In an upstate New York diner, a teenager high on “reefer” tries to shoot a pen from his friend’s hand, and ends up putting a hole in a coffee urn, sending a stream of hot coffee sailing toward the window. In the library of a decaying old mansion, a middle-aged man shakes open his father’s books and watches dollar bills rain to the ground. At a Canadian carnival, a boy and a mangy old bear cling together on a roller coaster, soaring and dipping. And in a remote African village, a massive, heartsick, inarticulate American prays for rain in a language he doesn’t understand—and the rain comes.
With a novel as full of surreal tableaux as Henderson the Rain King, that careens from continent to continent and from the ridiculous to the sublime, perhaps the best place to start is with a small oddity: Obersteiner’s allochiria. “I fought it until I came across the term Oberstein’s allochiria, and there I broke down,” says Eugene Henderson, the novel’s shambling pilgrim hero, as he tries to make his way through the recondite medical texts handed him by Dahfu, the King of the Wariri. “I thought, ‘Hell! What is it all about!’” The term sounds fantastic enough to be another of Saul Bellow’s inventions; but there really was a nineteenth-century Austrian neurologist named Heinrich Obersteiner, who diagnosed a rare syndrome in which the brain transposes sensations from the left and right sides of the body to the opposite sides.
The phenomenon appeals to Dahfu, and to the novelist who created him, because of the way it seems to upend the standard relation between mind and body. As good scientific rationalists, we have learned that the mind is the product of the body; where earlier generations spoke of the soul or spirit, we speak only of epiphenomena of the brain. In allochiria, however, we can glimpse for a moment the complementary truth that the body—the way we perceive and live in the body—is also a product of the mind. And if the mind is powerful enough to turn left to right and right to left, could it also be able to shape the body’s growth and form? Could the body be not just the vessel of the self, but the self’s faithful portrait? Dahfu is certain: “There are cheeks or whole faces of hope, feet of respect, hands of justice, brows of serenity, and so forth…The spirit of the person in a sense is the author of his body.”
“Why, King…that’s the worst news I ever heard,” responds Henderson. As well he might. For Bellow does not let us forget for a moment how bizarre he looks, how he combines strength and size with grotesque ferocity: “I was huge but helpless, formidable in looks, but of one piece like a totem pole, or a kind of human Galápagos turtle.” When Henderson and his guide and translator Romilayu first enter the village of the Arnewi, they are greeted by a young girl who bursts into tears. Henderson can hardly blame her for this reaction:
“Shall I run back into the desert,” I thought, “and stay there until the devil has passed out of me and I am fit to meet human kind again without driving it to despair at the first look?”
Indeed, it is his terrible effect on everyone he knows that has driven Henderson out of America in the first place. The first four chapters of the novel, before he arrives in Africa, are like the overture to a comic opera, as Bellow conjures his protagonist by recounting his misadventures. Here is Henderson trying to gun down a housecat, and threatening suicide, and wagging his head and saying “Tchu-tchu-tchu!” and finally ranting so terribly that he induces a fatal attack of some kind in his timid housekeeper. It is all so vividly antic that the reader must wonder what kind of novel he has stumbled into: too whirling and smiling to be a philosophical novel, surely, yet too sad and harsh for comedy.
The only thing to do is to go along with Bellow, for whom the creation of character is never a matter of painting a verbal portrait or recounting a life history. What brings a Bellow hero to life is precisely his turbulence, the “disorderly rush” of thought and feeling that we begin to hear on the first page and stay with until the very last. The harsh syncopation of Eugene Henderson’s inner life corresponds to—or, if Dahfu is right, creates—the powerful ugliness of his face and figure.
In this sense, Henderson the Rain King can be thought of as something in between a novel and a poem. What is at stake is not so much the narration of events as the evocation of a way of being—as Henderson puts it, “listening to the growling of my mind.” The same is true of the other great novels of Bellow’s middle period, which began with Henderson in 1959 and continued through Herzog in 1964 and Humboldt’s Gift in 1975. (“Three H’s,” he wrote to his friend the novelist Richard Stern, “as if I’m finally getting my breath.”) Moses Herzog and Charlie Citrine, the protagonists of those later books, created what is now commonly thought of as the Bellow hero: hyperarticulate, rueful, sentimental, intellectual, urban, Jewish—and in all these ways recognizably versions of Saul Bellow. The plot of Herzog, with its adulteries and cuckoldries, corresponds very closely to what Bellow lived through during the time he was writing Henderson the Rain King and seeing it published.
But when he wrote Henderson, Bellow had never been to Africa. His acquaintance with the continent was limited to his college textbooks in anthropology, from which he drew some of the details of Arnewi and Wariri tribal customs. Nor, of course, was he in any particular like Henderson—the heir to an old, prominent American family, a World War II veteran, an inarticulate man who speaks in slang and clichés, and a specimen of brute strength. The original inspiration for Henderson, rather, was Chanler Chapman, a descendant of the Astors and John Jay, who was Bellow’s landlord in Barrytown, New York, when he taught at Bard College in the 1950s. (This might make Bellow and his second wife, Alexandra Tschacbasov, the inspiration for the bookish couple who abandon Henderson’s guest house because he refuses to winterize it, leaving their cat to his tender mercies.)
Yet when Bellow was asked by an interviewer which of his characters was most like him, he named “Henderson—the absurd seeker of high qualities.” And it is true that Henderson, despite his exterior, has a Bellovian heart—which is to say, a heart tormented by yearnings. In the most famous sentences of the novel, Henderson describes the pulsation at the heart of his inner turmoil:
Now I have already mentioned that there was a disturbance in my heart, a voice that spoke there and said, I want, I want, I want! It happened every afternoon, and when I tried to suppress it it got even stronger. It only said one thing, I want, I want!
And I would ask, “What do you want?”
But this was all it would ever tell me. It never said a thing except I want, I want, I want!
If Henderson were Herzog or Citrine, he might explain that this “I want” is a version of what Descartes and Leibniz called conatus, the innate tendency to motion and persistence that characterizes being; or what Schopenhauer, more darkly, referred to as Will, the force of self-assertion that underlies everything in Nature. But the tragicomedy of Henderson, as Bellow conceived him, is that he is wholly inarticulate before this “I want,” unable to trace its intellectual genealogies or smother it in concepts. All he can do is experience it, and for him that means experiencing it bodily. Over and over again, Bellow suggests that thought and emotion, for Henderson, are immediately physical processes, in a way that approaches synesthesia: “moments when the dumb begins to speak, when I hear the voices of objects and colors.”
T.S. Eliot complained that modern poets had lost the ability to feel their thoughts and think their feelings, but that is just what Henderson does: “Certain emotions make my teeth itch…. When I admire beauty I get these tooth pangs, and my gums are on edge.” Likewise, he judges people’s character through their bodily appearance, as when he meets Queen Willatale: “You will understand what I mean, perhaps, if I say that the flesh of her arm overlapped the elbow. As far as I am concerned this is the golden seal of character.” Henderson seems to live in a state before the dissociation of mind and body, which is the typical complaint of the modern intellectual. This makes him just the right man to receive Dahfu’s teachings about physiognomy, with their quaint pre-modern air, their evocations of humoral theory and phrenology.
The intensity of his desire is a curse to Henderson, making it impossible for him to live peacefully with his wife and children and neighbors. But it is also the seed of his salvation, because it keeps him from falling into the condition that Bellow suggests is wholly fatal—sleep. One of the refrains of the novel comes from Shelley’s poem “The Revolt of Islam”: “I do remember well the hour that burst my spirit’s sleep.” The words haunt Henderson, who describes himself as a man “who had to burst the spirit’s sleep, or else.”
This obscure desire carries him first to Africa and then, crucially, into the remote interior, where he leaves behind his friend Charlie, whose elaborate gear and camera equipment threaten to come between Henderson and the direct experience he seeks: “my object in coming here was to leave certain things behind.” This is also a journey back in time, as Henderson encounters African tribes whose way of life reminds him of the biblical patriarchs: “Hell, it looks like the original place. It must be older than the city of Ur,” where Abraham is supposed to have been born.
To understand Bellow’s treatment of Africa and Africans, it’s crucial to remember that Henderson approaches them in the role of a seeker, almost a supplicant. Of course, to treat a continent and its people as though they are holdovers from a pristine past is itself a form of Orientalism. There’s no question that in this novel the Arnewi and the Wariri are made to play a role in the psychic drama of a modern Westerner, rather than being seen on their own terms. It is notable, for instance, that we never learn what country Henderson is actually in; though he is traveling through an Africa on the cusp of decolonization, the peoples he encounters seem to exist outside history and politics. (This is true even though, we learn, King Dahfu spent time in his youth studying at the American University in Beirut.) And there are moments in Henderson that will set anyone’s racial antennae on edge—above all, the stereotypical pidgin-English spoken by many (though not all) of the Africans: “Me here too, sah” and the like.