Saul Bellow: Mr. Sammler's Planet
Sunday, September 17, 2017
Sammler in his Gymnasium days once translated from Saint Augustine: "The Devil hath established his cities in the North." He thought of this often. In Cracow before World War I he had had another version of it---desperate darkness, the dreary liquid yellow mud to a depth of two inches over cobblestones in the Jewish streets. People needed theri candles, their lamps and their copper kettles, their slices of lemon in the image of the sun. This was the conquest of grimness with the aid always of Mediterranean symbols. Dark environments overcome by imported religious signs and local domestic amenities. Without the power of the North, its mines, its industries, the world would never hae reached its astonishing modern form. And regardless of Augustine, Sammler had always loved his Northern cities, especially London, the blessings of its gloom, of coal smoke, gray rains, and the mental and human opportunities of a dark muffled environment. There one came to terms with obscurity, with low tones, one did not demand full clarity of mind or motive. But now Augustine's odd statement required a new interpretation. Listening to Angela carefully, Sammler perceived different developments. The labor of Puritanism now was ending. The dark satanic mills changing into light satanic mills. The reprobates converted into children of joy the sexual ways of the seraglio and of the Congo bush adopted by the emancipated masses of New York, Amsterdam, London. Old Sammler with his screwy visions! He saw the increasing triumph of the Enlightenment--Liberty, Fraternity, Equality, Adultery! Enlightenment, universal education, universal suffrage, the rights of the majority acknowledged by all governments the rights of women, the rights of children, the rights of criminals, the unity of the different races affirmed, Social Security, public health, the dignity of the person, the right to justice---the struggles of three revolutionary centuries being won while the feudal bonds of Church and Family weakened and the privileges of aristocracy (without any duties) spread wide, democratized, especially the libidinous privileges, the right to be uninhibited, spontaneous, urinating, defecating, belching, coupling in all positions, tripling, quadrupling, polymorphous, noble in being natural, primitive, combining the leisure and luxurious inventiveness of Versailles with the hibiscus-covered erotic ease of Samoa. Dark romanticism now took hold. As old at least as the strange Orientalism of the Knights Templar, and since then filled up with Lady Stanhopes, Baudelaires, de Nervals, Stevensons, and Gauguins---those South-loving barbarians. Oh yes, the Templars. They had adored the Muslims. One hair from the head of a Sarcen was more precious than the whole body of a Christian. Such crazy fervor! And now all the racism, all the strange erotic persuasions, the tourism and local color, the exotics of it had broken up but the mental masses, inheriting everything in a debased state, had formed an idea of the corrupting disease of being white and of the healing power of black. The dreams of nineteenth century poets polluted the psychic atmosphere of the great boroughs and suburbs of New York. Add to this the dangerous lunging staggering crazy violence of fanatics, and the trouble was very deep. Like many people who had seen the world collapse once, Mr. Sammler entertained the possibility that it might collapse twice. He did not agree with refugee friends that this doom was inevitable, but liberal beliefs did not seem capable of self-defense, and you could smell decay. You could see the suicidal impulses of civilization pushing strongly. You wondered whether this Western culture could survive universal dissemination--whether only its science and technology or administrative policies would travel, be adopted by other societies. Or whether the worst enemies of civilization might not prove to be its petted intellectuals who attacked it at its weakest moments---attacked it in the name of proletarian revolution, in the name of reason, and in the name of irrationality, in the name of visceral depth, in the name of sex, in the name of perfect instantaneous freedom For what it amounted to was limitless demand---insatiability, refusal of the doomed creature (death being sure and final) to go away from this earth unsatisfied. A full bill of demand and complaint was therefore presented by each individual. Non-negotiable. Recognizing no scarcity of supply in any human department. Enlightenment? Marvelous! But out of hand, wasn't it?