Page 26 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 29

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poverty of modern life, Bellow seeks for some way to move beyond
that impoverishment, and also beyond the neo-Freudian ideolo-
gies of love that celebrate pre-conscious states of existence:
. . What was it to be arrested at the stage of toilet training!
What was it to be entrapped by a psychiatric standard (Sammler
blamed the Germans and their psychoanalysis for this) ! Who had
raised the diaper flag? Who had made shit a sacrament?"
The question that Bellow poses through Sammler is this: Given
the dominant world view of liberalism and given the inescapable
fact of death with which the liberal world view has shown itself
incapable of coping, what is possible for man? Further, what does
Judaism have to do with human possibilities? Portnoy chafes at
the yoke of “renunciation," “self-control, sobriety, sanctions.” In
his view they limit his human possibilities. Sammler, however,
presses this question further. If man (and specifically Sammler
himself, a Jew, a survivor of the Holocaust who momentarily
cheated the angel of death by climbing out of a mass grave) can-
not return to old restrictions and old superstitions (God is dead)
which promised man salvation, is he then to return to an old prim-
itivism that offers fleeting moments of gratification at the cost of
enslavement to the self?
In the absence of Divine Transcendence, man seeks transcend-
ence in the flesh. Sammler sees that the urge for the infinite in-
evitably comes crashing into liberalism’s inability to transcend
the finite. Human possibilities must be weighed against human
limitations: “This liberation into individuality,” Sammler says,
“has not been a great success. For a historian of great interest, but
for one aware of the suffering it is appalling. Hearts that get no
real wage, souls that find no nourishment. Falsehoods, unlimited.
Desire, unlimited. Possibility, unlimited. Impossible demands
upon complex realities, unlimited.” Sammler reverses the trans-
valuation of values. The elements that are unlimited are all nega-
tive: “Falsehoods,” “Desire,” “Impossible demands,” and even,
redundantly, “possibility” itself. If reality is no more than the
terrestrial globe that man can experience through the senses, then
he must accept the limitations of the senses.
Sammler is a man of the twentieth century, and the twentieth
century does not permit answers that cannot be verified. Neverthe-
less, for Jew and Christian alike, there remains a crucial moment
in which human existence confronts the Infinite. Twice Sammler
returns in his thoughts to Kierkegaard’s ruminations over Abra-
ham. Once he thinks that Kierkegaard “. . . was looking for the
Knight of Faith, the real prodigy. That real prodigy, having set
its relations with the infinite, was entirely at home in the finite.”
But what was possible for Abraham no longer seems a viable possi­