During a recent conversation with Alan Berger, Greg Bellow said that his father, Saul, believed "he came late to the Holocaust." Clearly, Saul thought he had a responsibility as a Jewish American writer to engage this atrocity, and Mr. Sammler's Planet, published in 1970, certainly excuses any tardiness since this work more directly engages the Holocaust and its impact on survivors than any previous Bellow novel? As Alvin Rosenfeld remarks, this is "a post-Holocaust novel--perhaps the most important of its kind written thus far by an American author which means ... that it is a study of Western culture in extremis" (Dittmar 79).
As a post-Holocaust novel, Mr. Sammler's Planet depicts Artur Sammler's horrific past and his half-blind, yet penetrating vision of modernity; moreover, Bellow intimates how one can maintain personal balance in this chaotic and "far from perfect" world. As readers, we all live on Mr. Sammler's post-Holocaust planet, a habitat in which the atrocities committed during the Holocaust should provide all human beings with a clear understanding of both the light and dark sides of human nature, illuminate the differences between what is morally right and reprehensibly wrong, and mandate a deeper recognition of an individual's innate duty toward his or her fellow human. Unfortunately, Sammler sees a world that fails to embrace these notions of upright being and proper thought.
Bellow depicts Sammler's post-Holocaust planet in a dismal light. Artur Sammler and his daughter Shula survive the worst atrocity of the twentieth century; the extermination of at least six million Jews, including Sammler's wife Antonina, at the hands of the Nazis. Sammler and Shula were rescued from a Displaced Persons (DP) camp by Sammler's nephew, Dr. Arnold (Elya) Gruner, and moved to New York City. However much Artur's vision was impaired by the Nazi soldier's rifle butt that struck him during the war, he vividly sees modernity's "transformation of society," "historical ruin," and "social descent" evident in the late 1960s: "New York was getting worse than Naples or Salonika.... You opened a jeweled door into degradation.... It might well be the barbarous world on either side of the jeweled door" (7). Even though Sammler's vision remains clouded with reminders of the horrors he has witnessed and experienced, his viewpoint does not suffer from a distorted, jaded, or bitter perspective. While Sammler's planet no longer exhumes the stench of the mass grave he crawled from in 1940s Poland, the moral refuse in New York continues to reek.
Artur becomes both victim and witness to his planet's indifference toward criminality and tendency toward sadism. In the late 1960s, when technology, sex, and crime shine forth in regal glory, concern for family and God and traditions stressing personal duty and responsibility drown in the forgetful waters of Lethe. Artur cannot articulate a statement of survival; rather, his modern experiences combine with his memories of the horrific past and lead to the question: "Is it better not to have died?" This inquiry, rather than a manifestation of Artur's apparent disgust with modernity or some form of psychologically definable survivor guilt, proves to be the central question of the novel, one often overlooked by critics: the intimation of duty. What is the duty of the survivor? What is the duty of the observer? Moreover, what is the mimetic duty of the Jewish American novelist in fictionalizing a post-Holocaust world? I argue that Bellow depicts the dual nature of duty, and I show how Bellow intimates that a responsibility persists not only for those who survive atrocities but also for everyone who lives on this post-Holocaust planet.
In Mr. Sammler's Planet, Bellow creates a world in which the forces of modernity debilitate and paralyze psychological, spiritual, and philosophical growth. Still, he refutes pessimism because the reader, and perhaps Artur Sammler, ultimately understands the difference between the modern man with a "poor" soul and a human being who acts from an innate sense of duty for the well-being of others. Bellow depicts this sense of duty as the best answer to the problems of a post-Holocaust world lost in chaos, destruction, and death. Still, this novel was not well received upon publication; many readers and critics were disappointed after such landmark works as Augie March and Herzog. Perhaps the novel's true message would become clearer when considered within the proper framework.
Mr. Sammler's Planet represents a turning point for Bellow, both as a writer and as a Jew. He called it a landmark novel "in that I allowed myself to deal with a world subject and do it seriously" (Goldman, "Oblique View" 156). Furthermore, according to his son, Gregory, it was at the time of this novel that Bellow began embracing his own Judaism. Bellow seemingly asks readers to act as midrashic commentators (i.e., rabbis operating under a model of interpretation that reads meaning into and out of a text). In midrashic texts, the gaps, repetitions, and contradictions are part of an elaborate construct. Certainly, the American Academy agrees when citing Wolfgang Iser's phenomenological reader response theory: "[In the gaps,] the opportunity is given to us to bring into play our own faculty for establishing connections" (Iser 299). Much of Mr. Sammler's Planet becomes midrashic commentary on the plethora of useless explanations modernity propagates: "Arguments! Explanations! thought Sammler. All will explain everything to all, until the next, the new common version is ready" (19). Clearly the reader should engage both the text and the space between the text (Dittmar 66). In this novel, Bellow undertakes a project that few, if any, artists before him had attempted: he imagines what three days in the life of a Holocaust survivor must be like. Both the literal action and the New York setting prove unusual for a Holocaust novel, but Bellow, like most readers, came late to these atrocities. He asks his audience to enter into Artur's memories of the past and imagine the daily horrors experienced by Sammler and other survivors.
As a post-Holocaust novel, Mr. Sammler's Planet is a reconstruction of memory. But whose memory? Cynthia Ozick describes her own challenges with Holocaust imaginings: "We are the generation that come after. I want the documents to be enough; I don't want to tamper or invent or imagine. And yet I have done it. I can't not do it. It comes, it invades" (Berger, "American" 227). Evidently, Ozick struggles with her duty as an artist, and Bellow too finds himself in this "after" generation. His parents and he immigrated to America in 1924, long before the war; consequently, no personal first- or second-generation Holocaust memory exists. Still, both the artist and the reader possess images of the events as retold through "the documents," literature, history, friends, neighbors, storeowners, and survivors. These memories become the basis of Bellow's fictional, yet mimetically accurate, post-Holocaust world, a world in which the horrors exceed the limits of language: "things have happened in the twentieth century for which words like 'war,' 'revolution,' even 'holocaust' are plainly inadequate. Without exaggeration, we can speak of the history of this century of ours as an unbroken series of crises" (Bellow, A World 2-3). Yet, the duty of the novelist reigns supreme, for Bellow records in words the "horrors" even though they are beyond the "limits of language." Like Plato criticizing the poets while the muse flowed freely in his Republic, Bellow depicts this "unbroken series of crises" through three days of Artur Sammler's life. He creates a protagonist who sees a world of urban malaise, crime, and changing sexual mores through the darkly smoked lens of his inescapable and persistent Holocaust memories (Fuchs 209).
In what appears to be an innocuous and incidental moment, Artur and his somewhat transparent, interior, and omniscient narrator begin their account by witnessing a pickpocket on a cross-town bus, but the philosophical and moral implications of this simple encounter depict the dual nature of duty. After observing the pickpocket at work, the narrator interjects: "Mr. Sammler if he had not been a tall straphanger would not with his one good eye have seen these things happening. But now he wondered whether he had not drawn too close, whether he had also been seen seeing" (4). As a witness, Sammler knows there may be consequences for his penetrating vision. Still, this simple, even banal crime invokes in Sammler a deeper sense of duty, although the actions of Bellow's hero remain limited to phoning the police. Sammler searches for a phone booth, but his efforts ultimately prove as futile as trying to make a call with a broken phone: "This phone booth has a metal floor ... but the floor is smarting with dry urine, the plastic telephone instrument is smashed, and a stump is hanging at the end of the cord" (12). Through a single image, Bellow brilliantly depicts the paradox technology creates and sets it against the ironic backdrop of smarting urine: the telephone closes the gap between human beings by enabling communication across vast distances, while it simultaneously divorces people from personal contact and creates a bodiless voice. In effect, words become more important than people. In New York (and America at large), both the banality of a broken toilet-phone booth and a pickpocket operating on a cross-town bus possess far-reaching moral consequences, considering neither the phone company nor the police take responsibility for the problems. From Sammler's perspective, both "authorities" refuse to perform their duty, but depending on one's perspective, duty has various connotations. Undoubtedly, as Andrew Gordon recently reminded me, the Nazis thought they were performing their duty.
As a protagonist, Artur Sammler infrequently takes action; however, what he lacks in physical activity he more than compensates for in his verbal and reflective involvement with those around him. The protagonist's narrated thoughts and memories, rather than the novel's action, provide depth and width to round out Artur Sammler's character. Structurally, the novel consists of a primary plot that focuses on the familial relationships surrounding Dr. Arnold (Elya) Gruner who has a terminal aneurism. Through Sammler (Elya's uncle) and the omniscient narrator, readers judge the actions of Elya's daughter Angela, his son Wallace, and his grandniece Shula. The novel also contains numerous subplots, including Sammler encountering a pickpocket; Artur learning about his friend Walter Bruch's fetishism and Angela's erotic Mexico experiences; Shula stealing Dr. Lal's manuscript; Sammler lecturing at Columbia; Sammler's former son-in-law, Eisen, coming to America to be an artist; and Wallace flooding his father's house while searching for hidden money. Scattered throughout the pages of this book, Artur reflects on the past: readers share his memories of his schoolboy days in Cracow and his time as a prominent intellectual, who knew H. G. Wells, in London before the war; they see the tragedy of the war and Artur hiding in a tomb. Artur and Shula immigrate in 1947, and in 1967, Sammler travels to Israel as a correspondent covering the Six-Day War. Now, some years later and back in New York, Artur shares in the lives of other Holocaust refugees and survivors (e.g., Margotte and Walter Bruch).
In a life so rich with experience, trial, and hardship, it is curious that critics often declare Sammler a mere voyeur and the novel itself dead and lacking imagination. As Stephanie Halldorson points out in the title of her essay, "The Hero Accused," both Sammler and Bellow have been charged with being flat, indicted for simply mirroring each other, and found guilty of not understanding the real world. Responses of those like John J. Clayton and the New Left, who felt personally attacked by Bellow through his representation of Sammler's Columbia lecture, may not have been without justification, but their dismissal of the novel based solely on theories of authorial voicing through the narrator are as dried out, shriveled up, and impotent as Artur Sammler himself is accused of being: "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" (42). No, not dead-Artur Sammler survived. Still, impotent may be a valid accusation: "It wasn't surviving, it was only lasting. He had lasted" (91).
Lasting in solitude, without care for one's self or for others, proves only slightly different than lying dead in a mass grave: "For quite a long time he had felt that he was not necessarily human. Had no great use, during that time, for most creatures. Very little interest in himself. Cold even to the thought of recovery. What was there to recover?" (117). Is lasting, or even surviving, in such a void a sufficient definition for "being"? However, the narrated voice of Sammler himself proves how difficult it is to return to life after the horrendous past.
But for himself, at this time of life and because he had come back from the other world, there were no rapid connections. His own first growth of affections had been consumed. His onetime human, onetime precious, life had been burnt away. More green growth rising from the burnt black would simply be natural persistency, the Life Force working, trying to start again. (224)
Sammler continues to crawl out of the grave that he escaped from thirty years ago, and with Elya dying, Margotte remains Sammler's only genuinely human connection--all other contacts on Sammler's planet fall into the "onetime human" category.
Seemingly, the results of positivism (i.e., enlightenment or "Dark romanticism"), as evidenced in modernity, do not prevent seeds from germinating or plants from flourishing (and even reproducing), but succulent, ripe, delicious fruit requires more than "natural persistency."
Sammler saw the increasing triumph of Enlightenment It]he rights of criminals, ... the feudal bonds of Church and Family weakened and the privileges of aristocracy (without any dunes) spread wide, ... the right to be uninhibited.... Dark romanticism now took hold. (32-33)
Rather than fertilizing like nourishing dung, the political, social, and cultural refuse of the day proves infectious to soil, poisonous to the worm, and sickening to the northern flying bird returning home from the long cold winter of discontent. "The soul wanted what it wanted. It had its own natural knowledge. It sat unhappily on superstructures of explanation, poor bird, not knowing which way to fly" (3-4).
I argue that Bellow depicts a four-fold sociocultural failure in modernity, resulting in a soul with a distorted sense of duty that can only be called a misguided "poor bird" incapable of flying straight: criminal activity becomes acceptable and exciting, rampant sexuality defies morality, familial aberration denotes the modern view of tradition, and murder exhibits itself as preferable to living.
The first of these failures quickly becomes evident; Sammler wants to see the pickpocket in action again (11). A pickpocket operating on a New York bus or subway strikes the twenty-first-century reader as nothing extraordinary, but Bellow uses Sammler's fascination with this criminal as an invitation for midrashic commentary. In simply declaring any crime ordinary, the social failure manifests: "Banality is the adopted disguise of a very powerful will to abolish conscience" (18). Moreover, this Nietzschean "will to power" takes aim at the soul: "It seemed to Sammler that inside him (faute de mieux, in his mind) was a field in which many hunters at cross-purposes were firing bird shot at a feather apparition assumed to be a bird" (199).
If Bellow's 1970 modernity is caught in a crossfire, what is the reader to make of the fully automatic Uzi of 230 television channels firing 30 rounds a second of images of violence, death, and nonreciprocal sex? Mr. Sammler's planet does not exist a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away; his late-1960s world that minimizes the impact of crime and glorifies criminals still exists today. Contemporary media also dresses criminals in camel hair coats and Christian Dior sunglasses and sets them and their actions on a pedestal for all to admire. As Sammler looks at the bustle of people wandering the New York streets, he sees only Hollywood extras participating in an imitative anarchy and casting themselves into chaos.
Better, thought Sammler, to accept the inevitability of imitation and then to imitate good things. The ancients had this right. Greatness without models? Inconceivable. One could not be the thing itself--Reality. One must be satisfied with the symbols. ... But choose higher representations. Otherwise the individual must be the failure he now sees and knows himself to be. (149)
However, on Sammler's planet, imitative role models prove few and far between.
The second modern fault depicts a sexuality that defies morality and displaces genuine human contact: "Feeling, outgoingness, expressiveness, kindness, heart--all these fine human things which by a peculiar turn of opinion strike people now as shady activities. Openness and candor about vices seem far easier" (303). Walter Bruch's fetish with large arms materializes as self-indulgent and undignified nonfeeling, and Angela's threesome in Mexico, although arguably expressive and outgoing, fails miserably as a "kind act of a feeling heart. Certainly things are different in modernity: "New York makes one think about the collapse of civilization, about Sodom and Gomorra" (304). Here, in New York, a pickpocket opens his fly to Sammler and exposes his candid opinion of where genuine power exists.
The third aspect distances kinship and reduces family to a material value. All of the parent-child relationships Bellow depicts are dysfunctional to some degree. At the extremity of vice over familial duty, the reader finds Dr. Elya Gruner's son Wallace, whose misguided, commercialized sense of duty estranges him from his father. Sammler attempts to bridge the gap between father and son, but he has little effecting influence. "Wallace, look. Let's talk straight. Elya is a good man. He stands close to the end. You're his son.... You've had a troubled life, I know. But this old-fashioned capitalistic-family-and-psychological struggle has to be given up, finally.... Enough. You should try something different" (101).
Wallace pretends to agree with Sammler's nobler purpose: "There are higher aims in life. I don't think those are shit. Far from it. But ..." (102). The reader senses Wallace's imminent failure. Any individual that considers "being" reducible to mere integers in an equation, simply an univocal one, comparable to a nihilistic zero, remains forever stagnant in asking the question: "What is One?" (103). No mathematical answer exists. Even at the end of his father's life, Wallace denies his familial duty in favor of flying around the county taking photographs for a new (yet obviously doomed) business venture. Artur and Emil, Elya's limousine driver, discuss Wallace's disregard for traditional family values: "If it was my dad, I'd be the hospital right now. It's different, now. We old guys have to go along" (268). The youth have subscribed to a new definition of individualism that displaces familiar obligations and the "old guys" only can watch as the children abandon their parents. Ultimately, Wallace apostrophizes modern materialism. When his search for the hidden money ends with him flooding the house, his response is to flee rather than show any concern for his ancestral home. The family no longer matters unless, of course, there is money involved.
Finally, Bellow indicates why murder becomes more tolerable to the everyday person than a sense of duty toward life does:
The middle class had formed no independent standards of honor. Thus it had no resistance to the glamour of killers. The middle class, having failed to create a spiritual life of its own, investing everything in material expansion, faced disaster.... Reason had swept and garnished the house, but the last state might be worse than the first. Well, now, what would one carry out to the moon? (145).
The words "good," "humanity," "dignity," and "responsibility" constitute what European Jewish culture termed menschlichkeit--a quality inimical to Nazi philosophy. According to Goldman, in modernity, menschlichkeit proves a way of being that conflicts with individual desire and will. On Mr. Sammler's planet, one need not look far to find evidence of modernity's displacement of "humanity" in favor of material expansion, a practice executed today on a global basis by corporate executives and so-called "democratic" governments.
Mr. Sammler's Planet, with its inhospitable terrain, climate, and beings, proves to have much in common with H. G. Wells's The Time Machine: Shula's insistence that Sammler construct a memoir of his brief acquaitance whith Wells in London before the war invites midrashic commentary. In Wells's famed novel, human dignity gets usurped by animalistic, cannibalistic, and genocidal tendencies juxtaposing complacency in ignorance, willing acceptance of the valuelessness of human life, and, at the core, the potential impact of the actions of a single man. Already having considered the symptoms of modernity's illness, the cause of the disease manifests as self-inflicted. After the Columbia lecture Sammler muses to himself, "The worst of it, from the point of view of the young people themselves, was that they acted without dignity. They had no view of the nobility of being intellectuals and judges of the social order" (45). Interrupting a lecture and calling the speaker an "effete old shit" certainly shows disrespect for intelligence. Moreover, a lost soul lacks personal dignity, individual nobility, and a personal sense of responsibility for other human beings. Bellow comments: "A variety of powers arrive whose aim is to alter, to educate, to condition us. If a man gives himself over to total alteration I consider him m have lost his soul. If he resists these worldly powers, forces of his own can come into play" (Roudane 273). However powerful or destructive the forces of modernity remain, resistance is not futile. Individuals must stop reading the "wrong books, the wrong papers" (3). Find the right books, the right papers, the fight sources of education, and imitate "greatness."
Bellow's omniscient narrator depicts Sammler as one who resists the forces of modernity; but resistance and growth are not the same. For the first half of the novel, Artur Sammler remains stagnant, an immaterial symbol: "He, personally, was a symbol. And of what was he a symbol? He didn't even know" (91). However, by the midpoint, Sammler's relationship with reality changes from being a rhetorical trope, a "symbol" incapable of independent meaning, to becoming something material, although still incomplete: "He himself was a fragment.... And he was lucky to be that" (182). As a fragment, Sammler remains unable to confront the totality of modernity's "drunken" condition, but his relationship to the world around him becomes clearer: "I seem to be a depth man rather than a height man. I do not personally care for the illimitable" (183). Clearly the "illimitable" of outer-space and the moon offers no escape, however intriguing the possibility.
Artur and Dr. Givinda Lal, the author of the manuscript The Future of the Moon, which Shula appropriates and gives to her father, become friends. During their conversation, they discuss modernity's problem of dependence on scientific solutions to answer the question of duty.
"Mr. Sammler," said Lal, "I believe you intimate that there is an implicit morality in the will-to-live and that these mediocrities in office will do their duty by the species. I am not sure. There is no duty in biology. There is no sovereign obligation to one's breed.... We please ourselves in extracting ideas of duty from biology. But duty is pain. Duty is hateful misery, oppressive." (220; emphasis added)
Initially, Dr. Lal remains quite consistent with a purely scientific understanding of life. He asserts that no inherent duty or obligation toward another being exists (i.e., survival of the fittest), and human history certainly confirms this fact. Still, as Alan Berger points out, "[T]he central human problem in our time is survival.... Survival needs, moreover, to be understood on a qualitative rather than quantitative level; ethical and not mere biological life is at stake" ("Holocuast" 81). If duty were to be found in biology, there would not be a qualitative aspect--it would be quantitative only (e.g., the survival of the species). Conversely, Dr. Lal's ethics appear more political--"mediocrities in office"--than scientific, for his language points to the history of the relationship between government and the governed. Accordingly the history of politics becomes the misery of the people being oppressed by the ruling class, and no duty exists for the rulers except continual expansion. The Nazis (and a Marxist theorist) certainly would agree, but Artur Sammler cannot, as he tells Dr. Lal:
"Yes?" said Sammler, in doubt. "When you know what pain is, you agree that not to have been born is better. But being born one respects the powers 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." (220; emphasis added)
Sammler's sense of duty begins with the individual, not the government, when one knows "what pain is." No science can define duty, for the scientific study of life ignores the conditions in which human beings exist by placing them in isolation. Because humans are historical, social, and cultural beings, duty cannot exist in seclusion or be found in a sterile laboratory. Most philosophical ontology treatises as well as Bellow's sense of duty begin with the same question: "Now that I am here, what is it I am supposed to do?" Sammler's response reflects the Jewish tradition--"[one] respects the powers of creation, one obeys the will of God,"--but he leaves room for the agnostic and atheist, "with whatever inner reservations truth imposes." Regardless of how one interprets God's will, truth, or the powers of creation, duty remains central to proper, "upright" Being. Interestingly, Sammler's duty, like biology, is implicitly grounded in life and death, creation and pain. Still, the gap that remains in Dr. Lal and Sammler's discussion demands that the question is asked: How does one withstand the pain?
Bellow says, "We live within a Great Noise that destroys meaning. Public men speak of 'compassion,' 'sharing,' 'caring,' but the principal source of much of the noise is not 'caring' or 'sharing' but sheer rage" (Roudane 273). This novel amplifies the "Great Noise" by juxtaposing the extremities of sheer rage against the difficulty of performing one's duty, "caring or sharing." Sammler recalls the affectations of his own rage in the Zamosht forest:
[T]o kill the man he ambushed in the snow had given him pleasure. Was it only pleasure? It was more. It was joy. You would call it a dark action? On the contrary, it was also a bright one. It was mainly bright.... When he shot again it was less to make sure of the man than to try again for that bliss. To drink more flames. He would have 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. (141)
The youth with no self-dignity or proper judgment of the correct social order; Sammler with no God or judge but himself; the Nazis with no feelings of accountability for murdering; a pickpocket operating with no fear of the police, the authorities themselves disinterested in the pickpocket's crime--yes, pain is inflicted easily when one either has no sense of duty or duty is misconstrued.
While Sammler no longer equates proper Being with violence and death, Eisen, Shula's ex-husband, depicts a consistently distorted sense of duty through his unconquered rage. Several years after Sammler goes to Israel to rescue Shula from her abusive husband, this sadistic man of iron (Eisen means iron) arrives in New York with a satchel of sculptures and a head full of ambitions to become an artist. However, his artistic renderings develop into weapons of destruction (albeit singular instead of mass), but his, like all armaments, prove incapable of producing pleasure and serve only as instruments of violence and destruction. Eisen's art and actions graphically answer the innocuous query: "How can art hurt?" (171). He repeatedly strikes the pickpocket's head with his bag of sculptures but feels no remorse or guilt for nearly killing the stranger: "His laughter, his logic, laughing and reasoning at Sammler's absurdities" only amplifies Bellow's depiction of duty gone awry (291). Certainly, one's duty toward creation, toward life and death (or toward art) is no laughing matter. "A few may comprehend that it is the strength to do one's duty daily and promptly that makes saints and heroes. Not many. Most have fantasies of vaulting into higher states, feeling just mad enough to qualify" (93). In the battle between madness and sainthood on Mr. Sammler's planet, the majority of characters manifest the former insanity rather than the latter ethic.
An ethical sense of duty toward others remains elusive and difficult to maintain. Sammler's own experiences with Cieslakiewicz, the Pole that hid him during the war, confirm how even a noble savior can slip back into old prejudices: "Then, after some years, the letters began to contain anti-Semitic sentiments. Nothing very vicious.... He had risked his life to save Sammler. The old Pole was also a hero. But the heroism ended" (91). Earlier in the novel, Sammler recognizes modernity's tendency toward complacency: "Accept and grant that happiness is to do what most other people do. Then you must incarnate what others incarnate. If prejudices, prejudice. If rage, then rage. If sex, then sex. But don't contradict your time. Just don't contradict it, that's all" (73). Bellow carefully constructs Mr. Sammler's Planet around the dual nature of duty; and Artur lives in a post-Holocaust world in which many people imitate human behavior but few--perhaps only one, Dr. Arnold (Elya) Gruner--possess an intimate sense of duty toward others.
Undoubtedly, some readers find fault in Elya's illicit money, but Sammler knows this to be a mere peccadillo on the character of a good man: "Sammler knew the defects of his man. Saw them as dust and pebbles. ... Underneath, a fine, noble expression. A dependable man--a man who took thought for others" (85). Additionally, the gap between Angela's and Wallace's versions of the money's source, straddling between Angela's implied mafia bullet wounds to Wallace's illegal abortions, leaves much room for debate. If Angela's mafia theory proves correct, then far from destroying life, these "illegal" surgeries most likely save life. Whether it was Elya's duty as a physician, which he had never wanted to be, or his familial duty, however distant (Sammler and Shula) or near (Wallace and Angela), the good doctor never neglected his responsibilities. Elya imparts benevolence with no expectations: "Elya Gruner embodies Bellow's version of how difficult it is to be human in our day. ... [He] is human, he does not become human" (Rodrigues 219-20). Elya Gruner satisfies the requirements of Sammler's mimetic model--he is a good human being.
Halldorson finds a slightly different meaning to Elya's sense of duty that is worthy of discussion: "His whole life was life based upon an 'old system' understood to be one of community, social roles, and duty. ... However, this word [duty] is just a replacement for the overused and undervalued love" (107). Halldorson rightly points to Bellow's distrust of the word love. In Henderson the Rain King, one recalls Eugene's letter to Lily: "I suppose you can call it love. Although personally I think that word is full of bluff" (HRK 284). Sammler expresses similar concern: "Often I wish to do something, but it is a dangerous illusion to think one can do much for more than a very few.... Perhaps the best is to have some order within oneself. Better than what many call love. Perhaps it is love" (228). Whether one calls it "love," "caring," "sharing," or "duty," the good of the action is always directed toward another human being. It is in the acting, even for a "very few," that one finds Elya's sense of duty: "[Elya] knew there had been good men before him, that there were good men to come, and he wanted to be one of them. I think he did all right. I don't come out nearly so well myself" (303).
What is it that Elya did all right? He was "vain, grouchy, proud," "touchy, boastful," and he had shady dealings with the mafia and had a dysfunctional family; however, Sammler insists "he did meet the terms of his contract" (313). A solely Jewish reading of this contract seems improbable. No orthodoxy overtly appears in the novel or in Bellow's Jewish American characters, nor does this prayer take the form of a supplication for a lost soul, a "poor bird," unable to find his eternal home. In modernity, the terms of this contract must be capable of crossing cultural and religious boundaries yet denying neither. Clearly no human can claim perfection, but the terms of the contract do not mandate faultlessness. The conditions only insist upon responsibility and duty toward life. No duty exists in biology, but duty exists in Being, and life is Being. Elya performed his duty by caring for others with all his skill, resources, and abilities. Whether one defines duty using the Torah or the American criminal code, the right to life reigns supreme, and murder receives the maximum penalty. Sammler forgot his duty in the Zamosht forest when he killed the soldier pleading for his life, but he will not do so again. Now he reports even the most trivial of crimes, declares the bystanders guilty for merely watching the pickpocket strangle Feffer, and rebukes Eisen's equally uncaring and vicious attack on the thief.
In Bellow's post-Holocaust world, there is no escape for the survivor from the memory of the past, but a duty remains: "What besides the spirit should a man care for who has come back from the grave? ... [O]ne was always, and so powerfully, so persuasively, drawn back to human conditions" (118). The survivor's, the artist's, and the reader's duty combine: to remember those who survived and the countless millions who perished needlessly: "Both man and God are enjoined to remember the shoah" (Berger, "American" 229). Whether the encounter with the shoah comes from a fictional mimesis of memory or through a personal or literary encounter with first- or second-generation survivors, we only fulfill a small part of our duty in the act of remembrance, for responsibility resides in action: Being as "caring and sharing." We inherit both the responsibility and accountability to ensure that the praxis of murder, crime, social-familial irresponsibility, and, most importantly, genocide is permanently deleted from future historical chronicles. Ultimately, the duty of the Jewish American writer who comes "after" or "late" to the Holocaust becomes fulfilled in the reader's own mimeses after experiencing Bellow's great mimesis.
Bellow, Saul. Mr. Sammler's Planet. New York: Penguin, 1977. Print.
--. "A World Too Much with Us." Critical Inquiry 2.1 (1975): 1-9. Web.
--. Henderson the Rain Kang. New York: Penguin, 1996. Print.
Bellow, Greg and Alan L. Berger. "Blinded by Ideology: Saul Bellow, the Partisan Review, and the Holocaust." 13th Annual ALA Jewish American & Holocaust Lit. Symp. Salt Lake City. 11 Sep. 2008. Lecture.
Berger, Alan L. "American Jewish Fiction." Modern Judaism 10.3 (1990): 221-41. Web.
--. "Holocaust Survivors and Children in Anya and Mr. Sammler's Planet." Modern Language Studies 16.1 (1986): 81-87. Web.
Clayton, John Jacob. "The Politics of Oedipus: Mr. Sammler's Planet [and] To Jerusalem and Back." In Defense of Man. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1979. 230-61. Print.
Dittmar, Kurt. "The End of Enlightenment: Bellow's Universal View of the Holocaust in Mr. Sammler's Planet." Saul Bellow at Seven(y-Five: A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. Gerhard Bach. Germany: Fritz Thyssen Stiftung, 1991.63-91. Print.
Fuchs, Daniel. "Mr. Sammler's Planet." Saul Bellow: Vision and Revision. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1984. 208-32. Print.
Goldman, L. H. "The Holocaust in the Novels of Saul Bellow." Modern Language Studies 16.1 (1986): 71-80. Web.
--. "Mr. Sammler's Planet: An Oblique View of Terrestrial Lunacy." Saul Bellow's Moral Vision. New York: Irvington Pub, 1983. 157-91. Print.
Halldorson, Stephanie S. "Mr. Sammler's Planet: The Hero Accused." The Hero in Contemporary American Fiction. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2007. 71-108. Print.
Iser, Wolfgang. "The Reading Process: A Phenomenological Approach*" Modern Criticism and Theory. Ed. David Lodge and Nigel Wood. 3rd ed. United Kingdom: Pearson Education Ltd, 2008. 295-310. Print.
Patterson, David. "Reading Jewish Literature Jewishly." 13th Annual ALA Jewish American & Holocaust Lit. Symp. Salt Lake City. 12 Sep. 2008. Lecture.
Roudane, Matthew C. Saul Bellow. "An Interview with Saul Bellow." Contemporary Literature 25.3 (1984): 265-80. Web.
(1.) Bellow's Ravelstien, which clearly engages the lessons and lagacies of the Holocaust, appeared in 2000.…