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This article is taken from PN Review 72, Volume 16 Number 4, March - April 1990.Saul Bellow and Posthistoric Man
The protagonists of Saul Bellow's recent novel, More Die of Heartbreak (Penguin £4.99), are Benn Crader, a renowned botanist, and his nephew, the book's narrator, Kenneth Trachtenberg. Crader is based at a university in a decaying, Midwest rust-belt city. Kenneth is an Assistant Professor of Russian literature at the same institution, having left his native Paris and francophile American parents (against their better judgement) to be with his uncle. The plot concerns Crader's love-life and the critical question of whether he can 'complete his humanity' by extending his 'seer-like' talents in plant morphology into the private sphere. Since the death of his beloved first wife fifteen years previously, Crader's erotic adventures have been consistently disastrous. But now he embarks on a second marriage to Matilda Layamon, local beauty and the daughter of a multi-millionaire politicking surgeon. As the book progresses, we witness the disintegration of Crader's marriage as he becomes involved with his in-laws in an attempt to recover profits ($10 millions or so) that Crader's own uncle, the politician Harold Vilitzer, made from the sale of land that had belonged to Crader's parents. The novel ends with Crader's flight from marriage and botany on an expedition to study the life of the Arctic lichen, most meagre of species.
For Saul Bellow, as for many other writers from Henry James to Gertrude Stein, Wyndham Lewis and Czeslaw Milosz, America is less a different country than a different world. Throughout his career Bellow, with wit, intelligence and success, has explored the New World condition, describing symptoms and providing diagnoses in books that, if of fearsome thematic complexity, are never dull. As before in his work, in More Die of Heartbreak Bellow is concerned with the idea of America as a manifestation of modernity, but, here more than elsewhere, he concentrates on the ways that the modern affects the private life, subjecting it to pressures that are historically unprecedented. In this book, America is uniquely the place where the philosophical action is, where man's future is being created. Bellow presents American life as loosed from almost all constraints; all links with the past especially have been sloughed off, leaving man more than ever free to be what he would ideally be: he is now 'posthistoric'.
Surveying the contemporary scene, Bellow finds much to fault, however. The modern condition is portrayed as one of paranoic brutality and ignorance, a new Hobbesian state of nature. Reductive dehumanising forces abound, and the new cyclopean, 'literal', sceptical-secular view of life is the butt of much satire. As always, and of first importance in his writing, materialism trips itself up over its relation to mortality, and Bellow sees much of the 'barbarism' of social activity as animated by the desire to evade death. Cut off from his deepest, intuitive and especially his imaginative powers, modern man fills the void and fabricates himself with an abundance of theories, fashions, ideologies, bizarre obsessions, bad art picked up from the (second-rate) idea-polluted atmosphere. Disturbingly, Kenneth offers us the historical parallel of Czarist Russia in its terminal phase when, as the old regime collapsed, similar extraordinary social experimentation went on, the prelude to totalitarianism.
There is much here that is intensely dark, enough bleakness to fuel a dozen Beckettian nightmares. Yet, in such a nihilistic projection as the modern decayed American city, and despite Bellow's monitory unease about the future, loopholes for hope may also be discerned. Do our death-anxiety and our tendency to repeat the past when, disinherited and free to be anything at all, not bespeak inescapable, innate human states? Given total licence, people tend to mythologise their lives (with money the primary vehicle and lubricant). The result is, admittedly, pretty grotesque art, but none the less certain possibly prescribed human givens emerge, solid ground. And, finally, if there is no point in maintaining the pretence that 'the old system' retains any purchase on our lives, does the present situation not also contain some small glimmer of potential, a chance that mankind may re-discover itself consciously, da capo, becoming both posthistoric and fully humanised?
It was probably with the publication of Herzog in 1964 that Bellow began to be recognized as a - for want of a better term - sociologist in fiction, taking it as his task to chart the collapse of what he has termed the 'old system', that is, the beliefs, practices and assumptions of the pre-modern age, the 'elsewhere' of the 'pre-1914, even pre-eighteenth century' world. Accordingly, much of his writing has been concerned with the perceived overwhelming of the individual by external forces: mass politics and their attendant ideologies, revolutions, wars and holocausts; the new ideas of modernity; the fantastical developments of technology and science. In Bellow's writing, the great irony of the age is that, in assuming control over nature and over his collective destiny, man's external triumphs have rebounded to his own cost, so that he experiences life dichotomously, enduring the extreme dissociation of the private and the public. And, under the weight of collective achievement (having no personal purchase on events), the ineffectual individual has resigned himself to exile, withdrawn into, as Bellow has it, an unhappy state of despairing, feverish somnolence and decline, estranged from and at odds with his own deepest strengths.
Thus far, Bellow would seem very much part of the dying-fall, waiting-for-the-end modern orthodoxy. His argument (much simplified here) goes much further, however. The shock of modern history, he says in The Dean's December, has 'rearranged our souls', and the modern revolution is for him no longer a dreadful vision but a fait accompli. In To Jerusalem and Back and Mr Sammler's Planet, Bellow is at pains to demonstrate the typicality of the Holocaust experience of horror, privation and ideological tyranny as the representative twentieth-century existence. This assertion runs throughout his writing: after more than a century of Balzacs, Dostoevskys, Darwins, Kierkegaards, Freuds and Marxes, as well as of Hitlers, Stalins, Maos and Pol Pots, 'This is Lenin's age of wars and revolutions. The idea has gotten around by now'. - The molar of the old system is thoroughly carious. No point, then, in shoring fragments against ruin or living on dry salvages from the past. Dark romantic nightmares have been over-taken by a darker reality. Even in the West, life is similarly infected. The now economically superannuated city, in Bellow's work the key image and register of man's standing, has become a refuse dump of absolute awfulness and violence, although in itself but the outer 'slum' that reflects 'the slum of innermost being'. For, behind the electronic security systems that protect what is inside from what is outside, there is also chaos and disintegration: 'but the private life is almost always a bouquet of sores with a garnish of trivialities or downright trash'. In the face of such horrors, our tendency is to resist the 'abyssifying and catastrophizing', usually by invoking the abstract terms of 'objective' public discourse, the non-information of ideology and the mass media that floods the world, which by its very nature neither conveys nor enables us to understand our personal suffering. Despite this resistance and Bellow's deliberate ironising of his own apocalyptic tendencies, the situation remains perilous. Any society, let alone democratic society, depends on a contract, however vague, which is itself underpinned by some commonly held image of man. Yet the latter has by all accounts fragmented. Although the predicament appears on no political agenda, the private life, Bellow has said, is 'the most important of democratic problems', and our dehumanisation, posing a perhaps greater threat than nuclear oblivion, he takes as his subject.
If we grant the foregoing, the pressing - the necessary - question to be addressed now, and perhaps especially by all celebrants of the modern (and the post-modern), must be, as Mr Sammler has it: 'One might ask, where is the new system?' What has supplanted the old reviled individualism, and how much good comes of it? His admitting that the centre has not held distinguishes Bellow from both the epigone and the revanchist; he is further distinguished by his considering whether the individual crisis brought about by the debunking of the old might not offer the opportunity for individual regeneration ab initio: 'In the general weakening of authority, the authority of the ruling forms of thought is also reduced, those forms which have done much to bring us into despair and into the abyss.'
And, for Bellow, the most promising location for the consideration of such matters is the United States. For although less viscerally caught up in the near-suicidal conflicts that have beset and shaped modern Europe, neither has the US (excepting, perhaps, the South) been thereby forced out of its ahistorical vein by such conscious confrontations with the past. Further, exploration of the new posthistorical state is a philosophical, even metaphysical, project, its conditions more than satisfied by America's wealth and social flux, and by the superlative technology (itself part and parcel of the modern spirit) which has there banished necessity to unparalleled degrees.
In More Die of Heartbreak, however, the prototypes of the new man are grotesque and somewhat ambiguous. Typically, individuals re-hash the old unregenerate egoistic individualism, re-casting it in the more extravagant forms that American largesse permits. And while the signs of reconstruction are faint, endless energy is expended in the persistent desire to crush the old (for Bellow, ironically already redundant). Rather, the profound dichotomy between the collective and the personal spheres remains unaffected, with the developments in the former continuously undermining and highlighting the shortcomings of the latter. This disparity in human abilities is painfully personified by Benn Crader, a man of first-rate scientific abilities, yet an erotic buffoon. Almost in partnership with his nephew, he sets out on marriage as on a project for the rejuvenation of the sorry private world of the individual, their aim 'to do (or try to do) for human subjects what Uncle Benn did for algal phycobiants of the lichens'. In the effort, though, Crader is ultimately pulled apart: 'But this is what befalls talent when one tenth of the person makes gigantic calculations while his human remainder is still counting on its fingers'. For the most part, Kenneth and Crader succeed in illuminating rather than closing the gulf, and what is illuminated is a new dark age of technically sophisticated idiocy; a disaffected torpid state almost untouched by the 'fiddle-faddle' of humanist endeavourings. This is the posthistoric condition, and: 'The best term for this gap between high achievement and personal ineptitude is "barbarism"!' More Die of Heartbreak is as bleak a novel as one could find, but if all humour derives in some way from the recognition of human weakness, Bellow's book is also a comedy. Specifically, it is a satire on the vanity of human knowledge - in an age when power is dedicated to the overthrow of ignorance and weakness.
Bellow has long been preoccupied by a sense of the passing of what he has termed 'the psychic unity of mankind' - the loss of any common recognized human inheritance. Noting that, if not displayed, emotions (and thus the corresponding senses of reality) atrophy, he has always been aware of the danger inherent in their passing, expressing it most hair-raisingly in a piece of thirty years ago: 'If you cut Shylock nowadays he will perhaps not seem to bleed as others do'. Indeed, Bellow's books have increasingly become delphic nightmares that (with much anguish) greet a death-in-life and life-in-death spectral existence where, idiotic, insensate, man is blind to his needs and nature. - And, radically estranged from the external world as well as from himself, blind also to those of others. Conspicuously, the later novels progress by means of series of dialogues where such spectres confront one another, peering desperately and uncomprehendingly, as in The Dean's December where, for Corde: 'men and women were shadows, and shadows within shadows, to one another'. In More Die, Bellow pursues this theme yet further, since the book is centrally concerned with the question that underlies all human dealings in the modern context: What do you want from me and I from you? - Or, in other words, in our hard-nosed, rationalistic era, why do we bother to come together at all, let alone persist in the search for fulfilment in another's loving embraces? If, in this posthistoric condition one's being is without prescription, and we are free to be what we would, why should any obligation be acknowledged? The issue - love as the cement that binds people together - is of great and political significance, even if universally ignored. For, if in this day and age we 'realistically' or 'rationally' do not want, need, or have any practical use for love (for Freud, as Bellow reminds us, 'overvaluation'), then we should realize that half of what has hitherto been understood as being 'human' has been evaporated off. What this leaves behind is skin and bones ('though I die leaving millions, my elements aren't worth a buck') and an ever-retreating phantom.
Such, Bellow tells us in this book, is the common modern view of man. But it is the starkly literal X-ray view, penetrating like arctic cold. Bellow consistently returns to the arctic-winter theme, the (partly humorous) riposte of the imagination when pushed to find a figure adequate to represent the contemporary human scene: 'About this arctic desert, purified by frosts as severe as fire', says Ijah in Cousins, 'I read for my relief as if I were reading the Bible'. And the hyper-borean plays an important role in More Die, too. Offering it as an exemplifying instance of the de facto state of contemporary relations, Kenneth refers to the Antarctic explorer Admiral Byrd's memoir Alone:
However, the strict truth is merciless and Byrd puts it to you straight: "There is no escape any where. You are hemmed in on every side by your own inadequacies and the crowding pressures of your associates." So in the coldest cold on the face of the earth, X-rays are struck off, showing in grey and white deformities and diseases of civilised personalities, and your own are at the centre.
Where necessity and death oppress all around leaving no possible margin for human folly, you do not flirt with chance or permit your companions to do so. The cold eye is cast on yourself and on others because prepotent nature regards you in that way.
And so the question arises: why should such fearful, absolute, tough, calculating ruthlessness so dominate and control human intercourse in societies in which pain and death have been relatively peripheralised? Behind it we sense an admixture of ideas and history. On one hand there is the whole commercial capitalist-political-psychoanalytic-Marxist-materialist-history of ideas-relativist complex that permeates the modern consciousness. Aware of it or not, this spatchcock (but none the less dangerous for that) assemblage of almost inevitably badly assimilated theory comprises the psychic weather systems that rain upon our mental lives. And then, on the other hand, there is little of the milk of human kindness to be found in twentieth-century history. Undeniably, for many the only course for survival has been to adopt the unforgiving, ice-in-the-veins outlook. Repeatedly, Bellow refers to one of the century's most remarkable books, Varlam Shalamov's Kolyma Tales, born of seventeen years existence in the worst of Stalin's Siberian Gulags. Here, says Bellow, faced with the twin horrors of desperate physical privation and the evil irrationality of the system that held you there, 'you were challenged to give metaphysical grounds for wishing to exist at all'. In the victim of such a system one readily forgives such a hard, even paranoic attitude to existence. Of his hero's past, in Mr Sammler's Planet, Bellow writes that there had been: 'Things he had passed through once which had abolished a certain margin or leeway ordinarily taken for granted.' Mr Sammler, however, is a Holocaust victim. Can those of us fortunate enough to have missed such events lay claim with justice to the same outlook on the basis of our historical awareness; and, furthermore, why should we rationally want to? These questions are crucial for Bellow, because when the stringently reductive materialist view is applied to the inmost reaches of the human being it is absolutely intolerable and maddening, 'Hell' itself; and it is also corrupt and destructive.
To be seen literally dries out one's humanity... What was so deadly about Admiral Byrd's observation of his companions in the Antarctic was that it was so literal. This literalness, from a sexual standpoint, is lethal. When it becomes a matter of limbs, members and organs, Eros faces annihilation.
To be seen, or to see others, in this way drives us insane: but it is a morally culpable mania. The paradox attaching to such literalness is: if all is understood as mere substance, it in fact becomes more, not less, mysterious. And such bemusement rapidly turns - if it is not intrinsically so - destructive. The mysteriousness prompts the desire to tamper, to meddle. Throughout Bellow we find that, in the absence of true affection or sympathy, the power of love is usurped by the struggle for worldly power. The butterfly's wings seem meant to be pulled off. In The Dean's December, Bellow makes much of Wilde's 'Yet each man kills the thing he loves'; of our murderous ignorance he writes that we face each other as 'outsides within insides'. And in More Die this is followed up: 'What it comes down to is that men and women are determined to get out of one another (or tear out) what is simply not to be gotten by any means.' Modern marriage is characterised as: 'Two psychopaths under one quilt'.
With as acute an eye for gestural significance as James or Austen, Bellow records the gamut of such destructive interference. Personal dealings with those who seek power are often marked by a close physical intimacy that produces an uneasy sense that the bounds of the person are being somehow transgressed. This sense (often manifesting itself as vertigo or claustrophobia) suggests that the confused outline we have of ourselves and others also acts as a screen behind which the other takes advantage. Typically, as in Crader's meetings with his detestable father-in-law, Layamon, the Bellow protagonist is instinctively repelled by such close contact, detecting in the physical proximity a form of oppression. He feels trapped, even pinioned by such people; for Albert Corde, 'perception of them amounted to a bondage[.] They were drawn together physically, so tightly that he was virtually absorbed by them.' The potential for homoerotic development, if unvoiced, is clearly present. If such intimacy springs from some temporary suppression of fear and hatred in order to disarm the other and thereby assume the position of dominance, there seems little room for joyous eros of any description. At the other end of the scale of interference lies the ferocious meddling or 'finagling' endemic to the dollar-stunned politickers of the book. To the extent that all such chronic ignorance of ourselves is wilful, it provokes Bellow's condemnation.
The key scene for the understanding of Bellow's concept of posthistoric barbarity is the televised rape trial conducted by the state governor attended by the two protagonists. Bellow's purpose here, it seems, is to demonstrate that our bemused literalness and the pretence to objectivity in abstract thought - whether social theory, politics or the applied sciences - are one and the same. In addition, he illustrates graphically the way in which the impersonal has usurped the personal aspect of man, the suspension of judgement effecting a suspension of humanity. Such a separation of morality from aesthetics ('intellect without soul') is uniformly destructive to the person and to the virtues that, for Bellow, ultimately support and delineate it. In this scene, the parody of affection in rape is given the gruesome emblem of the word 'LOV' carved on the girl's belly with a broken bottle. The inherently maladroit legal process (long the object of Bellow's satire); the late testimony of the 'victim' that there had been no rape and her wounds self-inflicted; combined with the poll-anxious politician's camera antics, are quite stultifying, smothering any sense of Justice. Worst of all are the effects of television, ensuring that the trial conforms to no concept of truth, crime or punishment: all is reduced to mere 'entertainment', which means having one's cake and eating it too; that is, one is thrilled pruriently by the "forensic" intrusion of the minute inspection of a woman's undergarments while sitting comfortably on one's righteous indignation. Indeed, throughout the book, Bellow hits hard at popular art's tendency to reduce its subject to an instrument of momentary sexual or dramatic - but never human - interest. The point here is not so much that voyeurism represents a form of power, it is that, where love is absent the will to power is fully manifest, whether as specious uncertainty or as aesthetic or political objectification. The personal sphere is thereby expunged, and the public ultimately undermined, as we may see from the decadent state of institutions in this novel.
Not surprisingly, given the emphasis placed on the literal and the aesthetic, More Die is also something of a comedy of affects: people feel as weightless as plastic egg-cartons, or seem like straw dummies or mannequins; they sandpaper their faces to improve their appearances; or they put together their imaginary ideal lover with the attributes of various notables. Similarly, 'enlightened' by the revelation that all is literal and there are no prescriptive givens, they also fabricate their own personalities, modelling and re-modelling themselves according to the latest social or intellectual fashion (or crank theory). But if readily constructed, they also easily revert to disjecta membra. And in fact Crader's hubris lies in his having chosen to marry Matilda partly as an aesthetic enterprise. Her beauty had been the justification for the marriage, Kenneth says, and Crader himself admits that he had been 'drawn to have sex with perfection'. Developing a morphology of humans proves more problematic than botany, however, and given that you 'can't find a support in the affects for a self', he begins despite himself to almost literally pull Matilda to pieces.
It would seem that the appeal of aestheticism and the denial or disregard of anything that is innately human rest on the deathlessness of abstractions. We hitch our wagons to the star of personal nostrums or political ideologies in the hope that we may ourselves thereby escape death. Indeed spectre-like, we remove ourselves from the human mortal scene. For death is personal; it is the individual who must face death. Thus, if in More Die Bellow is less preoccupied with the overtly political than in The Dean's December, it is partly due to his having demonstrated in the earlier novel that those Baalim, the forms of modern public discourse, of their nature undying and dehumanised, cannot contain or comprehend human truth.
The significance of death in Bellow cannot be over-estimated; it is for him 'the dark backing that a mirror needs if we are to see anything'; due appreciation for the enormity of death provides a firm basis on which to construct human nature and morality. In More Die, as elsewhere in his work, death is the denominator that fires the Hobbesian numerator of our paranoic, imperial, wilful tendencies. Terrified of death, rejecting all consciousness of it, Bellow's characters plunge into the uniquely accommodating American material world, building little citadels of secular life to keep out death (the sole constraint on an otherwise totally amorphous posthistoric existence). And this perhaps explains our persistence in trampling bitterly on the vestigial remains of the pre-modern, in spite of the fact that we don't 'have to negate the Given any more'. Rarely do we get beyond such negation, and it seems quite possible that our rage and shame may in fact be directed at the individual human form that underlay the, admittedly in many ways corrupt, 'old system'. Our mortality being fundamental to that form, the pre-modern openly admitted the fact that we so dread. So often, what is asserted is the imperious ego. Bellow notes in the West - like Nadezhda Mandelstam in the East - an ironic increase in 'poor forms' of individualism after the past is rejected.
Attracting Bellow's particular censure is the unacknowledged historicism of the literal-aesthetic mentality, the degree to which it is conditioned by practices, ideas and experiences of the modern period. For Bellow, to waken ourselves to 'what is actually occurring would be a purgatory' partly because the historical redundancy - and the dangers -of the cyclopean X-ray outlook would thus be exposed. To illustrate this, he often draws historical parallels; in the present work, he compares the US now with pre-revolutionary St Petersburg: 'Here, too, there was a mixture of barbarism and worn-out humanist culture'; and 'a cerebral animalism or primitivism...' - with which, alarmingly, given what followed in Russia, America appears to be trifling today. With one eye no doubt on his own Russian Jewish origins, Bellow is mindful that Eastern Europe has already experienced the most violent excesses of nihilism and utopian ideologies. As Nadezhda Mandelstam puts it: 'we have learned by experience that conditions can be created in which people cease to be human.' The Nazis, we are tacitly reminded, also insited on reducing their victims to mere stuff: puppets, Figuren. Saul Bellow's closest contemporaries are the East Europeans who have borne witness to the fate of the human personality in this century, the Mandelstams, Sinyavsky, Shalamov, Milosz: those who, like Bellow, have understood that once the integrity of the human form is destroyed, there is nothing left, all else perishes. And he is full of admiration for those writers who have clung to their poignant verse or their awful 'Tales', instinctively grasping that, after undergoing such dehumanising purgatory, art almost alone can reconstitute our humanity, reaching the parts that other modes of discourse can not.
You have to think, when so many supports and stabilities are removing themselves from you, about the possible advantages of removing yourself from them - the human being, preserving himself humanly, may find a channel which brings him to liberty.
Despite the deeply disquieting historical parallels that appear to augur a new dark age, Bellow finds the contemporary Western scene critically different from that of the East, and quite unprecedented: 'The East has the ordeal of privation, the West has the ordeal of desire...Stalin poured on the old death. In the West, the ordeal is of a new death. There aren't any words for what happens to the soul in the free world.'
Disinheritance and existence without prescription bring their own difficulties, and they are different from those one faces when satisfying material need. Following the conquest of necessity, choice and variety are bewildering and, disoriented and suffering a kind of spiritual displacement, the individual seeks 'appeasement' in the material world. Given the wealth and plasticity of American society, the individual tends to 'legendize' himself, Gatsby style, in material surroundings adequate for the expression of his passions (or neurotic purposes). So he constructs Byzantine or Gothic palaces in which Brothers Grimm-like plots (none more so than that to recover the Craders' lost 'treasure') are hatched. But, being material realizations of the mental ideal, such fairy tale existences (truly, follies) are - perhaps inevitably - edged with parody. The element of the grotesque is ever-present, and the frequently cited names Poe, Hoffman and Hawthorne (the last of whom also clearly saw the nature of the secular will) give us our bearings. The disjunction between life's possibilities and reality provoke further unhappiness - the 'ordeal' of desire. Ironically, in such circumstances, the individual deports himself to a mental Siberia. And Bellow draws our attention to the philosophical nature of the problems Americans contend with. As Milosz has written (in Visions from San Francisco Bay), 'No wonder that the very core of American literature has always been the question: "Who am I?"'. Bellow, too, suggests that their continuous contention with human limitations - especially with the death question - implies that Americans are more humanly advanced than the rest of mankind, consumed with finding its daily bread. Perhaps the best approach to contemporary America in this regard is that of Christopher Isherwood, cited by Bellow in his Tanner Lectures:'...this is where the mistakes are being made - and made first, so that we're going to get the answers first...'
If, in More Die of Heartbreak, such potential remains largely unfulfilled (his 'project' unsuccessful, the frozen wastes of Siberia actually become Crader's preferred environment), perhaps we are being advised that spiritual development may be somewhat slow, on a par with Crader's Arctic lichens, growing an inch every twenty years.
And now, with the publication of A Theft (Penguin, £3.50), Bellow has proceeded further down the personal path. At the expense of his customary linguistic exuberance, and having discovered at his stage of life that a plot 'makes writing more serious', he has delivered his purest narrative, an appropriately gem-like tale of an emerald ring that is twice lost and twice found and its owner, Clara Velde, a New York fashion editor from the revivalist Midwest. Disregarding the external worlds of history, politics and corrupt 'head culture', Clara has 'developed her own moral logic, worked it out independently by her own solar power and from her own feminine premises.' Thus, turning inward to consult with her own soul, she has been faithful to what Bellow has identified as the last outpost of authentic being in the contemporary world.
Such human meaning as we have access to is to be found, then, in personal fate. Yet a sense of human incompleteness is also manifest. The public realm of 'crisis-chatter' and 'butcher politics' is respresented in A Theft in the figure of Ithiel, and it is suggested that together he and Clara symbolize 'the Human Pair', the complementary male and female principles. The pairing fails, however, and they end up circling each other like binary stars, unwilling to part, but incapable of forming a permanent union. In the broadest terms, the rift between the personal and the political implies that a divide also separates the Protestant, American, individualistic ethos of Clara from what was valid in the Judaeo-Christian moral and political traditions that also stand behind Ithiel, and from which she as well as contemporary politics partly spring. And, with no sense of history to bridge the gap, the one cannot replenish the other.
What Bellow looks for and cannot find is, if not the integrated being of the metaphysical poets (and the book echoes, consciously or otherwise, Donne and Marvell), at least some correspondence between our 'insides' and 'outsides' which would make ourselves and others real. Simone Weil wrote: 'To believe in the existence of human beings as such is love'. And the reverse, that those whom we love exist, Clara also finds to be true. In the present climate, however, 'Nobody is anybody', as Clara says (taking Joyce's 'nothing is anything' to its conclusion), and love, unlike reality-deforming head culture, is thin on the ground.
This article is taken from PN Review 72, Volume 16 Number 4, March - April 1990.