By Charles Matthews

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

3. Dangling Man, by Saul Bellow (in Novels 1944-1953), pp. 89-140

Saul Bellow: Novels 1944-1953: Dangling Man, The Victim, and The Adventures of Augie March (Library of America)January 28 through April 9

The visit to Joseph's father goes well, and he even accepts -- after Iva's urging -- the cash they're given as an anniversary present. But he remains conscious that his father disapproves of his majoring in the humanities: "A nonprofessional education is something the middle classes can ill afford" is his characterization of his father's attitude. "I have prepared myself for the kind of life I shall never be able to lead." 

He discovers, among the bottles Vanaker has tossed from the window, a pair of socks that he identifies as his own. This makes him believe that Vanaker is stealing from them, and that he may indeed have taken Iva's perfume. 

He runs into an old friend, Alf Steidler, who has been rejected by the draft: "Bad teeth, bad heart, and emotionally unstable." Steidler has been an actor and director supported by the WPA, but with the end of that subsidy is knocking about. He went to Hollywood with some ideas that he tried to pitch to Ernst Lubitsch, but never got to see him. "At twenty-eight, he was old-fashioned. He had all the ways of a theatrical generation that was already at the point of death when, in his high-school days, he had cut classes to admire its aging comedians in the mangy splendor of the Oriental." 
Oriental Theater (image by John Chuckman
They spend the day talking, which leaves Joseph "as tired as though I had spent the day in dissipations of a particularly degrading sort with Steidler as my accomplice. I did not tell Iva of the visit. She disapproves of him."

Returning to his solitary life after the encounter with Steidler, Joseph begins carrying on dialogues with "the Spirit of Alternatives," also known as "But on the Other Hand" or "Tu As Raison Aussi." He tells this alter ego "That human nature is too small to pit against the unsolvables. Or nature, mind's nature, is weak, and only the heart can be relied on.... Reason has to conquer itself. Then what are we given reason for? To conquer the blessedness of unreason?" You can't "banish the world," because it has become so much a part of you: 
"It presents you with a gun or a mechanic's tool, it singles you out for this part or that, brings you ringing news of disasters and victories, shunts you back and forth, abridges your rights, cuts off your future, is clumsy or crafty, oppressive, treacherous, murderous, black, whorish, venal, inadvertently naive or funny. Whatever you do, you cannot dismiss it."
He tries to deny to himself that he's alienated, but recognizes that he quarrels with people, and asks himself, "Is it because they force you to recognize that you belong to their world?" He reflects on his disaffection with communism: "I regarded politics as an inferior activity. Plato tells us that if everything were as it should be, the best men would avoid office, not vie for it." 

And he struggles with finding an ultimate motive, an "ideal construction" to provide a meaning for his existence. "I could name hundreds of these ideal constructions, each with its assertions and symbols, each finding -- in conduct, in God, in art, in money -- its particular answer and each proclaiming: 'This is the only possible way to meet chaos.'" But he recognizes the end, "the obsession exhausts the man. It can become his enemy. It often does." So finally he ends this dialogue with himself in frustration. 

The landlady suffers a stroke and is not expected to live much longer, so the house tries to maintain quiet. But Vanaker is as noisy as ever, provoking Joseph to his own noisy protests against him, especially when he goes to the bathroom and leaves the door open. "I have several times made general but loud and menacing remarks about decency and politeness. But he is either too drunk or too witless to change. When I do these things, I make myself ill." He also disturbs Iva with his obsession with Vanaker. 

This is not the first time, it turns out, that Joseph has had trouble with living arrangements. Before they moved to the rooming house they had rented a flat from the Gesells. Beth Gesell was an amateur sculptor who made the house shake with her work. Her husband was an electrician. But during the winter the house became extremely cold. After Joseph complained to Gesell, the house warmed up slightly, but finally Iva decided to withhold the rent until the problem was resolved. "There were hard feelings. But in February things took a turn for the better.... The rent was paid, the heat rose, the hot water returned." 

This state of affairs didn't last long, however. One Sunday "the house began to go cold, and at two o'clock the electricity was shut off." Joseph found Gesell in the basement working on something, with a piece of pipe in his hand. He angrily asked why the electricity was off without some prior notice, and Gesell said, "I don't have to get your permission." When Joseph asked how much longer, Gesell ignored him. "I took him by the shoulder and, forcing him round, pushed aside the pipe and struck him.... I carried him to the wall, hitting repeatedly into his chest and belly and cutting my knuckles on his open, panting mouth. After the first few blows, my anger vanished. In weariness and self-disgust I pinned him against the bricks." 

Although Gesell threatened to take out a warrant against Joseph, he failed to follow through. "Iva guessed that Beth was unwilling to invest in a warrant. We moved a month later. Iva and Beth made all the arrangements." 
This was "not like" me; it was an early symptom. The old Joseph was inclined to be even-tempered.... But we are a people of tantrums, nevertheless; a word exchanged in a movie or in some other crowd, and we are ready to fly at one another. Only, in my opinion, our rages are deceptive; we are too ignorant and spiritually poor to know that we fall on the "enemy" from confused motives of love and loneliness. Perhaps, also, self-contempt. But for the most part, loneliness.
Joseph begins to think of himself as "a sort of human grenade whose pin has been withdrawn." He also reflects on the limitations he faces. "Death is the abolition of choice. The more choice is limited, the closer we are to death." So the dangling life, the life with an uncertain future, takes its toll. "The best solution would be to live as if the ordinary expectations had not been removed, not from day to day, blindly. But that requires immense self-mastery." 

Steidler continues to visit, and Joseph continues to feel "at the end of a few hours, that we are practicing some terrible vice together. We smoke and talk." Except for Steidler, Joseph has rejected company, and he dislikes this distraction from his solitary self-absorption: "I would rather not be entertained. I welcomed him at first, and I still rather like him. But I wish he would not come so often." Myron Adler returns to add another potential distraction for Joseph, but days go by with no visits from either Adler or Steidler, and Joseph begins to realize the burden of his solitude: "If I were a little less obstinate, I would confess failure and say that I do not know what to do with my freedom." 

On the other hand, he observes, he and Iva "have grown closer," a companionship born of their shared plight, "the cheap restaurant food we eat, our lack of money." But he still reflects on his feeling of superiority to the woman he married: "she is as far from ever from what I once desired to make her.... But now I am struck by the arrogance with which I set people apart into two groups: those with worth-while ideas and those without them." He does share with idea his discovery of Vanaker's sock-stealing. When he finds another pair on the bush where he found the first, he points them out to her. "She says we should find a way of showing that we are aware of the theft." 

John Pearl writes to him, complaining about New York's "unnatural, too-human deadness." Joseph recognizes "the danger he sees of the lack of the human in the too-human" urban environment. "We find it, as others before us have found it in the last two hundred years, and we bolt for 'Nature.'" He is grateful for the letter and for "someone else's recognition of the difficult, the sorrowful, in what to others is merely neutral, the environment." He also begins to be more conscious of his self-imprisonment.
We struggle perpetually to free ourselves.... We do not know how. So, at times, we throw ourselves away. When what we really want to stop being so exclusively and vainly for our own sake, impure and unknowing, turning inward and self-fastened. The quest, I am beginning to think, whether it be for money, for notoriety, reputation, increase of pride, whether it leads us to thievery, slaughter, sacrifice, the quest is one and the same. All the striving is for one end. I do not entirely understand this impulse. But it seems to me that its final end is the desire for pure freedom.
Myron Adler finally visits him and is surprised to find that he lives in the one room, and moreover that he has been there for almost nine months. Joseph recognizes Adler's shock at the situation he finds him in. Adler also tells him, "You've changed a lot. Everybody says so.... You're becoming bad-tempered." Joseph replies, "Good!" and Adler begins to get angry at Joseph's manner. Joseph apologizes in his way: "I see people so seldom, I've forgotten how to act." But he continues to push Adler away: "We are in different classes. The very difference in our clothes shows it." Adler says, "You used to be an absolutely reasonable guy.... Now you sound so wild." Joseph reflects, "He was hale and businesslike, wanting no further trouble with me." 

When Joseph mentions Jeff Forman, the downed flier, Adler observes that Forman received a posthumous medal, but is offended when Joseph says, "C'est la vie," and refuses to be sentimental about their friend's death: "We can't do anything for Jeff, anyway, by pulling a long face." The visit ends uncomfortably, with Adler offering to lend him money. 

Apparently Joseph's brother Amos has decided to forgive and forget: "Dolly phoned to ask us to dinner next Sunday. I said we had already accepted another invitation." And the Farsons, who had left their baby to attend a training program, are moving to California, but leaving the baby this time with his parents "in Dakota." On the street, Joseph has an encounter with a rather strange and sickly woman who peddles Christian Science pamphlets. And Kitty sends him a note asking why he hasn't come to see her lately. "I tore it up before Iva could see it." 

Joseph, retreating from all of these encounters with the outside world, has another conversation with his "Spirit of Alternatives" in which he tries to deal with the pangs of conscience that his attempt at self-exile has caused. His alter ego tells him, "Everybody else is dangling, too. When and if you survive you can start setting yourself straight." And then he reveals an option that we weren't aware existed: "Look, there are moments when I feel it would be wisest to go to my draft board and ask to have my number called at once." 

So has this waiting to be called up been unnecessary all this time? It would seem so, or more properly, that Joseph has chosen to prolong his dangling state as a means of self-discovery. 
I am somewhat afraid of the vanity of thinking that I can make my own way toward clarity. But it is even more important to know whether I can claim the right to preserve myself in this flood of death that has carried off so many like me, muffling them and bearing them down and down, minds untried and sinews useless -- so much debris.
By avoiding, or at least postponing, the possible death sentence that fighting in the war involves, he has been putting himself to the test. "I recall Spinoza's having written that no virtue could be considered greater than that of trying to preserve oneself.... He didn't say one's life. He said oneself." He sees his decision to dangle as an act of freedom. 
We are afraid to govern ourselves. Of course. It is so hard. We soon want to give up our freedom. It is not even real freedom, because it is not accompanied by comprehension. It is only a preliminary condition of freedom. But we hate it. And soon we run out, we choose a master, roll over on our backs and ask for the leash.... It isn't love that gives us weariness of life. It's our inability to be free.
He has found his freedom tested by his own emotions: at being snubbed by his former Communist Party comrade, at the petulance of his niece Etta, at his wife's drinking too much at a party, at Kitty's evident lack of need for his company, at Gesell's turning off the electricity, at Vanaker's coughing and stealing and peeing with the door open. He argues, "The war can destroy me physically. That it can do. But so can bacteria. I must be concerned with them, naturally. I must take account of them. They can obliterate me. But as long as I am alive, I must follow my destiny in spite of them." 

To which his alter ego, Tu As Raison Aussi, comments: "Then only one question remains.... Whether you have a separate destiny." The realization that his freedom is bound up with other people is shattering: He turns pale, he begins to chill, he wraps himself up in a blanket. 

Spring is beginning to arrive, and when he goes to meet Iva the next day, "there are a few green stubs of iris showing, nearly provoking me into saying: 'Go back, you don't know what you're getting into.'" 

The days pass: a tenant moves out and a new one moves in; Steidler sends a postcard from New York saying he may move there; he helps Mrs. Bartlett move a cot into the landlady's room and the sight of her lying there on what will be her deathbed disturbs him -- "I went into the hall quickly." The early signs of spring speak to him of "an impossible hope, the hope of an impossible rejuvenation.... I even saw in a brick passageway an untimely butterfly, out of place both in the season and the heart of the city, and somehow alien to the whole condition of the century." He finds new lines in his face and "shrugged them off as inevitable, the price of experience, an outlay that had better be made ungrudgingly, since it was bound in any case to be collected." 

His depression is fed by pride: When Iva asks him to cash her paycheck, he refuses because he had once been grilled by a bank manager during an earlier attempt to cash a check. He resents it that "he addressed me by my first name, as though I were an immigrant or a young boy or a Negro." He had made a scene, and his memory of this makes it impossible for him to explain to Iva why he can't cash her check. Even if he had done so, he reasons, "should would have been just as angry. She would have been in the right, hence very severe." And when they argue about it, she suspects the truth: "Are you sure you didn't get into a fight of some kind over there?" He denies it. 

They quarrel, and he expresses his resentment that she has "become the breadwinner" and he has been reduced to an errand boy. "Every morning you leave half a dozen orders for me. And just a while ago you mentioned that I read the papers." Months of unspoken tension break forth, and she begins to cry, for which he berates her: "Jesus, Jesus! Can we never have a talk without a flood of tears?" 

And then Vanaker goes to the bathroom. It is the spark that ignites a conflagration in Joseph. He takes off his slippers and silently goes out into the hall to confront Vanaker on the threshold of the bathroom. 
"Took you in it at last, didn't I!" I exclaimed. "You damned old whisky head. By God, I've had more than I can stand. There's a dying woman downstairs, and you slam around here all boozed up, raising as much hell as you please."
Iva comes into the hall to try to calm him, but Joseph begins to rant, attracting more of the tenants, including Mrs. Bartlett and Captain Briggs. Joseph accuses Vanaker of stealing. The Captain tries to intervene, and Joseph turns on him, almost provoking a fight between them. Iva orders Joseph back to their room, and then goes to try to talk to the neighbors. 

Joseph puts on his shoes and his street clothes and storms out of the house into the night. "I could not even imagine what Iva's misery must be, nor the state of the house," he realizes as he begins to come to his senses.
I believe I had known for some time that the moment I had been waiting for had come, and that it was impossible to resist any longer. I must give myself up. 
So he goes to the draft board where he leaves a note: "I hereby request to be taken at the earliest possible moment into the armed services." 

Mrs. Briggs orders both Vanaker and Joseph to move. A few days later, the landlady dies, and on the day of the funeral Joseph receives his draft notice. "Universal relief." 

When Vanaker moves, Joseph hears the maid cleaning his room and goes in. "She had found two empty perfume bottles in his wastebasket." 

Iva decides to move in with her parents. 

Joseph goes to see his father and looks into his old bedroom. 
It was suddenly given me to experience one of those consummating glimpses that come to all of us periodically. The room, delusively, dwindled and became a tiny square, swiftly drawn back, myself and all the objects in it growing smaller. This was not a mere visual trick. I understood it to be a revelation of the ephemeral agreements by which we live and pace ourselves.... This place ... was not here thirty years ago. Birds flew through this space. It may be gone fifty years hence. Such reality, I thought, is actually very dangerous, very treacherous. It should not be trusted.
It triggers another revelation: 
I had not done well alone. I doubted whether anyone could. To be pushed upon oneself entirely put the very facts of simple existence in doubt. Perhaps the war could teach me, by violence, what I had been unable to learn during those months in the room. Perhaps I could sound creation through other means. Perhaps. But things were now out of my hands. The next move was the world's. I could not bring myself to regret it.... I am no longer to be held accountable for myself; I am grateful for that. I am in other hands, relieved of self-determination, freedom canceled. 

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