- Barbarous On Either Side: The New York Blues Of Mr. Sammler’s Planet
There are no two ways about virtue, my dear student; it either is, or it is not. Talk of doing penance for your sins! It is a nice system of business, when you pay for your crime by an act of contrition! You seduce a woman that you may set your foot on such and such a rung of the social ladder; you sow dissension among the children of a family; you descend, in short, to every base action that can be committed at home or abroad, to gain your own ends for you own pleasure or profit. . . . That man with yellow gloves and a golden tongue commits many a murder; he sheds no blood, but he drains his victims as surely; a desperado forces open a door with a crowbar, dark deeds both of them! You yourself will do every one of the things that I suggested to you today, bar the bloodshed. Do you believe there is any absolute standard in this world?—Vautrin, Père Goriot
We are now mightily perplexed by the vulgarity and the brutal appetites of our culture, which Mr. Sammler sees so, so clearly, startled from page to page and in passage after passage of Saul Bellow’s 1970 novel. The terrible children of our day, the worst of our politicians, and the rampant sleaze that slides up and down the classes, across the races and religions, from the cynical students to the unrepentingly jaded and old, can be traced back to the elements that are so alarming to the protagonist of Mr. Sammler’s Planet. As a well-educated man who has smelled the molten breath and felt the bloody teeth of European fascism, Mr. Sammler is obsessed with understanding what makes or breaks a society, what causes a civilization to embrace ruthlessness as the [End Page 89] best way to realize its ambitions and handle its fears. A veteran of World War II, he has seen killing and he has done it himself, which makes him a man for whom none of his questions exists in a speculative air unfouled by the odor of murder. His intellectual ponderings are thereby part of a drama in which he has seen the lowest the Western world has to offer. This lack of innocence makes him a hero and a thinker haunted by his past and startled to uneasiness by the present. Oh, yes: Artur Sammler knows firsthand how quickly the metamorphosis from the refined to the smugly savage can take place. “Like many people who had seen the world collapse once, Mr. Sammler entertained the possibility it might collapse twice.”
The very conception of Mr. Sammler is expressive of Bellow’s gift for bringing together the intellect, the passion, the spirit, and the flesh. The physical responses to stimulation are rendered with the same attention given to all of the many things that Mr. Sammler contemplates as he tries to get a grip on New York, America’s financial capital and the pinnacle of the nation’s culture. Mr. Sammler’s ideas are counterpointed by feeling and sensuality to such a degree that the thoughts are themselves elements of emotion, which is something only our finest writers can bring off, the literary condition of character so complete that every aspect of consciousness takes form within the container of a body equal in the life of its senses to the spirit it carries. We get the feeling of a human being in repose, in grief, in rage, in self-protective contemplation, in unsparing self-examination, in attentive motion through Manhattan, on foot, in public transportation, in chauffeured limousine.
New York’s power over the country was central to why it was chosen as the place of action. Mr. Sammler could not be in a better setting if he were to wrestle with the identity of the United States. One part of it obviously has to do with the character’s Jewishness. Manhattan and Hollywood are the two places where Jews have made their deepest imprints on the country. Unlike the dream factory of Hollywood, New York is the city...