The great thing that some Jewish writers have—sometimes the only thing they have—is coming up against the cumulative, unendingly extreme, anomalous, “absurd” experience of being Jews. What has happened to “Jews,” not just certain Jews, is so terrible and “unbelievable” that again and again with Jewish writers the thing to notice is this often innocent contact with the inexpressible that for many Jews is their only recognition of the supernatural. There is that touch of something “unnatural,” not to be understood in and through history alone, positively magical and awesome in its concentrated maleficence. This can be—is—often too much for ordinary intelligence. It is often too much for those many young Jews today who prefer not to absorb the fact that between 1942 and 1945 a million Jewish children were done to death for reasons unclear also to many of their murderers.
Of all contemporary “Jewish” novelists, Saul Bellow seems to me the most responsive, the most penetrating, the most unyielding in his ability to express the extraordinariness of the Jewish “situation.” The great thing to me about his work is the ability to express the texture, the vibration, the extremity of experiences that do not make Jews nobler or more intelligent than other people, but that have certainly been different. Jewish experience has been too much for many Jews who have been too conventional in intelligence, too conformist, even too terrified to rise to the apocalyptic demands of the subject in this first great era of “Jewish” imaginative writing. Bellow has in every way made intelligence, independence, and terror the texture of his work.
Unlike the more purely imaginative but now gently cynical Issac Bashevis Singer writing about a country of the dead, Bellow evidently sees the whole Jewish “experience” as immediately present in the streets of New York or Chicago. Although he is now in his middle fifties and has “succeeded” in every way that a “leading American novelist” can, each of his fictions is a recurrent agonia, describes the same desperate struggle for life—by which he means a more refined consciousness. It is the most concentrated example I know of in contemporary fiction of the age-old Jewish belief that the only possible salvation lies in thinking well, which is thinking one’s way to the root of all creation, thinking one’s way to the ultimate reason of things.
Thinking is for Bellow the most accessible form of virtue. Probably he is the only contemporary American novelist who just now equates virtue wholly with thinking well rather than with any particular form of action. It may be that the romantic emphasis on “action,” now so popular with intellectuals who are usually as passive as they have always been, sits especially badly with a middle-aged intellectual Jew who has good reason to have a horror of what the Nazis used to call “an action.” But Bellow is in any case not a very dramatic novelist, and melodramatic things tend to occur in his novels as a way of interrupting the hero’s reflections. He is utterly unusual among contemporary novelists both in his fierce insistence on right thinking wisdom, philosophia—and in the evident way his personae attain their interest for him by their ability to express the right opinions.
The protagonists of Bellow’s novels are generally the voices of his own intellectual evolution, from Joseph the dangling man in 1944 to old Artur Sammler in 1970. If an anthology is ever put together from his novels, it will take the form of a breviary, an intellectual testament, from protagonists whose most felicitous brilliancies were expressed not to other characters but in diaries, letters to public men and dead philosophers that were never mailed, arias to the reader like Augie March’s, thoughts that like Artur Sammler’s are neural dreams wholly in the privacy of one’s consciousness and that cannot be expressed to the other characters—they are too severe, too disapproving.
Mr. Sammler’s Planet is a brilliantly austere set of opinions, more than usually impressive because of the decisive intellectual elegance that by now Bellow has turned into a language of his own. But Sammler’s opinions are set in a context so uncharitable, morally arrogant toward every other character in the book but one, and therefore lacking in dramatic satisfaction, that the book becomes a cri du coeur that does not disguise the punitive moral outrage behind it. Bellow has always had a remarkable ability to find narrative forms for the urgency of his own undisguised thinking, but I suspect that his more lasting fictions will be those whose heroes are not exactly as intelligent as he is—The Victim and Seize the Day.
In these books the weight of the world’s irrationality and injustice falls heavily upon human beings who earn our sympathy by their inability to understand all that is happening to them and why it is happening to them. Asa Leventhal at the end of The Victim, having been persecuted, terrified, exploited by a Gentile who accuses the Jew of having persecuted him, ends up civilly saying to Albee, “Wait a minute, what’s your idea of who runs things?” Tommy Wilhelm, who in one day realizes that he has lost his wife, mistress, father, money, God, can sense something of the unknown depths of his suffering only by identifying with a dead stranger into whose funeral he has stumbled by accident. These perplexities and incomprehensions are truly evocative of what remains in fact the “existentialist situation”—the tragedy of Jews and non-Jews who in the course of human events are never up to their own suffering, cannot fully take it in, and have learned only that their suffering has its reasons of which reason knows nothing.
Artur Sammler, on the other hand, is so openly Bellow’s mind now, in its most minute qualifications, that I am torn between my admiration for the man’s exemplary intellectual style and my amazement that Bellow’s hero should lack opacity in every side of life except his relations with other human beings. Of course Sammler is an old man, a widower, with only one eye left to him by the Nazis, whose wife was shot to death in the same Polish pit from which he managed to escape past so many dead bodies (the fable that haunts certain Jewish writers). Sammler is too old, too experienced, too intelligent, too cultivated and wellbred (and too much at the mercy of relatives on the Upper West Side of New York for whom he is the only Wisdom Figure) to be “with it” in the numerous pseudo-events now so dear to the young. He also spent years in England, a correspondent for Polish papers, learning to furl his umbrella and to keep his opinions to himself.
But none of these things really accounts for the fact that Artur Sammler dislikes everyone he sees on the ugly alarm-laden streets of the West Side and disapproves of everyone he knows except a vague kinsman, a doctor who got him to America and supports him. He dislikes all the women especially. The evident fact is that Mr. Sammler is The Jew who, especially after Hitler, has taken the measure of this world, of the treacheries and lusts that are its greatest pleasure, and has decided, exactly as the less official but more profound sages among the Jews have always decided, that this world can be a very bad place indeed, that the human heart is the world, and that the only thing for us is the soul in its intelligence of the Creator, the soul in its exclusive and excluding disposition to “know” what is real and what is not.
The unsatisfactory thing about Mr. Sammler is that he is always right while most other people are usually wrong—sinfully so. More than most Jewish intellectuals, Artur Sammler is right and has to be right all the time. The Jewish passion for ideological moralism, for ratiocination as the only passion that doesn’t wear out (and doesn’t interfere with other passions), that passion has never really been done in fiction—there is no precedent for its peculiar self-assertiveness, so different from luxuriating in one’s own ego in the style of Stephen Dedalus. In Bellow’s novel, profoundly moralistic and world-weary, the hero’s total identity with his own thought, his total rejection of other people because of their thought, thus poses a lack of incident, an invitation to symbolic politics, like the now celebrated scene in which a Negro pickpocket follows old, delicate Mr. Sammler to his apartment house and exposes his gigantic penis, or the corollary scene in which Mr. Sammler’s mad Israeli son-in-law beats the same Negro almost to death near Lincoln Center.
Bellow is even cleverer in finding a style for Sammler’s silent thinking than he was in finding the form of unsent letters for Herzog’s equally continuous meditations. The style is one of the lightest, featheriest, mental penciling, an intellectual shorthand, in brusque city images, that answers to the traditional contractedness of Jewish thought. The great historian of Jewish mysticism, Gershom Scholem, points out that the favorite form for Jewish sages has always been the shortest. (Bellow’s fiction is best when it is shortest; his recent stories are particularly striking.) His intellectual athomeness with Sammler’s thoughts is so assured that over and over again one has the Blakean experience of reading thoughts expressed as sensations.
But what are certainly not Blakean are the austere, dismissive jeremiads, the open contempt for the women in the book as crazy fantasists, improvident, gross, careless sexpots, “birds of prey.” There is a brilliantly immediate, unsparing knowledge of other human beings’ limitations and appearances which in its moral haughtiness becomes as audible to the reader as sniffing, and is indeed that. There is so strong a sense of physical disgust with all one’s distended, mad-eyed, pushing neighbors on the West Side that there seems nothing in the book to love but certain past opinions, Meister Eckhardt, and Sammler’s wife’s “nephew” Dr. Gruner, who earns our sympathy by his disgust with his greedy errant children as much as by his love of Mr. Sammler himself.
American fiction today is so topical in its interests, so plain and non-experimental in style, so consumed by what novelists, too, have come to think of as the “public interest,” that Mr. Sammler’s Planet is distinguished from other novels only by the formidable intelligence of its author and the profoundly intellectual wit that has formed Bellow’s style. In a fiction that seems more and more disposed to express only our public troubles, to discourage the invention of any great new myths, Mr. Sammler’s Planet seems a normal political novel of our day, didactic to a fault. With his stern sense of justice, Bellow wants to right the balance after so much evil. God lives.
December 3, 1970