Sunday, November 14, 2010

`No Sense of the Dark, the Foul, the Base'

Stephen Pentz reminded me of a classic Bellow one-liner from “Him with His Foot in His Mouth” (1982), spoken by the story’s narrator, Herschel Shawmut:

“A professor from UBC observed that he agreed with Alexander Pope about the ultimate unreality of evil. Seen from the highest point of metaphysics. To a rational mind, nothing bad ever really happens. He was talking high-minded balls. Twaddle! I thought. I said, `Oh? Do you mean that every gas chamber has a silver lining?’”

Evil can’t be philosophized, psychologized or historicized away. It’s at least as real as human goodness and all of us carry its seed. In Bellow’s story, the UBC professor’s blather is echoed in a venomous parody of Allen Ginsberg’s Buddhist “Twaddle!”

I wish I’d remembered Shawmut’s wisecrack last summer while reading the two volumes of selections from Emerson’s journals published by the Library of America. Emerson’s prose is often dazzling, packing essays into sentences, and I prize him for that, but his understanding of human nature is dangerously, laughably naïve, the air-headed lunacy of a Unitarian. Henry James, creator of Gilbert Ormond and Madame Merle, Prince Amerigo and Charlotte Stant, had his number. In 1887, in a review of A Memoir of Ralph Waldo Emerson by James Elliot Cabot, James writes:

“..he had no great sense of wrong – a strangely limited one, indeed for a moralist – no sense of the dark, the foul, the base. There were certain complications in life which he never suspected.”

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