Tag Archives: Saul Bellow

My Life as a Bird

I recently received several letters from the dead. I had gone to see my parents for the day, a glorious drive across the Golden Gate into wine country where sunlit almond orchards shimmered pink under snowy mountains. While there, my mother gave me a “baby book” she’d kept when I was an infant. Tucked inside were a handful of letters written to me – between birth and my first anniversary – by various grandparents, an uncle (the only writer still alive), and my great-grandmother.

In a typewritten two-pager dated October 11, 1973, my paternal grandfather introduces himself:

Here you are, 3 weeks old, and I haven’t even written to you yet! Don’t understand this to mean that your grandfather isn’t proud of you, or that he doesn’t love you very much – just say that I am a lousy letter writer and a little on the lazy side.

There’s another from him written a year later that includes his reflections on Watergate – an interesting coincidence since my wife and I only watched Frost/Nixon last week. Later in life, this particular grandfather, an old Iowa farm boy, would write an unpublished autobiography full of corncrib wisdom, charmingly titled I Was Here, World – Did You Notice?

In another letter from October ’73, my maternal grandmother is admiring a photograph of me that she has just received. “You’re a little puffy around the eyes,” she says, “but being born isn’t easy.” Considering myself in the mirror this morning I have to admit that I’m still a little puffy around the eyes. Being thirty-seven isn’t easy either. (I know, I know, this can hardly be interesting to anyone else, but bear with me…)

The letter from my still-very-much-living uncle, includes a brief disclaimer about this whole business of life that I’ve just been launched upon, and a heads-up about certain kinds of people I’m bound to run into sooner or later:

Lots of people now-a-days are really cynical and say they would never want a child of theirs to be born in such a world, a world of war, hate, greed, envy, hostility, sickness, pollution, etc. But [Ian], those are like dead people, they can’t find the happiness in life and so they think there is none.

Finally, inside a white envelope stamped with an 8-cent Dwight Eisenhower, there’s a card from my great-grandmother, Mary Irene. It’s decorated with a pencil sketch of a mother bird flapping excitedly over her nestlings. (A printed note on the back says it was drawn by a female polio victim who held the pencil in her teeth and spent two months on the picture).  “Dear Wee [Ian],” Nanny writes:

Welcome to this world. It isn’t always an easy world. It is confusing and sometimes hurtful but there is joy and happiness to be found here, and may you find it in all fullness. May you, in good health, grow strong and sturdy, remembering always that you are God’s gift to us and that life is God’s gift to you. Use it well.

I don’t suppose very many letters are written to persons so patently unable to read or appreciate them as I was when these were put in the mail. But I was the premiere member of my generation on both sides of the family, and born at the far end of the country (my parents were in college), which probably accounts for it. Coming into possession of these letters now and reading them for the first time, I get a hot fluttering in my throat, a blush of omphaloskeptic vertigo. Too crisp glimpses of the past can make the present look blurry and precarious.

Use it well. I was just reminding a friend the other day how in our twenties we still talked in terms of what we were “going to do” with our lives. Whatever that was fated to be for each of us, we’re doing it now. Perhaps that’s why so many of our acquaintances, now that we’re in our late thirties and early forties, suddenly throw everything into the air and start over, no matter how recklessly. They panic, I think, at the sense of creeping irrevocability – Death, perhaps, by another name. I feel that panic too sometimes. To judge by every Woody Allen movie I’ve ever seen, it’s not going away anytime soon.

In an early chapter of Speak, Memory, Vladimir Nabokov describes a visit to his St Petersburg home by General Alexei Kuropatkin, a friend of his father. Sitting on a couch, the general tries to impress young Nabokov by laying out matches in overlapping patterns that mimic stormy seascapes. Someone enters the room and the general stands: the matches scatter on the floor. Years later in the Crimea during the Russian Civil War, Nabokov watches a tramp with matted hair and beard approach his father to ask for a light. Nabokov senior pulls some matches from his pocket. There’s a moment of startled recognition: the tramp is General Kuropatkin, in hiding. But it’s not so much the fate of Kuropatkin that interests Nabokov as the symbolic continuity of the matches:

The following of such thematic designs through one’s life should be, I think, the true purpose of autobiography.

A strange bit of literary advice, but I was reminded of it yesterday morning when I found myself dressed for work in black woolen pants, a black sweater, black shirt, black socks, black boots and a black pea coat. In fact, two ideas suggested themselves. First, I realized that I was dressed for a funeral (I saw the faces of the deceased relatives whose letters I’d just received, and then myself in a coffin). Second, it occurred to me that my dress approximated the ravens I’d seen the day before. Walking with my son through the outdoor farmers’ market we’d heard their froggy croaking and found them hurriedly building a nest of foot-long twigs above someone’s third-floor bedroom window. They were twice as big as our regular crows, a mating pair, with ruffled chests, Roman noses, and wide purple-black wings.

Nabokov has his matches, and of course his butterflies. Here, perhaps, is my symbolic continuity: “Bird” was among the first words I ever spoke; like a saddled cowboy I used to ride the back of a giant cast-iron rooster in the garden; later, a songbird landed on my head and frightened me so much that for years I wouldn’t leave home without a hat; a favorite story from my father’s boyhood involved an aggressive pet goose named Big Chief Harvest Moon; then, of course, my maternal grandmother was always collecting owls – owl-shaped salt and pepper shakers, figurines, music boxes, etc. ; and of course there were the birds I had shot with my BB-gun when we lived in the country, blackbirds and sparrows mostly, whose feet I collected in a painted wooden box; and don’t I still take my children bird-watching at the shore and in the hills? and don’t I look anxiously for each year’s first hummingbird, first robin, first mourning dove?

And now here are these letters by slow post from my personal antiquity, one from a beloved great-grandmother with a curious drawing of a mother bird and her hatchlings on it. And here is this pair of squawking bully ravens and their ill-chosen nesting site, toiling with mere sticks to make a space in the world for their helpless little ones. And here am I, the little bird grown, rushing off on a frosty morning with my own son underwing to drop him at school.

I occupy three places at once, my image repeated as in a collapsible telescope: I am the long-awaited, the fresh from the egg, the mother hovering over her nest. My son is myself and I am my father. I will become my grandparents, and my great-grandparents too. Line up the symbols and scan for syntax – but what does it add up to? What does it mean? I’m not sufficiently perceptive (or schizophrenic) to read it. I can only smile at the correspondence and recall a favorite passage from Saul Bellow’s Herzog:

But he had not forgotten the odor of his mother’s saliva on the handkerchief… All children have cheeks and all mothers spittle to wipe them tenderly. These things either matter or they do not matter. It depends upon the universe, what it is.

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Introducing Children to the Holocaust

I once met a woman whose job it had been to remove gold fillings from the mouths of the dead.  She was a small person with short dark hair and an accent, a younger friend of my grandmother, and it was by that gruesome occupation that she had survived the concentration camps.  I couldn’t shake the awful image of it.  I was eleven or twelve at the time; she must have been a girl about my own age then, turning over corpses with a pair of pliers in her hand.

My son worships Charlie Chaplin.  But he wasn’t sure, at seven years old, that The Great Dictator was a film he could appreciate.  I had explained to him that it satirized Adolf Hitler, a very bad man, and Nazi Germany at the beginning of the Second World War, which (I reminded him) two of his great-grandfathers had fought in.  “Maybe I should be a little older before I see it,” he said.  But we started the movie and by the time we reached Adenoid Hynkel’s macaronic speech under the banner of the “double cross” any hesitation had been conquered by hilarity.

He was baffled and disturbed, however, by the scenes in the ghetto when storm troopers marched through the streets painting ‘JEW’ on the windows.  They bullied shopkeepers and women and pushed and threatened Chaplin himself, in his role as the unnamed Jewish barber.  Why are they all being so terrible? he wanted to know.

I gave what could only feel like a weak explanation.  How, I wondered, does one go about introducing the idea of the Holocaust to a seven year old?  He knows something about the history of slavery in the United States, about President Lincoln’s emancipation proclamation and the American Civil War.  But these things must seem far away compared to the horrible conflict that touched, one way or another, the lives of his parents’ own grandfathers.

We want to protect our children from damaging knowledge.  We also want them to understand the kind of world they live in.  The danger of the first is that we leave them defenseless in their innocence.  The danger of the second is that their souls are poisoned and they surrender later in life to that despairing notion Moses Herzog rails against in Bellow’s novel, that “the truth is true only as it brings down more disgrace and dreariness upon human beings, so that if it shows anything except evil it is illusion.”

My grandmother’s friend never talked to children about the war, but she silently showed me the fading blue numbers the Nazi jailers had tattooed on her arm.  It’s less and less likely my children will ever meet survivors of the death camps.  But if there is a way of introducing the Holocaust to a child without at the same time depriving him of natural hope, perhaps Chaplin’s movie is it.  George Santayana wrote that “between the laughing and the weeping philosopher there is no opposition.”  Chaplin, I think, is proof of that.

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Marginalia, no.116

Readiness to answer all questions is the infallible sign of stupidity.

~ Saul Bellow, Herzog

I turn to Bellow for flattery.  Because if, on the other hand, unreadiness to answer any question whatsoever is the mark of intelligence, then you may write in my name for the presidency of MENSA.  I’m daily astonished at how little I know – and how little, it seems, I can know.  Whether I’m asked my opinion on a top-ten controversy of the day or a trivial bit of work-related nothingism, my response is the same: Who the hell am I to have an opinion?  Most days it’s all I can do to keep functioning as an organism and not go mad.

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Marginalia, no.106

Every other man spoke a language entirely his own, which he had figured out by private thinking: he had his own ideas and peculiar ways.  If you wanted to talk about a glass of water, you had to start back with God creating the heavens and earth; Abraham, Moses and Jesus; Rome; the Middle Ages; gunpowder; the Revolution; back to Newton; up to Einstein; then war and Lenin and Hitler.  After reviewing this and getting it all straight again you could proceed to talk about a glass of water.  ‘I’m fainting, please get me a little water.’  You were lucky even then to make yourself understood.

~ Saul Bellow, Seize the Day

Montaigne somewhere reminds us that “we can misuse only things which are good.”  Language is misused for the same reason most things are: because the pleasures of bad grammar beat the pleasures of good.  I wonder if the abuses of language don’t generally tend toward solipsism, the temptation to isolate oneself or to push others away.  You may end up incomprehensible to anyone but yourself, of course, but masturbation has always been a private pastime.

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Marginalia, no.62

I prefer to accept as a motive not the thing I fully understand but the thing I partly understand.  Utter clarity of explanation to me is false.

~ Saul Bellow, Herzog

Among my less charming personal faults is the inability to understand the motives for my own words or actions.  When asked to explain myself I take up the task with real curiosity.  I’m as eager as anyone to hear what I have to say in my defense.  Sometimes the motives I uncover are interesting or enlightening for me personally, but they frequently fail to convince.  I admit that explanations volunteered by others often sound more plausible.  Still, I feel misunderstood.

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Camera Obscura

terra-incognita

God’s veil over things makes them all riddles.  If they were not all so particular, detailed, and very rich I might have more rest from them.  But I am a prisoner of perception, a compulsory witness.

~ Saul Bellow, Herzog

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Marginalia, no.48

A man is born to be orphaned, and to leave orphans after him, but a chair like that chair, if he can afford it, is a great comfort.

~ Saul Bellow, Herzog

In my parents’ house is a rocking chair that has creaked with the weight of six generations of my family.  There’s scroll-work relief on the head board and a crack through the seat that was solidly, if unbeautifully, repaired decades ago.  The steam-bent arms are so smoothly worn they trick the fingertips with an impression of cool, liquid softness.  It’s not what Bellow had in mind – but it occurs to me that it’s sometimes hard to love the particulars of one’s existence.  Love of the actual – which precludes any designs for its improvement – is dearly bought.  But all our airy Platonisms to the contrary, it’s only a chair “like that chair” that comforts – if you can afford it.

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