Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 26, 2017

Herzog, by Saul Bellow

Within a page or two of opening Saul Bellow’s masterpiece Herzog, I began to wonder how I might write about it.  It has an authoritative introduction by Phillip Roth, it’s a classic of American literature, it’s by a famous Nobel Laureate (i.e. distinct from the obscure ones we’ve never heard of) and it’s listed in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die.  What could I possibly say about it that hasn’t been said before?

So I’ve decided not to write in my usual format.  If you want to know what the book is about, visit Goodreads or Wikipedia.  And here is an excerpt from 1001 Books as well:

The novel that made Saul Bellow’s name as a literary best-seller is a comedy of manners and ideas, loss and partial redemption.  The cuckolded academic Moses Herzog is neurotically restless, a pathological condition that notably manifests itself in his habit of composing unsent letters to the great and good of past and present times.

[…]

We follow Herzog’s musings on the events that have brought him to this state, most notably his amatory betrayal at the hands of his former friend Valentine Gersbach, and we follow him physically as he heads into Chicago for an abortive attempt at bloody revenge.  (p.565)

On the back of this centenary edition, there’s a quotation from Dave Eggars, and what he says there is true: there is something to make a reader stop and think on almost every page.  So I’m just going to share my thoughts about pages 102-3, which stopped me in my tracks…

What Bellow is on about on these two pages is the burden of selfhood and self-development. 

Herzog was first published in 1964, and it was not long after Hannah Arendt had published her ground-breaking book The Human Condition (1958) and even more relevant to the preoccupations of this novel, her report called Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (1963). The website Brain Pickings summarises her point that while acts of evil can mushroom into monumental tragedies, the individual human perpetrators of those acts are often marked not with the grandiosity of the demonic but with absolute mundanity.  And whether or not Arendt’s thinking is misunderstood, it seems to have triggered a great deal of post-Holocaust soul-searching about the possibilities of evil in all of us.  In Herzog, Herzog the character is constantly reflecting on his own nature and moral qualities – and in this part of the novel the reader finds him not only exhausted by the struggle to interrogate his own being but also resentful of the quest.

He knows himself a failure in need of a cure:

But this was becoming the up-to-date and almost conventional way of looking at any single life.  In this view, the body itself, with its two arms and vertical length, was compared to the Cross, on which you knew the agony of consciousness and separate being.

He interprets what has happened to him (his wife Madeleine’s betrayal) and his lawyer Sandor’s advice as

a collective project, himself participating, to destroy his vanity and his pretensions to a personal life so that he might disintegrate and suffer and hate, like so many others, not on anything so distinguished as a cross, but down in the mire of post-Renaissance, post-humanistic, post-Cartesian dissolution, next door to the Void.

One modern idea that excites his terrible little heart is that

you must sacrifice your poor, squawking, niggardly individuality – which may be nothing anyway (from an analytic viewpoint) but a persistent infantile megalomania, or (from a Marxian point of view) a stinking little bourgeois property – to historical necessity.  And to truth.  And truth is true only as it brings down more disgrace and dreariness upon human beings, so that if it shows anything except evil it is illusion and not truth.

Well, #musing what do I think about this?  If we interrogate ourselves – our moral values, our actions, our beliefs about ourselves and our loved ones and the world – and we don’t come to the conclusion that any and all of us have a capacity for evil, is that illusion?  Is it self-delusion?  Must that be the wrong conclusion to come to?

Herzog goes on to castigate himself:

But of course he, Herzog, predictably bucking such trends, had characteristically, obstinately, defiantly, blindly but without sufficient courage or intelligence tried to be a marvellous Herzog, a Herzog who perhaps clumsily, tried to live out marvellous qualities vaguely comprehended.  Granted he had gone too far, beyond his talents and his powers, but this was the cruel difficulty of a man who had strong impulses, even faith, but lacked clear ideas.  What if he failed? Did that really mean there was no faithfulness, no generosity, no sacred quality? Should he have been a plain, unambitious Herzog? No. And Madeleine would never have married such a type.

Because he’s in such emotional pain, he goes on to say with bitterness that she only wanted an ‘ambitious’ Herzog in order to trip him, bring him low, knock him sprawling and kick out his brains.  But his question lingers.

Did that really mean there was no faithfulness, no generosity, no sacred quality?

Reading this in the 21st century, post 9/11 and when there are people – mostly men so shockingly young – who are perpetrating evil even on innocent children and people of their own faith, it’s easy to lose faith in the fundamental goodness of human beings.  In the middle of the 20th century when Hannah Arendt was writing her books and intellectuals like Bellow were trying to make sense of a world that had changed irrevocably, the world had been shocked by the Holocaust and the crimes of Stalin (denounced by Khrushchev in 1956).  Yet Bellow, a Jew himself, is in Herzog asserting that at the personal level there could be ‘faithfulness’,  ‘generosity’, and a ‘sacred quality’ to human interaction, and that there must be ‘obstinate’, ‘defiant’ people who – with or without ‘sufficient courage or intelligence’ try to be marvellous. 

It’s a fundamentally optimistic view of the world, expressed in an exuberant characterisation and an often amusing plot.

Author: Saul Bellow
Title: Herzog
Introduction by Philip Roth
Publisher: Penguin, 2015
ISBN: 9780143107675
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond: Herzog: (Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition) (Penguin Classics Deluxe Editions)


Responses

  1. First, I think your approach is both valid and interesting. In fact we often, on reading a book, find that what has struck us is a part of the story, not the whole story, and I’m sure that’s even truer of a novel of ideas (and how the hell did you read this and Fin’s Wake at the same time!).

    I’m not sure that I would ‘do evil’. My actions have no moral underpinnings, though I at least attempt to appear that I am doing as I would be done by, and I do very little ‘good’, but I can’t see that I would deliberately set out to do harm. On the other hand, I am complicit in the evil of concentration camps for non-white refugees, so maybe I am just an ordinary German in Nazi Germany despite what I believe bout myself.

    A minor point. I think the equating of Stalin and Hitler was an American project to discredit communism. Stalin was a murderous tyrant, but so are many tyrants, the Holocaust was another level of evil again (and that from a fierce anti-Zionist).

    • Yes, I haven’t read Arendt’s work, but I think that she and the whole soul-searching about evil explored the issue of bystanders in Germany, the ones who watched their Jewish neighbours being persecuted right at the very beginning, when maybe mass action could have changed the course of history. We are, as you say, all complicit in the demonization of refugees… my moral touchstone is to be able to answer the question, ‘what did you do about it?’
      Yes, I’d say that was true about Stalin and Hitler, but not because of them as individuals, because the Holocaust in a unique genocide whereas Stalin was a mass murderer of political opponents, like Mao Tse Tung was. (Of course the issue of bystanders takes on a whole new meaning when we look at the Cultural Revolution and those struggle sessions.)

  2. It’s amazing how many times I’ve picked this book up, thinking I must read it and I want to read it, only to put it down again. I don’t like epistolary novels but I should probably make an exception with this one.

    • It’s not really epistolary. The letters are more like random interior monologues…


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