'Mr. Sammler's Planet' revisited

It is Saul Bellow's most politically grounded and fantastically unbound novel.

saul bellow 248.88 (photo credit: )
saul bellow 248.88
(photo credit: )
To look into space is to look back in time. The starlight we see meeting us here on Earth, from out there, was created light years ago. Closer to home, peering up at the moon's reflective beam is to gaze on our closest orbital companion in this lonely space and while doing so, we remember our first walk together. In 1969, while it seemed like the Earth was coming apart due to social and political upheaval, the writer Saul Bellow created what's perhaps his most politically grounded and fantastically unbound novel, aligning the forces taking place on this planet with a future on the moon. The book, Mr. Sammler's Planet, is about an elderly Holocaust survivor, who after getting an eye knocked out by a Nazi's rifle butt and buried under a pile of human beings is left for dead. Sammler crawls out, leaving his dead wife behind, rebirthing himself and never losing an iota of his dignity as he sallied forth to the future. We then find him, a man from the past replanted in an era of tumultuous unrest, just as we embark on a future toward the moon. By pitting his elderly Sammler against the tide of the 1960s and the "movement," Bellow lost many friends. He in turn divided himself off from the Left and charted a new course. Peering back into that time through one lens, and observing what split our culture, is like looking at a distant, faint star today. After all, our president is African-American, women have gained enormous strides and the youth from the '60s are, well, in their 60s. Through another lens, the old Left has morphed into MoveOn.org, while much of the Right has shifted off the planetary charts. Both sides nevermore magnetically polar opposites. While 1969 further split a divided country, for one brief shining moment, the residual light of JFK's Camelot captured our attention, our imagination and held us together as we stared in amazement at what was taking place on the lunar landscape. IT'S STILL hard to fathom, that we were ever there, but after traipsing on the moon, it's like we've fallen and we can't get up. Upon reflection, to what end was it all aimed? When Sammler finds a stolen manuscript called "The Future of the Moon," he reads the first line, "How long will this Earth remain the only home of man?" and resignedly reflects, "How long? Oh Lord, you bet! Wasn't it the time - the very hour to go?... To blow this great blue, white, green planet, or to be blown from it." Still in need of repair here on Earth, we come closer to the ultimate question, which we needed to ask then, "Why?" Why were we, like Icarus, attempting to fly into the heavens? Was it purely because it was there? Or are we finding out now that we may actually be in desperate need of moving? The part of the world that was torn asunder by war, poverty, race and mankind remains alive and is pulsating. Perhaps, we are just that much more aware of its beat, as we mark, note and scribe all of its throbs today, via some of the same technology that gave us liftoff then. While it has brought us closer together via social media on an iPhone, Blackberry or some such techno-thingi, the speed of light has gotten faster here, as we've abandoned our footprint there. Just look how a tyrant's oppression on a people is Twittered around the world in an instant (Oh, for Sammler's lens to have seen that!). Gazing back at the end of the novel, Sammler, the Holocaust survivor who lived a misanthropic life eyeing the pain and hardships all around him, abandons his belief in departing Earth and affirmatively learns to value human life here. But 40 years later, the question remains: Are we to live here forever or blast off at some point to a distant planet when this Earth becomes uninhabitable after we've wrecked it? As Jews, wanderers, subjects of Exodus and the original text message beamed from above, we should focus our lens and search for the answer still hidden back, deep in our history, while we look out toward the future. The writer is based in Baltimore and works in communications.