Fall 1989, Volume 6.2


The Pretender Self and the Public Phenomenon in Saul Bellow's Novels

The public phenomenon which draws a crowd of common people together without any specific relationship of one person with others represents the invisible kinship of all humans. This kinship of one with all others is an existential truth from which no one can escape. Saul Bellow's protagonists participate in public gatherings before they acknowledge their allegiance to the "larger body" of common people.1 Although they pretend to be extraordinary men and withdraw themselves from ordinary life into "self-invented realities," they are finally forced to come out of their isolation by certain unexpected happenings. These happenings compel them to join a public gathering, walk in a public place, visit a public institution, and/or participate in a public ceremony, all of which are attended by a large number of ordinary people. In these places, in the midst of a crowd of ordinary people, Bellow's protagonists face the truth of ordinary life which dispels their egos and makes them aware of their common-ality. Hence Bellow uses the public phenomenon as a metaphor for man's inevitable affiliation to other humans and thereby attempts to answer his own question: "When will we see new and higher forms of individuality, purged of old sickness and corrected by a deeper awareness of what all men have in common?" ("Bunuel's" 112).

Joseph, the protagonist of Dangling Man (1944), becomes aware of "certain defects" in human nature for the first time when he joins a large gathering of "friends" and "strangers" at a party in Minna's house (36-47). There, he witnesses Abt's harshness to Minna and realizes that human nature shows its true forms in a gathering of this sort: "And it came to me all at once that the human purpose of these occasions had always been to free the charge of feeling in pent up heart . . . to give our scorn, hatred, and desire temporary liberty and play" (37). Consequently, he becomes doubtful about the authenticity of the "ideal constructions" which he has drawn from his bookish knowledge to insulate himself from the ordinary realities of life.

Joseph is completely overtaken by the "treasons" of life after he resigns from the Inter-American Travel Bureau to answer the Army's call for induction. His efforts to keep away from ordinary life by building a protective shell of "ideal constructions" around himself prove futile. He feels that he is deteriorating in isolation, "storing bitterness and spite which eat like acids at [his] endowment of generosity and good will" (10). Hence he comes out of his fortifications to know the truth of life through his personal experience. But as soon as he meets others, he feels that they are treating him as a nonentity. For instance, he goes to the Arrow restaurant to meet Myron Adler for a temporary job. There he happens to see his old friend, Jimmy Burns, sitting at a table with another man. Joseph picks a quarrel with Jimmy when the latter does not recognize him(25-31). Joseph tells Myron Adler, "I said hello to him, and he acted as if I simply wasn't there" (26, emphasis added). He takes it as an affront to his individuality and imposes himself on Burns by creating a scene in the restaurant.

These incidents, the one at a public gathering in Minna's house(36-47) and the other in a public place at the Arrow restaurant(25-31), bring about Joseph's disillusionment with his ideal constructions and with his ideology of isolation. Thereafter Joseph tries to establish a meaningful dialogue with the external world. During the process, he comes to the ironic realization that "goodness is achieved not in a vacuum, but in the company of other men, attended by love" (75). Subsequently, he assesses his self through talks with the Spirit of Alternatives—dialogues which help him again to dispel his pretensions and acknowledge the fact that he has "not done well alone"; he realizes that being "pushed upon oneself entirely put(s) the very facts of simple existence in doubt" (158). Hence, he accepts his draft call and joins the Army—a larger group of people. His participation in a larger society relieves him of his burden of a "separate destiny." He achieves a collective identity instead of a separate one supported by ideal constructions. He achieves recognition in the company of other people.

Joseph's tendency to keep away from ordinary life similarly becomes a recognizable trait in Asa Leventhal, the Jewish protagonist of Bellow's The Victim. And so the public phenomenon manifests itself once more in this novel. One evening Leventhal sets out from his apartment for a walk in a nearby park. He finds the park "even more crowded than before, and noisy" (26). Out of the crowd emerges a face which gives "a rebuff to his nerves" (27). The stranger, Kirby Allbee, a gentile, suddenly holds Leventhal responsible for the loss of his job. On this pretext, Allbee harasses Leventhal and demands his help in finding another job. But Leventhal does not accept responsibility for the loss of Allbee's job for two reasons. First, Leventhal pretends to have always got away with his past mistakes but knows that he may fall again into the plight of those—"The lost, the outcast, the overcome, the effaced, the ruined" (23)—who have not escaped them. So Leventhal develops the habit of "self-protection" and "indifference" to save himself from any such eventuality. Second, he fails to establish a relationship with Allbee. When Allbee persists with his accusation, Leventhal asks, "What, are we related?" (29). To this Allbee replies, "By blood? No, no . . . heavens!" (29). Allbee's reply implies that they are not related by blood but they have a common kinship which Leventhal loses sight of while hiding under the cover of his complacency. Allbee does not get a chance to explain his feelings and Leventhal does not care to understand them. Therefore, Leventhal disclaims any responsibility for Allbee's ruin.

Allbee represents the world of ordinary masses which threatens to engulf Leventhal. Therefore, Allbee's accusation throws Leventhal "off his bearings." It breaks the barricades protecting Leventhal and thrusts him into facing his own fears and doubts. It is interesting to note that in the next encounter too, outside Leventhal's house, Allbee emerges from a very crowded restaurant (89). After this encounter Leventhal feels defenseless and turns to his friends for help. He pleads innocence before his friends and persuades them to protect him from Allbee. But after deliberations with friends like Harkavy and Williston, Leventhal acknowledges that "it is necessary for him to accept some of the blame for Allbee's comedown" (102). Gradually, Leventhal finds it difficult to hold on to his pretender self and decides to introduce Allbee to Shifcart, who can help him find a job in films.

Toward the end, Leventhal completely succumbs to Allbee's accusation and accepts his fault. But he is still reluctant to accept his human relationship with Allbee. One evening Leventhal happens to discover Allbee in his room with a prostitute. Enraged, he forces Allbee out of his apartment. Afterwards, in an epiphanic moment, Leventhal receives a glimpse of human truth:

But when he sat down for a moment on the bed, all the comedy of it was snatched away and torn to pieces . . . . The truth was probably far different. He had started out to see what had happened with her eyes and had ended by substituting his own, thus contriving to put her on his side. Whereas, the fact was that she was nearer to Allbee. Both of them, Allbee and the woman, moved or swam towards him out of the depth of life in which he himself would be lost, choked, ended. (224)

Leventhal wonders why he is drawn toward them in spite of his great "fear and pain" (224). For a moment, he accepts his kinship with outcast humanity through Allbee and the prostitute and repents his action: "Maybe I didn't do the right thing. I didn't know what it was. I don't yet" (225). Leventhal's momentary acceptance of his relationship with other people redeems him from his superiority complex and fear of insecurity. When, after several years, Leventhal meets Allbee once again in an overcrowded Broadway theater, he faces the latter on equal terms, without any sense of insecurity or superiority. Leventhal has overcome his "sense of infringement" (230) by accepting his relationship with the less fortunate, and Allbee has made his "peace with things" (237) by accepting a "middle sized job" in radio.

Like Leventhal, Tommy Wilhelm in Seize the Day also fears that he may drown in the vast ocean of ordinary humanity. But Wilhelm recovers from his fear of ordinariness when he joins a crowd of mourners in a funeral parlor. He has a "pretender soul" which hates the "true soul." Therefore, he creates a semblance of poise to hide his inner turbulence and wears a hat and smokes a cigar to look "passably well" to others, including his father. His pretensions prevent him from sharing the fate of ordinary men and thereby alienate him from his fellow "outcasts." In his desperate bid to escape the truth of ordinary human life, he continues to make one mistake after another until he is completely buried beneath them.

Wilhelm commits his final mistake when he gives Dr. Tamkin his last seven hundred dollars for lard-shares with an under- standing that the latter "would get through this crisis too and bring him, Wilhelm, to safety also" (103). After losing his money, he walks out of the stock market to look for Tamkin and finds himself on Broadway in the midst of "the great, great crowd, the inexhaustible current of millions of every race and kind . . ." (122). The crowd pushes him into a nearby funeral parlor where he finds himself among a gathering of mourners. In the funeral parlor he experiences an epiphanic moment on seeing the dead body of an unknown person. Wilhelm sees in the dead the ultimate reality of human life, the finale of all human strivings. He slowly moves closer to the dead body, "foot by foot, the beating of his heart anxious, thick, frightening, but somehow rich . . ." (124). It makes him conscious of his human connection with the anonymous dead: "A man—another human creature, was what first went through his thoughts . . ." (125). Wilhelm then weeps for the dead, "first softly and from sentiment, but soon from deeper feeling" (125). The act of grieving in public over the death of an unknown person kindles a "blaze of love" in Wilhelm's heart for all the unknowns and outcasts. In weeping for the dead, he weeps for himself and for all other "outcasts," "imperfect" and "disfigured," from whom he has drifted away under the false pretext of superiority. In his grief over the death of an unknown person, Wilhelm loses his "pretender soul" and reveals his "true soul"—"the inescapable self"—which accepts the fact of its relationship with all the living and the dead.

Wilhelm's anxiousness to find peace, stability, and happiness by becoming rich appears to be futile when one reads Bellow's next novel, Henderson the Rain King. A rich American tycoon, Eugene Henderson, suffers from the anxiety of meaninglessness and fear of death. A ceaseless voice in his heart continuously cries out, "I want, I want, I want, oh, I want . . ." (15). Unable to silence this demanding voice, Henderson flies off to dark Africa in search of an answer. There he participates in public rituals attended by a large number of tribal folk, an experience which cures him of his recalcitrance and makes him fit to live with his fellow humans.

After the Arnewi fiasco, Henderson and his guide, Romilayu, reach the Wariri, the tribe of King Dahfu. Here Henderson participates in the public ceremonies of the Wariri tribe, which bring him close to death. At the rainmaking ceremony, Henderson joins "a huge crowd" of tribespeople to witness the king and a half-naked woman play with the skulls of the king's ancestors, without caring about the penalty of death. As soon as the game is over, Henderson says to Dahfu, "King, I had a feeling that if either of you missed, the consequences would not be pretty" (165). Dahfu explains that "the factor of missing is negligible" (165) because some day the ribbons will be tied through his own eyes. "My own skull will get the air" (165). Henderson is deeply influenced by the frankness with which Dahfu admits the inevitability of death. On seeing the king transcending the threat of immediate death so fearlessly, Henderson too gets excited and offers to lift "Mummah," a huge statue of the goddess of clouds, knowing full well that he will be put to death if he fails to lift it. His victory brings rain to the tribe and happiness to himself. After the ceremony, a crowd of Wariri people gives him a ritual bath with "the superheated sour water" to initiate him into a new life: "And so my fever was transformed into jubilation. My spirit was awake and it welcomed life anew. Damn the whole thing! Life anew!" (181).

During his sojourn with the Wariri, Dahfu subjects Henderson to lion therapy for its liberating effects on Henderson's sick sensibility. But Henderson's spirit cannot "burst" forth out of its sleep unless he participates in "hopo," the ceremony in which Dahfu goes out with "a gaudy crowd" of tribesmen to catch the ceremonial lion, a supposed incarnation of his father's soul. The king is accidentally killed in his encounter with the lion. After the king's death, Henderson runs away from the Wariri, carrying with him the cub which is supposed to embody the soul of Dahfu. On his way back he tells Romilayu that "the sleep is burst, and I've come to myself" (306). He is impatient to see his wife and "eager to know how it will be now that the sleep is burst" (312). As Helen Weinberg points out, the cub is symbolic of his newly-discovered "lion-like strength and lion-heartedness: both are in him and found by him; together they give him a sense of himself, not as a transcendent or a superlatively primordial being but as a living, moving, acting man. Africa has delivered him from 'the body of this death'" (98). And Henderson's love for the anonymous orphan child on the plane is symptomatic of his newly-found humanity. Finally he returns home in new spirits, full of love for his fellow humans and ready to make a new start.

If these foregoing novels reveal the beneficial effects of crowds on the cramped sensibilities of their protagonists, Bellow's next two novels emphasize the role of public places in making the protagonists aware of the truth of ordinary life. These novels do not feature crowds as explicitly as in the previous novels, but they suggest the presence of large numbers of people in significant places. Moses Herzog, the protagonist of Herzog, recovers his ordinary human self during his visits to the courtroom and the police station where people from all walks of life assemble every day for some personal or social reasons. Herzog's efforts to shape his life according to ready-made ideas from books like The World as Will and Idea and The Decline of the West keep him unaware of the truth of human nature. After reading these books and soaking himself in the sea of ideas, he considers himself an extraordinary person—"a marvelous Herzog" (93). But he becomes aware of the truth of common life when his second wife, Madeleine, divorces him and moves in with his closest friend, Valentine Gersbach.

Madeleine's betrayal shatters his ego and breaks him. But Herzog decides to set everything right for himself. He resolves his intellectual confusions by writing letters to public heroes and recovers his composure by participating in public phenomena. Advised by Simkin, Herzog goes to court to consult his lawyer about the legal possession of his child. There he happens to hear the proceedings of some criminal trials, one of which is about the merciless murder of a child by its mother and her paramour. The trial moves Herzog to imagine Madeleine and Gersbach murdering his own daughter in a similar manner. He immediately picks up his pistol and sets out for Chicago with the intention of killing Gersbach. But to his utter surprise, he finds his enemy bathing his daughter tenderly. "As soon as Herzog saw the actual person giving an actual bath, the reality of it, the tenderness of such a buffoon to a little child, his intended violence turned into theatre, into something ludicrous" (258). This incident brings about a change in Herzog's perception of life. He encounters the reality of human nature and finds it contrary to what he had imagined. After hearing the proceedings in court, he had concluded that human life was a "wicked dream," completely devoid of emotions. But when he finds his enemy bathing his daughter so affectionately, he realizes that even a wicked man like Gersbach can have the potential for goodness, and a good man like himself can have the potential for evil. This realization liberates Herzog from his romantic notions about himself and leads him to an understanding of the complexities of human nature. He realizes that:

. . . a man is somehow more than his "characteristics," all the emotions, strivings, tastes, and constructions which it pleases him to call "My Life." We have ground to hope that a Life is something more than such a cloud of particles, mere facticity: Go through what is comprehensible and you conclude that only the incomprehensible gives any light. (266)

In short, the episode makes him aware of the fact that the comprehensible aspects of human life and its ready-made realities as given by the Reality Teachers can at times be thoroughly misguiding. Realizing this, he moves away from his pretender self and comes closer to his real human self. This real self becomes evident subsequently when he tells Luke Asphalter, who is wasting his life in isolation in pursuit of petty obsessions, "Man liveth not by Self alone but in his brother's face. . . . Each shall behold Eternal Father and love and joy around" (272).

Afterwards Herzog meets with a car accident while taking his daughter to the museum. It gives him another shock, which leads him towards further moral refinement. The policemen search him as they would a common man and arrest him for keeping a pistol without a license. They then take him to the police station, where he finds himself "down in the ranks with other people—ordinary life?" (287). Surrounded by ordinary people in a public place, Herzog behaves like an ordinary person, completely contrary to his earlier posture of defiance. Thus gradually he loses his egotism and regains his ordinary human self which knows its bond of kinship with other people. At the end Herzog returns home, where he feels "confident, cheerful, clairvoyant, and strong" (1).

Like Moses Herzog, Charlie Citrine in Humboldt's Gift, is also a "self-conscious egotist." He has delusions about his being "a marvellous noble person" (46), and he thinks that it is up to him to "prevent the leprosy of souls" (135). Citrine's nobility is put to the test when he is overtaken by the "nagging rush" of social and metaphysical realities. His visit to the poker parlor brings him in contact with Cantabile. An embodiment of anarchic social conditions in America, Cantabile systematically tortures Citrine at gunpoint with the intention of extracting money from him. Unable to control Cantabile on his own, Citrine turns toward the "masses" who endure "the social turbulence, lying low, hanging on to their worldly goods" (171). Their hearts are "angry but they put up with the disorder"(171) and form "no mobs in the streets" (171-72). They take "all the abuse, doggedly waiting it out. No rocking the boat" (172). Citrine accepts his oneness with the world of ordinary masses at the climax of his crisis: "Apparently, I shared in their condition. But I couldn't see what good it would do me to fire a gun. As if I could shoot my way out of my perplexities—the chief perplexity being my character!" (172). Like other ordinary people, Citrine also takes recourse to "low life expertise" (87) in order to prevent Cantabile from harming him. Citrine bows his head before Cantabile and follows his instructions patiently because Citrine recollects Konrad Lorenz's discussion of wolves: "The defeated world offered his throat, and the victor snapped but wouldn't bite"(82). He is afraid of Cantabile, thinking that it is no time for argument—"I was to respect and fear him. It would be provoking if he didn't think I feared him" (96). He finally gets rid of Cantabile without letting him cause any serious harm. Similarly, Citrine gets along with Denise, an "exquisitely beautiful" and "terribly fierce" woman, silently and peacefully, knowing that "inflammation of the heart" and "burning words" will only aggravate matters (228). "No, the name of the game was silence . . . I wasn't going to talk" (228).

Citrine also struggles to overcome his feelings of guilt and responsibility for his late friend Von Humboldt Fleisher. He does it partly by praising Humboldt and ridiculing himself, and partly by performing the ritual of Humboldt's burial again. Citrine calls Humboldt "a lovely man, and generous, with a heart of gold" (107). Mocking the medals he received from the French, Citrine says, "they gave me the sort of thing they give to pig-breeders and to people who improve the garbage cans" (184). Citrine calls himself "the cheapest type of low-grade chevalier" (298). After Renata betrays him for Flonzaley, he ridicules himself again and says, "I should have married her long ago. I was a man of little faith, my hesitancy was insulting, and it was quite right that I should be left to mind her kid" (413). He puts on a mourner's dress and mourns the death of love. The act of sharing grief with others at the pension helps him "recover" from the emotional shock. He ritualizes his predicament by participating in a public phenomenon where his grief is depersonalized and overcome. Likewise, he overcomes the feelings of guilt and responsibility for Humboldt by ritualizing his reburial. After Citrine is "struck with blessings" by Humboldt's gift, he helps Waldemar, Humboldt's uncle, with money to fulfill his friend's last will (338). Together they rebury Humboldt beside his mother's grave. The ritual of reburial is followed by the sprouting of spring flowers in the graveyard, which symbolizes Citrine's rebirth into a new life, free from egotism and anxiety.

Thus Bellow's novels capture a glimmer of the "genuine" reality —the kinship of one with all other humans—which one loses sight of while hiding behind the "constructions" of self-invented realities. Bellow uses crowds of ordinary people and public places as a means of bringing those individuals who refuse to accept their human connection in touch with the reality of ordinary human existence. This realization compels them to come out of their contrivances and makes them conscious of their inexorable connection with the world. On realizing their common kinship with all other people, Bellow's protagonists become human enough to live in harmony with the less fortunate.

Thus, by assimilating isolated people into a common bond, Bellow seems to discard theories of alienation created by the "writers of 'sensibility.'"2 Unlike the theorists of alienation, he avers that "private" and "public" dissolve into each other by way of one's unavoidable solidarity with the rest of humanity, as embodied in the public phenomenon. Bellow thus creates a new humanism in his novels—an existential humanism—based on human integration, human equality, and human kinship.



1Tony Tanner points out in his article, "Saul Bellow: The Flight From Monologue," "Failing to experience any specific sense of relationship with other people and contemporary society, Bellow's characters respond to a more mystical sense of oneness with some 'larger body' which is transpersonal and relates them to the very currents of Being" (68). However, Tanner has not taken into account the function of a public gathering and a public place in bringing Bellow's protagonists to the realization of their invisible human kinship with the "currents of Being."

2Saul Bellow in "Some Notes on Recent American Fiction" seriously questions the stance of the "writers of 'sensibility'" like James Jones, Philip Roth, John O'Hara, and John Updike, who fail to find an adequate answer to the malady of modern society and merely succeed in presenting a "self devoid of depths." They assume that "only private exploration and inner development are possible, and [accept] the opposition of public and private as fixed and indissoluble" (25).



Bellow, Saul. "Bunuel's Unsparing Vision." Horizon 5 (1962): 110-112.

Dangling Man. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1963.

Henderson the Rain King. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1966.

Herzog. New York: Viking Press, 1966.

Humboldt's Gift. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1976.

Seize the Day. Harmondsworth, UK : Penguin, 1966.

"Some Notes on Recent American Fiction." Encounter 21 (1963): 22-29.

The Victim. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1966.

Tanner, Tony. "Saul Bellow: The Flight From Monologue." Encounter 24 (1965): 58-70.

Weinberg, Helen. The New Novel in America: The Kafkan Mode in Contemporary Fiction. London: Cornell University Press, 1970.