Humboldt's Gift: Hope, History and Humanism

Essay by jonoworldUniversity, Master'sA-, November 2004

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Humboldt's Gift: Hope, History and Humanism

In the modern period literature is confronted by numerous rivals, generally in the form of social questions and broad philosophical, political and religious discussion. As a result, the challenge for creative artists is to find new methods of dealing with the tension between public distraction and the private sphere of the individual. In Humboldt's Gift Saul Bellow explores the predicament of the artist struggling to find the moral and spiritual center amidst the chaos and disruption of contemporary America that in many ways, remains dislocated from the past. Bellow presents the relationship through a number of interconnected issues: the agony of the intellectual within mass culture, the relationship between art and commerce, and the relationship between spiritualism and materialism. While Bellow deals with such serious preoccupations with acute sensitivity, the overall vision of the novel is darkly comic as the protagonist Charles Citrine becomes the hapless victim struggling through a series of farcical events that strip him of both his personal wealth and dignity.

The concept of the center as both an aesthetic device and cultural problematic is often boldly foregrounded in modernist literature to convey its overall importance to humanity. For Bellow, the center is the region where the individual struggles for the possession of his/her spirit amidst the dehumanizing forces of modernity. Bellow disrupts any conventional expectations derived from the title since Von Humboldt

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Fleisher is not quite at the center of the novel yet his importance lies in the way his life is pieced together and reconstructed through the fragmentary memory of Charlie Citrine. As a successful author in his mid-fifties, Citrine has much in common with Bellow himself as the novel contains several autobiographical elements. Citrine has all the rewards of success: fame, a decadent lifestyle and...