Sunday, February 27, 2011

Herzog by Saul Bellow

Herzog (1964) is an epistolary novel - a large portion of the text consists of letters written by the protagonist Moses Elkanah Herzog, most of which he never sends. The dense and cerebral novel is a tour de force, rich with intellectual heft, intertextuality and lyrical metaphor. The 47-year old Herzog, a college professor, is emerging from a painful second divorce, has lost custody of children from each marriage, and is searching for meaning in his life. The book covers a "five" (p. 326)-day period in his life, beginning in Ludeyville in the Berkshires. Don't go looking because "Ludeyville isn't on the map" (p. 329). The book is rich with allusions, but be forewarned that the reference to Moses Herzog in Joyce's Ulysses' Cyclops chapter is a red herring for over-eager students of allusions. To fully appreciate the novel, some basic understanding of Kierkegaard and Hegel is insightful. We'll get to that.

His itinerary is summarized on the opening page: "He had carried this valise from New York to Martha's Vineyard, but returned from the Vineyard immediately; two days later he flew to Chicago, and from Chicago he went to a village in western Massachusetts" (p. 1), the valise filled with letters. Herzog yearns to be a "berimmter mensch" (p. 61) but is your basic schlemiel: "Considering his entire life, he realized that he had mismanaged everything - everything" (p. 3). In the opening line of the novel he relates in a flashback: If I am out of my mind, it's all right with me" (pp. 1, repeated on 315). The re-reader will remember the line is repeated at the end of the novel in real time. In the telling of the story, Herzog shifts from 1st person to 3rd person to detach himself from his painful acknowledgement of his failings. Moses' ability to alienate himself (in the 3rd person) is dubbed "doublethink" by Kiernan (Saul Bellow). These modulated shifts in point of view occur frequently in the text. He can maintain equipoise by being a detached witness to his perceptions: "I am a prisoner of perception, a compulsory witness" (p. 72).

Everyone in his life takes pleasure in abusing him. As a young man, his father came after Moses with a pistol in response to his asking for money (p. 248). Moses would contemplate using that same pistol years later to murder his 2nd wife and her lover (pp. 252-255). He was even sexually abused, but kept that to himself all his life (p. 288). When this loser is with his daughter in Chicago, he has an accident in his rental car and gets busted with a loaded pistol and no permit (p. 281).

It is useful to examine the details of the contemplated murder as it is the climactic scene of the book. Granted, Moses spends most of the book physically inert, doing all his thinking. His ex-wife Madeleine has moved to Chicago and is shacked up with Valentine Gersbach, a former Ludeyville neighbor. Gersbach has great affection for Moses and dreams of being like him: "People say that Gersbach imitates me - my walk, my expressions. He's a second Herzog" (p. 190). Even his sexual betrayal may be seen as a grotesque expression of his bond with Herzog: Gersbach "will not reach me through her, however. I know you sought me in her flesh. But I am no longer there" (p. 318). Gersbach's adultery with Madeleine is an odd attempt at intimacy with Moses, an expression of admiration for the man he has cuckolded. They are caring for his daughter June. Moses is filled with rage about this situation and flies out to Chicago, meets with his stepmother as a means to secretly abscond with Father Herzog's pistol, and stalk the lovers. When he spies upon a loving Valentine bathing his daughter, the rage dissolves. At that moment, he is freed of hatred and can resolve his life issues. Of course, he acknowledges all along that "Firing this pistol was nothing but a thought" (p. 258).

Over the course of 5 days, Moses reevaluates his life, recalling events in his past that shaped him. This is where Hegel comes in. "Hegel understood the essence of human life to be derived from history. History, memory - that is what makes us human, that and our knowledge of death" (p. 162). Moses says this in a letter to Eisenhower. It makes sense that Herzog, who is obsessed with recounting his own history and his own memories, is a believer in Hegel's philosophy. Hegel believed that history was created dynamically by the contradictory and conflicting interests of man, but, at the same time, he believed that this history illustrated a progression, leading to self-realization. The human being realizes that he has reason and freedom. Bellow has Moses drift through his impulses, but he ultimately comes to terms with himself. He comes to an understanding of death. This quote appears at the center of the book, at a time when Moses begins to understand his journey. He writes to God, saying that God is the "King of Death and Life" (p. 304), Moses now accepts the ambiguity that God rules two opposite domains, life and death. Ambiguities abound: Gersbach is both a cad and a kindly man; Madeleine's lover steals from Herzog, he loves Herzog.

Unlike Augie March in The Adventures of Augie March (1953), Bellow's Herzog "believe[s] that brotherhood is what makes a man human" (p. 272). In an insightful moment on the subway in Chicago he reflects: "Innumerable millions of passengers had polished the wood of the turnstile with their hips. From this arose a feeling of communion - brotherhood in one of its cheapest forms" (p. 176). He experiences a common love that he dubs "potato love" (pp. 66, 176, 266, 267), understanding that this sentiment is essential to his existence.

There is a cute episode in which Moses plays a word game with his daughter June, called "most-most" (p. 296), where there is a club with the hairiest bald man, the baldest hairy man, the fattest thin lady, the thinnest fat lady, the tallest dwarf and the shortest giant, etc. They have a contest to tell each other apart. It is a parody of academic distinctions that Moses inevitably makes in his letters.

Moses is a romantic struggling in a world of realists. Moses has an aversion to what he calls "Reality Instructors" (p. 125), like his lawyers and brother Shura. His topic of study is romanticism, he's published a book "Romanticism and Christianity" (p. 4). He believes the romantics make the mistake in emphasizing the uniqueness of the self and the individual. Moses attempts to address these shortcomings by "renewing universal connections" (p. 39). Yet Moses lives in his own mind, not with others. He prizes society and connections to others, but lives in his thoughts. Moses cannot stop thinking. Kierkegaard believes that thoughts that are not connected cause pain and suffering. In a foreshadowing of a visit (p. 281) to the Chicago Aquarium with his daughter June, Moses contemplates a sea turtle in his glass aquarium: "The human soul is an amphibian, and I have touched its sides. Amphibian! It lives in more elements than I will ever know" (p. 258). The turtle's simultaneous awareness and indifference to its surroundings is an inspiring model for Moses.

"Thus began his final week of letters" (p. 318). Over the course of the novel, Moses stops writing letters, which demonstrates his new found mental health. He is now ready to interact with the rest of the world, not just with himself. The letters were a form of retreat into his own mind. As were his academic studies. As his mother is dying, he is busy reading Spengler's The Decline of the West (p. 233).

By the end of the book, Moses reaches a state of contentment and happiness. "How different he felt! Confident, even happy in his excitement, stable. The bitter cup would come round again, by and by" (p. 326). Although the book ends happily, that happiness may be unstable. Even if he has to suffer again, happiness will return. "Relief from the pursuit of absolutes made life pleasant" (p. 323). This cyclical structure is at odds with Hegel, which is more linear. Moses will no longer be disappointed with unrealistic expectations of eternal happiness. His fate is not sealed: "no Amor Fati" (p. 319), a Nietzchean phrase introduced in The Adventures of Augie March.


  1. Hello,

    I fall into the "not so brilliant reader" category. I am now reading Herzog and love it. I Googled 'Herzog Saul Bellow blog' and found your blog. I appreciate this post. I realized that I had no familiarity with Hegel and Kierkegaard--thank you for the information.

  2. Thank you for the insightful reading and comment.

  3. "In the telling of the story, Herzog shifts from 1st person to 3rd person to detach himself from his painful acknowledgement of his failings."

    This shift happens sometimes within the same paragraph. You may be correct as to what it signifies, but to me, it comes down to Bellows' economy of means. He credits the reader with the intelligence to follow as the story moves from internal monolog to objective description of Herzog's activities. One of the things I like about Bellows' style is the way he compresses and elides. Someone should do a count of how many sentences in the book are sentence fragments. A quarter? A third? It reads to me, frequently, as nothing other than poetry.