The Dual Nature of Duty in Saul Bellow's Mr. Sammler's Planet

Article excerpt

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. …