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As Above: Saul Bellow

by Sven Birkerts

(Editor's Note)

When I left for Italy with my family on the Fourth of July, I had only one contemplative agenda—to pull together my thoughts on Saul Bellow, whose death back in April had been such a milestone event in the larger literary world, but had also left our immediate community, here at Boston University, with such a palpable sense of void. I knew that I didn’t want to write the usual hagiography. I’d read a good dozen of these in recent months. What could I say that James Wood hadn’t already said better? What was there to add? Before I even got on the plane, then, I found myself brewing something different. A road journal, I thought. A piece that could reflect on travel, use its particular dissociation, and at the same time honor the spirit of the master: I would make a series of deft segues between my situation, whatever it turned out to be, and some of the great travel moments of Bellow’s own protagonists—Herzog en route to Martha’s Vineyard, Charlie Citrine hunkered down in a pensione in Madrid, Dean Corde behind the Iron Curtain—not just to follow the obvious tactic of parallelism, but because Bellow was, among so many other things, a brilliant reflective scene-maker who knew how to use the physical displacement of his characters as a form of existential drama. I mean, who else would write as Bellow did in Humboldt’s Gift, apropos a trans-Atlantic flight: “The stewardess served whisky and Hawaiian macadamia nuts. We plunged across the longitudinal lines of the planet, this place I was learning to think of as the great school of souls, the material seat of the spirit”? The idea seemed perfect—all I had to do was make the connections, develop the gestalt that would keep the various observations in orbit, cohering.

This turned out to be the thing that would not and would not happen, not in frenetic Rome, where we stayed our first three days, but also not in the town of C., where we lived in idyllic seclusion for nearly two weeks, and where ideas might have been expected to flourish . . . No, the Bellow plan did not seem to be working in any context as I had imagined, though at one point, in Florence, there was something. But that only came clear later, through the lens of retrospect. For most of the trip there was a different version of thinking going on—though to call it “thinking” doesn’t seem quite right, it’s more a kind of psycho-phenomenology or travel-psychosis, an ongoing sub-threshold agitation in which the world, the whole basic business of living, presents itself as manifestly strange.

What do I mean by this term I’ve coined—“psycho-phenomenology”? I’m talking about the awareness that underlies—and frames—thought more than about thought itself. Say, for example, that I climb to the top of a high hill and then look out over valleys, distant villages, roads and squares of cultivated land. Before I ever have an idea, a concept of any kind, I’m responding to a change of perspective, one that will very likely condition whatever specific ideas I have next. About the larger futility of human endeavor, about our fundamental geographical rootedness, and so on—concepts that might not announce themselves so reliably to the person who has lived for years in the hilltop hut. In the same way, the pilot of a plane might forget to marvel at the clear contour of some island, or the tiny ribbing of waves near the shore, though the first-time flyer stares down rapt, all contemplation centered on the idea of isolation, say, or the bravery of early seagoing folk.

All of which is to say: I could not find a path to Saul Bellow. Put what English I would on my thoughts, they bent away from the subject. The primary evidence of things was at every moment just too strong, too strange. But as I say, I wasn’t thinking in the usual way; I was more just caught up by the slightly stunned process of “taking in” what was around me.

For starters, I have never accepted flying, the premise of moving a huge congregation of people through space at impossible velocity and unacceptable height. Forget Bellow’s plunging across lines of longitude: I was so deep in the plane—center bleachers, rear—that I couldn’t even see out the window. What I had instead was the all-purpose mini-screen, the progress map on Channel 1 which marked our movement across the Atlantic, “whale-road” of the kenners, with a slow nudging of dots writing out our vital statistics: putting us 38,000 feet over the water, contradicting our seeming immobility with the fact that we were cleaving the upper air at more than 600 mph. Is there a right way to think about this? Or to ponder the image of myself a few hours later, still awake, captive with my family in an Italian transport van, bumping and jittering past wildly picturesque ruins with the constant “what’s that?” feeling that afflicts all travelers in Rome, as if anything that still holds some shape after two millennia has to be worthy of attention?

But Rome overwhelms that preciosity fairly quickly. Before we’ve even reached our hotel on the Via Turati, the gawking reflex has begun to subside. Forum, columns, the Colosseum off to the right like half a gigantic decaying dental set . . . We accede to the sudden spectacle of history as readily as we accepted the thrust of those turbines—but instead of a progress screen we now have our guidebooks, already open to the general map, the forefinger tracing the way past the icon of Santa Maria Maggiore, “built in, let’s see, when was it?”

Where had I gotten the idea that I would brood calmly on the spirit of Bellow, the man who himself spent so much time just marking the path of his perplexity, at our imponderable presence in the murky bogs of being, at the radiant but finally illegible signs surrounding us on every side? Thinking could find no purchase. On our first full day in Rome my son Liam and I came back to our room for an afternoon rest, and when he flipped on the TV to look for Italian cartoons, we were hit instead by the flash images of rubble, the maps and arrows, the talking Italian heads with their breakneck wordchains: “terroristi, Londres, G-8, Tony Blair, i morti . . .” There followed my own anxious groping for a sense of scale, of context, with the inevitable associative triggerings to 9/11, which for the rest of our lives will be the template sensation of apocalypse, of the absolute unreal.

Liam and I sat together on the bed, flicking between channels,
using the redundancies of transmitted images to create the basic contours, picking more and more recurrent words from the looping reportage. Once again I was addressing a map, now looking to bridge the distance with imagined sensation—what such chaos must feel like—as well as with long-ago memories of London (I’d roamed there far and wide as a drifting would-be ex-pat in the summer of 1970). But I was edgy, unable to connect, really, even as I believed I ought to, the feeling of a gap sharpened by the presence of my son, who of course imagined that as a grown-up I understood all these codes and implications.

Don’t worry, I’m not about to recount the blow-by-blow of our passage through what has to be one of the most touristed patches of the planet, except—except—insofar as certain moments seem to have had direct bearing on my failure to generate the valedictory thoughts I wanted. I’ll say nothing at all of our long days in the tiny town of C., where the hours chased one another clockless and mostly cloudless outside our open windows and lazy inwardness held court. I could not have begun to put together a thought on Bellow then. It was all I could do to monitor the light twitching of the vines velcroed to every rough stone surface, or hold my gaze on one of the little green lizards stop-starting along the terrace wall. No, the object of my intended contemplation fell victim to the mind’s overpowering need to replenish itself in looking. I could have stared at a web of fractured masonry all afternoon—possibly I did.

It was when we threw ourselves back into cities that I felt the man draw in closer, when, for instance, we stood outside the Colosseum looking for a point of entry and my wife, Lynn, got taken in by a grade B huckster from central casting, a louche-looking character in a cheap gladiator’s costume who got the kids posing with him while she readied her camera, and who, we later realized with much chagrin, didn’t even bother to toss his cigarette for the shot; who somehow commandeered five—count ‘em!—Euro from us for the privilege and left us gaping in his wake. I could imagine the master winking just then, for who was more attuned than Bellow to the poetry of the artful con?

Or on another day, as we first found our way into St. Peters and felt the vertical lift of so much sculptured space, having to push down all that amazement by degrees so that we could stand with a dozen others in front of Michaelangelo’s Pieta, its sorrow still sharply alive in spite of the cordon, the several centimeters of bullet-proof plexi, the digital chittering of cameras on all sides. I thought, though only fleetingly, that Bellow—he had lost his own mother very early—would have seen past the legends and the Catholicism here. He would have found the balance of suffering and faith—the inward focus of Mary’s turned-away face somehow pressing back against the world-heavy immobility of the body—I’m sure of it.

A few hours later I conjured him again, if only as a corroborating presence, when we all moved like members of some procession of the damned through halls and rooms en route to the Sistine Chapel, the tour leaders in front and behind holding high their colored paddles and insignias, marking every increment of progress with canned statistics and anecdotes, the swarms parting
and then re-forming around us, while on every side and above, crammed to an unprecedented thickness of reference, glowed the treasures: the Raphaels, Signorellis, Ghirlandaios . . . And we all believed that their barely conned radiance was just a prelude, a kind of spirit-ramp leading us all into the hallowed chamber, the elongated space of the Chapel itself, where, higher than I could distinguish without constantly tilting my glasses, the signature treasure of Western culture was enshrined. The finger of God-the-patriarch was right then more familiar than any product logo and the panels on every side of it looked to me, maybe to all of us, like a sheet of postal commemoratives.
And every minute or so, almost as if timed, one or another of the guards would let out with an explosive “Shhhh!” whereupon the huge buzz of the crowd would diminish for an instant before it built right back. Bellow would have loved that; he would have written it into a novel. And he would have, I’m sure, at some point looked away from the treasures above, worked his sharp eye through the room, inventorying the faces, caricaturing tell-tale nuances of character much as da Vinci might have, but also, good Balzacian, quietly pricing the watches and bracelets.

In that one sense then, yes, Bellow was with me, zooming in and out, shadowing my thoughts almost playfully, never quite taking on the heft of an actual idea, but in range, there. Except for that one occasion, that is, the moment which back then was embedded in the long sequence of traveling days but which now, filtered through retrospect—through writing—looks to be the connection I was after.

We had gone to Florence, driving our rental car against all smart advice right into the teeth of the midsummer madness. For the kids, we said. Mainly. But for ourselves, too. After all, we were staying just two hours away, how could we not? Surely it couldn’t be that—And then there we stood, our dazed little gang of four, smack in the middle of the Ponte Vecchio, turned into molasses by the terrorism of crowds, unable to move except by determined assault, watching those colored paddles and banners (the new tourist universal) bobbing up and down in a foreshortened vista of what looked like a mainly white Calcutta. At the same time the hyper-real picturesque crushed at us from every side—the wide elbow of the Arno, with its bridges and tight hedging of façades, the Tuscan hills in the distance, the Giotto campanile off to the right, and behind it all the suspicion that some ancient auratic magificence was waiting, just barely out of reach.

But we couldn’t make the effort then. We were overwhelmed and we buckled, opting for a hasty circuit of immediate highlights, a meal, and a race back to the shady space of the pensione. But as the afternoon and evening wore on, I found that I couldn’t quite let go of the inkling. I felt that I wanted connection,
the rough nap of the real, and without telling anyone I set my mind on waking early—reliable auto-suggestion — so that when the very first dawn arrived, though our room was shuttered, I was up. Tiptoeing, carrying my sandals.

And indeed, I was for a good long time the only person abroad on the streets of Florence. Day was not yet official. I moved with a sense of entitlement, purposeful but slow, down the long main drag, across the now-deserted Ponte Vecchio, halting there long enough to savor in solitude the edging of light along the rooflines, then continuing on, without plan, turning right to bypass the Uffizi, following the dice-roll of the streets, the lure of dim prospects, the lay of the shadows. And I went on this way for I don’t know how long, at least an hour, until I began to feel the deep hankering for coffee—latte straight up in a no-nonsense glass. But I saw no open grates, no bars—it was just six—so at last I began to arc my way back toward what I knew was the center, the area with all the sights, everything we had ended up avoiding yesterday.

There is the rhythm, the physics, of walking, the drumbeat of repetition, stride, stride, stride, and then there is the fugue of the walking mind, laid over it, always different, always tied in some way to the panning of the gaze and the eye’s quirky meandering, but possessing a music, an obsessive hum of its own, maybe related to the dreams of the night before, or a branch of association from some unexpected clue, a poster for a concert, a line from some old song, the smirky movements of a cat in a doorway. Thoughts can advance with a private logic, follow their mysterious and inescapable track. And so it was on this morning. Florence, silence, the aura of all that broken-in beauty, the half-remembered Dante, and the message of time seeping through at every turn. Here was the far-gone bygone living on in the wakening modern light, so much past pressed down into these flat cobbled stones—such density and mass. And my mind just kept moving, floating abstractedly between the then and now, suspended, not so much forming thoughts as idly weighing contrasts—old world, new world—but at the same time hoping that with enough of this back and forth I might snatch some new reckoning for my own life. Tick, tock. What could this predictable swing of mind and sense finally generate? Was there anything to be won beyond the walker’s fine adrenaline?

It turns out that there was. Something did come to me near the end of this long ramble: in the space of a few strides, between one street corner and another, I found myself rushed by what I can only call a violence of clear feeling. An “epiphany”? Whatever it was, the detonating image came at me almost cinematically— I had an eyeblink flash of something very big rising up as if through deep water. Now I can break the moment into a sequence. I was on a narrow street, heading back toward my side of the river, traversing a shadowy intersection, when I registered what almost felt like a throb in my peripheral vision. More sensed than seen, but I saw it, too: a building. I stopped where I was. What thing made of stone could still unsettle the eye in a city like this—after the Pitti Palace, the campanile, the Baptistry? Something. I took a few steps forward. And there it was, square in front of me: squat, primal, rigid in its own unlikely scale, a construction massive and palpably thick at the bottom, then slowly building up to a dome. But not just one of a thousand other Italian domes: this one felt in some vital way connected to the original shape of things. Opening night: a full thrust back into inspiration and the work of hands that made it real. Soon enough I would get my map and figure out that it was Brunelleschi’s famous Rotunda, but for that one moment I saw it unnamed—and it filled my looking right to the top.

The timing could not have been better—I understand that now. My thoughts were already primed. All that walking and looking: I had by stages come around to the question of religion, realizing in my slow way that faith and beauty had at some point first come together, and that that special power of seeing had then moved through Italy, through Europe. Now I was asking—it was impossible not to—if we had, in our own late world, any larger measure of art, any real sense of lastingness still, or greatness. Not like this, no. I was sure of that. I was, I see now, just a few quick beats away from taking up the question of the word, the book, the survival of literature. And if I had I would without question have called on the shade of Bellow once again—for help with a mental frame to hold it all, but also for solace, for the idea that the large view was still possible, or had been until very recently. I know how my thinking moves. But though I didn’t invoke him then, my reverie didn’t just vaporize either. It stayed with me through the rest of the trip, gradually mingling with all my thoughts of him, his sense of the soul always alive behind the maps and charts and labels, his enormous unquenched delight in the whole chaos of the human, until I got it—of course: I’d been thinking of him all along.

 

Sven Birkerts is editor of AGNI.


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