Page 14 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 41

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8
JEWISH BOOK ANNUAL
poetry and the inne r life in America.”3To exp lore the situation o f
the Jew in the city is thus to encoun ter the conditions for m odern
American experience.
For Bellow, living in the city is a philosophical activity. U rban
life makes possible the discovery o f the self because it highlights
the ways in which individuality is an event o f consciousness as well
as history. Bellow explores the ways in which idea and act are
inextricable from each o ther, mutual and self-defining rec ip ro ­
cals. To read Bellow is to com prehend the ways in which u rban
life makes possible the discovery o f the idea o f the self.
To the extent tha t Bellow’s work evokes Chicago and the con­
temporary city, so it provides us with a remarkable range o f cha r­
acters engaged in the process o f discovering who they are as they
pu t tha t person into action. They enact city careers, caught up in
the power o f the city as they learn how to deal with it. Self and city
discover common limits and shared values, like organisms
growing from the same soil. For Bellow the idea o f the city is the
hope o f ou r individuality. Celebrating the u rban condition, Bel­
low articulates its hum an ideal as ou r moral imperative. Even if
Herzog leaves the city at the end o f the novel for the discovery o f
silence in the Berkshires, he must re tu rn to the city o f intellect,
imagination, and power in o rde r to take up his moral quest once
more. Not to do so is to define himself as an invalid, unable to be
healed by the country air, to which he has tu rn ed fo r spiritual
renewal. His avatar, Charley Citrine, will carry on in his place.
Six years after Charley Citrine began his u rban quest in
Humboldt’s Gift,
Bellow published
The Dean’s December,
which
charts the disintegration o f the city in America and the cu lture o f
the west as it tracks the end o f the idea o f the individual. S tupefied
masses and routinized life overwhelm the individual’s energy,
making an Augie March almost impossible to find let alone
invent. Dean Albert Corde can fight fo r his city and struggle for
its hum an values, bu t in the bitter December o f his life and u rban
experience the best tha t can be managed is a stubborn rea r-gu ard
action. T he forces o f history no longer reinforce u rban
possibility, be it economic, social, o r political, bu t are arrayed
against it.
A little more than halfway th rough the novel, musing upon
Aristotle’s comment tha t “a man without a city is either a beast o r a
3 Saul Bellow
, Humboldt’s Gift,
New York: Viking, 1975, p. 10.