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A Kind of Humanity: Herzog at 50

By (September 1, 2014) 2 Comments

It has been fifty years since the publication of Saul Bellow’s Herzog. How has it gotten on in the last half-century?

HerzogMuch of that time was spent still under the protective care of its living author. Until his death in 2005, Bellow could discuss the book, fend off the ever-present critics (not to mention the academic dissectors whom he at once scorned and shared office space with), and, when need be, defend its intentions—he was often elusive on his own works’ merit.

When Herzog, the tale of the eponymous intellectual’s nervous breakdown in the face of his wife’s infidelity, came to be regarded as a kind of academic bildungsroman, Bellow could be counted on to speak up. “I’m poking fun at the intellectuals,” he once said in an interview. “I’m showing what a long education culminating in a PhD. can do to cripple a man.” He went on to sum up the novel and its character as follows:

[Herzog] is an American PhD. who doesn’t know what to do when his wife is unfaithful and runs away with another man. It’s a sort of joke, since when he searches through his education to find resources to brace himself against this and begins writing these wild letters to everyone, he ends up jettisoning it all and coming back to square one. Back to a kind of humanity.

Herzog’s relationship with intellectual and academic life is complex, and so too was his creator’s. Bellow was not himself a PhD., but he might as well have been. He spent most of his writing career teaching, from the University of Minnesota to the University of Chicago and the Committee on Social Thought to Boston University. He not only had throughout his life famous intellectuals as friends and colleagues, such as Allan Bloom, art critic Harold Rosenberg and, later, James Wood, but he also made friends of the intellectual establishment.

Herzog won the National Book Award and cemented Bellow’s reputation as a grand figure on the literary and cultural stage. He had early in his career been supported by grants such as a 1948 Guggenheim Fellowship, which allowed him to work on The Adventures of Augie March. That book also won the National Book Award in 1954 and, at least in the opinion of such writers as Salman Rushdie and Martin Amis, is one of the very few real contenders for the Great American Novel. Bellow would rack up an unprecedented third National Book Award with Mr. Sammler’s Planet, and then a Pulitzer for Humboldt’s Gift. He sat on the board for the MacArthur Foundation, handing out genius grants, and in 1976 was awarded the summa of establishment trophies, the Nobel Prize.

And yet Bellow was also undoubtedly the street-wise kid from Depression-era Chicago. His migrant Jewish heritage was the bedrock of his fiction as much as his understanding of Hegel and Rousseau. He was born Solomon Bellows to Russian immigrants in Canada (his father had been forced to flee his augienative country for having lived off fraudulent papers), and the mixture of high and low which characterizes all his work is evident from his very earliest years. In the New World, Bellow’s father took up a variety of jobs, most notably bootlegging. He also sent the 4-year-old Solomon to a rabbi to read the Torah in Hebrew (less rare, perhaps, than now, but still impressive). As a high school student, Bellow would translate “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” into Yiddish. “It’s possible,” Bellow said, “only if you make a joke out it.”

After studying anthropology at Northwestern University and serving as a Merchant Marine in World War II (after discovering, in the course of enlisting, his lack of American citizenship), Bellow published Dangling Man, a short novel of letters a la Goethe’s Suffering of Young Werther, based on his experience waiting to ship out. This was shortly followed by The Victim, and so completed the author’s apprentice period: as Bellow said, the Dangling Man was his M.A. and The Victim was his PhD.

It was with the 1953 publication of The Adventures of Augie March that the author appeared onto the national scene. It is a sprawling picaresque novel in which Augie March (Bellow was fond of naming books after their main character) attempts to come to terms with the chaos of modern life. It was alternately praised and scorned for its apparent lack of plot, as Augie appears to have little to no volition and simply floats from one scenario to the next. Be that as it may, Augie March is nevertheless equipped with some of the best staves of 20th century American prose, not least the famous opening paragraph:

I am an American, Chicago born—Chicago, that somber city—and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way: first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent. But a man’s character is his fate, says Heraclitus, and in the end there isn’t any way to disguise the nature of the knocks by acoustical work on the door or gloving the knuckles.

But the Whitmanesque exuberance of such passages could overreach itself—Bellow himself would later admit to getting carried away with his newly-discovered style. Penitence took the form of Seize the Day, 128 tear-laden pages recounting Tommy Wilhelm’s reckoning with “the burden of self.” Then came a return to abundance in Henderson the Rain King, a lyrical, if slightly ramshackle, study of a wealthy, manic, slightly deranged giant of a man and his soul-searching trip to Africa.

Finally we reach 1964’s Herzog, which exhibits Bellow’s style at its most refined. It exceeds Henderson in lyrical exuberance and remains invested in the same kind of freewheeling introspection, but it doesn’t blow out into shapelessness the way Augie March can. The sufferings of Moses Herzog are perhaps in part the failure of Augie’s optimistic, if idiosyncratic, vision. That book ends with the affirmation of America as a nation and as a force, which Herzog would likely accept, but which does little for him. ‘How, then, does one live?’ is the abiding question. One possible response, and it is Herzog’s response for the majority of the book, is to talk back to the chaos he witnesses.

And so he spends a great deal of the book writing (or else dreaming up) letters, some to people he knows (his recent ex-wife Madeline, his friend with whom she’s run off, Gersbach, his other ex-wife, Daisy, his psychiatrists, his long-deceased father etc.), others to famous philosophers like Spinoza and Nietzsche. This is not quite the hubris it appears to be: until his crack-up, Herzog was a hugely respected academic, famous in scholarly circles for his study, Romanticism and Christianity. He is attempting to write another, more comprehensive book on a similar topic and finding such work impossible. Instead, he writes his letters.

In one such missive, all of which are rendered in italics, he attempts to address President Eisenhower on the topic of 19th century philosophy of history:

Tolstoi (1828-1910) said, “Kings are history’s slaves.” The higher one stands in the scale of power, the more his actions are determined. To Tolstoi, freedom is entirely personal. The man is free whose condition is truthful, simple—real. To be free is to be released from historical limitation. On the other hand, GWF Hegel (1770-1831) 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: “by man came death.” For knowledge of death makes us wish to extend our lives at the expense of others. And this is the root of the struggle for power.

At other moments, he is less scholarly, less reverential. To one still living at the time of Herzog’s composition, he writes:

Dear Doktor Professor Heidegger, I should like to know what you mean by the expression “fall into the quotidian.” When did this fall occur? Where were we standing when it happened?

This kind of thing, with its wide-ranging erudition and small regard for disciplinary boundaries, is what Bellow would have been familiar with (and, indeed, was an exemplar of) in Chicago: that strange creature, the late-modern humanist, engaging with the great texts of the past as though they might offer a response to our present-day concerns.

And yet this relevance is the central question of the novel. These great books might do for mulling over the grand-scale cultural issues, but what about the life of the individual? Not “the Individual” of Hegel and Tolstoy, but measly little Moses, with his lust for his Asian, French-speaking mistress, Sono.

Abed, he had touched Sono’s eyelids experimentally, as she lay smiling. Those strange, complex, soft lids would keep the imprint of a touch for quite a while. To tell the truth, I never had it so good, he wrote. But I lacked the strength of character to bear such joy.

Humboldt's GiftIll-starred Herzog, made homeless by a conniving wife and traitorous friend, travels from a rotting cabin in the Berkshires, to Chicago, to New York, to Martha’s Vineyard and back, most of these several times over and, rather than ever following through on what he decides to do, spends his time pondering past loves, his family, his son, his daughter. The talking back does little to help.

Instead, he finds himself frantically stealing his father’s gun and chickening out when it comes time to shoot the adulterers, a crime he’d already decided he could commit with a clear conscience. He is arrested for possession of the gun after his car is rear-ended, and he falls in further trouble by having his young daughter with him at the time. Many have complained, as they do of Augie March, of Herzog’s relative lack of plot. There’s a case to be made against this objection.

First, plenty happens, as in the scene above. There is plenty of tension, things move along fluidly, and one even worries what will happen: what on Earth will the child’s mother, who has so far been nightmarishly avaricious and cruel, do to Herzog when she finds out? It is clear that Bellow’s divergence from traditional forms of novelistic narrative in the long haul is not due to a lack of interest or ability. It has more to do with an insight that is intimately connected with the philosophical themes explored in the book.

All of Bellow’s great novels (Augie, Seize the Day, Henderson, Herzog, Sammler and Humboldt) are characterized by a kind of questioning borne of hard-won erudition and of a rawness (despite long experience) to the deeper cruelties of life. The book’s idiosyncratic narrative reflects the question put by George Steiner’s castle of Bluebeard: when every door has been opened, every book read, every experience had, what does one do? The response is not to keep pushing outward and looking around, but to burrow deeply into what is already available and see what is waiting. The Greeks were aware of this: they knew that human drama consists not in the anticipation of what will happen next, but in the depths of soul plumbed in the events’ retelling. Every member of Sophocles’ audience knew the Oedipus myth, but imagine their gasps at the suffering in such lines as

a father seeing nothing, knowing nothing
begetting you from his own source of life.”

penguinherzogAnd so, too, do we feel with Herzog when he describes his wife’s betrayal, his own betrayal of his earlier wife, his father’s disappointment, and other myriad woes. We know what will happen, have heard it before, seen it before, and yet the elegance and force of the language, the placement of the events, it all makes us aware of the way in which we live our memories in every moment, and that they will shape us to their liking if we don’t shape them to ours.

But Herzog is not helped by this kind of thought. The means by which this man of enormous theoretical knowledge is eventually brought back to life is a renewed attention to practicality. He is made to look a fool by his attorney, his wife, and his friend, and calls them “Reality instructors.”

They want to teach you—to punish you with—the lessons of the Real.

But he is able to find himself again with the aid of yet more practically-minded people. The attorney, Simkin, his brother, Willie, and his new lady-friend, the exorbitantly sexual, yet caring, Ramona, each do their part to save Herzog.

This is not, however, a total rejection of the life of the mind. It is a filtration, the sifting-through of what is necessary and healthy, and what is not. Herzog continues to write letters through nearly to the end of the book, but they become less manic, more inquisitive. He has learned his practical lessons, renewed his love for his daughter, and he wishes to protect these earthly pleasures and responsibilities from the threats of pedantry and false prophets. In short, he is thinking carefully.

Philip Roth ends his essay “Rereading Saul Bellow” with a lament for the loss of the world which could produce such a man—both worldly and learned—as Herzog, as Bellow; namely, the world of old Chicago.

What is he in Chicago for? This Chicagoan in pain no longer knows. Bellow is banished.

One must be wary, particularly when dealing with a writer like Bellow, not to succumb to golden-age thinking. Even the old days had dangers, and to deny that Bellow was cognizant of this is to miss how profoundly his books, Herzog in particular, speak to his time and our own.

Toward the end of the book, Herzog remembers nearly being raped in an alley as a younger man. The theme of male-male sexual violence will come up again in Mr. Sammler’s Planet, where it will be coupled with Bellow’s problematic approach to issues of race. The culture wars of the eighties and nineties had the author firmly on the side of the conservatives, due in part to such scenes. But though the players in that war have largely faded away, the issues remain largely the same, and even exacerbated.

It may be hard to imagine what the neurosis of a restless, mid-century academic have to do with Ferguson, militant jihad, or any of our other woes. But if the book has a single theme, it is that we are dominated more than anything else by ideas, and it is only when we confront ideas and our allegiance to them that we might be able to set our house back in order. Life will never be an easy affair, but it may become, at times, manageable.

Herzog is not a morality tale, in the sense of being didactic, but it is highly moral, while being forward-looking. Is Herzog himself cured? No—he still fears being locked in a loony bin by his well-intentioned brother. In general, he’s still quite frazzled. But he is not, as Roth would have Bellow, banished. Herzog is not homeless. He can try to fix his house in the Berkshires, he can have a quiet dinner with Ramona and not fear another disastrous marriage. Maybe he’ll be able to get back to his book, now that he can think carefully. Not a sermon, but a suggestion.

Jack Hanson‘s previous reviews & poetry for Open Letters can be found here.