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Father Trouble

Adam and Aeneas in Saul Bellow’s ‚The Adventures of Augie March‘

Bernhard Malkmus

Pages 67 - 85


Situating Saul Bellow’s ‚The Adventures of Augie March‘ in the broader context of the U.S.- American picaresque tradition of the confidence man, this essay explores the multiple ramifications of the precarious notion of fatherhood in the novel. The traditional motif of the orphaned pícaro’s inability to found a family is, in ‚Augie March‘, integrated into a complex web of references, most notably to mythologies of origin and their artistic appropriation in a modernist aesthetics of creatio ex nihilo. Picaresque fiction proves particularly suitable for reflecting on the tensions of individual and social system, affirmation and critique, history and nature under the specific conditions of modern capitalism. This reading foregrounds the dramatization of experience and desire in ‚Augie March‘ and enlists an analysis of the picaresque form for an exploration of the psycho-economic human condition during the Great Acceleration after World War II. It shows the inner contradictions of the self-made man and the capitalist self. Although purporting to overcome the heteronomy of human existence by rooting individual agency in experience and desire, Augie’s picaresque self-enactment does not manage to escape the cycle of production and consumption and the related compulsion to define human identity and agency exclusively through difference and repetition. ‚Augie March‘ thus offers a rich reflection on the contradictory expectations vis-a-vis human individuality: we are supposed to act according to our desires and experiences, yet we can never be quite sure about their origins. We moderns see ourselves, like Augie March, as Adam and Eve figures in a post-lapsarian world.


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