Bellow’s Gift

by Paul Elmen

Dr. Elmen is professor of Christian ethics and moral theology at Seabury-Western Theological Seminary (Episcopal), Evanston, Illinois,

This article appeared in the Christian Century, November 24, 1976. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Despite his disarming drollery, Saul Bellow has also accepted the role of agonist. His is a “subtle analysis of contemporary culture.” As a novelist he remains something of a sociologist, though, to be sure, without graphs and statistics. Bellow has agreed that a novelist is inevitably a moralist.

The Nobel Prize is only the latest honor for Saul Bellow, who has already won three National Book Awards and so now becomes the most rewarded American novelist, as he has long been the most rewarding. The Stockholm committee said that he deserved the award "for the human understanding and subtle analysis of contemporary culture that are combined in his work." Bellow, a shy man, quipped to a reporter: "The child in me is delighted. The adult is skeptical."

A Spirit of Play

One of the marks of Bellow’s literary style is a childlike playfulness -- what Schiller called naïveté, an innocent delight in existence, as distinguished from sentimentality, mature reflection on experience. This spirit of romp exists in tension with a deeper seriousness, just as an odd solemnity is noticeable when children are at play. Bellow’s novels are never dour. The words tumble over each other, as though he had a ball making them all up; the reader settles down happily with the book in the knowledge that a party is brewing.

In one of his typical novels the characters dash in and out, play a few frantic scenes and then disappear, leaving the pages to an even more madcap crowd. The plot begins like an epic -- in the middle of things -- plunges backward like Proust to recapture some fragment of the past, careens forward, and suddenly stops as though the whole project had been abandoned.

The protagonist of Humboldt’s Gift, Charlie Citrine, is a successful playwright and biographer who returns to the Chicago of his boyhood; muddles about in the urban scene while trying to straighten out a marital problem; leaves for Spain with a large friend, Renata; is deserted by her; returns to America to bury his old friend Von Humboldt Fleisher; and receives his bequest. The whole has an amiable quality, as though someone is remembering the bar mitzvah party of a neighbor’s kid.

Charlie, an egghead putz, loses $450 in a poker game and gives a check for the amount to a local tough named Rinaldo Cantabile. When he finds out later that Rinaldo won by cheating, he stops payment on the check. Rinaldo’s goons retaliate by smashing up Charlie’s beloved Mercedes and threaten more serious revenge if the debt is not honored. Charlie hands him the money in cash. Rinaldo forces Charlie to accompany him, and they drive to a skyscraper under construction on Michigan Boulevard. They take the workmen’s elevator to the 50th or 60th floor, and while Charlie hangs onto a girder in fear against the strong wind, Rinaldo sails the $50 bills out into space. Rinaldo has lifted his finger to the whole snooty universe, and Charlie is fascinated. "How shall I describe my feelings?" he asks. "Fear, thrill, appreciation, glee -- yes I appreciated his ingenuity."

In the Bellow universe nothing is really tragic -- that is, if tragedy means that someone of great estate has had a dramatic fall because of some flaw in his character. In the Bellow cast no one is really great, and all characters are flawed; the natural response is comic. If one could imagine a debate between Karl Marx and the Marx brothers, perish forbid, Bellow would side with the Marx brothers. He affirms life rather than any abstract conception, and in this respect he is much like Charlie’s friend and mentor, Humboldt.

The writer Delmore Schwartz, who almost certainly was one of the models for Bellow’s Humboldt, liked to say that life is a wedding, by which he meant that the universe is meaningful, and one can happily take his place in it like the figures in Brueghel’s painting. Bellow’s novels convey this sense of fun -- the same, one suspects, that Shakespeare felt when he was getting up his play on Midsummer’s Eve, and that Oscar Wilde felt arranging a conversation over some cucumber sandwiches, and that Strauss felt when he wrote the notes for Klagenlied für der Rosenkavalier. The word that comes to mind is larky, and the reader who tires of Bellow’s japes would tire of London.

Making Sense of the Universe

Bellow is part child, and so in some wise should inherit the kingdom of heaven. In this mood he writes like a bemused spectator, watching the zany antics of an adult world. The attitude helps him endure what would otherwise be painful. As the philosopher Yogi Berra said, "A man must have a lot of boy in him to catch both ends of a doubleheader."

But observe now the manly side of Bellow, the part which refused to be pompous just because a committee in Stockholm decided that he wrote well. Behind the drollery is a vein of sadness, perhaps even of terror. For what if the ancient Jewish passion for making sense of the universe -- the impulse which gave the world monotheism -- must now be abandoned, and the decision made that there is no grand design at all? What if we are all playing solemn parts in the idiot’s tale?

During the Holocaust a sensible and kindly people set out without passion to slay 1 million children. The fact is too incredible to fit into a meaningful universe, too evil for anger, too insane for comprehension. After the Holocaust the possibility remains open that the universe is irrational, and no event can be called worse or better than any other. One can only manage a laugh at an occasional bit of sanity salvaged from a general madness.

Yet a novelist must grope for meaning; it comes with the territory. An artist shudders at a cascading miscellany and has no peace until he has managed some kind of magical shape which is inevitable and at the same time unexpected. By a prodigious exercise of power, unknown to the bourgeois world, he tries to give form to some corner of the universe. He must have participated deeply in the suffering around him, and he must also have managed some coherent utterance about it. Even Delmore Schwartz did not think of himself only as a guest at a wedding. As Alfred Kazin wrote of him after he died, Schwartz, like the Greek tragedians, uttered the cry of a hurt and puzzled humankind. He had, said Kazin, "above all the old, brave, still undefeated sense of the artist as humanity’s agonist -- how these things move me.

Despite his disarming drollery, Bellow has also accepted the role of agonist, and the Nobel committee rightly pointed out his "subtle analysis of contemporary culture." As a novelist he remains something of a sociologist, though, to be sure, without graphs and statistics. Bellow has agreed that a novelist is inevitably a moralist. Writing in the March 1973 Atlantic, he posed the critical question which the novelist must answer: "In what form shall life be justified?" Whereas Milton tried to justify God, Bellow tries to justify humanity. Over and over he seems to ask what it means to be a human being. In a vivid progression of novels -- Dangling Man, Seize the Day, The Adventures of Augie March, Henderson the Rain King, Herzog, Mr. Sammler’s Planet, and the Nobel prizewinner, Humboldt’s Gift -- the same question prompts the monologues. The laughter comes because so many people have made up crazy answers for themselves; the hurt remains because the answer has not yet been found.

Bellow’s Women and Men

Now that those who are "with it" no longer look to the Old Man of the Mountain for his ancient help, everyone seems to experiment with some kind of substitute which he thinks will order the universe and bring happiness. Charlie Citrine is an easy mark for women. Bellow’s women are saftig, full-bottomed, musky; they do not really have to try hard to seduce their nymph-haunted suitors. "When I loved Naomi Lutz," says Charlie, "I was safely within life." The women are much alike: Sono, the Japanese doll who washes Herzog’s back, is like Denise, Charlie’s first wife, and also like Renata, his second. In their soft embrace he thinks he has found dos ewig Weibliche, the woman at the bottom of the sea, Gea the Earth Mother. But the feeling of drowsy safety is deceptive, and before long the lover is a Schlemazel. Bellow’s women regularly turn their men into cuckolds, and though the girls come on seductively we who have been through the other novels know that they have daggers in their garter belts. Renata leaves the hapless Charlie for an undertaker. There is much to be learned from them, as there is much to be learned from Lydia, the tattooed lady, but there is no lasting peace. No safe ordering here, no filling of the space in the heart which St. Augustine said was left by God.

There is, of course, the different company of men. For some reason which puzzles even himself, Charlie prefers to associate with underworld figures rather than with eggheads or businessmen, and he plays poker with hoodlums. He admires Rinaldo Cantabile, perhaps because of his expressive power, his refusal to be pushed around, his spit-against-the-wind manliness. Violence has a certain charm for novelists, and gangsters who are full of exuberance and insolence make better copy than accountants. But Charlie does not want to imitate Rinaldo. "Violence," as Herzog says in the earlier novel, "is for the goi." But Charlie likes Rinaldo, as he likes the drip Thaxter, Pinsker the LaSalle Street lawyer, and Urbanowitz the crooked judge, all up to their elbows in some sucker’s money. They are absurd, of course, but they have style, and they are not tedious.

The World of the Spirits

From the theological point of view, the most interesting of Charlie’s. efforts to find order in the universe is his flirtation with anthroposophy. This substitute for mainline religion was the creation of Rudolf Steiner, who turned a fertile imagination on neo-Indian materials, theosophy and baroque idealism. Around the turn of the century this son of an Austrian stationmaster fluttered the European intellectual dovecotes. The essential points are that humanity rather than God becomes central, and the distinction between mind and matter is denied. We live in what seems a sensible and solid universe, but the truth is that around this banality there is a far richer spiritual universe, thronged with spirits like the Rosicrucian ones which, according to Alexander Pope, performed a rape on Belinda’s hair.

There are ways of penetrating to this busy and secret world. Meditation will do it, and so will sleep, because in dreams we leave our sodden bodies and commune with astral beings. In the daytime they are also available, hovering unseen over the suburbs and the civic plaza.

Charlie Citrine, anxious to find something beyond the daily unpleasantness, thinks there might be a clue here. He learns about it through Doris Scheldt, the daughter of an anthroposophist; practices meditation with indifferent success; and plans in the end to learn more of the cult at Dornach, headquarters of the society. What Bellow thinks about Steiner is hard to ascertain. Readers and critics must be reminded that Citrine is not Bellow, any more than Iago is Shakespeare. Charlie is taken in, but is Bellow as well? Steiner has had a distinguished following, including the artist Kandinsky. The Inkling luminaries Charles Williams and C. S. Lewis found his search for the supernatural impressive, but pooh-poohed his discoveries. Owen Barfield thought that metaphors were the linguistic evidence of Steiner’s hidden unity of all things. In Humboldt’s Gift, Kafka is described as being interested in Steiner, but in the end turned off because he saw Steiner picking his nose with his finger. Actually Kafka was undecided. When his friend Janouch asked him if Steiner was a prophet or a charlatan, Kafka replied, "I don’t know. I’m not clear in my mind about him."

Steiner’s kinky religion is not likely to play a prominent part in the coming Great Church, and it is not likely that Bellow approves of it either. It must have seemed to him another example of a foolish attempt to tidy up a messy universe with a glib and unlikely formula. The mystery must not be profaned. When the culture-vulture Pierre Thaxter asks for a major statement, Charlie replies:

You mean something like a life reverence, or Yogas and Commissars. You have a weakness for such terrible stuff. You’d give anything to be a Malraux and talk about the West. What is it with you and these seminal ideas? Major statements are hot air. The disorder’s here to stay.

This sounds like the real Bellow, who had his Herzog sneer about "the canned sauerkraut of Spengler’s ‘Prussian Socialism.’"

Embracing Life

The warning should be heeded by religious people, who have a tendency to take refuge under some single, enveloping principle, like Isaiah Berlin’s hedgehog. But if seminal ideas and major statements are to be avoided, what, pray tell, remains? Bellow replies: "Life itself remains." Survival may be a sufficient objective to a generation which remembers Dachau and Hiroshima. Sprawling, inconsequential, weird, wasteful and very funny, life itself can be embraced even though no one understands what it is. Seize the Day was Bellow’s brave formula in 1956. Sheer affection for life and the passing panorama has helped him to cherish the details, sights and sounds that are the stuff of great fiction.

Yet in this preoccupation with life as a series of happenings, there is also a wistful deference to the unknown, and a backward glance at a mythical home which now is lost. Humboldt’s prototype Delmore Schwartz said so in his poem Genesis:

God is a dream! And this is what

I do not know and have to know. O if

I only knew that!

At the end of Humboldt’s bequest to Charlie, he wrote this: "Last of all -- remember: we are not natural beings but supernatural beings." The reminder is not lost on Charlie. Speaking to his wife, Denise, he says, "What does religion say? It says that there is something in human beings beyond body and brain, and that we have ways of knowing that go beyond the organism and its senses. I’ll always believe that."

This is not a ringing orthodoxy, but some such attenuated credo might well prove to be the distinctive piety of our time. The belief explains why Augie March kept looking for what he called "the axial lines," why Sammler kept trying to find out the terms of his "contract," and why Henderson tried to find out what it was he was looking for. One should no doubt think twice about offering up someone else’s confessional, but it seems likely that the prayer Moses Herzog offers to God could be spoken by Bellow as well: "How my mind has struggled to make coherent sense. I have not been good at it. But I have desired to do your unknown will

In any case, the solemnity of that would not be lost on Bellow, nor the sad little fun at trying to obey an unknown will. Whatever the ambiguity of the cosmic clues, Bellow is optimistic about humanity’s future and has only scorn for Weltschmertz. At the end of Humboldt’s Gift, Charlie and a friend are in a bleak New Jersey cemetery where they have buried Humboldt. They see a tiny flower poking its way through thin soil and heralding the coming spring. "What do you suppose they’re called, Charlie?" the friend asks.

"Search me," says Charlie. "I’m a city boy myself. They must be crocuses."