Academic journal article Saul Bellow Journal

The Prospect of Too Much Freedom: Saul Bellow's Management of Abundance

Academic journal article Saul Bellow Journal

The Prospect of Too Much Freedom: Saul Bellow's Management of Abundance

Article excerpt

There is the other satisfactory effect, that of a man hurling himself at an indomitable chaos and yanking and hauling as much of it as possible into some sort of order (or beauty), aware of it both as chaos and as potential.

--Ezra Pound

The young narrator in Isaac Babel's "The Story of My Dovecot" finds himself caught in a public square near Odessa on the periphery of a pogrom riot when a dove is crushed against his head by a vindictive merchant. With entrails smearing his face, the terrified narrator closes "a last unstuck eye so as not to see the world that was spreading before me. That world was small and horrible.... My world was small and horrible. I closed my eye so as not to see it" (Babel 38). In Saul Bellow's late story "Something to Remember Me By," the teen-aged narrator, Louie, delivering flowers for his after-school job, finds himself face to face with an open casket. Inside he sees the dead girl "as she was, without undertaker's makeup," and "what I took to be the pressure mark of fingers on her cheek" (Collected Stories 417). Instead of turning away, though, he takes it all in: the "big arms" of the mother who pays for the flowers, her "thick calves," the baked ham in the sink, the tongue depressors for spreading the mustard. "I saw and I saw and I saw," an older Louie recollects, a line that captures Bellow's own insatiability as a writer (417).

Bellow, whose parents emigrated from St. Petersburg, doesn't disguise the heritage of what he calls his "beloved Russian writers," and "Something to Remember Me By" pays strange homage to Babel's "Dovecot," even as Bellow's story veers away from the text. Bellow is like a messenger at a premodern post station, receiving Babel's melancholy package then streaking away on a different horse, in a different direction, hurtling free style and daring, a Russian writer Americanized, an Old World soul searching New World streets, riding streetcars with a book in his lap, shooting pool with con artists and reading Dostoevsky.

But while his writing is famously exuberant, the quest for freedom is not Bellow's theme. Freedom is a given. What Bellow's heroes tend to need is location, orientation; the are of his stories, including "Something To Remember Me By," reaches less for liberation than equilibrium. They must manage abundance; or, as another Bellow character muses, "the suffering of freedom also had to be considered" (More Die of Hearbreak (1) 100). Huck Finn might light out for the territory ahead of the rest, but Bellow's heroes find their level inside the mad city, beside skyscrapers reflected in other skyscraper glass, beneath the percussion of the El, in the pickled steam of old Russian baths. "Something to Remember Me By" is not, of course, an attempt to rewrite "Dovecot," or the parallel Babel story "My First Fee," but it is an illuminating example of Bellow's departure from his beloved Russians. He takes the old theme of suffering in his fists, but it is the suffering of limitless freedom not the oppression of freedom's absence. Since Bellow has been tagged as a fellow traveler of conservatives in the so-called culture wars, how tempting to press this theme of freedom's burdens. "To my country," the unraveled Moses Herzog reflects, taking stock of his life, "an indifferent citizen." Not exactly a poster child for a political movement (Herzog 5).

In an essay on John Stuart Mill, the philosopher-historian Isaiah Berlin, the same writer who divided thinkers into hedgehogs and foxes, distinguishes two eras of freedom:

   The disease of Victorian England was claustrophobia--there
   was a sense of suffocation, and the best and most gifted men of
   the period, Mill and Carlyle, Nietzsche and Ibsen, men both of
   the left and of the right--demanded more air and more light.
   The mass neurosis of our age is agoraphobia; men are terrified
   of disintegration and of too little direction: they ask like
   Hobbes's masterless men in a state of nature, for walls to keep
   out the raging ocean, for order, security, organization, clear and
   recognizable authority, and are alarmed by the prospect of too
   much freedom, which leaves them lost in a vast, friendless vacuum,
   a desert without paths or landmarks or goals. … 
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