Friday, November 21, 2014

Mr. Sammler's Planet: Mr. Sammler Is the Moon

(I read this novel for the Classics Club challenge.)

For much of Mr. Sammler's Planet, Artur Sammler reminds me of a gasping fish on a garbage heap. In some ways, he is also like the moon.

Why is he gasping for air?

Sammler is living on the Upper West Side of Manhattan in the 1960s. He has a keen eye for all the ways society is crumbling. He makes note of the crudeness and immaturity, the lack of dignity and stuntedness in people's behavior. As an intellectual, he is asked at one point to give a talk at a university and is soundly rejected by the audience for being old and impotent. Society, he thinks, has been given over to children and barbarians.

Had the book stayed on this level, of an elderly intellectual analyzing the defects of the society around him, it would not have been as interesting as what it becomes. Because, even as Mr. Sammler assesses the surrounding degradations, he doesn't think that he has any solutions to offer.

Back in the 1930s, Sammler used to be part of a circle of intellectuals in England - including H.G. Wells - who would talk at length about bringing a harmonious order to the world, a society founded on rationality and sound mental hygiene. Then World War II came, and as Sammler was visiting Poland at the time, he had his daughter, Shula, hidden in a convent while he and his wife met their deaths in a mass grave.

For his wife it was actual physical death. But for Sammler, who fell into the grave with all the others who were shot, it was a symbolic death. He survived physically, climbed out, and escaped into the woods. There, he spent some time with a group of Jewish partisans who teamed up with Polish partisans to fight the Germans. Then the Polish partisans turned on the Jews, and Sammler fled to a graveyard. A Polish graveyard worker with no liking for Jews took pity on him and allowed him to hide in a tomb, bringing him food to help keep him alive; perhaps because Sammler was less a Jew at that point and more a corpse like all the others.

After the war, Sammler moved to NYC with his daughter, both of them living on the charity of a wealthy relative, Elya. At the start of the novel, it's clear that American society remains foreign to him. He can't find his place in it. He is old school European. This means he also has some of the unexamined prejudices of old. For instance, he is shocked by naked masculine aggression (as when a pickpocket calmly pushes Sammler against a wall and displays his genitalia to him as a sign of dominance); but other displays of masculine aggression, their necessity questionable, seem more acceptable to Sammler when not as naked in form - like Sammler's fondness for the character of Ussher, approval of Ussher's attitude to Margotte, and accepting without question Ussher's observations about his smartest female students. Is dehumanization more palatable when cloaked in civilized manners?

At the same time, Sammler also has a respect for what he perceives as nobility of character, of restraint and princeliness. He even sees a quality of princeliness in that very same pickpocket. (In part because of the man's dress and comportment. And in part because, even when displaying himself to Sammler, the man conducted himself with a kind of deliberation and restraint?)

Sammler has never settled into post-WWII America and learned to breathe in its air, but at the same time knows that his old world is in ashes. He feels as if he's already died, and he doesn't know what to make of this new life in America, except to have a kind of ghostly feeble existence. He's a man with civilized manners, but he knows that like Europe during WWII, a civilized society can perpetrate savagery easily - maybe when the darker impulses beneath the fine manners remain unexamined or ignored, and are merely papered over with polite conduct.

He gives his university talk to the students who call him old and impotent, and he feels old and impotent, not so much because of his age, but because he doesn't know what lesson to give them from his life experience. And was this talk merely a set-up by a bright but unscrupulous student - setting up Sammler so that a group of younger people could perform a ritual of rejection against a man of the old school? Afterwards, Sammler doesn't even understand why he gave the talk, which was about his 1930s intellectual peers whose views he can no longer take seriously.

Sammler doesn't trust explanations. But that's not entirely a bad thing either. Easy explanations aren't to be trusted, and Sammler does question himself and his own views during the novel (one sign that he's alive). But at the same time he's not sure how to live and relate to people in his current circumstances, be nourished by life or engage with the world. He is traumatized.

Why is he like the moon?

There are people in Sammler's life - relatives, students and admirers - who look up to him. It struck me that he's like a luminary body to them, but not the sun. He's the moon, reflecting in a pale way the strengths of the past, the qualities that seem to have gone missing after the war.

These people are often making a mess of their lives. They're into hare-brained schemes. They're flashy and quick, some of them, but dissatisfied. They do things that make them feel unclean. They don't appear to understand themselves. Or they discuss ideas in a way that exhausts Sammler and elicits faint contempt from him. He at first regards them from a lofty position. They have an alien grotesqueness, these characters, especially the women (and especially in regards to the female body and sexuality - Sammler might as well be describing another species).

With time, he is a little kinder in his perspective towards some of them or sees other facets to them; he remains relatively aloof, but also involves himself more in what they do. Still, he's ineffectual at helping them with anything, and what he tells them seems not to change anything.

They like him regardless and are pulled towards him. Maybe it's enough for them to feel that faint light from him - not too strong or demanding, but gently present. And sometimes he becomes invisible to them, and they go off and do as they like in the darkness. So there he is - not only frustrated with the world and with people not listening, but experiencing the double frustration of not being able to offer them much of anything meaningful, and failing in his duty as a father, uncle, and teacher.

How would you breathe on the moon?

Another moon-related idea that emerges in the book has to do with escaping from Earth. At one point, Sammler's daughter steals a scientific tract describing how it might be possible to colonize the moon. There's an appeal to this. Leave the messy planet behind - move to a clean new place. But it's only a fantasy. One can't leave the mess behind; people would bring the mess with them anyway. And that's another interesting point to consider. How do you deal with the mess of the past?

Many of the people around Sammler act as if the past is worthless and needs to be immediately jettisoned. But you can't just break off with the past and pretend it never existed. So it's important to ask, in what mature ways could they address historical traumas and heal? Because maturity does not mean abandoning everything, including qualities such as honor and restraint. To grow or to be more free, it's not enough to just get rid of things.

Sammler himself remains traumatized, afraid to engage with life, especially at the start of the novel. One of the developments in the novel is that he begins to see some of these alien Earthlings around him as multi-dimensional. There's Elya, who sustains him, and who Sammler admires - he then sees a darker side to some of Elya's activities, but loves him nonetheless and respects what good he has tried to do. And, as another example, he sees a nobility in the pickpocket.

But who's to say if his perceptions are accurate? Maybe they don't have to be. Maybe it's enough for him to try to look more closely, shining a light more strongly. He tries to involve himself more in certain situations instead of always ghosting along the surface. Does what he do have any effect? Futility is part of the risk of being human. (But Mr. Sammler knows this, doesn't he; WWII transformed him from a thriving intellectual to a living corpse.)

Developing a whole view of people, and not reducing them to one facet of their life or outward identity, is important and difficult. People working on making themselves whole, understanding the different facets of themselves (including what's uglier in them) and striving for greater clarity - this is what it means to be fully human; to understand oneself and not aim to be purely of body (just a bunch of nerves in mindless, wallowing reaction) or purely of mind, with the pretense that one is above experience, hovering over everything bodiless. Not simply a parade of flourishes and crude gestures, and not an anemic escape from life to realms of seeming purity. How do you integrate all the different parts of yourself?

It's important for a society too - the ways in which people deal with historical ugliness needs to go beyond an uncritical rejection of everything that came before or the pretense that now that it's in the past it can no longer have an effect - or that its effects are well-understood, just at a glance. There's no escaping ugliness and trauma. The question is, how do you respond?