The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

November 15, 2018

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

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 the 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.”

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