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Posts tagged "Henderson the Rain King"

Saul Bellow on Bookkeeping Versus Inspiration

In the great writer’s account of an unhappy, conflicted man who travels down to Africa – Henderson the Rain King – a tribal king teaches the exhausted American about the futility of ethical bookkeeping:

4006480423_8fb14fd37a“They say,” he went on, “that bad can easily be spectacular, has dash or bravado and impresses the mind quicker than good. Oh, that is a mistake in my opinion. Perhaps of common good it is true. Many, many nice people. Oh yes. Their will tells them to perform good, and they do. How ordinary! Mere arithmetic. ‘I have left undone the etceteras I should have done, and done the etceteras I ought not to have.’ This does not even amount to a life. Oh, how sordid it is to bookkeep. My whole view is opposite or contrary, that good cannot be labor or conflict. When it is high and great, it is too superior. Oh, Mr. Henderson, it is far more spectacular. It is associated with inspiration, and not conflict, for where a man conflicts there he will fall, and if taking the sword also perishes by the sword. A dull will produces a very dull good, of no interest. Where a fellow draws a battle line there he is apt to be found, dead, a testimonial of the great strength of effort, and only effort.

As a quick caveat, a generous reading of the king’s criticism of confession would perhaps see him lambasting confession as petty bookkeeping. A quick read of this (highly recommended) book would show that Bellow’s as interested as anyone in going past the myopia of mere actions to show a whole picture of human need.

Henderson Wants!

Time for another memorable passage from Saul Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King:

4535310075_f231037dbd_zNow I have already mentioned that there was a disturbance in my heart, a voice that spoke there and said, I want, I want, I want! It happened every afternoon, and when I tried to suppress it it got even stronger. It only said one thing, I want, I want!

And I would ask, “What do you want?”

But this was all it would ever tell me. It never said a thing except I want, I want, I want!

At times I would treat it like an ailing child whom you offer rhymes or candy. I would walk it, I would trot it. I would sing to it or read to it. No use. I would change into overalls and go up on the ladder and spackle cracks in the ceiling; I would chop wood, go out and drive a tractor, work in the barn among the pigs. No, no! Through fistfights and drunkenness and labor it went right on, in the country, in the city. No purchase, no matter how expensive, would lessen it. Then I would say, “Come on, tell me. What’s the complaint, is it Lily herself? Do you want some nasty whore? It has to be some lust?” But this was no better a guess than the others. The demand came louder, I want, I want, I want, I want, I want! And I would cry, begging at last, “Oh, tell me then. Tell me what you want!” And finally I’d say, “Okay, then. One of these days, stupid. You wait!”

This was what made me behave as I did. By three o’clock I was in despair. Only toward sunset the voice would let up. And sometimes I thought maybe this was my occupation because it would knock off at five o’clock itself. America is so big, and everybody is working, making, digging, bulldozing, trucking, loading, and so on, and I guess the sufferers suffer at the same rate. Everybody wanting to pull together. I tried every cure you can think of. Of course, in an age of madness, to expect to be untouched by madness is a form of madness. But the pursuit of sanity can be a form of madness, too. (pg. 24-25)

Perpetual Forgiveness in Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King

Looks like we already have a contender for our 2014 book of the year, Saul Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King. The opening two and a half paragraphs absolutely knocked my socks off, ht KW:

show_adf3d85f933d228dd930db25d88c7b82What made me take this trip to Africa? There is no quick explanation. Things got worse and worse and pretty soon they were too complicated.

When I think of my condition at the age of fifty-five when I bought the ticket, all is grief. The facts begin to crowd me and soon I get a pressure in the chest. A disorderly rush begins–my parents, my wives, my girls, my children, my farm, my animals, my habits, my money, my music lessons, my drunkenness, my prejudices, my brutality, my teeth, my face, my soul! I have to cry, “No, no, get back, curse you, let me alone!” But how can they let me alone? They belong to me. They are mind. And they pile into me from all sides. It turns to chaos.

However, the world which I thought so mighty an oppressor has removed its wrath from me. But if I am to make sense to you people and explain why I went to Africa I must face up to the facts. I might as well start with the money. I am rich. From my old man I inherited three million dollars after taxes, but I thought myself a bum and had my reasons, the main reason being that I behaved like a bum. But privately when things got very bad I often looked into books to see whether I could find some helpful words, and one day I read, “The forgiveness of sins is perpetual and righteousness first is not required.” This impressed me so deeply that I went around saying it to myself. But then I forgot which book it was.