restricted access 11. The Jewish Journey of Saul Bellow: From Secular Satirist to Spiritual Seeker
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11 The Jewish Journey of Saul Bellow: From Secular Satirist Some time ago, a Fuller Brush man came to Saul Bellow's door and tried to sell him his wares. When he got nowhere with him, he finally demanded, "Won't you even take it as a gift?" Bellow replied, "I've been given the gift of life, and it's more than I know what to do with" (Kazin, Contemporaries, 221). Indeed Saul Bellow has inherited many gifts from many sources. He was born of Yiddish-speaking, Russian immigrant Jews, who settled in the Jewish ghetto of Lachine, Canada, and the Jewish West Side of Chicago. Yet he was loathe to identify any connections between the legacies of his Jewish background and his gifts as a writer. Meeting with little success as a new novelist, he claimed to be a Jew who happened to be a writer. Later when he became nationally and internationally acclaimed, he claimed to be a writer who happened to be a Jew. But the artistic gift Saul Bellow acknowledged with the least amount of self-conflict and vacillation was his lavish talent as a comic writer. Throughout his career, he expressed his preference for the use of the comic in his works: "Obliged to choose between complaint and comedy, I choose comedy , as more energetic, wiser and manlier" (Harper, "Saul Bellow," 62). As an antidote to despair, he uses comedy to interrupt, resist, reinterpret, and transcend adversity. The strength of his comedy and the function it performs varies in each novel he has written. In the early ones, the sullen Dangling Man and The Victim, Bellow's comedy acts as a shaky defense, trying to stave off distrust and melancholy. As an uneasy moratorium from the gloom, it does not free his heroes from their long-term hostilities. In The Adventures of Augie March, comedy serves not only as a tonic for the dispirited, but also as a miraculous SARAH BLACHER COHEN 157 158 SARAH BLACHER COHEN alchemist that transforms the common into the precious. Although Augie recognizes the disfigurement of the present, his antic sense enables him to re-create a golden age out of the "dwarf end of times" (60). In Seize the Day, a compassionate treatment of the beleaguered little man, comedy is a shield, employed more by Bellow than by Tommy Wilhelm, to protect him against his ubiquitous harassment. It is also used as a subtle cosmetic to cover up Wilhelm's blemishes and make him more endearing. In Henderson the Rain King, the comedy resembles a flashing saber brandished by Henderson, the mock miles gloriosus, both to defend and undercut his vaunted image of himself and to attack his brute opponents. While it does not succeed in eliminating Henderson's self-lionizing or in slaying the iniquitous lions of the world, his nimble and clumsy thrusting and parrying are alone worth the price of admission. In Herzog, comedy acts as a "balance and a barricade" (62) which the morose hero introduces to counter and combat his own depressive tendencies and the apocalyptic pronouncements of the reigning cognoscenti. It is also a boomerang that ultimately returns to strike him with the knowledge that man does not live by wisdom alone. In Mr. Sammler's Planet, comedy appears as a confectionery to accompany the bitter views of an angry old man. While Bellow does not think these bitter views need sweetening, he assumes not all of his readers will be able to swallow them without his customary jocular treats. "Comedy tends to present a glass in which we glimpse ourselves (albeit distorted for humorous effect), whereas satire, as Swift wryly put it, presents a glass in which we tend to see the others' failings, but seldom, willingly, on our own" (Stedmond, Comic Art, 89). Mr. Sammler's Planet is, in the above sense, more satiric than comic. Arthur Sammler, a variant of the Plautine senex iratus, dwells on the failings of rascally youth, arrogant blacks, and willful females, but is reluctant to acknowledge his own failings. A sworn upholder of Apollonian values, he stridently lashes out at the Dionysian excesses of the times — "the right to be uninhibited, spontaneous, urinating, defecating, belching coupling in all positions, tripling, quadrupling" (33). Many elements of Bellow's golden age of humor have in Mr. Sammler's Planet appreciably diminished in luster and have in certain areas become downright rusty. A superb example of what Northrop Frye designates as "second-phase satire," or literature assuming...


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Subject Headings

  • Judaism and literature -- United States.
  • Jews -- United States -- Intellectual life.
  • Holocaust survivors in literature.
  • Holocaust, Jewish (1939-1945), in literature.
  • Postmodernism (Literature) -- United States.
  • American literature y20th century xHistory and criticism
  • World War, 1939-1945 -- United States -- Literature and the war.
  • American literature -- Jewish authors -- History and criticism.
  • Judaism in literature.
  • Jews in literature.
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