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Peter Lowe © 2000

 

 
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'We stand open to all anxieties. The decline and fall of everything is our daily bread; we are agitated in private life and tormented by public questions.'

-- Saul Bellow, Nobel Lecture (1976)

'No matter where you picked it up, humankind, knotted and tangled, supplied more oddities than you could keep up with.'

-- Saul Bellow, Mr Sammler's Planet

First published in 1964, Saul Bellow's Herzog is one of high points of a long and fertile writing career. The novel commands attention both in the act of reading and also in reflecting on the questions it raises in the mind of the reader. As great novels do, it repays any such investment manyfold. Herzog is both an impassioned stand against the worst aspects of the modern world and an affirmation of flawed humanity.

Bellow had already established his reputation prior to its publication with Adventures of Augie March (1953), Seize the Day (1956) and Henderson the Rain King (1957). His new novel represented an advance on his earlier work -- its complexity, style and content anticipated much of his output of the 1970s and 1980s, including Mr Sammler's Planet (1970), Humboldt's Gift (1975) and The Dean's December (1982). Its most striking development was in the intensity of its central character, an intellectual and an emotional victim whose consciousness simultaneously envelops and excludes the reader. As a character, Herzog shares much with the protagonists of nineteenth-century Russian novels, a genre for which Bellow has often expressed his admiration. In him, we can see traces of Dostoyevsky's Prince Myshkin along with any number of Chekhov's protagonists. The largely progressive narrative is replaced by a journey into the mind of a 'static' character whose actions have already occurred in the past, and who functions mainly in the realm of memory, though with an level of intensity that overshadows the 'reality' of those around him.

The first noticeable attribute of the novel is how little action occurs. For all its movement through time it never occupies more than a couple of days in a man's life, and as readers we are no clearer on its time-scale than the protagonist himself. Only at the end of the book do we actually advance beyond the understanding that we reconstruct in the first page and a half. We begin with a man in his deserted, run-down house, a former marital home now in poor repair, buffeted by a whirlwind of mental activity that finds an outlet in the frantic writing of letters that are never sent. Immediately, questions crowd the reader. Why is this man behaving in such a way? Is he sane? What has happened to him to bring him to such a state? Such thoughts are not in the least solved by the wonderfully ambiguous opening sentence -- "If I am out of my mind, it's all right with me, thought Moses Herzog." His behaviour is unusual, but then perhaps we should not be surprised: his wife has run off with one of his best friends, taking his daughter with them. This, we soon learn, is his second failed marriage. As the novel unfolds we will be told of these events, but we remain unsure as to whether Herzog has gained any knowledge from these experiences. We take our leave of him at the end of the novel as he is about to entertain a female friend to dinner in this near-decrepit house. Is he about to make the same mistakes again?

In the absence of a linear plot, the novel is constructed out of mental associations and memories within the mind of its subject, Moses E. Herzog, Ph.D. -- and what a mind it proves to be! Out of the fragments of his past, often brought to the fore by his desire to write letters to various people, some still living, some dead, the reader gradually forms an image of Herzog's world. Figures come into view as he remembers them, often composing mental or actual letters in an attempt to explain past actions or redress past wrongs. As we assimilate these pieces of his life, we form an image of the man. His previous marriages and romantic liaisons are relived, as is his childhood (which, we suspect, like Augie March's, is a fictional treatment of much of Bellow's own past). He lives intensely within his own consciousness, finding some outlet in the bursts of writing that fill his time. The letters are never sent, but one feels that the act of composing them is enough for Herzog -- a means of releasing the intellectual and emotional maelstrom that is within him. At the beginning of the novel, Bellow sets out the reasons for this correspondence, and also for much of his character's behaviour:

Late in spring Herzog had been overcome by the need to explain, to have it out, to justify, to put in perspective, to clarify, to make amends.

It is this need to 'have it out' that rules his conduct. He can no longer keep within himself the force of his feelings. He cares too much, about his failed marriage, and also about the state of the wider world around him. In a society of repressed feelings, he comes across as a dangerously unstable character. As Bob Dylan caustically remarked in the mid-sixties, "Don't ask me nothin' about nothin' / I just might tell you the truth." There is a chance he may actually be honest in his speech and actions. And being honest about life is, as Bellow later wrote, seeing it to be 'a mass of errors... Clarity is to be found only in spotting the mistakes.' This is a conclusion is a hard one to draw in the modern world that functions on the basis of a constant, unbroken drive to progress. Nobody in such an environment will feel easy about spotting their mistakes. Therefore, although he sees this course as justifiable to himself, he struggles to gain any solidarity from other people, most of whom are either numbed to the pressures closing in around him or lacking the drive to honesty that he cannot suppress.

Central to the novel is Herzog's emotional vulnerability. He has not fought his estranged wife over their separation, and he cares too much for his daughter to want to cause excessive ill feeling between them, even though he is hurt both by the infidelity of both his wife and his former friend. A man who puts a high premium on human relationships, this double betrayal has hurt deeply. He does have the hope of a new start with Ramona, a florist from New York, but he is uncertain about the extent to which their relationship should develop, out of a mixture of reticence and fear. He is not close with his siblings, although they are in contact, but he highly values the friendships that he has. In the course of the narrative, the reader encounters the people in Herzog's life, from his brother Will to his lawyer Simkin. Herzog often seems out of step with them, and their reaction to him is one of reserved acceptance. His situation in the modern world is not helped by his occupation, an academic career and a specialist interest in Romanticism. His concerns; art, literature, religion, philosophy, culture, are not those that exist easily within the modern world. He rarely finds understanding; the best he hopes for is tolerance.

What Bellow succeeds in doing throughout the novel is juxtaposing the thoughts of his character on his own very personal lot in life with those on the wider human situation. Herzog's search for order, reason and honesty is, in part, an attempt to reconcile himself to life in the world in which his ideals are largely absent and his concerns remain unaddressed. A large part of this stems from his (and Bellow's) Jewish background. This feeling of being an outsider in both political and cultural terms, of always being aware of one's difference, runs throughout the novel, as indeed does the weight of what was, in 1964, still quite recent history. It is with such thoughts in mind that the reader encounters Herzog's concerned remark on modern society, "theories of progress ill become us, because we are intimately acquainted with the costs." It lends an air of struggle to a life already conducted in the face of convention. Herzog's thoughts are not only for the Jewish American, however, they are from a cultured mind in a state of confusion that is partly personal, partly representative.

By turns uplifted, thoughtful, oppressed, uncertain and anxious, Bellow's protagonist can claim to be one of the voices of our time. We may not agree with what he says, but the fact that he says it should be reason enough to take note of him. An educated man in a world that doesn't accommodate learning, he is simultaneously sensitive to the ills of modern life to a greater degree than most others, and yet also isolated and unable to act within the modern world:

Herzog behaved like a philosophe who cared only about the very highest things -- creative reason, how to render good for evil, and all the wisdom of old books. He thought and cared about belief. (Without which, human life is simply the raw material of technological transformation, of fashion, salesmanship, industry, politics, finance, experiment, automatism, et cetera, et cetera. The whole inventory of disgraces which one is glad to terminate in death.)

It is a criticism often levelled at Bellow that his characters rail against modernity, always giving the impression that their thoughts are expressions of the disgust that stems from miscomprehension, or an unwillingness to make the effort to engage with (post-)modernity. This is a harsh line to take. What Bellow begins with Herzog, and developed in his later novels, is the expression of painful misunderstanding that is experienced by the cultured, sensitive mind that has not been totally numbed by the experience of contemporary life into a stupour that can accept the affronts of our time without comment. "Read the newspaper. If you dare to", he says at one point. He directs sensibilities finely developed by centuries of cultural progress onto the aestheticized chaos that postmodernism purports to celebrate. That a reaction of disgust often results ought not to surprise. Rather, it is a judgement on our poor condition, and a further indictment of it that the unwelcome messenger is so roundly attacked.

What Bellow sees, through the eyes of his confused intellectual, is a society in crisis, and also in denial. Economic growth is giving some people the trappings that can deaden their spiritual needs, but is not addressing the breakdown in communal activity and responsibility that gives some degree of cohesion to life. While catching the subway in New York, Herzog has a brief moment of unity as he walks through the turnstile:

Innumerable millions of passenger had polished the wood of the turnstile with their hips. From this arose a feeling of communion -- brotherhood in one of its cheapest forms. This was serious, thought Herzog as he passed through. The more individuals are destroyed, the worse their yearning for collectivity. Worse, because they return to the mass agitated, made fervent by their failure. Not as brethren, but as degenerates.

This is indicative of a breakdown of all but the most basic levels of social interaction, the horror of the (post-)industrial society as perceived by Marx. Later in the novel, Herzog recalls hearing stories of people in New York, lonely in the midst of such a sprawling mass of society, depersonalized in the way that Marx gloomily predicted, calling the police to have some form of human contact. This echoes the early scenes of the recent film Fight Club, in which a seemingly successful, and perfectly healthy young executive gets a social high from joining various support groups for those recovering or coping with some disease or trauma. In such cases there is at least a sense of commonality and belonging that is lacking from the sophisticated life and self-assembled Swedish furniture of the successful young middle class.

Whilst waiting to meet a friend and lawyer at the courthouse, Herzog wanders in to the public gallery of several cases that are being tried. His reaction is one of shocked realisation that such evils exist in the wider society, with which he has no contact but still some innate human sympathy. And it is this innate sympathy that offers some degree of hope, both to Herzog and to society in general. Some attempt at understanding instead of further isolation and withdrawal may be of use:

We must get it out of our heads that this is a doomed time, that we are waiting for the end, and the rest of it, mere junk from fashionable magazines. Things are grim enough without these shivery games. People frightening one another -- a poor sort of moral exercise.

What may at first seem to read as Herzog's personal litany of complaint and recrimination is actually an attempt to retain the human element in modern life, without which it will deteriorate even further. As a result of his educated sensibility, and some harsh personal experience, Herzog has a level of insight into the modern situation that others do not possess, and as such he may seem slightly intense, chaotic, unstable. Within his eccentricity, however, there is a moral reasoning that offers the hope of redemption.

I must be trying to keep tight the tensions without which human beings can no longer be called human. If they don't suffer, they've gotten away from me. And I've filled the world with letters to prevent their escape.

What Bellow captures within Herzog's world view is an enquiry into the modern human condition, and attempt to locate and preserve the strange impulses and reactions that make the individual so special, and which are most under threat from modern life's attendant complications. What struggles to find room for itself within the modern world is not our weakness but our greatest asset -- the feeling that we have a higher purpose before us than mere survival. The novel is a rich tapestry of emotions, thoughts and memories; often confusing, and by no means totally in tune with the reader's sensibilities. Ultimately, however, it sounds a note of positive confusion. Herzog is not at ease with his emotional life, nor with the wider world around him, but as the novel ends he has, in part reconciled both into a bemused acceptance. He is no longer writing letters when we take our leave of him, and the prospect of some degree of emotional peace with Ramona is evident. This is not to say that all enquiries are at and end, and that all concerns have been addressed, but that he is no longer tormented. By daring to face up to aspects of life that are often ignored by others, he has made an attempt to answer his own concerns, and a degree of personal focus is attained in this assessment of the past. As another of Bellow's protagonists, Artur Sammler, remarks, "Everybody needs his memories. They keep the wolf of insignificance from the door."

For the wider world, the issues Herzog addresses are either ignored, or not considered worthy of attention -- thereby leaving his personal attempts to confront them looking like the traces of madness to those around him. It would be too much to expect him to come up with any answers, but just asking the questions is enough to secure for him a better state of personal happiness. He can, as the novel ends, live with himself, and that, Bellow argues, is a state that is often denied or actively declared to be of no importance in the modern society. Herzog is fragmented, but so is everybody else; his achievement is to both admit to this state, cease pretending to be whole, and then to see it as a positive step on a journey of knowledge. To admit to ignorance of aspects of life in a society that tries to convince people that they know everything, and that what they do not know is of no use. As Bellow says at the beginning of the novel, 'There was a certain wisdom in it, as if by staggering he could recover his balance, or by admitting a bit of madness come to his senses.' By this inverted logic, a man may gain a precarious stability that is far healthier, and easier to live with, than his previous numb acceptance of a routine that strips away the strange blend of beauty and pain that makes his world special.

Despite appearances, Herzog's is not a postmodern attitude. He does not seek to reconcile himself to the unreality of his world by telling us that there are, as Lyotard claims, no meta-narratives to give meaning above and beyond the everyday state of constant flux. Lyotard asserts that the postmodern condition consists in "the discovery of the 'lack of reality' of reality, together with the invention of other realities." In much of postmodern thought, we should be happy to be confused, and see it as a state that offers us the promise of re-defining ourselves. Herzog's personal confusion is deeper and more personal; he still seeks unifying principles with which to impose coherence on his world. He is trying to solve his confusion by a return to order, not by an attempt to create a more comforting, alternative, reality that assuages his own crisis. His conclusion becomes a romantic definition of the self as a confused state, but at the same time happy in having knowledge of its confusion. As the novel closes, Herzog thinks to himself "But this intensity, doesn't it mean anything?" Bellow's novel affirms to us that when the intensity within is given a voice, and the chance to speak, if only to itself, it can be a hopeful cry in the dark.

   
   
   

 

 
   
         

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