Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The Dean's December by Saul Bellow

The Dean's December (1982) fits squarely into the period defined as "late Bellow." It is Bellow's first book after his Nobel Prize. It has been called simultaneously magnificent and dull. It is a tale of two cities, Bucharest and Chicago, emblematic of irreconcilable differences between East and West. It's protagonist Albert Corde, half Huguenot and half Irish (p. 129) is a newspaperman who has become a professor of journalism and then Dean of an unnamed Chicago college (although Univ. Chicago and Northwestern are named in the novel (p.303)). He has written, in apocalyptic fashion, a series of articles in Harper's indicting Chicago for its racism and lack of "moral initiative." He has also pressed for the conviction of a black man who murdered one of the college's white students, Rickie Lester. His impulse to take absolute moral readings leads to his dismissal as Dean.

Meanwhile he and his wife Minna (astrophysicist) spend December in Bucharest, attending her dying mother Valeria Raresh, suffering a stroke (p. 7), distinguished psychiatrist. Rumanian officials obstruct their visits because of Valeria's history of disdain for the Socialist government. Minna defected from Rumania 20 years earlier. Valeria dies on Christmas Eve. Dewey Spangler, Albert's childhood friend, happens to be in Bucharest, now an international journalist, who fancies himself a Walter Lippmann, a Pulitzer Prize winning (twice) journalist who coined the term "Cold War." Corde inadvertently grants Spangler an interview, which is printed and damns him with "an earnestness too great for his capacities" (p. 300), forcing his resignation. The novel ends with him accompanying Minna to Mount Palomar observatory. He rides a lift with her, following its curve to its apex, then returns to the floor aware of this obvious analogy to his fall from moral authority.

Kiernan (Saul Bellow) points out that the protagonist is concerned with "connections" (p. 32) between opposites - with cords that bind, as his surname suggests. This manifests itself in a dialectical approach to experience. He seeks experience of an alternative kind in hope of discovering some ultimate synthesis. As a Tribune reporter with an international reputation, ha abandons a career others would envy and seeks seclusion in academe. Once dean, he devotes himself to muckraking journalism that embarrasses the college. After establishing such liberal credentials he makes a crusade of bringing a black man to justice, leaving himself open to charges of racism.

Corde's ailments are clear to others. Provost Alec Witt (smart alec and academic wit) feels he's simply a fool who has to be led by the nose through his academic duties. Corde ultimately agrees that his Harper's articles were unwise, desiring to rewrite them from a larger perspective. Childhood friend Spangler is "damned if I can explain why you wrote those pieces" (p. 115). He sees Corde's trajectory as going "from active to passive" (p. 117) - "Now you're tired of the passive and you've gone hyperactive, and gotten distorted and all tied in knots" (p. 117). Spangler hints at Stygian perversities and says that Corde "might as well have stirred Bubble Creek with a ten-foot pole and forced the whole town to smell it" (p. 115). Bubbly Creek is a portion of the Chicago River where blood and entrails were dumped by local stockyards in the early 20th century leading to bubbling of methane and hydrogen sulfide and brought to light by Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle."

Corde's cousin Max Detillion (Detillion has cheated him of $200,000, thereby "debt"-illion) chooses to represent the defense in the murder trial that proves Corde's undoing. Detillion and Corde's deceased brother-in-law both see him as H.L. Mencken's Boobus Americanus. Zaehner's son Mason, college dropout, friend of the accused, appoints himself the Dean's harshest critic. Mason views his uncle as a racist, titillating himself with the observation of lives darker than his own (like Charlie Citrine in Humboldt's Gift). He thinks Mason's voice "the true voice of Chicago - the spirit of the age speaking from its lowest register" (p. 41). Not all his male cohorts are detractors. Beech, an eminent geologist, invites him to write about his discovery that crime in inner-city populations can be traced to the effects of lead poisoning - to be his interpreter to the "Humanists" (p. 134).

Kiernan observes Bellow counters his gang of male Chicagoans with a cluster of East European women. Valeria anchors the group with her daughter Minna, her sister Gigi, Beech's Serbian assistant Vlada, and Valeria's concierge Ioanna - all forming an "extended feminine hierarchy" (p. 72). Corde has a special regard for Valeria - he tells her he loves her on her deathbed causing her to suffer a galvanic seizure. He knows his history as a womanizer has troubled Valeria. Her last gift to Corde was an antique pocket watch, an emblem of time running backwards (p. ). Corde views his relation with his own wife as manager of her "sublunary" affairs (p. 258). Yet an unbridgeable gulf yawns between the temperaments of mean and women, as between "Eros and Psyche" (p. 257). Corde involves himself with the terra firma of history and politics, Minna, with boundless space; and each find's the other's pursuit incomprehensible. Because she separates her scientific and humanistic perceptions, Corde admires Minna less than Valeria. Corde's "hypnotic coalescence" (p. 91) with Minna and the community of women finds its emblem in the cyclamens (photo and dust jacket) that bloom luxuriantly in the chill air of the Bucharest crematorium. Corde recalls that the plants produce their leaves and spectacular flowers in a state of sleep - that they represent "perfection devoid of consciousness, design without nerves" (p. 55). Corde takes his cue "from them and gave up consciousness" (p. 57) and goes into a "state of blankness" (p. 133), suggesting an unsleeping sleep of the cyclamens. Kiernan: he enters, apparently, a state of consciousness life suited to hypnotic coalescence, and he comes to fulfillment in that state as mysteriously and as magnificently as the flowerless plants.

Kiernan notes the domes (Valeria the crematorium, Minna the observatory) of the novel are also emblematic of the coalescence with Minna and the community of women. For Corde, both domes are inhospitably cold. Corde is brought lower by attendants, to the hot nether regions of the crematorium, where he identifies Valeria's body and to the warmer floor of the observatory, away from the freezing heights where he leaves Minna.

Kiernan observes that Corde tries to make physical perception a vehicle of humanistic understanding. His endeavor can be compared to the Sharp-Focus Realists in modern painting. Like the exaggerated clarity of Andrew Wyeth's Christina's World (photo), Corde's intensity of observation produces a sense of signification rather than explicable meanings. In demanding coherence of a divided world, Corde seeks an idealistic enterprise. Bellovian man enters as Corde finds no possibility of synthesis being real without his perceiving it. "Reality didn't exist 'out there'....It began to be real only when the soul found its underlying truth" (p.263). Rather than relax into dividedness, he seeks to resolve opposite opinion into ultimate truth.

In the final scene of the novel, Corde takes the lift back to the ground, and says to Minna "The cold? Yes. But I almost think I mind coming down more" (p. 309). That "almost" is all that stands between Corde's reluctance and his readiness to resume his role in the world below.

1 comment:

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