Thursday, June 11, 2015

Him With His Foot In His Mouth

Him with His Foot in His Mouth and Other Stories, Saul Bellow’s latest book, is only his second collection of short fiction. It is his first book since The Dean’s December, published in 1982. Of the five works collected here, four were previously published in magazines. The one exception is “Cousins,” the novella that concludes the volume. Comic in tone, exuberant in its rich mining of character, Him with His Foot in His Mouth and Other Stories is a collection of highly digressive tales concentrating on a familiar Bellow theme: the spiritual decline of modern America. Ever distrustful of the abstract thinking which allows human beings to justify unspeakable horrors, Bellow focuses once again on the importance of feeling and commitment as remedies for the spiritual disease afflicting the United States in the late twentieth century. Though these themes are familiar, several new features characterize this latest book: the use of large amounts of autobiographical material and a near obsession with the details of physical infirmity and aging. In its wedding of humor and intellectual content, Him with His Foot in His Mouth and Other Stories returns to the mood and style of Bellow’s works prior to The Dean’s December and the nonfictional To Jerusalem and Back (1976).

The most humorous, least autobiographical piece in this collection is the title story, a sixty-page novella in epistolary form. It is ostensibly a letter of atonement to a woman whom Herschel Shawmut, the narrator, believes he destroyed by a sarcastic remark thirty-five years earlier. In fact, the letter Shawmut writes is a confessional record of his life and family-business entanglements, with family disloyalty and moral redemption as its major themes. Episodic and digressive, “Him with His Foot in His Mouth” offers many literary allusions and reminiscences which allow Shawmut, and Bellow, to comment on a variety of subjects, ranging from professional jealousy in academia to the moral bankruptcy of American business. Lacking any real plot or structure, the story relies for its narrative thread on Shawmut’s recollections of the times his witty, devastatingly truthful remarks, aimed at those with power or influence over his life, altered his fate for the worse.

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More than any other novelist since WWII, Saul Bellow was aware of the event that Jacques Derrida called "the rupture." And more than any other novelist, Bellow crafted rich and strange mimetic confrontations with the chaos of the external, visual world, with the internal chaos it manifests. In his collection Him With His Foot In His Mouth and Other Stories, Bellow again demonstrates his ability to penetrate the appearances of twentieth-century life and lay bare the essential forms.

In the title story he presents us with Dr. Shawmutt who has the dubious gift of saying the most offensive things. His "divine madness," however, is not accompanied by the desire to offend. Rather, it seems to be the result of a compulsion, a necessity, to strike through the masks, which is basically why he agrees with the counsel of "an old woman who reads Swedenborg and other occult authors" that "the soul is ruled by levity, pure." References to her appear especially at the beginning and the end of the story which is in the form of a long letter of apology to a Miss Rose whom Shawmutt had insulted thirty-five years earlier. The letter recounts "it all," how life has prepared him for "words of ultimate seriousness." He, like all human beings, has come up against the inevitable failure of life. Even his friends and brother have deceived him and shamelessly exploited him. He has been lessoned. Is experienced. No wonder that, after desperately fleeing to Canada to escape prosecution and further exploitation, he turns to the old woman, Mrs. Gracewell. Despite her unorthodox spirituality, there is an element of veracity to her convictions, which Shawmutt finds nowhere else and it prepares him (though the soul’s levity remains incorruptible) for his extradition back to the United States:

Forty years a widow and holding curious views, she is happy in my company.Few vistors want to hear about the Divine Spirit, but I am seriously prepared toponder the mysterious and intriguing descriptions she gives. The Divine Spirit,she tells me, has withdrawn in our time from the outer, visible world. You can seewhat it once wrought, you are surrounded by its created forms. But though naturalprocesses continue, Divinity has absented itself. The wrought work is brightlydivine but Divinity is not now active within it. The world’s grandeur is fading.And this is our human setting, devoid of God, she says with great earnestness....I listen to this and have no mischievous impulses. I shall miss the old girl. Aftermuch monkey business, dear Miss Rose, I am ready to listen to words of ultimateseriousness. There isn’t much time left. The federal marshall, any day now, willbe setting out from Seattle.

If Shawmut proclaims "Better an ignis fatuus / Than no illume at all," he still posits, by theabsence that is light-heartedly evoked throughout the letter, a world of spirit, which oncemerited, and may once again merit, the highest respect and fulfill the deepest and most sincereyearnings of humankind.

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