“The Dean's December” is an absolute dynamite of a book by Saul Bellow with incredibly powerful dialogues, self-introspection and analysis. The Dean here is Albert Corde who is with a university in Chicago. Though he is not a hard-core academic, his publication in a magazine ruffled the feathers of several powerful people in Chicago. The book is to a large extent a flashback of his life as he is cooped up in Bucharest with nothing to do.
Corde, who led the life of an executive – wasn't a college dean a kind of executive? - found himself six or seven thousand miles from his base, in Bucharest, in winter, shut up in an old fashioned apartment. Here everyone was kind – family and friends, warmhearted people – he liked them very much, to him they were “old Europe.” But they had their own intense business. This was no ordinary visit. His wife's mother was dying. Corde had come to give support. But there was little he could do for Minna. Language was a problem. People spoke little French, less English. So Corde, the dean, spent his days in Minna's old room sipping strong plum brandy, leafing through old books, staring out of the windows at earthquake-damaged buildings, winter skies, gray pigeons, pollarded trees, squalid orange-rusty trams hissing under trolley-cables.
So this essentially is the pun behind the title. Corde spends this December almost reviewing his declining life and career in an alien land. Perhaps being in this alien land has given him that special vision of his life that he didn't have when he was in the midst of it in Chicago.
Rick Lester's face had the subtracted look of the just dead. He had crashed through the window of his own third floor apt, and his skull was broken on the cement. His longish hair was damp (with blood?) and hung backwards. His slender feet were dirty. The cops said he had gone out barefoot earlier in the night. Making the rounds of the bars, he had driven his car without shoes. Many young people removed their shoes in hot weather – as if they were surrounded by woods and fields, not these broken bottle, dog-fouled streets. What did these charmed-life children think Chicago was? The expression on Rick Lester's face suggested that he would have given up this sort of caper if he had lived. The folds of his mouth, his settled chin, gave him a long white mature look of dignity. More adult, more horsey, a different kind of human being altogether. Corde was inclined to think that his hurry-up death had taught him something. Since he had been subtracted once and for all from the active human sum, you could only try to guess when that lesson had been given. Illumination while falling? A ten-second review of his life?
An experienced man and far from young, Corde had not expected to feel this death so much. He couldn't see why. His feelings took him by surprise. Something seemed to be working its way upward, treading on his stomach and his guts. The pressure on his heart was especially heavy, unpleasantly hot and repulsively melting. He had no use for such sensations; he certainly didn't want the kid's death bristling over him like this. He had seen plenty of corpses. This one got to him, though. Corde believed that it was the evil that had overtaken the boy that did it. For he was a boy, with those slender feet curled apart. Corde didn't know him well enough to weep for him. So perhaps it wasn't the boy, entirely, but some other influence. After the identification was made and the face covered again, Corde's revulsion-depression, or whatever it was, took a different turn. He was unwilling to let the administration take over and follow its usual pattern depending upon the homicide police, who would investigate at their own pace. It was beyond him to explain why he became so active in this case. He had had to handle student deaths before, mostly suicides, and deal with parents. He wasn't particularly good at this, never saying what people expected of him although he chose his words with care. His pallor and the dish-face and the deep voice were not effectively combined into a manner. He wanted to say what he meant sensibly or warmly but he was so unsuccessful with horrified families that he horrified himself - “I can't make sense of this senseless death,” was what he tacitly confessed – and the odd phases that came out only puzzled grieving parents and probably depressed them further.
Corde had become unnecessarily involved in the death of the student Rick Lester, that is what quite a few people thought. But the passage above largely indicates what made his launch his attack on Chicago. A student dies a violent death and for some reason, Corde can't turn his back and let the wheels roll on. Maybe this is just one of the straws that broke the camel's back, made Corde take a deep look at what Chicago was doing to its youth. Maybe he just wanted to react what he thought to be normally to an unexpected death and do what little he could instead of being diplomatic and hurting others even more.
There had been the army – mess halls, KP – but it would be foolish to bandy experiences with Mason. Corde let this pass. He waited while the second hand of the electric clock on the wall made one full cycle, like a long-legged fly. Mason's message was clear: Lucas Ebry was real, others (Uncle Albert, for instance) were not. Uncle Albert had no business to be messing with people who were wrapped up in an existence, in a reality that was completely beyond him. For those people the stakes were life and death. What did Uncle Albert stake? Let him stick to his fancy higher education – seminars in Plato and the Good. Those people of the underclass, dopers or muggers or whores: what were they, mice? To the “thinking population,” to establishment intellectuals, they were nothing but mice! Thus Corde spelled out, parsed, his nephew's message. He even agreed, in part.
Mason was Albert Corde's nephew and a friend of Lucas Ebry who was accused of killing Rick Lester. So this is where the investigation took Corde. Into a mess where he appeared to be a class-conscious snob. There is this current that separates the educated elite from the working class in any city. An educated elite who had forgotten where they may have come from several generations ago and were now immersed in theology, philosophy, fine arts and music. The working class trying to fight their way through poverty, crime, violence to the surface.
Most of the callers were elderly ailing people of breeding. They were aware how seedy they were, and seemed to shrug when shaking hands, as if to say, “you see how it is.” To Corde, they looked as it they were gotten-up for a depression party. They chatted in rusty French, for his sake, sparing him their worst English; and as they talked they tried of course to make out the American husband who sat there, hand-loose. He had pulled his clothing on half-dazed, and felt insufficiently connected with his collar, socks, shoes, jacket. The Dean had not bought a new suit since getting married, five years ago. He no longer needed to make himself attractive, to divert attention from his thinning hair, long neck, circular face (“something like a sunflower in winter,” were is in words). Still not awake, he answered polite inquiries with matching politeness, depending upon the measured bass voice to get him through. At least the Rareshes' only daughter had married an American who spoke some French. French was highly valued here, French was a delicious accomplishment. He explained that he had lived in Paris once, but his conversational powers were limited. He drank a glass of brandy; he ate a slice of Tanti's raisin cake, chased it with a cup of tea. He observed that everybody present was trying to tell him something, to convey by various signs what conditions here were. He gathered, moreover, that the colleagues and cousins were extremely proud of Minna's scientific eminence. He was with them there. It wound him to think how much there was also of the human side; if it had been appropriate to let himself go, he would have told them how much she was in human qualities. There was just would have been glad if the Dean had spoken intelligently about the United States in world politics. After all, he was from the blessed world outside. The West. He was free to speak. For them it was impossible. All conversations with foreigners had to be reported. Few people were bold enough to visit the American library. Those who sat in the reading room were probably secret agents. It was one of the greatest achievements of Communism to seal off so many millions of people. He wouldn't have thought it possible in this day and age that the techniques of censorship should equal the techniques of transmission. Of course, as in France under the occupation, these captive millions were busy scrounging, keeping themselves alive. In the sadness of the afternoon, the subdued light of the curtailed day, the chill of the room, the callers would have been grateful if he had something so exotic as an intelligent American; words of true interest , words of comfort too – this Dictatorship would not last forever. But he hadn't the heart to tell them things. Besides, Corde was not altogether with it.
The man from the free west looks upon the captive in the east. He can't speak openly to them for he would get them into trouble. They can't seek information on their own for that would get them into trouble. Behind the Iron Curtain were these millions who had seen an entire life go by in almost captivity. Right now how many people would there be in this world who live in fear? Too many to count, but too many to forget?
So it was evident that Albert Corde was a spoiled case. Dewey pressed him about his motives for writing those Harper's articles. What was the real explanation? Again, the high intention – to prevent the American idea from being pounded into dust altogether. And here is our American idea: liberty, equality, justice, democracy, abundance. And here is what things are like today in a city like Chicago. Have a look! How does the public apprehend events? It doesn't apprehend them. It has been deprived of the capacity to experience it. Corde recognized how arrogant he had been. His patience was at an end. He had had enough. He was now opening his mouth to speak. And now, look out!
In the American moral crisis, the first requirement was to experience what was happening and see what must be seen. The facts were covered from out perception. More than they had been in the past? Yes, because the changes, especially the increase in consciousness – and also in false consciousness – was accompanied by a peculiar kind of confusion. The increase of theories and discourse, itself a cause of new stage of blindness, the false representation of communication, led to horrible distortions in public consciousness. Therefore the first act of morality to disinter the reality, retrieve reality, dig it out from the trash, represent it anew as art would represent it.
Corde had launched a vicious attack on Chicago in articles published in the Harper's magazine. He wonders what made him do it. He knows he was arrogant. But he had felt something and needed to experience the reality to be able to transfer those feelings to paper. He needed to see the city for what it really was, speak to the people who made a difference and present it the way he felt it was. But then again it was just his perception. He spoke to a great many people – interviewed them. Did he wonder what they thought of him? The pseudo-academic digging around in a trash heap. In the end he probably would just end up dirtying himself.
The body of this powerful man was significantly composed in the executive leather chair. If you had met him in the days when he was a paid executioner, if he had been waiting for you on a staircase, in an alley, you would never have escaped him. He would have killed you, easy.
How many people he had murdered, he didn't care to say. But then he nearly killed himself with an overdose of heroin. Someone should have warned him how strong it was. After he took it he recognized it for what it was. As it began to take effect, he saw that he was dying.
A friend came and put him into a tub of cold water, but he saw that Toby was dying and beat it. He lifted himself from the tub and just as he was, in wet clothes, he went down into Sixty-Third street and caught a cab to Billings Hospital, to the detoxification unit. Because of his terrified looks, the receptionist signaled the police, who grabbed him in the lobby but they had nothing to hold him on at the station, only vagrancy and loitering. “I bailed myself out. Always a big bankroll in my pocket. I got another cab back to Billings, but this time I stopped in an empty lot and tore the leg off a table. I went it with it under my coat and I showed it to the receptionist. I said I'd beat her brains out. That is how I got upstairs. They gave me the first methadone shot. I was in a hospital gown, and I went to the toilet and sat on the floor to wait for the reaction. I put my arms around the commode and held tight to it.”
Until now Winthrop had sat immobile in his chair, but now he turned and to Corde's great surprise, began to lower himself to the floor. What was he doing? He was on his knees, his big arm stretched towards the floor, his fingers hooked upwards. “You see what we have to do? Those people are down in the cesspool. We reach for them and try to get a hold. Hang on hang on! They'll drown in the shit if we can't pull them out. Some of them we'll get out some of them will go down. They'll drown and sink in the shit – never make it.”
“You are telling me the people who come here ...”
“I'm telling you professor, that the few who find us and many hundred of thousand more who never do and never will – they are marked out to be destroyed. Those are people meant to die, sir. That's what we are looking at.”
Probably the most vivid and powerful dialogue in the entire book. Corde meets ex-hitman Toby Winthrop, a giant of a man who had killed for the rich and powerful of city and who had been kept out of jail by those same people. But he finally bit the dust, realized what he had sunk to, what he must swim out of after the almost fatal heroin overdose. What does Corde hope to achieve with this interview? A mouse asking a lion why the lion stopped eating meat? Or was it to take a glimpse at a survivor, someone who had been swimming in the currents of city's violence and finally manged to swim ashore? In the end, does Corde learn what he came for? Did he want to learn that all the people caught up in the cesspool of drugs and violence are doomed whatever Corde might write in his articles or how much ever Winthrop would fight in his shelter?
The thought I had then I can recall clearly. I said that America no more knew what to do with this black underclass than it knew what to do with its children. It was impossible for it to educate either, or to bind either to light. It was not itself securely attached to life just now. Sensing this, the children attached themselves to the black underclass, achieving a kind of coalescence with the demand-mass. It was not so much the inner-city slum that threatened as the slum of inner most being, of which the inner city was perhaps a material representation. As I spelled this out I felt that I looked ailing and sick. A kind of hot haze came over me. I felt my weakness as I approached the business of the soul – its true business in this age. Here a Dean (or a writer of magazine articles) came to see a public defender to talk about a limited matter and their discussion became unlimited – their business was not being transacted. I was losing Mr. Varennes. Anguish beyond the bounds of human tolerance was not a subject a nice man like Mr. Varennes was ready for an ordinary day. But I, starting to collect material for a review of life in my native city, and finding at once wounds, lesions, cancers, destructive fury, death, felt called upon for a special exertion – to interpret, to pity, to save! This was stupid. It was insane. But now the process was begun, how was I to stop it? I couldn't stop it.
The Dean said, “Let me make it clear to you what I think. Your defendant belongs to that black underclass everybody is talking openly about, which is economically 'redundant,' to use the term specialists now use, falling farther and farther behind the rest of society, locked into a culture of despair and crime – I wouldn't say a culture, that's another specialists' word. There is no culture there, it's only a wilderness, and damn monstrous, too. We are talking about a people consigned to destruction, a doomed people. Compare them to the last phase of the proletariat as pictured by Marx. The proletariat owning nothing, stripped entirely bare, would awaken at least from the nightmare of history. Entirely naked, it would have no illusions because there was nothing to support illusions and it would make a revolution without any scenario. It would need no historical script because of its merciless education in reality, and so forth. Well, here is a case of people denuded. And what's the effect of denudation, atomization? Of course, they aren't proletarians. They're just a lumpen population. We do not know how to approach this population. We haven't even conceived that it may be a problem. So there's nothing but death before it. Maybe we've already made our decision. Those that can be advanced into the middle class, let them be advanced. The rest? Well, we do our best by them. We don't have to do any more. They kill some of us. Mostly they kill themselves ...”
Corde thought that he wasn't advanced enough to be the artist of this singular demanding sense of his. In fact he had always tried to set it aside, but it was there, he couldn't get rid of it, and as he grew older it gained strength and he had to give ground. It seemed to have come into the world with him. What, for example, did he know about Dewey Spangler? Well, he knew his eyes, his teeth, his arms, the form of his body, its doughnut odor; the beard was knew but that was knowledge at first sight. That vividness of beard, nostrils, breath, tone, was real knowledge. Knowledge? It was even captivity. In the same way he knew his sister Elfrida, the narrow dark head, the estuary hips, the feminized fragrance of tobacco mixed with skin odors. In the case of Maxie Detillion the vividness was unwanted, repugnant, but nothing could be done, it was there nevertheless impossible to fend off. With Minna the reality was even more intimate – fingernails, cheeks, breasts, even the imprint of stockings and of shoe-straps on the insteps of her dear feet when she was undressing. Himself, too, he knew with the variant of the same oddity – as for instant, the eyes and other holes and opening of his head, the countersunk of his ears and the avidity expressed by the dilation of Huegenot-Irish nostrils, the face that started at the base of the hairy throat and nose, open, to the top of his crown. Plus all the curiosities and passions that went with being Albert Corde. This organic, constitutional, sensory oddity, in which Alert Corde's soul had a lifelong freehold, must be grasped as knowledge. He wondered what reality was if it wasn't this, or what you were “losing by death if not this. If it was only the literal world that was taken from you the loss was not great. Literal! What you didn't pass through your soul didn't even exist, that was what made the literal literal. Thus he had taken it upon himself to pass Chicago through his own soul. A mass of data, terrible murderous. It was no easy matter to put such things through. But there was no other way for reality to happen. Reality didn't exist “out there”. It began to be real only when the soul found it underlying truth. In generalities, there was no coherence – none. The generality-mind, the habit of mind that governed the world had no force of coherence. It was dissociative. It divided because it was itself, divided. Hence the schizophrenia, which was moral and aesthetic as well as analytical. Then along came Albert Corde in diffident persistence, but wildly turned on, putting himself on record. “But don't you see ....!” He couldn't help summarizing to himself what he should have said to Minna.
He would have told Minna, “I imagine, sometimes, if a film could be made of one's life, every other frame would be death. It goes so fast we are not aware of it. Destruction and resurrection in alternate beats of being, but speed makes it seem continuous. But you see, kid, with ordinary consciousness you can't even begin to know what's happening.”
More or less summarizes the theme behind Corde's decline. He realizes he can't harness his hyper-sensitivity. He wanted to find out the reality behind the city that he saw – the city that really was. He interviewed a number of people who he felt could show him what he wanted to see – the administrator of a prison, a public defender, an ex-hitman. He finally published a series of articles that he hoped would shake the foundations of the city but only ended up make him an outcast within his university and his circle of friends. So what if he has a heightened consciousness that has enabled him to see life in a different way, could he make a difference in the end? Or does it matter whether one makes a difference?