SUBMITTING MYSELF TO the Ottawa weather, which today possessed all the charm of wet underpants, I lingered while the wind carried my way the Parliament Hill speeches of the March for Life assembly. In the middle of one characteristically sonorous appeal, I found myself thinking about a passage from Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March:
I didn’t keep up these arguments with her. And although not convinced by her, I wasn’t utterly horrified for the unborn either. To be completely consistent in that kind of economy of souls you would have to have great uneasiness and remorse that wombs should ever be unoccupied; likewise, that hospitals, prisons, and madhouses and graves should ever be full. That wide a spread is too much.
The above follows an abortion debate between Augie and his friend Mimi, in which he unsuccessfully tries to talk her out of her decision by appealing to the dignity of life and the possibility of future happiness. The Adventures of Augie March obsesses the proposition that human beings can transcend their base material inheritances, whether of biological or socio-economic character. Augie passes into adulthood during the Depression, but the chief burden of his life is to be found well beyond the temporary deprivations of the 30s, as his friend Clem observes: “What I guess about you is that you have a nobility syndrome. You can’t adjust to the reality situation.”
Augie is a kind of Columbus who, having failed to discover his path to nobility, nonetheless refuses to accept that his America doesn’t exist. The reality situation stubbornly intrudes upon him with its “hospitals, prisons, and madhouses and graves,” each respectively absorbing society’s sick, superfluous and maladjusted humanity. Reality further includes joblessness and poverty — both amply and painfully represented in Augie’s story — and illness and deadbeat dads, all making abortion a rational and even necessary option, in Mimi’s judgement. The conventional literary term for the full package of miseries, inconveniences and moral quandries is “the human condition,” and Bellow’s treatment of it has a depth not easily rendered in slogan form. Is abortion the most important social justice issue of our time, as I heard one of the rally speakers today assert? Well if it isn’t, then some other item from the big grab-bag of the human condition is, and the pro-life movement is probably not deploying any of its moral indignation in that direction. Augie’s right: the spread really is too much.
Like any thoughtful person, Augie himself is not easily reduced to an ideology or a bumper sticker. This doesn’t mean however that he is incapable of commitments. He disagrees with but also supports Mimi’s choice — and in a practical rather than merely abstract manner — but not before appealing to her with his objections to the intervention in the trajectory of a human life. Having followed his adventures we see he is, in a way which goes well beyond the contemporary political usage of the term, pro-life. He has compassion for the living which is not limited to his own species. He is repulsed for instance by the cruelty of his girlfriend Thea, who has trained her eagle Caligula to kill small animals, denouncing the bird as a “stinking coward” when he refuses to do so. You will find few passages in Western literature to outdo Augie’s memorable and life-affirming pronouncement, “What use was war without also love?” Or this: “It can never be right to offer to die, and if that’s what the data of experience tell you, then you must get along without them.”
Why on earth drone on so long about a book written six decades ago? Because most of the pro-life marchers who were in Ottawa today defer to a book of another sort, written not decades but centuries earlier. In their book, human life (the suffering of non-human animal life seems not to figure) begins at the moment of conception. In their book, there is an unchanging, absolute moral truth, to which all must submit or face eternal perdition. All the important questions were settled once and for all times, thousands of years ago, and indeed only by means of divine grace and intervention could we know that there is a right and a wrong way to conduct our personal and public affairs.
In my book, by way of contrast, the essential challenge of a human life is to realize the potential dignity of our species through our own power, individually and collectively, struggling each day to do the best we can in an uncertain and changing world. In my book, there can and must be solidarity and compassion and ordinary human decency, but also sharp disagreement and plurality where certain moral questions are concerned. Coming home after the pro-life rally, I bought (as most days I do) a copy of the New York Times. The headline read, “Obama endorses same-sex marriage, taking stand on charged social issue.” It then occurred to me that the disagreements of our generation are in fact literary disagreements, built entirely upon texts — the Koran and the Bible and the Constitution of the United States of America. Or, in the present case, The Adventures of Augie March.