Saul Bellow on Values and Modernity


I was reading Herzog by Saul Bellow when I came across this famous passage:

“For instance? Well, for instance, what it means to be a man. In a city. In a century. In transition. In a mass. Transformed by science. Under organized power. Subject to tremendous controls. In a condition caused by mechanization. After the late failure of radical hopes. In a society that was no community and devalued the person. Owing to the multiplied power of numbers which made the self negligible. Which spent military billions against foreign enemies but would not pay for order at home. Which permitted savagery and barbarism in its own great cities. At the same time, the pressure of human millions who have discovered what concerted efforts and thoughts can do. As megatons of water shape organisms on the ocean floor. As tides polish stones. As winds hollow cliffs. The beautiful supermachinery opening a new life for innumerable mankind. Would you deny them the right to exist? Would you ask them to labor and go hungry while you enjoyed delicious old-fashioned Values? You — you yourself are a child of this mass and a brother to all the rest. Or else an ingrate, dilettante, idiot. There, Herzog, thought Herzog, since you ask for the instance, is the way it runs.”

The sentences washed over me, detailing what I had never been able to articulate. In addition, I had distinct impression that I'd read this before. That's when it struck. Ian McEwan, as the epigraph to his crystalline Saturday, uses this very quote from Saul Bellow. This passage from Herzog is the condensation, then, of what Saturday stands for. Here's a passage from Saturday, which I will leave you with.