By Charles Matthews

Saturday, March 12, 2011

2. Mr. Sammler's Planet, by Saul Bellow, pp. 42-84

Mr. Sammler's Planet (Penguin Classics)II
Dr. V. Govinda Lal's lectures on the moon stir Sammler's imagination and also put him in a frame of mind to recall and reflect on the encounter with the pickpocket. He recognizes that the man's flaunting of his penis was "intended to communicate authority. As, within the sex ideology of these days, it well might. It was a symbol of superlegitimacy or sovereignty. It was a mystery. It was unanswerable." (Interestingly, the pickpocket's power display looms larger in Sammler's mind than the mockery of his own impotence in the lecture hall that preceded it.)

His reflections are interrupted by the arrival of Margotte's cousin, Walter Bruch, a singer and musicologist. Like Sammler, Bruch is a Holocaust survivor; he had been interned at Buchenwald. He is also a fetishist, and he interrupts Sammler's reflections on "the sex business" with his own confessions about his erotic fascination with women's arms: "They had to be youngish, plump women. Dark as a rule. Often they were Puerto Ricans." He tells Sammler of his latest encounter: He has bought a briefcase behind which he masturbates while a fleshy-armed cashier makes change for him at the counter in a drugstore. Sammler asks to be spared the details, but Bruch pleads, "Uncle Sammler, what shall I do? I am over sixty years old."

Sammler's response is that Bruch should be thankful that he lives in a time when such things are less stigmatized:
"Isn't it a comfort that there is no more isolated Victorian sex suffering? Everybody seems to have these vices, and tells the whole world about them. By now you are even somewhat old-fashioned. Yes, you have an old nineteenth-century Krafft-Ebing trouble."
But Sammler realizes that Bruch doesn't want to hear about how commonplace his fetish is: "Nothing seemed to hurt quite so much as being ravaged by a vice that was not a top vice." When he tells Bruch, "I will pray for you," this seems not only to surprise Bruch but to amuse him: "Uncle Sammler, I have my arms. You have payers?" And the conversation takes a more routine turn, in which Bruch reveals to Sammler that Shula's husband, Eisen, may be in New York: "He wants to show his paintings on Madison Avenue." Apparently Eisen has become an artist, specializing in grotesque portraits, sending members of family pictures of them he made from photographs. "They were appalling, Walter. An insane mind and a frightening soul made those paintings.... Everybody looked like a corpse, with black lips and red eyes, with faces a kind of left-over cooked-liver green." Bruch thinks that Eisen does portraits of "Lyndon Johnson, General Westmoreland, Rusk, Nixon, or Mr. Laird in that style he might become a celebrity in the art world."

When Bruch leaves, Sammler returns to his thoughts about the "sexual madness overwhelming the Western world." He recalls a story "that a President of the United States" (presumably LBJ) had once exposed his genitals to the press corps, "demanding to know whether a man so well hung could not be trusted to lead his country." Angela had taken him to see Picasso's last exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, which consisted of images of sex organs. And he recalls what Angela said to him once when she was drunk: "'A Jew brain, a black cock, a Nordic beauty,' she had said, 'is what a woman wants.'" The remembrance turns him back to thoughts of the moon: "Artemis -- lunar chastity. On the moon people would have to work hard simply to stay alive, to breathe." They wouldn't have time for sexual fantasies.

Angela has become involved with a Madison Avenue marketing expert named Wharton Horricker. "He was younger than Angela. A physical culturist (tennis, weight lifting). Tall, from California, marvelous teeth." A health-food devotee, he had given Sammler yeast powder that Sammler finds "beneficial." He is also a dandy, who critiques Angela's wardrobe: "Once when he thought her improperly dressed, he abandoned her on the street." This reminds Sammler of the well-dressed pickpocket: "This cult of masculine elegance must be thought about." Inevitably drawn to Angela himself, he tries to keep a distance, reminding himself that she is: "The beautiful maiden. He was the old hermit." And he finds fault with her: "When she became hearty with him and laughed, she turned out to have a big mouth, a large tongue. Inside the elegant woman he saw a coarse one." But she persists in giving him details of her intimacy with Horricker. "Mr. Sammler was supposed to listen benevolently to all kinds of intimate reports."

He had similarly listened to H.G. Wells's confessions. "As Sammler remembered it, Wells in his seventies was still obsessed with girls. He had powerful arguments for a total revision of sexual attitudes to accord with the increased life span.... Yes, gradually the long shudder of mankind at the swift transitoriness of mortal beauty, pleasure, would cease, to be replaced by the wisdom born of prolongation."

Sammler's relationship to the Gruners was long and complex. He "had known Angela's grandparents. They had been Orthodox. This gave a queer edge to his acquaintance with her paganism." But then everything about modern life has a "queer edge" to Sammler:
You had to be strong enough not to be terrified by local effects of metamorphosis, to live with disintegration, with crazy streets, filthy nightmares, monstrosities come to life, addicts, drunkards, and perverts celebrating their despair openly in midtown. You had to be able to bear the tangles of the soul, the sight of cruel dissolution. You had to be patient with the stupidities of power, with the fraudulence of business.... When he tried to imagine a just social order, he could not do it. A non-corrupt society? He could not do that either. There were no revolutions that he could remember which had not been made for justice, freedom, and pure goodness. Their last state was always more nihilistic than the first. 
Sammler is Elya Gruner's uncle, but only technically. He "was only six or seven years older than Gruner," and was the child of his father's second marriage. Gruner was the son of Sammler's half-sister, but because Gruner "had longed for a European uncle," Sammler filled the bill "really by courtesy, by Gruner's pious antiquarian wish." But Gruner, who had become wealthy through his gynecological practice and through real estate, paid Anton and Shula's "rents, invented work for Shula, supplemented their Social Security and German indemnity checks." In addition to Angela, whose sensuality irritates Gruner, he has a son, Wallace, a dilettante and spendthrift. Gruner's "wife had been a German Jewess, above him socially, so she thought. Her family had been 1848 pioneers. Gruner was an Ostjude immigrant."

Gruner is now in the hospital, suffering from hypertension and threatened by an aneurysm. Sammler visits him there, where Gruner talks about, among other things, genealogy. "He had a passion for kinships," and has visited Israel several times to meet with relatives there. Sammler is not one for genealogy, and when Gruner asks him about his grandmother's brother, who was "a heavy contributor to the synagogue, Sammler is forced to admit, "I didn't have much to do with the synagogue. We were almost free-thinkers. Especially my mother. She had a Polish education. She gave me an emancipated name: Artur."

Gruner assures Sammler that he needn't worry about the future, that Margotte would continue to look after him. Sammler thanks him and leaves, but meets Wallace talking to Gruner's doctor. While waiting for Wallace to finish talking to the doctor about sports -- among other things Wallace is a handicapper and the doctor is a gambler -- he looks out the window at a graffiti-covered building that has been scheduled for destruction. The strange, cryptic symbols scrawled on the window of a closed tailor shop makes him think back to wartime Poland, where "particularly during three or four months when Sammler was hidden in a mausoleum, ... he first began to turn to the external world for curious ciphers and portents." He hid in a family tomb and the caretaker, Cieslakiewicz, brought him bread and water. "Cislakiewicz had risked his life for him. The basis of this fact was a great oddity. They didn't like each other. What had there been to like in Sammler? -- half-naked, famished, caked hair and beard, crawling out of the forest."

Sammler and his wife had been apprehended by the Nazis:
When Antonina was murdered. When he himself underwent murder beside her. When he and sixty or seventy others, all stripped naked and having dug their own grave, were fired upon and fell in. Bodies upon his own body. Crushing. His dead wife nearby somewhere. Struggling out much later from the weight of corpses, crawling out of the loose soil. Scraping on his belly. Hiding in a shed. Finding a rag to wear. Lying in the woods many days.
Nearly thirty years later, he looks out of the hospital window and the graffiti-scrawled tailor shop and wonders: "Is our species crazy? Plenty of evidence."

Wallace finally comes over to talk, and comments on Sammler's sense of humor, recalling several jokes Sammler has told him. He observes, "Poles love to tell jokes."
"Conquered people tend to be witty."

"You don't like Poles very much, Uncle."

"I think on the whole I like them better than they liked me. Besides, a Pan once saved my life."

"And Shula in the convent."

"Yes, that too. Nuns hid her." 
Wallace then tells him that he and Lionel Feffer have a business idea: They will take aerial photographs of large estates, then approach the homeowners to sell them not only the photographs but also include in the package identification of the trees and shrubs on the property, with labels in Latin and English. "People feel ignorant about the plants on their property." But they need money, and Wallace's father won't give it to them. Wallace believes that his father has hidden money in their home at New Rochelle, funds that he earned surreptitiously by doing abortions for socially prominent families. Wallace is certain that he can make a lot of money from the scheme and "spend the rest of my time reading philosophy. I can finish up my Ph.D. in mathematics." He believes the money is hidden in "phony pipes through the attic.... He borrowed a Mafia plumber once." He suggests that Sammler, "just slip in a reference to pipes or to attics in your next conversation. See how he reacts. He may decide to tell you."

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