Saul Bellow’s 1947 novel The Victim has, as its frontispiece, two epigraphs that frame and set the stage for the fraught condition of its protagonist, Asa Leventhal, as he navigates a tortuous course through the physical and psychic landscape that threatens to be his undoing. The novel’s first epigraph narrates the brief but portentous “Tale of the Trader and the Jinni,” from The Thousand and One Nights, in which a lone merchant, traveling on business and oppressed by the heat, takes shelter beneath a tree. There he breaks fast, relieving his weariness and his hunger with bread and dates. Upon concluding his meager but satisfying repast, the merchant heedlessly tosses the pits of the dates away from him. One of the stones, unbeknownst to the merchant, hits the son of an Ifrit, who, exactly at that moment, passes by the tree under which the merchant rests in satiated repose. The enraged Ifrit, appearing before the startled merchant with drawn sword, accuses him of culpability, however accidental, and demands retaliatory retribution: “Stand up that I may slay thee even as thou slewest my son!” In this story moral intentionality is beside the point. One is, the bard cautions, culpable, with malicious forethought or not. We are responsible for our inattention, for the uncalculated range of the stone’s throw. In other words, we are not only linked to, but responsible for the fate of others, even those unknown to us, the faceless others. This deceptively simple admonitory narrative is followed by an altogether more ominous excerpt from Thomas de Quincey’s nightmarish description of his opium dreams in “The Pains of Opium.” In De Quincey’s memoir, the appearance of a human face upon the “rocking waters of the ocean” gives way to “innumerable faces . . . faces imploring, wrathful, despairing; faces that surged upward by thousands, by myriads, by generations” (De Quincey 71), faces in a sea of suffering, calling, beseeching, reproachfully shaping and crowding the terrors of the unconscious.
Document Object Identifier (DOI)
Johns Hopkins University Press
Aarons, V. (2016). Faces in a sea of suffering: The human predicament in Saul Bellow's The Victim. Partial Answers: Journal of Literature and the History of Ideas, 14(1), 63-81. doi: 10.1353/pan.2016.0006
Partial Answers: Journal of Literature and the History of Ideas