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Saul Bellow and Ronald Reagan

The following is taken from the ending of Saul Bellow’s excellent short story, The Old System. To set the scene: Dr. (Samuel) Braun is visiting his dying sister, Tina, in the hospital. The two siblings had had a fight and subsequent falling out many years prior, and Tina has only agreed to let her brother into her hospital room if he pays her thirty thousand dollars. Dr. Braun comes with the money, but Tina refuses it, instead offering her brother their mother’s ring off her finger as she lays dying.


“And Dr. Braun, bitterly moved, tried to grasp what emotions were. What good were they! What were they for! And no one wanted them now. Perhaps the cold eye was better. On life, on death. But, again, the cold of the eye would be proportional to the degree of heat within. But once humankind had grasped its own idea, that it was human and human through such passions, it began to exploit, to play, to disturb for the sake of exciting disturbance, to make an uproar, a crude circus of feelings. So the Brauns wept for Tina’s death. Isaac held his mother’s ring in his hand. Dr. Braun, too, had tears in his eyes. Oh, these Jews — these Jews! Their feelings, their hearts!

Dr. Braun wanted nothing more than to stop all this. For what came of it? One after another you gave over your dying. One by one they went. You went. Childhood, family, friendship, love were stifled in the grave. And these tears! When you wept them from the heart, you felt you justified something, understood something. But what did you understand? Again, nothing! It was only an intimation of understanding. A promise that mankind might — might, mind you — eventually, through its gift which might — might again! — be a divine gift, comprehend why it lived. Why life, why death.

And again, why these particular forms — these Isaacs and these Tinas? When Dr. Braun closed his eyes, he saw, red on black, something like molecular processes — the only true heraldry of being. As later, in the close black darkness as the short day ended, he went to the dark kitchen window to have a look at the stars. These things cast outward by a great begetting spasm billions of years ago.”