Academic journal article International Fiction Review

Beast in Chicago: Saul Bellow's Apocalypse in the Dean's December

Academic journal article International Fiction Review

Beast in Chicago: Saul Bellow's Apocalypse in the Dean's December

Article excerpt

Saul Bellow's The Dean's December (1) is in many ways an apocalyptic novel. It depicts a world in the grip of spiritual crisis. It has a prophetlike narrator who believes in the power of the word to transform the world. The narrative is clearly driven by the narrator's opposition to "existing spiritual and political practices ..." (2) an opposition that plays a significant role in structuring and guiding the central theme of the novel. This essay seeks to analyze The Dean's December as an apocalyptic text that articulates the author's neoconservative take on the urban decay and the racial conflicts that characterized America in the 1970s and early 1980s.

To understand Bellow's novel The Dean's December, it is necessary to examine the author's notion of apocalyptic representation and to develop a critical approach to the specific problems associated with apocalyptic writing, which are in the foreground of the novel. This essay addresses the following questions: In what way does Bellow differ from his contemporary apocalyptic writers including Bernard Malamud, Thomas Pynchon, John Updike, and Don DeLillo? (3) What are the politics of Bellow's apocalypse? And what unique contribution does Bellow make to the apocalyptic representation of his time?

Since Bellow's stance in The Dean's December confortas in various ways to the American tradition of apocalyptic writing, it is interesting to speculate how his apocalypse is different from that of his fellow writers. This would help us to understand better Bellow's artistic vision as well as the social and cultural forces that shape his complex literary sensibility. In Malamud's fiction, apocalyptic overtones arise out of the absurd in our experience, the human inability to check the appetites of the self. Updike recreates a postapocalyptic world that shows human beings inventing reality all over in larger-than-life postures. DeLillo and Pynchon, preeminently postmodern in outlook, project a technologized world overwhelmed by entropic stasis, trauma, violence, and a pervading sense of waste. If Bellow's apocalypse shares some of the concerns of these writers, it also differs both in rigor and in the mode employed in engaging the question of whether the human race will eventually prevail. The Dean's December boldly foregrounds this meditative strain. Interestingly, Bellow's prophetic turn in this novel has a parallel in Allan Bloom's jeremiad on the state of the American academy in The Closing of the American Mind. (4) A neoconservative like Bellow, Bloom argues that the political and social crisis in contemporary America has its genesis in the crisis of the academy.

The Dean's December clearly marks a shift from Bellow's characteristic stance of dismissing apocalyptic views summarily. The investigation of Bellow's apocalyptic take and the symbolic tropes that structure the narrative assume significance in view of Bellow's polemics with the apocalyptic modernist thinkers. Bellow's eponymous protagonist Herzog, for instance, viewing the contemporary intellectual landscape, has this to say: "We must get it out of our heads that this is a doomed time, that we are waiting for the end, and the rest of it ... we love apocalypses too much, and crisis ethics and florid extremism with all its thrilling language. Excuse me, Herzog concludes. I've had all the monstrosity that I want." (5) This is Bellow's characteristic antiapocalyptic rhetoric, and it is often found in his fiction as well as essays and interviews. Paradoxically, however, Bellow belies such facile rhetoric in his vivid fictional portrayals of protagonists who are overwhelmed by despair, thanks to the powerful life-denying tendencies in the Bellovian naturalistic city. The protagonists' experiences when examined signify the presence of a moral vacuum in the contemporary world. It is this dichotomy in Bellow's fictional vision that Malcolm Bradbury focuses on in noting that "for a writer critical of modern apocalyptics, his own work is remarkably dominated by apocalyptic views of history. …

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