Herzog | Study Guide

Saul Bellow

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Herzog | Quotes


The State of Nature in 17th and 18th Century English and French Political Philosophy.

Narrator, Chapter 1

This is the title of Moses Herzog's PhD thesis. It signifies his intellectual/emotional starting point, a consideration of whether man in a state of nature (in political philosophy, a term for uncivilized man) is immanently bad or good. This question originates in the work of British philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) and pursued by French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–78).


But how charming we remain, notwithstanding.

Moses Herzog, Chapter 1

Moses Herzog has reconsidered his faults in a long list of sins against his wives, his children, his parents, his friends, his brothers and sister, and his country. His self-delusion with respect to his sense of himself as a man with values is exposed here.


The man who had suffered more was more special, and [Moses] conceded ... Gersbach had suffered harder.

Narrator, Chapter 2

Moses Herzog recalls Gersbach's childhood accident in which he lost his leg. Despite Gersbach's adulterous relationship with Madeleine which destroyed the marriage, Herzog concedes Gersbach's superiority with respect to suffering. Such views demonstrate to Herzog his innate goodness.


He had a weakness for confused high-minded people, for people with moral impulses like Moses.

Narrator, Chapter 2

Moses Herzog is thinking about Simkin, Madeleine's divorce lawyer, and what the lawyer must think of him. After Herzog considers this, he changes his mind and realizes Simkin probably sees "a grieving childish man, trying to keep his dignity."

Moses, in fact, is describing himself. In doing so he advises the reader of the sort of self-conscious self-delusion that is less a character flaw than a staple of the human condition. As such, he offers a modicum of truth which is part of the human comedy.


To realize you are a survivor is a shock. At the realization of such election, you feel like bursting into tears.

Narrator, Chapter 3

Moses Herzog is listening to a pretentious intellectual exchange between Madeleine Pontritter and Shapiro, a historian whose work Herzog labels a "merely aesthetic critique of modern history." He insists he and Shapiro, as survivors, are situated to do more honest work. Here survivors are described as not just those who did not die in the death camps. The survivors are all Jews remaining after the Holocaust—the systematic murder of over six million Jews and many others by the Nazi regime of Germany. Herzog's mania rises as he optimistically concludes "mankind is making it" despite the horrors.


Untidy ... sleepy but cheerful ... He had on a pair of large pink slacks with a rubberized waistband.

Narrator, Chapter 3

Moses meets Libbie Vane-Erikson-Sissler's new husband and uncharitably assesses him. It is as though he can't bear the happiness of others or understand his relationship to them through his fog of sadness.


When that moment came, because of his bunchy hair, he would have to die lying on his side.

Narrator, Chapter 3

Moses, unhinged by his sadness, has odd thoughts about Arnold Sissler's hair. His grim thoughts trip over into a kind of clever linguistic hysteria that has no boundaries. His clever judgments, however, do not bring him happiness.


But don't expect me to go along in the ordinary loose way—without any rules.

Narrator, Chapter 4

Madeleine defends her conversion to Catholicism after confessing to Moses her teenage abuse and her hopelessness.


Can't dump the sonofabitch, can we? Terrible handicap a soul.

Arnold Sissler, Chapter 4

This quote shows how clearly Arnold Sissler is Herzog's opposite. He is straightforward, unphilosophical, and presumably happy.


Air drowned in leaden green ... dungstained ice, trails of ashes. Moses and his brothers put on their caps and prayed together.

Narrator, Chapter 4

Herzog's nostalgia takes him back to childhood and the "rotten, crazy and filthy" Napoleon Street of his youth. Although the description is dark, it is elegiac, a poem, in fact, to a dark time that had a beauty expressed in the language of the text. There are many such lyric passages in the novel, mostly linked to setting and interwoven with the nostalgic despair of Moses Herzog. His redeeming characteristics have to do with an appreciation of beauty in his sense of place within the human community and his lyric expression. Both serve a redemptive purpose by indicating his reverence for life, his basic humanity, here revealed as he prays with his brothers.


The husband—a beautiful soul—the exceptional wife, the angelic child ... perfect friends all ... in the Berkshires together.

Narrator, Chapter 4

Herzog has bitter thoughts about his deluded fantasy of what life in the Berkshires with Madeleine might be. This rueful remembrance comes about at the height of her verbal abuse.


Lord, I ran to fight in Thy holy cause, but kept tripping, never reached the scene of the struggle.

Moses Herzog, Chapter 4

This quote serves to encapsulate a long emotional diatribe that veers all over the place before arriving at this conclusion. Herzog is up when he describes the nobility of his goals: responsibility and the idea of improvement. And he is quickly back down as he explores his personal motivation—ridiculous intensity—and after all that, his failure. A mood swing a minute is part of his manic/depressive fluctuations and symptomatic of his agitation.


I fall upon the thorns of life, I bleed. And what next? I get laid.

Narrator, Chapter 5

Moses has spent the night with Ramona, who is eager to marry him and treasure him. He is briefly happy and relaxed and considers the possibilities for an ordinary good life. He leaves her off at work the next morning, and the second they are parted, he returns to his usual morose musings. One may wonder if his self-deprecating humor means he is getting better. "I fall upon the thorns" is from "Ode to the West Wind" (1819) by Percy Bysshe Shelley (British romantic poet, 1792–1822).


Herzog crossed his legs with a certain style ... elegance never deserted him even when he scratched himself.

Narrator, Chapter 6

Herzog is devoted to etiquette and elegance even at his lowest point. His self-consciousness is neurotically expansive. He has entered the courtroom and nodded to the magistrate who does not notice him. His absurd sense he is the center of attention is active even at the most inconsequential of moments.


Feeling, out of nowhere, caught his throat. His eyes filled up. The potato love, he announced to himself.

Narrator, Chapter 8

Grateful for the clean sheets Lucas has placed on the studio couch for him, Herzog is moved to tears. The emotion he calls "potato love" because it is spontaneous and unexaminable is less exalted than life's finer moments, which are open to analysis. It seems, however, Herzog is learning to feel without needing to intellectualize.

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