Humboldt’s Gift 3

Humboldt’s Gift 3/9/16



Humboldt’s gift—the actual gift

Analysis of the long-winded letter



I find it very difficult to find the plot in this time-bendy, meandering narrative, so—how did we get here? Basically, after Denise asks Charlie to basically marry her for the sake of the children, she gives him a letter from Kathleen (that she has already opened). The letter reveals that Humboldt left something to Charlie after his death. Charlie drags Renata along, chasing this final gift. The executor tells him that Humboldt’s Uncle Waldemar has the gift and when Charlie finally gets his hands on it, it’s a heartfelt (and surprisingly sane!) letter and two treatments—one for a new movie that is loosely based on Charlie which Humboldt believes can make Charlie a lot of money and the original treatment of their strange cannibal movie-idea from their Princeton days.


Characterizing Humboldt

We’ve basically been swimming in Charlie’s mind for almost all of this novel and now we see the world from Humboldt’s point of view. How does this passage help bring light to who Humboldt is?

            “I put it through, outraged because you didn’t come to see me at Bellevue. I was suffering; you didn’t draw near, as a loving friend should. I decided to punish hurt and fine you. You accepted the penalty, and therefore the sin, too” (344-345).

Does his voice come through?


It’s been hundreds of pages since we last discussed Humboldt’s self-obsession (“Like me, Charlie. [. . .] if Energy is Delight and if Exuberance is Beauty, the Manic Depressive knows more about Delight and Beauty . . .” (6). Has Humboldt (or the representation of Humboldt) changed?

“I am in a bad position, getting more sane as I become weaker. By a damn peculiar arrangement, lunatics always have energy to burn. And if old William James was right, and happiness is living at the energetic top and we are here to pursue happiness, then madness is pure bliss” (343).


Additionally, what does the very action of leaving these items for Charlie say about Humboldt? About their relationship? (Wow, a great transition to . . .)


Characterizing the relationship

“I ask myself why you figured so prominently in my obsessions and fixations. You may be one of those people who arouse family emotions, you’re a son-and-brother type. Mind, you want to arouse feeling but not necessarily return it. The idea is that the current should flow your way. You stimulated the blood-brother oath. I was certainly wild, but I acted on a suggestion emanating from you. Nevertheless, in the words of the crooner, ‘With all your faults, I love you still.’ You are a promissory nut, that’s all.” (344).

Humboldt and Citrine is one of (if not the) most fleshed-out relationship we’ve read about. It’s clearly complicated—what grounds this relationship? Is it just the existence of complexity, dynamics? Does it have more depth than McTeague/Marcus? They’re somewhat different relationships, but what defines Charlie/Humboldt?


Charlie also has very little reservations about talking about loving Humboldt. However, it also becomes apparent later on that he also talks about loving a lot of people (Thaxter, etc.); does this reflect on Charlie as an emotive person? Does anyone know why they “figure so prominently in obsessions and fixations” of one another?

See: Charlie’s weepy moment on 346.


No good at all, and a darling man

This quote struck me. I’m not actually 100% certain what this means. I read it as Humboldt stating that Charlie was both an ideal protégé and also had failings that he did not approve of (as any human should have that duality). Bellow seems to really be in love with this idea of duality of personhood, more so than other authors we’ve read. I think it’s because this novel is not about plot or journalism—it seems like a strict character study.


Somewhat related, the reflections of both Charlie and Humboldt in the respective works seem far more shallow than the reality. AND, this whole novel is based in part on a real person in Saul Bellow’s life. Meta. Interesting thought: representing the whole person? Catharsis? Shortcomings of representations?


Charlie’s reaction

See: Renata’s response on 352.

Meanwhile, Charlie is touched by Humboldt’s gesture, although unclear if he truly buys into the monetary gain potential from these treatments. Is this sentimentality imagined? (Go back to 315 and Renata’s reading of Charlie’s relationships with the dead.)

Is Humboldt’s sentimentality to Charlie imagined (after “death” being the radio silence between the pair for a while)?


            The worth of Humboldt’s gift

            It turns out this really is a gift with the movie options and the inflow of money. Both

Caldofreddo and the other movie treatment net Charlie a good load of money. But, unlike the other novels we’ve read, the role of money seems diminished. What is money here? Is this novel about greed at all? What about greed in the sense of seeking out some connection that did not exist in reality? Is it the money that Charlie appreciates from these gifts or preserving the legacy of Humboldt?


All together now: themes

Revisiting mortality—it takes so long to come to the titular moment in the novel. Is it the title moment because it encapsulates the theme of mortality and of posthumous fame?


Creative energies


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