The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

December 10, 2018

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Transformative Love and the Recovery of Tradition in Mr. Sammler’s Planet
Lee Trepanier - 03/30/09

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 into 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 interfere further). 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 inoperable brain aneurism. At the same time, Sammler’s own daughter, Shula, steals one 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, aristocratic, 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.

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