by Andrew Gordon
[This article appeared in Saul Bellow Journal 13.1 (Winter 1995): 52-63.]
The comedy in Saul Bellow's fiction is largely the comedy of shame. His heroes are typically vain, proud, and stubborn men who feel they are different, unique, and above the common fate. Events conspire to prove them wrong about themselves: they are not exempt from ordinary reality; they are in fact laughable schlemiels. Characteristically, what happens in Bellow's novels and stories is that the lofty heroes are brought down and taught a lesson by a comic scourging, made to run the full gauntlet of embarrassment, mockery, ridicule, humiliation, mortification, and disgrace. Bellow is not easy on his characters: he gives them the works. Nor are his heroes easy on themselves. There is always a moment in the narrative when the hero thinks to himself, as does Louie in the short story "Something to Remember Me By," "I had no sympathy for myself. I confessed that I had this coming, a high-minded Jewish schoolboy, too high-and-mighty to be Orthodox and with his eye on a special destiny. . . . The facts of life were having their turn. Their first effect was ridicule" ("Something" 213).
I think of such Bellow heroes as Joseph in Dangling Man, so ashamed to be unemployed and living off his wife as he awaits being drafted into WW II that he cannot face his friends or relatives and is even afraid to be seen in the streets. I also think of the shame of Tommy Wilhelm in Seize the Day, who is bilked of the last of his money by a quack doctor, and who is told by his elderly father when he asks him for help, "'Go away from me now. It's torture for me to look at you, you slob!'" (Seize 110). Tommy ends the novel crying at the funeral of a stranger, lamenting, "I'm stripped and kicked out. . . " (Seize 117). Then there is Eugene Henderson of Henderson the Rain King, who is literally stripped, initiated into an African tribe by having to run naked through the village. Poor Moses Herzog in Herzog is a cuckold whose wife had an affair with his best friend, public knowledge to his friends and relatives, but Herzog was the last to find out. Sammler in Mr. Sammler's Planet is publicly humiliated by an obscene heckler who disrupts Sammler's speech at Columbia University. Later, a black pickpocket exposes his genitals to Sammler in the lobby of an apartment building. And Charlie Citrine in Humboldt's Gift is jilted by his fiancee, who leaves him babysitting her son in Madrid while she is in another city marrying another man. Implicit in all these comedies of shame seems to be the (perhaps masochistic) notion that a dose of humiliation is good for the soul.
For the purposes of this discussion, I want to limit myself to one recent story, "Something to Remember Me By," which encapsulates the ritual degradation of the Bellow hero. The story is cast in the form of a memoir by an old man, told to his son, about a shameful adolescent rite of passage he underwent: tricked by a prostitute who robbed him of his clothes, he had to put on a woman's dress and try to make his way home in the Chicago winter.¹ Louie is another typical Bellow hero, "stripped and kicked out." What interests me in the story is what the psychology of shame might be able to tell us about the Bellow hero's journey, and why the elderly narrator chooses to tell this shameful story to his son rather than an incident of which he might be proud.
In recent studies, shame has been discussed primarily in terms of narcissism (Broucek, Morrison, Piers and Singer, Wurmser). But I see the Bellow hero as more of a neurotic character than a narcissist. According to the psychoanalyst Andrew P. Morrison, for narcissists, "shame seems to constitute their central negative affective experience, while for neurotic patients shame shares the spotlight with other painful feelings, principally guilt and anxiety" (Morrison 162). Although shame is a dominant emotion in Bellow's stories, so is guilt and anxiety. Guilt and shame are often associated affects, and both can be evoked by the same act; guilt refers to the sense of having done wrong and shame refers to the diminished self-image from the act (Miller 47). I interpret the Bellow hero to be an old-fashioned neurotic, complete with oedipal guilt. This guilt is closely connected with the shame the character feels. In addition, because he is not really a narcissist, and his problems lie primarily in the oedipal rather than exclusively in the preoedipal realm, Bellow's neurotic hero is more capable of true self-object differentiation and object love than the narcissist.
Because the narrator of "Something to Remember Me By" is a typical Bellow protagonist, what I will say about the story could apply as well to many other Bellow stories and novels. I will argue that the Bellow hero, such as Tommy Wilhelm in Seize the Day, Moses Herzog in Herzog, or Louie in "Something to Remember," usually undergoes a shattering experience of shame which temporarily strips him of his identity and his understanding of his world. Through action, meditation, or the act of narration, he attempts to counter that shame, to rediscover his identity, to reinterpret his world, and, finally, to reassert his capacity to love.
To summarize the plot of "Something to Remember Me By":Louie, the narrator, an old man facing the end of his life, writes a memoir as a legacy to his son, his only child. The story he tells takes place one freezing day in February 1933, when he was a seventeen-year-old senior in high school and his mother was dying at home of cancer.
Louie works after school delivering flowers. After dropping off lilies at the apartment of a dead girl (whom he views in her coffin), he goes to visit his brother-in-law, a dentist who has an office nearby. The dentist is out, but in the connecting office, in a doctor's examining room, he sees a naked woman lying on a table, apparently a volunteer for one of the doctor's voyeuristic experiments in sexology. She shows no shame, but dresses slowly and asks for Louie's help getting home. She invites him up to her sleazy apartment, has him strip naked, throws his clothes out the window to an accomplice, and flees.
Louie puts on the only clothes he can find, a woman's dress, and goes for help. It is dark and bitter cold and he is overdue at home, where the family is holding a deathwatch. But his brother-in-law is gone, both the dentist's and the doctor's offices locked. A druggist downstairs directs him to a speakeasy where his brother-in-law might be. The bartender there, after interrogating and chastising Louie, gives him a dirty old shirt and tells him to earn carfare by escorting a drunk home to his two little daughters, a further humiliation.
Louie must cook the children pork for dinner, which disgusts him because he was raised in an Orthodox Jewish family. He borrows some of the drunk's clothes, takes money for carfare, and goes home. It is very late when he returns, and his father beats him, but Louie is grateful for the beating because it means his mother is still alive.
Clearly this rite of passage is intended to intitiate young Louie into "the facts of life" ("Something" 213), as he says, primarily the two taboo subjects of sex and death, which are closely connected in the story. Louie says, "In my time my parents didn't hesitate to speak of death and the dying. What they seldom mentioned was sex. We've got it the other way around" (187). Louie had to face the death of his mother; Louie's son will soon have to face the death of his father.
The story interests me because the adolescent rite of passage is a negative ritual of degradation and shaming. Louie resembles Herzog, the typical Bellow hero who is simultaneously a high-minded intellectual looking for the ultimate meaning of things and a schlemiel led astray by lust. Significantly, in Yiddish, the word for the male genitals and for a fool is the same: "shmuck."
Although the story is told realistically, it has many dreamlike elements: the sudden appearance of a naked woman, the embarrassment over being naked or inappropriately dressed in public, and the nightmare of trying to get home but being prevented by a series of obstacles. It might be useful to think of the story as an oedipal anxiety dream; that way, the themes of sex, death, and humiliation cohere as aspects of a core fantasy. We could see Louie as feeling guilty for his desires to have sex with the mother and to rebel against the father. Unconsciously, he both fears that his oedipal desires are killing his mother and he wishes her dead. Viewed in this way, the story acts out his penance for his desires through a sexual humiliation which casts his own masculine identity in doubt. As the psychoanalyst Francis Broucek writes, "The entire oedipal arena is a mine field of potential shame and humiliation. The ultimate repression or abandonment of the child's oedipal longing may have as much or more to do with shame/humiliation issues as with castration anxiety or guilt. . . " (Broucek 76). Another psychologist, E. Straus, has suggested that one function of shame may be as a possible safeguard against the violation of incest prohibitions (Straus 222).
A dominant figure in the story is the dying mother, who seems a kind, nurturing woman. She resembles the mother in Herzog, who also dies of cancer when Herzog is a teenager; both figures are apparently based on Bellow's own mother. She never speaks in the story, but she gave Louie his sheepskin coat, which is stolen by the prostitute, and she gave her son-in-law the dentist the ornamental clock in his office. After he meets the prostitute, Louie feels ashamed in the presence of the clock: "bending my head so that I wouldn't confront the clock with its soundless measured weights revolving" ("Something" 198-99). He can't face the clock, just as he can't face his silent, dying mother. Louie says, "I knew she was dying and didn't allow myself to think about it" (187) and "I was secretive about my family life. The truth is that I didn't want to talk about my mother" (188). Herzog too avoided facing his dying mother; this is a frequent theme in the fiction of Bellow, who himself lost his mother when he was a teenager. Louie seems ashamed of the fact of her dying, but his avoidance could be seen as related to earlier, oedipal guilt which is now intensified. Whatever the reasons, which are unstated, he is in a cycle of denial, guilt, and shame which mutually reinforce one another.
There is a deliberate fusion or confusion between the mother and the other female figures in the story, who dominate the hero. The figure of the dying mother, lying down in bed, is repeated in the recumbent posture of Louie's girlfriend Stephanie, in the dead girl in her coffin, and, finally, in the naked prostitute lying on the doctor's examining table.
Immediately after Louie says goodbye to his mother in the morning, he encounters a dead pigeon in the street, shot by Depression hunters. He is careful to deny the event any significance or any connection to him. "This had nothing to do with me. I mention it merely because it happened. I stepped around the blood spots and crossed into the park" (188). The denial shows once again his avoidance of death, of any responsibility for or taint from its presence.
In the next paragraph of the story, he mentions necking with Stephanie in the park:To the right of the path, behind the wintry lilac twigs, the crust of the snow was broken. In the dead black night Stephanie and I had necked there, petted, my hands under her raccoon coat, under her sweater, under her skirt, adolescents kissing without restraint. Her coonskin cap had slipped to the back of her head. She opened the musky coat to me to have me closer (189).
So we see a confluence of three things--the dying mother lying down in bed, the dead pigeon lying in the street, and the girl lying down in the park--images of death and sex associatively connected.
Later, when he views the dead girl in her coffin, he associates her with Stephanie: "a girl older than Stephanie, not so plump" (192). He feels ashamed in the presence of the girl's mother, "ashamed to take money from her within sight of her dead daughter" (193). Once again, he denies any connection to the death, "I didn't figure here, however; this was no death of mine" (193). Louie is being assaulted with images of dead pigeons and dead girls apparently so that he can repeatedly assert his innocence; his shame in the presence of the girl's mother, however, seems to be a displacement of his guilt in relation to his own mother. Guilt implies the power to hurt, whereas shame suggests the opposite, or powerlessness and vulnerability. Nevertheless, the two often work in tandem, one defending against the other (Wurmser 203-04).
When he sees the naked woman on the doctor's table, he associates her with his mother and Stephanie: "Although I tried hard to stop it, my mother's chest mutilated by cancer surgery passed through my mind. Its gnarled scar tissue. I also called in Stephanie's closed eyes and kissing face--anything to spoil the attraction of this naked young woman" ("Something" 196-97). When she dresses, he notices that this woman, like Stephanie, wears a raccoon coat. Stephanie is further associated with the prostitute through her sexual aggression, fickleness, and hedonism: "She opened the musky coat to me to have me closer" (189) and "She [Stephanie] loved a good time. And when I wouldn't take her downtown to the Oriental Theatre she didn't deny herself the company of other boys. She brought back off-color vaudeville jokes" (201).
The last female figures in the story are the drunk's two little daughters. Since the hero is at this point wearing a dress, they are uncertain if he is a man or a woman. To find out, the younger one spies on him as he pees. "She grinned at me. She was expecting her second teeth. Today all females were making sexual fun of me, and even the infants were looking lewd" (218). So the hero consistently feels shamed by women: tricked, cheated, and made into a sexual laughingstock.
As much as he is shamed by women, Louie is also ridiculed by men. His father beats him, which is another form of humiliation. He calls his father "an intolerant, hasty man. . . . If I were to turn up in this filthy dress, the old man, breaking under his burdens, would come down on me in a blind, Old Testament rage. I never thought of this as cruelty but as archaic right everlasting" (207). Louie's angry, tyrannical father resembles Herzog's father from Herzog. Despite his apparent acceptance of his father's abuse, Louie's consorting with a prostitute and arriving home late is clearly a rebellion against his father.
Louie is also mocked by his older brother Albert. In fact, the Bellow hero, such as Joseph in Dangling Man, Augie in The Adventures of Augie March, Herzog, and Charlie in Humboldt's Gift, is often patronized or ridiculed by a more wealthy, wordly wise, tough guy older brother. "'La-di-dah,' my critical, satirical brother Albert called me" (201). "He wore a derby. . . and a camel's hair topcoat and pointed, mafioso shoes. Toward me, Albert was scornful. He said, 'You don't understand fuck-all. You never will'" (203). Louie refuses to go to the police station for help because they would probably call Albert to fetch him. "Albert would love that. He'd say to me, 'Well, aren't you the horny little bastard.' He'd play up to the cops too, and amuse them" (209). Albert's ridicule is sexual mockery, suggesting that Louie is less than a man: "La-di-dah" implies that Louie is a homosexual. And "You don't understand fuck-all. You never will." implies that Louie will remain forever virginal, lacking both knowledge of the world and carnal knowledge.
Albert provides a model of machismo which Louie both envies and hates; it is a gender role which is impossible for him. "Albert might have taught me something if he had trusted me" (202). Other Bellow heroes such as Herzog and Charlie Citrine are eager to associate with tough guys and criminals, as if some of their masculinity will rub off on them. The figure of Albert is repeated in the story by the Greek bartender who interrogates and mocks Louie. Albert wears "mafioso shoes" and the muscular bartender resembles "the kind of man the Organization hired" (215). Albert calls Louie "La-di-dah" and the bartender wonders if Louie in a dress is "a morphodite [sic]" (212). Albert says, "'You don't know fuck-all" and the bartender says, "'You got a lot to learn, buddy boy'" (215).
Louie feels inadequate when confronted with the bartender, who would have known how to handle the prostitute. "Why didn't I push her down while she was still in her coat, as soon as we entered the room--pull up her clothes, as he would have done? Because he was born to that. While I was not. I wasn't intended for it" (212). Out of guilt, Louie represses his aggression, including sexual aggression, but that makes him feel like less than a man, which in turn makes him feel ashamed. All this is represented by his humiliating situation of wearing a dress. As one psychoanalytic commentator writes, "Instead of overcoming castration anxiety through identification with a respected father, the subject might reluctantly might have chosen a feminine ('castrated') identity, which could keep him from competitive interactions with father; but this identity causes him shame" (Miller 101).
Since Louie can identify neither with his tyrannical, Old Testament patriarch nor with his more modern, swaggering, tough guy older brother Albert, there are few acceptable male role models left him. One is his easygoing brother-in-law Philip, who lives with the family and is a sort of substitute, more tolerant older brother for Louie. He describes Philip to the prostitute: "'He's a good guy. He likes to lock the office on Friday and go to the races. He takes me to the fights. Also, at the back of the drugstore there's a poker game. . .'"("Something" 201). Philip is associated with masculine activities: drinking, going to the fights or the races, and playing poker. He is also a strong man: "The strength of his arms counted when it came to pulling teeth" (194). Nevertheless, Philip has his defects: he is so lazy that he sometimes pees in his office sink rather than make the trek to the bathroom, and he lacks ambition. His wife, Louie's sister Anna, seems to have more ambition and, in that sense, to be more of a man than Philip: "My sister wants him to open a Loop office, but that would be too much of a strain" (201). "Anna had him dressed up as a professional man, but he let the fittings--short, tie, buttons--go their own way" (213). Louie feels some contempt for Philip, whom he privately thinks of as "Pussy-Veleerum" (207). As a "pussy," Louie is not an acceptable male role model for Louie either.
The final male figure introduced in the story is the drunk McKern whom Louie must escort home. He is the weakest man in the story, helpless and infantile, and Louie, who feels further degraded by his company, says, "I had little sympathy for McKern" (217). McKern is a caricature of the "shicker goy" (drunken Gentile) whom the Jew typically views with either terror or contempt, a reincarnation of the drunkard Allbee who plagued Asa Leventhal in Bellow's novel The Victim. He has no control over his impulses, is a bad father, is uncircumcised (Louie describes with clinical detachment "the short cylinder between his legs ending in a spiral of loose skin" ), and, worst of all, he eats pork! When Louie is forced to cook the pork for the children, he feels disgust and nausea: "All that my upbringing held in horror geysered up, my throat filling with it, my guts griping" (219). McKern is a kind of antiself who combines in a single figure all the things of which Louie is most ashamed: he has no self-control, he is less than a man, helpless and infantile, and he is not even a Jew. Louie may have "little sympathy for McKern," but then, as he admits, "For that matter, I had no sympathy for myself" (213).
Why does Louie relate such a shameful story to his son? With the loss of his clothes, Louie suffers a loss of identity as a male and as a Jewish son (the same thing happens to Herzog with his divorce). It is this which most shames him: "Instead of a desirable woman, I had a drunkard in my arms. This disgrace, you see, while my mother was surrendering to death. . . .a deathwatch. I should have been there, not on the far North side" (217). Over fifty years after the event, he still berates himself: "Failed my mother!" (222). His guilt is overpowering, and so he perhaps repeats this shameful story to his son as a way to do penance and to make up for his sense of failure toward his parents. Rather than hiding his shame--the normal impulse--he will counter shame by confession, an act of courage (or bravado or masochism, depending upon your point of view).
Although Louie judges himself severely, the reader is apt to be more tolerant. After all, these "sins" are at least fifty years old, and Louie was a virginal teenager, awkward and shame-prone, inexperienced with both sex and death. One doubts if he had ever seen a naked woman or a dead person before that day. The story thus forestalls our potential criticism and actually gains our sympathy for the hero by making him into his own harshest critic, a tactic Bellow frequently employs in first-person narratives such as Herzog and Humboldt's Gift. Because his heroes punish themselves so much with shame and guilt, the reader's impulse (at least, this reader's) is to forgive them.
In addition to serving as Louie's confession and penance, the story may serve a reparative function for the narrator, to heal a shattered self and world. According to Helen Merrel Lynd, the shame experience has three main aspects: unexpected exposure, which leads to a sense of confusion ("We are taken by surprise, caught off guard. . .made a fool of" [Lynd 23]); incongruity or inappropriateness, which "violates our previous image of ourselves" (Lynd 34); and a threat to trust, which "results in a shattering of trust in oneself, even in one's own body and skill and identity, and in the trusted boundaries or framework of the society and world one has known" (Lynd 46). All of these effects of shame happen to Louie, until he is led not only to doubt his identity but also to distrust the stability of his world: "This was when the measured, reassuring, sleep-inducing turntable of days became a whirlpool, a vortex darkening toward the bottom" ("Something" 221). Through the narrative, he must reclaim his masculine and Jewish identity and renew his sense of his world as meaningful .
Besides its penitential and restorative functions, the story may also serve a pedagogical function, as a way to teach his son "the facts of life"--the facts of sex and death--and as an object lesson to him not to repeat Louie's mistakes but to honor his father and mother, especially his father, who will soon die. In the final lines, he says, "I haven't left a large estate, and this is why I have written this memoir, a sort of addition to your legacy" (222).
Finally, in writing, Louie opens himself up and gives of himself to his son. The narrative is an act of love which proves that, despite the odds, Louie has turned into a mensch and is trying to be a better father than his own father was, relating to his son through kind words rather than through angry blows. He hopes his son will be a good man and a good Jewish son.
Bellow's story demonstrates that, for all its sting, shame can still be a hopeful, humanizing emotion. Louie's shame may have its origins in neurosis, in oedipal conflict, and in ambivalence about his own sexual identity. Nevertheless, confessing his shame can perform penitential, reparative, and pedagogical functions and lead finally to love. Writes Carl D. Schneider:In shame, the self may feel most keenly the pain of its own betrayal of another. But there is more. Shame indicates that the self still values that other. This ambivalence is of the essence of shame. . . . In shame, the object one is alienated from, one also loves still (Schneider 28).
¹ "Something to Remember Me By" seems partially inspired by The Adventures of Augie March and Chicago Depression lore. In Augie March, Augie works briefly as a flower delivery boy in Chicago in the 1930s, which may have been a job Bellow actually held. He also mentions a notorious local prostitute of the time who stole her customer's clothes, but she does not appear as a character in the novel or figure in the plot.
Bellow, Saul. Seize the Day. 1956; rpt. NY: Viking Penguin, 1986.
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Lynd, Helen Merrell. On Shame and the Search for Identity. NY: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1958.
Miller, Susan. The Shame Experience. Hillsdale, NJ: The Analytic Press, 1985.
Morrison, Andrew P. Shame: The Underside of Narcissism. Hillsdale, NJ: The Analytic Press, 1989.
Piers, Gerhart and Milton P. Singer. Shame and Guilt: A Psychoanalytic and a Cultural Study. Springfield, Ill.: Charles C. Thomas, 1953.
Schneider, Carl D. Shame, Exposure, and Privacy. Boston: Beacon Press, 1977.
Straus, E. Phenomenological Psychology. NY: Garland, 1980.
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