living death. And what would marrying Amy be if not the greatest repetition of all—no, worse than repetition, regression—the retreat to a former self? It is only when Trellman comes to view this self as a soul that marriage to Amy becomes possible. For if a self is stunted by repetition, a soul is fulfilled by it. It grows by repossession rather than expansion.

Harry does not propose to Amy very romantically. There is not even the obligatory “I love you” that seems to end every other conversation in America these days. But despite the flatness of his language, he is talking from a deep place. Several minutes before he pops the question, he remarks to her:

I have a most basic lifelong feeling toward you, Amy. It’s something not possible to conceal from a skillful observer. In my feelings, I’ve always had an open direct line to you. It’s from my nature, not from my character. My character is compromised. But not even a compromised—okay, a mutilated—character could change my nature.

Translate “character” as “personality,” and “nature” as what Ijah Brodsky calls the “original self” or “original soul,” and what Harry Trellman is offering Amy, to put it as precisely as possible, is a Platonic relationship.

_____________

 

But does Bellow believe this stuff? Who knows? If he were to give you an hour of his time, you still might not know. He might not want to put himself on record. When something works for a writer, there are reasons for keeping it unclarified.

It is easy enough to understand the poetic pull of such imagery. No matter how we try getting used to the place, the feeling of not being at home in this world, of having our real home elsewhere, is probably as common in our own times as in antiquity. The difference is that we are embarrassed by it. We think we are experiencing something else—a personality disturbance, or a longing for the cradle or the womb.

In my student days I spent a year reading English in Cambridge (England, not Massachusetts). My college ran on the old system; you attended what lectures you pleased and met desultorily with a tutor to discuss things. Since I was interested in the poetry of William Blake, I was assigned to tutorials with a woman named Kathleen Raine, who had written a book on him.

Kathleen Raine was a poet herself. The other day I opened and read, for the first time in 35 years, a book of her verse that I bought that year in London, and so I can even say that she was a good poet.

What seemed most distinctive about her, though, was her being not a poet but a Platonist. An honest-to-goodness one. She read the Socratic dialogues, Plotinus, Porphyry, and Proclus as her spiritual handbooks. She was not, as far as I could see, a fundamentalist. She did not take literally the Myth of Er or the allegory of the charioteer in the Phaedrus. But she was a believer. She thought our souls came from elsewhere and were in exile. She was the first and last real Platonist I ever met.

She read Blake as though he were a Platonist, too. I could not agree with her on that. Blake was a radical monist, so radical that it has taken most of the 20th century to catch up with him; his quarrel with Plato struck me as deep and uncompromising. But I did not argue with Kathleen Raine about Blake. I was too young for that, and too easily intimidated by anyone her age, let alone by a woman who knew the source and destination of her soul. Of all that she said to me that year, I remember with exactitude only a few words. I cannot recall what we were talking about, but they were: “Well, of course. You spend the first half of your life working your way into your incarnation, and the second half working your way out of it.”

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Over the years, I have sometimes pondered that remark. As I get older, I begin to think that I understand it, at least on my own terms—which are almost certainly not Kathleen Raine’s.

Young people are natural romantics, although many fail to follow their natures. The craving for experience when one is young is insatiable. One cannot get enough of it. One never knows what may come in handy in making a self. One accumulates all one can, crams oneself with whole Chicagos.

But the young have to learn that the self must eventually, like an examination paper, be brought to some kind of closure; it must be submitted in as finished a state as possible. Not to the world—that will judge us by our personalities and our actions; even the most transparent of selves remains largely hidden to it. To believe, like Joseph, that the self will be judged, but not by the world, is, I sometimes think, to believe in something like a soul.

I am not sure that these are Bellow’s terms. He appears to have gone beyond them. True, unlike the word “soul,” the word “God” rarely appears in his work; it is missing, like the second line from Wordsworth. But in our age of religious blah-blah, this may be merely a sign of decent reticence.

In any event, not only does Harry Trellman not talk about God, he does not talk about souls, either. Bellow leaves this in The Actual to Amy Wustrin. Reminiscing to Madge Heisinger about her ex-husband Jay and his penchant for quoting literature, she says:

He memorized bits when he was putting the make on girls. After we were married, I looked up all his source books. The passages were underlined, and just from Chapter One. He never read an entire book in his whole life. Here is a sample: “The face of man is the most amazing thing in the life of the world. Another world shines through it. . . . Through the face we apprehend not the bodily life of a man, but the life of his soul.”

Madge, a tough lady who also knew Jay, replies: “He knew better than to lay such shit on me. Who wrote it?”

But Amy simply repeats, still musing over Jay’s duplicity: “Underlined with a ruler, in red. Just Chapter One. The rest he never looked at.”

In the mouth of a slick operator like Jay Wustrin, this passage, whether a real quotation or something made-up, has Bellow again parodying himself—or at least those of his characters who talk this way. But the parody is complicated. For one thing, Amy, who is as emotionally honest and level-headed as they come, has taken the trouble to learn the words by heart; whatever use Jay has put them to, they speak to her. For another, it is Harry Trellman’s opinion, voiced elsewhere in the novella, mat his friend Jay “approached all the right things for all the wrong reasons.”

This may be Bellow’s way of warning readers away from essays like this one. Still, The Actual, too, has its cipher that needs to be cracked. Slight as it is, there is something compactly summarizing about it. Affable, even sweet-tempered, it shows a man at the edge of a neatly worked-out incarnation.

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Footnotes

1 Viking, 104 pp., $17.95.

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About the Author

Hillel Halkin is a columnist for the New York Sun and a veteran contributor to COMMENTARY. Portions of the present essay were delivered at Northwestern University in March as the Klutznick Lecture in Jewish Civilization.




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