“In Mr. Sammler’s Planet, Saul Bellow’s Sammler, a Holocaust survivor who does not think of himself as a religious man, does not know why he keeps reading and returning to medieval religious texts. It is not that he wants to hitch a ride on the language of a belief he does not actually hold. Nor is his a curatorial concern that if modern people cannot read religious writing any more then much of human literature is lost to them, and will be lost ever increasingly in the future. What moves him is rather what made William James write The Varieties of Religious Experience: that there is something in this, even if we do not formally believe in it, even though we do not know how to translate it; something of deep primal importance even if finally we have it leave it behind.
It is towards the strange deep old texts that Sammler is drawn. Long tendentious arguments and reductive explanations are what, Sammler says, he finds too much around and about him. The old man is tired of their coercive pigeonholing, their constant thinness, and their passing fashion, He wants instead descriptions of experience to carry in his head, without being told what to make of them. Weary of modern noise, he wants succinct and austere sayings that stay in mind like poetry. ‘This too shall pass.’ What draws Sammler to these religious works, even as a non-believer, is a dissatisfaction related to Saul Bellow’s own sense that modern people may be trapped in a false and over-familiar framework, by an impoverished worldview. As if they might need a different model of self and a deeper psychological vocabulary to accompany an alternative ontology. ‘I am,’ cried the poet Cowper, ‘a stranger to the system I inhabit.’
What Saul Below feared was that the cry would not be made any more if it seemed melodramatic, stupid or pointless, and meaninglessly out-of-date.”
A passage from a short book, Reading and Reader, by Philip Davis, through which I expected to sail in a day, but which instead performs its own argument by creating what Davis terms a holding-ground for investigation and contemplation.