Saul Bellow was at the height of his powers when he wrote Humboldt’s Gift, which finally won him the Pulitzer Prize and was central to him being awarded the Nobel Prize. It is, he said, “a comedy about death,” and as such it is a huge success. Almost every sentence is funny or insightful about death and life and often both.
By coincidence I’m reading The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker, which was published in 1973 and won the Pulitzer prize in 1974. (It’s not a complete coincidence as I read lots of books on death.) It slowly dawned on me that Bellow must have read the book–indeed, it may well have been the inspiration for Humboldt’s Gift, which was published in 1975, winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1976. Becker’s thesis is that human behaviour and culture is driven by the plight of being both a creature who knows it will decay and die and a being who can think, manipulate symbols, and aspire to be a God. For centuries religion in some form provided meaning, an answer to death, but now man must find his own answers–and is doomed to fail.
(I realised as well that Bellow tackles some of the material raised in Ivan Illich’s Medical Nemesis, which was also published in 1975, but I’ll come to that later. It was Illich, whom I heard talk in 1974, who had such a dramatic effect on my thinking and life. https://jech.bmj.com/content/57/12/928 Bellow had quite likely encountered Illich because he was a major cultural figure at the time.)
Late in the book Bellow refers to the task he’d set himself in writing Humboldt’s Gift:
“I had been brought up to detest self-pity. It was part of my American training to be energetic, and positive, and a thriving energy system, and an achiever, and having achieved two Pulitzer prizes and the Zig-Zag medal and a good deal of money (of which I was robbed by a Court of Equity), I had set myself a final and ever higher achievement, namely, an indispensable metaphysical revision, a more correct way of thinking about the question of death!”
The narrator Charlie Citrine, a writer, is clearly an alter ego of Bellow, but both are also infused with the spirit of Humboldt, the dead and crazy poet. Bellow/Citrine emphaises the importance of tackling the question of death:
Ignorance of death is destroying us. No honorable person can refuse to lend his mind, to give his time, to devote his soul to this problem of problems. Death now has no serious challenge from science or from philosophy or religion or art….”
Intellectuals have not done well with the question of death, the main question:
“Oh, I admired some of these intellectuals without limits. Especially the princes of science, astrophysicists, pure mathematicians, and the like. But nothing had been done about the main question. The main question, as Walt Whitman had pointed out, was the death question.”
Like Becker, Bellow recognises that those animals, all the others we know of, that are simply creatures untouched by knowledge of their own deaths, have no problem with death:
“All around the lake the Forestry Service posted natural-history placards about the beaver’s life cycle. The beavers didn’t know a damn thing about this. They just went on chewing and swimming and being beavers. But we human beavers are all shook up by descriptions of ourselves.”
And, as in Becker, knowledge of or terror of death drives everything:
“On the metaphysical assumptions about death everyone in the world had apparently reached, everyone would be snatched, ravished by death, throttled, smothered. This terror and this murdering were the most natural things in the world. And these same conclusions were incorporated into the life of society and present in all its institutions, in politics, education, banking, justice.”
But Citrine/Bellow is finding no comfort in his quest:
“Thinking how the death problem is the bourgeois problem, relating to material prosperity and the conception of life as pleasant and comfortable, and what Max Weber had written about the modern conception of life as an infinite series of segments, gainful advantageous and “pleasant,” failing to provide the feeling of a life cycle, so that one couldn’t die “full of years.” But these learned high-class exercises didn’t take the death-curse off for me. I could only conclude how bourgeois it was that I should be so neurotic about stifling in the grave. The human being, more and more oppressed by the peculiar terms of his existence—one time around for each, no more than a single life per customer—has to think of the boredom of death. O those eternities of nonexistence! For people who crave continual interest and diversity, O! how boring death will be! To lie in the grave, in one place, how frightful!”
But he attempts an answer, an unsatisfactory one:
“Suppose, then, that after the greatest, most passionate vividness and tender glory, oblivion is all we have to expect, the big blank of death. What options present themselves? One option is to train yourself gradually into oblivion so that no great change has taken place when you have died. Another option is to increase the bitterness of life so that death is a desirable release. (In this the rest of mankind will fully collaborate.) There is a further option seldom chosen. That option is to let the deepest elements in you disclose their deepest information. If there is nothing but nonbeing and oblivion waiting for us, the prevailing beliefs have not misled us, and that’s that. This would astonish me, for the prevailing beliefs seldom satisfy my need for truth. Still the possibility must be allowed. Suppose, however, that oblivion is not the case? What, then, have I been doing for about six decades? I think that I never believed that oblivion was the case and by five and a half decades of distortion and absurdity I have challenged and disputed the alleged rationality and finality of the oblivion view.”
Later he reaches the same conclusion as Becker, that man needs faith:
“Now we must listen in secret to the sound of the truth that God puts into us.” Faith was called absurd. But now faith will perhaps move these mountains of commonsense absurdity.”
Citrine’s buxom, much younger girlfriend, Renata, who eventually abandons him for a rich undertaker, is unimpressed with Citrine’s efforts to answer the problem of death. She has a much simpler view of the problem, one shared by most people:
“You work, you get bread, you lose a leg, kiss some fellows, have a baby, you live to be eighty and bug hell out of everybody, or you get hung or drowned. But you don’t spend years trying to dope your way out of the human condition.”
And so to Illich, an intellectual and Jesuit excommunicated by the Catholic Church, who argued that medicine had tried to replace culture in dealing with pain, sickness, and death with an empty if implicit promise of defeating all three. It had expropriated health. Illich, it seems, was a follower of Goethe:
“Goethe was afraid the modern world might turn into a hospital. Every citizen unwell. The same point in Knock by Jules Romains. Is hypochondria a creation of the medical profession? According to this author, when culture fails to deal with the feeling of emptiness and the panic to which man is disposed (and he does say ‘disposed’) other agents come forward to put us together with therapy, with glue, or slogans, or spit, or as that fellow Gumbein the art critic says, poor wretches are recycled on the couch. This view is even more pessimistic than the one held by Dostoevski’s Grand Inquisitor who said: mankind is frail, needs bread, cannot bear freedom but requires miracle, mystery, and authority. A natural disposition to feelings of emptiness and panic is worse than that. Much worse. What it really means is that we human beings are insane. The last institution which controlled such insanity (on this view) was the Church—”
This is the most magnificent of books, a worthy winner of the Nobel Prize.