Monday, February 11, 2019

Humboldt's Gift by Saul Bellow


My sister Maureen gave me this book on Christmas in 1977 when she was a freshman at Fordham University and I was a junior in high school.  I don't know if she'd read it - when I reminded her of the gift two weeks ago, she had no idea what I was talking about - or if, at the time, she'd read it was Bellow's impassioned extension of his friend with the great doomed poet Delmore Schwartz, and figured, since at age 16 I was talking great guns about becoming a poet, that it was a gift that would sit right with me.

But I've just finished it for the first time, I will confess.  Although I'm a Saul Bellow fan - his Adventures of Augie March certainly makes my top ten American Novels list, and I've read several others and fervently admire them for their intellect.  

And what a staggering book! Infuriating, too.  

He [H] said that history was a nightmare during which he was trying to get a good night's rest.

Well, we woo one other with everything we've got.

Look, professor, you don't mix things up. That's not what a wife is about. And if you have a funny foot you have to look for a funny shoe. And if you find the right fit you just let it alone.

acts of exalted violence by dedicated ideologists to shock the bourgeoisie and regenerate its dying nerve.

Blake was naked and saw man naked, and from the center of his own crystal.

At the center of the beholder there must be space for the whole, and this nothing-space is not an empty nothing but a nothing reserved for everything

'Though you are said to be alive you are dead. Wake up and put some strength into what is left, which must otherwise die.' That's from the Revelation of Saint John, more or less.

By means of music a man affirmed that the logically unanswerable was, in a different form, answerable. Sounds without determinate meaning become more and more pertinent, the greater the music.

[Humboldt] "I ask myself why you figured so prominently in my obsessions and fixations. You may be one of those people who arouse family emotions, you're a son-and-brother type. Mind, you want to arouse feeling but not necessarily to return it. The idea is that the current should flow your way."

[Humboldt] "Good old Henry James, of whom Mrs. Henry Adams said that he chewed more than he bit off..."


[Humboldt quoting William Blake] "Fun I love, but too much fun is of all things the most loathsome. Mirth is better than fun, and happiness is better than mirth. I feel that a man may be happy in this world. And I know that this world is a world of imagination and vision. I see every thing I paint in this world, but everybody does not see alike. To the eyes of a miser a guinea is far more beautiful than the Sun, and a bag worn with the use of money has more beautiful proportions than a vine filled with grapes. The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing which stands in the way. Some see nature all ridicule and deformity, and by these I shall not regulate my proportions; and some scarce see nature at all. But to the eyes of the man of imagination, nature is imagination itself. As a man is, so he sees."

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