Monday, April 13, 2009


2. The Obsolete Humanist
What I retained of Saul Bellow’s Herzog (1964) from my first reading -- about twenty-three and reading while on night duty as security at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts -- were the scenes of Moses Herzog -- a fiftysomething recently divorced father and professor of history -- ensconced in his crumbling Massachusetts farmhouse, mentally composing letters to old acquaintances, famous people, and historical figures. It gave me at the time a feeling of a certain longed-for removal from ‘the world,’ as though Herzog were -- if you subtracted the angsty Jewish intellectualism and supplanted-male rage against his former wife -- a kind of Thoreau of the early ‘60s. Reading it again, I was surprised at how little of the novel takes place in MA; most of it, as with most Bellow fiction, is set in Chicago, and much of it, too much of it, takes its tone from what Herzog has suffered at the hands of his ex-wife who has taken up part-time with a friend of them both, parttime because the friend remains married to a woman who denies what’s going on. As ever with Bellow, the best bits are simply observations of the world and the kinds of people who people it.

Bellow was schooled in the old Russian novelistic tradition (Dostoevky particularly), in which characters lead lives of suffering that seem to be waiting for exposure in long, breathless paragraphs of frenetic detail; Bellow gives us speeches of nervous energy that divulge the anxieties at the heart of everyone: the anxieties that come from not enough money, not enough power, not enough outlets for sex, growing old, death -- in other words the perennials. Let’s call them the intangibles, those misgivings and dissatisfactions that never quite become violent but which could, if only events push us that way. When Herzog finally arms himself, with a gun from his late father’s desk, we might expect, given the kind of sickness-unto-death trembling just below his consciousness, that he’s going to do himself in, but no, he’s got more moxie than that. He wants to kill that happy couple that has supplanted his unhappy marriage -- what stops him? A very affecting scene, potentially bathetic or creepy, but really rendered with full awareness of how site specific it is: Herzog stares through the bathroom window and sees his ex-wife’s lover giving Herzog’s little daughter a bath. We might say that if insane rage was ever going to break out it would do so here. But instead, the scene, in its mundanity, shows Herzog something about himself: he doesn’t really want to be the man in that bathroom, he doesn’t want to be dedicating his life to the comforts of a wife and their child. He’s free -- which is to say, in a different register, he’s his own problem, and only his. But he doesn’t get off that easy -- he still must experience indignities with the police, because of that unlicensed gun found on him in a car accident. In other words, Herzog must come to the brink, but not go over it; the world is ordered and he lets that sustain him. And it should be noted that Bellow is at his best when inhabiting mundane actions -- travel, for instance, waiting one’s turn for a court hearing -- moments when one can simply observe humanity doing the things humans do, never mind the reason.

Such is Bellow’s forte because he is one of the great humanists, one of the believers in common humanity, so called. Reading him now, one finds the usual fissures in that ‘common’: Bellow’s women are always the women of a man. If that sounds like a slur, that simply indicates the extent to which times have changed; for Bellow wants men to join him in regarding women, and wants his female readers to see what it’s like in the middle-aged male consciousness -- he’s not particularly interested in the female consciousness; he may well believe there isn’t such a thing, in the same sense at least. And that attitude spills over to other minorities as well: Bellow is always aware of Jews as the minority that matters, as the outsiders par excellence (because of Europe) -- and that awareness takes place in a world run by WASPS. Everyone else is on the periphery of that judgment, and it is a judgment in an old biblical sense. As a Jew, Bellow creates characters who are always wondering, deep down, what God means -- what does He intend by making things happen as they do. And so civilization matters because somehow it belongs to God, and therefore we must defend it.

I’ve gotten off the point, if I ever had one. I wanted to say that one element of Herzog, my reason for re-reading it, had to do with the midlife crisis as, if you will, a literary mode. What Bellow conveys effectively is that sense of being closed off from things which once gave joy -- but, one concedes, not enough joy -- so where shall joy be found before it’s too late? And every person who does not point in the direction of a greater rapport with oneself, with one’s own life as one will have to accept it from here on out, is an enemy, or at least an obstacle. And the novel relays how such an attitude leaves its hero grasping at straws, trying to make right the story for the record, dictating endless letters to all those to whom Herzog wants to explain himself while he has the time. In free fall, certain matters become clearer. Strange that at twenty-three I wanted the pressure of crisis, of seeing beyond everything ‘the unexamined life’ gives you to take up your time, the freedom of rotting away in the New England wilds if only to examine one’s embattled defense against the modern world.

Herzog, writing to a colleague who succeeded where he had failed:

. . . people of powerful imagination, given to dreaming deeply and to raising up marvelous and self-sufficient fictions, turn to suffering sometimes to cut into their bliss, as people pinch themselves to feel awake. I know that my suffering, if I may speak of it, has often been like that, a more extended form of life, a striving for true wakefulness and an antidote to illusion, and therefore I can take no moral credit for it. I am willing without further exercise in pain to open my heart. And this needs no doctrine or theology of suffering. We love apocalypses too much, and crisis ethics and florid extremism with its thrilling language. Excuse me, no. I’ve had all the monstrosity I want. We’ve reached an age in the history of mankind when we can ask about certain persons, “What is this Thing?” No more of that for me -- no, no! I am simply a human being, more or less. I am even willing to leave the more or less in your hands. You may decide about me. You have a taste for metaphors.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for reminding me of Bellow...he was my hero for so long. I haven't re-read him yet, perhaps it's time. I remember his books were filled with steambaths ...there was a line in a later book, forgot which one, and it was the central character deciding he was going to get his hair cut just so he could feel the human touch.That's always stuck with me...

Donald Brown said...

Yeah, that's in Humboldt's Gift, which I'm reading now for the first time.