Sentences plucked from contexts are like riddles. And who doesn’t like staring a good Sphinx in the eye? Many of Bellow’s sentences in Herzog are striking, memorable, and sharply (and humorously) aphoristic. Like bright, shiny surfaces glinting in the sand, they clamor for attention, begging to be picked up, turned around a bit, pocketed. Wait. Even better than the metaphor of sea glass and sea shells is the metaphor of flowers. That’s more in keeping with the symbolic structure of Herzog, where flowers figure so prominently, “that pernicious thing, fragrant beauty, shapely red.” So without further ado, I give you the finest flowers plucked from Bellow’s fields of prose.
visions of geniuses become the canned goods of intellectuals
“A painful, grotesque scandal … is after all a sort of service to the community.”
“O Lord! forgive all these trespasses. Lead me not into Penn Station.”
“Seashores are good for madmen—provided they’re not too mad.”
“A man is born to be orphaned, and to leave orphans after him.” Orphaned. I say “plucked” above, but I flat-out stole this epigram from Bellow, inadvertently—and I am pleasantly gratified I did. See previous post, about widows and widowers, orphans and orphaners. Timeline: I read Bellow, an idea influences me, I’m enthralled, I use it without recalling its origin, I thumb through Herzog and am astonished to find it again, carefully underlined, thereby confirming one of Bellow’s central points: ideas are wily things, and we’re much more under their influence than we give credence.
“Nietzsche has a Christian view of history.” Take that, you syphilitic anti-Christian, you sickly-weak power praiser. The proof is in the pudding and can readily be plated. I know how. Do you?
“Each man has his own batch of poems.”
“We must be what we are.”
“The visions of geniuses become the canned goods of intellectuals.” Orphan is to black widows what Mr. Interpolations is to Bellow. That’s a fact.
“Ruin comes to beauty, inevitably.”
“Whatever man’s age, history, condition, knowledge, culture, development, he has an erection.” Bellow is sporting a pre-Rothian tent; or Roth a post-Bellowian is-that-a-roll-of-coins-in-your-pocket-or-are-you-just-happy-to-see-me. Your call.
“You can’t turn an old herring into a dolphin.” Sexually speaking, that is.
“The body is a spiritual fact, the sinstrument of the soul.” Indescribably perfect. I detect a hint Spinoza (the mind is the idea of the body), a pinch of Nietzsche (the body is the outwardness of the soul, which explains why Socrates is so ugly), and a dash of Puritanism (sinstrument!).
“The strength to do evil is sovereignty.”
“Readiness to answer all questions is the infallible sign of stupidity.”
I dare not riff on all these aphorisms, tempting as that might be. For that would surely be an infallible sign of something.
So I depart, gladly.