Sunday, March 27, 2011

Henderson the Rain King by Saul Bellow

Saul Bellow's 1959 novel followed his breakthrough The Adventures of Augie March (1953), yet received perplexed and lukewarm reviews at best, notably Prescott's review (2/23/59) in The New York Times, citing parallels to Don Quixote, calling it "an unsuccessful experiment, noble in purpose but dismal in result." Nevertheless, the Pulitzer Prize committee for fiction recommended it be awarded the prize for that year. The passage of time has been kind to Bellow and informed critics soon realized the scope of this uplifting buildungsroman with its ample allusions and demands on the reader's intellect.

A week before the novel appeared in book stores, Bellow published an article in The New York Times Book Review (2/15/59) entitled "The Search for Symbols, a Writer Warns, Misses All the Fun and Fact of the Story," claiming that too much thinking about symbols and allusions might lead readers to misunderstand a novel. As an aside, Bellow uses the term reisemotif ("journey" motif), relevant to the book and to the pseudo-eponymous blogger !! Critics have never understood why Bellow published this article before the symbol-packed Rain King hit the shelves. Yet there exists an eerie parallel to Don Quixote. We will revisit DQ.

Story. Eugene Henderson, a 55-year old millionaire and pig farmer from Danbury, Connecticut lives on an estate which his father wanted to bequeath to his older brother, who died young. Establishing the piggery was based on an anti-Semitic impulse based on a conversation with a fellow Jewish soldier during the War: "I knew that if Goldstein had not been a Jew I might have said cattle and not pigs" (pp. 25, 253). He is searching for purpose and meaning in his life and decides to find it in an undisclosed area of East Africa (since Lamu Island and Malindi, Kenya are mentioned on numerous occasions - I visited both in 1973). At the outset, Henderson warns the reader "What made me take this trip to Africa ? There is no quick explanation. Things got worse and worse and worse and pretty soon they were too complicated" (p. 9). His first marriage to Frances ended in divorce and his marriage to Lily is aggravated by his hot temper.

Bellow's Africa is the Africa of books, notably Conrad's Heart of Darkness and Ernest Hemingway ("E.H.") as portrayed (see photo) in Life magazine (p. 93): "the world is a mind. Travel is mental travel" (p. 159).

Henderson's inner voice keeps crying out "I want, I want, I want" (p. 17), but he has no clue as to what he wants, yet it compels him to leave his tedium vitae of a home in Danbury for deepest Africa. He hires a native guide Romilayu, who takes him to Arnewi (imaginary), where he befriends the chief Itelo. The Arnewi teach him about "grun-tu-molani" (pp. 84, 266) which means "I want to live." He gains the chief's respect after beating him in a wrestling match. He attempts to rid their cistern of pesky frogs, by devising an explosive device, but eliminates the water as well as the frogs. Sensing his welcome is expired, he travels to the Wariri tribe, where he meets King Dahfu, who is widely travelled and educated in Beirut. He makes a bet with Dahfu that it will not rain. In a ceremony to bring on the rainy season, Henderson jumps in and uses his massive strength to move the giant wooden statue Mummah, and unwittingly is anointed the Rain King (the "Sungo" (p. 186) as in "sun go") for the village. Of course, this carries some responsibilities, unanticipated, like becoming the next King, when Dahfu succumbs to injuries, suffered in an entanglement with a lion, supposedly the reincarnation of the late King Gmilo. Anticipating no good, Henderson Sungo and Romilayu get out of Dodge. He leaves with a lion cub believed to contain the reincarnated spirit of Dahfu: "The King would want me to take it along...he's got to survive in some form" (p. 306).

Biblical references abound. He eliminates the cistern frogs as if he was Moses dispensing with a plague. His imitations of Atti's roaring become invocations with biblical resonance: "Moooorcy!....Secoooooooor...De profooooondis" (p. 258) (mercy, au secours, de profundis). The book is replete with references to Handel's Messiah (pp. 38, 84, 314).

Love and Death. The themes of love and death fill the novel. Henderson relates that he has "observed a connection between women's love and the great principles of life" (p. 95). Henderson realizes that love is the goal toward which all human striving should be directed. Life should achieve a constant spiritual growth to the accomplishment of achieving love.

Novel as Quest. Henderson has been identified with many quest novels, particularly Don Quixote, but more recently Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye and T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets. At one point he says to Itelo: "Your Highness, I am really kind of on a quest" (p. 66). Ultimately, the reader is not convinced that Henderson has achieved the illumination appropriate to a successful quest. It is unclear if the epic atonement of his journey generates at "at-one-ment" with his father. Four Quartets is referenced: "There is that poem about the nightingale singing that human-kind cannot stand too much reality. But how much unreality can it stand ?" (p. 104). Kiernan (Saul Bellow) points out that Bellow debunks a tradition that limits questers to aristocrats such as Holden Caulfield and the Eliot persona. The vulgarian Henderson is a clown, more of a Sancho Panza than a Don Quixote. Embarrassed that his life is developing an epic dimension, he says "I don't even deserve to be chronicled on toilet paper" (p. 200). Henderson's vulgarity is important to Bellow's parody: "I didn't want to be a shit about it" (p. 56), although he can be clever, describing Lily as "the altar of my ego" (p. 150). Henderson is so far from a traditional quester, he is a caricature. He resembles Jewish comedian or meshuggah. While Henderson fails to embrace his leonine self with Atti, he does recall at the end of the novel a decrepit brown bear named Smolak, with whom, as a 19-year old, he did tricks at a carnival in Canada: "Smolak and I were outcasts together" (p. 317).

Don Quixote. Contemplating reading this book ? Read Don Quixote first, it informs the reading of Bellow's book. The Don Quixote/Sancho Panza pair is an uncanny set-up for the Henderson/Romilayu pair. Perhaps the weirdest connection relates to the caveat/disclaimer that Bellow published a week before the book's release and the Author's Preface of Don Quixote in which Cervantes attacks the scholarly display of knowledge and describes himself as bringing "a book as dry as a kex, void of invention, barren of good phrase, poor of conceits, and altogether empty both of learning and of eloquence...I am naturally lazy and unwilling to go searching for authors to say that which I can say well enough without them" (Shelton translation, 1612).

In Dahfu's court, Henderson says "my purpose was t see essentials, only essentials, nothing but essentials, and to guard against hallucinations. Things are not what they seem anyway" (p. 154). Don Quixote also has a preoccupation with reality, notwithstanding Sancho's constant chiding for failing to resolve hallucinations; truth is the basis for knight-errantry.

Bellow faithfully follows the Cervantine model. Both Don Quixote and Henderson launch their quest at the age of about 50. DQ is searching for immortality: “Oh, happy the age, and fortunate the time, wherein my famous feats shall be revealed, feats worthy to be graven in brass, carved in marble, and delivered with most curious art in tables for a future instruction and memory” (1st part, book 1, chap 2). Henderson, the anti-hero says “I’ll say it straight out, I don’t even deserve to be chronicled on toilet paper” (p. 200). Both protagonists wish to connect with their ancestry. DQ finds an old suit of armour in his attic and takes it as his knight’s attire (1st, 1, 1). Henderson goes to his storeroom and “I found the dusty old case and I opened it, and there lay the instrument my father used to play, inside that little sarcophagus” (p. 29) and “my main purpose was to reach my father playing on his violin” (p. 34). Henderson is described as “a regular bargain basement of deformities” (p. 83). For his part, DQ adopts the name “Knight of the Ill-favored Face” (1st, 3, 7). Both are influenced greatly by literature. Those surrounding DQ thinks he goes crazy with books, at one point his library is burned (1st, 1, 6). Henderson knows “I am a nervous and emotional reader. I hold a book up to my face and it takes only one good sentence to turn my brain into a volcano” (p. 229).

Parallels exist between the protagonists’ attendants. While DQ offers his squire Sancho Panza an island (1st, 1, 7), Henderson offers Romilayu a jeep ! (p. 110). Both offer gentle resistance to their masters. In the famous windmill scene, Sancho cannot believe that DQ hallucinates and sees them as giants (1st, 1, 8). The adventure where DQ attacks the sheep is similar (1st, 3, 4). Most absurd is the barber’s basin that DQ adopts as the Helmet of Mambrino (1st, 3, 7). DQ is teased about the helmet in the galley slaves chapter (1st, 3, 8). At the end of Bellow’s novel, Henderson uses the helmet as a basin for the lion cub ! (p. 313).

Mtalba, Queen of the Arnewi, offers herself to Henderson: “time was when I would have felt differently about the love she offered me” (p. 103). In a hilarious sequence, DQ mistakes a prostitute’s (Maritornes) late night sojourn towards a guest at an inn, as a come-on when she stumbles at his bedside: “I could wish to find myself in terms, most high and beautiful lady, to be able to recompense so great a favour” (1st, 3, 2).

The subject of teeth is frequent in both novels (as also adopted in Martin Amos’ Dead Babies). Henderson’s second bridge is “acrylic, supposed to be unbreakable – fort comme la mort” (p. 125). DQ loses his cheek teeth on one of his adventures: “a mouth without cheek teeth is like a mill without a mill stone; and a tooth is much more to be esteemed than a diamond” (1st, 3, 4).

Both protagonists must face the lion. They both take on new names. DQ adopts the name “Knight of the Lions” (2nd, 17) after braving two lions whose cage has been opened by a lion tamer. This is after DQ has been "captured" in an ox cart (1st, 4, 19) to return to his village: "and ended it will be when the furious Manchegan lion and the white Tobosian dove shall be united in one." Later (1st, 4, 22): "it is necessary to shut you up in a cage and carry you on a team of oxen, even as one carries a lion..." Henderson writes to Lily “I want you to enroll me at Medical Center and give my name as Leo E. Henderson” (p. 267). The letter to Lily is entrusted to Romilayu, but he is stopped on his way and fetched to return and help Henderson’s escape. Bellow has mimicked the famous letter scene in DQ. Sancho is waylaid on the road to El Toboso by the barber and the priest who convince him to rescue his master in the Sierra Morena where he is in seclusion (1st, 3, 9).

Both DQ and Henderson come in direct contact with death. DQ comes upon a corpse in the adventure of the hearse (1st, 3, 5). Later, DQ encounters a group of itinerant players who have just performed ‘The Parliament of Death’, they personify the roles they play (2nd , 13). Henderson finds a corpse in his hut in the Wariri village (p. 130).

An obvious reference to Moses, Henderson seeks to eliminate the frog infestation in the Arnewi’s cistern. For his part, DQ seeks to free a young man, AndrĂ©s, from the beatings of his master (1st, 1, 4). Later he frees a group of galley-slaves (1st, 3, 8). Both protagonists have messianic qualities. Late in the book, DQ descends into the legendary cave of Montesinos (2nd, 23) and spends 3 days there – a direct corollary to Christ’s visit to Hell between the crucifixion and the resurrection. This is the only adventure in which DQ has no witness – suggesting an adventure of the spirit. Henderson’s excerpts from Handel’s Messiah, identify him with the “man of sorrows” (p. 258). Henderson is also resurrected – from the tomb after Dahfu’s death. In the Wariri village it is said that “The view of the Bunam is you have been expected” (p. 180).

Arnewi vs. Wariri: Reich vs. Freud. Kiernan (Saul Bellow) points out that the two tribes are diametrically opposed. The Arnewi are all about light: "they had played catch with the light and some of it had come off" (p. 54). The Wariri live in a fallen world, given to political assassination and to scourging their gods. They are "chillen darkness" (p. 112) in Romilayu's phrase. They "play catch" (p. 78) not with the light but with the skulls of former kings. Kiernan posits tat in psychological terms, the Arnewi and Wariri offer Henderson a choice between Wilhelm Reich and Sigmund Freud. Reich believes that a society free of repression would find itself naturally happy. The Wariri embody Freud's notion that societies are repressive and that nature and culture are antithetical. The Arnewi emphasize stasis, being (p. 153), and cyclical time. The Wariri emphasize progress, becoming (p. 153), and linear time: "maybe time was invented so that misery might have an end" (p. 295). Yet the distinction is not black and white as Dahfu has Reichian tendencies. His classification of men into types such as "the immune elephant," "the shrewd pig," "the fateful hysterical," "the hollow genital," and "the narcissus intoxicated" (pp. 205, 252) is an echo of Reich's classification of human types into clinical categories like hysterical, compulsive, and masochistic.

From an existential viewpoint, the Arnewi symbolize the masochistic aspect of a relationship in that they reify themselves by wishing to make themselves into objects to be dominated by others, they submit themselves to fate. The Wariri are the sadistic type, trying to dominate others, e.g., beating the gods.`

Speaking Somatically. Henderson feels a great chasm between reality and ideas: "I often want to say things and they stay in my mind. Therefore they don't actually exist; you can't take credit for them if they never emerge" (p. 166). He believes in a reciprocity between body and mind: "That's how it is with my ideas...They seem to get strong while I weaken" (p. 94). Dahfu believes with Reich that man's experience originates in his own mind: "Disease is a speech of the psyche" (p. 224). The key to the novel is to be found in the "reality" into which King Dahfu ("daffy" ?) initiates Henderson. Pifer (Saul Bellow: Against the Grain) nails it with here explication. Dahfu's insights are profound. Dahfu instructs his friend on the "connection between insides and outsides, especially as applied to human beings" (p. 222). He tells Henderson "You are in the flesh as your soul is" (p. 252). By "speaking somatically" (p. 204), Dahfu illustrates the "utterly dynamic" (p. 222) non-Cartesian union of body and mind - "the flesh influencing the mind, the mind influencing the flesh, back again to the mind, back once more to the flesh" (p. 222). Henderson resists: "thinking of mind and flesh as I knew them" (p.222). Dahfu embodies elements of Psalm 19 "You are related to all. The very gnats are your cousins. The sky is your thoughts. The leaves are your insurance, and you need no other. There is no interruption all night to the speech of the stars" (p. 250). By urging Henderson to come face-to-face with the lion Atti, Dahfu compels his friend to confront "somatically" rather than abstractly the fact and terror of death. Henderson gradually enters into a relation with the lion, until dread no longer paralyzes him. Henderson undergoes an epiphany: "And so I was the beast. I gave myself to it, and all my sorrow came out in the roaring. My lungs supplied the air but the note came from the soul" (p. 251). The spiritual release in this physical ordeal verifies the "connection between insides and outsides."

Existentialism. Holm (American Studies in Scandinavia) points out the role of French Existentialism in Bellow's novels, especially the novels of Jean-Paul Sartre. Sartre maintains that existence precedes essence. Human beings exist, but what they are or what they may become depends on what they choose to do and they must take responsibility for it. For some that freedom may be unbearable. In an effort to escape this anguish, the individual may shirk responsibility for himself and cling to some transcendent belief in Destiny. Sartre calls this "mauvaise foi" (bad faith). Bad faith denies freedom of choice. After the two World Wars, the existentialist notion of the absurdity of life has attained wide acceptance. In existentialist terms, teal life (acceptance of reality) is an opportunity, a form of being that must be chosen by the individual. Man is free to make his own choices, but no matter what, the choice will be for nothing. It is absurd. The only thing that man can rely on is death. Man must accept that death is part of reality.

Existentialism and Henderson the Rain King. Bellow's characters are unable to accept reality because of their fear of facing death as the only certainty in an absurd world, entangling themselves in a web of alienation which is a result of bad faith. Trying to escape from physical nature, the protagonists are confronted with a sense of unreality. The final obstacle to overcome in seeking a meaningful existence is the evasion of physical nature. Man must accept that he is part of the physical existence, that he too will perish. Man only then may he realize himself as an existing person. Henderson senses that the acceptance on one's own mortality is a prerequisite of self-realization: "All the major tasks and the big conquests ere done before my time. That left the biggest problem of all, which was to encounter death. We've just got to do something about it" (p. 260). The individual's search for a fulfillment of his life, for a search from a life of unreality to reality, is dependent upon acceptance of death. Holms opines that this is the overall theme of Bellow's fiction. Henderson is an existential hero.

In the novel, Henderson plays at being God, resulting in the alienation from life. Looking down at his dead housekeeper Miss Lenox, he thinks: "So this was it, the end - farewell?" (p. 42). He now feels he has no significance, he is shocked to see the parallels to his own life. In his trip, Henderson goes to the Africa of his soul. His experiences in Africa represent his various stages of his development in this Bildungsroman: "maybe every guy has his own Africa" (p. 259). He opines "It is the strangeness of life - a thing that makes death more remote" (p. 84) and later "You did not believe you had to perish" (p. 245). While visiting the Wariri, Henderson confronts death directly: he is "maddened by the provocation of [a] corpse" (p. 133). Henderson wonders if someone is teaching him a lesson: "Why was I lately being shown corpses ? " (p. 131). Moreover, "the dead man in his silence sending a message to me such as, 'Here, man, is your being, which you think so terrific.' And just as silently I replied, 'Oh, be quiet dead man, for Christ's sake'" (p. 132). At least he recognizes the warning: he is "convinced that the presence of this corpse was a challenge which had to be answered" (p. 132). He throws the dead body into a ravine, only to awake to find it has been returned to his hut, symbolic that he can not ignore dealing with the death issue.

Dahfu knows that "Grun-tu-molani was just a starter" (p. 205). So begins the sessions with the lion Atti (attitude, relaxed). Atti is an embodiment of reality. Dahfu wants Henderson to accept reality: "You ask, what can she do for you ? Many things. First she is unavoidable...And this is what you need, as you are an avoider...She will force the present moment on you" (p. 244). Henderson acquiesces and lets himself "act the lion" (p. 271). In accordance with Sartrean notion that "the Other" is a foil against which to define oneself, he says "I had a voice that said, I want! I want? I? It should have told me she wants, he wants, they want...The opposite makes the opposite" (p. 269). Henderson faces his own symbolic death in Dahfu's. Did Henderson change from his journey "into the interior [?] Yes, I did. I have had a look into some of the fundamentals, but don't expect me to tickle your idle curiosity' (p. 311) he writes to Lily. Henderson informs Lily that he has decided to pursue a medical career, in effect a death-fighting art. This casts further doubt as to his willingness to accept death. So, did he change ? Holms believes not, that the meeting of the Persian boy, who speaks "only Persian" (p. 315) on the plane is symbolic of his adolescent self, "with hair like Persian lamb's fur" (p. 10). Before his quest, he spoke only "Hendersonian" (p.). Bellow's tendency toward "open" endings cast doubt on the success of self-realization. "We are the first generation to see clouds from both sides. What a privilege! First people dreamed upward. Now they dream both upward and downward" (p. 263). People's dreams upward symbolize their belief in religious transcendentalism, whereas their dreams downward are symbols of the existential theory of the absurdity of life. Henderson and Bellow both are caught in between.

The Pith Helmet. Attentive readers will note the symbolism of Henderson's pith helmet. Pifer (Saul Bellow: Against the Grain) has the insight on his "Linus blanket." Worn to shield himself from the blazing African sun, the helmet also emblemizes Henderson's militant resistance to reality. He tells Dahfu "I always have some headpiece or other. In Italy during the war I slept in my helmet, too" (p. 196). Dahfu protests at wearing it indoors: "'But surely a headcover indoors is not necessary'...I refused to take the hint. I sat before him in my white pith hat" (p. 196). When stripped by the natives: "I've got to have my helmet" (p. 191). Later, terrified by the lion Atti, he fails to "reset my helmet when it sunk over my brows" (p. 211). As Henderson affirms the union of mind and flesh: "The hair on my head, especially at the back...[was] thriving. I was growing black curls, thicker than usual, like a merino sheep, very black, and they were unseating my helmet. Maybe my mind, beginning to change sponsors, so to speak was stimulating the growth of a different man" (p. 256). His regenerated psyche appears to be unseating the "carapace-like helmet" (p. 270) along with the dread that enslaved him. Towards the end of the book, Henderson adopts a new relationship with his helmet. He shows a willing divestment in his headgear when taking the lion cub "I can carry it in my helmet" (p. 306). On the plane flying over the Atlantic, he removes the helmet one final time and places it "inside the wicker basket with the cub" (p. 313). The cub "needed a familiar object to calm him" (p. 313). For Henderson, the helmet is no longer a shield.

Summary. Kiernan (Saul Bellow) is eloquent in his summary analysis of the novel: Bellow is amused by myths and rituals that reduce the world to coherence - he offers an alternate vision that embraces the inconsistent and irreconcilable. Everything consorts with its opposite: the dialectically opposed Arnewi and Wariri are the same tribe; Freudians are functional Reichians; Sancho Panzas are ideological Don Quixotes. The inconsistency and inconclusiveness that are often thought of as a failing of Henderson the Rain King are Bellow's narrative postulate, and it is his particular achievement to have turned the postulate into novelistic terra firma.

Both Sides Now. Joni Mitchell's song "Both Sides Now" was inspired on a flight she took while reading the novel and coming across the line "We are the first generation to see the clouds from both sides" (p. 263). Later, Henderson says to Romilayu "We're supposed to think that nobility is unreal. But that's just it. The illusion is on the other foot. They make us think we crave more and more illusions. Why, I don't crave illusions at all" (p. 298). Joni sings "I've looked at clouds from both sides now, From up and down, and still somehow....It's life's illusions I recall, I really don't know life at all."

Favorite Lines. "maybe every guy has his own Africa" (p. 259) and "I am a true adorer of life, and if I can't reach as high as the face of it, I plant my kiss somewhere lower down" (p. 144),


  1. I've found out your illuminating notes on Henderson The Rain King just after finishing the book. Thanks for supplying all the references, hidden or otherwise. You've made me feel richer.

  2. Also just finished Henderson, have been contemplating it heavily. This is a great analysis, thanks.