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Mr. Sammler's Planet by Saul Bellow
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Feb 27, 2011

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As the sun set upon the sixties there was a great belief in progress, an enthusiasm for the future and the potential of a humanity in the process of throwing off the chains of oppression and moral rigidity, of embracing individuality and the paramountcy of the self, encapsulated in the technological miracle of the imminent moon landing. Yet even as this hope was spreading like a fever, crime, familial dissolution, and urban decay were settling upon the United States, an unwelcome layer of grime clinging to a nation charging down a playing field overhung with the apocalyptic threat of nuclear war. Certain Americans - like the titular Mr. Sammler, an elderly jewish survivor of the death camps of World War II and denizen of a crumbling New York City - could only view this faith in progress with a jaundiced and cynical eye; as the capitulation to the sensual, personal and emotional of the morals, virtues and sense of community that had enabled the country to attain its present wonders and marvels.

Sexual potency and virile radicalism - the energy of the uprising - trumps rational erudition and dusty mores with the younger generation, a point driven home to Mr. Sammler in a visceral manner by the tumescent exposed prick of a brazen black street burglar - a silent warning to the witness of his boldness (and, perhaps, to the white majority of a new-found black confidence in post-Civil Rights America) - and the students at a lecture given by Mr. Sammler at Columbia University in which he is shouted down with scornful declarations of being a withered fossil with juiceless testicles. Against the meandering, selfish and licentious peregrinations of his daughter, great-nephew and great-niece, Mr. Sammler holds in great esteem his sick nephew Elya, a patron in every sense of the word, a man who believes in fidelity to family, doing one's duty and sacrificing one's own pleasures and desires if it advances the welfare of one's kin; and doing it all with an innate kindness and generosity that Mr. Sammler finds lacking even in himself. His hardened and at times ungenerous nature was forged in the desperate realities of wartime Europe - that of late sixties America by a surfeit of material prosperity and looming armageddon. In the face of abundance or apocalypse, who will deign to sacrifice?

Bellow is a meaty writer, dense and probing and philosophical, and his mature works reflect a growing conservatism and doubt. Mr. Sammler is formed from the same skeptical material, one that cannot concede the future's potentiality when wandering through New York neighborhoods that are concrete wastelands. Yet within the coruscating chaos of the younger generation he can only hope there lies the seeds of a recovery of the familial adhesion and sense of duty that forms the core of a strong society. A lesser known piece from Bellow, still a challenging read but well worth it.
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