Character Sketch of Moses Herzog
Herzog is Saul Bellow’s attempt at resolving the problems of modern intellectual.
Moses Herzog is the protagonist of the novel Herzog by Saul Bellow. There is an opening statement by Herzog in the novel where he says.
“If I’m out of my mind, it’s all righ with me.”
This statement shows his awareness of being highminded intellectual. Hypertrophy of awareness in an environment that aggravates and distorts our consciousness is the key element in Herzog‘s character.
Herzog is an intellectual, scholarly and well-read. He possesses enclopaedic knowledge of philosophy and modern world. He is burdened with a sense of responsibility to correct the misconceptions and wrong notions prevacent in the world of contemporary thought. His battle with external world has comic element in it as he himself is split and disorderly within himself. His idealism is more on the plane of thinking than on the ground of practical application. It is true that modern urban milieu is chaotic and wild. It is full of chaos and disintegration. It is almost impossible to battle against it. However, Herzog does not succumb to it but tries to avoid total emotional breakdown.
Herzog’s confrontation with environment has produced emotional crisis in his mind. He tries relentlessly for resolution. There is long extensive introspection depicted in the novel that takes place in Moses‘ mind. As Frank Kermode puts it, “Herzog, under stress, is trying to sort out Herzog.” The novel describes the ruminations, that take place in Moses’ mind. It can be called ‘Operation Recovery.’ At the heart of Moses’ crisis is the riddling paradox of humanistic traditions itself. Herzog’s crisis is both intellectual as well as emotional and the both often mingle creating chaos in his mind.
As a humanist, Herzog is in conflict with various systems of thought. He does not agree to modernism, existentialism and absurdist outlook of the 20th century. As an individual, he has suffered the pressures of urban life and modern world view. He has experienced wrecked married life. He has found no peace and true love in women he has fallen for. Herzog has a tendency of mixing private worries with his intellectual anxieties.
Herzog is a humanist idealist. He has studied the Romantics and tried to show that only universal connections can help in living happy contented life. He has thought about adverse effects of Hulme’s ideas on romanticism. He does not endorse Heidegger’s concept of absurdity of life.
Herzog is a well-read scholarly person. He has read about art, culture,science and philosophy. His letters and jottings are full of such philosophical ruminations. His idealism is pitted against modern chaos of urbanized society. He is also oppressed by too much information and too much thinking. There is a tangle of various philosophical views that plague his mind. His own thinking is not clear. He is thus stressed and strained. He tries to cope up with pressures of modern existence unsuccessfully.
Herzog has failed as a husband. He has divorsed his first wife Daisy who was a good home maker but she did not like Moses’ chaotic and untidy, disorderly way of life. His second wife Madeline is exactly the opposite of his first wife Daisy. She is modern, fashionable and a bit high-handed. He imposes her own ideas on Moses and makes him a powerless husband. She rejects him as a husband and falls in love with Valentine Gersbach, a close friend of Moses Herzog. Later, Herzog and Madeline are divorced and she refuses to give custody of June, their daughter to Moses. She says that Moses is not mentally stable and he is not capable of raising June in a desirable way. He has a suit filed in the court but even his lawyer is of the opinion that Moses claim to June’s custody cannot be sustained in the court of law owning to his mental derangement.
Herzog’s memory enables his consciousness to travel back and forth in time. He is able to conjure up even the minutest details of past incidents. Thus the burden of memory puts a great stress on his mind. He can recount and recall his entire life history, ‘from a very humble origin and poor childhood in slums to disastrous life as a grown up married and divorced man. His mind is quite active and he often falls into speculation and introspection. Intensity of his cerebration and continuous interior monologues endanger his mental health and sanity. However, they also produce a gradual process of refinement of consciousness and education of sensibility.
The stress and strain on Herzog’s consciousness increases manifold when he faces what he calls ‘reality instructors’. They include Madeline, Valentine Garsbach, lawyer Sandor Himmelstein and Moses’ psychiatrists Dr. Edwig. These characters are his close friends or relatives. They are practical people who understand and imbibe practical attitude required to deal with modern urban pressures. They refuse to acknowledge the idealism of Herzog. Herzog feels that they represent a persistent megalomania, the mark of modern urban life. His sensitivity and idealism become the butt of ridicule for these reality instructors.
Herzog himself is conscious of his moral and intellectual superiority. He is quite critical of city characters who are almost devoured by evils of urban life. He thinks that these people are shabby material for wastelandish thinkers like T.S. Eliot. He has a high regard for T.S. Eliot as a poet but he thinks that Waste Land has created unnecessary pessimism.
According to Herzog, both Madeline and Gersbach typify a restless urge for change and a ceaseless desire for action. It is like act playing or theatrical performance. Madeleine’s urge is not to enhance the quality of life but self aggrandizement. She has struck a major blow to Herzog’s Jewish heritage by insisting on marrying in church and baptizing their children. After marriage, Herzog feels that Madeline is out to destroy his inner world by spiting his religious heritage and luring him out of his scholarly world. She rendered him almost friendless and penniless. Madeline refused to give him the custody of their daughter June and thereby rejects his Jewish heritage.
Valentine Gersbach threatens human dignity and manhood. He is an actor for whom posturing is not difficult at all. He is able to hide his inner personality. He pretends to be sensitive but he lacks real sensitivity. Herzog thinks that Gersbach is not an individual but a fragment broken off from the mob. He thinks that Valentine is a prince of darkness, a man with no soul. He is a perfect denizen of the wasteland where ideals have no place. Sandor Himmelstein, the lawyer, asks Moses to face facts. He tells Moses that all human beings are whores in this world. His practical wisdom entails that facts are nasty and all people are ultimately worthless and unprincipled.
The memory of all such characters puts a great strain and stress on Herzog’s ideal of universal brotherhood. He has witnessed flimsy, short-lived selfish relationships. Herzog recollected with bitter irony the scene when his father’s burial took place. His brother Shura scolded him for crying in the presence of his golfing friends and corporate presidents. He makes an ironic comment on this episode:
“Here he was the good American. I still carry European pollution, am infected by the old world with feelings like Love-Filiam Emotion. Old Stupurous dreams” (288).
Herzog’s failure to obtain a clear perspective on reality puts him in the category of failures and drop-outs. He tries to sort out the pressures of external world with his intellectual ruminations. He scribbles letters without mailing them. His dissent also produces many inconsistencies in his thinking and his behaviour. He is a great champion of universal brotherhood and connections but he makes mess of his own personal life. He believes in grand synthesis’ but he turns himself in one of the worst separatists. He is a critic of Faustian ideals but his thirst for knowledge is nothing short of Faustian restlessness. His personal life turns into “a circus, into gladitorial combat.” He is aware that he has become narcissistic, masochistic and anachronistic. He begins to lose hold both on himself and the external reality.
However, we must admit the fact that his visionary ideas are not meaningless and worthless. He looks ridiculous but he is never completely devoid of dignity. He struggles to preserve and maintain sanity, dignity and humanity. He has intellectual stamina that helps him to survive. He has faith in mankind and it prevents him from turning into a cynic. He hates Gersbach but accepts the fact that he has treated June quite well. He is liberal minded enough to see the positive sides of the people he does not like. In fact, he believes that all human beings are basically good. It is the pressures of modern life that makes them either perverted or selfish. Moses is able to analyse his own views and feelings. He accepts his own limitations and faults. He even accepts that intellectual abstractions are not the true solutions. The often mess up things. A new humility grows within his heart. He realizes that ideals have value when they are actually put into practice.
Herzog’s trip to Chicago marks the culmination of the process of education of his sensibility. His fantasy makes him think of shooting down Madeline and Gersbach. He thinks that Valentine treats June cruelly but he finds that he cared for her a lot and June was quite fond of him.
The last scene is set in Herzog’s country house. He seems to be in calm state of mind. He still writes letters but his tone is less polemical and agrumentative. His tone is more concilatory. His reflections are more balanced and less critical. There is no earlier bitterness. He now tries to see things in unprejudiced state of mind. He has now realised the futility of an intellectual exercise. He realises that intellect often dissects and separates. It does not unite and without unity and harmony there is no peace. Only synthesis is the way out. He takes a very positive stand of sharing with other human beings. Thus new, changed Herzog comes out of mental ordeal. He has struggled against the pressures of modern life that destroy human dignity. He does not succumb to it. He is now able to evolve strategies to survive with human dignity. Temporary withdrawal in Herzog’s mind certainly takes place. He tries to get away from all burdens and practical questions. He instinctively drops the arguments and moves into digressions for relief. He has now accepted the fact that the very core of urban life is chaotic and therefore one can not change it. One can at the most change one self. One must find peace and harmony within criticism and rejection of urban life is neither possible not advisable. He now understands the nature of life itself.
At the end, he is able to impose coherence and harmony on his experiences. He finds a way of reconciliation and accommodation. He develops inner strength to preserve human dignity and integrity without being absorbed or destroyed. He seems to have discovered a new kind of spirituality. He has achieved insight and inner stability. Herzog has gained deep self-awareness and inner peace which comes from acceptance of reality. It may be temporary but at least he has now found the key to inner peace. He has realized that if one cannot change others, one has to change oneself. At the core of acceptance lies the strength of endurance. He has certainly achieved enlarged vision and realized the futility of polemics and intellectual exercise. He has also turned subdued in ego and confident in being modest and non-rebellious. He has given up his earlier cynicism that made him miserable. He has now opened his eyes to the beauty of nature around him and the peace that comes from sharing with others.
Saul Bellow describes his peace of mind and contentment at the end of the novel in his country house in the following words:
“He was surprised to feel such contentment… Contentment? whom was he kidding, this way joy! His servitude was ended and his heart released from its grisly heaviness and encrustation.” (320)
Herzog’s journey to peace and contentment is not easy. He is quite distressed after his divorce from Madeline. This crisis leads him to revaluation of his life and introspection. He recalls events that shaped his life and let him to present crisis. There is conflict within between intellect and emotions, ego and reconciliation. Moses has become victim of mental stress that led him to a kind of psychiatric problem. He suffered from depression but he never abandoned his optimism. At the end, he finds peace as he accepted contradictions and ambiguities within himself and outside. He accepts his own limitations and the limitations of others. He accepts the fact that life itself is full of contradictions and imperfections. Herzog’s solution may be temporary but Bellow suggests that one can be happy and content by accepting the contradictions within oneself and the imperfections of life without losing human dignity and integrity.