Page 15 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 41

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BAUMGARTEN / URBAN FAILURES
9
god ,” Corde rem inds a friend o f the greatness o f his native city.
“Well, Chicago was the city.” T he Dean does not have the op ti­
mism o f Augie and Herzog. As soon as he has made it, he begins
to doub t his assertion. “O r was it?
Where
was it, what had become
o f it? No cities? T h en where was civilization?” To the response o f a
colleague tha t “You’re very hard on the old toddling town. Are
things so d iffe ren t elsewhere?” Corde admits the meanings o f the
situation he has been struggling against. “I suppose not. Among
o the r discoveries, I found tha t Chicago wasn’t Chicago anymore.
H und red s o f thousands o f people lived there who had no concep­
tion o f a place. People
used
to be able to say . . .” And his friend
agrees. “Ah, yes . . . I ’m with you there. I t’s no longer a location,
it’s only a condition. South Bronx, Cleveland, Detroit, Saint
Louis, from Newark to Watts — all the same noplace.”4T he litany
can be expanded to include o the r cities, as Bellow’s novel makes
clear, encompassing not only Chicago bu t Bucharest’s shabby
spirit, as well as the cities in between. T he meaning is alas the
same: nowadays, the era o f individualism, and the varied urban
life on which it depended , is over.
URBAN DECLINE
En tering the mainstream o f American life as carriers o f u rban
values, the Jews found themselves confron ting a dying city. The
world they had defined for themselves became more and more
difficult to live in. T he public arena tha t made it possible to bring
diverse neighborhoods and varied communal traditions into
fru itfu l encounter was shattered. T h e characters in Bellow’s
novel cast about for explanations tha t might account for this
catastrophe, while seeking ways o f surviving amid the wreck o f
western culture. I f the city’s streets are no longer the possession of
all citizens but the stalking g round o f the few, civilization has
tu rn ed into a wilderness. Even the city o f death , that Mr. Sammler
encoun tered at the hands o f the Nazis, has found o the r agents to
carry on the ir obscene program . Only the survivors o f the old
ways bring any grace to Bucharest’s bureaucratic repression, and
the ir secret life can only fo r the moment emerge to commemorate
the passing o f one o f the ir own. Ironically, the modern city has
been destroyed by those who claim to speak for the new m ode rn ­
4
The Dean’s December,
New York: Harper & Row, 1981, pp. 229, 237.