Commentary Magazine


Herzog, by Saul Bellow

Napoleon St. and After

Herzog.
by Saul Bellow.
Viking. 341 pp. $5.75.

Herzog is a lovely book, so crammed with wit and thoughtfulness and feeling that one can go on reading it over and over. So I have been doing, off and on, for the past three months. I am prepared to say that its interest is inexhaustible—one of the tests of major literature. However, I am also prepared to say that it is much easier and possibly more rewarding to re-read Herzog than to try to hold it together in your mind. Its principle of composition is that of overflow: Bellow's consciousness of life, much of it no doubt his life, caught at the flood, with the form of the novel kept wide open to receive it. There is an action that develops briefly in the middle but its purpose is mainly to effect a transition in thought and feeling, and the meaning of the book remains embedded for the most part in Herzog's memories, reveries, and especially in his letters to the world which have only a fragmentary connection to one another. On the other hand, the writing is so clear, the sensibility of Herzog is so amazingly visible, the bearings of his situation are so graphically drawn, that one should be able to say something more significant than “Go read it,” which by now most COMMENTARY subscribers probably have.

The trouble, of course, is Herzog himself. He is one of those European-type intellectuals who teach at the New School in New York or the Committee on Social Thought in Chicago (where Bellow is currently employed), whose minds are like the Mafia—interests everywhere. Then, too, he is a cuckold, and there is nothing like that to make a man think strange obsessive thoughts. But even so, what do Herzog's grievances have to do with “the plebeian stage of evolutionary self-awareness,” or with “the fact that so much of ‘value’ has been absorbed by technology itself,” or with “what Heidegger calls the second Fall of Man into the quotidian or ordinary.”?

Well, to make a start, Herzog can be viewed as a high-class version of Bellow's other recent heroes: Tommy Wilhelm of Seize the Day, Eugene Henderson of Henderson the Rain King, and Philip Bummidge of the play, The Last Analysis. They are all trying to recover from a crisis of middle age in which a man is overwhelmed by a happening that makes a mockery of his settled contrivances and assurances and that testifies once and for all to the previous mismanagement of his life. Wilhelm, a salesman, loses his job; Henderson, whose vocation has been to exercise his powerful vitality, is seized by the dread of his imminent death; Bummidge, the TV comic, can no longer stand his own jokes; Herzog, student of Romanticism and apostle of “heart,” has been undone by his wife's love affair with his best friend. All four men are impulsive, self-dramatizing types who are impatient with their adversities. What King Dahfu says of Henderson is no less true of the others: “Everything about you . . . cries out ‘Salvation, Salvation. What shall I do? What must I do? At once. What will become of me?’” Still, they have laid waste their powers and each is near the end of his emotional tether. The principal problem of Bellow's fiction, stated in Dangling Man, his first novel, as “How is a good man to live?” has thus come down to the more specific and desperate question stated in The Last Analysis as how is a middle-aged failure to be “reborn from an empty heart?”

Willy nilly, then, all these later heroes of Bellow are gluttons for suffering—for what suffers is still alive and still has the possibility of renewal. They are all also trying to reach the deeper sources of grief and impulse, to reconstitute the past in order to shed it, to clear away the cultural conditioning that has deflected them from a simple understanding of their desires. Herzog's case, however, is a much more complicated one. He has so many roles and images and is so divided among them that simplicity is impossible. A child of the immigrant ghetto, to which his heart is still tied, he has written his first and only book on Romanticism and Christianity. A bookish, urban type, he has tried to turn himself into a New England country squire. A scholar, a foot-loose intellectual, a lover of fancy women, he is also a dutiful man around the house and a patient caretaker of his wife's neurosis. No wonder he has problems of identity. He is a Romantic who sets great store by “the heart”—a term that is constantly on his mind—but he is also a Rationalist who has more principles of ethics than Spinoza. His innocence is no less phenomenal than his sophistication. How can a man who is an expert student of his own character turn over his wife's diaphragm to his best friend? How can he then bring the friend with them to Chicago and find him a job, consult him about his wife's moods, finally be booted out and supplanted, and still not seriously suspect? No wonder Herzog wishes to give up “the crushing burden of self-development.” No wonder the time for a serious reckoning has come.

_____________

The problem, though, is not only that Herzog has to come to terms with his high-minded and tender-hearted childishness. He also conceives himself to be a representative contemporary individual as well as a devoted humanist whose breakdown has a general significance. For Gersbach and Madeleine are not alone in cheating and degrading him, of robbing him of his belief in “faithfulness, generosity, sacred quality.” There are his lawyer and his analyst, both of whom exploited him in bad faith and in their respective and typically modern styles of contempt for human nature. There are his more impersonal enemies such as the politicians and nuclear gamesmen who hold his life in their callous hands and increase his private citizen's feeling of impotency and rage by building missile sites on public beaches and making plans to blow up the polar ice caps with hydrogen bombs to get at their oil deposits. There is the huge, amorphous, unreal public life itself that dispenses freedom without content, culture without nourishment, the cynicism of Madison Avenue and the “potato love” of Eisenhower. Herzog's angry sense of grievance from his cuckoldry rises and spreads in all directions as he busily scribbles his dispatches of protest to a society and an age that has less and less room, use, and respect for the traditions of humane and personal being, for individuals like Herzog.

Though Herzog realizes that many of his ideas about the heart and its prerogatives are as hapless and mistaken as his life has been, he wants to continue to believe in something better than the grimy pseudo-realism of the new “mass men”—people like his lawyer, Himmelstein, to whom all men are whores, all truth is facts, and all facts are dirty. Nor does he wish to fall back into the malarial pessimism of the Wasteland view, “the cheap mental stimulants of Alienation, the cant and rant of pipsqueaks about Inauthenticity and Forlornness,” the “shivery games” people today play with themselves in advocating apocalyptic views, crisis ethics, the theology of dread. “I can't accept this foolish dreariness,” writes Herzog to his friend Shapiro who has apparently produced another fastidious treatise on the decline of the West, the nightmare of history, the death of God, the pathology of culture, etc. “We are talking about the whole life of mankind. The subject is too great, too deep for such weakness, cowardice.”

However, the tone of Herzog's protest is unsteady; he lacks confidence. He recognizes that the facts of contemporary history and society are dead against the humanists. War and genocide have reduced the sacredness of the individual life, the significance of the civilizing virtues to a hideous mockery (“Limitless massacre!” Herzog reminds himself. “I never understood it, did I, because it was not compatible with my aims.”) Then there is the other side of the coin: the revolutions of population growth and technology, the rapid transformations of culture and value that are necessary to help more people live a little better on this planet: “Would you deny them the right to exist? Would you ask them to labor and go hungry while you enjoyed delicious old-fashioned Values? You yourself are a child of this mass and a brother to all the rest. Or else an ingrate, dilettante, idiot.” “A merely aesthetic critique of modern history?” he rages against Shapiro. “You are too intelligent for this. You inherited rich blood. Your father peddled apples.”

_____________

However representative Herzog's crisis of belief may be, it sheds banality and takes on force only through being an expression of character and not merely a series of constructs to explain his failure as a man. Most of his ideas are too sketchy in any event to stand on their own. Herzog cannot write sustained discussions while he is supposed to be cracking up, though one wonders if Bellow himself doesn't want to have it both ways—to portray the “eager, grieving, fantastic, dangerous, crazed and to the point of death, ‘comical’” Herzog, who will eventually be rushing around Chicago with murder in his eye and a gun wrapped in old rubles, and at the same time to provide an important if fragmentary set of notes toward the definition of post-modern culture. He is indulgent toward Herzog's habit of broad speculation as he is toward nothing else about him, and the novel tends to become cluttered with “brilliant” thoughts at the general expense of narrative power and clarity. Be that as it may, one of Herzog's ideas is that “Romanticism is the form taken by plebeian envy in modern Europe.” I don't think that this is true generally, but it is true of Herzog. He comes directly from the one segment of the formerly repressed masses who immediately set about to possess the wealth, manners, and cultural heritage of the elite. Bred in Herzog's bones is the romanticism of the Emancipation: it connects the deluded “Graf Pototsky of the Berkshires,” as he calls himself, to the somewhat presumptuous scholar trying to crack and revise Hegel's “Law of the Heart.” The ground of his complexity, Herzog's Jewishness, is also what finally connects the gifted analysand to the blind husband, or the comic victim with his “immoderate, heart-flooded way” to the gaunt and earnest seeker after Otherness. It enters into his grandiose conceptions of himself and into his stinging self-irony; it is the source of his moral sentimentality, on the one side, and of his vestiges of sternness with himself, on the other.

_____________

Herzog's Jewishness is the one thing about him that goes deeper than his ideas about his life and so is seldom discussed as such. It emerges solidly, naturally, authentically, from the family experiences that he remembers so vividly in the section of the novel that appeared in COMMENTARY last July, and functions not as another construct but as the main province of his temperament. Herzog's prototype is his improvident father, the princely timid bootlegger, who rushed around town calculating “percentages at high speeds,” much as Herzog rushed around in his “delirious” profession of intellectual history, making his quick, summary formulations and judgments, usually to much the same profit that his father earned. He is also the disciple of his tender, unworldly, and not very honest mother. In Montreal, he grew up on Napoleon Street—a name not idly chosen by Bellow—in an ambience beautifully encapsulated by the song the tragic family boarder sang when he returned from his nightly drunk, his wife and children having been swept away forever in the Russian Revolution:

Al tastir ponecho mimeni
I'm broke without a penny.
Do not hide Thy countenance
    from us
Vich nobody can deny.

In the humor of Ravitch's song, there is something not a little crazy, with its dizzying leap across the ages, the desperate irony of its transitions from the sacred to the profane, the old world to the new, its feeling of cosmic loss and contactlessness which is both acknowledged and spoofed in the last line. Remembering Napoleon Street, “the bootlegger's boys reciting ancient prayers,” Herzog thinks—“Here was a wider range of human feelings than he had ever again been able to find.” And one is tempted to add, “Yes, and what gaps between them.” Ravitch's profound division of consciousness bespeaks a culture in which all things are alienated from themselves and irony takes on the status of an ontological principle. This is the famous Jewish marginality that is currently being so much exploited and trivialized. However, it is the real thing in Herzog and he is its product.

The Herzogs have standards of “heart,” and Moses has been one of those “young Jews brought up on moral principles as Victorian ladies were on pianoforte and needlepoint.” All of which has helped him to know a great deal about life and to understand very little: the narcissism of his ambitiousness and the narcissism of his unworldliness are endlessly in conflict. Just as he is a natural for a profession in which “the main instrument is your opinion of yourself,” so his inner life is regularly flooded by the self-enclosing emotional system of the ghetto, in which so much feeling circulates within the family, so little flows out to the bleak and hostile and corrupting world. Thus, though Herzog lives in the world, he has been able to spare himself real understanding of the vast range of human experience that exists outside his self-regarding categories. Similarly, his morality has remained one based on evasion and repression. It is only when he strays into a criminal courtroom and suddenly comes up against genuine sordidness and evil that he begins to realize how insulated he has been by his feelings, not only against the life of the drug addict or the child murderer that is revealed to him but also against his own balked desires that rise up in him as an evil taste in the mouth.

The jolt in the New York courtroom is followed by the automobile accident in Chicago in which Herzog almost kills himself and his little girl and is apprehended by the police for carrying his useless gun. These are the blows by which truth generally comes in Bellow's fiction. The first sharply teaches Herzog the limits and shallowness of his “essential humanity” in the face of what is merely another routine day for a criminal judge. The second brings him back from his dangerous preoccupations with his indignities, his rights, his need for justice. Returning to his abandoned country house and living amid the owls and butterflies and field mice, Herzog finally begins to move toward simplicity: a proper estimate of the interest of one small and ailing Self against the claims of all that there is in this world that is not Moses Elkanah Herzog; also a due respect for the mystery of experience that does not yield to explanations, much less to a “good five-cent synthesis.” “Everything of intensest significance,” he writes to God. “Especially if divested of me.” Though Herzog ends the novel where he began it, flat on his back, he has come a distance in learning to keep still, to lay off his vanity, and to let his heart fill of its own accord.

_____________

The elegiac prose of the closing section is so naturally luminous and moving that one tends to overlook the fact that it is quietly burying most of the issues that earlier had been raised in connection with Herzog's relations to society. At the end, he rests more firmly and spiritually in his passivity, but it is still passivity. He has taken Adlai Stevenson, among others, to task for being one of those “who think a good deal and effect nothing,” but one wonders what Herzog is now able to effect besides another marriage to a woman lavish in all things, including advice on how he should live. True, he has begun to believe in the God of his friend Nachman and of his fathers, but isn't he merely availing himself of the solace of faith without committing himself to its substance? “I am pretty well satisfied to be, to be just as it is willed,” says Herzog. One wonders what will happen when the trees of Ludeyville turn bare and the woods fill with mud. God requires more desire than Herzog has to give; so far he hasn't abandoned the old Self but merely found a healing illusion of having done so.

I suspect that the same discursive looseness of structure that has allowed Bellow to indulge his flair for ideas has also ended by allowing him to indulge his flair for optimism. Like Herzog himself, the story of his recovery lacks the true opposition of Otherness, just as his protests remain too much the worldly discontents of an unworldly man. The finest thing about it is Bellow's incredible grasp of the individual human plight—of the crisis of belief that lies beneath the complex surface of Herzog's behavior. As such the novel is a great portrait of the contemporary humanist, Jewish-style, whose relations with the modern world are as increasingly uncertain as Herzog demonstrates them to be. It's too bad that Bellow felt that he had to turn such a searching question of a book into an evasive answer.

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