I just finished Saul Bellow’s Mr. Sammler’s Planet. It is a book that suits me to a T, although it’s generally not mentioned as among Bellow’s best. There are almost more ideas in Sammler than there are words (to indulge in mild hyperbole) which makes it just my kind of book. The problem with it – looking at it from a literary point of view – is that it is didactic. Bellow has some things he wants to say, and he puts them into the mouth of his hero, the cultured, worldly, pessimistic, octogenarian Holocaust survivor, Artur Sammler.
At one point, toward the end of the book, Sammler is seated at a dinner table with a new acquaintance, an Indian professor whom he finds molto simpatico. Dr. Lal asks, “‘I should be extremely interested to hear your views.’”
Sammler replies, “‘My views?’” Bellow goes on. “A strange thing happened. He felt he was about to speak his full mind. Aloud!...He was about to say what he thought, and viva voce.”
Sammler has had so many interior ruminations throughout the book, that we already are well-versed in his views about all sorts of things. This formal announcement is as stilted as if a stagehand appeared from the wings with a placard: The Author's Views
In this peroration, Sammler (Bellow) states his belief that the freedom of being an individual, “a person,” which took place “in the last two centuries” has brought more wretchedness than it was worth. “Formerly [people] were slave, peasant, laborer, even artisan, but not person. It is clear that this revolution, a triumph for justice in many ways...has also brought new kinds of grief and misery, and so far, on the broadest scale, it has not been altogether a success...We have fallen into much ugliness. It is bewildering to see how much these new individuals suffer, with their new leisure and liberty.”
Bellow, through Sammler, is both intrigued and disturbed by the circus of the late 1960’s. A description of the crowds Sammler sees on Broadway, on his way to a bus, marvelously recalls that decade-long jamboree. “All human types reproduced, the barbarian, redskin, or Fiji, the dandy, the buffalo hunter, the desperado, the queer, the sexual fantasist, the squaw, bluestocking, princess, poet, painter, prospector, troubadour, guerrilla, Che Guevara, the new Thomas à Becket.”
But Sammler/Bellow goes astray. “As Mr. Sammler saw the thing, human beings, when they have room, when they have liberty and are supplied also with ideas, mythologize themselves. They legendize. They expand the imagination and try to rise above the limitations of the ordinary forms of common life.” This is perfectly true for the liberated denizens of the sixties, they did tend to mythologize themselves, to mine the culture for legendary roles for themselves. But to draw conclusions about “human beings” in general from the quirks of a particular decade is an example of what I’ll call the temporal fallacy: the assumption that something which is true at a particular time will be true at any time.
Something else that Sammler/Bellow doesn’t mention, perhaps doesn’t realize, is that the teeming mythologization he sees on Broadway is primarily sartorial. The daily lives and relations of this variegated crowd do not differ with the styles of dress they assume. A “troubadour” and a “redskin” and a “new Thomas à Becket” (which probably refers to the ascetic, unadorned persona of the time, assumed by those who found their role models in Thomas Merton, Alan Watts, the Berrigan brothers – typically black jeans and tee-shirt, cropped hair), getting together for a beer or to smoke a joint, had no difficulty at all communicating. They generally had similar opinions (the world is changing for the better, the squares are on their way out), similar interests (the latest rock and roll album), and similar goals (turning on, tuning in and dropping out).
Aghast at the “excess, pornography, sexual abnormality” of the sixties, Sammler/Bellow predicts a descent into “madness.” True, the sexual openness of today would shock not only our parents, but even shocks those of us who experienced the swinging sixties and seventies – the ability to access free hard-core pornography on your telephone, the mish-mash of sexual and scatological dirty jokes that make up most of the dialogue in main-stream movies aimed at 12-year-olds, the normalization of the words “penis” and “vagina,” which seem to generate no more of a frisson in public discourse than “chair” and “table.” But the sexual mores of 2014 can hardly be called mad. Peculiar, perhaps, but not insane. And every phenomenon of today that Sammler would have regarded as excessively liberated is counterbalanced by a new taboo which he would have seen as excessively prudish.
While teen-agers hook up for oral sex or mutual masturbation in companionly, unromantic encounters, if one of those teen-agers receives an affectionate hug from a teacher, that teacher’s career can go down the tubes. While a woman may carry on a steamy virtual affair with a man she’s never met by exchanging explicit erotic images with him over the internet, if a man at her workplace appreciatively pats her behind (the allurement of which, incidentally, has been painstakingly enhanced by specific butt-toning exercises and which has been sheathed in skin-tight trousers), he’s lucky if he only loses his job and is not arrested. While civil rights groups fight for the right for a child to identify itself [neuter pronoun intended] as belonging to the opposite sex from that which its physical attributes would suggest, to the extent of cross-dressing and using whichever school lavatory facilities it finds more comfortable, an adult 3,000 miles away who comes across a risqué self-portrait posted by that child, and stores it in his computer, would be liable to lose, for a lifetime, a great portion of his civil liberties
Of course, the distinct peculiarity of society today does not have to do with sex, individualism, or politics (which Sammler/Bellow barely touches on, Mr. Sammler’s Planet presumably being written, even though not published, before the student riots of the 1968). One can hardly fault Bellow for not having extrapolated from the hippie and quasi-hippie world of the late 1960’s a society obsessed by electronic communication devices and so caught up in social expression that criminals are routinely arrested because they have posted their illegal activities on Facebook and You Tube.
As far as I know, not even the science fiction writers of the mid-twentieth century – who instead of aiming to predict the most likely future worlds, tried to imagine the least likely, yet still plausible, ones – came up with anything like this. Of course, Ray Bradbury and others who saw computers taking over the world were right on target, but the strange collectivistic social effects of that take-over and the replacement of what one might call the molecular reality of the last 500 years with shifting digital reality were beyond them.
So sorry – I have strayed from Mr. Sammler’s and Maestro Bellow’s curmudgeonly preoccupations to my own.
A question that I often ask myself – and I am not alone in this, friends of mine have mentioned that they too wonder about it – is: To what extent do I think the world is going to hell in a hand basket because that’s what people over 75 have always thought? (The temporal fallacy.) And to what extent is it really going to hell in a hand basket. I do know enough to realize that society, the zeitgeist, fashion, whatever you call it, swings back and forth, from reaction to reaction. The computerized future that I fear will be my grandson’s, in which human inclinations will be determined by algorithms authored by other algorithms, could be completely overturned by a heroic ludditism which would produce a generation as in touch with their intelligence and imagination as were the Romantics.
There is one thing, though, about which I am absolutely right, although I will not be around to say “I told you so.” Despite its swings back and forth between individualism and communitarianism, the direction that humanity is taking is towards the latter. The ultimate goal of human development on earth is the society of the hive. It is from that base that we will swarm out into the universe.