A controversial novel when it was first published, Saul Bellow’s Mr. Sammler’s Planet (1970) remains worth revisiting, even though the social and political conflicts of the 1960s have transformed themselves into an acceptable bobo ethos. With the inauguration of a new president, who was brought into office on the campaign message of hope and change, Bellow’s novel serves as a steely reminder of the unfortunate consequences of an unchecked romantic liberalism in American society. Most critics have focused on this aspect of the novel, and usually from the vantage point that Bellow was mistaken in his diagnosis of American liberal society. But what has been neglected is Bellow’s exploration of how cultural conservatism, as represented by the protagonist of the novel, not only has become impotent in such a society but can also be renewed when society is on the precipice of collapse.
Artur Sammler is a septuagenarian, European aristocrat and Holocaust survivor who now is transplanted in 1960s New York City. He is a classical old-world thinker steeped in the traditions of European philosophy and literature, particularly in the thought of H.G. Wells and the Bloomsbury Circle where in London he received his early intellectual acculturation. On the eve of the Second World War, Sammler accompanied his wife and daughter to Europe in order to settle his father-in-law’s estate where the two became separated by the Nazi invasion. His wife dies, and his daughter is hidden and protected by nuns, while Sammler himself barely escapes death as he crawled out from a pile of dead Jewish bodies and later shoots a soldier in the Zamosht Forest where he subsequently hides. Sammler and his daughter are reunited after the war and are brought to America by a wealthy nephew, Dr. Elya Gruner, who discovered their names on a dispossessed person list.
Now living on 90th Street near Riverside Drive, Sammler sees a city in a state of disorder and decay with crime so pervasive that his report of a African-American who pickpockets the elderly on a public bus is dismissed with disdain by the police (later in the novel, the thief confronts and exposes himself to Sammler as a warning not to further interfere). His family is equally dysfunctional with all of them pinning for Elya Gruner’s fortune as he waits for death in the hospital with an inoperatable brain aneurism. At the same time, Sammler’s own daughter, Shula, steals a Professor Lal’s manuscript, The Future of the Moon, in the delusional belief that it will help her father’s work on H.G. Wells. The manuscript eventually is returned to its rightful owner, but Sammler is delayed by a series of events before reaching Elya, who dies alone in the hospital. At the end of the novel, Sammler sees the body of Elya in order to recite a prayer for him.
Throughout the novel, Sammler slowly becomes emotionally and spiritually transformed from an isolated misanthrope who has become disengaged from the world to an active participant in it where he recovers his familial and humane feelings and attempts to make the world better. In the initial pages of the novel, it is clear why someone like Sammler would want to have nothing to do with the world around him: the city is ungovernable, his family is neurotic, and he himself has been psychologically and emotionally damaged from his experience of the Holocaust. When Sammler has contact with people, it usually ends up the worse for him, whether it is reporting the African-American thief to the police or when he agrees to give a lecture to students at Columbia University but only to be subsequently insulted and verbally abused by them. His familial relations are no better, with Elya’s daughter, Angela, addicted to drugs, alcohol, and sex; and the son, Wallace, constantly scheming for money but lacking common sense; and both of them ask Sammler to use his influence with their father to secure their inheritance.
But the real source of Sammler’s passive misanthropy stems from his past. It is Sammler’s execution of a disarmed German who pleaded for his life in the Zamosht Forest that haunts him, even more so than his experience in the concentration camp. The execution of the prisoner gave Sammler not only pleasure but a divine joy to such an extent that he shot the dead German again “less to make sure of the man than to try again for that bliss.” The God-like power over another human life, especially when pity is banished and God is absence, is an intoxicating and exhilarating sensation that lies underneath Sammler’s civilized, aristocrat, intellectual self. The recognition of the fragility of human affairs, that civilization is a wisp away from chaos and madness, has led Sammler to be psychologically and spiritually impotent, for any attempt to make a situation better might also make it worse, as we are capable of creating good but also equally capable of enacting and enjoying evil.
This capacity for evil – whether it is in the single act of enjoying the execution of an unarmed man or the attempted genocide of the entire Jewish people – cannot be checked by civilization alone; rather, it requires individuals to recognize that transcendence, or something greater than themselves, exists in order for them to realize that they are not omnipotent creatures, even if humans are able to land people on the moon. When Sammler shot the unarmed man in the forest, he “thanked God for this opportunity. If he had had any God. At that time, he did not. For many years, in his own mind, there was no judge but himself.” This reliance upon human judgment alone may propel the race to create a new and better civilization, such as one on the moon which Lal’s manuscript proposes, but it also may result in the destructive disorder and chaos of a 1960s New York City where optimistic liberalism reigns unchecked by an understanding of human fragility and limitations.
This romantic aspiration of liberalism – that human nature is fundamentally good and only needs to be liberated from the artifice of a stifling civilization – is portrayed in the younger characters in the novel: Angela seeks authenticity through psychoanalysis but only consumes herself in the debased pleasure of alcohol, drugs, and sex; Wallace desires independence and integrity but only hunts for it in the mafia money that has been hidden by his father; Feffer pretends to be an intellectual but is nothing more than a public relation marketer who beds younger, female students; and Eisen, along with Shula, are mad yet able to roam freely in the city to cause trouble and mischief. Instead of searching for the higher and permanent aspects of the human condition and civilization, these characters replace one Nietzschean mask for another in search for entertainment. As Sammler reflects on all of them at the end of the novel: “Be entertainers of your near and dear . . . the blindness of the living . . . Let us divert each other while we live!”
Instead of a future filled with “vanities, negations, and revealed only in amorphous hints or ciphers smeared on the windows of condemned shops,” Sammler believes in a future “in which the full soul concentrated upon eternal being.” Transcendence diverts life from a mere plaything to a contract between God and man. In exchange for our existence, we are to uphold and follow God’s laws, something which the older characters in the novel are more or less able to do. But the fulfillment of the contract is not merely external acts themselves but an inward spiritual acceptance of God’s demands upon us in spite of “all the confusion and degraded clowning of this life through which we are speeding.” The best example of this is Elya Gruner who was able to fulfill God’s contract, where in his innermost heart, he knew that he did his best to uphold God’s laws, as Sammler recites in a prayer over Elya’s body. Although he had his faults, Elya did his best to fulfill God’s contract both internally and externally, and ultimately becomes a role model for which Sammler and the reader should strive.
The spark of Sammler’s search to uphold God’s laws – the start of his inner emotional and spiritual transformation – was his personal encounter with Professor Lal, whose manuscript was stolen by Sammler’s daughter. The meeting takes place two-thirds into the novel, where the two civilized intellectuals want to clear any misunderstanding of the missing manuscript, The Future of the Moon. Like Sammler, Lal also has experienced atrocities in his life, such as the Calcutta killings when Hindus and Muslims slaughtered each other after India’s independence; but, unlike Sammler, he remains to be “an intelligent and sensitive” man who manages to escape the psychological and emotional damage of the event. The fact that Sammler finally encounters someone, perhaps the first time since he has arrived in America, who is not only intelligent and sensitive but civilized prompts a long conversation in the novel about the nature of man, the meaning of life, and the future of civilization with the impending moon landing.
Both recognize the extremism and fanaticism inherent in human nature and man’s inability not to resist new experiences, which has led to the “species . . . eating itself up.” But whereas Lal’s approach is secular and scientific – in some sense resembling H.G. Well’s – Sammler’s approach is rooted in religion, as he disagrees with Lal’s notion that “there is no duty in biology”:
But being born one respects the power of creation, one obeys the will of God – with whatever inner reservations truth imposes. As for duty – you are wrong. The pain of duty makes the creature upright, and this uprightness is no negligible thing. No, I stand by what I said first. There is also an instinct against leaping into the Kingdom Come.
By believing in transcendence, human beings, according to Sammler, will resist “the species eating itself up.” The notion that humans will be able to create a new and superior civilization without a sense of the divine and duty is dramatically contradicted in the younger characters in the novel. Sammler in a sense is asking Lal, why should we expect life on the moon to be any different than life here on earth?
Instead of revolution and liberation, what is required is a recovery of tradition. As Sammler puts it, “All mapmakers should place the Mississippi in the same location and avoid originality . . . We cannot have the Mississippi flowing towards the Rockies for a change.” This rejection of tradition is replaced with the cult of individuality with its unlimited desires, foolish possibilities, and impossible demands upon complex realities. For Sammler, the purpose of our life is to order ourselves according to our love of God in spite of the contradictions that exist in life, whether in the story of Job or in the equally inexplicable horrors of today. Ultimately knowledge is inadequate to make sense of our desire for justice and the fact that evil continues to persist in the world – “we have no proof that there is no depth under the surface” – so that all we have left are the existential virtues, such as love, that emerge from our experiences of “longing, suffering, mourning.” These experiences, and the virtues that are elicit from them, belong to all human beings because they are the “needs of the living creatures, because it is a living creature.”
This conversation has rekindled in Sammler a renewed and genuine interest in other people: an inward spiritual acceptance of the mystery of God and his creation, as opposed to fulfilling one’s outward obligations. When Lal asks to hear Sammler’s views:
A strange thing happened. He felt that he was about to speak his full mind. Aloud! That was the most striking part of it. Not the usual self-communing of an aged and peculiar person. He was about to say what he thought, and viva voce.
After the conversation, the house begins to flood due to Wallace’s stupidity and symbolizes a renewal of Sammler’s spiritual and emotional psyche. Because he was able to speak about the highest and permanent things with another civilized person, who had no motives other than the conversation itself, Sammler becomes transformed into a person who takes an active role in human affairs. Not only does he later come to the aid of Feffer, who is being attacked by the African-American thief, but Sammler also encourages Angela to ask for forgiveness from her father, even though this may result in a loss of future financial support for him and his daughter, Shula. Although both attempts to help Feffer and Angela ultimately turn out to be futile, Sammler slowly recognizes his own spiritual obligation to fulfill God’s contract by helping out his fellow human beings.
Mr. Sammler’s planet therefore is neither the decaying city of New York nor the horrors of the Holocaust. His planet is one filled with confusion, inevitable disappointment, and reoccurring pain but where the possibility of love and transcendence still persist. The aspiration of Lal’s secular, scientific, and superior lunar civilization certainly represents one possibility for the planet, but so does Sammler’s in its recognition of the capacity of human depravity but which can be checked by the human need for civilization, religion, and virtue. But these higher and permanent things – such as love and transcendence – can only be understood after tradition has been recovered. Change and hope are admirable qualities, perhaps even virtuous in certain instances, but the question remains change and hope for what? Mr. Sammler’s Planet seems to suggest that before we can move forward – whether as individuals, a movement, or even as a species – we need to look backwards first in order to recover tradition and transcendence. It is there hopefully we will be able to find love in order to orientate ourselves and our communities towards a better future.
Available is the introduction to A Political Companion to Saul Bellow with the following chapters: “Our Father’s Politics: Gregory, Adam, and Daniel Bellow” and “Biography, Elegy, and the Politics of Modernity in Saul Bellow’s Ravelstein”; also see “The Search to be Human in Dangling Man” and “Fathers and Sons: Saul Bellow’s Politics and Political Thought.”
This was originally published with the same title in First Principles on March 30, 2009.