Confused Identity: Moses Herzog’s Telling of His Own Story

While Moses Herzog sits in the Chicago police station after he has crashed his rental car, the narrator of Saul Bellow’s work exclaims angrily, “See Moses? We don’t know one another” (299). This is the lone moment in the book where the narrator explicitly suggests some separation between himself and Herzog. Much of the rest of the novel provides an unclear division between the narrator and the main character. I would argue that this unclear division occurs because these two figures, the narrator and Herzog, are in fact the same person. There are small logistical hints in the text that this is true. But these small elements of the text exist alongside much larger similarities between Herzog, and the narrator. In the largest sense, the uncertainty, the subjectivity that the narrator evinces in telling Herzog’s story shows just how similar he is to the character he is describing. In the end even the quote that began this paper, the remark that ostensibly creates the strongest division between the narrator and Herzog, is evidence that these two figures are really the same – that Herzog is really narrating his own story.The most visible element of the book that suggests some conflation of the narrator and Herzog is the narrator’s confused pronoun use for Herzog. On occasion, the narrator confusingly refers to Herzog not in the third person as “he” but instead in the first person as “I,” seemingly adopting Herzog’s voice. Some of the times that this happens, it seems a stylistic device, such as when the narration is given in Herzog’s voice, directly after Herzog’s letters. Herzog writes to Madeleine’s mother Tennie, before thinking about what he has just written: “It’s in the vault, in Pittsfield. Too heavy to lug to Chicago. I’ll return it, of course. By and by. I never could hang on to valuables – silver, gold” (31) The narration here, that comes directly after the italicized words of a letter, is given in the first person voice from Herzog. The use of I, eliminates the need for the narrator to use the awkward phrase “he thought,” when the identity of the thinker is quite clear. But at many other places in the text, where the narrator uses the first person to convey Herzog’s thoughts, the shift is not easily explained by stylistic concerns. The narrator goes along, consistently referring to Herzog in the third person, and then suddenly, in providing one of Herzog’s thoughts or feelings, slips into the first person. The narrator makes one such shift on the midst of describing Moses’ memories of Sono: “She went to run the water. He heard her singing as she sprinkled the lilac salts and bubble-bath power. I wonder who’s scrubbing her now.” (173). In one place the narrator goes so far as to switch to the first person in the middle of a sentence for no immediately clear reason. After he has arrived on Martha’s Vineyard, his host Libbie, and her husband Sissler are caring for him, “Sissler was trying to make Moses feel at home – I must seem obviously shook up” (96). Such sudden shifts to the first person after calling Herzog either Moses or he, obscure the identity of the narrator. Is the narrator a third person narrator with direct access to the minutiae of Herzog’s thoughts, a narrator who uses the first person to avoid awkward attributing clauses? Or is the narrator in fact Herzog, referring to himself in the third person for a majority of the time in an attempt to achieve some perspective on his own life? The narrator, at any rate, is not clear on what perspective to take in this story. The narrator’s very uncertainty about his own identity – his inability to choose a single perspective from which to view the story – is one of the primary characteristics of the narrator that marks him as Herzogian. Herzog is a character whose uncertainty about his own identity induces him to allow others to provide an identity for him. When he marries Madeleine, she convinces him that the life of the professor is not the right one for him, leading him to resign his professorship and move to the hills of Massachusetts with her. In making this move, “he showed a taste and talent also for danger and extremism, for heterodoxy, for ordeals,” (6) not incidentally, all qualities that Madeleine respects. He easily loses many of the concerns of the professor, and instead becomes obsessed with the task of fixing up his Ludeyville house, as Madeleine desires. Ramona, his romantic interest during the time of the narration, has a similar transformative effect on Moses’ identity. She wants him to be a sexy intellectual figure, and she makes this explicit when they are shopping together, “‘You ought to use a little imagination about clothes – encourage certain aspects of your character” (158). When Herzog is away from Ramona he is extremely conscious of her efforts to change him, but when he is with her he submits. This is captured when the two are in bed together. Ramona begs Herzog, “Tell me you belong to me. Tell me!” With no second thoughts he tells her, “I belong to you, Ramona!” (204). Herzog gets caught up in someone else’s idea of who he is, and consequently allows his identity to shift, if only for a spell. Herzog admits to his own changing identity when speaking to Ramona, “While in New York I am the man inside, in Chicago the man in the street is me” (199). Herzog’s tendency to shift identities is a similar one to the tendency that the narrator shows in his shifting perspective on the story. Assuming that Herzog is narrating this story, it makes sense that he would shift between perspectives of himself. He would sometime view himself as others do (ie in the third person), and sometimes view himself as he does when alone (ie in the first person).As the initial quote of this essay demonstrates, the narrator seems to refute the idea that he and Herzog could be the same person through his protests that he doesn’t understand Herzog. The narrator frequently asks questions that show an incomplete understanding of Herzog. In the first pages of the book the narrator asks, “his ex-wife Madeleine, had spread the rumor that his sanity had collapsed. Was it true?” (2). But, in fact, one of Herzog’s clearest traits is his own lack of understanding of himself. In the first line of the book Herzog demonstrates his own uncertainty as to whether his sanity has collapsed, “If I am out of my mind, it’s all right with me, thought Moses Herzog” (1). Because Herzog makes this statement in the indefinite conditional, it seems perfectly reasonable that if Herzog were the narrator he would ask this of himself. Moses’ consciousness of his frequently changing identity, that was already discussed, further demonstrates that Herzog has little understanding of himself. At one point Herzog thinks to himself, “Much of my life has been spent in the effort to live by more coherent ideas,” (279). But he says this with the clear implication that thus far he has failed to live by a coherent system. It makes perfect sense that Herzog would proclaim in frustration his inability to understand himself, given the arduous process he has gone through in an attempt to find a stable identity. The fact that Herzog does not understand himself also provides a convincing explanation for why he would choose to narrate his own story. There are numerous moments in the text where we see Herzog’s tendency to tackle subjects that he does not understand; this is stated most clearly when Herzog realizes of himself, “I prefer to accept as a motive not the thing I fully understand but the thing I partly understand” (194). While not explicitly stated, a careful reading of the text reveals that Herzog was motivated to write his first academic book about something he did not understand. The title was Romanticism and Christianity, and as he recognizes in remembering his own Jewish childhood, “I would never grasp the Christian and Faustian world” (234). Given that Goethe’s character Faust is one of the great triumphs of the Romantic world, in this moment Herzog admits that he could never understand either of the two elements that his book Romanticism and Christianity was explicitly about. Undoubtedly, he chose to write this book because he did not understand these ideas. In the same way, Herzog’s lack of understanding of himself explain why Herzog has chosen to tell his own story. The temporal layout of the book also supports the idea that Herzog is narrating it. Because the novel ends and begins at approximately the same moment, we know the narrator is not narrating the story as it occurs, but instead narrating it from some point after the fact. The narrator is thus at some point after the last moment of the book. After the last moments of the book, Herzog is in a position where writing his own story would make perfect sense. As the book ends, Herzog has renounced his letter writing campaign. He also has abandoned his unfinished academic manuscript. We know, though, that Herzog is a man of letters, and compulsively so. He has always transferred his letter writing efforts from one medium to another. He needs something to write about that is as unexplained as Christianity or Romanticism. Given his muddled understanding of himself, he provides the perfect subject for such a work. The odd subjectivity of the narrator at points, can only be explained by the fact that Herzog is the narrator. Over the course of one chapter the narrator comes to a conclusion about Nachman, Herzog’s childhood friend. At the beginning of the chapter Nachman runs away from Herzog. In trying to explain Nachman’s action the narrator is uncertain, but guesses that, “Almost certainly, Nachman ran away from the power of his old friend’s memory” (132). At this point, the narrator is referring both to Herzog’s memory of Nachman’s dead girlfriend Laura, as well as Herzog’s memory of the debt that Nachman owes Herzog. But at the end of the chapter, the narrator is able to revisit Nachman running away and conclude that “[Laura] had committed suicide, and Nachman ran away because (who could blame him) he would have had to tell Moses all about it” (149). The narrator comes to understand Nachman. What happens that allows him to do this? The only thing that happens in between the narrator’s moment of uncertainty and his moment of conclusion is that Moses relives the trauma of his own childhood. He relives the night his father came home after being mugged and beaten by his business partner, in doing so Herzog realizes how difficult it is to relive such moments. This is the kind of personal, emotional realization that allows one to empathetically understand others in the same position. Herzog’s reliving of his own trauma would allow him to understand why Nachman would run so as to not have to relive the trauma of losing Laura. But, this type of emotional realization – empathy – is not transferable. When a son falls in love, a father is not brought to see life through the same rose colored glasses. Similarly, Herzog having this emotional experience would not allow the narrator to empathize with, and thus understand Nachman. But it does. The narrator is, and would only be able to utilize Herzog’s own emotional intelligence in narrating the story, because the narrator is Herzog.The confused pronoun references throughout the text strongly suggest that the narrator and Herzog are one. But the less overt moments, where the reader is brought to see the emotional closeness of Herzog and the narrator, are the truly convincing signals that these two figures are one. Even the question that ostensibly sets the two figures apart, in fact contains many of the similarities between the two figures. When Moses tells himself, “See Moses? We don’t know one another,” Moses is, in fact, keeping with all the uncertainties that define him as a character.

The Ethics of Suffering in Saul Bellow’s Herzog

Saul Bellow’s Herzog is a complicated and multifaceted novel. Moses Herzog, the protagonist, has a powerful though meandering intellect which does not seem to discriminate much in its choice of object. These myriad reflections can make the novel appear chaotic and undirected, a patchwork of loosely associated letter fragments and thoughts or observations begun but never finished. There are, though, some deep concerns which structure the novel, such as a concern with the nature and value of human suffering. In this paper, I will argue for a reading of Herzog as a meditation on the role of suffering in the cultural landscape of postwar America. I think the key to such a reading is Herzog’s discussion with Dr. Edvig on page 54 of the novel. Here, Herzog is commenting on Madeline’s supposed Christian outlook through the lens of Nietzsche’s work. He says,”ŠNietzsche himself had a Christian view of history, seeing the present moment always as some crisis, some fall from classical greatness, some corruption or evil to be saved from. I call that Christian. And Madeline has it, all right. To some extent many of us do.” I read this last sentence as a great understatement. Seeing the present as some crisis of spirit is a hallmark of the intellectual culture in which Herzog was raised and to which must inevitably respond. Whether it is a concern with the enervating effects of a resentment-driven herd morality or the alienation caused by capitalistic exploitation or the modernist hollowness of the Wasteland world, the now is always a moment of crisis.The heart of crisis is suffering; ubiquitous crisis yields ubiquitous suffering. What is unique about the way suffering figures in this novel and the intellectual culture it represents is the way greatness of suffering is equated with greatness of character. The more one suffers, the better person one can be (though not always becomes, of course). This conception of suffering comes out through Herzog’s recurring consideration of Nietzsche and Kierkegaard. This particular ethic of suffering is represented by Valentine Gershbach. It is through Herzog and Madeline’s responses to Valentine that we see how deeply ingrained this ethic is in the intelligentsia of Herzog’s day.Valentine is in many ways a Nietzschean ideal, embodying the sublimation of suffering. Considering Valentine, Herzog remarks, “Valentine spoke as a man who had risen from terrible defeat, the survivor of suffering few could comprehendŠHe spoke of death majestically‹there was no other word for it‹his eyes amazingly spirited, large, rich, keen, or, thought Herzog, like the broth of his soul, hot and shining” (61). Valentine is a large, emotional man with a commanding demeanor. He is, as Herzog says, “Šan emotional king, and the depth of his heart was his kingdom” (61). This control, though, was not only over his own person for “he appropriated all the emotions about him, as if by divine or spiritual right. He could do more with them, and therefore he simply took them over” (61). Herzog admits that the source of Valentine’s remarkable manner is the immense suffering he has endured, suffering hewn not only into his soul but his body as well, with his amputated leg and natively rough features. Herzog admits his acceptance of this ethic of suffering, “recogniz[ing] that under his own rules the man who had suffered more was more special” (62). Valentine’s suffering left him stronger, more vibrant, more alive, emotionally and physically than Herzog. (The relation of Herzog’s view to Nietzsche’s is brought out well in his later letter to Nietzsche. He says, “I also know that you think that deep pain is ennobling, pain which burns slow, like green wood, and there you have me with you, somewhat” (319).) Herzog relates suffering not only to strength of character but also to the appreciation of truth. He says that “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” (93). Given this understanding of truth, Herzog’s view of Valentine as a “big man, too big for anything but truth,” makes perfect sense (61). Suffering, then, becomes not only the path to a robust and admirable personality but also to a deeper apprehension of life’s mysteries. Herzog’s view of suffering, though, is not a simple endorsement of a life akin to Valentine’s. Indeed, as the novel move on, he is more critical of such an ethic of suffering. In his letter to Shapiro in the final chapter, he seems to denounce such a view altogether. There, he asserts that “we must get it out of our heads that this is a doomed time, that we are waiting for the end” (316). Moreover, “the advocacy and praise of suffering take us in the wrong direction and those of us who remain loyal to civilization must not go for it” (317). At first, this appears to be a contradiction, for how can Herzog idolize Valentine as he apparently does and decry praising the suffering by dint of which Valentine is “special,” as Herzog calls him?I think the answer lies in the different types of crises which provoke suffering. Herzog seems to differentiate two types of suffering, which I will call corporeal and intellectual suffering. Corporeal suffering is suffering of the body and emotions. It is this type of suffering which characterizes Valentine. While we are told he is smart, he is certainly not an intellectual in the same vein as Herzog or even Madeline. His pains are the pains of the immediate reality of life and not of the deferred reality of thought. This is part of Herzog’s valorization of ordinary, lived life. We can see this in Herzog’s repudiation of the Heideggerean idea of a second Fall of Man into the quotidian. In opposition to Heidigger, Herzog accepts Montaigne and Pascal’s view that “the strength of a man’s virtue or spiritual capacity is measured by his ordinary life” (106). This judgment is also demonstrated in Herzog’s recollection of Shapiro’s father in which he says, “there was more of the truth of life in those spotted, spoiled apples, and in old Shapiro, who smelled of the horse and produce, than in all of these learned references [of the younger Shapiro]” (70). These learned references are the matter of intellectual suffering. This type of suffering is best represented by what Herzog calls the Wasteland outlook. According to Herzog, this outlook is characterized by “the cheap mental stimulants of Alienation, the cant and rant of pipsqueaks about Inauthenticity and Forlornness” (75). Herzog seems to have two objections to this kind of suffering and the crisis from which it stems. First, he believes that this manner of spiritual suffering and the disillusioned passivity of those who accept it led, in part, to the horrors of totalitarianism. He says that “it was easy for the Wastelanders to be assimilated to totalitarianismŠ.To have assumed that, for instance, that the deterioration of language and its debasement was tantamount to dehumanization led straight to cultural fascism” (76). As he notes exasperatedly, “We’ve reached an age in the history of mankind when we can ask about certain persons, ŒWhat is this Thing?’ No more of that for me‹no, no!” (317). Besides this, Herzog believed that thought itself could lead us into negative illusions. “But can thought wake you from the dream of existence?” Herzog asks himself. “Not if it becomes a second realm of confusion, another more complicated dream, the dream of intellect, the delusion of total explanations” (166). I believe that it is primarily intellectual suffering which Herzog denounces in his final letter to Shapiro. That is not to say that the corporeal suffering of Valentine is untouched by Herzog’s final critique. Herzog acknowledges that pain can serve positive purposes in certain special instances, such as in the case of the truly religious. However, as he notes, “more commonly suffering breaks people, crushes them, and is simply unilluminating” (317). It seems, then, that Herzog’s initial view of measuring someone’s “special-ness” by the suffering he or she has endured is simplistic and must be modified. Herzog offers an interesting alternative in the same letter, allowing pain to awaken those whose imaginative dreams have obscured their connection to reality. Pain is a possible antidote to the excesses of Romanticism, but it is not a requirement for a life well led. As Herzog says, “I am willing without further exercise of pain to open my heart. And this needs no doctrine or theology of suffering” (319). The crises of life are not metaphysical in scope and do not need metaphysical suffering in response. Life is filled with challenge and pain, but these are the challenges and pains of daily existence in our social world. When we forget that, we exaggerate our crises, exaggerate our suffering and welcome a disillusionment which obscures the beauty of our lived lives.