Hanging for Pleasure and Profit: Truth as Necessary Illusion in Bellow's Fiction

By Freedman, William | Papers on Language & Literature, Winter 1999 | Go to article overview

Hanging for Pleasure and Profit: Truth as Necessary Illusion in Bellow's Fiction


Freedman, William, Papers on Language & Literature


In the 1976 Nobel Award speech, the Nobel Committee praised Saul Bellow for his portrayal of "a man ... who can never relinquish his faith that the value of life depends on its dignity, not its success, and that the truth must triumph at last" (Jacobs 194). It is a shrewd observation, for it implicitly suggests that there will be more dignity than success in the search for truth or its triumph at last. It is also an observation appropriate to its subject, for, as in so many of the novel's assertions, discoveries and ostensible revelation, there is something self-qualifying if not inherently paradoxical in its claim. If the value of life depends more on its dignity than its success, then the triumph of truth, surely one of the greater successes man may hope for, is not crucial to life's value. Although I doubt this is what the Committee wished to suggest--it is certainly contrary to many of Bellow's own pronouncements on the subject--it is both true of Bellow's novels and a fortunate fact. For the truth about truth in Bellow's fiction is contained in the tale of the coming of the Messiah as related to Harkavy by Mr. Benjamin in The Victim:

They tell a story about a little town in the old country. It was out of the way, in a valley, so the Jews were afraid the Messiah would come and miss them, and they built a high tower and hired one of the town beggars to sit in it all day long. A friend of his meets this beggar and he says, "How do you like your job, Baruch?" So he says, "It doesn't pay much, but I think it's steady work." (222)

Much the same may be said of the wait or search or wish for wisdom or clarity, and Harkavy, one of The Victim's least unreliable spokesmen, puts it concisely: "Who knows?" he confesses to Leventhal. "The truth is hard to get at. If your life depended on getting it, you'd probably hang" (83).

Despite such disclaimers--and they are abundant in the fiction--Bellow's protagonists and critics seem united in their belief not only that the truth will triumph at last, but that it is a nearly palpable entity accessible and discoverable at present. For Keith Opdahl, Bellow's fiction "attempts to see beyond society to the nature of reality itself" ("Stillness" 20), and just as Bellow describes his plots as a developing illumination, so his characters experience what is "certainly a coming to clarity" (27). For James Mellard, Bellow makes Herzog a historian, for "it is in human history that meaning for human life--if not rigid definitions of human nature--are to be found" (86). For Eusebio Rodrigues the repetition of "know" at the end of Mr. Sammier's Planet "calmly proclaims the psychic unity of mankind, the rich truth that all men are brothers because there is in the heart of every human being a splash of God's own spirit" (223). In The Dangling Man, Joseph is convinced that true reality is somewhere out there in the mud and rubble of the world and is convinced he encountered it as a child growing up in the slums. Henderson believes he has grasped truth in a dream, and he wrestles raw reality in a yellow-eyed lion. Asa Leventhal is convinced he has at least a temporary grip on truth when he awakens, likewise from a dream, and in "a state of great lucidity" understands that "everything, everything without exception, took place as if within a single soul or person" (Victim 151). Mr. Sammler's Planet closes with its protagonists in apparent possession of "this famous truth for which he was so keen," the "truth" that every man knows and must meet "the terms of his contract" (285-86). Charlie Citrine arrives at the Blakean "truth" that the human imagination is the source of all human achievement. And although the resort to imagination should arouse suspicions, Augie March insists that whatever realities people create to salve them, "The real world is already created" (378), and he embarks on a hopeful journey of discovery. Herzog, whom most agree is Bellow's most reliable raissoneur, confirms the legitimacy of such pursuit when he affirms that "There are moral realities .

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Hanging for Pleasure and Profit: Truth as Necessary Illusion in Bellow's Fiction
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