Reviews — From the March 2001 issue

Seize the Day Job

Sacrificing Saul Bellow on the altar of one’s own career

Discussed in this essay: Bellow: A Biography, by James Atlas. Random House, 2000. 688 pages. $35.

The novelist Saul Bellow is many things to many people. To some, he is the self-made literary Bourbon who restored the soul to American letters; to others, the Jewish Jackie Robinson who smashed his own idiom through WASP exclusions. To still others, he is the wisecracking custodian of the best that has been thought and said; or the patient stylist in Flaubert’s line, laboring to make language a prehensile attachment to the eye. To my mind, this is all either piffle or partial truth. Bellow’s genius consists in his being one of the greatest meshuganas who ever lived.

“Meshuga” means harmlessly crazy in Yiddish, but I am going to take liberties and use it in the sense of being gripped by divine laughter. Bellow himself characterizes this state of being in “Him with His Foot in His Mouth,” a story about a man, Shawmut, whose truth-compulsion guarantees his social isolation: “In various ways I have been trying to say this to you, using words like seizure, rapture, demonic possession, frenzy, Fatum, divine madness, or even solar storm—on a microcosmic scale.” Shawmut’s irresistible urge to tell it straight manifests itself in witticisms that arouse the wildest life-giving laughter. It is the opposite of the spasms of blind self-regard that destroyed many of Bellow’s friends and contemporaries: John Berryman, Randall Jarrell, Robert Lowell, Jean Stafford, Delmore Schwartz. Meshuga is the other side of destruction, a reconstitution in the form of a momentary flying-apart. The Meshuga Principle ventilates what self-destructive outbursts of deep forces actually work to repress.

Bellow has written a wise and affecting essay called “Mozart: An Overture” about his lifelong love for the composer. Mozartean laughter is, in fact, the very quality that fuels his meshuga energy. “That’s the animal ridens in me, the laughing creature, forever rising up,” thinks Augie March to himself at the conclusion of The Adventures of Augie March, a novel that begins almost farcically with an old woman at the mercy of an animal—a dog—and ends with several dogs bounding into the air and kissing the face of their master, an image of happy parity between humans and their physical nature. This communion between the individual and his or her animal power is one of Bellow’s great themes. Here is most of the final paragraph of Herzog:

Coming back from the woods, he picked some flowers for the table. He wondered whether there was a corkscrew in the drawer. Had Madeleine taken it to Chicago? Well, maybe Ramona had a corkscrew in her Mercedes. An unreasonable thought. A nail could be used, if it came to that. Or you could break the neck of the bottle as they did in old movies. Meanwhile, he filled his hat from the rambler vine, the one that clutched the rainpipe. The spines were still too green to hurt much. By the cistern there were yellow day lilies. He rook some of these, too, but they wilted instantly. And, back in the darker garden, he looked for peonies; perhaps some had survived. . . . He turned his dark face toward the house again. . . . He set down his hat, with the roses and day lilies, on the half-painted piano, and went into his study, carrying the wine bottles in one hand like a pair of Indian clubs. Walking over notes and papers, he lay down on his Recamier couch. As he stretched out, he took a long breath, and then he lay, looking at the mesh of. the screen, pulled loose by vines, and listening to the steady scratching of Mrs. Tuttle’s broom. He wanted to tell her to sprinkle the floor. She was raising too much dust. In a few minutes he would call down to her, “Damp it down, Mrs. Tuttle. There’s water in the sink.” But not just yet.

At the close of a novel in which an intellectual has tried to reconcile his experience with his ideas about experience, Bellow creates a brief existential harmony. The passage undulates between nature and culture—from the natural woods to the civilized corkscrew; from the physical act of breaking the bottle to the movies, that civilized simulacrum of uncivilized behavior. There is the hat and the roses; the half-painted piano; the wine bottles and the Indian clubs; the civilized notes and papers that get savagely trodden on; the protective screen, which gets pulled loose by the wild vine. And the novel ends at a perfect Mozartean pitch, with dust, the primal element of death, about to be joined with water, the primal element of life. Herzog is set to issue instructions for the improvement of his condition; he is about to commence the operation of civilization once again. But he pauses. He wants his thoughts to stop. He wants the serenity, if not the actuality, of death for just a few seconds longer, which is all that he will be able to bear.

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