Saturday, November 14, 2015

Humboldt’s Gift by Saul Bellow

I found this on page 302 of my paperback copy of this remarkable novel.

The Boeing tore off through shawls of cloud, the hurtling moment of risk and death ended with a musical Bing! and we entered the peace and light above. My head lay back on the bib and bosom of the seat and when the Jack Daniel’s came I strained it through my irregular multicolored teeth, curling my forefinger over the top of the glass to hold back the big perforated ice cubes--they always put in too many. The thread of whisky burned pleasantly in the gullet and then my stomach, like the sun outside, began to glow, and the delight of freedom also began to expand within me. … Once in a while, I get shocked into upper wakefulness, I turn a corner, see the ocean, and my heart tips over with happiness--it feels so free! Then I have the idea that, as well as beholding, I can also be beheld from yonder and am not a discrete object but incorporated with the rest, with universal sapphire, purplish blue. For what is this sea, this atmosphere, doing within the eight-inch diameter of your skull? (I say nothing of the sun and the galaxy which are also there.) At the center of the beholder there must be space for the whole, and this nothing-space is not an empty nothing but a nothing reserved for everything. You can feel this nothing-everything capacity with ecstasy and this was what I actually felt in the jet. Sipping whisky, feeling the radiant heat that rose inside, I experienced a bliss that I knew perfectly well was not mad.

And when I read this, I think I finally understood what this novel was, or at least what it was trying to be. The novel is the interior mind of a poet, always flitting around, finding deep meaning in things, offering them up to the reader for his possible enlightenment, and then flitting off to the next thing.

There are poets in the novel. Our narrator is one, a famous author named Charlie Citrine, and his recently deceased mentor, Von Humboldt Fleisher, is another. And they certainly have things to say about what it means to be poet in America.

The Times was much stirred by Humboldt’s death and gave him a double-column spread. The photograph was large. For after all Humboldt did what poets in crass America are supposed to do. He chased ruin and death even harder than he chased women. He blew his talent and his health and reached home, the grave, in a dusty slide. He plowed himself under. Okay. So did Edgar Allan Poe, picked out of the Baltimore gutter. And Hart Crane over the side of a ship. And Jarrell falling in front of a car. And poor John Berryman jumping from a bridge. For some reason this awfulness is peculiarly appreciated by business and technological America. The country is proud of its dead poets. It takes terrific satisfaction in the poets’ testimony that the USA is too tough, too big, too much, too rugged, that American reality is overpowering. And to be a poet is a school thing, a skirt thing, a church thing. The weakness of the spiritual powers is proved in the childishness, madness, drunkenness, and despair of these martyrs. Orpheus moved stones and trees. But a poet can’t perform a hysterectomy or send a vehicle out of the solar system. Miracle and power no longer belong to him. So poets are loved, but loved because they just can’t make it here. They exist to light up to enormity of the awful tangle and justify the cynicism of those who say, “If I were not such a corrupt, unfeeling bastard, creep, thief, and vulture, I couldn’t get through this either. Look at these good and tender and soft men, the best of us. They succumbed, poor loonies.” So this, I was meditating, is how successful bitter hard-faced and cannibalistic people exult. Such was the attitude reflected in the picture of Humboldt the Times chose to use.

But as much as America may be proud of its dead poets, it does not, by Bellow’s estimation, value them the way human societies once did.

And poets like drunkards and misfits or psychopaths, like the wretched, poor or rich, sank into weakness--was that it? Having no machines, no transforming knowledge comparable to the knowledge of Boeing or Sperry Rand or IBM or RCA? For could a poem pick you up in Chicago and land you in New York two hours later? Or could it compute a space shot? It had no such powers. And interest was where power was. In ancient times poetry was a force, the poet had real strength in the material world.

And by poet, of course I think we’re talking about poets, novelists, actors, musicians, artists; anyone, it seems, with the sensitivity and desire to call others attention to the roughness of the life most of us shuffle through blindly.

That much is clear. The novel also has a plot--as all novels must. Although, at times, the plot is less clear than the author’s intent to reveal to unique value a poet’s mind once had and should have again. Indeed, focusing on the plot, or even the narrator’s entertaining commentary on it, is entirely the wrong way to read this book. The plot is actually there to distract you, the way the poet’s mind is distracted by the ever pressing concerns of American life.

Bellow even drops clues throughout the book that this is the case. One character, Rinaldo Cantabile, keeps pressing himself into Charlie’s concerns, so much so that even Charlie begins to recognize the role Cantabile plays in the drama.

But of course it was his business, because he was a demon, and agent of distraction. HIs job was to make noise and to deflect and misdirect and send me foundering into bogs.

So if you’re going to understand this novel, if you’re going to find the hidden gems it has waiting for you, then you have to treat the plot as Charlie treats Cantabile--as a distraction that is best to be avoided. And when you do that, when you penetrate through the surface shell of the novel’s plot, you begin to interact with the text in the way I think Bellow intended. There you find the deep metaphor that perpetuates throughout--the metaphor of the poetical mind at grips with a changing an increasingly alien society.

There are, as I said, hidden gems, scattered throughout, well worth picking up and pausing to marvel at they way they sparkle in the contemplative palm of your mind. Charlie drops them almost regularly, like breadcrumbs...

“All I wanted to say in the prospectus was that America didn’t have to fight scarcity and we all felt guilty before people who still had to struggle for bread and freedom in the old way, the old basic questions. We weren’t starving, we weren’t bugged by the police, locked up in madhouses for our ideas, arrested, deported, slave laborers sent to die in concentration camps. We were spared the holocausts and nights of terror. With our advantages we should be formulating the new basic questions of mankind. But instead we sleep. Just sleep and sleep, and eat and play and fuss and sleep again.”


“I found when I made my living by writing people’s personal memoirs that no successful American had ever made a real mistake, no one had sinned or ever had a single thing to hide, there have been no liars. The method practiced is concealment through candor to guarantee duplicity with honor. The writer would be drilled by the man who hired him until he believed it all himself. Read the autobiography of any great American--Lyndon Johnson for instance--and you’ll see how faithfully his brainwashed writers reproduce his Case.”


“That’s just it. There never was such a literary world,” I said. “In the nineteenth century there were several solitaries of the highest genius--a Melville or a Poe had no literary life. It was the customhouse and the barroom for them. In Russia, Lenin and Stalin destroyed the literary world. Russia’s situation now resembles ours--poets, in spite of everything against them, emerge from nowhere. Where did Whitman come from, and where did he get what he had? It was W. Whitman, an irrepressible individual, that had it and that did it.”


The reason why the Ulicks of this world (and also the Cantabiles) had such sway over me was that they knew their desires clearly. These desires might be low but they were pursued in full wakefulness. Thoreau saw a woodchuck at Walden, its eyes more fully awake than the eyes of any farmer.

Wonderful thoughts, all. Wonderful and unselfconsciously literary. But don’t take my breadcrumb remark too seriously, because they won’t lead you anywhere. They are gems, but gems that belie a deeper dilemma, a dilemma I came to think of as the Poet’s Dilemma. Charlie (or Bellow?) captures it well shortly after offering the bauble of the woodchuck and the clarity that comes from knowing one’s own desire, when he reflects on how difficult it actually is for him to understand the desires and motivations of the Cantabiles of the world.

And what did I really know of anyone? The only desires I knew were my own and those of nonexistent people like Macbeth or Prospero. These I knew because the insight and language of genius made them clear.

As insightful and as illuminating as the poet’s occasional genius can be--it is won not through the sympathetic observation and deep understanding of non-poets, but rather through flashes of brilliance that transcend poets and non-poets alike. By definition, then, it can’t be bottled and sold to the masses.

But put all that aside. Because the real power of the novel comes when the drama of the plot and characters actually work to serve its extended metaphor. In this amateur’s humble opinion, it’s the novelist’s singular accomplishment, something I’ve most often found--and even then not frequently--in the novels and stories of W. Somerset Maugham. So what a delight it is to find Bellow displaying a similar mastery over his craft. Novelists tell stories about certain people doing certain things, but great novelists use those same devices to tell a deeper story about all people doing all things.

Here, for example, is an exchange between Charlie and Naomi Lutz, a woman he had a love affair with when they were both much younger, and whom he hasn’t seen in many years. Naomi begins…

“You’re a sweet fellow. This visit is a wonderful treat for a poor plain old broad. But would you humor me about one thing?”

“Sure, Naomi, if I can.”

“I was in love with you, but I married a regular kind of Chicago person because I never really knew what you were talking about. However, I was only eighteen. I’ve often asked myself, now that I’m fifty-three, whether you’d make more sense today. Would you talk to me the way you talk to one of your intelligent friends--better yet, the way you talk to yourself? Did you have an important thought yesterday, for instance?”

“I thought about sloth, about how slothful I’ve been.”

“Ridiculous. You’ve worked hard. I know you have, Charlie.”

“There’s no real contradiction. Slothful people work the hardest.”

“Tell me about this. And remember, Charlie, you’re not going to tone this down. You’re going to say it to me as you would to yourself.”

“Some think that sloth, one of the capital sins, means ordinary laziness,” I began. “Sticking in the mud. Sleeping at the switch. But sloth has to cover a great deal of despair. Sloth is really a busy condition, hyperactive. This activity drives off the wonderful rest or balance without which there can be no poetry or art or thought--none of the highest human functions. These slothful sinners are not able to acquiesce in their own being, as some philosophers say. They labor because the rest terrifies them. The old philosophy distinguished between knowledge achieved by effort (ratio) and knowledge received (intellectus) by the listening soul that can hear the essence of things and comes to understand the marvelous. But this calls for unusual strength of soul. The more so since society claims more and more and more of your inner self and infects you with its restlessness. It trains you in distraction, colonizes consciousness as fast as consciousness advances. The true poise, that of contemplation or imagination, sits right on the border of sleep and dreaming. Now, Naomi, as I was lying stretched out in America, determined to resist its material interests and hoping for redemption by art, I fell into a deep snooze that lasted for years and decades. Evidently I didn’t have what it took. What it took was more strength, more courage, more stature. America is an overwhelming phenomenon, of course. But that’s no excuse, really. Luckily, I’m still alive and perhaps there’s even some time still left.”

“Is this really a sample of your mental processes?” asked Naomi.

“Yes,” I said. I didn’t dare mention the Exousiai and the Archai and the Angels to her.

“Oh, Christ, Charlie,” said Naomi, sorry for me. She pitied me, really, and reaching over and breathing kindly into my face she patted my hand. “Of course you’ve probably become even more peculiar with time. I see now it’s lucky for us both that we never got together. We would have had nothing but maladjustment and conflict. You would have had to speak all this high-flown stuff to yourself, and everyday gobbledygook to me. In addition, there may be something about me that provokes you to become incomprehensible.”

This one practically jumps off the page at you. Charlie and Naomi are old lovers with different sensibilities that grew apart from each other. That’s the story on the surface. But they are also poet and America, the life experience of one incomprehensible to the other. That’s the story below the surface.

But it goes even deeper when Charlie engages with his ex-wife Renata and an admirer named Thaxter. The interplay between these characters, when paired with what the subtext is saying about the role and value of the poet in our modern world with its modern sensibilities--I think it approaches the sublime.

“Trying to keep up with your interests,” said Thaxter, “I’ve been reading your man Rudolf Steiner, and he’s fascinating. I expected something like Madame Blavatsky, but he turns out to be a very rational kind of mystic. What’s the angle on Goethe?”

Mystic? Hmmm. I wonder, is that a synonym for poet?

“Don’t start that, Thaxter,” said Renata.

But I needed a serious conversation. I longed for it. “It isn’t mysticism,” I said. “Goethe simply wouldn’t stop at the boundaries drawn by the inductive method. ...

I don’t know, Charlie. Not stopping at the boundaries drawn by induction. That sure sounds like mysticism to me.

… He let his imagination pass over into objects. An artist sometimes tries to see how close he can come to being a river or a star, playing at becoming one or the other--entering into the forms of the phenomena painted or described. Someone has even written of an astronomer keeping droves of stars, the cattle of his mind, in the meadows of space. The imaginative soul works in that way, and why should poetry refuse to be knowledge? For Shelley, Adonais in death became part of the loveliness he had made more lovely. So according to Goethe the blue of the sky was the theory. There was a thought in blue. The blue became blue when human vision received it. …

Yes. The power of the artist, the poet, the mystic, is to see what the rational mind can’t, and then to make the rational mind confront it and, if the artist, poet, mystic is a great one, admit that it’s rationality is neither the complete nor the only way to understand the world. But, of course, not all artists are great. And not all rational minds will acquiesce.

… A wonderful man like my late friend Humboldt was overawed by rational orthodoxy, and because he was a poet this probably cost him his life. Isn’t it enough to be a poor naked forked creature without also being a poor naked forked spirit? Must the imagination be asked to give up its own full and free connection with the universe--the universe as Goethe spoke of it? As the living garment of God? And today I found out the Humboldt really believed that human beings were supernatural beings. He too!”

“There he goes,” said Renata. “What did you want to start him spouting for?”

Renata, of course, is the rational mind, too often dazzled by the kaleidoscopic patterns of thought “spouting” out of her poet ex-husband, and now too inured by their constant transitions to be dazzled by them any longer.

“Thought is a real constituent of being,” I tried to continue.

“Charlie! Not now,” said Renata.

Thaxter who was normally polite to Renata spoke stiffly to her when she barged into these higher conversations. He said, “I take a real interest in the way Charlie’s mind works.” He was smoking his pipe, his mouth drawn wide and dark, under the big Western brim.

“Try living with it,” said Renata. “Charlie’s kinky theorizing puts together combinations nobody else could imagine, like the way the U.S. Congress does its business, with Immanuel Kant, Russian Gulag camps, stamp collecting, famine in India, love and sleep and death and poetry. The less said about the way his mind works, the better. But if you do have to be a guru, Charlie, go the whole distance--wear a silk gown, get a turban, grow a beard. You’d make a hell of a good-looking spiritual leader with a beard and those paisley nostrils of yours. I’d dress up with you, and we’d be a smash. The way you carry on and for free! I sometimes have to pinch myself. I think I’ve taken fifty Valiums and am hearing things.”

Like what Bellow has previously said about America being proud of but having no more use of its poets, Renata has real affection for Charlie, but dismisses him. His theories are entertainments--nothing more.

“People of powerful intellect never are quite sure whether or not it’s all a dream.”

But Charlie, the novel’s embodiment of the poet’s mind, won’t stop making connections.

“Well, people who don’t know whether they’re awake or dreaming don’t necessarily have that powerful intellect,” Renata answered. “My theory is that you’re punishing me with this anthroposophy. You know what I mean. That blonde runt introduced you to her dad, and since then it’s been really spooky.”

And Renata, the rational America, landing planes and putting satellites into orbit, is going to decide what has value and what doesn’t.

“I wish you’d finish what you started to say,” Thaxter turned again to me.

“It comes to this, that the individual has no way to prove out what’s in his heart--I mean the love, the hungering for the external world, the swelling excitement over beauty for which these are no acceptable terms of knowledge. True knowledge is supposed to be a monopoly of the scientific world view. But human beings have all sorts of knowledge. They don’t have to apply for the right to love the world. But to see what goes on in this respect, take the career of someone like Von Humboldt Fleisher…”

“Ah, that guy again,” said Renata.

“Is it true that as big-time knowledge advances poetry must drop behind, that the imaginative mode of thought belongs to the childhood of the race? A boy like Humboldt, full of heart and imagination, going to the public library and finding books, leading a charmed life bounded by lovely horizons, reading old masterpieces in which human life has its full value, filling himself with Shakespeare, where there is plenty of significant space around each human being, where words mean what they say, and looks and gestures also are entirely meaningful. Ah, that harmony and sweetness, that art! But there it ends. The significant space dwindles and disappears. The boy enters the world and learns its filthy cutthroat tricks, the enchantment stops. But is it the world that is disenchanted?”

“No,” said Renata. “I know the answer to that one.”

“It’s rather our minds that have allowed themselves to be convinced that there is no imaginative power to connect every individual to the creation independently.”

It occurred to me suddenly that Thaxter in his home-on-the-range outfit might as well have been in church and that I was behaving like his minister. …

Yes. Charlie is preaching a sermon, but so is Bellow behind and through him.

… This was not a Sunday, but I was in my Palm Court pulpit. As for Renata, smiling--her dark eyes, red mouth, white teeth, smooth throat--though she interrupted and heckled during these sermons she got a kick out of the way I delivered them. I knew her theory well. Whatever was said, whatever was done, either increased or diminished erotic satisfaction, and this was her practical test for any idea. Did it produce a bigger bang? …

In appearance and intent, so like the Satan, the adversary, to the religion Charlie is preaching.

… “We could have been at the Scala tonight,” she said, “and part of a brilliant audience hearing Rossini. Instead, do you know what we were doing today, Thaxter? We went out to Coney Island so Charlie could collect his inheritance from his dear dead old pal Humboldt Fleisher. It’s been Humboldt, Humboldt, Humboldt, like ‘Figaro, Figaro.’ Humboldt’s eighty-year-old uncle gave Charlie a bunch of papers, and Charlie read ‘em and wept. Well, for a month now I’ve heard nothing but Humboldt and death and sleep and metaphysics and how the poet is the arbiter of the diverse and Walt Whitman and Emerson and Plato and the World Historical Individual. Charlie is like Lydia the Tattooed Lady, covered with information. You remember that song, ‘You Can Learn a Lot from Lydia’?”

The image of Lydia is perhaps as good a place as any to close--conjuring up, as it does, the parallel between today’s poet and the freaks on yesterday’s carnival sideshow. Charlie, Humboldt, and Bellow himself; they would all similarly like you to value the patterns and pictures tattooed on their skin, rather than dismiss them as impractical and more likely a con.

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This post was written by Eric Lanke, an association executive, blogger and author. For more information, visit, follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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