Academic journal article Saul Bellow Journal

Sammler's Theater: Walking through Sammler's New York City

Academic journal article Saul Bellow Journal

Sammler's Theater: Walking through Sammler's New York City

Article excerpt

"I am horrified!"

~Artur Sammler

Sometimes it takes a Holocaust survivor with limited sight to show you what the world really looks like. If you peek behind the scrim and scratch underneath the gilding of Saul Bellow's novel, you'll find Mr. Sammler's New York City--a wide world unto itself. In his city of many facets, he is a man of many roles. He is foreigner, father, uncle, judge, intellectual, survivor, and maybe even prophet. To see and understand Sammler, it's crucial to know that he is not a thinly veiled representation of Bellow's feelings toward the turbulent sixties. Instead, he is a social observer gravely concerned with the state of the world around him. His story is one of struggle. Mr. Sammler decides "to get a grip on New York, America's financial capital and the pinnacle of the nation's culture" (Crouch viii). It's no accident that commerce and culture are so closely related. This is a great source of displeasure to Sammler. He is not pleased by the way "vulgarity and [the] brutal appetites of our culture" (Crouch vii) are widening their reach. For the entirety of the novel, the cacophonous "sour trumpeting of decay" (Crouch x) can be heard, and Sammler is the red-cheeked Gabriel. He is a keen and observing mind housed in a nerve-damaged body, which is in turn housed in a brutal, unyielding but oddly compelling city.

The novel (and this essay) focuses on the complexities inherent in the way Sammler "sees" himself and his adopted home, New York City. Sammler has trouble seeing, in both a literal and metaphorical sense. His left eye has been rendered virtually useless, distinguishing "only light and shade" (4). Yet he possesses a prescient sight and is a keen observer of the world around him. Sammler's altered sight and perception will be the entry points for a consideration of Sammler as person and cultural observer. To illustrate these tropes of vision and (self-) perception, this essay will use close reading to focus on three crucial events within the narrative. As a contrapuntal measure, the presence of the pickpocket will be analyzed as well. The first event will be Sammler's introduction in the novel, which will establish his presence and allow for a consideration of his first encounter with the pickpocket. The second event will be Sammler's public denouncement at Columbia and subsequent meeting of the pickpocket in the apartment building lobby. The third and final event will be Sammler's epiphany (at the end of the novel), which is immediately preceded by the near-death of the pickpocket. Each of these events is set against the backdrop of New York City. Its shifting presence and function will also be evaluated in tandem with Sammler and the pickpocket. There is a massive social shift afoot, moving from street to street, and Sammler has an Odyssean air about him. He is both prophet and weary wanderer, but never Cyclops.

In a city of millions, the way Sammler relates to people is of particular importance. Though visually impaired, he is fiercely independent and refuses to be pitied or at the mercy of others. He is rarely seen without shaded glasses and depends on the crack of his umbrella's ferrule against the pavement to keep him on course. When he isn't walking, "Buses were bearable. Subways were killing" (5). His impaired vision is a constant reminder of limitless brutality and the lengths to which a lack of humanity can be stretched. More explicitly, his left eye was damaged right before he faked his death in a Holocaust massacre. At the beginning of the novel, the ramifications of the Holocaust are just beginning to be teased out, some twenty-odd years later. This doesn't account solely for the complexities, paradoxes, and ambiguities inherent in Sammler, but it offers a place to start. Although nearly blinded in one eye, Sammler sees keenly with the other and likes very little of what he sees. He lives in New York City as a doubly foreign man--"Polish-Oxonian"--in a time of great change and provocation. …

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