I was reminded of Humboldt's Gift by languagehat's post and decided to finally read it. I had picked it up for the first time at some tender young age when I thought reading every book mentioned in some other book was a good way to improve myself (in this case, naturally, I got bored after ten pages and quit). Surprisingly enough, the passing of a decade has not made the book less boring, although I can now follow Humboldt's financial misadventures with a sick kind of fascination.
In myself I could observe the following sources of tedium: 1) The lack of a personal connection with the external world. Earlier I noted that when I was riding through France in a train last spring I looked out of the window and thought that the veil of Maya was wearing thin. And why was this? I wasn't seeing what was there but only what everyone sees under a common directive. By this is implied that our worldview has used up nature. The rule of this view is that I, a subject, see the phenomena, the world of objects. They, however, are not necessarily in themselves objects as modern rationality defines objects. For in spirit, says Steiner, a man can step out of himself and let things speak to him about themselves, to speak about what has meaning not for him alone but also for the. Thus the sun the moon the stars will speak to nonastronomers in spite of their ignorance of science. In fact it's high time that this happened. Ignorance of science should not keep one imprisoned in the lowest and weariest sector of being, prohibited from entering into independent relations with the creation as a whole. The educated speak of the disenchanted (a boring) world. But it is not the world, it is my own head that is disenchanted. The world cannot be disenchanted. 2) For me the self-conscious ego is the seat of boredom. This increasing, swelling, domineering, painful self-consciousness is the only rival of the political and social powers that run my life (business, technological-bureaucratic powers, the state). You have a great organized movement of life, and you have the single self, independently conscious, proud of its detachment and its absolute immunity, its stability and its power to remain unaffected by anything whatsoever--by the sufferings of others or by society or by politics or by external chaos. In a way it doesn't give a damn. It is asked to give a damn, and we often urge it to give a damn but the curse of noncaring lies upon this painfully free consciousness. It is free from attachment to beliefs and to other souls. Cosmologies, ethical systems? It can run through them by the dozens. For to be fully conscious of oneself as an individual is also to be separated from all else. This is Hamlet's kingdom of infinite space in a nutshell, of "words, words, words," of "Denmark's a prison."
- Saul Bellow, Humboldt's Gift
But boredom isn't the issue. Lots of great books are boring, lots of bad ones utterly captivating. In this case, the always satisfying and occasionally marvelous lucidity of Bellow's prose style largely makes up for the tedium. The real problem with Humboldt's Gift is that it is immensely frustrating in a way only a novel of its time and place can be. The book hits every single one of the clichés of 1960s New York Jewish intellectual literature, whose most enduring representative ended up being Woody Allen. The protagonist is, naturally enough, a Jewish intellectual with big ideas and a deep investment in some fad movement or other; he is unable to suppress his learned wisecracking even as he's slumming it with the Mob; he's got a boyhood home back in the unimaginably distant wilds of Coney Island, of which he is perpetually vaguely embarrassed and proud; he's got an ex-wife who is described in no uncertain terms as a shrewish, money-grubbing bitch who's out to get him; he's got a roving, lecherous eye for women half his age. (The book is no less an example of New York Jewish literature for taking place mainly in Chicago.)
It is hard to believe the seriousness with which this book takes all of these aspects of Charlie Citrine's character, as if they were the author's profoundly original invention. Worst of all, however, are the aspects of the book that deal with his relationships with women. Bellow's female characters are all manipulative sluts or conniving Lucrezia Borgias or risible old maids or pert-assed pretend academics--in short, anything but people with real personalities and emotions beyond Citrine's drooling gaze. Bellow appears to expect us to be very interested in the details of Citrine's relationship with his ex-wife, despite the fact that there is nothing whatsoever even mildly interesting or redeeming about the entire plotline involving her. In fact, there is only a single female character that is passably dynamic or complex (Kathleen), and she gets little screen time. The big arc of the end of the book, Citrine's travels with Renata, is a kind of bizarre fever dream apparently dreamt up by someone who has never had a conversation with a woman outside of a brothel. Could it be that that's the whole point, that Citrine's problems come from his narcissism and his inability to treat people as ends rather than means? Maybe, but if so the book never quite breaks Citrine out of his obliviousness. Trying to divine authorial intent in such a case is not an especially useful project; as a reader, I can't help feeling irritated regardless. (Worse yet, the novel was published in 1973, which makes it hard to make allowances for the prejudices of a less enlightened time.)
At the same time, the book is filled with brilliant passages and quips about the failures of intellectuals, about boredom, about what it would mean to live an authentic intellectual life. They're worked in subtly: sometimes they begin in the middle of a paragraph, sometimes they take up several pages at a time. It is these remarks that keep the reader slogging through the book, and the way they seem to be worked into the larger narrative redeems it at least a little. For the inability to be a real intellectual occupying a privileged space of incorruptible isolation is really the main theme of the book, as far as I can tell, and the point is made convincingly. It's hard for me to believe that Saul Bellow takes anthroposophy as seriously as his protagonist takes it, and the inevitable ironic distance that results makes Citrine even more pathetic (and bathetic) and darkly comical than he seems at first. His phenomenological musings feed into his narcissism, and his narcissism leads him to obsess even more about his transcendent, sovereign soul. When all this is placed unsympathetically in the context of Citrine's endless financial and interpersonal problems, the book begins to look positively Nietzschean in the way it discredits his "groping towards redemption" (as the back cover blandly puts it).
Humboldt's Gift is not a book that is likely to change anyone's life in 2010. The Suck Fairy and her assistant, the Sexism Fairy, have done their work well, and many of Bellow's witticisms have aged particularly poorly. (Paul Goodman, alas, is no longer a name anyone would recognize off-hand.) But the experience still seems worthwhile, if only because of the reflections on boredom it encourages us to entertain, both as readers and as bored people. It's just too bad that this goal carries so much dross with it.