Academic journal article Saul Bellow Journal

Particularity and the Comic in Saul Bellow's the Dean's December

Academic journal article Saul Bellow Journal

Particularity and the Comic in Saul Bellow's the Dean's December

Article excerpt

Martin Amis has recently remarked that Bellow "breaks all the rules ... about universality in fiction ... [T]he people in Bellow's fiction are real people, yet the intensity of the gaze that he bathes them in, somehow through the particular, opens up into the universal. I don't know of another writer who does it that way round.... [W]ith Bellow it's a specificity that excludes all else.... He is staring absolutely unflinchingly at entities that he has encountered" (Birnbaum 1). Amis's comment, of course, involves more than narrative method. At stake in Bellow's particularism is the question of the relation of modernism and realism in twentieth century fiction. As Fredric Jameson put it in an early essay, "Beyond the Cave: Demystifying the Ideology of Modernism" (1975), the twentieth century novelist faces a dilemma. On the one hand, the novel, even after the innovations of modernism, still provides, or is at least read against, a realist view of "the basic secular problems of our existence, namely money, power, position, sex, and all those humdrum daily preoccupations that continue to form the substance of our daily lives." On the other hand, modernist innovations exert their persuasive influence on writers and readers, and so, as Jameson says, we end up with "a historical situation in which the truth of our social life as a whole ... is increasingly irreconcilable with the aesthetic quality of language." The result, argues Jameson, is "felt as an increasing (structural) incapacity to generalize or universalize private or lived experience" (131). I would argue that what Amis calls "the intensity of Bellow's gaze," as both a structural feature of his fiction and a vehicle of moral judgment, is his response to this dilemma, a response that enables his fiction to engage ordinary life at the same time that its ethico-political judgments are so tendentious, its universalizing of ordinary life so ultimately destabilizing of familiar points of reference.

I have chosen Bellow's 1982 novel, The Dean's December, to explore the particularity of Bellow's narrative gaze. I have chosen this novel for two reasons. One, the novel is preoccupied with physical and cultural death, with history large and small, and this preoccupation amounts to taking up the challenge of how to find a universalizing fictional language for the mundane processes of physical and cultural death. Not only the intellectual and moral failures of modern life, Bellow's familiar theme, but its parade of irritations, delays, fiascos, functionaries, rumors, and portentously cryptic utterances, public and private, ordinary and "scientific," provide the up-close-and-impersonal details of both the novel's locales, fascist Romania and urban-decayed Chicago. Two, the novel's dark, seemingly monotonic tone shows us another side of Bellow's oft-cited comic vision, a side in which the dissolution, fragmentation, and decay of modern life emerges, not as a consequence of plot and the ruminations of a commanding Bellovian protagonist thereon, but rather as a condition of possibility for the series of observations and analyses that comprise the novel. In The Dean's December, the protagonist Albert Corde doesn't become anything, doesn't really learn anything. Rather, he remains the observer of the potentially worst case, the purveyor of patience for whom patience itself seems no more than a pained requirement of skeptical decency. Bellow doesn't give Corde any tightly plotted, epiphanic moments, because it seems for Bellow to be more than enough in this novel to have Corde and the reader observe the various faces of farce, fraud, failure, and festering decay. Through Corde, Bellow can offer observations of cultural life, not only with what Amis calls "a specificity that excludes all else," but also with an innovative sense of just how little the late-modernist novel needs either the classic realist conventions of progressive plot development, climax, and fully developed characterization or the self-referring stylizations of postmodernism to explore what Jameson calls "the basic secular problems of our existence. …

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