Saul Bellow. Him With His Foot In His Mouth and Other Stories. 1984.
More than any other novelist since WWII, Saul Bellow was aware of the event that Jacques Derrida called "the rupture." And more than any other novelist, Bellow crafted rich and strange mimetic confrontations with the chaos of the external, visual world, with the internal chaos it manifests. In his collection Him With His Foot In His Mouth and Other Stories, Bellow again demonstrates his ability to penetrate the appearances of twentieth-century life and lay bare the essential forms.
In the title story he presents us with Dr. Shawmutt who has the dubious gift of saying the most offensive things. His "divine madness," however, is not accompanied by the desire to offend. Rather, it seems to be the result of a compulsion, a necessity, to strike through the masks, which is basically why he agrees with the counsel of "an old woman who reads Swedenborg and other occult authors" that "the soul is ruled by levity, pure." References to her appear especially at the beginning and the end of the story which is in the form of a long letter of apology to a Miss Rose whom Shawmutt had insulted thirty-five years earlier. The letter recounts "it all," how life has prepared him for "words of ultimate seriousness." He, like all human beings, has come up against the inevitable failure of life. Even his friends and brother have deceived him and shamelessly exploited him. He has been lessoned. Is experienced. No wonder that, after desperately fleeing to Canada to escape prosecution and further exploitation, he turns to the old woman, Mrs. Gracewell. Despite her unorthodox spirituality, there is an element of veracity to her convictions, which Shawmutt finds nowhere else and it prepares him (though the soul’s levity remains incorruptible) for his extradition back to the United States:
Forty years a widow and holding curious views, she is happy in my company.Few vistors want to hear about the Divine Spirit, but I am seriously prepared toponder the mysterious and intriguing descriptions she gives. The Divine Spirit,she tells me, has withdrawn in our time from the outer, visible world. You can seewhat it once wrought, you are surrounded by its created forms. But though naturalprocesses continue, Divinity has absented itself. The wrought work is brightlydivine but Divinity is not now active within it. The world’s grandeur is fading.And this is our human setting, devoid of God, she says with great earnestness....I listen to this and have no mischievous impulses. I shall miss the old girl. Aftermuch monkey business, dear Miss Rose, I am ready to listen to words of ultimateseriousness. There isn’t much time left. The federal marshall, any day now, willbe setting out from Seattle.
If Shawmut proclaims "Better an ignis fatuus / Than no illume at all," he still posits, by theabsence that is light-heartedly evoked throughout the letter, a world of spirit, which oncemerited, and may once again merit, the highest respect and fulfill the deepest and most sincereyearnings of humankind.
"A Silver Dish" probes further the dry surfaces and pervasive confusion. All theprotagonist’s family and friends "had lived by the body, but the body was giving out." Everyoneis suffering from some malady or another. As a young Jewish seminary student in SouthChicago, he learns that, and his father helps him gain this lesson, he is "Not cut out for aspiritual life." Contrary to what might be expected, he and his coarse, scheming father remainmore loyal to the old values than the pious Christians who merely want the boy Woody as aconvert so that he might proselytize among the Jews and thereby prepare the world for theSecond Coming. Surprised himself by the spirituality his scoundrel-father has had always up hissleeve, Woody fulfills his father’s wish and buries him among Jews.
Underneath Woody’s own coarseness and corporeality, from his earliest days as a coolie pulling a rickshaw for visitors to the 1933 Century of Progress World’s Fair, he had one idea...that the goal, the project, the purpose was (and he couldn’t explain why he thought so; all evidence was against it)--God’s idea was that this world should be a love world, that it should eventually recover and be entirely a world of love. He wouldn’t have said this to a soul, for he could see himself how stupid it was--personal and stupid. Nevertheless, there it was at the center of his feelings.
Although he is accused of being his father’s son, a crook, a schemer at heart, although adeep tragic darkness taints him too, his "clumsy intuition" of good ultimately saturating life liftsWoody into the same realm that his father unexpectedly attains at death. A similar "clumsy intuition" undergirds the story "Cousins." Ijah Brodsky maintains family relations at a time when, as his ex-wife wryly reminds him, "the nuclear family is breaking up." Ijah himself indicates how deep his familial devotion is when he states, "I had remembered, observed, studied the cousins, and these studies seemed to fix my own essence andkeep me as I had been." Whether with his gangster-cousin Tanky Metzger, Tanky’s sister Eunice,Cousin Motty, Scholem, or Mendy, Ijah, one of the family prodigies, learned in languages,sociology, linguistics, law and so on, perceives the devastating impact of historical, cultural confusion on his relatives. Yet deep below the chaos he also perceives and affirms
An original self exists, or, if you prefer, an original soul. It may be as Goethesuggested, that the soul is a theater in which Nature can show itself, the only such theater that it has. And this makes sense when you attempt to account for somekinds of passionate observation--the observation of cousins, for example.
Through his "personal observation" of his largely secularized and often criminal cousins, Ijah extends his selfless concern far beyond his own family. He comes to understand dimly the upheavals that have cut off others from the past and left them in a wasteland.
At one point Ijah concurs with Hegel that "the very bonds of the world" are dissolving and being swept away by the onward rush of events still too confused to penetrate clearly. But hedoes, as in the previously cited passage, affirm "A new emergence of Spirit." This "Spirit" is left vague and undefined by Ijah but may be connected with elemental forces he discovers through his reading in anthropology. This vagueness is not undetectable in the four other stories of this collection. It seems to be the sine qua non of their affirmation.Nevertheless, despite a certain ungrounded belief in re-emergence, the rupture is mimetically laid open and boldly probed. Inour age of massive transformation, it would be unfair to expect more, to belittle the rare achievement of managing to be not a symptom but an exploration of the common malady. After recalling a session of the United Nations he had attended, presumably in his capacity as international financier, Ijah reaches the most striking and undeniable implication of there-emergence in the following passage:
Then it came to me how geography had been taught in the Chicago schools whenI was a kid. We were issued a series of booklets: "Our Little Japanese Cousins,""0ur Little Moroccan Cousins," "Our Little Russian Cousins," "Our Little SpanishCousins." I read all these gentle descriptions about little Ivan and tiny Conchita,and my eager heart opened to them. Why, we were close, we were under it all (asTanky was very intelligent "under it all"). We were not guineas, dagos, krauts; wewere cousins. It was a splendid conception, and those of us who opened our excited hearts to the world union of cousins were happy, as I was, to give ourcandy pennies to a fund for the rebuilding of Tokyo after the earthquake of the twenties. After Pearl Harbor, we were obliged to bomb hell out of the place. It’s unlikely that Japanese children had been provided with books about their little American cousins.
Why, we were close, we were one under it all" stands as one of the most glorious utterances in all modern fiction--that out of the confrontation with horrifying chaos such an insight canemerge proclaims the sovereign power of mimesis and bodes well for a world that approaches,though begrudgingly, its essential form. Ijah’s outlook is not a childish one. He would probably agree with the necessity of balancing emotion and intuition with the wisdom and sobriety enunciated by, among others, Brand Blanshard, who acknowledges, in his book Reason and Belief, the same irrefutable goal toward which all nations and peoples are impelled:
Nations must give up some part of their independence; they must believe in a reason that transcends prejudices and international boundaries; and they must be willing to hand over to a super-national government the control of the major weapons of destruction. That the 130 governments now in the United Nations,and particularly the half dozen most powerful ones, can be induced to take this line before the outbreak of Armageddon does not seem very probable. However that may be, there is only one way out of anarchy, whether individual or national.
Blanshard’s doubt notwithstanding, this collection testifies to the magnificent diversity of our country and of the world, and reminds us that the essential human spirit, under the forms of chaos, can be summoned, if we but have the will, and can heal and reunite the severed bonds of the quotidian world no matter how late the hour may be.
Copyright (c) 1985 Frederick Glaysher. Reviewed in Saul Bellow Journal (summer).
See my review of Saul Bellow's Ravelstein and my essay "Saul Bellow's Soul" in The Grove of the Eumenides: Essays on Literature, Criticism, and Culture.