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By Myron Magnet

The Founders at Home: The Building of America, 1735-1817

Edited with an Introduction by Myron Magnet

Modern Sex: Liberation and Its Discontents.

Urbanities

Myron Magnet
Mr. Sammler’s City
Saul Bellow’s prophetic 1970 novel captured New York’s unraveling and remains a cautionary tale.
Spring 2008

Selected Responses:

Sent by Michael on 06-07-2008:

As a transplant from New York (moved to Seattle in 1966 as an infant) I had always wondered why the great city I had heard about from my parents had suffered such a decline.
Your article has renewed my interest in this topic. Thank you.

Sent by Robert Nason on 05-25-2008:

While reading Myron Magnet's trenchant reexamination of Saul Bellow's novel "Mr. Sammler's Planet," I could not help but be reminded of another character, this one real, who could easily have been in the audience at Sammler's informal talk at Columbia in the late 1960's: Edward Said, then professor of literature at the university. Over the years, Said would refer to the novel with barely concealed contempt in books and interviews right up until his death. He repeatedly cited the novel for what he considered its "racism," "reactionary turn," and "unfortunate presage of the rise of neoconservatism," and found the infamous scene with the black man in the camel's hair coat especially lamentable.

It's interesting to note that throughout the next quarter-century, Said would consistently give his support and prestige to the very forces of disorder and destruction that Bellow saw capturing the elites at that fictional talk -- whether they took the form of vandals on New York's Upper West Side or terrorists on Israel's West Bank. If only the professor had been a closer reader!

Sent by David Hartmann on 05-20-2008:

Absolutely wonderful. I had no idea Bellow's book dealt with this critical topic. I was at Columbia from 1977-79, and Mr. Magnet's descriptions are, sadly, very familiar to me.

Sent by Juliette A. Ochieng on 05-12-2008:

The only thing that seems adequate is "thank you."

Sent by Deborah Durkee on 05-12-2008:

Great article. As a younger boomer who watched much of the craziness (the 1968 Democratic Convention, riots in Detroit, awful things in the early 1960s going on in the South) from a television set in a small town in the Midwest, I think many of us observing the decay and violence of the era didn't understand what was going on, but knew we wanted something else. Rudy Giuliani is a hero, not only for New York, but for the whole country. Thanks for this.

As Bellow understood, the 'anything goes' culture of the 1960s produced an 'anything goes' city, where disorder and crime flourished, as in the Times Square of that era.
As Bellow understood, the “anything goes” culture of the 1960s produced an “anything goes” city, where disorder and crime flourished, as in the Times Square of that era.

Fear was a New Yorker’s constant companion in the 1970s and ’80s. We lived behind doors with triple locks, some like engines of medieval ironmongery. We barred our ground-floor and fire-escape windows with steel grates that made us feel imprisoned. I was thankful for mine, though, when a hatchet turned up on my fire escape, origin unknown. Nearing our building entrances, we held our keys at the ready and looked over our shoulders, as police and street-smart lore advised; our hearts pounded as we tried to shove the heavy doors open and slam them shut before some mugger could push in behind us, standard mugging procedure. Only once was I too slow and lost my money. A neighbor, who worked at a midtown bank, lost his life.

So to read Saul Bellow’s Mr. Sammler’s Planet when it came out in 1970 was like a jolt of electricity. Just when New York had begun to spin out of control—steadily worsening for over two decades until murders numbered over 2,200 a year, one every four hours—Bellow’s novel described the unraveling with brilliant precision and explained unflinchingly why it was happening. His account shocked readers: some thought it racist and reactionary; others feared it was true but too offensive for a decent person to say. In those days, I felt I should cover my copy with a plain brown wrapper on the subway to veil the obscenity of its political incorrectness.

The book was true, prophetically so. And now that we live in New York’s second golden age—the age of reborn neighborhoods in every borough, of safe streets bustling with tourists, of $40 million apartments, of filled-to-overflowing private schools and colleges, of urban glamour; the age when the New York Times runs stories that explain how once upon a time there was the age of the mugger and that ask, is new york losing its street smarts?—it’s important to recall that today’s peace and prosperity mustn’t be taken for granted. Hip young residents of the revived Lower East Side or Williamsburg need to know that it’s possible to kill a city, that the streets they walk daily were once no-go zones, that within living memory residents and companies were fleeing Gotham, that newsweeklies heralded the rotting of the Big Apple and movies like Taxi Driver and Midnight Cowboy plausibly depicted New York as a nightmare peopled by freaks. That’s why it’s worth looking back at Mr. Sammler to understand why that decline occurred: we need to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

A septuagenarian Holocaust survivor who lives on 90th Street near Riverside Drive (my turf for most of the last 45 years), the novel’s main character, Artur Sammler, sees disorder and decay wherever he looks. Out in the public realm, vandals have cut the receivers off pay phones and turned the booths into reeking urinals. In the parks, dog waste has killed the grass, and bums are everywhere. In one park, Sammler observes a wino “sullenly pissing on newspapers and old leaves,” while a homeless woman sleeps on a bench, her “sea cow’s belly rising, legs swollen purple.” Even the freshly opened daffodils show smudges of soot on their pure yellow petals. Central Park promenaders who now savor the lush Great Lawn or the sublime Bethesda Fountain should know what a heroic effort of philanthropy and policing it took to reclaim what less than two decades ago was a dusty, sterile, graffiti-marred wasteland where dope dealers and muggers reigned. Nothing you see today is the pure production of nature but springs instead from civic will and vision.

Along with disorder went crime. Sammler knows he can’t jog in Riverside Park any more because of the muggers, and he sees in the park’s trees and bushes “cover for sexual violence, knifepoint robberies, sluggings, and murders.” Crime pervades the whole city, even into private sanctuaries. Sammler’s niece opens her window to admire a beautiful sunset and then forgets to lock it, allowing burglars to climb in from the roof below, as used to happen routinely. The least of her losses is the financial one. “The sentimental value of her lockets, chains, rings, heirlooms was not appreciated by the insurance company.” Such things are precious to her because they link her to her dead husband, her dead parents. For such loss, and the loss of her sense of safety in her own home, there can be no recompense.

How wonderful it would be to have “the privileges of remoteness” that $50,000 a year could buy, Sammler thinks—“club membership, taxis, doormen, guarded approaches,” all of the insulation that only 17 years later, as Tom Wolfe calculated more lavishly in Bonfire of the Vanities, took an income of $1 million a year. (Since Dickens, our best urbanologists have been our novelists.) But, Bellow points out, even the “opulent sections of the city were not immune. You opened a jeweled door into degradation, from hypercivilized Byzantine luxury straight into the state of nature.”

The novel’s personification of all that crime is a tall, powerfully built thief whom Sammler sees several times working the Riverside Drive bus, a dandified black man sporting a camel’s-hair coat, homburg, and Dior sunglasses. Sammler, slightly taller, can watch him over the heads of the other standees as he skillfully snaps open the handbags and methodically empties the purses of his unaware victims. One day, shielded from the other passengers by his broad, well-tailored back, the thief robs a weak old man with red-lidded eyes of “sea-mucus blue,” cowering in the bus’s back corner, his “false teeth dropping from his upper gums” in his terror. The thief pulls open the man’s jacket with its ragged lining, takes out his plastic wallet, and methodically rifles through the contents, pocketing the money and the Social Security check, while dropping the family photos like so much trash. Then, in a gesture of ironic contempt, he jerks the knot of the old man’s tie “approximately, but only approximately, into place.”

So much, in other words, for the old man’s claim, through the symbol of his otherwise useless necktie, of membership in a civilized community, where civility and forbearance govern our relations with one another and family bonds matter. And so much for his social security in the literal sense, if the state can’t even secure him from invasion and violation in public and in broad daylight. It’s the ultimate satire: the state that promises you the security of an old-age pension can’t even provide you the security to keep it—the primary purpose of a state. It’s almost as bad as today’s Britain, where the welfare state provides for your welfare not by stopping omnipresent thugs from beating you senseless but by sewing you up afterward for free.

As a Holocaust survivor, Sammler views this fraying of the social order with special unease. “Like many people who had seen the world collapse once, Mr. Sammler entertained the possibility it might collapse twice.” He knows firsthand the evil of which men are capable. Clubbed in Poland into a mass grave, he alone survives and crawls out through the blood-slick bodies of the innocent dead, among whom lies his wife. Fighting alongside the partisans in the Polish forests, hunted “like a rat,” he learns the evil he himself can do—with pleasure in the doing. He surprises a Nazi soldier, makes him throw his rifle into the snow and strip off his warm clothes, which Sammler, “himself nearly a corpse,” badly wants. Don’t shoot, the scared young man cries, I have children. But Sammler, his human compassion dried up, puts two bullets into the young man’s head. “Bone burst. Matter flew out.” And Sammler felt “joy,” felt “bliss.” “His heart was lined with brilliant, rapturous satin.” And now, in New York, Bellow remarks, “this civil margin once removed, Mr. Sammler would never trust the restoration totally.”

Out of understandable anxiety for the social order, Sammler phones the police twice to have the bus thief arrested. They go through the motions with bored cynicism. If they will post a cop on the bus, Sammler says, he’ll point out the pickpocket. We don’t have enough manpower, the desk officer replies; you’ll have to get on our waiting list. A waiting list? Sammler objects. “This man is going to rob more people, but you aren’t going to do anything about it. Is that right?” The confirmatory answer is silence—the contempt-edged passivity that anyone who called the cops in the seventies and eighties, when, as Bellow remarks, the police were never around when you needed them, will remember well.

Obsessed with the thief, in whose evil actions there is “illumination” of normally hidden potentialities within human nature, Sammler watches for him on the bus. Like most law-abiding citizens in those days, he pretends not to see malefactors in the midst of their doings, lest his look be construed as a challenge—a continual experience of self-abasement, as I remember well. “A dry, a neat, a prim face declared that one had not crossed anyone’s boundary; one was satisfied with one’s own business.” But the robber notices Sammler watching him and follows him home into the lobby of his building. Holding him against the wall with his forearm, speaking “no more than a puma would,” the robber calmly unbuttons his camel’s-hair coat, opens his fly, and displays to Sammler his penis, “a large tan-and-purple uncircumcised thing” like a snake or an elephant’s trunk, along with his “great oval testicles.” “The thing was shown with mystifying certitude” as “a prominent and separate object intended to communicate authority.” Then the thief returns it to his trousers. “Quod erat demonstrandum.” He releases Sammler, “concluding the session, the lesson, the warning, the encounter, the transmission.”

No reader of Sammler has ever forgotten this scene, and even the novel’s characters can’t stop talking about it. “Was it sixteen, eighteen inches?” a wide-eyed nephew asks Sammler. “Would you guess it weighed two pounds, three pounds, four?” And indeed, it is the book’s central moment: in it come together Bellow’s key themes of crime, race, the sexual revolution, and the fragility of the social order.

While Bellow was writing Mr. Sammler’s Planet, not only were the criminals who preyed on the city overwhelmingly black (as is still true in New York), but much worse black violence threatened to destroy urban America in a latterday version of the European upheaval that nearly killed Sammler. Race was the social problem. In 1965, riots raged for six days in Los Angeles’s Watts ghetto, leaving over 30 dead and whole blocks in ashes; in 1967, over 40 died in the Detroit ghetto riots before the National Guard, with army reinforcements, restored order; and over 25 died in the Newark riots, in which the looters, shooters, and arsonists left $10 million of property in ruins. A year later, after Martin Luther King’s assassination, rioting raged in black neighborhoods for days in over 100 cities. Meanwhile, black radicals—most notably, the weapons-toting, cop-killing Black Panthers—were calling for armed revolution.

The year Sammler appeared, Tom Wolfe jeered at the white elite’s embrace of the Panthers in his hilarious essay “Radical Chic,” describing a party Leonard Bernstein had thrown to introduce the paramilitary-garbed black-power group to such friends as Richard Avedon, Lillian Hellman, Robert Silvers, and Barbara Walters in his Park Avenue duplex. But for Bellow, despite his keen sense of the absurd, such antics were no laughing matter. They were part of the reason why New York was falling apart.

Since the nineteenth century, bohemians, writers, and intellectuals have toyed with the “romance of the outlaw,” as Sammler puts it. “He thought often what a tremendous appeal crime had made to the children of bourgeois civilization. Whether as revolutionists, as supermen, as saints, Knights of Faith, even the best teased and tested themselves with thoughts of knife or gun. Lawless Raskolnikovs.” But in Sammler’s New York, and in elite culture generally in the sixties, that romance of the outlaw focused primarily on blacks, whose status as social victims and outcasts transformed their criminal acts (ex officio, so to speak) into manly, quasi-heroic revolts against oppression, however inchoate. Another of Sammler’s nieces, a rich, pretty Sarah Lawrence grad, embodies this prevailing worldview: she regularly sends money to “defense funds for black murderers and rapists.” Her uncle has no patience with this attitude. You can’t excuse a crime by saying it has been committed by a victim. “To whom would this not apply, if you start to say poor creature?” he dryly objects.

But though this exculpatory impulse springs partly from a widespread wish to make amends for centuries of racial injustice and to see “the unity of the different races affirmed,” its roots go deeper than that. The American elite, Bellow saw, had lost confidence in its core values. “The labor of Puritanism was now ending”; the Puritan outlook that had guided America for three and a half centuries, the bourgeois outlook that “formerly was believed, trusted, was now bitterly circled in black irony.” Without faith in their core bourgeois values and in the social order that rested on those values, the old elite had ceased to believe in its own legitimacy. Not surprisingly, “Mr. Sammler was testy with White Protestant America for not keeping better order. Cowardly surrender. Not a strong ruling class. Eager in a secret humiliating way to come down and mingle with all the minority mobs, and scream against themselves.”

Perhaps he had in mind Johnson-administration attorney general Ramsey Clark, son of Supreme Court justice Tom Clark, who was asserting at that moment that white America’s racism and oppression (rather than black criminals) were responsible for black crime and that evil America was the world’s chief perpetrator of “crimes against peace, war crimes,” and “crimes against humanity.” (In later years, he became a defender of Saddam Hussein and the blind terrorist sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman.) Or perhaps he had in mind Mayflower descendant William Sloane Coffin, son of a Metropolitan Museum board president, who as Yale’s chaplain and then as minister of Riverside Church went from being a civil rights Freedom Rider to becoming the country’s leading Vietnam War protester, draft-resistance advocate (for whom civil disobedience seemed to be his creed’s main sacrament), and denouncer of America’s lack of “social justice.” Or hundreds like them, including New York’s then-mayor John Lindsay, whose Dutch ancestors arrived in Manhattan in the seventeenth century.

America’s elites, at least the most vocal among them, no longer believed in the importance or legitimacy of policing their own streets—or the world. As we only later came to grasp clearly, all the resultant disorder that Bellow cataloged—public spaces despoiled by drunks, drug dealers, addicts, and madmen; unchecked vandalism; the stench of human and canine waste everywhere; the sordid parade of prostitutes of all genders around Times Square (whose modern romanticizers either weren’t there or else have a rarefied taste for the squalid and perverse)—all these so-called victimless crimes turned out to be the great incubator of serious crime. Potential wrongdoers accurately concluded from the lack of order-keeping policing that the authorities didn’t care, so they could rob, mug, steal cars, and so on with impunity, right up to a gang of black 14-year-olds shooting another kid to death, as Sammler’s nephew casually reports. To the elites, in fact, all the “victimless” disorder wasn’t just harmless but healthy: drugs were mind-expanding, madmen were marching to the beat of a different drummer, blasting boomboxes were the exuberant expression of what we hadn’t yet learned to call multiculturalism, and restraint was oppression. As Bellow understood, social disorder flowed from cultural change.

Of all the Puritan restraints, sexual restraint was Number One on the elites’ hit list. The opposite of a virtue, it was now deemed harmful, malignant. As the ascendant psychotherapeutic worldview had it, Sammler caustically notes, “the bad puritanical attitudes from the sick past . . . have damaged civilization so much.” In the 1960s, the elites wanted “the final triumph of the Enlightenment—Liberty, Fraternity, Equality, Adultery!” With the “struggles of three revolutionary centuries” finally won and the constraints of church and family cast off, the American elites demanded one ultimate liberation. They clamored for the “privileges of aristocracy, . . . especially the libidinous privileges, the right to be uninhibited, spontaneous, urinating, defecating, belching, coupling in all positions, tripling, quadrupling, polymorphous, noble in being natural, primitive, combining the leisure and luxurious inventiveness of Versailles with the hibiscus-covered erotic ease of Samoa.”

Because black Americans, as elite culture saw it, already enjoyed this sought-for sexual freedom, white Americans, Bellow says, “had formed an idea of the corrupting disease of being white and the healing power of black.” They saw blacks as the mythical noble savages, free from hypercivilized inhibition, their natural potency unimpaired. “From the black side,” Bellow writes in Sammler, “strong currents were sweeping over everyone. Child, black, redskin—the unspoiled Seminole against the horrible Whiteman. Millions of civilized people wanted oceanic, boundless, primitive, neckfree nobility, experienced a strange release of galloping impulses, and acquired the peculiar aim of sexual niggerhood for everyone.” Hence, as Sammler’s pretty niece tells him after a few drinks, “A Jew brain, a black cock, a Nordic beauty is what a woman wants.” And men have similar ambitions, Sammler muses. Did not LBJ, according to an apocryphal but plausible story, expose himself to reporters, “demanding to know whether a man so well hung could not be trusted to lead his country”?

Trouble was, Americans wanted two mutually exclusive things, Sammler observes. They sought “the privileges, and the free ways of barbarism, under the protection of civilized order, property rights, refined technological organization, and so on.” But you can have only one or the other. That is the meaning of the camel’s-hair-clad robber’s self-display. Yes, here is the big black member that everyone wants; but it is attached to a criminal. Its freedom, power, and authority are lawless, ready to make use of anyone, barbaric, bestial. Throughout, Bellow describes the robber as an “elegant brute” with the “effrontery of a big animal.” He is an “African prince or great black beast . . . seeking whom he might devour”—as Saint Peter described that incarnation of evil, the devil. His gesture expresses to Sammler that he has the power and the will to devour him if need be. President Johnson might claim the authority to rule the world; the robber claims the alpha male’s authority to rule the jungle, the state of nature, by force and violence.

As the classical political philosophers held, the civilized order that protects our lives and property rests on restraint. We curb our freedom of aggressive impulse to ensure the safety of all, ourselves included. The resultant freedom to go about our cities unmolested and to channel our energies into the civilized arts and sciences that generate human progress is a higher freedom than the liberty we relinquish. We limit our sexual freedom in order to form stable families that teach children to internalize civilization’s self-restraint and make it part of their character, a process that turns the raw material of nature into human beings. “I thought everybody was born human,” Sammler’s pretty niece tells him. He replies, with this civilizing process in mind: “It is not a natural gift at all. Only the capacity is natural.”

All the old impulses persist in all of us, of course, which requires a perpetual effort of restraint from both the individual and the society. When the curbs break down enough, whether within the individual’s conscience or the order-keeping activity of society at large, what results is the “elegant brute” of a robber or the 14-year-old murderers or the black urban underclass that was forming at the very moment Bellow was writing—a subgroup of blacks whose sexual freedom produced skyrocketing illegitimacy rates and weak families whose children crowded into the ranks of robbers and murderers. For many middle-class people, like Sammler’s pretty niece, a sexual adventurer who “has done it in too many ways with too many men,” the result was an epidemic of divorce that left a generation of wounded children, determined either never to get divorced and inflict the same pain on their own children or else never to get married in the first place. Bellow himself, who had five wives, plus affairs and one-night stands beyond enumeration, came to judge the sexual revolution “a thirty-year disaster.”

The Enlightenment, emphasizing reason, liberation, and dreams of human perfectibility, lost sight of these fundamental truths about human nature and the social order. It expelled the old world’s demons, Bellow says—those imaginary embodiments of the human evil that everyone once knew existed. But the heirs of the Enlightenment notables who freed mankind from superstition and vassalage now threaten to bring the demons back through sheer ignorance of the reality they represented. Sammler wonders “whether the worst enemies of civilization might not prove to be its petted intellectuals who attacked it at its weakest moments—attacked it in the name of proletarian revolution, in the name of reason, and in the name of irrationality, in the name of visceral depth, in the name of sex, in the name of perfect instantaneous freedom.” Ignorant of what they are doing, they hack away at the basic conditions of the civilized order by which they live.

When Sammler, who between the wars was the London correspondent for several Warsaw magazines, gives an informal talk at Columbia about his acquaintanceship with such luminaries as H. G. Wells, J. M. Keynes, and John Strachey, a bearded listener rudely interrupts. How dare Sammler quote George Orwell’s statement that “British radicals were protected by the Royal Navy? . . . That’s a lot of shit,” the man splutters. “Orwell was a fink. He was a sick counterrevolutionary. It’s good he died when he did.” The Levi’s-clad man has no use for the notions that an anti-Communist (though still a leftist) like Orwell could be great and that radicals were free to spout their revolutionary nostrums not only because liberal England gladly tolerated diversity of opinion but also because it guarded its liberal freedom with the very military might the radicals despised. The audience shouldn’t listen to Sammler, “this effete old shit,” the young man continues. “His balls are dry. He’s dead. He can’t come.” The young man, in other words, subscribes to the philosophy of the thief in the camel’s-hair coat: all authority resides in the genitals, beside which Sammler’s wide erudition and the Western culture over which he ranges so widely throughout the novel count as nothing.

The man’s last charge comes almost verbatim from an outburst during a lecture Bellow gave at radical San Francisco State. He resisted his initial “impulse to say, ‘Let’s choose a young lady from the audience for a trial heat and see about this,’ ” he reported in a letter. But in Sammler, he changed the heckler from the creative-writing instructor he actually was to “a poor man’s Jean Genet” who “wrote a book about homosexuals in prison. . . . Buggery behind bars. Or being a pure Christian angel because you commit murder and have beautiful male love affairs.”

He made him, in other words, a representative of the emerging academic culture that was turning against the Western tradition it was entrusted to transmit: ignorant, coarse-minded, anti-intellectual, irrational, hyper-ideological, sex-crazed, substituting sloganeering and invective for argument, obsessed with the marginal and the “oppressed” as evidence of Western society’s fundamental, inexpiable injustice.

The professors were turning against Western culture because, with religion weakened among the elites, culture was the last authoritative bastion of “Thou Shalt Nots,” the repository of the great thinkers’ conclusions about what kind of life and behavior is best for man, what makes our existence meaningful and human, what allows us to fulfill our highest potentialities—and what leads to strife and sorrow. This final push for liberation on campus, including a liberation from Enlightenment reason itself, didn’t want to hear about the right life or the wrong. Every kind of experiment in living—“coupling in all positions, tripling, quadrupling, polymorphous”—was fine in elite culture’s “united effort to conquer disgust.” The era’s artists and playwrights turned against culture, too: Bellow mentions the painting of Andy Warhol, with its fey, arch insistence that there’s no difference between the higher accomplishments and the lower, or among art, commerce, and celebrity; and he mentions the Performance Group’s famous production of Dionysus in ’69, whose naked actors evidently had missed Nietzsche’s caution that art needs the shaping, ordering Apollonian element to contain the frenzy, sexual license, and intoxication of the Dionysian, which, left to itself, ends in murder. For the elites, it was Dionysus all the way.

That’s what worried Bellow most about the radical professors and their elite allies. “You don’t found universities in order to destroy culture,” he wrote after the fracas at San Francisco State. “For that you want a Nazi party.” Who could tell where the professors’ overturning of the Thou Shalt Nots would end, now that sexual restraint had evaporated? They claimed they wanted a revolution, and they hailed the Black Panther “revolutionaries” and black radicals who brandished rifles at Cornell in 1969. Sammler, for his part, can’t help recalling that almost all modern revolutions, from the Jacobins to the Nazis and the Communists, have ended with the streets running with blood, because murder has been at their heart, rather than an incidental means to an end. For revolutionary leaders like Stalin, “the really great prize of power was unobstructed enjoyment of murder,” while the revolutionary masses in turn “loved the man strong enough to take blood guilt on himself. For them an elite must prove itself in this ability to murder.”

Each modern revolution (the American one alone excepted) overturned civilization’s ultimate restraint and became “a conspiracy against the sacredness of life.” So while Sammler understands the violence of the camel’s-hair-clad robber as a brutish reversion to the state of nature when society fails to keep order, he knows from experience that when a revolutionary elite calls for the overturning of restraints and the trashing of culture, it can end in something still worse—in the elite’s seizing control of the government and unleashing against some of its own citizens the very same murderous violence that government theoretically exists to curb. And such elites have done so even with the genius of the Nazis, who learned how to “abolish conscience” and “how to get the curse out of murder” by making it “look ordinary, boring, or trite.”

Even in the sixties and seventies, New Yorkers didn’t expect to hear jackboots marching up Riverside Drive, however, and for all his dark thoughts, Sammler doesn’t believe, as a few refugee friends do, that Nazism’s second coming is inevitable. But at that time, we certainly understood Sammler’s weary resignation that he’d have to give up the Riverside bus and use the subway instead, which he hated. We were giving up so much of our city—walking in certain neighborhoods, coming home very late (or even going out after dark for milk or bread) unless absolutely essential. We came to wonder if New York was a place that stunted human possibility instead of expanding it. I remember coming back from London in the mid-seventies and seeing Gotham with new eyes, as one does after an absence—the potholed streets and broken sidewalks; the graffiti smeared everywhere, as if punks had defaced the whole city; the dirt and litter; the shabby, ill-tended buildings; the thugs and bums; the rumpled, stoop-shouldered, careworn pedestrians, even on Fifth Avenue. It looked like a second-class town, trending downward toward insignificance, with the whimper of disorder and crime. Or toward death, with the bang of race riots.

Many of us felt with Sammler that “liberal beliefs [in the classical sense] didn’t seem capable of self-defense, and you could smell decay.” Could it be that the radical assault on culture would succeed and that a whole generation of new mutants, in critic Leslie Fiedler’s term, would grow up not understanding the traditional virtues and vices, and blind to life’s nobler possibilities? Already you could see that some of the professorial radicals’ students, the hippie flower children pursuing their bliss, would crumble under the dangers the world holds for everyone. “Innocent, devoid of aggression, opting out, much like Ferdinand the Bull,” Sammler muses of them. “How similar also to the Eloi of H. G. Wells’ fantasy The Time Machine. Lovely young human cattle herded by the cannibalistic Morlocks who lived a subterranean life and feared light and fire.” Or prey at least for the muggers and seducers all around them—and in for the rude surprise that the world would demand more than sex, drugs, and rock and roll. God forbid that jackboots ever did goose-step up Riverside Drive—or need to be halted under some distant palm or pine by the likes of these.

But neither the death of New York nor the death of conscience ever happened. Like most Americans, the majority of New Yorkers (chiefly in the outer boroughs rather than Manhattan) were pragmatic folk, capable of learning from experience. They didn’t want to lose their town, and they elected Rudy Giuliani to clean it up. And all over the country, kids turned against the way their baby-boomer, sexual-revolutionary parents had brought them up, and resolved to do something different. They understood there was a better way to live.

How did they know it? A residue of the old culture, too strong to die? A pragmatic or instinctive understanding that there is a right and a wrong life for man, which some of the old philosophers called Natural Law? From page one of Mr. Sammler’s Planet, Bellow himself insists that, beyond the explanations we construct through Enlightenment reason, the soul has “its own natural knowledge.” We all have “a sense of the mystic potency of humankind” and “an inclination to believe in archetypes of goodness. A desire for virtue was no accident.” We all know that we must try “to live with a civil heart. With disinterested charity.” We must live a life “conditioned by other human beings.” We must try to meet the terms of the contract life sets us, as Sammler says in the astonishing affirmation with which Bellow ends his book. “The terms which, in his inmost heart, each man knows. . . . As all know. For that is the truth of it—that we all know, God, that we know, that we know, we know, we know.”

Myron Magnet is the author of The Dream and the Nightmare: The Sixties’ Legacy to the Underclass. He is City Journal’s editor-at-large and was its editor from 1994 through 2006.

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