Monday, June 30, 2008


Saul Bellow's Herzog contains numerous instances of Moses Herzog attempting to account for his position, both in terms of personal relationships ("When he thought of the endless anxious tedium of courtship and marriage with all that he had invested in arrangements--merely in practical measures, in trains and planes and hotels and department stores, and banks where he had banked, in hospitals, in doctors and drugs, in debts; and for himself, the nights of rigid insomnia, the yellow boring afternoons, the trials by sexual combat, and all the horrible egomania of it, he wondered that he had survived it all. He wondered, even, why he should have wanted to survive.") and the broader currents of culture, society and history. This last, which might be said to encompass all the others as well, he makes a scapegoat for all the people whom he perceives to have turned against him. Or, rather, he believes those people have made history their excuse: "'History' gave everyone a free ride."

What exactly he means by this isn't immediately clear. He seems to be suggesting that equating personal responsibility and historical contingency is a dubious moral claim. How much can anyone claim an exemption from their responsibility to other people because of the force of history, even the most traumatic historical events? Even if you've personally participated in, or fell victim to, that history, are you off the hook when it comes to more present domestic needs? Herzog's statement exudes ambivalence. On the one hand, certainly, why shouldn't people be excused? On the other, a jerk is still a jerk no matter how he got that way.

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