Thursday, January 31, 2008

The Individual

The epigraph, a passage from Saul Bellow’s novel Herzog, refers to “the multiplied power of numbers which made the self negligible.” The individual becomes a mere number in the context of statistics, a blurry face in the context of a crowd. The novel highlighted the importance of remembering the individual, especially in this age of technology and globalization and conflict.

Henry’s profession, while noble and respected, is not very conducive to the perception of people as individuals. Baxter, for instance, while having a large impact on Henry’s life, becomes, in Henry’s eyes, merely a patient, a medical case. In the end, however, Henry is forced to see Baxter as a real person. He visits his bedside after the surgery, realizes that sleep and death are Baxter’s only reprieves and makes the decision to not press charges. Baxter’s life will be hard enough as it is. While one cannot totally excuse him from his actions, so much of his situation can be attributed to chance. The impartiality of genetics gave him the disease that will disintegrate his body and mind. We’ll never be able to tell who Baxter might have become had his genes not displayed 40 copies of a certain DNA sequence, or had his relationship with his father been different.

Art serves as a contrast to Henry’s scientific approach in that it highlights the uniqueness of the individual. Ten doctors will treat a heart attack in pretty much the same way, with the same results, but ten artists asked to portray a certain object will give ten vastly different depictions. In fact, it is art that saves Henry… not Henry’s calculations, or his medical knowledge. It’s Daisy who recites “Dover Beach,” and Theo who tackles Baxter. Henry’s two children, accomplished artists, are responsible for the situation’s turn-around.

1 comment:

Erin Sells said...

I am THRILLED that someone picked up on the novel's epigraph, which is a very important detail, and also points to an aspect of this novel (and, not coincidentally, all twenty-four hour novels) that we haven't much discussed yet--the urban setting. This is a distinctly urban novel, and Henry's is a distinctly urban life (this is something I had hoped to emphasize more in my shortened map presentation!). In cities filled with millions of people, it becomes much easier to stop seeing people as people, or individuals as individuals. Intsead, the anonymity of the crowd can deaden us to the humanity of our fellow city-dwellers. It's possible that Henry's ability to look past people's humanity has something to do with his modern urban existence as well as his profession.