‘Ethics cannot afford to be nation-blind’: Saul Bellow and the Problem of the Victim

  • Andrew Hadfield


In this short chapter I wish to point out a problem and pose a question rather than reach for a conclusion. In his credo, ‘What I Believe’, written in 1939, E. M. Forster made a characteristically blunt, neat and straightforward separation between the moral duties one owes to individuals and those one owes to wider communities and abstract ideas: ‘I hate the idea of causes, and if I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country…. Love and loyalty can run counter to the claims of the State. When they do — down with the State, say I, which means that the State would down me.’1 Strong words, especially in 1939, but they conflate and confuse a number of issues in order to create the illusion of a simple choice which casts the author as a courageous moral hero standing up to the encroaching tyranny of state power, not least, in equating the notion of a ‘cause’ with the bullying intrusion of the nation. Reviewing David Miller’s recent book On Nationality, a defence of the need to preserve national identity from the Scylla and Charybdis of ‘virulent ethno-nationalism’ and ‘sanitised globalism’, Charles King pointed out the problems of Forster’s position: ‘Ethics … cannot afford to be nation-blind, for national boundaries play a special role in structuring morality.’2


Jewish Identity Identity Politics Moral Luck Walk Away American Mind 
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  1. 1.
    E. M. Forster, ‘What I Believe’, in Two Cheers for Democracy (London: Arnold, 1951) 77–85; 78. My thanks to Clive Meachen for advice on this essay.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Charles King, ‘Fellow-feelings’ (review of David Miller, On Nationality [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996]) Times Literary Supplement, 10 May 1996, 4–5.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Cited in Malcolm Bradbury, Saul Bellow (London: Methuen, 1982) 15.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Michael K. Glenday, Saul Bellow and the Decline of Humanism (New York: St Martin’s Press, 1990) 2; Saul Bellow, ‘Foreword’, in Alan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students (New York: Penguin, 1988, rpt. of 1987) 11–18; 18.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    Daniel Fuchs, Saul Bellow: Vision and Revision (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1984) 25, 34–6.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    Tony Tanner, Saul Bellow (Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1965) 27.Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    Saul Bellow, The Victim (New York: Signet, 1965, rpt. of 1947) 13. All subsequent references to this edition in parentheses.Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    As Maxwell Geismar argues, Allbee might be said to be more Jewish than Leventhal in terms of his knowledge of Judaism; ‘Saul Bellow: Novelist of the Intellectuals’, in Irving Malin, ed., Saul Bellow and the Critics (New York University Press, 1967) 10–24; 16.Google Scholar
  9. 9.
    Glenday, Saul Bellow and the Decline of Humanism, 30. See also Ralph Freedman, ‘Saul Bellow: The Illusion of Environment’, in Malin, ed., Saul Bellow and the Critics, 51–68; 57.Google Scholar
  10. 12.
    See Gabriel Josipovici, ‘Herzog: Freedom and Wit’, in The World and the Book: A Study of Modern Fiction (London: Macmillan, 1971), Ch. 9.Google Scholar
  11. 14.
    L. H. Goldman, ‘Saul Bellow and the Philosophy of Judaism’, Studies in the Literary Imagination 17, 2 (1984) 81–96.Google Scholar
  12. 15.
    Judie Newman, Saul Bellow and History (London: Macmillan, 1984).Google Scholar
  13. 17.
    Edward W. Said and Christopher Hitchens, eds, Blaming the Victims: Spurious Scholarship and the Palestinian Question (London: Verso, 1988).Google Scholar
  14. 18.
    Saul Bellow, To Jerusalem and Back (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1978, rpt. of 1976) 26. All subsequent references to this edition in parentheses.Google Scholar
  15. 19.
    Jacques Derrida, ‘Racism’s Last Word’, in Henry Louis Gates, Jr, ed., ‘Race’, Writing and Difference (University of Chicago Press, 1986) 329–38.Google Scholar

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© Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited 1999

Authors and Affiliations

  • Andrew Hadfield

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