MR. SAMMLER’S PLANET
A critical paper by
George A. Weimer IV
What can one say of this grim and painfully odd work? It’s a novel of horror and a novel of the ludicrous, of the pitiful and the macabre. It’s a work both dated and timeless. It’s a book full of the exasperating in human life as well as the vile, the tragicomic and the irritations of the young visited upon the rigidity of the older and aged.
We join the narrator in his tale of one Mr. Artur Sammler, a Polish, Jewish Anglophile survivor of the Holocaust. He’s on a bus in Manhattan during the 1960s. He’s tall and has only one fully functioning eye. Unfortunately that high orb spots an equally tall but far more powerful figure, a black man, a “Negro” pickpocket busy at his business. This “African prince or great black beast” sees the single seeing eye. Mr. Sammler is later followed to his apartment where the “elegantly dressed thief” pins him and exposes his penis. His message is not entirely literary in this very literary novel but it is clear and effective enough.
The novel becomes increasingly complex as we learn of Sammler’s terrible experiences during World War II where the Nazis shoot his wife and he is thrown into a ditch with others who have been shot. He crawls out and later hides in a cemetery, in a tomb. He survives and eventually moves to new York with his daughter Shula, sometimes called Slawa (when she’s in a Roman Catholic mood) and later might be called Sari when she becomes smitten with one Professor Govinda Lal from whom she has purloined a cosmological and biophysical manuscript to aid her father in his long-time goal of doing a book on H. G. Wells.
Such complex relationships are typical in this novel. Besides Sammler’s daughter Shula, there is his dying nephew, the surgeon Dr. Elya Gruner and his children, the incredibly promiscuous Angela and the wild idea Wallace. Behind this is the Mafia mystery, a tale of cash payoffs for abortions hidden in a house, a rumor that some believe and some don’t – it’s discovered near the end of this book that it’s true. The novel borders on the farcical while constantly reminding us of the evil that men – and women do.
It is this tension, the suspension we feel, as on a circus tight rope, walking through an almost J. D. Salinger-like (in terms of the younger characters in particular) story knowing that the main character has moved from Dante’s Inferno to a world filled with young people with too much money and not enough thought; too much brains and not enough experience.
One critic has referred to Mr. Sammler’s Planet as “ferociously unsentimental.” Indeed, it sometimes seems that the author, as well as Mr. Sammler have an aversion, a lack of belief in happiness for the mature. There’s not an intentional moment of humor in the book – except the forms of humor we call macabre or pathetic or zany.
What then is this book trying to say – besides life can be tough and ugly and children can be ungrateful and disappointing and the aged have trouble adjusting to change? So what’s new?
Clearly Sammler is having a lot of trouble with the great social movements of the 60s. Women’s Lib, the Civil Rights Movement, the novel implies, are dangerous. They are disruptive. The very beginning of the book exiled Bellow from the Literary Elites of Manhattan. He was clearly not pledging for membership in the Liberal Chic groups typified by other novelists like Norman Mailer and Truman Capote or the staff of The New Yorker. .
Bellow writes few words however about the specific, dramatic events of the ‘60s. Outside of a mention of Mayor Lindsay of NYC, we read very little detail on President Kennedy, Camelot, the assassinations of Kennedy and his brother Bobby and Martin Luther King, George Wallace or the ’68 Democratic Party Convention in Chicago. He doesn’t remind the readers about Cuba and the Bay of Pigs, or, perhaps most oddly, about Viet Nam and the extensive and ever-more violent protests.
One is reminded, however, in Sammler’s speech to the students of Columbia of the time Henry Kissinger was booed, at Harvard I believe – he left the podium and walked away from the rude and jeering students. I recall this was later in the Nixon Administration, which began in 1968.
All of this would be extremely fresh and vivid in the minds of readers in 1969 ansd 1970. Young readers today might have a very different take on the events depicted in Manhattan in this novel.
Was Bellow convinced that at the time no such details were necessary? Or, was he convinced that the events he described should and would stand alone? Or, could he just not bear writing about movements and social developments that he himself abhorred?
Recently, National Review in its February 8, 2010 issue listed Mr. Sammler’s Planet as one of the Ten Great Conservative Novels. According to writer Michael Kimmage, a history professor at Catholic University, the book notes that: ”New York City has descended into moral anarchy, it (the novel) chronicles America’s cultural decadence. Young people thrill to the humiliation of the elderly, criminals celebrate their own righteousness, and the sexual revolution has given birth to a base nihilism. By such depictions Mr. Sammler’s Planet is a novel of decay and rot…Bellow seems to say the American Left is no passive bystander but an active vehicle of decline.”
It may be important here to note that Saul Bellow was not a native New Yorker, but a Quebecois. He served in the Merchant Marine in WW II and had no intimate Holocaust experience himself.
The pickpocket, presented as a physically powerful, intimidating force, an “elegantly dressed’ thief who claims a kind of superiority over Mr. Sammler’s intellectual powers by virtues of his own commanding endowment. Racism was and is the most common interpretation of the thief character in Mr. Sammler’s Planet. Yet, is that what Sammler is saying? Later in the book, he positively demands that the toeless Eisen stop the beating, in effect seeming to save the man’s life.
Likewise, his impressions, beliefs and feelings about women, particularly through his knowledgeable nose, did not endear him to the likes of Betty Freidan and Bella Abzug. He is, even at an age many of us now share and others remember, an erotic creature who loves and respects women while noting his odd beliefs about thin legs and his sensitivity to sexual pheromones.
Yet, for all its oddness, its grimness, its horrors and its general lack of hope, the book takes us in. It’s full of powerful writing and insights cascade in Bellow’s remarkable staccato style, sentences of few words, single words, short, effective, serious, worth reading and considering in the mind. For what do we witness here if not the limits and the loneliness of the traditional intellectual in the modern world, on planet Earth?
Mr. Sammler’s ideal planet might be imagined as a place something like Cambridge during the Bloomsbury Years or Columbia without the neighborhood it’s stuck in and the students it must bear. Places where one might live, to paraphrase Tennyson, in a Palace of Ideas, at teas with other super civilized dons, where the vile and vicious and crude and the pitiful and the pathetic are always kept away, on the other side of the walls.
Bellows and Mr. Sammler are not so Romantic, not so idealistic, so hopeful, and so childish. Sammler knows his own nature, although he can’t understand it fully, is shared with other killers and others who thrill to violence. He knows he is not immune from any of the characteristics he is so officially very against. In fact, he admits that intense clarity follows such violence as when he shoots the German soldier who’s last words are: “I have children.”
The world presents itself on this planet on its own terms, which includes an abundance of injustice and a God who may be but seems always absent. Proust in The Search for Lost Time says: “ There are as many universes as there are people in them.” So it is with Mr. Sammler and so it is with everyone. We are on the planet we know from our experiences and their interpretation by us. No other world is available. No other planet will make any serious difference.
The search for other worlds, the idea of colonizing other planets, H. G. Wells (consider his book and the very well known movie of it, The War of the Worlds), the moon shot, and science in general is another theme in the book. In the lengthy discussion with Professor Lal, Sammler waxes on with his fellow Columbia professor in ways reminiscent of the conversations between Naphta and Settembrini in The Magic Mountain of Thomas Mann.
If there’s a time in the book that Sammler approaches happiness or at least accepted pleasure, it is in this meeting between two intellectuals at home with each other. They chat on like two contented souls, all the while being as rigorous as they can in terms of the power of argument. A friendship is born. But, that’s interrupted by the farcical again, for Wallace, Gruner’s son, has been looking for the cash and has damaged the plumbing in the house. A comical deluge ensues.
Mr. Sammler, after all, is a snob, a polyhistor and proud of it and, as the old saying goes…birds of a feather seek to flock together. Is that not the case with nearly all people? Alone with your passions is truly alone. Imagine, consider your own obsessions and hobbies, loves and desires, if your planet no longer had whatever they are: football or Mozart or soap operas or politics or comedy or golf, book clubs, Beethoven, Tommy Dorsey, the Beatles, heavy metal, Lady Gaga, the British Royal Family. After you die, “Each will chase his favorite phantom,” wrote William Cullen Bryant in Thanatopsis.
The book is also a kind of what-to-read to be called literate and properly educated. Every few pages, one of the greats of philosophy and history is noted. Bellow anticipated the messages of both Blooms. They are the University of Chicago Bloom, author of The Closing of the American Mind (one of Bellow’s last books was Ravelstein, a fictional biography of that Bloom who is deceased) and the Yale Bloom, author of The Western Canon, who has a seemingly inexhaustible pile of books in his mind waiting to come out. So we go from Hegel to Camus and Sartre to Heidegger to Ortega y Gasset to H. G. Wells as Bellow suggests his own Western Canon.
Mr. Sammler’s greatest hindrance to happiness may be his very honesty about himself and others – not just his old world mores and morals. He might be considered fussy, out-of-date, uninteresting by most others. Yet, what do we expect from someone who has seen Hell already and now sees farce? What do we expect such experience to do to a soul?
More to the point perhaps is why are we so interested in this story? I was at least. It’s difficult reading in several ways, true. But we listen to Mr. Sammler. We respect him, even though we too feel he is simply too critical sometimes. We see his world through his one eye – lost to a rifle butt. Why are we with him in this book? I think part of the answer comes at the end, after Elya has died and Mr. Sammler has arrived too late to be with him at the end – delayed as he was by the fight with the pickpocket and Feffer and Eisen’s savage and carefully timed bag-of-medallions blows.
Mr. Sammler visits the corpse of Elya, his benefactor and friend, and recalls his many generous deeds to his children and to him – for he has lived on his nephew’s generosity in New York in one of Elya’s buildings. Elya Gruner, according to some critics is the other pole in the book in terms how to live in a dangerous and cruel planet among hypocrites, ingrates, thieves, murderers and all the other crimes and sins the species has discovered to hurt and damage others and themselves. He represents patience, caring and even a suggestion of a sense of humor.
Mr. Sammler grieves and feels the pull of goodness even as his gloomy planet offers less and less joy. He offers up what must be called a prayer. This last eulogy, I think, is also the most cogent and clear analysis of what this book is all about.
Sammler in a mental whisper said, “Well, Elya. Well, well Elya.” And then in the same way he said, “Remember God, the soul of Elya Gruner, who, as willingly as possible and as well as he was able, and even to an intolerable point, and even in suffocation and even as death was coming, was eager, even childishly perhaps (may I be forgiven for this), even with a certain servility, to do what was required of him. At his best, this man was much kinder than at my best I have ever been or could ever be. He was aware that he must meet – and he did meet – through all the confusion and the 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 we all know, God, that we know, that we know, we know, we know.”
Is this book too harsh? Too pessimistic? One last quote. Catherine Anne Porter was criticized once for being too harsh. She said: “Anyone who thinks my books are too harsh has led a very sheltered life.” True there is no “comic relief” in Mr. Sammler’s Planet. But after reading Artur Sammler’s story and joining him in his days and nights in NYC, wouldn’t the injection of jokes and laughter and light heartedness be jarring on both aesthetic and psychological grounds?
We don’t have Aristotle’s Theory of Comedy. It’s lost and the subject of Umberto’s Ecco’s The Name of the Rose. We do have Aristotle’s Theory of Tragedy. Mr. Bellow has followed the rules we have.
Questions for Discussion
1. What did the black pickpocket represent, in the novel in 1970? Does it still represent that? Would the scene “work” if it were a white pickpocket? Or a woman? Or an Hispanic? An Asian? A child?
2. When this novel came out, the work was referred to as a Jewish work by a Jewish author. Bellow himself said “I am Jewish. And I am a writer.” After forty years, does this topic still remain an issue in terms of Mr. Sammler’s Planet? What about Sammler’s love affair with England?
3. If there is a philosophy in this book, it seems to be “expect nothing holy nor expect any lasting happiness”. Does that sum it up, in terms of Mr. Sammler’s outlook? Bellow’s, by implication? Is this book too harsh?
4. How would you describe the planet Mr. Sammler might hope for? An academic place? A place with few blacks, and women in the kitchens? A brave new world on some other planet? Israel?
5. Who in the book would you like to meet and have a conversation with? Why? What might you want to say to Mr. Sammler after he left the corpse of Elya? How would you evaluate this novel?
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