American Prometheus


Eugene Henderson suffers.  In the middle of his sixth decade, he yearns to ‘burst the spirit’s sleep’, to experience the deeper truths of life.  Tired of his American life, Henderson takes a trip to Africa, to the ‘bed of mankind’, in the hopes of silencing the voice of desire (‘I want, I want’) in his soul by smothering it with rich experiences  – experiences he believes can only be found ‘off the beaten track’.  Henderson flees the ‘privation of high conduct’ that plagues his life in the States.  Into Africa he journeys with his guide, the native Romilayu, seeking something like religious epiphany, a revelation to stir the sediment of his soul.  After a brief but fateful encounter with the Arnewi tribe, Henderson finds himself among the Wariri and in the company of their king, Dahfu.  It is Dahfu that prods Henderson awake and it is from Dahfu that Henderson – and, by extension, the reader – comes to understand the primary theme of the novel: the acceptance of death as a part of life.

It is easy to read Henderson as a parable.  Bellow’s story abounds in symbolism and biblical metaphor, the most striking being Henderson’s solution to the contamination of the Arnewi’s water supply.  A plague of frogs inhabits the village cistern and fear of divine retribution holds the tribe back from taking action.  Enter Henderson.  Removing the batteries from a torch and emptying gunpowder into the casing, adding a shoelace soaked in lighter fluid for a fuse, he fashions a pipe-bomb.  With the greatest of intentions he hurls the bomb into the cistern, but the blast is too powerful and the wall of the cistern cracks and gives way, and the water is lost to the thirsty African sands.  How easy it is to see the frogs as primitive superstition, the bomb as human progress and enlightenment, and the water as the soul.  A faith in science, we might read from this, has destroyed all superstitious fear, has removed all mystery from the world (or promises to), and in doing so has perforated our souls and made of them barren, empty cisterns; around our bodies a tired heart pumps tired blood with nothing new to see.

A week before Henderson was published Bellow wrote an article for the New York Times titled, ‘The Search for Symbols, a Writer Warns, Misses All the Fun and Fact of the Story.’  It is salient to any discussion of the symbolic in Henderson for, as the title suggests, Bellow warns against reading too deeply, against over-interpretation; he calls for the return to primary importance of the feeling of a novel, as opposed to its meaning.  His warning comes, I suspect, because much of the feeling of his novel, the comic feeling, comes not from any symbol, but from Henderson’s literal suffering, and his struggle with it.  The dream-like tone of the novel, as noted by Henderson himself, is because of his spirit’s sleeping coupled with his awareness of it.  It is a kind of spiritual somnambulism, and to keep this droll, dreaming mood, the events of the novel must not be rendered of their fat to make candles of signification.  Henderson’s sleep is his suffering and his suffering is the novel.

Henderson is ‘moody, rough, tyrannical, and probably mad.’  He is brash and quixotically impulsive and pathologically (though unaware) afraid of death.  It is a disease endemic to man (at least to Americans post World War 2) and is one that, while treated in the preceding generation by Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby, is done so by Bellow with a warming comedy.

The first clue we have that Henderson is afraid of death, that he has not accepted into his life the inevitability of its termination, comes in the first chapter with Henderson’s brief recount of a holiday at a beach-side resort where instead of enjoying the sea, he stays on the land slinging stones at glass bottles.  Though he is not afraid of the sea (later described as ‘eternal’) he ignores it still in all its seeming depthless infinitude, unable to bear its metaphysical weight, and focuses instead on the worthless, transient, ephemeral empty glass bottles.  Later, his actions provoke an argument with his wife that concludes with a threat of suicide.  Impulsive as it is, this is Henderson’s subconscious rising to the surface (‘like a great sea bubble from the Atlantic floor’), forcing him to deal with death and telling him that it is no longer acceptable to put the death question to one side.  It must be answered.

It is not until the death of his maid, Miss Lenox, that Henderson is prompted into action.  In a wonderful image Bellow provides Henderson’s impetus for going to Africa:

In the cottage I had to climb from room to room over the boxes and baby buggies and crates she [Miss Lenox] had collected…Bottles, lamps, old butter dishes, and chandeliers were on the floor, shopping bags filled with string and rags, and pronged openers that the dairies used to giveaway to lift the paper tops from milk bottles; and bushel baskets full of buttons and china door knobs.  And on the walls, calendars and pennants and ancient photographs.

Note the extraordinary way Bellow paces the prose in the second sentence.  A quick-fire of two items with but a few syllables between them (‘bottles, lamps’), then he adds a descriptor to a two-word item (‘old butter dishes’).  From here the sentence’s clauses begin to lengthen and mount: ‘chandeliers were on the floor’ (items in places they are not normally found), ‘shopping bags filled with string and rags’ (items within items), ‘and pronged openers that the dairies used to give away to lift the paper tops from milk bottles…’  As each clause lengthens – not forgetting that this is all in the one sentence – the sense of more and more things, items, junk mounts; the very prose spools and gathers in piles on the page.

The next paragraph reads:

And I thought, ‘Oh, shame, shame!  Oh, crying shame!  How can we?  Why do we allow ourselves?  What are we doing?  The last little room of dirt is waiting.  Without windows.  So for God’s sake make a move, Henderson, put forth effort.  You, too, will die of this pestilence.  Death will annihilate you and nothing will remain, and there will be nothing left but junk.  Because nothing will have been and so nothing will be left.  While something still is-now!  For the sake of all, get out.

Miss Lenox has expended so much time and effort collecting all of these things, but they can’t keep death away.  She gathered and sorted all this material, but still death came for her: the soul is not a magpie’s nest, the soul is not a storage shed.

And so refusing to build for himself a cairn of empty bottles and buttons and doorknobs, Henderson flees the desert of pig-farming and violin lessons and marital discord for the desert of the African interior.  Into this land marches Henderson with his Austrian wick lighter and his H and H Magnum gun (scope augmented) hunting for a revelation, but willing to settle for an easy display of nobility, or a bit of folk wisdom.  It is not long until Henderson is dressed in messianic costume by Bellow; he performs his first ‘miracle’ to impress the children of the Arnewi, the first tribe he and Romilayu encounter in their torrid journey: he sets alight a bush with his wick lighter.  While they are unanimously unimpressed, it is Henderson’s promise to help them with the frogs plaguing their water supply, and the consequent spectacular failure, that takes this American Prometheus from the emotional heights of Olympus to Infernal depths.  There being nothing that can be done for the Arnewi, Henderson and Romilayu continue their journey, now clouded in shame, and find themselves among the Wariri, a larger and more prosperous tribe.  It is with the Wariri that he performs the miracle that would see him canonized , and that does indeed see him crowned with the title ‘Sungo’ (Rain King): he lifts a large idol of Mummah, the goddess of clouds.  It is an instrumental part of a ceremony to summon rain, and its success ensures Henderson a high place of respect in the tribe.  But still his soul suffers and though he may be a messianic figure to the Wariri, he himself is the one in need of saving: “Why,” [Dahfu] said, “everything about you, Henderson-Sungo, cries out, ‘Salvation, Salvation!  What shall I do?  What must I do?  At once!  What will become of me?’  And so on.  That is bad.”

There is comedy in this.¹  The comedy derives, in this instance, from the inversion of expectation.  Henderson, we know, suffers from a rent soul and, looking for salvation, has somehow himself become the saviour.  Bellow’s physical comedy is also present: “Through his [Dahfu’s] high-swelled lips a low hum occasionally came.  It reminded me of the sound you sometimes hear from a power station when you pass one in New York on a summer night…’; when Dahfu expounds to Henderson his theory that the soul is the author of the body, we recognise it as Bellow’s own.  However, it is man’s internal existential struggle that is not only the major theme of the novel, but the primary source of its comedy, also.  It is the comedy of man’s unending struggle to ‘carry life to a certain depth’, a comedy about the meaning he gives (or tries) to the meaningless and infinite.  “The earth is a huge ball which nothing holds up in space except its own motion and magnetism, and we conscious things who occupy it believe we have to move too, in our own space.  We can’t allow ourselves to lie down and not do our share and imitate the greater entity”, Henderson thinks.  It is the battle between the soul wanting (‘I want, I want’) to turn and face death, and the mind refusing to do so.  There is in the novel a comedy generated (and personified in Henderson) by the irony that people have stopped living because they are afraid of dying.  We fear death because we love life – but death is a part of life and to deny it is to deny life.  But we are also afraid of the fear itself, afraid that if we turn to face death, if we look it in the eye, we shall be crippled with inaction, for if, as Henderson believes, ‘truth comes in blows,’ then the greatest universal truth – that all who live shall one day die – comes from the blow of existence itself.

These are the themes of this wonderfully funny novel.  Death should not be a thing feared but a principal driving force, the impetus to ‘carry life to a certain depth,’ Bellow tells us.  But this motivation, this will-to-live, thus grun-tu-molani, is a kind of secular faith in life itself.  Eighteenth century Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, whom Bellow read, said that true faith was constituted by one who, in the face of the Absurd (the impossible), believed in not only its possibility, but its inevitability.  Henderson thinks, ‘Ages of longing and willing, willing and longing, and how have they ended?  In a draw, dust and dust.’  But by the end of the novel, having left Africa after the death of his mentor, Dahfu, he is ready to make his movement of faith: ‘I guess I felt it was my turn to move, and so went running  – leaping, leaping, pounding, and tingling over the pure white lining of the gray Arctic silence.’  In his arms he holds an orphan, prophylactic, a mithridate, ‘like medicine applied.’  (For is that not why children hold a special, magical, droll appeal to us?  In the face of death they have the courage of lions.  In this they are more akin to animals than humans.)

The faith in the lasting value of human endeavour in the face of death is a Kierkegaardian movement of faith that the conclusion of the novel assures us is worth making.  It is the acceptance of death that enables us to fill our souls with a meaningful weight and sink to a ‘certain depth.’  It is at this depth that spiritual serenity, like a rare sea creature, is to be found.  A fear of death empties the soul and we turn away to look on the bright, shining transience of buttons and doorknobs and teacups.

¹ For my observations on comedy in Henderson, I am greatly indebted to James Wood’s essay, ‘Saul Bellow’s comic style’, to be found in his collection The Irresponsible Self: On Laughter and the Novel.


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