Saul Bellow against the Grain

Saul Bellow against the Grain

Saul Bellow against the Grain

Saul Bellow against the Grain

Synopsis

Pifer contends that Bellow's fiction is radical. Going against the grain of contemporary culture and its secular pieties, the novelist undermines accepted notions of reality and challenges the "orthodoxies" created by materialist values and rationalist thought. Bellow's ten novels actually test the assumptions of traditional realism-the genre with which his fiction is usually identified.

Excerpt

Suffering the psychic rift that afflicts virtually all of Bellow's main characters, the protagonist of Mr. Sammler's Planet (1970) is deeply divided in his perceptions, thoughts, attitudes and feelings. In him we discern, as clearly as in any character the novelist has created, the operation of "two different speeches" that, in Bellow's view, are symptomatic of contemporary "intellectual man" and his divided consciousness. "Of course there are two different speeches" operating in contemporary "head culture," Bellow candidly tells Robert Boyers. "There are the things you say, civilly, in polite society; and there are the things you say to yourself before you fall asleep. There are the people you bless and there are the prayers that you say to yourself which you wouldn't say to anyone else."

Surprisingly, most critics find Sammler unmarked by psychological conflict. They even admonish Bellow for creating a static or "dead" character, who, as Alfred Kazin remarks, "has to be right all the time." Sammler's obsession with knowing, laments John Clayton, is symptomatic of a man who has "buried his passionate, modern, conflicted self." The critics' failure to detect vital signs of life, or conflict, in Bellow's protagonist proceeds, I would suggest, from a tendency to regard Sammler's active inner life--and even his passion for thinking--as solely or narrowly intellectual. Yet the ceaseless dialectic of Sammler's consciousness, the urgent unfolding of his internal self- argument, is profoundly psychological in the root sense of the term. It is his psyche, not just his mind, that is divided. The issues that divide Sammler are not just matters of speculation; their nature is personal and urgently pressing. The rift in Sammler's psyche is dramatically manifested in his emotional relationships with others, in the things that happen to him and in the actions he . . .

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