Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Humboldt's Gift by Saul Bellow

 “One must bear in mind the odd angle or slant that the rays of love have to take in order to reach a heart like mine.”

By my recognition, Saul Bellow has rightfully earned his place amongst the greatest American writers of the 20th century so one can understand my high expectations when approaching this particular novel, which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1975. Charles Citrine, the esoteric protagonist and narrator of the story recalls that his literary idol and mentor, a once famous poet name Humboldt Fleisher, admonished the literary award with ironic vehemence: “The Pulitzer is for the birds—for the pullets. It’s just a dummy newspaper publicity award given by crooks and illiterates. You become a walking Pulitzer ad, so even when you croak the first words of the obituary are ‘Pulitzer prize winner passes’” (3).  It makes me wonder if Mr. Bellow still harbored these negative sentiments or had a change of heart when accepting the award.

Humboldt’s Gift by Saul Bellow is a flawed masterpiece, a wildly ambitious tour-de force with the author in top form. Once again, his inimitable writing style featuring the harmonious fusion between scholarly discourse and virtuoso literary aesthetics is funny, poignant, insightful and overflowing with ideas but he is unable to maintain the same consistent momentum or quality of writing established in the first half of the novel. Despite the uneven narrative structure that seems to be split into two completely different novels altogether—the first part focusing on the narrator’s inner thoughts, personal reflections and philosophical reveries greatly overshadowing the second half that is more story-oriented, containing a bizarre series of events, odd character encounters (Charlie’s relationship with an eccentric mobster named Cantible is a perfect example) that seem so out of place, eventually leading to some  questionable outcomes—Bellow should still be commended for managing to keep the overwhelming amount of story material intact from imploding on itself throughout 500 pages even though the narrative gets away from him as it hiccups towards the end. Despite this minor hindrance, Saul Bellow is a very clever writer who uses irony to highlight the absurdities of the narrative—one is not supposed to take the novel at face-value, it satirizes the intellectual as a phony, a buffoon, a failure. At first, this approach hindered my overall enjoyment of the novel because Bellow’s flippant sardonic humor conflicts with my own literary aspirations. Why shouldn’t the artist be recognized as having a prestigious status if their talents prove worthy of esteem? Upon further reflection, it dawned on me that Bellow is using irony as justification for legitimizing the artist in a society that no longer recognizes them not as a group of intellectuals but rather as the creators  behind vapid ‘entertainments’ that come out of Hollywood every year. This irony becomes explicitly clear at the end of the novel when Charlie discovers Humboldt’s gift to him beyond the grave (hence, the title of the novel  takes on a double-meaning since it refers to Humboldt’s talents as a poet along with his “gift” bequeathed to Charlie that solves his financial problems). 

Furthermore, irony is used to subvert the haughty sententiousness of Charlie’s predisposition as an artist who intends to enlighten humanity and influence society through his work, yet his approach is passive; he theorizes eloquently and draws conclusions but is reluctant to take any immediate action to confront many of the contentious issues of living as an artist in a capitalist western society, nor is he willing to address the problems of his own life in a rational manner, which of course causes serious repercussions including divorce, various court proceedings, lawsuits, extortion, the involvement with hoodlums and failed relationships. Charlie recognizes the contradictions of his intellectual life: “What good is all this reading if you can’t use it in the crunch?” (87). Again, more irony. The falling-out between Humboldt and Charlie is a direct result of intellectual stubbornness by both parties, however, the latter is plagued by a guilty conscious after reading about Humboldt’s death in the paper (don’t worry, this is not a spoiler since it occurs in the first few pages) and this sends a flood of memories as he attempts to reconcile the past. Charlie prefers live in the metaphysical realm, avoiding direct experience by replacing it with art and philosophical discourse. With an air of self-righteousness, he believes that it is his responsibility as a distinguished writer and member of the intellectual elite to change the way people perceive the world through the influence of his art as well as continuing the work of other artists, like his late friend Humboldt Fleisher: “It means that the only art intellectuals can be interested in is an art which celebrates the primacy of ideas. Artists must interest intellectuals, this new class. This is why the state of culture and the history of culture become the subject matter of art” (32). As challenging as this endeavor seems to Charlie, his intellectual snobbery only serves to alienate those around him and drive them away.  

Charlie takes solace in meditation, to free the mind from all external influences in order to achieve an enlightened state of being. He refers to this activity as an “exercise in contemplation or Spirit-recollection (the purpose of which was to penetrate into the depths of the soul and to recognize the connection between the self and the divine powers)” (143-144). Religious connotations aside, Charlie spends the first half of the novel engaged in his own therapy session; stretched out on the sofa, he attempts to make sense of his entire life that is spinning out of control through this intellectual exercise of deep contemplation. His ramblings thoughts whirl in every direction as he reflects on the past, his adolescence, former girlfriends, the money grubbing ex-wife, his capricious girlfriend Renata, his tenuous relationship with Humboldt. Additionally, he tackles a great deal of complex issues and ideas, including art, history, pop-culture, philosophy, literature, science, religion, sociology—Bellow is full of encyclopaedic knowledge; he fills his pages with extensive references while expounding on so many different subjects with fervent enthusiasm.  In a similar style to many of his other works, there is less focus on a traditional narrative and more emphasis placed upon the exploration of ideas, an engagement of intellectual discussion. This time around, the main concern is twofold: anthroposophy (theories of the human soul) and death. Charlie is terrified of death (something that I can easily relate to) and is eager to justify his failed life with the belief that humans must possess an immortal soul that is connected to the after-life, otherwise life is meaningless. His intention is to write a significant work, a dissertation on “boredom” focusing on its impact on capitalist society, the connection to sleep and to the human soul. Just thinking about the many lengthy passages devoted to his theoretical undertaking makes my head spin. 

Similar to Philip Sydney or Percy Shelley, Bellow attempts to write his own “Defense of Poetry” for the 20th century and ardently puts forth arguments supporting the artist—in this case the poet—but realizes the many contradictions associated with this role. Charlie goes on to describe the irony of Humboldt’s artistic yearnings:

“He wanted to be magically and cosmically expressive and articulate, able to say anything; he wanted also to be wise, philosophical, to find the common ground of poetry and science to prove that the imagination was just as potent as machinery to free and to bless humankind. But he was out also to be rich and famous” (121). 

This juxtaposition between the artist and capitalist society is an issue that is frequently addressed and Charlie struggles to come to terms with his success and sense of self-worth. Furthermore, the role of the poet in contemporary society is no longer considered prestigious, nor is it highly valued as a lucrative or profession that contributes much to society:

“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” (119).

The reference to Orpheus is an obvious hyperbole but the argument is clear:  Poets are no longer praised as valuable members of society like they were in previous centuries. With the advance of technology and the push towards rationalization, the poet is now obsolete, a memento of times past when literary traditions were regarded as important aspects of culture but now they no longer have a place in capitalist society. Charlie continues his position:  

“It was not the factory or department store, not the great corporation office or bureaucratic civil service, it was not the routine job world. If you could arrange to avoid that routine job-world, you were an intellectual or an artist. Too restless, tremorous, agitated, too mad to sit at a desk eight hours a day, you needed an institution—a higher institution” (135). 

The material world has changed, industries have greatly expanded and globalization is taking over.  Therefore, the poet, intellectual or whatever else title you want to call the artist, is someone who challenges the system by avoiding the 9-5 job in order to apply their time and energies to creative enterprises. Of course, this bohemian lifestyle is no longer practical and unless there is income from other sources, it is rare nowadays to be a full-time artist. This is only one aspect of the novel worth exploring. There is so much more story-material to unpack and ideas to analyze. 

Many are sure to find Bellow’s style to be obnoxious and preachy (this is true to a certain extent) but even if he does get carried away at times with his lecturing or philosophical digressions, his writing is such an absolute pleasure to read. He might be an erudite scholar but his prose is not dense or monotonous as one might expect. On the contrary, Bellow possesses such a command of language—his words possess an exuberant energy, sharpness and eloquence that is mesmerizing.  The descriptions are vividly realized, the attention to detail is most striking and his witty humor is spot on. Even though his characterizations may not be the most impressive, Bellow has a knack for writing great dialogue and it is always a joy to hear his characters speak, especially when they debate or bounce ideas off one another.  Unless you happen to already be a fan of Saul Bellow’s work, this is a difficult novel to recommend to newcomers despite being fairly accessible. Then again, it is bound to appeal to anyone with an inquisitive mind, those interested in studying literature or aspiring writers who are committed to mastering the craft. Academics and scholars also seem to be the intended demographic. Nonetheless, this is a richly complex literary work that appeals to my own sensibilities—Bellow being one of those special authors whose writing I find myself connecting with on a personal and philosophical level. Not to mention, I am also quite partial to novels about writers struggling in their artistic and personal lives. Humboldt’s Gift is a wonderful reading experience with my appreciation of its greatness rising as I continue to mull it over. There is very little doubt that I will enjoy it even more with a closer-reading.

This novel is part of my Saul Bellow Project. 


  1. Quote: It makes me wonder if Mr. Bellow still harbored these negative sentiments or had a change of heart when accepting the award.

    Actually, the Fleisher character is based on a poet with whom Bellow himself was friends so, if anything, the character would be expressing the attitudes of that poet and not the author himself. (If I remember correctly, the protege is the character that is the most autobiographic.)

  2. Thanks for clarifying this up Satia. That does make a lot of sense now.