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 –

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