Some of my work on Updike was discussed on The Dish with Andrew Sullivan.
Some of my work on Ross Macdonald was discussed on Pretty Sinister Books.
Here is my interview with superstar music impresario Wendy Starland.
Here is my interview with Pulitzer Prize nominee Olympia Vernon.
Here is my interview with the editor of Best American Short Stories, Heidi Pitlor.
Here is my interview with acclaimed artist Emil Kazaz.
My musing on John D. Macdonald, Travis McGee, and the chicks was picked up on The Rap Sheet.

The Recurring of “The Thing Itself” in Robert Stone’s Fiction

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        At the American Literature Association Conference in Boston in May, 2013, I presented a paper on what I called ‘recurring motif-images’in the fiction of Don DeLillo.  (A transcript is posted on this blog in the September, 2013 section.) My point there was that in his first seven novels, pre-White Noise, DeLillo had a consistent vocabulary of stock images that he went to over and over again, much like an auteur film director does.  I used these four images from four different films of Kubrick’s as an example of what I meant, my point being that DeLillo does much the same thing in words:

            I’m aware that other authors such as Bellow and Updike do this as well, though I’ve never sat down and rigorously researched their efforts in a thoroughgoing manner as I have done with DeLillo.  A recent period of reading some of Robert Stone’s novels and stories demonstrated to me that Stone, too, employs this strategy.  In what follows below I’ll  briefly discuss the recurring motif-image of “The thing itself”  in some of Stone’s writing.

1.      Dog Soldiers.  When Marge and Hicks first meet Stone writes:
“There was no power in her.  She sought the stale mouth, warmed to the
beak across her belly, curled herself in the fear, the danger, the death.  The thing itself.”
Much later, just before Hicks dies, he thinks:
            “Let them take it back then.  Let them have all the illusion back.  Strip it down, we’ll have it whole.  The answer is the thing itself.”

       At first I thought this was  Stone’s variation on the term Kant invented to describe the noumenal world, “the thing in itself.”  That is, how something exists in and of itself apart from human perception of it.  It wasn’t clear to me at all if Stone is trying to employ this phrase in Kant’s original sense or in some new sense.  Also, the fact that two different characters in the novel should have this phrase rumble across their consciousness in such different contexts might be read as letting the author’s own consciousness intrude upon the fiction a little bit too much (although, of course, that too can be debated).  But I soon realized, as is evident from Children of Light,  that Stone is referring to the famous quote from Lear, “Thou art the thing itself” and not to Kant.

2.      Children of Light.  On the second page of this novel Walker quotes “Thou art the thing itself” to himself as he stumbles around Bronwen’s apartment, hung over – just a moment earlier, seeing himself in the mirror, he had let the phrase silently pass through his mind. 

3.      Outerbridge Reach. 
“It’s been a crazy summer, I know,” Browne said.  “Everything’s upside down.  I’m sorry we couldn’t get to the island.  I really wanted to.”  Maybe, he thought, it was love he was after.  The thing itself. 

Bellow, The Dean's December

William James’ Concept of Tough Minded/Tender Minded in The Dean’s December
“Tender-mindedness is an uncomfortable problem for all parties.” –Saul Bellow,
The tender-minded must harden themselves.” – Saul Bellow, Herzog

In the early twentieth century, in his series of lectures entitled Pragmatism, the philosopher and psychologist William James advanced the thesis that, broadly speaking, people can be separated into two general categories of personality – tough minded and tender minded.[1]  Here are these two classes as described by James in his own words:
            Tough minded – empiricist (going by ‘facts’); sensationalistic; materialistic; pessimistic; irreligious; fatalistic; pluralistic; skeptical.
            Tender minded – rationalistic (going by ‘principles’); intellectualistic; idealistic; optimistic; religious; free-willist; monistic; dogmatical.
            In this paper I’ll propose that the mind of Albert Corde in Saul Bellow’s 1982 novel The Dean’s December functions in complete harmony with this Jamesian dichotomy and that Corde automatically, reflexively assesses the more than thirty characters he interacts with in the novel as belonging to one category or the other. In deference to manageability I’ll not select every single character but, rather, just thirteen. Some of these are minor and some more important. Of these thirteen five (other than Corde himself) are of critical importance to the overall arc of the novel – Minna, Mason Zaehner Sr., Dewey Spangler, Sam Beech, and Vlada Voynich.   I offer this mix of major and minor players in order to illustrate the lengths to which Bellow goes to establish which side of the James scale the character falls on even if they only appear in the novel for a page or two. However, in my estimation, Corde passes a kind of “tough minded or tended minded?” judgment on every character, even those that appear for barely a few sentences such as Silky Limpopo and  G.O. O’Meara.
            Of course, Corde is not the only Bellovian protagonist who looks at the world in this manner.  Clara Velde, Artur Sammler, Moses Herzog, Charlie Citrine, and Chick in Ravelstein, among others, all share this worldview to some degree as well.  Indeed, as we shall see, in select cases virtually the same thoughts, once or twice expressed in virtually the same words, that cross Corde’s mind also cross the minds of these several principal characters from the other novels.  In particular, in Humboldt’s Gift, Bellow specifically waxes philosophical on some of James’ ideas.  (We will take a very brief look at this at the end of the paper.)

                  As a corollary I’d like to investigate, to a degree, the tension that exists in the novel between humanism and “hard” science as rival explanations for the state of the universe. This tension is mainly identified with the character Sam Beech in the novel, although there are an unusually high amount of people in the sciences who help make up this cast of characters. Again, obviously, in exploring this issue The Dean’s December is not alone among Bellow’s works ( I believe it is first explicitly stated as a philosophical concern of Bellow’s in the story “The Old System” in Mosby’s Memoirs); however I think that, as is the case with the Jameseian distinction mentioned above, it is at the forefront of The Dean’s December in a much more pronounced and dramatic way than it is in the other books. 
            The justification for dwelling a bit on Beech’s view in a discussion of Psychological Approaches to Bellow’s Work can be stated as follows: if Beech’s view of human beings is correct, we are all little more than automatons in a Skinner Box, little more than sophisticated versions of Pavlov’s dogs.  Such a view is obviously not compatible with Corde’s (nor, by extension, Bellow’s) cosmology; therefore it requires and deserves some careful attention.
Even for an author with such an accomplished body of work, this is an unusually rich and gratifying novel, and  one of the primary reasons it is so is that Corde is an astute judge of people in a way that, say, Herzog or Charlie Citrine is not.  (Unlike those two heroes, Corde has no ex wife from hell stirring up trouble in his life – indeed, while it is briefly mentioned that both Corde and Minna have been married before, nothing else about their previous spouses or marriages is talked about at all. Presumably neither one has children)   And one of the reasons he is an astute judge is because he casts these Jamesian categories upon people.
Let’s now attempt to examine some characters as they appear more or less sequentially in the novel, and take a look at the thoughts that go through Corde’s mind about each, and into which of James’ two groups they  may be placed. Some characters, such as the Colonel or the Ambassador, obviously go into a category without much need for analysis of their thoughts and actions; others, such as Minna and Vlada Voynich, are actually hybrid personalities exhibiting strong signs of both personality designations.   In regard to the issues raised by Sam Beech, I will try to briefly discuss the humanist/hard scientist rivalry.   Of necessity this approach omits any kind of detailed analysis of the novel’s plot, themes or any broader meanings it might have in regard to topics such as the state of Chicago in the 1980s, conditions in the Eastern bloc countries in that same decade, the decidedly different view of marriage and relationships in this novel than in Bellow’s earlier ones, Bellow’s customary contempt for attorneys and the court system, etc.  Here, I am not concerned with any of these worthy issues.
            Here is a list of characters that Corde interacts with in the novel.  Each name is accompanied by a designation of tough and tender as seen through Corde’s eyes.  Names with an asterisk are discussed in some detail following the list:
1.      Corde; tender; *
2.      The Colonel; tough; *
3.      Minna; hybrid;*
4.      Valeria; tender; *
5.      Petrescu; tough; *
6.      Tanti Gigi; tender
7.      Corde’s father; tough
8.      Dr. Moldovanu; tough
9.      Dr. Gherea; tough; *
10.  Sam Beech; tough; *
11.  Vlada Voynich; hybrid; *
12.  Mason Zaehner Jr.; tough
13.  Alex Witt; tough; *
14.  Mason Zaehner Sr.; tough; *
15.  Riggie Hines; tough
16.  Rufus Ridpath; tender
17.  Prof. Voynich; tender
18.  Milancey; tender
19.  The Ambassador; tender; *
20.  Maxie Detillion; tough;
21.  Dewey Spangler; tough; *
22.  Elfrida; tough
23.  Miss Porson; tough
24.  Ioanna; tough
25.  Traia; tough
26.  Limpopo; hybrid
27.  Wolf Quitman; tough
28.  G.O. O’Meara; tough
29.  Toby Winthrop; tough; *
30.  Sam Varennes; tough
31.  Spofford Mitchell; tough
32.  Judge Sorokin; tough
33.  Dincutza; tough
34.  Sam Michaels; tough

We can now begin a slightly more detailed analysis.
            1. Corde himself.  Four times within the first hundred pages of the novel Corde berates himself, takes issue with himself, for being too much of a reader. 2  This decidedly tender minded trait – “intellectualistic” in James’ words – is one strong indicator of Corde’s tender minded inclinations. 
            In another example of Corde’s tender mindedness Sam Beech (“a pure scientist”) – in one sense about as tough minded a person as anybody can be – explains to Corde that he believes he has found the explanation for crime in the Chicago slums – lead poisoning in the population.  Corde’s immediate reaction is “Once more, a direct material cause?  Everything had a direct material cause?”  Clearly Corde has neither the stomach nor the head for Beech’s mechanistic, Hobbesian rationale for society’s problems.  (Vlada tells Corde “Beech wants his case stated not only to the general public but also to the Humanists.”  The implication is that the Humanists deplore Beechian materialistic determinism.)  This is therefore a direct, head on clash of outlooks.    
            At one point Corde imagines that his nephew Mason is thinking about him, Corde: “What did Uncle Albert stake?  Let him stick to his fancy higher education, seminars in Plato and the Good.”  Obviously, such seminars are for the enjoyment of the tender minded only.
            Perhaps the clearest indication of Corde’s tender mindedness is illustrated by a small slip up that he makes in regard to his own self knowledge.  Early on in the novel he has the self referential thought that he is “an experienced man” on three separate occasions. 3  Yet barely within twenty pages of this thrice thought self description, in reflecting upon his Harper’s articles, he thinks, of himself: “A more experienced, craftier man would have anticipated this.”
Clearly this contradiction signals a kind of internal psychological groping, but it’s also part of an ingenious device Bellow has concocted in order to create a human tie between Corde and Lucas Ebry and Riggie Hines, of whom Corde muses “Experienced killers would have done something about Lydia – she was a witness – but these two took off.”  In fact, it’s quite striking to read the two sentences, extracted out of context, side by side:
                                    “A more experienced, craftier man would have anticipated this.”
“Experienced killers would have done something about Lydia – she was a          witness – but these two took off.”
The “experienced people would have done so and so …” motif is used, I think, to suggest
a basic connection between these otherwise very different characters at a fundamental human level – as disparate as they are socially, culturally, ethnically and intellectually, they are shown to have the common flaw of inexperience.
            2. The Colonel - An apparatchik through and through, we probably shouldn’t expect the Colonel to be anything but tough minded – indeed, he is so to the point of cruelty.  He refuses to let Corde and Minna in to see the dying Valeria on the grounds of a minor infraction of the rules (they visited her once with permission and a second time without it), saying that this is what we expect to find in an intensive care unit, dying people.  He then makes the heartless suggestion that the Cordes can visit her as often as they like if she is removed from the unit, but everybody knows she would die in a few minutes if that were the case.  Corde specifically identifies him as tough (“He was a tough bureaucrat”) and notes the Colonel’s admiration for Minna due to her status as a “hard” scientist.  Through his behavior we see that it’s more important to him to perhaps punish Minna for defecting than to show basic human empathy for her and her dying mother.
 3. Mihai Petrescu – Petrescu, chief of staff to the dying Valeria, is, just as the Colonel was, specifically thought of by Corde as tough (“It wasn’t just in Raymond Chandler novels that you met tough guys.  All kinds of people are tough.”) Incidentally, in A Theft, which follows seven years after, Bellow is unable to resist the Raymond Chandler reference a second time. 4
4. Minna – Minna is a decidedly hybrid personality, blending important characteristics of both of James’ types.  The following quotes speak for themselves; they establish Minna as tough minded insofar as she is much more interested in the sciences than the humanities:
“Minna’s old lycee was nearby…That lycee had specialized in the “hard” disciplines, apparently.  Behind the iron curtain, history and literature were phony subjects, but mathematics and the physical sciences were incorruptible.” 5
“In Minna’s view the planet was a far better subject than slums, crimes and prisons.  Why bother with that sort of thing if you could write instead about a geophysicist like Beech?” 6
“He gathered, moreover, that the colleagues and cousins were extremely proud of Minna’s scientific eminence.  He was with them there. It warmed him to think how much there was also on the human side…” 7
“”My wife (Minna) is a simple person.  No politics.”” 8
“Nothing but particle physics, galaxies, equations.  Minna had never read the Communist Manifesto, had never heard of Stalin’s Great Terror.” 9
“What an innocent person! She did stars; human matters were her husband’s field.  Some division of labor!”  [10]
All of these quotes, and many others, show her inclination towards, and appreciation for, science. Empirically oriented people, according to James, are inherently tough.  And yet in other ways she is almost stereotypically tender minded, softer, gentler. This long quote illustrates this point well:

“Concentration made her face severe. This happened also when she was doing science.  With Corde Minna was often cheerful and childlike.  When he pleased her, she might jump up and down and clap her hands like a small girl.  But when she worked she was a different person entirely.  She sat in her corner hours on end with a pad and pencil, writing symbols, her face turned downward, the upper lip lengthened, the chin compressed and dented….Until now she had had little interest in psychology.  Her mother was the psychiatrist; she had left that all to her.  But now she was forced to study people.” [11]
            This is clearly the behavior of a tender minded person; it thus seems that Minna is a hybrid type.
            Still, it is worth remembering that when at the very end of the novel Minna’s young assistant tries to explain some astronomy to Corde, Corde’s comment is “I can’t follow.”  In writing about the relationship between the Cordes Bellow goes to great lengths to stress how each is fundamentally clueless about the other’s life’s work. 
5. Valeria – It’s an old adage in film criticism that, for a movie to be considered great, it must have at least three great individual scenes.  If we may borrow this principle and apply it to literature, then surely one of the three great scenes in The Dean’s December occurs when Corde takes the dying Valeria’s hand in the hospital and tells her “I also love you, Valeria.”  This causes the machines and instrumentation to go crazy and her body to jerk violently.  I dare say a tough minded person would be more stoic, more resigned, less emotional in this situation, and that it is, on the basis of this one scene alone, safe to label Valeria tender minded.  Corde’s typical thought of her is “Really, she was fair minded”.  She is not an overwhelmingly “in your face” type like so many of the other people Corde meets and reflects upon.
6. Gherea-   Unquestionably tough minded, Gherea is the brain surgeon who was trained by Minna’s father years ago and whom Minna considers asking to look at Valeria.  Minna calls him “savage” and reports to Corde that he actually punches and kicks his assistants in the operating room, and will not work until he is paid his bribe.  He even made the dictator’s son share a hospital room with another patient.  Although this is a character who may plausibly exist within the novel’s realistic scenario, I believe he is there to serve mainly as a reflection of Mason Zaehner, Sr.  Corde says of Gherea “A brute.  You don’t have to tell me about brutes.”  Later, shown a mug shot of Gherea, Corde says “There are plenty of pusses like that in Chicago.” Bellow is showing us that this hard nosed, brutal personality type is relatively common and can exist anywhere, in Chicago or in Bucharest or wherever.
7. Sam Beech – Beech represents one kind of “tough” person in the novel; Mason Zaehner Sr. represents another, different brand of tough.  (Bellow uses the word “tough” in sentences about Zaehner so many times that it starts to become a monotonous joke after a while.) It is not so much Beech himself, but rather his beliefs, his way of viewing the world and the place of human beings in it, that are of major importance in the novel.  In fact, it could be argued that the issues Beech raises are, in fact, the central issues of the novel although, in the literature I can find about the book, they have almost never been identified as such.
In William James’ terminology, Beech is the consummate empiricist.
Beech’s worldview is entirely materialistic – he believes that the cause of crime and poverty in the inner city has a wholly chemical explanation: “Crime and social disorganization in inner city populations can all be traced to the effects of lead.  It comes down to the nerves, to brain damage.”   In other words, to put it in exceedingly simple terms, Substance S (lead) gets into a human body and produces Effect E on the brain, and the result is criminal behavior and poverty. There is no room for the social sciences or the humanities here; nor is there any room for the sort of Closing of the American Mind theories that Bellow cooked up with Allan Bloom  (Cf. p. 187 of DD: “The answer to juvenile crime is not in reading King Lear or Macbeth.”)
At the risk of seeming to go off on a wild tangent, I would like to try and express Beech’s views in a way that Bellow does not quite articulate fully in the novel. 
Beech is advocating an essentially nuts and bolts view of human society.  If something cannot be touched, detected or measured with an instrument – like electricity, x rays, or what’s happening in the stock market – then it cannot be quantified and cannot be said to exist.  If crime and poverty are destroying the underclass the root cause of the destruction has to be something you can touch, taste, and smell.  Fine theories and policies are not going to suffice as an explanation.
Corde’s reaction  to Beech’s views is instructive:
“Polite Corde, with silent lips, nodding, doubted this. He wore a look of quiet but high dubiety.  Once more, a direct material cause?  Everything had a direct material cause? …Direct material causes?  Of course.  Who could deny them?  But what was odd was that no other causes were conceived of.  “So it’s lead, nothing but old lead?” he said.
            “I would ask you to study the evidence.”” [12]
As Corde listens to Beech’s tapes he hears that only the “pure sciences” can fix the problems facing inner cities, government agencies being incompetent.  Corde, however, understands that this way of viewing things removes any semblance of human beings as functioning agents, as creatures of responsibility.  It depicts them as passive and powerless, almost robots.  Corde’s doubt is nicely summarized by a passage from the philosopher John Searle:
“How can there be an objective world of money, property, marriage, governments, elections, football games, cocktail parties and law courts in a world that consists entirely of physical particles in fields of force, and in which some of these particles are organized into systems that are conscious biological beasts, such as ourselves?”[13]
What is at stake here is the difference between free will and determinism (William James says ‘free willist’.)  Beech’s views go far towards explaining human behavior, and thus human society, purely in terms of physical and chemical reactions and equations.  Corde will not accept this.
Bellow, of course, is always preoccupied with the clash of science and the humanities, and often he portrays an advocate of one side of the discussion as being quite hostile to the other. In Humboldt’s Gift Citrine is snubbed by the French scientist over this very issue:
“…we had been exposed to the insults of the real chevalier whom Renata and I met at dinner, the man with the red rosette, the “hard scientist,” to use his own term….He said, “I am sure you have written some estimable books but this is the kind of decoration given to people who improve the poubelles.[14]

            In Mr. Sammler’s Planet Sammler thinks:
                        “And what should one have on the moon, electronic compositions?  Mr. Sammler
            would advise against that.  Art groveling before Science.” [15]

            In Ravelstein:
““You don’t like to think of such things, Chick,” said Ravelstein. “And you’re married to a woman who scares you.  Of course you’ll say she’s a political ignoramus.”
“About politics she understands very little…”
“Naturally, she believes that a scientist must be above and beyond such stuff.””[16]
            To sum up, Beech’s view is that “Crime and social disorganization in inner city populations can all be traced to the effects of lead.”  On such a view (we can imagine Corde thinking) one might vote in an election for mayor of Chicago not on the basis of a candidate’s position on policing or education but rather on the basis of whether you think they can get rid of  and control the lead faster than their opponent.
8. Alec Witt – Witt is the epitome of the expression “Kill them with kindness.”  In the first paragraph in which Bellow introduces him the following adjectives are used to describe him: cooperative, smooth, ultraconsiderate, solicitous, mild, shrewd, gentle, rough.  Bellow refers to him as “a rough Chicago man”.    Much later on he is described as “one of the shrewdest operators who ever lived”.  Corde thinks all of the following “And to Witt, a man of power, Corde was a fool.”   “No, he didn’t like Corde.  The Dean’s appointment had been a mistake, and it was the Provost’s job to clear up the mess.”  “Witt despised him.”  Almost everything Bellow writes about Witt has one goal: to portray him as a patient predator who waits for Corde to hang himself with his own rope – which, of course, is exactly what eventually happens.  We might make a chess analogy – Witt is the kind of player who tries to checkmate you not in ten moves but in a hundred and ten.  Witt is unabashedly fatalistic, in William James’ terminology.  He is also selfish and efficiently ruthless.  It is interesting to contrast his smooth, silky tough mindedness with the more arrogant and abrupt style of The Colonel and Zaehner Sr.
            9. Mason Zaehner, Sr. – Corde’s (deceased) brother-in-law is perhaps his chief antagonist in the novel; indeed, Corde speculates that the title of his piece(s) in Harper’s should have been Contra Zaehner.  Bellow goes to extraordinary lengths to paint Zaehner as an ugly, uncouth, no class brute.  At one point he compares him to LBJ: “native sons, men of power, devoid of culture, lovers of men, fearlessly insolent.”  The list of such adjectives used to describe Zaehner Sr. is substantial: “tough, arrogant, a bulldozing type, an overbearing, rude man, a virile bruiser” is just a sampling.
            I wrote earlier that Beech represents one kind of “tough”, and that is in terms of the toughness of worldview, - metaphysically tough, if you will.  Zaehner’s kind of toughness is in his personality.  It’s unclear as to why his personality is formed this way, but the examples of it are endless:
                        “You were tough or you were nothing.”[17]
                        “In his brother-in-law’s view, the Dean had given up the real world to take refuge
                        in philosophy and art.”[18]
                        “I’m just as interested in the poor and oppressed as Clarence Darrow was. If they
                        aren’t poor when I meet them, they are when I’m through with ‘em.”[19]
                        “His face was charged with the male strength in all the forms admired in Chicago.
                        a big fellow, he was forceful, smart, cynical, political, rich, and he had no use for
                        those who weren’t.”[20]

            10. The Ambassador – Virtually the complete opposite of Zaehner Sr., the Ambassador also has the distinction, in this novel, of being the sole character to give Bellow the opportunity to manifest two of his primary fetishes – the Hermes necktie and Goya’s painting of Saturn.[21]
Corde sums him up in one word: “Genteel.”
            11. Dewey Spangler – Spangler is both Bellow’s best and worst creation in the novel – best, because his sense of revenge and vindictiveness rings completely and wholly true with a shock of recognition seen nowhere else in the book and, worst, because the newspaper column he writes that eventually brings Corde down is, in a realistic novel, completely unbelievable – no matter how influential the columnist, this piece would never be published in any daily mainstream newspaper. In my opinion the column Spangler writes about Corde is an outrageous plot contrivance - Bellow is really pushing the envelope of credibility here, but  perhaps in acknowledging his zeal to portray Spangler’s vindictiveness we can forgive or overlook his trying overmuch to show to what lengths Spangler’s decades long jealousy about Corde’s articles on the Potsdam conference drives him to seek revenge, and perhaps there was no more plausible means of demonstrating this.  Corde is certain that he embarrasses Spangler because when they were young he had a bird’s eye view into the Spangler family’s poverty.  He brings up two issues from their childhood, the recalling of which annoys Spangler.  In the first incident, at Corde’s mother’s funeral, Spangler makes faces at Corde to “remind me of my duty as a nihilist not to give in to the middle class hypocrisy of mourning”.  In the second, Spangler, on a day when Corde had no money, had ordered a juicy roast beef sandwich at a lunch counter and ate it all by himself, offering Corde nothing, while Corde sat there hungry and watched him eat.
            This complicated relationship is unique in this novel insofar as it is the only one of Corde’s that goes way back in his life, into his childhood; it also gives Bellow the chance to explore one of his favorite themes – the high minded humanist intellectual participating in public policy, like Herzog writing letters to Adlai Stevenson or Humboldt trying to urge Stevenson to create the office of Minister of Culture (or, for that matter, Bobby Kennedy asking Charlie Citrine to brief him on H.L. Mencken).  In his newspaper columns on contemporary geopolitics, Spangler falls squarely into this type – he quotes Verlaine, Wittgenstein, Rousseau, Kant, etc.
            All in all Spangler’s vanity and hunger to be acknowledged as influential, coupled with his desire to damage Corde with his column, can mark him only as tough minded.
            12. Vlada Voynich – One of the two or three most important conversations in the novel takes place between Corde and Vlada as they take a walk and sit on a park bench in Bucharest.  This conversation runs from p. 215 to 231, and, again, after some pleasantries and personal anecdotes it focuses on the ideas of Sam Beech.  At the risk of collapsing into redundancy I will only quote none or two sentences here, and note that Vlada Voynich is very tender in her own personality and disposition but extremely tough in her scientific outlook.  She actually functions as a bridge between the Jamesian outlooks, as a kind of compromise.
            Some memorable quotes from this conversation include: “Where Beech sees poison lead I see poison thought or poison theory.”  “Beech can’t communicate.  He says if he were to try to do this himself he’d end up like Bucky Fuller, giving incomprehensible lectures.”  “Sometimes these “hard” scientists are far out, like a separate species.”
            13. Toby WinthropAn ex hit man now running a detox center in one of the worst neighborhoods in the city, Operation Contact, Winthrop is fully fatalistic in William James’ sense.  He tells Corde:
                        “I’m telling you, Professor, that the few who find us and many hundred of thousand more (sic) who never do and never will – they’re marked out to be destroyed.  Those are people meant to die, sir.  That’s what we’re looking at.” [22]
            This bleak, pessimistic view of the inner city and the thousands of inner city people meant to die in it, as Winthrop says, serves quite a few functions in the novel.  Firstly, I believe it is meant to give authenticity to Corde’s account of Chicago published in Harper’s.  Secondly, it is meant to be a corroboration of Beech’s fatalism – the consequences of the lead poisoning, the brain damage from the lead, leads down the path to crime and drugs.  Thirdly, it is meant to be a comment on Winthrop’s own several displays of resilience and toughness: he escaped the fate he describes to Corde, he was able to detoxify himself from heroin without methadone, he was even able to beat murder charges three times due to his connections with “very important people in this city”. 
            There is also a glimmer of hopeful religiosity on Corde’s part in the short section of the novel in which Corde meets Winthrop: “If there was another world, this was the time to show itself.  The visible one didn’t bear looking at.”
In closing I would just briefly like to mention Bellow’s interest in the ideas of William James in general, on the whole.  Several authors have written at some length on this topic.[23]  In Humboldt’s Gift the Jamesian idea of “living at the top of your energies” is specifically mentioned twice, once by Citrine (p. 199) and once by Humboldt (p. 338).  This principle is certainly applicable to many of the characters in The Dean’s December, in particular Mason Sr, and Spangler and, one could argue, Corde himself because of his involvement in the murder case and his pressing Witt to offer the reward for information and also because of his great interest in trying to get Beech’s ideas out before the public in spite of his fundamental disagreement with them. 
Given scholars’, and Bellow’s, desire to discuss the influence of William James in Bellow’s works I think the tough minded/tender minded distinction must be viewed as a principal element of The Dean’s December.  Additionally – and I have not touched on this at great length here – the sheer amount of times that the word “tough” or some synonym of it appears on the page is quite noticeable and invites comment, invites investigation.  Hopefully I may have gone a little way towards this investigation here.

Bellow, Saul.  Herzog.  New York: Penguin Classics, 1992
__________. Mosby’s Memoirs and Other Stories.  New York:  Fawcett Crest, 1969.
__________. Mr. Sammler’s Planet.  New York: Penguin, 1984
__________. Humboldt’s Gift.  New York: Viking Press, 1975; Penguin, 1994
__________. The Dean’s December. New York: Harper and Row, 1982.
__________. A Theft.  New York: Penguin, 1989.
__________. Ravelstein. New York: Viking, 2000.
James, William.  Pragmatism.  New York: Longmans, 1907.
Searle, John.  The Construction of Social Reality.  New York: Free Press, 1995.

Herzog – H
Mosby Memoirs – MM
Mr. Sammler’s Planet – MSP
Humboldt’s Gift – HG
The Dean’s December – DD
A Theft – AT
Ravelstein – R
Pragmatism – P
The Construction of Social Reality – TCOSR

  1. P, p 17
  2. DD, p. 20 – “He read too many articles and books.”  p. 54 – “At home he read too many papers.”  P. 68 – “Corde was a terrific reader; he had read far too much.”  P. 96: “Since Corde was a great reader (who was now convinced he had read far too much…)”
  3. DD, p. 5: “He was an experienced man.  He knew the stages.”  p. 13 “Reading, he omitted no item of politics, the experienced newspaperman making his own swift observations.”  p. 28: “An experienced man and far from young, Corde had not expected to feel this death so much.”
  4. AT, p.86: “There was even a private eye in this quickly fermenting plot.  Except that Gottschalk was no Philip Marlowe in a Raymond Chandler story.”   It is not clear to me from these references if Bellow regards Chandler as a writer of serious literary merit or someone roughly on par with, say, Mickey Spillane. 
  5. DD, p. 25
  6. DD, p. 25
  7. DD, p. 57
  8. DD, p. 63
  9. DD, p. 65
  10. DD, p. 256
  11. DD, p.
  12. DD, p. 137
  13. TCOSR, p. xi
  14. HG, p.283
  15. MSP, p. 137
  16. R, p. 106
  17. DD, p.42    This macho view of Chicago is always a little too eagerly advanced by all writers of fiction who are obsessed with the place – not only Bellow but for example Ward Just or Eugene Izzi, among countless others.
  18. DD, p. 42
  19. DD, p. 42
  20. DD, p. 82
  21. The Hermes necktie appears in DD, p. 64; MSP, p. 67; HG, p. 406; R, p. 41.  Goya and/or his  painting of Saturn shows up in  MSP, p. 44; HG, p. 49; DD, p. 65
  22. DD, p. 192
  23. In a review of Ellen Pifer’s Saul Bellow Against the Grain in Modern Fiction Studies, Volume 36, Number 4, Winter 1990, Keith Opdahl writes: “At each point Pifer backs up her claim, combing Bellow’s text, citing critics, offering context, paraphrasing such theologians as Paul Tillich or the psychologist William James.”  In Henderson the Rain King and William James, published in Criticism 13.4 (1971): 402 -14, Byron D. Hull suggests that the chapters dealing with Henderson, Dahfu and Atti are best understood in terms of Jamesian psychology.  I have read neither Hull nor Pifer; I cite them here merely to show how James seems to be an influence on Bellow.


New Release: Death of the Black Haired Girl by Robert Stone

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Surely Robert Stone is one of the best writers of individual scenes in all of our literature – think of the scene in A Flag for Sunrise where Tabor shoots his dogs, or in Children of Light where members of a film crew mistake the phrase “Bosch’s Garden” for “Butch’s Garden”, which they speculate is an S&M joint in Los Angeles.  His newest, Death of the Black-Haired Girl, doesn’t contain anything quite this intense or funny; nor does it aim for the kind of grand, sweeping scope that some of his earlier novels do.  Neither of these is necessarily a negative – this novel definitely signals a different kind of ambition and aspiration in Stone’s writing, with some very short chapters and a direct, easy to read clarity in the prose that I cannot recall seeing in Stone before  (The (admirable) tendency to improve the reader’s vocabulary, as evidenced by the use of words such as “salvific” and “palliative”, remains.)
And yet, as most important novelists do, Stone here returns to his standard toolbox again and again: mysticism, spiritualism, nuns and priests, a crisis of faith and belief, drugs and booze, abortion, violence, a white male protagonist steeped in the humanities, a tortured heroine coming apart at the seams, lunatics and fanatics swirling all around the principal action, two characters who cruise through most of the novel in separate worlds in preparation for a collision with each other at the end, etc. - so that the result is both familiar and unfamiliar at the same time.  Stone’s habitual use of cross cutting in his narratives is here extended to seven (!) different characters’ points of view; this may seem like a lot but it’s hard to see how this ‘new’ Stone might have been able to tell the story effectively by employing only two or three POVs. 
This novel is probably more rewarding and more intellectually profitable to a reader than all the books on most of today’s bestseller lists combined.  This being a quick blog, I’ll just point out a few reasons why I say this below, then I’ll make one criticism that is applicable not only to this novel in particular but to almost every piece of fiction I’ve ever been able to find that has abortion as one of its major themes. 
1. At one point Steve Brookman, a professor involved in an affair with his young student Maud Stack, reflects on his eleven year marriage to Elsa Bezeindenhout; a little further on in the story McCallum, an undertaker, observes that he hasn’t had a drink in eleven years.  These two characters never intersect within the story, but the reference to the identical span of time that has elapsed in their lives is a powerful way to demonstrate how seemingly disconnected events – whether a reader feels they are events of pre -determined fate or of random chance – build up to the same boiling point that is the centerpiece of the fiction.  Such different roads lead to the same final destination!
2. There are many points of commonality between this novel and Stone’s other work, for example Children of Light, which I was quickly re-re-re-reading along with Death of the Black-Haired Girl for comparison purposes (like Death, Children is comparatively short compared to Stone’s other novels).  In both novels Rosalind, from As You Like It, plays a role.  In both, Hieronymous Bosch is referenced by a major character.  The somewhat uncommon phrase “black-haired girl” appears in the earlier novel, a description of Helena on the set of The Awakening.  (The Awakening shows up in Bay of Souls too.)  Finally, compare this passage from the earlier novel:

                        …she danced beyond his reach.  He advanced toward her, his
                        arms spread as though it were basketball and he was guarding her.
with this from the new one:
                        Maud tried to pass him , feinted on one leg, made her move on the
other.  He kept his hands out, trying to keep himself between her and his front door.
It’s the identical image. As I’ve written elsewhere in essays on Bellow and DeLillo, great authors often use repeating motifs and images in the same ways that film directors often do.  It’s as if they have an idealized Platonic Form in mind that they’re trying to crystallize in their art. 
            3. The death of the black-haired girl of the title, Maud Stack, is similar to that of Janet Leigh’s character in Psycho insofar as her death occurs before the halfway point of the story; yet, she dominates.  She is by far the most vivid of all the characters, and certainly her personality is the most forceful – she writes acerbic, pugnacious columns for the college newspaper, not only the one mocking the anti-abortion movement that serves as the book’s Macguffin, but also one about the city’s moving a bus stop away from congregations of the homeless (her article argues that this is bias against the poor and the homeless).  (Re: Macguffin.  There is a principal character named Shelby Magoffin, who is herself a kind of semi-Macguffin.  Like much of Stone’s work, this novel is extremely articulate about the cinema.)  Maud is seized by the kind of seething political rage that seems to get into a lot of young people today.
Yet neither Maud nor her lover Brookman can be called the most sympathetic character in the novel.  That honor goes to her father, Eddie Stack, a retired New York cop who can’t stop saying “I was Maud’s father” after her death – as if he somehow stopped being her father at some identifiable point in time.
4. Readers familiar with A Flag for Sunrise no doubt remember Sister Justin, who seems to be getting a reincarnation here as Jo Carr.  It’s hard to tell if this is just Stone having a little fun, or what – maybe the overall structure of the story requires an ex nun battling with her faith (and she knows a little something about what academics call French Theory into the bargain!).  This is a very interesting phenomenon way beyond the scope of a fast blog but it’s the kind of thing a serious researcher or student can really sink their teeth into.
5. On Maud’s article, a pugnacious reply and rebuttal to the anti abortion crowd (Stone writes about this frequently - think of the story that kicks off BEAR AND HIS DAUGHTER, or the character Dolvin in OUTERBRIDGE REACH) and their arguments – this kind of scorched earth conduct on both sides obviously does nobody anywhere any good.  Sadly, I think Stone’s depiction of the issue in the novel is pretty accurate (I don’t spend a lot of time on college campuses or at abortion clinics.  I’m going by what I see and read in the news.)  I can’t help but wonder what Maud’s response would be to a powerful anti-abortion argument that is wholly secular and makes no appeal to religion whatsoever, for example the famous paper by Don Marquis entitled Why Abortion Is Immoral.  I think that kind of dense, careful philosophical argument is hard to write about in, and to incorporate into, imaginative literature.  That’s probably why any time we see abortion taken up in films or in fiction we see only screaming matches and disturbing images, wild eyed moonbats against foaming at the mouth wingnuts.  It just makes for better drama. 
Summing up, this novel seems to me to be a case of Stone blazing some new and different trails in some ways while remaining true to some of his successful strategies of the past at the same time.     There’s a lot of important insights on some major issues of our time, and maybe even on some issues that transcend particular times and places. 

Tracking John Updike's Foot Fetish - Part 4

Counting these that follow, on the blog here we will have quoted from just 20 of Updike's 50+ books.

From "Love Song, for a Moog Synthesizer" in PROBLEMS:

"Grimacing painfully she would oblige, first the right foot, then the left, holding them high off the sheets, the toe tendons white with the effort, here toenails round and bridal as confetti bits."


"Her feet were exquisite, now that I think about them - the pads of the soles thick and rounded, the little toes lifted off the ground and clearly vestigial."


"She worried less about the face and head than the feet; it was the extremities, she realized, that mattered most to her about a man.  Whatever went on in the middle, she had to have in her ideal man a gauntness and delicacy in the feet - Christ's feet as they looked overlapped and pegged on crucifixes, tendony and long-toed and limp as if in flight..."


"Sexy little feet, Beck thought, from his earliest amours, he had responded to the dark band of reinforcement that covers half of a woman's stockinged toes, giving us eight baby cleavages."


The essay entitled "Going Barefoot".

Robert Stone - Death of the Black Haired Girl

Just got my copy of Robert Stone's new novel, DEATH OF THE BLACK HAIRED GIRL.  It's short, like CHILDREN OF LIGHT and BAY OF SOULS.  A quick scan of the text shows many similarities between it, these two earlier shorter works, and the short story "Miserere".  Like Bellow's fascination with the Hermes necktie, DeLillo's huge repertoire of repeating motif-images, and Updike's endless meditative prose of the foot fetish, Stone hits on many of the same points, images, and concerns over and over throughout his fiction.  Hopefully I can have an 'essay-review' as John W. Aldridge used to call it, up here shortly.

Tracking John Updike's Foot Fetish - Part 3

These are all from one book, the story collection TRUST ME.

The Lovely Troubled Daughters of Our Crowd:

"I can see them still, their sweet pastel party dresses and their feet bare in the grass, those slender little-girl feet, with bony tan toes, that you feel would leave rabbit tracks in the dew."

More Stately Mansions:

"...there was something radiant about the blue-white tops of his naked feet."

The Ideal Village:

" (BATA SHOES, his shirt advertised, though he was barefoot) ..."

The Other:

"...Hank could scarcely stand  and had to lower his eyes, and then saw how her bare feet, fresh from chilly boots and rimmed in pink, looked as they slowly pivoted..."

The Other:

"As she pivoted, yellow calluses showed at her heels."

The Other:

"In tight, spattered jeans, and bony bare feet, Susan's skininess was exciting;..."

Leaf Season:

"He is barefoot - pathetic white feet, with ingrown yellow toenails and long toes crushed together..."

Page & Screen: A Simple Plan

Adaptation Studies is, of course, an enormously complicated subject way beyond the scope of a blog.  (Here is a link to an authoritative journal, for the curious  )

History is littered with the corpses of horrible adaptations, and probably some good ones; heaven only knows how many authors have been disappointed by cinematic adaptations of their plays, novels or stories.  Stephen King's dissatisfaction with Kubrick's version of THE SHINING is well known.  The filmed version of Joseph Wambaugh's first novel, THE NEW CENTURIONS, is so bad it is beyond my descriptive capacities of articulation.  And so on and so on, ad infinitum. 

One wonders how Scott Smith must have felt about changing critical details of his extremely dark  novel A SIMPLE PLAN in order to adapt it for the screen.  True, it remains a very dark story in either version, but Sam Raimi's watered down film softens the moral and psychological blows considerably.  One is mystified to see the remark in the Wikipedia article that the movie is thought to be " an improvement upon the book it is based on."  Talk about WTF?!

A very brief comment: that a man claiming to be an FBI agent would show up at a local law enforcement office and not be asked for any kind of identification whatsoever is simply beyond belief, no matter how much of a stereotypical ignorant redneck hick the local sheriff has been depicted as; in the novel Smith handles this in a much more sophisticated way - it requires some work on the reader's part - than Raimi does in the film.  And it makes sense in a way the film's handling does not.

The only in depth, scholarly type of article I can find anywhere on the work, by Jane Hill, is interested in twisting the film into being some kind of negative comment on capitalism and the American Dream.  Be that as it may.  There are innumerable stories that deserve a good, in depth, exhaustive look for a Page & Screen comparison.  This is doubtlessly one of them.

Tracking John Updike's Foot Fetish - Part 2

Memories of the Ford Administration:

"...spiritual energy through her mouth into mine, right down to my toes as they curled up into the arches of her feet."

Memories of the Ford Administration:

"I could not sleep.  This I do remember.  The sound of my estranged wife's feet, first in shoes and then without, over my head in our old bedroom, and the nostalgic pungence of her oily paints all around me kept me awake with erotic possibilities..."

S.  :

"Your feet look comely in sandals.  Such long straight toes.  So many American women, I thought when arriving in this continent, have ugly toes, from being squeezed inside the pointed shoes."

Roger's Version:

"Her feet were small, shapelier than Edna's, and pink along the sides, with rough golden heels."

The Christian Roommates:

"...his ugly, yellowish, flat nailed feet naked on the floor, which was uncarpeted and painted black."

The Christian Roommates:

""Jesus, Hub, put your shoes on."