I’m coming to the end of The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow, a coming of age story set during the Great Depression in Chicago. I knew almost nothing about the book before I read it, so I’ve been more or less enjoying the 20th century Huck Finn character of Augie March and his propensity to get caught up in the wild schemes of others – from joining a friend in stealing textbooks from stores and re-selling them to students, to following his girlfriend to Mexico to train an eagle to catch wild animals, to taking a job as a research assistant to a strung-out millionaire attempting to compose his penultimate book about rich people and happiness. So the following soliloquy that arises out of a typical dialogue with one of his seedy but well-intentioned friends made me sit up and take notice. (For his work as a research assistant he has been reading up on the works of Aristotle and others, so his sudden attempt to create a philosophy of his own life comes out of that experience, but in the context of the whole book is almost comical.)
I have a feeling about the axial lines of life, with respect to which you must be straight or else your existence is merely clownery, hiding tragedy. I must have had a feeling since I was a kid about these axial lines which made me want to have my existence in them, and so I have said “no” like a stubborn fellow to my persuaders, just on the obstinacy of my memory of these lines, never entirely clear. But lately I have felt these thrilling lines again. When striving stops, there they are as a gift…At any time life can come together again and man be regenerated, and doesn’t have to be a god or public servant like Osiris who gets torn apart annually for the sake of the common prosperity, but the man himself, finite and taped as he is, can still come where the axial lines are. He will be brought into focus. He will live with true joy. Even his pains will be joy if they are true, even his helplessness will not take away his power, even wandering will not take him away from himself, even the big social jokes and hoaxes need not make him ridiculous, even disappointment after disappointment need not take away his love. Death will not be terrible to him if life is not. The embrace of other true people will take away his dread of fast change and short life.
In a moment of self-reflection, Augie is rejecting the hapless life of his millionaire boss and seeking to get back to the “axial lines” which bring true fulfillment. What are these axial lines? It’s a mystery what exactly Bellow meant these axial lines to be, but at the very least Augie was momentarily rejecting the confusion and materialism of modern life. Augie decides that he wants to find a wife and have children, and start a home for children from troubled families and institutions. He has no desire to be a “god” or rule over others but to simply carry out the days of his life on the Illinois prairie. He would bring his blind mother and his brother George, the shoemaker, to live with him. All around him he sees people trying to hold their own worlds together, but he has come to the realization that “the world is held for you.” Why strive against that reality? All Augie wants is a place of his own where he can live a quiet life, accepting both joy and suffering as part of the common human experience.
But then his friend points out that Augie merely wants to be a “kind king” over his wife, his mother, his “half-wit” brother and all those kids. He brings him back to reality, claiming that Augie is trying to make up for his own father deserting their family, and also Augie’s own complicity in leaving his family behind. Augie responds by saying that you can find bad motives for anything, but that all he wants is something lasting and durable, where the “axial lines” are.
Augie March was written in 1952 so must be seen in the context of a young man trying to make sense of the world in the big, bad mid-20th century. However, I think that Augie is getting to the heart of something that is relevant for us today. He talks about not being to process all the information, all the news, all the events that were coming at him from every direction. Can we not sympathize with the angst that Augie feels? In a world full of good and bad things and everything in between, of information that zips by us second after second and then disappears, we seek something that is everlasting, complete and ultimately good. We strive to get to those “axial lines,” but perhaps they have been there all along, present in the world.
“When striving stops, there they are as a gift…” Saul Bellow had a Jewish background and thus was probably familiar with the use of the Hebrew phrase for “cease striving” that is used in the Psalms – literally, “let go.” Augie was searching for a peace in his life that none of his adventures had brought him, and that he didn’t see in the lives of the money-grabbers and two-timers that surrounded him. By letting go, his life would come into focus.