In the great writer’s account of an unhappy, conflicted man who travels down to Africa – Henderson the Rain King – a tribal king teaches the exhausted American about the futility of ethical bookkeeping:
“They say,” he went on, “that bad can easily be spectacular, has dash or bravado and impresses the mind quicker than good. Oh, that is a mistake in my opinion. Perhaps of common good it is true. Many, many nice people. Oh yes. Their will tells them to perform good, and they do. How ordinary! Mere arithmetic. ‘I have left undone the etceteras I should have done, and done the etceteras I ought not to have.’ This does not even amount to a life. Oh, how sordid it is to bookkeep. My whole view is opposite or contrary, that good cannot be labor or conflict. When it is high and great, it is too superior. Oh, Mr. Henderson, it is far more spectacular. It is associated with inspiration, and not conflict, for where a man conflicts there he will fall, and if taking the sword also perishes by the sword. A dull will produces a very dull good, of no interest. Where a fellow draws a battle line there he is apt to be found, dead, a testimonial of the great strength of effort, and only effort.
As a quick caveat, a generous reading of the king’s criticism of confession would perhaps see him lambasting confession as petty bookkeeping. A quick read of this (highly recommended) book would show that Bellow’s as interested as anyone in going past the myopia of mere actions to show a whole picture of human need.