Wednesday, May 09, 2012

"Enlightenment? Marvelous! But out of hand, wasn't it?"

Saul Bellow remains a divisive writer. Some are put off for good by the increasing reaction evident over time in his books. Others find his writing artless, idea-heavy, grasping for significance in its abundant references to intellectual figures, his critical popularity more a function of politics than literature. Still others would name him the exemplary American writer, the great American writer of the 20th century, modernist par excellence. For my part, I like him, though I've had my struggles at the level of the (sometimes rambling, aimless) sentence, and have written about him accordingly (see my two posts (one, two) on re-reading The Adventures of Augie March). And I find I'm interested in the reactionary strain in his writing, in the way that conservatism can be instructive, can tap into something overlooked by others, or perhaps in its willingness to lay bare a problem otherwise obscured.

All of which is preamble to the following long-ish passage from Mr. Sammler's Planet, one of Bellow's more controversial novels (I've seen it dismissed out of hand as "racist", and indeed the subplot about the crazy black man who exposes himself to Sammler on the bus is... well, it's problematic at best). The passage comes early in the novel, and Sammler is musing about his niece Angela (in whom "you confronted sensual womanhood without remission. You smelled it,  too." (!)) and the implications, as he sees them, of modern rights and demands and etc:
Sammler in his Gymnasium days once translated from Saint Augustine: "The Devil hath established his cities in the North." He thought of this often. […] Without the power of the North, its mines, its industries, the world would never have reached its astonishing modern form. And regardless of Augustine, Sammler had always loved his Northern cities, especially London, the blessings of its gloom, of coal smoke, gray rains, and the mental and human opportunities of a dark muffled environment. There one came to terms with obscurity, with low tones, one did not demand full clarity of mind or motive. But now Augustine's odd statement required a new interpretation. 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 turning 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. Old Sammler with his screwy visions! He saw the increasing triumph of Enlightenment—Liberty, Fraternity, Equality, Adultery! Enlightenment, universal education, universal suffrage, the rights of the majority acknowledged by all governments, the rights of women, the rights of children, the rights of criminals, the unity of the different races affirmed, Social Security, public health, the dignity of the person, the right to justice—the struggles of three revolutionary centuries being won while the feudal bonds of Church and Family weakened and the privileges of aristocracy (without any duties) spread wide, democratized, especially the libidinous privileges, the right to be uninhibited, spontaneous, urinating, defecating, belching, coupling in all positions, tripling, quadrupling, polymorphous, noble in being natural, primitive, combining the leisure and luxurious inventiveness of Versailles with the hibiscus-covered erotic ease of Samoa. Dark romanticism now took hold. As old at least as the strange Orientalism of the Knights Templar, and since then filled up with Lady Stanhopes, Baudelaires, de Nervals, Stevensons, and Gauguins—those South-loving barbarians. Oh yes, the Templars. They had adored the Muslims. One hair from the head of a Saracen was more precious than the whole body of a Christian. Such crazy fervor! And now all the racism, all the strange erotic persuasions, the tourism and local color, the exotics of it had broken up but the mental masses, inheriting everything in a debased state, had formed an idea of the corrupting disease of being white and of the healing power of black. The dreams of nineteenth-century poets polluted the psychic atmosphere of the great boroughs and suburbs of New York. Add to this the dangerous lunging staggering crazy violence of fanatics, and the trouble was very deep. Like many people who had seen the world collapse once, Mr. Sammler entertained the possibility it might collapse twice. He did not agree with refugee friends that this doom was inevitable, but liberal beliefs did not seem capable of self-defense, and you could smell decay. You could see the suicidal impulses of civilization pushing strongly. You wondered whether this Western culture could survive universal dissemination—whether only its science and technology or administrative practices would travel, be adopted by other societies. Or whether the worst enemies of civilization might not prove to be its petted intellectuals who attacked it at its weakest moments—attacked it in the name of proletarian revolution, in the name of reason, and in the name of irrationality, in the name of visceral depth, in the name of sex, in the name of perfect instantaneous freedom. For what it amounted to was limitless demand—insatiability, refusal of the doomed creature (death being sure and final) to go away from this earth unsatisfied. A full bill of demand and complaint was therefore presented by each individual. Non-negotiable. Recognizing no scarcity of supply in any human development. Enlightenment? Marvelous! But out of hand, wasn't it?
Oh, man, there's so much! Obviously, on the surface, this reads like a cranky old-man rant about the kids and the girls and barbarians. And he comes right out and says that Enlightenment is all well and good for white folks and Western culture, but worrisome when everyone else wants in on the game. And he's focused on moral decline and sexual mores, which is hard to take too seriously. And he subsumes under the phrase "the power of the North" all the labor it exploited in the so-called South. And there are some great dog whistles in there, like "petted intellectuals" and "disease of being white and of the healing power of black" and the spectre of Muslim-lovers and so on.

And I love it. I love it for the writing, for one, for the way he moves through this paragraph, with its piled-on parallel phrases and its crazy lists and those characteristic not-quite-grammatical turns. But I also love it for its ideas, though I look at them a little upside-down from how they're no doubt intended. After all, never mind whether "this Western culture could survive universal dissemination", it cannot be universally disseminated, and its deepening and spread to date has been setting the stage for world-wide ecological collapse for decades now. But even without that immanent collapse, and here we return to a regular theme of mine, where is the labor and the energy going to come from if everyone is entitled to the modern, Western way of life? The left's critique of capitalism has, in my view, generally failed to take this into account, taking for granted the necessity and desirability of being "modern". We've bought wholesale into the culture of ever-continuing and -expanding consumption, the apolitical notion of economic growth (apolitical because placed outside of politics and all too much left-wing political thinking), all lip service to the contrary notwithstanding. Sammler is going on about morals and sexual mores, which is easy to laugh at and dismiss, but it's classic misdirection, perhaps even of himself. The real "full bill of demand and complaint . . . presented by each individual" is that of modern conveniences and air conditioning and cars and iPods and the Internet and everything else. Enlightenment? Maybe. But it's Modernity, and all the assumptions and expectations, political, economic, cultural, that's out of hand. What will we do about it? What can we do about it? Is it possible to think an inclusive polity that does not depend on unsustainable features of modern life?

1 comment:

Wiglaf said...

I'm not a literary person and I don't know this Saul Bellow, but your relationship with him sounds rather like mine with Walker Percy: on one level angry old white man rants that piss me off, on another level there might be something to him.