By Charles Matthews

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

2. Dangling Man, by Saul Bellow (in Novels 1944-1953), pp. 52-89

Saul Bellow: Novels 1944-1953: Dangling Man, The Victim, and The Adventures of Augie March (Library of America)December 27 through January 26 

The morning after the scene at his house, Amos telephones, but Joseph has Iva talk to him. His excuse for rummaging through Dolly's dresser has been confirmed when they found the hundred-dollar bill pinned to the pillow cover. Iva asks why he didn't defend himself at the time, but he replies that he didn't care what they thought of him. He admits to his journal, however, that he was relieved: "I had been uneasy about the money, believing that Etta was not above taking it." He expresses no remorse, however, about his assault on the girl. Instead, he reflects again on their physical resemblance. 

This thought touches off a memory of his "self-willed" Aunt Dina, who had taken him for his first haircut -- against his mother's wishes -- when he was four years old. And then, in his adolescence, he discovered a photograph of his grandfather in the same drawer in which his mother kept an envelope of the curls that had been shorn that day: "it occurred to me that this skull of my grandfather's would in time overtake me.... Still later I came to believe ... that the picture was a proof of my mortality. I was upright on my grandfather's bones and the bones of those before him in a temporary loan.... Through the years he would reclaim me bit by bit." 

He had prided himself on being handsome, but in high school he made friends with a German boy named Will Harscha. One day, he met Will's father and mother: 
"So this is Joseph," he said as he shook hands with me. "Well. Er ist schön," he said to his wife. 
"Mephisto war auch schön," Mrs. Harscha answered.
Shocked at being compared to Mephistopheles, believing that Mrs. Harscha "had seen through me," he broke off his friendship with Will. Later he decided that she may have heard of his habit of buttering up his friends' mothers. "She may have thought I had no business being unboyish. Many people resented this." 

Several days go by without incident until Mr. Vanaker, who "observed the birth of the new year with large quantities of whisky, with coughing, pelting the yard with bottles, with frequent, noisy trips to the lavatory," sets an armchair in his room on fire, causing much commotion in the rooming house. Otherwise, Joseph observes, "days have lost their distinctiveness." He thinks that this may be "one reason why I have been creating agitation. I am not sure. The circumstances at the Arrow [the restaurant where he was snubbed by Jimmy Burns] and at Amos's house were provoking enough, but I could have avoided making scenes if I had wished." 
Trouble, like physical pain, makes us actively aware that we are living, and when there is little in the life we lead to hold and draw and stir us, we seek and cherish it, preferring embarrassment or pain to indifference.
One day he sees a newspaper item about a man named Jefferson Forman whose plane was shot down in the Pacific. He decides that this must be the Jeff Forman he had known in college. He recalls several incidents he had heard about Forman that suggest to him that "Jeff was in love with excitement." So Jeff Forman becomes symbolic to Joseph of everything that he is not: "I always suspected of him that he had in some fashion discovered there were some ways in which to be human was to be unutterably dismal, and that all his life was given over to avoiding those ways." As to his own future involvement in the war, he reflects that he "would rather die in the war than consume its benefits." 

He spends a day shining all the shoes in the closet -- though it's not clear whether this is consciously or unconsciously motivated by the concern of his brother Amos and his family with not being able to buy more than four pairs of shoes a year. It was something he had done as a child in Montreal.
I did not clean shoes because I was praised for it, but because of the work and the sensations of the room, closed off from the wet and fog of the street, with its locked shutters and the faint green of the metal pipes along the copings of its houses. Nothing could have tempted me out of the house.
He recalls the sights of the slum area of Montreal in which he lived as a child: "I sometimes think it is the only place where I was ever allowed to encounter reality." (Bellow will explore this theme later in Herzog.) 

Morris Abt sends Joseph a pamphlet he has written as part of his work for the government, but it stirs up Joseph's resentment at Abt for being productive while he is idle. They had been roommates as freshmen at the University of Wisconsin, but Abt "lived continually in need of being consequential," stirring Joseph's insecurity: "Living with him had a bad effect on me, for I withdrew from any field he entered." 
He would never admit that he wanted to become another Locke, but there he was, wearing himself thin with the effort of emulation, increasingly angry at himself, and unable to admit that the scale of his ambition was defeating him.
Joseph sees this individual ambition as a modern disease. "Six hundred years ago, a man was what he was born to be. Satan and the Church, representing God, did battle over him.... Now, each of us is responsible for his own salvation, which is in his greatness. And that, that greatness, is the rock our hearts are abraded on." The result has been a steady decline in civilization: 
From the great sadness and desperation of Werthers and Don Juans we went to the great ruling images of Napoleons; from these to murderers who had that right over victims because they were greater than the victims; to men who felt privileged to approach others with a whip; to schoolboys and clerks who roared like revolutionary lions; to those pimps and subway creatures, debaters in midnight cafeterias who believed they could be great in treachery and catch the throats of those they felt were sound and well in the lassos of their morbidity; to dreams of greatly beautiful shadows embracing on a flawless screen. Because of these things we hate immoderately and punish ourselves and one another immoderately. 
Joseph has a letter from another friend, John Pearl, who works for an advertising agency in New York, though he wants to be an artist: "The real world is the world of art and thought. There is only one worth-while sort of work, that of the imagination." But this only stirs Joseph's thoughts of his own lack of talent: "Is there some sort of personal effort I can substitute for the imagination?" Despite Pearl's disillusionment with being trapped in a job he scorns, Joseph maintains that Pearl can at least "keep a measure of cleanliness and freedom" because through his "acts of the imagination ... he is connected with the best part of mankind. He feels this and he can never be isolated, left aside. He has a community. I have this six-sided box." 

The correspondence with his friends has brought out Joseph's self-pity: "I, in this room, separate, alienated, distrustful, find in my purpose not an open world, but a closed, hopeless jail." 

Iva is looking for a book, Dubliners, that Joseph recommended she read. She can't find it anywhere. Then "suddenly I remembered that I had lent Kitty Daumler a book." We have heard Kitty's name earlier, in passing, when Joseph said he went out to see her sometimes without Iva's knowledge, so we sense that there are reasons why Joseph wants to persuade Iva that the book must be there somewhere. Iva persists, however, and even suggests that Vanaker must have stolen it. The tension over the book leads to an argument that ends with Joseph storming out: "I shut the door with a crash, already aware, under my anger, that this was beneath me and altogether out of proportion to the provocation." 

As he leaves, Vanaker opens his window and throws out an empty whiskey bottle that lands among dozens of others in the bushes. Joseph hails a streetcar and goes to Kitty's. "My purpose was not to retrieve the book -- though, of course, I might as well ask her to return it while I was there --n but to see Kitty." 

They had met two years earlier, when Joseph had arranged a tour of the Caribbean for her at the travel agency. They flirted a bit, though he made it clear that he was married. "For her, she said, marriage as such did not exist. There were only people." A month later, she came by the agency again and invited him to "have supper together." He accepted in part because he and Iva had not been getting along; she resented his dominance in the marriage and he had begun to find her intellectually frivolous.
There are such things as clothes, appearances, furniture, light entertainment, mystery stories, the attractions of fashion magazines, the radio, the enjoyable evening. What could one say to them? Women -- thus I reasoned --- were not equipped by training to resist such things.
So he began seeing Kitty frequently, just for conversation. "I had learned to discern the real Kitty, the lively, plump, high-colored, scented, gross girl, behind the talk.... Beyond talk, however, Kitty and I did not go." But then one night he found her "in bed, drinking rum and tea. She had been caught in the rain and chilled." And the affair began. It lasted for two months, "or until she began hinting at my leaving Iva." So he "began to bring the affair with Kitty to a close.... We agreed that I was to continue visiting her on a friendly basis." He saw her off and on, but it had been some time since he had done so when the argument about the book took place. 

He goes to Kitty's, but another man is there. "She was not, of course, delighted to see me," though she "did not seem at all displeased at having been found out." As they talk at her door, he sees a man's shirt hanging on a chair. "She looked behind, and then turned to me with a smile, but half in contempt, as much as to say, 'It isn't my fault that that isn't your shirt hanging on the chair.'" She agrees to look for the book and mail it to him. He leaves, realizing that "while I could objectively find no reason why she should not do as she pleased, I found myself nevertheless ambiguously resentful and insulted." 

He goes home to find Iva waiting up. "In the morning we had a short talk and were reconciled." The book arrives in the mail a couple of days later and he decides to pretend to find it that night. "I hope that will be the last deception imposed on me." A characteristically passive attitude. 

On the street he runs into Iva's cousin, Sam Pearson, who grills him on what he has been doing. The answer, of course, is "Absolutely nothing," which sets off Joseph's resentment: "He has always, b his questions, exercised a social or family tyranny over me, checking on my suitability for Iva. No doubt he will report this to the Almstadts. 

A visit to a tailor, Mr. Fanzel, to have a button sewed on gives Joseph a lesson in capitalism: "A year ago Mr. Fanzel sewed a button to my coat gratis; this year he charged fifteen cents." Many of his customers who were once on relief are now employed in the defense industry. But since the cost of his supplies has gone up, too, he now charges them more, "charging eighty dollars for suits worth forty and fifteen cents for a button he formerly sewed out of kindness," as Joseph somewhat naively puts it. "I blame the spiritual climate," Joseph says, somehow linking what he sees as greed with "the shadow of Jeff Forman's falling plane." For Joseph, the fifteen cents he pays Fanzel represents "three cups of coffee, or three cigars, or a glass-and-a-half of beer, or five morning papers, or something less than a package of cigarettes, or three telephone calls, or one breakfast." He goes without the breakfast because of "Iva's check at the library having been held up." 

One morning he watches the maid, Marie, clean the windows and turns it into a  lesson about human nature and "a notion of center, of balance, of order":
A woman learns it in the kitchens of her childhood, and it branches out from sinks, windows, table tops, to the faces and hands of children, and then it may become, as it does for some women, part of the nature of God.

A schoolfriend of Iva's, Susie Farson, comes over in distress because of the abuse she and her baby, Barbara, have been experiencing at the hands of her husband, Walter. Iva urges Susie to leave him. 

January 26 is Joseph and Iva's sixth wedding anniversary and they meet for dinner. But on the way Joseph witnesses a man collapse. Joseph helps open the man's collar before the police arrive to take over. Something about the event recalls the night of his mother's death. His Aunt Dina hysterically threw herself on her sister's body, and when Joseph tries to restrain her, "she lashed at me, clawing with enraged fingers," claiming that her sister had been trying to say something before she died. "To many in the fascinated crowd the figure of the man on the ground must have been what it was to me -- a pre-vision. Without warning, down." He doesn't tell Iva about the man or his memory, but it casts a shadow over the anniversary celebration nevertheless. 

Susie Farson returns to tell them that her husband has been accepted to a radio training course in Detroit and that they are going to leave their baby with her husband's sister. Iva is appalled. "Mr. Vanaker was raking his throat, coughing, halting with a fleshy catch and coughing again. Any disturbance in our room sets him off. He did not stop until Iva, with a show of temper unusual for her, banged on the wall with her slipper." 

They have dinner with the Almstadts and Joseph learns that "Cousin Sam has not reported me." They have also accepted an invitation to his father's because Joseph's stepmother has been offended by their declining so many invitations. 

Joseph comes down with a cold, and Iva takes the afternoon off to nurse him. Joseph reflects, 
Great pressure is brought to bear to make us undervalue ourselves. On the other hand, civilization teaches that each of us is an inestimable prize. There are, then, these two preparations: one for life and the other for death.... The result is that we learn to be unfeeling toward ourselves and incurious. Who can be the earnest huntsman of himself when he knows he is in turn a quarry? Or nothing so distinctive as quarry, but one of a shoal, driven toward the weirs. 
He has dreamed of being shown the victims of a massacre, one of whom has a name ending in "Tanza. It must have been Constanza." In the dream, which he thinks may have been the result of viewing pictures of the pogrom in Bucharest in 1941, he tells the guard that he doesn't know the deceased. "He approved of my neutrality. As long as I took the part of the humane emissary, no harm would come to me." Finally, the dream produces in him "an atmosphere of terror such as my father many years ago could conjure for me, describing Gehenna and the damned until I shrieked and begged him to stop." And he continues to remember "the syllables Tanza." 

There are other "slightly less dreadful" dreams in which he is fighting in North Africa. And he wonders, "Could the fallen man of last week have seen, had he chanced to open his eyes, his death in the face of that policeman who bent over him? We know we are sought and expect to be found. How many forms he takes, the murderer."
How will it be? How? Falling a mile into the wrinkled sea? Or, as I have dreamed, cutting a wire? Or strafed in a river among chopped reeds and turning water, blood leaking through the cloth of the sleeves and shoulders? I can safely think of such things on a bright afternoon such as this. When they come at night, the heart, like a toad, exudes its fear with a repulsive puff.... "God does not love those who are unable to sleep soundly," runs an old saying. 
He and Iva watch the sunset. "Her hand was cool and sweet. I had a slight fever."  

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