Commentary Magazine

Humboldt's Gift, by Saul Bellow

Humboldt’s Gift.
by Saul Bellow.
Viking. 487 pp. $10.00.

Free style and fixed categories, will and idea, mental geography and urban reality, odi et amo, the heart’s reasons and the mind’s imperatives, carnal compulsion and theoretical need, member virilis versus mens cogitans—these are only a few of the antitheses, some the author’s, some my own distillations, that come to mind when one thinks back upon the books that Saul Bellow has written during the last three decades. Dangling Man, the title of his first novel, could serve as a collective description of his heroes: the Hendersons, Herzogs, Wilhelms, Sammlers, all swinging on delicate threads of reason between opposing truths and immiscible realities. The contradictions close in, the string is cut, and the novels become arenas of desperate struggle, filled with events that, like feral predators, stalk Bellow’s characters in their times of vulnerability, refusing to be disciplined by thought or tamed by affection, capricious, cruel, and comic appetities whetted only further by efforts to understand them.

When, some years ago, I wrote that Bellow’s novels “do not so much end as wear themselves out,” I was describing his formal handling of these conflicts, the novelistic method of qualification, speculation, and cultural gloss with which he, through his characters, battles the rambunctious events of his narrative and tries to effect between the gritty details of naturalism and the generalities of an imaginative intelligence some sort of stylistic agreement. I intended this description of exhaustion both as an observation that Bellow often seemed not to trust the conventions of fiction and as an appreciation of what he was able to achieve by refusing the temptation of neat narrative resolutions. He, his characters, and the readers struggled on to the very end, grappling with ironies and complexities that spilled well over the boundaries of his fiction. And if such struggles often made for a ragged, disjointed aesthetic experience, they also infused Bellow’s novels with a vitality and intelligence that were unique in American fiction.

After Mr. Sammler’s Planet, one wondered how the struggle would continue. Arthur Sammler, after all, the disinterested, seventy-year-old cultural consciousness, survivor of the Holocaust, a revenant of intellectual history who takes short views and eschews explanations, is as extreme an example of theoretical fatigue as it is possible to put in human form. He moves among his dying and lunatic relatives like a compassionate spectator, honoring obligations of feeling and conduct as though they were functional necessities, rituals of self-preservation engaged in for the sake of an incomprehensible duty to life. Around him he observes the cluttered humanity of New York; ugliness, desperation, crime, the imbecile cults of fashion catch his attention as, avoiding dog droppings, he walks and rides through the streets of the city. But he has seen and known too much to be moved, shocked, or angered by them. Reflections on the destiny of his species cause no more than brief flurries of bemused melancholy and an occasional feeling of pity he knows is most likely misplaced.

Having dug, alongside his wife, the ditch that was meant to be their own grave and that of a hundred other Jews; having heard the shots of his own execution and tumbled into dirt and death; having then realized that he alone was alive among the corpses and having clawed his way instinctively back into life, where, as a partisan, he would kill not only faceless enemies but also a man in whom he saw the terrible details of humanity—having experienced such absolutes of horror, Sammler cannot now be truly startled by any human action, and there is no organization of thought that can offer him a consistent summation of human life. That Sammler still thinks at all about such matters seems, like his feelings and Old World manners, to be the result of old habits of mental civility, a courteous way of taking leave of his planet. And yet, just as it seems that Arthur Sammler is the personification of a demoded culture, of life lived by keeping up appearances that no longer matter to anyone, Bellow brings him back to earth and human meaning, and in the end Sammler must face the fact that neither death nor flights to other worlds, neither Holocaust nor absurd daily passions, can free him from attachment to his belief, or rather to his knowledge, that the acts of the human species are of significant consequence. Standing over the body of his nephew, a man whose life had been the normal mixture of kind acts and selfish purpose, Sammler delivers a eulogy that ends:

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 all know, God, that we know, that we know, we know, we know.

Thus Sammler admits there is a covenant involved in human existence and a knowledge of the manner in which it must be kept. His labors are bent upon justifying the covenant’s terms and the pain they cause, on making the bargain acceptable to mortal feelings. Thought and theory are not then voyages of discovery, but rather attempts at compassionate demonstrations of the necessary justice in the intuited imperatives of life. By admitting such knowledge, Sammler affirms and ennobles the attempts of the Herzogs and Hendersons to reconcile this awareness of human purpose with the errant, disconnected data of their personal lives.



Mr. Sammler’s Planet is a refined tribute to the struggle between human consciousness and the accidental life of passion, between the philosopher’s need to justify and the novelist’s duty to depict. With Humboldt’s Gift, Bellow still affects the zest and seriousness of these old combats, but his arena has become much smaller, his spectacles more contrived, and his adversaries affected with a commonplace exhaustion before their contests even begin. I am told that there is a good deal of autobiography in this novel and this may explain Bellow’s reluctance to give the protagonist of Humboldt’s Gift any of the intellectual strength and interesting human virtue that offset the frequent tone of self-pity and social petulance in his earlier central characters. But the fact that Humboldt is modeled after the poet Delmore Schwartz or that Bellow’s involvement in the founding of The Noble Savage had circumstances in common with the attempts of his narrator-hero, Charles Citrine, to start a magazine called The Ark, is extraneous to criticism. Whether Bellow has been harsh on himself or on the materials of pure imagination, he has written a book that tries to bully and bustle the reader into a point of view about the artist and society that is a mixture of antic exaggeration and simplistic parti pris. Humboldt’s Gift is a sad, shallow book, a statement of intellectual and artistic surrender that has as its only interesting quality that crude sense of humor a writer can sometimes wring out of the wilful abasement of his characters.

The narrator of this capitulation, Charles Citrine, does, I admit, occupy a rare position in our society. He is a successful homme de lettres, a historian and cultural critic who’s lived quite well for a long time on the earnings of his writings alone. A hit Broadway play began his financial independence, but his serious work has also helped put him in the 50 per-cent bracket and, at the same time, earned him the esteem of the intellectual community he once dreamed of joining but from which he now lives apart, an aloof Chicago exile as disdainful of the cliques, fashions, and Grub Street conventions of New York as he is unneedful of the academic post that usually helps writers of his seriousness to live with some comfort while they produce their well-received and quickly remaindered books.

At sixty, Citrine has achieved as much as possible in the way of worldly goods from his career, and his personal life, while containing an impending divorce and a voluptuous mistress half his age, runs smoothly enough, protected by his money and reputation from any rude shocks or intrusions.

Then, suddenly, everything cracks apart. A petty gangster named Cantabile, furious that Citrine has stopped payment on a check given to cover losses at poker (Cantabile had cheated), clubs Citrine’s Mercedes-Benz into a shapeless wreck in order to force an honoring of the debt. Citrine submits, and is subjected to repeated humiliations. Next, Citrine begins to be drained by his divorce: lawyers swindle him, judges appear to take a malevolent joy in indenturing him to his wife’s fantasies about his wealth—indeed, the entire legal system seems disposed to treat him as an imbecile or a criminal, as someone who in either case deserves to be taught the hard lessons of the practical world. Finally, he is duped by his partner in The Ark, lectured but not helped financially by a millionaire brother he visits and sees through a delicate heart operation, and used and then abandoned by his mistress.

Is this then a portrait of the intellectual as schlemiel, as the comic victim of society, the pathetic woolgatherer whose comeuppance is inevitable and somehow correct? On one level, Citrine’s story does seem a simple parable of ants and grasshoppers, of the stock reckoning between the Luftmensch and reality. However, Bellow also intends us to see a deeper meaning and to perceive an ironic justice in Citrine’s tribulations, a justness of which Citrine himself is even aware.

This brings us to Humboldt, the brilliant poet and intellectual whom Citrine, as a young man, set out to meet after reading his book of poems. Humboldt was a man filled with intellectual exuberance, intoxicated by the possibilities of art and thought, a poet with New World energy and insight. Gradually, however, the opposing pulls of poetry and worldly ambition began to wear him down. Spending more and more effort on outwitting the system of grants, fellowships, and tenure, feeling that his work was losing its original force, finally discerning acts of personal betrayal everywhere, Humboldt sank into madness. Years later, Citrine sees him, broken and disheveled, standing on a street corner in New York. He turns away from his former mentor and hurries back into the world of success and comfort his own career has offered to him.



What are we to make of Humboldt’s fate and its relation to Citrine’s? Is Humboldt really such a pure symbol of creative mind that his end can be turned into a dark generality about the artist’s destiny in our society? Was his genius so nobly evident that to betray its impossible demands, as Citrine thinks he’s done, means a betrayal of the best in life and a defeat without the dignity of honest battle?

Bellow seems to think that Humboldt does possess such significant qualities, but unfortunately he has not found a way of demonstrating his conviction to the reader. Here is one of his attempts:

Humboldt started by talking about the place of art and culture in the first Stevenson administration—his role, our role, for we were going to make hay together. . . . Then he went back to Ike, and the peacetime life of professional soldiers in the 30’s. . . . Security measures in the male brothels of New York. Alcoholism and homosexuality. The married and domestic lives of pederasts. Proust and Charlus. . . . Late at night Humboldt read military history and war memoirs. He knew Wheeler-Bennett, Chester Wilmot, Liddell Hart, Hitler’s generals. He also knew Walter Winchell and Earl Wilson . . . and he moved easily from the tabloids to General Rommel and from Rommel to John Donne and T.S. Eliot. . . . He was filled with gossip and hallucination as well as literary theory. Distortion was inherent, yes, in all poetry. But which came first? This rained down on me, part privilege, part pain, with illustrations from the classics and the sayings of Einstein and Zsa Zsa Gabor, with references to Polish socialism and the football tactics of George Halas and the secret motives of Arnold Toynbee and (somehow) the used-car business.

This is the way, Bellow says, that Humboldt “sang himself in and out of madness.” But when is he in, and when out? What is there about Humboldt’s conversation that distinguishes it from the usual Greenwich Village garrulity circa 1950? Very little, if we are not given the specific connections that his mind made between Toynbee and used cars. The parenthetical “somehow” will not do; it is the callow aside by which a writer excuses himself from a commitment to the character he is trying to shape.

Citrine, though aware of Humboldt’s contribution to his own doom, nevertheless feels that in his own cautious, sober achievement of success he has denied an important truth in Humboldt’s life just as he denied the reality of his presence on the New York street. As he begins to be socially destroyed by the novel’s events and characters—both of which Bellow creates in overblown, dramatically improbable ways—he perceives that there was something apposite in Humboldt’s madness and death in a Broadway flophouse, something that pervades the social destiny of even the most cautious artist or intellectual in America. And more than this, Citrine does not even feel any longer that it matters much whether Humboldt’s vision has a place in the world. Art, the conation of the mind, seem empty causes as death approaches and his private world disintegrates. He abandons a long-planned essay on boredom, and muses over the theosophical writings of Rudolf Steiner.

In the end, Citrine is rescued, with heavy-handed irony, from some of his financial distress. But by then he has learned too much about his incompetence and failures to think of doing anything more than contemplating peaceful states of being beyond the reach of human thought and passion. A burnt-out case, drifting into cosmic views, Charles Citrine will neither be missed nor mourned by those of us who stay behind on Sammler’s planet.


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