The Ethics of Suffering in Saul Bellow’s Herzog

March 26, 2019 by Essay Writer

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.

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