“The First and Only Great Classic of Neoconservatism”

September 14, 2010

Well, I guess it really depends on what you mean by “neoconservatism.”  It’s Sam Tanenhaus’ description of Mr. Sammler’s Planet, one of his choices for the best five books on American conservatism.  His list caught my attention—notably, his willingness to include fiction on his list (and fiction for its own sake, not because it gives insight into Joe McCarthy or Buckley).  I don’t have my copy of Mr. Sammler’s Planet on hand, but I can say that I like this choice very much.  Despite my wariness about the label “neoconservative” (it seems almost meaningless anymore), something of that impression struck me, too, when I read the  novel.

But the neoconservatism of Mr. Sammler’s Planet is almost accidental, and hardly that version which gave us Iraq/Iran/etc. hawks in the last decade.  There have always seemed to be two neoconservatisms: that of the 1970s and 1980s, concerned, as is Sammler (and, to various degrees, Herzog, Charlie Citrine, Chick, etc.) with the seeming decay of society—or at least its changes, and ability of the human being to adapt to changes that seem to run on their own energy; and the neoconservatism that strikes one more as Wilsonianism on steroids than anything else.  (Maybe it could be put like this: in the earlier incarnation, the demon was already inside the gates; in the present, it must be kept outside at all costs.)  I will be honest: I have never found the former, as a social critique, unappealing.

All this talk of neoconservatism and Mr. Sammler’s Planet risks pigeonholing Bellow’s work as something it was not.  He was a writer with an agenda, to be sure: but that agenda was nothing more than to describe and diagnose society as he saw it.  An old but excellent review of the novel says it well: “Saul Bellow is pre-eminently the novelist of man-in-culture, man swimming in an ocean of ideas in which he often feels near to being swamped.”  Whatever such neoconservatism there is does not come from the fear, in Andrew Sullivan’s words, “that [the moral degeneracy of modernity has made] the West was too decadent to defeat Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union.”  Artur Sammler is a man who survived the Holocaust but not unchanged, only to discover that the world in which he now lives is not the same as that for the sake of which he struggled to survive.  The verities of his life before rupture—the verities he wanted to live for—no longer exist.  (But it is the world he has: it is, after all, Mr. Sammler’s planet.)

Rather than having its roots in anything political, the critique, at its core, is something far more Faulknerian:

I read in The Wall Street Journal about the melancholy of affluence, “Not in all the five millennia of man’s recorded history have so many been so affluent.”  Minds formed by scarcity are distorted.  The heart can’t take this sort of change.  Sometimes it just refuses to accept it.  (Humboldt’s Gift, p. 3)

The problem with modernity in Bellow’s novels is this: its curses and its blessings are essentially indistinguishable, and neither could exist with the simultaneous presence of the other.


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