Herzog | Study Guide

Saul Bellow

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Herzog | Themes


Man's Innate Goodness and Innate Evil

The bedrock of Herzog's PhD thesis underlies his struggle to fight what he considers evil while rallying himself to remain good. This plays out in the distinction between the conclusions of Hobbes and Rousseau—with respect to the innate goodness of humans and the opposite, innate evil. The lines of the discussion were drawn by British philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679). Hobbes is known for the early development of "social contract theory," a means of justifying political principles by uncovering agreements among "suitably situated rational, free, and equal persons." The "suitable situation" was to be a time and place unbounded by civil authorities. Each person decides how to act independently.

The contrasting view surfaces in the work of French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–78). He believed human beings are "good by nature but are rendered corrupt by society." Moses Herzog is caught between the two philosophies, as seen by his ability to spin out page after page of theory, but never to complete the thesis.

Herzog is caught up with anguish over a generalized lack of empathy, which seems to him the state of nature of the modern world. Herzog wavers between impulses from two formative parts of his life. He is a scholar of the romantic period, roughly 1760–1870, a period in which art and literature focused on individual rather than collective experiences. And he is a Jewish member of the generation that endured the Holocaust—the systematic murder of over six million Jews and many others by the Nazi regime of Germany. The romantic period had featured a restoration of religious reverence, imagination, and pantheism. This conflicts with nihilism, which Herzog associates with evil, and with which many Jews at this time identified in the wake of the Holocaust. Throughout the novel Herzog bashes Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900), the leading philosopher of nihilism and whose works had an influence in the days of the rise of Nazism. This school of thought proclaims there is no God and that, as Herzog puts it, humans must go "into evil, through evil, ... past evil." Though Herzog says he sympathizes with Nietzsche's view, he reproaches the dead Nietzsche in a letter: "Perverted, your ideas are not better than the Christianity you condemn."

In fact, throughout the novel Herzog sees his battle with his anger toward Valentine Gersbach and Madeleine Pontritter as a battle between good and evil. He uses his vast intellectual and scholarly knowledge to reflect upon his internal struggle. The emotional yet intellectualized theoretical contradictions can obscure what is at heart in the novel. Herzog is wrestling with the idea the "ultimate questions" spring from the truth of the 20th century: "[a]nnihilation is no longer a metaphor. Good and Evil are real."

Man and Woman in a State of Nature

Moses Herzog spends as much time evaluating his own goodness and transgressions and those of Madeleine Pontritter as he does analyzing good and evil in society. The break between Moses and Madeleine can be seen as a philosophical divide. They embody the contrast of views about humanity as a power-mad, brutish survivor of its times, and humanity as innately peaceful and good. The house in the country, in its rude state and untamed surroundings, is outside of Ludeyville and presumably civic jurisdiction. This suggests for the couple a return to a state of nature where each gets to act out the natural consequences of his or her primal nature. Moses sees himself as a victim: his goodness in relation to Madeleine's oppression. But he fails to see his own brutish treatment of Madeleine or even to imagine her cruelty and survival principles as adaptations to his abuses. In this struggle the reader need not take sides or make a decision because any resolution of the point is made more powerful by means of its absence.

Readers learn throughout the text of the many cruelties man and woman perpetrate on each other. Moses pushes for Madeleine to give up Catholicism and forces her to have sex on the tiled bathroom floor. He makes light of her scholarship and labels her a "violent hysterical woman." She in her turn has tantrums in which she pummels him with her fists, and she flagrantly wastes his money and insults the memory of his parents. She prevents him from playing the oboe, and she discusses his sexual impotence with others. And yes, she carries on an affair under his nose for two years with his very best friend.

To read Moses's letters and meditations throughout is to learn he sees in himself something of a figure from the philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–78). That is, Moses sees himself as innately good. He cannot own his violence, and in fact, has a narrative that details his victimization and his deeply cultivated sensitivities. He wonders "what if he had knocked her down, clutched her hair ... flogged her ... brought his fists down on her head." But "he rejected this mental violence, sighing."

Thus, in the prevailing state of nature, Madeleine is the warrior, complainant, judge, and jury. As conditions of the marriage deteriorate, it becomes clear he is as brutal as she, although less self-consciously so. So long as he sees himself as the victim, she has the upper hand. In terms of measuring brutality, however, it would seem to be a draw. Incongruously out of synch in time and place, the battle of sexes staged in the woods and the foothills of the Berkshires finds no resolution. Even as Herzog contemplates murder, he knows that will not happen. It is impossible for him, given who he is and what he has come from.

Power and Success versus the Moral Compass

American scholar Charles Molesworth poses a key theoretical question and a very interesting answer for the post-war American novel. It is almost as though he had Herzog in mind. The question is: "How can anyone personally maintain ... elevated ideals—those of freedom and autonomy—while not succumbing to ... persistent social structures ... based on conformity and submission to a rationalized authority?" Molesworth's answer: "An adolescent sensibility cloaked in an adult role ... mediate[s] the powerlessness of individuals in a mass, postindustrial society." Molesworth believed sensitive, childlike people could use their sensitivity as a kind of commerce, allowing them to remain outside of power struggles within social structures. He also said novels, in which the "imagination is not merely the highest power but the only power," could help such people to maintain their integrity.

Moses Herzog in some senses is this sensitive, childlike person. In a letter to American novelist Philip Roth, Saul Bellow called Herzog a "chump, a failed intellectual, and a sentimentalist." Herzog is a dupe. By the standards of a norm, within judgments about power, he is the consummate loser. He is also, however, a talker and a writer of letters, a lover of humankind, and a vulnerable individual. For him writing is thinking. And in his endless spinning out of observations, excuses, and criticisms readers recognize his paradoxical thinking, wit, self-delusion, honesty, and depth of feeling as a novelist. He is tangibly human, as a writer must be. He is active and passive, sincere and devious at the same time. He is alive and lively.

The reader may pity Herzog, and the reader may still like him—or not. But the power of the novel, its achievement, is the creation of this very messy, living, breathing character.

Herzog is a character of a particular time and place, a hero of his culture. He is a member of the generation who were to be saviors of the Jewish people, following the Holocaust, in which over six million Jews were murdered. He is predictably spoiled, self-aggrandizing, super sensitive, paranoid, narcissistic, and intellectually aggressive, yet also profoundly loving. Mothers lie to us, he reminds the reader. Inevitably, we believe them.

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