Now I have already mentioned that there was a disturbance in my heart, a voice that spoke there and said, I want, I want, I want! It happened every afternoon, and when I tried to suppress it got even stronger. It said only one thing, I want, I want! And I would ask, 'What do you want?' But this was all it would ever tell me.
I've never been to Africa. I'd love to though - if anyone wants to float me a one-way ticket to Ouagadougou, maybe a layover in Zürich to pick up some luxury essentials, I'd be mighty grateful. But I digress, I've never been, and what I know of it I basically know from "Out of Africa" starring Meryl Streep and Robert Redford, or from Things Fall Apart
or Heart of Darkness
- so essentially I know nothing of it whatsoever. But in any case, it has had, and still has, a sort of mystical quality of the unknown, of spots which we believe have eluded cartographers and adventurers alike. There's a romance in the unknown, the untrammeled, and that romance is the central figure of Henderson the Rain King
, Saul Bellow's novel about a rich but dissatisfied man who seeks the meaning of life in the African plains.
Saul Bellow admonished readers not to look for symbolism, in what is a preposterously allegorical work. It is almost impossible not to see symbolism everywhere in this book, in fact it would take a deliberate skepticism to avoid it. So why the warning? Maybe it is because the overflowing symbolism reminds us of another novel, taking place in Africa, also brimming with symbols? Maybe one by an author that Bellow admired, like, say, Joseph Conrad? Of course! I saw much of the symbolism of Henderson the Rain King
to be a parodic point-counterpoint for Conrad's controversial depictions of Africa in Heart of Darkness
, particularly his representation of the natives. In Bellow's reversal on themes, instead of trying to bring order to the African chaos, he seeks in Africa a stability of meaning in his own internal chaos. While Henderson's expectations of the African experience are clearly influenced by a Conradian view of the continent and its aboriginals, the novel as a whole evades the stereotypical trap by refusing to characterize "Africa" but instead keep it firmly in the backdrop. Henderson's views are quickly overturned, churned, and reversed as he meets African tribesmen who speak English and are trained in medicine. Henderson the Rain King
is about a modern transcendental quest, à la
Thoreau's sojourn on Walden Pond. Following in the philosophical tradition of Emerson and Whitman, Bellow through Henderson argues in favor of the human capacity to transcend state inertia of the Self, to metamorphose to a state unimaginably changed from one's original. Henderson elucidates this change as from a "pig state" to a "lion state," or perhaps he falls short of the leonine ideal, but a fully changed man he is, nonetheless. This change is brought about masterfully in the sub-Saharan chrysalis of the novel. The change is great, but incomplete, Henderson becomes man qua
man: he remains imperfect, but changed for the better - the same man with a violent imagination and a youthful impetus but with a changed perspective, a human optimism which abandons his erstwhile melancholy to the realm of the past.
Without Africa, I feel transcended beyond previous Selves. From the solipsistic and ill-behaved child to the melancholic perturbations of my high school spirit to the Self I have become today, I am a fully different individual, and all has been the result of changes in perspective. Unlike Henderson, these permutations of the spirit are naturally occurring transitions of youth: Henderson is a middle-aged man, and perhaps it takes so stark a change in venue to spark so vital a change in spiritual vitality. This book is a book of continuous conflict, on the surface it is a conflict between the impetus of the Self and the desire of change (ultimately a clash of desires), but deeper questions surface, combative questions of the physical versus spiritual selves, reason versus emotion, death and immortality, body and soul, and Self versus Society. Is it possible to make a drastic change to the Self in the midst of the the fierce tributary of modern society's desires and temptations? That question isn't wholly answered, because Henderson is always in a state of escape from Society. He lives outside Danbury on a pig farm before his journey to the African continent, far reclusive from the mainstream of society. When you feel out of sorts, escape feels a necessity for life, no solitude is solitude enough. But Henderson relents, Henderson finds solace in the masculine companionship he finds in his African guide, Romilayu, and in his spirit guide, King Dahfu of the tribe Wariri. While solitude and remoteness seems an ideal, it seems that change is impossible in a vacuum, we need people to catalyze our changes. Africa doesn't change Henderson, rather the men he meets there help to reveal to him his true capacity of heart, his true capacity for good, his veritable capacity to change.
But there remains in the background a beauty of experience, which commingles a beauty of the natural and a beauty of the human. I love nature, and I find no better escape into myself than to get out into the forest, to go for a run in the glaucous shade along the Charles River esplanade. But that natural beauty is remote in its purest form, it is a beauty which transcends our complete appreciation and the essence of what it gives to us lies just beyond the ability of our natural language of praise and awe. Natural beauty needs the human element, imperfect analogues and the unnatural beauty of language, to pin it it down, anesthetize it for us to appreciate, like a butterfly on cardstock; Bellow does that for us with a moving ability, but rather than sedating it, he breathes a life into it. Bellow elucidates our human short-comings to appreciate natural beauty:
We are funny creatures. We don't see the stars as they are so why do we love them? They are not small gold objects but endless fire.
All beauty: natural, humanistic, aesthetic - all beauty is alive. Our materialist society has an unnatural desire for that which is eternal, but we find those pleasures empty, they don't fulfill us - they are unnatural
, they are dead pleasures
. Wallace Stevens in "Sunday Morning," another tribute to the mystical power of a natural spiritualism, ponders:
Is there no change of death in paradise?
Does ripe fruit never fall?
Death is the mother of beauty
Death, mortality, is what makes the world beautiful. The eternal is not beautiful and can never fulfill us. Money, material goods, is immutable, fungible, of an exact value - it lasts forever, so long as we hoard it. Nature cannot be hoarded or safeguarded in our purses and wallets, it slips ever through our fingers if we do not take it into our selves. We must ever grasp for it, appreciate it, love it and preserve it. All that is beautiful must die, life must end, but I wouldn't trade in life and I wouldn't trade in the beauty of endless fire (an allusion to Prometheus's gift) for the material glister of "small gold objects."