A review of Him with His Foot in His Mouth and Other Stories, by Saul Bellow
Saul Bellow's most recent volume returns to a format he had not utilized since Mosby's Memoirs and Other Stories in 1968. In substance, however, these five stories follow the course Bellow has charted for the better part of four decades. Once again he emerges as a classicist, repeating traditional Western themes in a language and style postwar audiences have found compellingly attractive. Among these themes are the theory of transcendent forms, soul as the transcendent faculty of man, art as the expression of this faculty, and love as redemption.
The title piece, "Him with His Foot in His Mouth," explores the existence of transcendent reality. Harry Shawmut, a 65-year-old former professor of music history, cannot resist remarking the vagaries of the contemporary American cultural milieu. One aspect of our culture he finds particularly galling is its willingness to substitute candor for truth. The knowledge this standard produces, Shawmut concludes, is "erotic, narcotic, dramatic, dangerous, salty," and "for the most part fake" (p. 5). His advice is that when people tell you they're 'levelling,' put your money in your shoe at once" (p. 22). Shawmut is not exaggerating. His own brother swindled him out of his life savings while appealing to Shawmut's sense of family loyalty and pledging sincerity.
In the course of a letter to a female college librarian he had offended 35 years before with an offhand remark, Shawmut explains that he prefers to search for meaning in immutable essences. He realizes, moreover, that the soul, "ruled by levity, pure" (p. 59), represents man's link to universality. Concerned desperately with the "life to come" where we "will feel the pains that we inflicted on others" (p. 4), he wants to square matters with the woman before he dies. The distinction between good and evil, indeed, transfixes Shawmut. To an academic acquaintance who speaks of the "unreality of evil," he replies: "Oh? Do you mean that every gas chamber has a silver lining?" (p. 17).
Shawmut clearly is an iconoclast in a country where "money leads all other topics by about a thousand to one" (p. 28). It had been sibling rivalry combined with a frank love of money which caused his millionaire brother, Philip, to cheat him. He recalls watching Philip exercise on a stationary bicycle in his Texas mansion attired in outsized silk boxer shorts decorated "with orange slices resembling wheels." Though he strained with every muscle and the fat on his body jiggled with every move, Shawmut noted that "he was going nowhere" (p. 37). Looking backward, he even feels some sympathy for his brother's animosity. Against Philip's crass materialism, Harry "wouldn't stop hinting that souls existed" (p. 42).
"What Kind of Day Did You Have?" introduces the concept of art as the means by which man communicates his apprehension of transcendence. The protagonist, Victor Wulpy, is a "disciplined intellectual" who "stood for something" and displayed "none of the weakness, none of the drift that made supposedly educated people contemptible" (p. 67). As a thinker, he is comparable to Merleau-Ponty or Hannah Arendt-"Merleau-Ponty being especially impressed with Victor's essays on Marx" (pp. 64-65). Infirm, in the twilight of his life, Wulpy is having an affair with a middle-aged suburban housewife, Katrina Goliger, who shares his seriousness and acts as a "manifest Eros" (p. 104).
Perhaps Wulpy's greatest achievement as an intellectual is that "no category," fashion, trend, or ideology "could hold" him (p. 70). He abides by only those conclusions which pass the strictest tests of reason, imagination and courage. He quite simply "lived for ideas" and was "unnervingly fastidious about language" (p. 77). According to Katrina, "in a public-opinion country," like the United States, "he made his own opinions" (p. 94). Nor is Wulpy "the type to be interested in personality troubles" (p. 95). Issues, not gossip, are his stock in trade.
For half a century Wulpy, like Shawmut, has argued that universal "Ideas" exist which transcend material circumstances. These "Ideas," he maintains, cannot be discussed or written about fully but must be experienced or intuited. "There's shared knowledge that we don't talk about. That deaf deep mining" (p. 148), he tells Katrina. Wulpy's impression is that art serves as the most lucid means for intuiting this "shared knowledge" and that, consequently, "without art we can't judge what life is, we can't sort anything out at all" (p. 134). To Larry Wrangel, a former philosophy student turned comic-book writer turned Hollywood producer, who claims that Wulpy's "Ideas" are "reductive," "trivial," and "dead" (p. 137), he says: "The value of life is bound up with the value of art" (p. 148).
The third and shortest story, "Zetland: By a Character Witness," further explores the theme of art as the expression of universal truths by investigating the limits of rationality. Zetland is a sickly, bookish youngster, "a junior Immanuel Kant" (p. 168), growing up in the Depression-scarred Midwest. From eccentric immigrant parents he learns that "only Love, Nature, God are good and great" (p. 173). At college he wins blue ribbons in poetry and essay competitions, displaying in his writing devotion to reason, lyrical language, and sympathy for the poor. Marriage to earthy Lottie precedes graduation and a fellowship in philosophy at Columbia University. The union is idyllic, they love each other so! Zetland's subject is logical positivism. In New York, however, the childhood illnesses recur. While bedridden, he reads Moby Dick for the first time and immediately decides to abandon symbolic logic. "Oh, Lottie, it's a miracle, that book. It takes you out of the human world," he exclaims:
I mean it takes you out of the universe of mental projections or insulating fictions of ordinary social practice or psychological habit. It gives you elemental liberty. What really frees you from these insulating social and psychological fictions is the other fiction, of art. There really is no human life without this poetry. (p. 186)
In all of these stories the redemptive power of love is a strong underlying theme, but it finds its fullest articulation in "A Silver Dish" which deals with the devotion of a son for his father. The son is Woody Selbst, a 60-year-old businessman from Chicago. Pop is Morris Selbst, recently deceased, quite the rascal in his day. Woody frames the issue at the outset: Why should he be feeling so sad about the natural death of one old man when, in these times, mass murders occur regularly "like a global death-peristalsis"? (p. 191).
There had been serious strains in their relationship. Morris deserted the family when Woody was a teenager to live with a Polish woman named Halina. Woody's mother converted from Judaism to Christianity and enrolled him in a fundamentalist seminary. Dad kept in touch, literally, showing up to con money from his by now terribly confused son. The title of this story refers to the time Morris used Woody's connections at the seminary to steal a valuable silver dish from its Swedish benefactress. Just as Morris planned, Woody was blamed for the theft.
Through it all, Woody justifies Morris's actions on higher moral grounds. What kind of Jew would continue to live with a wife who was so disrespectful of her heritage, even if he cared little for that heritage himself? Why shouldn't a dad steal from an institution which was, in effect, forcing an innocent young boy to abandon his faith? What many would interpret as rationalization is to Woody simply the love a son owes even a crooked father. As Bellow writes: Woody "had one idea . . . that the goal, the project, the purpose was (and he couldn't explain why he thought so; all evidence was against it)-God's idea was that this world should be a love world, that it should eventually recover and be entirely a world of love" (p. 199).
"Cousins," a personal favorite, represents a coda in which all of the themes are reiterated and blended. Ijah Brodsky, former child prodigy, former moderator of a popular public television series dealing with significant cases from the judicial annals, former researcher for the Rand Corporation, now advises bankers on foreign loans. Ijah is drawn to "higher activities," the name he applies to metaphysics, from his reading of Plato, Aristotle, and St. Thomas (p. 232). He realizes that this interest causes him to appear odd to family and friends, "a man who was not concerned with the world's work in any category which made full sense," but is willing to live with the burden (p. 230).
The one to whom Ijah's metaphysics seems strangest is cousin Raphael (Tanky) Metzger, union racketeer, a sort of mini-Hoffa. Tanky wants Ijah to intercede on his behalf in a court case which, if decided against Tanky, could bring a stiff prison sentence. It seems that the judge in this case had once appeared on Ijah's television show. Ijah knows that cousin Tanky hates him, for he "had taken America up in the wrong way":
There was only one language for a realist, and that was Hoffa language. Tanky belonged to the Hoffa school-in more than half its postulates, virtually identical with the Kennedy school. If you didn't speak real, you spoke phony, if you weren't hard, you were soft. (p. 237)
He intercedes anyway.
Besides, Ijah knows that persons of Tanky and Hoffa's ilk are not the most dangerous public enemies in the United States. That appellation he reserves for government officials on the take, crooked businessmen, shyster lawyers, and uncommitted academics. These have arranged immunity for themselves through much-practiced "smoothness in fraud," and thus are "the spreaders of the most fatal nets." Gangsters, on the other hand, are "high visibility" thugs who at least lay their crimes on the line and "prepare [their] soul[s] for execution" (p. 244).
Ijah fears that the stock of spiritual and philosophical humanism which contemporary Americans inherit from their classical Western forebears is in a process of atrophy. Specifically, he objects to our penchant for abusing words like "integrity." He cringes when Tanky's sister, Eunice, while pleading her brother's case to him, explains how she had to promise a large donation to a medical school in order to get one of her daughters admitted. Half of the donation was paid in cash, with the balance pledged in a promissory note stating that Eunice was a person of "known integrity." Actually, her original statement had referred to a person of "the highest integrity" but, on the advice of a lawyer, the term "highest" was deleted. Now that her daughter has graduated, Eunice has reneged on the balance. When Ijah refuses to congratulate Eunice on her grasp of "street smarts," she shoots back: "I told you . . . I cut out the 'high'" (pp. 250-51).
In Chicago where "the moral law, never thicker . . . than onionskin or tissue paper-was now a gas as rare as argon" (p. 276), Ijah seeks "a direct ascent into transcendence" (p. 255). He continues steadfastly to believe "an original self exists or, if you prefer, an original soul" (p. 267); never gives "up the habit of referring all truly important observations to that original self" (p. 268); and refuses absolutely to "hand over [his own] soul to 'actual conditions'" (p. 267).
Readers will recognize in these stories vestiges of venerable Bellow characters as well as themes. There are the same overbearing wives, rich brothers, false friends, shyster lawyers, ambivalent professors. There is much of Moses Herzog in Harry Shawmut, Mr. Sammler in Victor Wulpy, Augie March in Zetland, Eugene Henderson in Woody Selbst, Dean Corde in Ijah Brodsky. All of Bellow's heroes share a classic detached view of the world from which they offer both comedic and tragic observations on the slapstick way most people go about defining their existences and the shocking disregard they show for the fate of their souls. All affirm Shawmut's conclusion that life is "a fabrication, an amusement park that, however, does not amuse" (p. 47).
Him with His Foot in His Mouth and Other Stories is to be recommended, finally, for its ability simultaneously to entertain and educate. Readers will be invited to participate in an art which, for its breadth of imagination and erudition, is unequalled in contemporary literature. Saul Bellow stands alone in his knowledge of the classics; his courage to compare them to such disparate subjects as the poetry of Allen Ginsberg, the paintings of Jackson Pollock, the philosophy of Rudolf Carnap, and the wares of Marshall Field's; and his ability to bring these comparisons off in engaging works of fiction.