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 Year Of The Zinc Penny, by Rick DeMarinis – 1989 (Anne Bascove)

She understood me, though. 
Not my words but my acquiescence. 
I relaxed back into the pillow and stared at the white ceiling. 
She began to sing again as she dipped the washcloth into the pan of warm water. 
“When the lights go on again, all over the world,”
she sang, her voice plaintive and sad. 
Her melancholy tone made me think
that she had a boyfriend or husband overseas.
I imagined him an airman, a fighter pilot stationed in London. 
He flew P-51 Mustangs and had shot down twelve Messerschmitt Me-109s
before getting shot down himself. 
He was lying, helpless, in a hospital on the outskirts of London. 
He couldn’t remember his name of where he came from,
and no one had told him just yet that his legs had been amputated. 
He could remember his girlfriend or wife,
but only her pretty face and mournful singing voice,
not her name. 
“Jenny,” he’d cry out in his delirium. 
Then he’d sink back into his confused gloom. 
“No, not Jenny,” he’d mumble. 
(105)

I had discovered something about myself. 
I knew that I was now capable of mustering any necessary lie at will. 
I could say “Dad” and not mean it
and I could accept being called “son” by someone who did not mean it. 
It was like discovering an unsuspected talent. 
William and Betty didn’t have this talent,
and I was dimly aware that it was a deficiency that would cost them dearly. 
I was also dimly aware that if this talent could be used without shame,
its power would be awesome.

And dangerous. 
As dangerous as the one who used it as leukemia. 
Because necessary lies trick the liar himself. 
He wants to believe them. 
Then he does.

“Stay clear of it,” Aunt Ginger had said.
Her words repeated themselves in my mind, gathering meaning. 
(130-131)

– Rick DeMarinis –

 

The Voice of America, by Rick DeMarinis – 1991 (Anne Bascove)

“…a second chance is the sweetest blessing any of us can hope for.”

How people could lie to themselves,
and believe it,
was the miracle of human life as far as I was concerned. 
(177)

He’s on a mission of wild truth-seeking. 
He thinks he can solve his life if he keeps telling it. 
(208)

A story should not mean; at best it should be meant.
(213)

– Rick DeMarinis –

The Blue Valleys – A Collection of Stories, by Robert Morgan – 1989 (Lisa Lytton-Smith)

Lorna had never understood the sharpness of her tongue.

It was a habit she had developed as a teenager,
and it had grown on her over the years.

She did not realize how she sounded.

He thought of recording her on tape and then playing it back to her.

She would be astonished at the harshness in her voice,
at the belittling tone of her comments.

Shew knew how to be polite in public, and with her friends from church.

It was only with him, and with her sisters, that side of her came out.

But she was mostly a good woman,
though he had not meant to spend his life with her.

That was why he seemed so tolerant, why he almost never quarreled.

If he let himself go who knows what he would end up saying.

He might let it out that he had never wanted to marry her,
never wanted to be with her.

It would tear away whatever grace their life had had,
pull down the scaffold and show how badly fitted and supported they really were.

It would ruin her opinion and pride in herself.

His very lack of feeling for her had been the essence of his devotion and patience,
which so many friends had praised,
especially at the times when other friends had divorced.

– “Tailgunner“, by Robert Morgan

Cooper, by Hilary Masters – 1987 (Kingsley Parker)

Only much later would he understand that she lived in constant fear of her own imagination,
that her mind was sectioned into areas of frightening possibilities
through which she moved like a comic-strip heroine
sending up balloons of alarm and self-doubt. 

Am I pretty? 
Is he looking at me? 
What does he want from me? 
Are my poems dull? 
Commonplace? 
Anything? 

– Hilary Masters

A Bell for Adano, by John Hersey – 1945, 1946 (Salter, Carl Diehl)

BRIGADIER GENERAL WILLIAM B. WILSON of the Quartermaster Depot in Algiers leaned back at his desk and shouted across the room to his deputy in a rich Southern accent: “Ham, listen to this, goddamit, sometimes I think those English think they own us.”

The Colonel addressed as Ham looked up from the Stars & Stripes.  “What have the limeys done now?” he asked.

“Just got this letter, damnedest thing I ever saw,” the General said.  “It’s from an American major, too, just goes to show how those glib bastards can put it over on us if we don’t watch ‘em.”

The Colonel called Ham said: “Yeah, they sure are good talkers.”

Listen here, now, he says: ‘Am writing you at the suggestion of Major General His Excellency Lord Runcin – that fancy bastard.  I met him one time down at the Aletti, and I just happened to say, like anyone does who’s a gentleman when he says good-bye, I said to him: ‘If there’s anything I can ever do for you, just let me now.’  He came right back at me and said: ‘I may,’ he said, ‘you Americans have everything, you know.’  So damn if I didn’t get a letter from him about two weeks later reminding me of what I said and asking me if I’d get him a jeep.  Well, this Amgot thing sounded pretty important to me, so I just about busted my neck to wangle him a jeep.  Soon as he got that he wrote me thank-you note and asked me if the Americans had any pipes, that he was lost without a pipe, and could I get him one?  So I got him a pipe.  Then I had to get him an electric razor, for godsake.  Then he wrote me that chewing gum was such a curiosity among his staff would I get him a large box of chewing gum?  He even had the nerve to ask me to get him a case of whisky, he said he got a ration of rum and gin, but all the Scotch was imported to the States, so would I mind terribly nailing him a case of Scotch?  I made up my mind I was never going to get him another thing after that, even if I got sent home.”

“What’s he want now?”

“He doesn’t want it, this Major of ours wants it, that’s what makes me mad.  Old Runcin seems to think I’m a one-man shopping service, and he goes around recommending to people to write me all their screwy things they want.”

“Well, what does this guy want?”

“Jesus, Ham, he wants a bell.”

“What the hell for?”

“He says here: ‘I consider it most important for the morale and continued good behavior of this town to get it a bell to replace the one which was taken away as per above.’  I don’t know, something about a seven-hundred-year-old bell.  But that’s not the point, Ham.  The thing that makes me mad is this English bastard thinking he owns us.”

The Colonel named Ham, who was expert at saying Yes to his superiors and No to his inferiors, said: “Yeah, I see what you mean.”

“They do it all the time, Ham.  You watch, an Englishman will always eat at an American mess if he gets a chance.  Look at Lend-Lease, why hell, we’re just giving it to ‘em.  And don’t you think they’ll ever pay us for it.  They won’t even thank us for it, Ham.”

The Colonel named Ham said: “I doubt if they will.”

“I know they won’t.  And look at the way they’re trying to run the war.  They got their officers in all the key spots.  Ham, we’re just winning this damn war for the British Empire.”

The Colonel named Ham said: “That’s right, I guess.”

“No sir, I’m damned if I’ll root around and find a bell for this goddam sponger of an Englishman.  Where the hell does he think I’m going to find a seven-hundred-year-old bell?  No sir, Ham, I won’t do it.  Write a letter to this Major, will you, Ham?”

“Yes sir, what’ll I say?”

“Lay it on, dammit, tell him the U.S. Army doesn’t have a stock of seven-hundred-year-old bells, tell him he should realize there is a war on, tell him to watch out for these goddam Englishmen or they’ll take the war right away from us.”

“Yes sir.”

____________________

“That reminds me,” Livingston said.  “You said you had something on your mind this morning.”

“Matter of fact, I have.  Since you’ve been getting all the results, I thought maybe – ”

“Want to go in the other room?”  Livingston asked politely but importantly.

“Nothing hush-hush,” the Major said.  “Might as well tell you right here.”

And he told about Adano’s seven-hundred-year-old bell.  He told how it had been taken away, and about what he had done to try to get another.  Two drinks had made his mind relax, and he told his story beautifully.

He made the town’s need for a new bell seem something really important, and he made the bell seem a symbol of freedom in Adano.  He made it seem as if the people of Adano would not feel truly free until they heard a bell ringing from the clock tower of the Palazzo.

And not just any bell.  He described what he thought was needed in the bell: a full, rich tone; no crack of any kind; and a touch of history that would mean something to the Italians.

His story was nicely told and his audience was just right.  The Navy has a quick sense of tradition.  All the folderol – saluting the quarter deck, the little silver buck to mark who should be served first in the wardroom, still calling the captain’s court of justice going before the mast, the marvelous poetic orders “Sweepers, man your brooms: clean sweep down fore and aft” – these things made Navy men able to grasp the idea of the bell, and be moved by it.

Major Joppolo finished: “And that’s all it was, Livingston.  I think I want to get this town the right bell more than I’ve ever wanted anything in my life.”

Commander Robertson was the first one to speak: “Seems to me we ought to be able to find a bell,” he said.

“Lots of bells in the Navy,” said Robertson’s communications officer.

“It’s got to be just the right bell, though,” Livingston said.

“Yes,” Major Joppolo said, “that’s the important thing.  It’s got to be the right bell.  I wouldn’t want to give these people anything but just the right bell.”

Commander Robertson stood up and said: “Let me think, seems to me,” and he walked around the room.

Then he said: “I think maybe I can get just the kind of bell you want, Major.”

Major Joppolo said: “Do you really think you can?”

The Commander said: “I think maybe.”

Major Joppolo said: “If you can, I’m going to switch over to the Navy.”

– John Hersey

Two Years Before the Mast, by Richard Henry Dana – 1869, 1969, 1977 (Unknown Artist)

I wished to be alone,
so I let the other passengers go up to the town,
and was quietly pulled ashore in a boat,
and left to myself. 
The recollections and the emotions all were sad, and only sad.

Fugit, interea fugit irreparabile tempus.

The past was real.
The present, all about me, was unreal, unnatural, repellent.
I saw the big ships lying in the stream,
the Alert, the California, the Rosa, with her Italians;
then the handsome Ayacucho, my favourite;
the poor dear old Pilgrim, the home of hardship and helplessness;
the boats passing to and fro;
the cries of the sailors at the capstan or falls;
the peopled beach; the large hide-houses, with their gangs of men;
and the Kanakas interspersed everywhere.
All, all were gone! not a vestige to mark where one hide-house stood.
The oven, too, was gone.
I searched for its site, and found, where I thought it should be,
a few broken bricks and bits of mortar.
I alone was left of all, and how strangely was I here!
What changes to me!
Where were they all?
Why should I care for them –
poor Kanakas and sailors,
the refuse of civilisation,
the outlaws and beach-combers of the Pacific?