By Charles Matthews

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

5. Mr. Sammler's Planet, by Saul Bellow, pp. 148-210

Mr. Sammler's Planet (Penguin Classics)V
"Emil drove for Costello, for Lucky Luciano," Wallace tells Sammler in the Rolls-Royce on the way to New Rochelle. There is a full moon, and Wallace tells Sammler that he has signed up with Pan Am to fly there. (The defunct airline actually had a waiting list for prospective passengers to the moon, and in 2001: A Space Odyssey is the carrier for characters going to the moon base.) Sammler, who has been meditating on what effect colonizing the moon might have on civilization, tells Wallace, "I don't even want to go to Europe.... I am content to sit here on the West Side, and watch, and admire these gorgeous Faustian departures for the other worlds. Yes, I like ceilings, and the high better than the low. In literature I think there are low-ceiling masterpieces -- Crime and Punishment, for instance -- and high-ceiling masterpieces, Remembrance of Things Past."

Wallace turns the conversation to Sammler's encounter with the pickpocket, which Feffer has told him about. And like Feffer, Wallace pruriently wants details about the pickpocket's penis: "Well, tell me about his thing. It wasn't actually black, was it? It must have been a purple kind of chocolate, or maybe the color of his palms?" Unable to get Sammler to talk about it, he changes topics to his sister's relationship with Wharton Horricker. Angela has complained that Horricker is too muscular, and Wallace seems as fascinated by that information as he is by the pickpocket's equipment:
"They say that fellows that beef themselves up like that .. are narcissistic pansies. I don't judge anybody. What if they are homosexuals? That's nothing any more. I don't think homosexuality is simply a different way of being human, I actually think it's a disease. I don't know why homosexuals fuss so much and proclaimn themselves so normal. Such gentlemen.... I believe this boom in faggots was caused by modern warfare. One result of 1914, that slaughter in the trenches. The men were getting blasted. It was obviously healthier to be a woman than a man...."
And so on. Obsessively. After talking about Angela and Horricker some more, Wallace returns to the original theme: "What else did the man do, did he shake the thing at you?" Sammler tells him "the subject is becoming unpleasant," and Wallace ceases the direct interrogation. But the topic of race seems to fascinate him as much as that of homosexuality, and he retells a story that he says he read in the newspaper about a white boy who was attacked by "a black gang of fourteen-year-olds." The boy "begged them not to shoot, but they simply didn't understand his words. Literally not the same language. Not the same feelings. No comprehension. No common concept.... [T]he boys didn't even know what he was saying."

Sammler is reminded of the man he shot: "I was begged, too. Sammler however did not say this." Instead he talks about the scene in War and Peace in which Pierre is spared execution because he looks into the eyes of General Davout. "Tolstoy says you don't kill another human being with whom you have exchanged such a look." When Wallace asks if he believes this, Sammler says, "I sympathize with such a desire for such a belief.... I wish it were so." When Wallace says, "They say you were in the grave once," Sammler suggests that they change the subject.

When they reach the house, Wallace goes in first, leaving Sammler to grope about in the darkness, realizing that Wallace's chief goal is to search for his father's "real or imaginary criminal abortion dollars." So he goes in search of Shula and finally discovers her in a bathtub on the second floor. He backs off from his daughter's nakedness and goes to wait for her in a room that turns out to be the one Angela had when she was a girl. Finally Shula appears and he confronts her about the document. "She began to speak Polish. Severe, he denied her permission to speak that language. She was trying to invoke her terrible times of hiding -- the convent, the hospital, the contagious ward when the German searching party came." She confesses that she went to the office of Gruner's lawyer, Widick, and made a copy, then took both copy and original to two lockers in Grand Central Station. She gives him the keys.

Shula continues to insist that she did it for him: "I thought if you were really, really serious about H.G. Wells you would have to know if he predicted accurately about the moon, or Mars, and that you'd pay any price to have the latest, most up-to-date scientific information." He asks her if she has ever read a book by Wells. She says she read one "about God," which he identifies as God the Invisible King. And when she admits that she didn't finish it, he says he didn't either: "I just couldn't read it. Human evolution with God as Intelligence. I soon saw the point, then the rest was tedious, garrulous." Even when he tells her that he hasn't read all of Wells's books -- "No one could read them all. I've read many. Probably too many." -- she continues to insist, "We nearly lost you in Israel, in that war. I was afraid you wouldn't finish your lifework." As he is trying to tell her that it isn't his lifework and that he was in no danger in Israel, they hear a car outside. Shula runs to get dressed and Sammler goes to see who's there.

It's Margotte and Govinda Lal. Furious at first, Lal begins to settle down once Sammler assures him of the location of the manuscript and the copy and gives him the keys. Margotte goes off to the kitchen to prepare something for them to eat. Lal says the experience has been "Somehow the kind of terror I anticipated in America. My first visit." Sammler observes, "Twenty-two years ago, my own arrival was a relief."
"Of course in a sense the whole world is now U.S. Inescapable," said Govinda Lal. "It's like a big crow that has snatched our future from the nest, and we, the rest, are like little finches in pursuit trying to peck it. However, the Apollo flights are American. I have been employed by NASA. On other research. But this is where my ideas will count, if they are any use." 
Finally, Shula appears. "She had dressed herself in a sari, or something like it, had found a piece of Indian material in a drawer. It couldn't have been correctly wrapped.... On her forehead was a Hindu spot made with the lipstick. Exactly where the Ash Wednesday smudge had been. The general idea was to charm and appease the angry Lal." But it's also clear to Sammler that Lal, barely knows who she is. When she tells him that she thought he had loaned her the manuscript because she told him her father was writing about H.G. Wells, Lal has no memory of the conversation. As for Wells, "my impression is that he is very obsolete." Sammler begins to suspect that the whole thing grew out of an infatuation of Shula's with Lal: "Were he and Wells really secondary, then? Was it really done to provoke interest? ... Was this why Shula had taken the book? Out of female seductiveness."

Sammler sends Shula to the kitchen to help Margotte, and Lal admits that he would never have recognized her. "Yes? Without the wig. She often affects a wig," Sammler points out. They strike up a conversation in which Lal says that as a Punjabi he has something in common with Sammler: He's familiar with the phenomenon of extermination. They talk about his views of Wells, as an exemplar of the lower-class boy risen to prominence because of "universal education and cheap printing." "If you wrote for an elite, like Proust, you did not become rich, but if your theme was social justice and your ideas were radical you were rewarded by wealth, fame, and influence." Lal, in his turn, talks about the exploration of space:
"The U.S. is becoming the greatest dispenser of science-fiction entertainments. As far as the organizers and engineers are concerned, it is a vast opportunity, but that is not of high theoretical value. Still, at the same time something serious happens within. The soul most certainly feels the grandeur of this achievement. Not to go where one can go may be stunting. I believe the soul feels it, and therefore it is a necessity. It may introduce new sobriety. Naturally the technology will impress minds more than the personalities. The astronauts do not seem so very heroic. More like superchimpanzees. Especially if they do not express themselves beautifully. But after all, this is the function of poets. If any."
Margotte interrupts their conversation, which has dwelt on the fate of mankind and the biological imperative, to serve their "little supper," and Sammler begins to suspect an attraction between Margotte and Lal. At the table, Sammler is encouraged to expand more on his own ideas about the malaise of the contemporary world, which he locates in the impulse toward "originality."
"Antiquity accepted models, the Middle Ages -- I don't want to turn into a history book before your eyes -- but modern man, perhaps because of collectivization, has a fever of originality. The idea of the uniqueness of the soul. An excellent idea. A true idea. But in these forms? In these poor forms? Dear God! With hair, with clothes, with drugs and cosmetics, with genitalia, with round trips through evil, monstrosity, and orgy, with even God approached through obscenities?" 
He talks about Mordechai Rumkowski, whom the Germans set up as a kind of puppet administrator in the Łódź ghetto. "He was a dictator. He was their Jewish King. A parody of the thing -- a mad Jewish King presiding over the death of half a million people.... The theatricality of King Rumkowski evidently pleased the Germans. It further degraded the Jews to have a mock king. The Nazis liked that." Lal interrupts to say that he doesn't quite follow -- Bellow uses him as a surrogate for the reader here -- and Sammler admits that he isn't being entirely lucid. But Rumkowski is Sammler's example of the modern disorder of personality, of originality exhibiting itself in "The most monstrous kind of exaggeration.... Perhaps when people are so desperately impotent they play that instrument, the personality, louder and wilder."
"It is right that we should dislike contrived individuality, bad pastiche, banality, and the rest. It is repulsive. But individualism is of no interest whatever if it does not extend truth. As personal distinction, enhancement, glory, it is for me devoid of interest. I care for it only as an instrument for obtaining truth," said Sammler.
Suddenly, Sammler's extended monologue is interrupted: "Water from the back stairs flowed over the white plastic Pompeian mosaic surface." The house is being flooded. Sammler immediately realizes what is happening: Wallace has been searching the pipes in the attic for his father's hidden cash. Everyone goes to see what is happening, and they find Wallace trying to reconnect the pipes he has been working on. Margotte goes to call the fire department and a plumber, while Lal and Shula try to search for a shutoff. Sammler stays with Wallace after fetching some plastic pails to try to catch some of the water: "it was a typical Wallace production, like the sinking of the limousine in Croton Reservoir, the horse pilgrimage into Soviet Armenia [Wallace almost set off an international incident], the furnishing of a law office to work crossword puzzles in -- protests against his father's 'valueless' success." He is upset that the fire department has been called because they'll file a report that might invalidate an insurance claim, so he tries to hide the tools he has been using. "I mean I want this to seem accidental." Sammler points out that pipes don't disconnect themselves and they "only burst in winter."

As Wallace is feeling sorry for himself, the water slows to a trickle, and Sammler observes that Lal must have found the shutoff. "Well, he certainly uses his head. It never once occurred to me to find out where our water came from," Wallace says. "It's supposed to be a sign of the Mass Man that he doesn't know the difference between Nature and human arrangements. He thinks the cheap commodities -- water, electricity, subways, hot dogs -- are like air, sunshine, and leaves on the trees." In the midst of a crisis, Wallace resorts to citing Ortega y Gasset. But then Sammler has just had his long monologue on Rumkowski and the disorder of modern civilization interrupted by a plumbing problem. It's characteristic of Bellow that he alternates high intellectualizing with low comedy.

Wallace now worries about the possibility that his father will disinherit him: "If I have to live on a fixed income from a trust it'll be the end of me. I'll never find myself then." (And he's been doing such a good job so far.) If his latest business scheme, the one with the airplanes and the botanical labels, doesn't pan out, he thinks he'll go to Cuba, not that he's a communist: "I do admire Castro, however. He has terrific style, he's a bohemian radical, and he's held his own against Washington superpower. He and his cabinet ride in jeeps. They meet in the sugar cane."

The firetruck arrives and some order is imposed on things, but Sammler is unable to sleep, his mind filled with thoughts of Gruner's dying, of all the odd and chaotic things that have been happening to him lately. He has a sense of unreality. "When had things seemed real, true? In Poland when blinded, in Zamosht when freezing, in the tomb when hungry." This was why he asked Gruner to finance his journey to Israel, which he now recalls. He had met "young Father Newell in his Vietnam battle dress" in Gaza, where they surveyed hundreds of Egyptian corpses. "The odor was like damp cardboard."
And this perhaps was what Sammler's instinct had directed him to do. To go to Kennedy, to get on a jet, to land in Tel Aviv, to have snapshots taken, to obtain a press card, to find a bus to Gaza, to visit the great sun wheel of white desert in which these Egyptian corpses and machines were embedded, to make his primary contact. Certain desires thus were met, for which he could not account.... Via London, ten days later, he flew home.... Then BOAC brought him back to Kennedy Airport, and soon afterward he was in the Forty-second Street Library reading, as always, Meister Eckhardt. 
Shula finds him walking on the lawn in the moonlight and gives him Gruner's afghan. He lies down and thinks about "what a strange species he belonged to, which had organized its planet to such an extent." Half of it lies asleep while the other half works. "And that is how this brilliant human race runs this wheeling globe."

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