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

April 15, 2019 by Essay Writer

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.

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