Saul Bellow’s Mr. Sammler’s Planet is a document of the cravings of 1960s America, and an attempt to bring the Holocaust to bear on America
The apocalypse that Sammler foresees is not nuclear, as we might expect, nor does he fear the return of fascism and genocide. Indeed, for a man who survived the Holocaust, Sammler seems very little interested in social and political questions. The disaster he sees unfolding around him is, instead, spiritual, moral, and above all sexual. And here the usefulness of Sammler as Bellow’s protagonist starts to become clear. To issue jeremiads one needs an unchallengeable, Old Testament kind of authority; and over the course of the novel, Sammler, despite his bohemian, freethinking ways, becomes an embodiment of Jewish patriarchal sternness.
Any reader of Bellow’s biography knows that he was not an abstemious man. Whatever may have been the case for Philip Larkin, for Bellow sexual intercourse certainly did not begin in 1963. Yet something about the let-it-all-hang-out spirit of the 1960s provoked a profoundly hostile and frightened response in him. You can see it, in Mr. Sammler’s Planet, in the character of Angela Gruner, a rich, beautiful, and promiscuous young woman whose sexuality is offensively ripe: “In Angela you confronted sensual womanhood without remission. You smelled it, too.” That comment on sexual smell is, on the one hand, typically Bellovian, an example of the richness and equanimity of his perceptions. In this context, however, it is also rather nasty, since it is meant to suggest the slovenliness and animality of the sexually liberated woman. Indeed, Angela’s sexual escapades seem to Sammler to embody the spirit of the age:
Listening to Angela carefully, Sammler perceived different developments. The labor of Puritanism now was ending. The dark satanic mills changing into light satanic mills. The reprobates converted into children of joy, the sexual ways of the seraglio and of the Congo bush adopted by the emancipated masses of New York, Amsterdam, London.
The novel’s vengefulness toward Angela is expressed in the way it contrives her collision with her father, the dying Elya. Angela has a steady boyfriend whom she hopes to marry, Wharton Horricker (one of the most wonderful of all Bellow’s Dickensian namings). But while on vacation with him in Mexico, she engages in partner-swapping with a couple they just met, and though Horricker participates, he becomes extremely jealous. News of this incident somehow makes its way back to Elya, and he expresses his loathing for his daughter in terms that sound like a deathbed curse: “You see a woman who has done it in too many ways with too many men. By now she probably doesn’t know the name of the man between her legs. And she looks … Her eyes—she has fucked-out eyes.”
This is the way the ’60s end, with a bang and also a whimper. It is hard not to be reminded of The Merchant of Venice, with Angela playing the role of the ungrateful daughter Jessica, and Elya as the embittered Shylock. This resonance is all the clearer because, Sammler insists, Angela’s sex life is a transgression against specifically Jewish moral instincts:
Sammler had known Angela’s grandparents. They had been Orthodox. This gave a queer edge to his acquaintance with her paganism. Somewhere he doubted the fitness of these Jews for this erotic Roman voodoo primitivism. He questioned whether release from long Jewish mental discipline, hereditary training in lawful control, was obtainable upon individual application.
Sexual incontinence, depending on Bellow’s choice of metaphor, can be Eastern or African or even Roman, but never Jewish. Unfortunately, and notoriously, he chooses in Mr. Sammler’s Planet to make it quite specifically African, and African-American. “From the black side, strong currents were sweeping over everyone. … Millions of civilized people wanted oceanic, boundless, primitive, neck-free nobility, experienced a strange release of galloping impulses, and acquired the peculiar aim of sexual niggerhood for everyone,” Bellow writes.
In these lines the rhetorical mechanism of racism is laid bare in extraordinarily crude terms. When a group of people are turned into a symbol of certain ideas or emotions, they can no longer be seen as individual human beings; they are condemned to be bearers of abstractions, synecdoches for vice. This is precisely what happens with the only black character in the novel, a pickpocket who notices Sammler observing him at work on the Broadway bus. To intimidate Sammler, the man corners him in the lobby of his apartment building and exposes himself:
He no more spoke than a puma would. What he did was to force Sammler into a corner. … The pickpocket unbuttoned himself. Sammler heard the zipper descend. Then the smoked glasses were removed from Sammler’s face and dropped on the table. He was directed, silently, to look downward. The black man had opened his fly and taken out his penis. It was displayed to Sammler with great oval testicles, a large tan-and-purple uncircumcised thing—a tube, a snake.
Bellow’s language insists on the animalization of the man, which of course means his dehumanization. It is especially disastrous that this should take place in a novel that is partly about the Holocaust, because exactly this technique was used by anti-Semites to demonize Jews. To the Nazis, it was the Jews who were instinctively licentious, who were emblems of “sexual Jewhood.” But instead of drawing the conclusion that this sort of racism is inherently false and cruel, Bellow simply reverses the polarities: The pickpocket’s bestiality is meant to stand in obvious contrast with Sammler’s Jewish, civilized impotence. One of the key scenes of the novel, loosely based on something that really happened to Bellow, comes when Sammler delivers a lecture at Columbia and gets interrupted by a militant heckler, who shouts, “Why do you listen to this effete old shit? What has he got to tell you? His balls are dry. He’s dead. He can’t come.”
Here again surfaces the structural problem of Mr. Sammler’s Planet, the fact that what Bellow is criticizing in the 1960s—the topsy-turvy elevation of youth over age, energy over wisdom—really has nothing to do with what Sammler experienced in the 1940s. As an American Jewish novelist, Bellow tries hard to seek a point of imaginative contact with the Holocaust, but the concerns of the present overshadow the realities of the past. Indeed, one feels that a man with Sammler’s experiences would not condemn the American present in quite such absolute terms. At the intersection of Broadway and 96th Street, for instance, Sammler feels that the dismal scene seems to say “that the final truth about mankind was overwhelming and crushing”: But surely a man who was buried alive under the corpse of his wife would not need Broadway and 96th Street to enforce such a feeling.
Conversely, the sublime spiritual aspirations that Bellow voices in the novel also seem unrelated to what Sammler went through in the Holocaust. One of the book’s central concerns, alluded to in the title, is the prospect of mankind leaving planet Earth behind to strike out for a new existence on the moon. To Sammler, this prospect is appealing, not because the Earth has been befouled by the Holocaust, but because it is sultry with the sex cravings of the 1960s. He imagines life on the moon as “necessarily austere, drinking the fossil waters, considering basic questions only.”
This encounter with the cosmic is absolutely convincing on Bellovian terms, but it makes little sense on Sammlerian ones. Mr. Sammler’s Planet is a novel utterly faithful to its moment, above all perhaps in the way it is morally disoriented by that moment: It is both a portrait of confusion and a document of it. By viewing that confusion through Sammler’s eyes, Bellow tries to lay claim to an essentially Jewish response to it, a response born of the ordeal of the Holocaust. Surely, he seems to say, a people that has so recently undergone such a tragedy must be inoculated against the unseriousness and insobriety of the ’60s. Jews should be Sammlers. That they aren’t—remember that Portnoy’s Complaint was published in the year that Mr. Sammler’s Planet takes place—is in its way a hopeful sign. A people capable of folly and illusion is one still in love with this world—as Bellow himself incurably was, despite the testimony of this wounded book.
Nathan Hilu, an 89-year-old veteran who lives on New York’s Lower East Side, makes frenzied art from his potent memories of Jewish life and loss