Against pointlessness and futility, Bellow strove to counterpose what Augie calls “the universal eligibility to be noble”—the battle to overcome not just ghetto conditions but also ghetto psychoses. Such yearning ambition, as Bellow knew, can be a torment to those who are not innately noble to begin with. Even Wilhelm, the desperate and perspiring arriviste in Seize the Day, has a touch of higher aspiration amid his death-of-a-salesman panics, and he finds snatches of English lyric poetry coming back to him at improbable moments. And Allbee, the drunken anti-Semite in The Victim, the man who says that “evil is as real as sunshine,” chooses to speak loftily about his “honor” when he comes to oppress and exhaust Asa Leventhal. In all this, the great precursor is the strongly drawn King Dahfu in Henderson the Rain King, who makes splendid use of his secondhand English when addressing his massive and worried American guest as follows:
“Yet you are right for the long run, and good exchanged for evil truly is the answer. I also subscribe, but it appears a long way off, for the human species as a whole. Perhaps I am not the one to make a prediction, Sungo, but I think the noble will have its turn in the world.”
Perhaps the best illustration of nobility that Bellow offers is Augie March’s brief glimpse of Trotsky in Mexico, from which he receives a strong impression of “deep-water greatness” and an ability to steer by the brightest stars. Bellow himself had arrived in Mexico in 1940, just too late to see Trotsky, who had been murdered by a hireling assassin the morning they were meant to meet. Like Henderson, Trotsky was a man upon whom life had “decided to use strong measures.” The founder of the Red Army was also the author of Literature and Revolution and a co-author of Manifesto for an Independent Revolutionary Art. In his own person he united the Jew, the cosmopolitan, the man of ideas, and the man of action. And the speed with which Bellow learned from the experience of Trotsky’s murder is a theme in several of his fictions. In Dangling Man, Joseph astonishes his friend Myron by the amount he can deduce from the simple fact that a former “comrade” will no longer speak to him in public. “Oh, Joseph,” exclaims Myron, as if reproving exaggeration; but Joseph isn’t merely piqued in the sense of personal offense:
“No, really, listen to me. Forbid one man to talk to another, forbid him to communicate with someone else, and you’ve forbidden him to think, because, as a great many writers will tell you, thought is a kind of communication. And his party doesn’t want him to think, but to follow its discipline. So there you are … When a man obeys an order like that he’s helping to abolish freedom and begin tyranny.”
This “insolence,” Joseph concluded, “figured the whole betrayal of an undertaking to which I had once devoted myself,” and who is to say that Bellow selected the wrong microcosm of trahison? From a detail of political etiquette, he could infer the incipient mentality of the totalitarian. His life as a public intellectual is sometimes held to have followed a familiar arc or trajectory: that from quasi-Trotskyist to full-blown “neocon,” and of course it is true that the earlier novels contain portraits of members of the Partisan Review group, from Delmore Schwartz to Dwight Macdonald, whereas the final novel, Ravelstein, features an affectionate portrayal of Allan Bloom (whose Closing of the American Mind Bellow had helped make into a best seller), and even of Paul Wolfowitz during the intra-Washington struggle over the Gulf War, in 1991.