The School of Humility with Saul Bellow

Saul Bellow is probably best known for his novels. Some of his masterpieces follow:

  1. Seize the Day

2. The Adventures of Augie March

3. Henderson the Rain King

4. Herzog

5. Humboldt’s Gift

But Bellow’s short stories are gems, too, especially “A Father-to-Be.”

Bellow’s giftedness is arguably best evidenced in his dramatization of man’s blindness to his own nature. Like Bellow’s main characters, we tend to be much more skilled at seeing the specks in other people’s eyes than seeing the logs in our own eyes.

You recall Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount:

Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,” when there i sthe log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye. (Matthew 7:3-5, ESV)

In “A Father-to-Be,” a short story about Rogin, a 31-year-old chemist living in New York City, who is engaged to Joan, Rogin is a worrier. He feels the weight of the world on his shoulders. He worries–most of all–about money, about being able to provide for his future, and about whether he and Joan have children, what would they be like?

Rogin is the literary trope of the urban Jew whose worldview is almost completely consumed by thoughts of money. (Bellow was Jewish, of course, so this is not meant as anything other than calling attention to the story, and its literary trope.)

Here’s the way Bellow describes Rogin early on in the story:

“While the woman in the drugstore was wrapping the shampoo bottle, a clear idea suddenly arose in Rogin’s thoughts: Money surrounds you in life as the earth does in death. Superimposition is the universal law. Who is free? No one is free. Who has no burdens? Everyone is under pressure. The very rocks, the water of the earth, beasts, men, children–everyone has some weight to carry” (504).

Rogin is quick to judge others and quick to think he has all the answers, and that he is therefore somehow superior to the rest of people.

Again, look at how Bellow reveals Rogin’s character through his (Rogin’s) thought life:

“Rogin’s illuminated mind asked of itself while the human tides of the subway swayed back and forth, and cars linked and transparent like fish bladders raced under the streets: How come he thought nobody would know what everybody coudn’t help knowing? And, as a chemist, he asked himself what kind of compound this new Danish drug might be, and started thinking about various inventions of his own, systhetic albumen, a cigarette that lit itself, a cheaper motor fuel. Ye gods, but he needed money! As never before. What was to be done? His mother was growing more and more difficult” (507).

Again, we readers see Rogin, but Rogin does not see himself. And we get the sense that a moment of illumination is coming. Surely an epiphany for Rogin neareth.

And it does.

Rogin watches two friends get into a dispute in the subway when Friend A makes a confession to Friend B, and says in effect, “I betcha didn’t know that about me, did you?” and Friend B, without missing a beat, says, “Of course I did. That was obvious.”

And can you guess Rogin’s response as a spectator? How silly of both men. See, Rogin thinks to himself, how little people know of each other! If only folks were as insightful as Rogin.

By the time Rogin has gone by the pharmacy for a bottle of shampoo, and gone by the deli for some roast beef and other items Joan had asked him to pick up, he is incensed. He feels he has penetrated into the mysteries of life whereas most others only skate upon life’s surface, unreckoning and unaware of life’s deeper truths.

Finally when Rogin arrives at the apartment, his kind fiancee Joan greets him.

“Oh, my baby. You’re covered with snow. Why didn’t you wear your hat? It’s all over its little head”–her favorite third-person endearment (511).

And Joan washes her fiance’s (Rogin’s) hair, notices his scalp is pink (like a baby’s), and Rogin is undone. She bathes his scalp, shampoos his hair, tends to him:

Then Bellow brings it all home:

“But there’s abosolutely nothing wrong with you,” she said, and pressed against him from behind, surrounding him, pouring the water gently over him until it seemed to him that the water came from within him, it was the warm fluid of his own secret loving spirit overflowing into the sink, green and foaming, and the words he had rehearsed he forgot, and his anger at his son-to-be disappeared altogether, and he sighed, and said to her from the water-filled hollow of the sink, “You always have such wonderful ideas, Joan. You know? You have a kind of instinct, a regular gift” (513).

Rogin sees, perhaps for the first time, he’s the child. He needs to be mothered. He is the one longing for love. He’s the one in need. Actually, there is debate about whether or not Rogin does actually grow up and come to see that he’s been the child. I kind of think, in fact, that he has not come to himself yet. Rogin was humbled, yes, a lesson we need more than we usually realize. But usually we’re the last ones to know. Others see our need first, kind of like that penchant we have for seeing those specks in other people’s eyes.

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