Mr. Sammler’s Planet, by Saul Bellow – (1969) 1977 (Roy Ellsworth)

And since he had lasted –
survived –
with a sick headache –
he would not quibble over words –
was there an assignment implicit? 
Was he meant to do something?

______________________________

Through Fifteenth Street ran a warm spring current.
Lilacs and sewage.
There were as yet no lilacs,
but an element of the savage gas was velvety and sweet,
reminiscent of blooming lilac.
All about was a softness of perhaps dissolved soot,
or of air passed through many human breasts,
or metabolized in multitudinous brains,
or released from as many intestines, and it got to one – oh, deeply, too!   
Now and then there came an appreciative or fanciful pleasure,
apparently inconsequent,
suggested by the ruddy dun of sandstone, by cool corners of the warmth.
Bliss from his surroundings!
For a certain period Mr. Sammler had resisted such physical impressions –
being wooed almost comically by momentary and fortuitous sweetness.
For quite a long time he had felt that he was not necessarily human.
Had no great use, during that time, for most creatures.
Very little interest in himself.
Cold even to the thought of recovery.
What was there to recover?  Little regard for earlier forms of himself.
Disaffected.
His judgment almost blank.
But then, ten or twelve years after the war, he became aware that this too was changing.
In the human setting, along with everyone else,
among particulars of ordinary life he was human –
and, in short, creatureliness crept in again.
Its low tricks, its doggish hind-sniffing charm.
So that now, really, Sammler didn’t know how to take himself.
He wanted, with God, to be free from the bondage of the ordinary and the finite.
A soul released from Nature, from impressions, and from everyday life.
For this to happen God Himself must be waiting, surely.
And a man who has been killed and buried should have no other interest.
He should be perfectly disinterested.
Eckhardt said in so many words that God loved disinterested purity and unity.
God Himself was drawn toward the disinterested soul.
What besides the spirit should a man care for who has come back from the grave?
However, and mysteriously enough, it happened,
as Sammler observed, that one was always, and so powerfully, so persuasively,
drawn back to human conditions.
So that these flecks within one’s substance
would always stipple with their reflections all that a man turns toward, all that flows about him.
The shadow of his nerves would always cast stripes,
like trees on grass, like water over sand, the light-made network.
It was a second encounter of the disinterested spirit with fated biological necessities,
a return match with the persistent creature.
(116-119)

Perhaps it was the madness of things that affected Sammler most deeply.
The persistence, the maniacal push of certain ideas,
themselves originally stupid, stupid ideas that had lasted for centuries,
this is what drew the most curious reactions from him.
The stupid sultanism of a Louis Quatorze reproduced in General de Gaulle –
Neo-Charlemagne, someone said.
Or the imperial ambition of the Czars in the Mediterranean.
They wanted to be the dominant naval power in the Mediterranean,
a stupid craving of two centuries, and this,
under the “revolutionary” auspices of the Kremlin, was still worked at,
in the same way – worked at!
Did it make no difference that soon floating dominion by armed ships would be as obsolete as Ashurbanipal,
as queer as the dog-headed gods of Egypt?
Why, no, it made no difference.
No more than the disappearance of Jews from Poland made a difference to the anti-Semitism of the Poles.
This was the meaning of historical stupidity.
And the Russians also, with their national tenacity.
Give them a system, let them grasp some idea,
and they would plunge to the depths with it,
they would apply it to the end, pave the whole universe with hard idiot material.

Sammler, from keeping his own counsel for so long,
from seven decades of internal consultation, had his own views on most matters.
And even the greatest independence was insufficient, still not enough.
And there were mental dry courses in his head, of no interest to anyone else,
perhaps – wadis, he believed such things were called,
small ravines made by the steady erosion of preoccupations.
The taking of life was one of these.
Just that.
His life had nearly been taken.
He had seen life taken.
He had taken it himself.
He knew it was one of the luxuries.
No wonder princes had so long reserved the right to murder with impunity.
At the very bottom of society there was also a kind of impunity,
because no one cared what happened.
Under that dark brutal mass blood crimes were often disregarded.
And at the very top, the ancient immunities of kings and nobles.
Sammler thought that this was what revolutions were really about.
In a revolution you took away the privileges of an aristocracy and redistributed them.
What did equality mean?
Did it mean all men were friends and brothers?
No, it meant that all belonged to the elite.
(142-145)

And all this will continue.
It will simply continue.
Another six billion years before the sun explodes.
Six billion years of human life!
It lames the heart to contemplate such a figure.
Six billion years!
What will become of us?
Of the other species, yes, and of us?
How will we ever make it?
And when we have to abandon the earth, and leave this solar system for another,
what a moving-day that will be.
But by then humankind will have become very different.
Evolution continues.
Olaf Stapledon reckoned that each individual in future ages would be living thousands of years.
The future person, a colossal figure, a beautiful green color,
with a hand that had evolved into a kit of extraordinary instruments, tools strong and subtle,
thumb and forefinger capable of exerting thousands of pounds of pressure.
Each mind belonging to a marvelous analytical collective, thinking out its mathematics,
its physics as part of a sublime whole.
A race of semi-immortal giants, our green descendants, dear kin and brethren,
inevitably containing still some of our bitter peculiarities as well as powers of spirit.
The scientific revolution was only three hundred years old.
Give it a million, give it a billion more.
And God?  Still hidden, even from this powerful mental brotherhood, still out of reach? 
(190-191)

“During the war I had no belief, and I had always disliked the ways of the Orthodox.
I saw that God was not impressed by death.
Hell was his indifference.
But inability to explain is no ground for disbelief.
Not as long as the sense of God persists.
I could wish that it did not persist.
The contradictions are so painful.
No concern for justice?
Nothing of pity?
Is God only the gossip of the living?
Then we watch these living speed like birds over the surface of a water,
and one will dive or plunge but not come up again and never be seen any more.
And in our turn we will never be seen again,
once gone through that surface.
But then we have no proof that there is no depth under the surface.
We cannot even say that our knowledge of death is shallow.
There is no knowledge.
There is longing, suffering, mourning.
These come from need, affection, and love –
the needs of the living creature, because it is a living creature.
There is also strangeness, implicit.
There is also adumbration.
Other states are sensed.
All is not flatly knowable.
There would never have been any inquiry without this adumbration,
there would never have been any knowledge without it.
But I am not life’s examiner, or a connoisseur, and I have nothing to argue.
Surely a man would console, if he could.
But that is not an aim of mine.
Consolers cannot always be truthful.
But very often, and almost daily, I have strong impressions of eternity.
This may be due to my strange experiences, or to old age.
I will say that to me this does not feel elderly.
Nor would I mind if there were nothing after death.
If it is only to be as it was before birth, why should one care?
There one would receive no further information.
One’s ape restiveness would stop.
I think I would miss mainly my God adumbrations in the many daily forms.
Yes, that is what I should miss.
So then, Dr. Lai, if the moon were advantageous for us metaphysically, I would be completely for it.
As an engineering project, colonizing outer space,
except for the curiosity, the ingenuity of the thing,
is of little real interest to me.
Of course the drive, the will to organize this scientific expedition must be one of those irrational necessities that make up life –
this life we think we can understand.
So I suppose we must jump off, because it is our human fate to do so.
If it were a rational matter, then it would be rational to have justice on this planet first.
Then, when we had an earth of saints, and our hearts were set upon the moon,
we could get in our machines and rise up …”
(236-237)

Margotte had much to say.
She did not notice his silence.

By coming back, by preoccupation with the subject,
the dying, the mystery of dying, the state of death.
Also, by having been inside death.
By having been given the shovel and told to dig.
By digging beside his digging wife.
When she faltered he tried to help her.
By this digging, not speaking, he tried to convey something to her and fortify her.
But as it had turned out, he had prepared her for death without sharing it.
She was killed, not he.
She had passed the course, and he had not.
The hole deepened, the sand clay and stones of Poland, their birthplace, opened up.
He had just been blinded, he had a stunned face,
and he was unaware that blood was coming from him
till they stripped and he saw it on his clothes.
When they were as naked as children from the womb,
and the hole was supposedly deep enough, the guns began to blast,
and then came a different sound of soil.
The thick fall of soil.
A ton, two tons, thrown in.
A sound of shovel-metal, gritting.
Strangely exceptional, Mr. Sammler had come through the top of this.
It seldom occurred to him to consider it an achievement.
Where was the achievement?  He had clawed his way out.
If he had been at the bottom, he would have suffocated.
If there had been another foot of dirt.
Perhaps others had been buried alive in that ditch.
There was no special merit, there was no wizardry.
There was only suffocation escaped.
And had the war lasted a few months more, he would have died like the rest.
Not a Jew would have avoided death.
As it was, he still had his consciousness, earthliness, human actuality –
got up, breathed his earth gases in and out, drank his coffee,
consumed his share of goods, ate his roll from Zabar’s, put on certain airs –
all human beings put on certain airs – took the bus to Forty-second Street
as if he had an occupation, ran into a black pickpocket.
In short, a living man.
Or one who had been sent back again to the end of the line.
Waiting for something.
Assigned to figure out certain things, to condense, in short views,
some essence of experience, and because of this having a certain wizardry ascribed to him.
There was, in fact, unfinished business.
But how did business finish?
We entered in the middle of the thing and somehow became convinced that we must conclude it.
How? 

And since he had lasted –
survived –
with a sick headache –
he would not quibble over words –
was there an assignment implicit? 
Was he meant to do something?
(272-274)

– Saul Bellow –

The Shrinking Man, by Richard Matheson – 1962 (Unknown artist)

Science-fiction / horror, Matheson’s The Shrinking Man is masterfully written.  Unsurprisingly, the 1957 film adaptation of the novel, also written by Matheson, inevitably differs from its original literary version.

The full film, uploaded in February of 2016 by Msinh ThuKi, can be viewed at:

The Incredible Shrinking Man

The film’s conclusion – which, paralleling the novel, carries with it an unusually profound theological and philosophical message – commences at 1:28:10.  Compare it to Matheson’s original text below…

____________________

Chapter Seventeen

AS ON ANY other morning, his lids fell back, his eyes opened.  For a moment he stared up blankly, his mind still thick with sleep.  Then he remembered and his heart seemed to stop.

With a startled grunt, he jolted up to a sitting position and looked around incredulously, his mind alive with one word:

Where?

He looked up at the sky, but there was no sky – only a ragged blueness, as if the sky had been torn and stretched squeezed and poked full of giant holes, through which light speared.

His wide, unblinking gaze moved slowly, wonderingly.  He seemed to be in a vast, endless cavern.  Not far over to his right the cavern ended and there was light.  He stood up hastily and found himself naked.  Where was the sponge?

He looked up again at the jagged blue dome.  It stretched away for hundreds of yards.  It was a bit of the sponge he’d worn.

He sat down heavily, looking over himself. He was the same.  He touched himself.  Yes, the same.  But how much had he shrunk during the night?

He remembered lying on the bed of leaves the night before, and he glanced down.  He was sitting on a vast plain of speckled brown and yellow.  There were great paths angling out from a gigantic avenue.  They went as far as he could see.

He was sitting on the leaves.

He shook his head in confusion.

How could he be less than nothing?

The idea came.  Last night he’d looked up at the universe without.  Then there must be a universe within, too.  Maybe universes.

He stood again.  Why had he never thought of it; of the microscopic and the submicroscopic worlds?  That they existed he had always known.  Yet never had he made the obvious connection.  He’d always thought in terms of man’s own world and man’s own limited dimensions.  He had presumed upon nature.  For the inch was man’s concept, not nature’s.  To a man, zero inches means nothing.  Zero meant nothing.

But to nature there was no zero.  Existence went on in endless cycles.  It seemed so simple now.  He would never disappear, because there was no point of non-existence in the universe.

It frightened him at first.  The idea of going on endlessly through one level of dimension after another was alien.

Then he thought: If nature existed on endless levels, so also might intelligence.

He might not have to be alone.

Suddenly he began running toward the light.

And, when he’d reached it, he stood in speechless awe looking at the new world with its vivid splashes of vegetation, its scintillant hills, its towering trees, its sky of shifting hues, as though the sunlight were being filtered through moving layers of pastel glass.

It was a wonderland.

There was much to be done and more to be thought about.  His brain was teeming with questions and ideas and – yes – hope again.  There was food to be found, water, clothing, shelter.  And, most important, life.  Who knew?  It might be, it just might be there.

Scott Carey ran into his new world, searching.

THE END
of a novel by
Richard Matheson

Franz Kafka – Diaries (Edited by Max Brod) – 1948 (1988) (Anthony Russo)

The Departure

I ordered my horse to be brought from the stables.  The servant did not understand my orders.  So I went to the stables myself, saddled my horse, and mounted.  In the distance I heard the sound of a trumpet, and I asked the servant what it meant.  He knew nothing and had heard nothing.  At the gate he stopped me and asked:  “Where is the master going?”

“I don’t know,” I said, “just out of here, just out of here.
Out of here, nothing else, it’s the only way I can reach my goal.”

“So you know your goal?” he asked.

“Yes,” I replied, “I’ve just told you.  Out of here – that’s my goal.”

____________________

A Little Fable

“Alas,” said the mouse, “the world is growing smaller every day.  At the beginning it was so big that I was afraid, I kept running and running, and I was glad when at last I saw walls far away to the right and left, but these walls have narrowed so quickly that I am in the last chamber already, and there in the corner stands the trap that I must run into.”

“You only need to change your direction,” said the cat, and at it up.

____________________

The Trees

For we are like tree trunks in the snow.  In appearance they lie sleekly and a little push should be enough to set them rolling.

No, it can’t be done, for they are firmly wedded to the ground.

But see, even that is only appearance.

____________________

Shyness, modesty, timidity are accounted noble and good
because they offer little resistance to other people’s aggressive impulses.

____________________

(Above excerpts from “Franz Kafka – The Complete Stories”, Edited by Nahum N. Glazer, Translated by Willa and Edwin Muir, Schocken Books, New York, 1971.)

Give Us This Day, by Sidney Stewart – 1958 (Harry Scharre?)

Manila:
December 1941

IN THE LAND where dead dreams go lies the city of Manila,
as it was before the war.
Manila, where the white man didn’t work in the afternoon because it was too hot.
Manila, with its beauty and its poverty and its orchids at five cents apiece.

What could a soldier do with a handful of orchids
if he had no one to give them to?
I used to buy those orchids.
I’d pay my nickel for them and stand there awkwardly holding them in my hand.
I would run my finger over the satin petals and then,
embarrassed,
I would give them to the first little girl I met,
because there was something very lonely about buying orchids
when you had no one to give them to.

____________________

I began to plan the things I wanted to do when I went home.
The promises I had made to the boys about seeing their parents.
I thought of the things that home meant to me.
The things that freedom, and being home, would mean.
I thought of seeing women again, white women,
and being again where people laughed,
where laughter was good and life was good.

I wondered if ever again things would worry me. 
I thought what I would do with my life. 
I had never asked to live, but God had spared me. 
Now I knew there was an obligation within me to justify my life. 
I must do something.

My mind wandered back to the times
when Rass and John and Weldon and Hughes
sat together around the fire in the evenings. 
We talked about the things we wanted to do
when we were free and we were home again. 
Rass had wanted to go into the diplomatic service. 
John had wanted to be a professor again.

“I’m going to be a writer,” I said. 
“I’m going to write novels.”

We used to laugh about it. 
They were interested in the things I wanted to write about. 
Once, when we were very hungry, John had turned to me.

“Some day, Sid, I wish you’d put me in one of your books.”

“Yes, Stew,” Rass said. 
“I wish you’d write a book about this, about all of us. 
Will you?  
Could you do that for us one day?  
Write a book about all of us. 
Something that we could keep.”

I remembered what I had promised them.
I would write a book about them some day.
But I felt cold inside and I thought, “No, they’ll never read that book now,
 that book I’m going to write about them.
About their faith and hopes, their goodness and their beliefs.”

The Navigator, by Jules Roy – 1954 (unknown artist)

the-navigator-jules-roy-1955-1956-unknown-1_edited-2You disappeared, just like that.
For the whole evening the plane’s letter designation
and the name of the skipper remained on the bulletin board,
and those who had returned cast a sympathetic but relieved look at it.
Death was all very well for others.
Then the missing vanished.
The ground staff hastily packed up their belongings and arranged them,
carefully labeled, in the appropriate shed.
The names of those who had disappeared were mentioned for some time,
and then individual preoccupations took the upper hand and life went on.
Life?
No, only unthinking people could call it life.
Call it, rather,
forced labor under the threat of pitiless masters forever invisible
who struck down the offender or the laggard.
None of those already fallen into the molten fires returned,
and after all it was probably no more terrible than that.

the-navigator-jules-roy-1955-1956-unknown-2_edited-1As for the navigator, he never handled a weapon.
His war consisted in plotting courses,
measuring distances, degrees, and minutes
and taking bearings on stars while sitting over a charge of explosives
which might blow him sky-high at any moment.
During flights this thought sometimes made his heart miss a beat,
but then he would shrug his shoulders.
If he were not here, he would be somewhere just as bad.
If he refused to fight he would be shot.
Any attempt to escape the universal holocaust would mean
his being hunted and tortured wherever he went.
It was better to fight in a cause that still represented a certain freedom
and respect for the individual conscience.
Besides he had no choice.
He would never grow used to another country;
his own was enough for him.
This was how he solved the question – not very satisfactorily, he knew.
But how else could he solve it?