Bellow's Lonely Planet | The Nation


Bellow's Lonely Planet

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Bellow so precisely captures and notates physical existence only to transcend it. He is not, in fact, a realist at all. No one ever looked like the con man Tamkin in Seize the Day (1956): "His bones were peculiarly formed, as though twisted twice where the ordinary human bone was turned only once, and his shoulders rose in two pagodalike points." These are literal details fringed with expanding wonder; they make the familiar world suddenly give way to terra incognita. With the exception of Humboldt's Gift, Bellow's heroes are always, by novel's end, alone on their separate continent, physically, emotionally or spiritually "separated from all else."

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Lee Siegel
Lee Siegel is the author of four books, including, most recently, Are You Serious? How to Be True and Get Real in the...

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By the time of Humboldt's Gift, Bellow's evocations of the physical world had become almost surreal: "the clothesline surrendered the pith of its soul." From then on, you barely get any description at all. Citrine's confession that for him the veil of Maya "is wearing out, like a roller-towel in a Mexican men's room" is both a lament and a victory cry. Bellow was dispensing with the physical world altogether.

He deployed ideas and opinions in his art as a function of this sweeping-clean quality. Bellow used his imagination to build his separate continent while his imagination used his intellect to clear a path for itself. No wonder he loved to portray gangsters, and sometimes to marry a tough-guy tone to alpine cerebrations. In Bellow's fiction, ideas are explosive, dazzling, intimidating lieutenants in flashy suits who push various troublemakers out of the way: powerful rivals, skeptics, critics of various stripes. Afterward, the imagination enters, passive and sympathetic where the intellect was merely commanding: dapper, elegant, elfin, feline. And then there is just Bellow and his hero, isolated and absolutely alone. And finally there is "nothing"--the penultimate, one-word sentence of Herzog (1964).

Bellow's portrait of a black pickpocket and exhibitionist in Mr. Sammler's Planet (1970) provoked accusations of racism, and his opera buffa challenge to academics to produce "the Tolstoy of the Zulus, the Proust of the Papuans" didn't help matters. Both episodes were instances of the old Bellovian mental path-clearing, to which Bellow subjected intellectuals and Catholics in Herzog, hypocritical religious Jews and capitalists in Seize the Day, middle-class Jews and upper-class WASPs in the short masterpiece Mosby's Memoirs (1968), politicians and journalists in The Dean's December (1982), politicians, academics, foundation heads in Humboldt's Gift--to which he subjected every famous thinker, illustrious writer, public figure, friend, lover, acquaintance whose power over his mind or heart interfered with his will. In Mr. Sammler's Planet, the target wasn't really the black man with the large phallus. It was a certain American-Jewish middle-class daydream of feral potency, a condescending fantasy purveyed by a rival, Norman Mailer, with his exoticizing fixation on the black phallus in his notorious essay "The White Negro."

Bellow's targets themselves sought Single Selfhood: Jewish con men, cruel Jewish fathers, black muggers, heartless WASP mandarins, strident multiculturalists, luckless flounderers, impractical doomed poets. You followed Bellow on his creative-destructive quest to clear a space for his own "single self...proud of its detachment and its absolute immunity" because Bellow's panoramic journey enacted the American ego's numberless strategies for trying to get its way. What makes Bellow mesmerizing, transporting, addictive, even when he is affronting you with his defensive Olympian postures, is that he had the gift of sweeping through existence from high to low, encompassing every point in between, and making you feel the whole whenever he touched one of its parts.

Yet Bellow could indeed put you off with his sometimes ludicrous visitor-from-another-planet generalizations about contemporary life--people don't even wipe themselves anymore, ruminates Ithiel Regler, Clara Velde's boyfriend, as he sits sniffing in the back of a New York taxi. (This astounding social observation was deleted in a later edition.) Bellow was especially hard on figures who possessed a will and ambition similar to his own. It got to be exasperating when he mocked "deep thinkers" because you realized that he was having his cake and eating it too, flaunting his intellectual capacities and dismissing his intellectual competitors by undermining their vocation. Late in his career, Bellow exclusively wrote fiction that took up his past, a place where his intellect didn't have to exact so many casualties for the sake of his imagination. Everyone was already dead.

And still, at his most rebarbative, Bellow's voice held you aloft, above the daily din of tragic reports and false consciousness. It was a comprehensive voice with a vulnerable core, whose lowliest concerns had a metaphysical ballast. Serenely certain, the Bellovian melody seemed to emanate from an eternal perspective. He was like a commuter from the Other Side. People join cults under the spell of an otherworldly confidence like that. Even when you saw through Bellow's trick of substituting for the idols he smashed his own contrivance of universal authority, he consoled you.

He consoled you because Bellow didn't stand for anything except being true to his own unfolding nature. We all want such authenticity for ourselves, no matter who we are; it's bracing to behold if it's done with Bellow's candor. And once Bellow had inspired you with his laughter at the cosmos, you yourself could laugh at his intellectual inflations and his spleen, proud of your immunity and your newfound detachment, and of all the things Bellow had taught you about being free. Which didn't mean he wouldn't have liked to sweep the world clean of you, too.

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