T.S. Eliot believed we irreligious moderns are “distracted from distraction by distraction”—diverted from a life of dispassionate spiritual seeking by our myriad amusements, our mass movements and mass media. Sixtyish Charlie Citrine, historian and biographer, the narrator and protagonist of Humboldt’s Gift by Saul Bellow, believes this also and hates it; but, unlike Eliot, he can’t identify his dissent with a religious tradition rich in appeals to a higher life. Left to thrash out some sense of things on his own, he cuts a comical figure—anxiously talky, bumblingly earnest, infinitely pained by his private impressions of the world, and torn by spiritual longings that must contend with the mire of his personal life, the mess of modernity: divorce litigation, love-affairs, bad business ventures, and intimations of mortality. The book, despite its colourful characters (assorted lovers, lawyers and low-life), is mostly Citrine talking to himself, in desperate soliloquy, allusive and erudite and at times tiresome but more often effortlessly tossing off breath-taking apercus. Citrine, like Bellow, seems to have read everything.
Bellow’s novels are all strange sad comedies of self-consciousness, and constitute a highly original fusion of wisdom writing and bumptious confession, with the result that the awake, mindful, modern individual is rendered as a ridiculous, poignant, needy but half-noble creature, driven by forces he doesn’t understand, both inner and outer, but which he at least has the dignity to question. Bald summation in limited space of all the themes Humboldt’s Gift encompasses, all the questions it asks, is impossible and would diminish the sustained, Shakespearean raging and fuming—all Citrine’s sound and fury, that he wants so badly to signify something.