Different Themes of the Novel Herzog by Saul Bellow

In Herzog there are several philosophical themes. Saul Bellow himself was a great thinker without philosophical bent of mind. Herzog reflects much of his major philosophical concerns like death, sex, women, family, identity, urban life, nature, madness etc. Let us have a look at the major themes of the novel:

Different Themes of the Novel Herzog by Saul Bellow

(1) Death

Death is a major concept that Herzog struggles throughout the novel. He feels that impermanence of life is a threat to happiness. He continuously thinks of death and is haunted by the shadow of death. It is often said that the fear of death is the beginning of philosophy, and the final cause of religion. At the end of life, we meet death inevitably irrespective of power, wealth or status. Just as our walking in one sense is a continuous prevention of our falling down, the life of our body is merely a continuous postponement of death. The prevalence of a belief in immortality is a token of mankind’s fear of death. The famous philosopher Kienegaard believed that intensity of death-awareness is essential for grasping with inwardness the subjective truth of our death. It is also necessary for experience one’s true self.

In Herzog death overshadows and by thinking about death, Moses overcomes major hurdles of his life. When the novel opens, Moses is in a state of void. He is discontent with present, terrified of his future and haunted by his past. Moses learns through the continuous reflection on death that ‘what is’ must be accepted and ‘Here’ and ‘Now’ should be enjoyed leaving aside the burden of past and worries of future. Death for Moses represents an absolute, unavoidable truth and by facing it, he is able to face the problems of life.

(2) Women and Sex

Herzog has two failed marriages. Besides these marriages, he enjoys many casual affairs. He has a beautiful mistress Ramona with whom he has indulged in physical relationship. He turns to her for spiritual relief and catharsis without thinking of his responsibilities. For this reason, he finds it unbearable to accept her opinions regarding his personal life. He writes in his letter to her that she has complete wisdom, perhaps to excess. He calls her a sexual priestess. He often tries to evade her presence fearing the sexual lapses he would indulge in with her. However, by and by his attitude towards her softens. Herzog tries to trivialize his relationship with her but it turns into phobia of intimacy. His first affair with Sono Oguki takes place during his separation from Daisy. He starts drinking heavily and takes sleeping pills regularly. During this period, he becomes infatuated with Madeline. His marriage with her is a disaster. Her relationship with Valentine Gersbach makes him question his own attitude to women and sex. In Ramona, he finds a kind of spiritual healing. He realizes that stability in love and marriage is essential for spiritual well-being of a person. He realizes that his own attitude to sex as an escape was wrong. At the end, he makes necessary amends.

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(3) Family

Herzog is an idealistic erudite man. He lives in the world of thoughts. He is continuously haunted by imaginary family responsibilities that he has not been able to fulfill. Even his father was an ineffectual man who failed almost at all things in life. Moses’ aunt Zipporah was a very dominating woman. She scolded those who could not live upto her expectations. Moses’ father is referred to as Jonah and his mother simply as Mama or Mother Herzog. She is more like a figure than a real living person. When she died, Herzog was sixteen and he had faint memories of a kind loving woman. Moses remembered that he pointed him as he was ambitious but not that capable. She tried to comfort Moses even after she lost her power of speech.

Moses’ mother was truly selfless and Moses like many men took it for granded. He lacked the sense of true consideration for women. He always thought that women were caretakers.

That is the reason he could not tolerate bullying woman like aunt Zipporh. He could not accept the free thinking of Madeline. He loved her and even made many compromises but he could not rise to the level of a true lover. He always thought that Madeline was responsible for the failure of marriage. His brother is quite supporting and helpful. Very little is said of his sister. Family relationship is one of the themes of the novel.

(4) Social Role

Herzog as an idealist believes that one must fulfill social obligation. He is of opinion that in democracy, people have become too individualistic. An individual is ultimately a part and parcel of society. He is not an island. He cannot live alone. However, like an armchair philosopher, he falls short of implementation and execution of his ideals. He is thus torn between varying social roles he feels compelled to fulfill. He is determined to succeed as an academic. He plunges into his work so much that he does not pay much attention to Madeline. Moses is here not aware of his own selfishness and neglect of social obligation. He feels that he is doing enough and tells Valentine about it. Valentine who loves Madeline tells him on his face that Madeline feels lonely and neglected.

He says: She wants you to admit her importance…. You’re effing it up with all this egotistical shik.”

Valentine further adds: “It’s a big deal-such a valuable person dying for love.”

In fact, here lies the root of all the problems of Moses. He is egomanical to some extent. He thinks from his own view point, neglecting the feelings or thoughts of others around him. His excessive preoccupation with thinking and philosophy makes him suffer from identity crisis. Deep down, he feels that he has failed in his social commitments. He almost reaches the point of paranoia and schizophrenia. His failures in marriages and social roles are the result of his own muddled thinking and half- baked perceptions.

(5) Identity

Moses undergoes severe identity crisis. He is a contemplative person, thinking too much. He is a scholar with philosophical background. His self-confidence is withering and he feels empty and adrift. He turns to face after face in search of retribution. His mental stability is questionable. He demonizes those around him. He tries to justify his actions by victimizing himself. He refers to Madeline as dominating and masterful. He assures himself again and again that she had been psychopathic from the start and he is not responsible for her present state at all. In fact, he has failed both in love, sex and his relationships with women. Others naturally question his actions but instead of accepting what others think about him, he turns defensive. He begins to disdain others who challenge his thoughts and actions. He clings to his deranged logic. He is constantly lying to himself. He never faces himself squarely and honestly.

The turning point takes place in his life at the end of the novel. Herzog has been a victim in his childhood days of rape. He has hidden it from himself for years. Only after he discovers the details of his true victimization, he ceases to wallow in his wishful thinking. He reasserts his faith in mankind. He finds solace in nature and acceptance of ‘what is.’ However, during the major part of the novel, he avoids his identity. Thus identity crisis is one of the themes of the novel.

(6) Letters

Herzog writes letters both to real and imaginary people. Letters punctuate the novel till end when he writes letters that he would post and then stops writing altogether. Letters have therapeutic value for the Moses who pass through identity crisis and emotional crisis. He has distanced himself from the world and the people around him. He is bordering on paranoia and schizophrenia. He is unable to face realities. Moses voices his frustration in his communication through imaginary rumination with imaginary addresses. Letters are a mode that allow him a total control over his message. They allow him to express his thoughts, feelings and perplexities without being contradicted or even answered. He does not send these letters which show that he lacks trust in his own thoughts and convictions.

Letters provide him a scope for constant questioning of himself that heals him explaining why he resents the opinions of others. Moses finds a kind of catharsis in letter writing. At the end, he finds peace with himself and his novel, the letters serve the purpose of solving Moses inner conflicts.

(7) Hypertrophy of Awareness

Moses is an intellectual who is aware of his being a high-minded intellectual. He says in the very beginning of the novel: “If I’m out of my mind, it’s all right with me.” Here we find hypertrophy of awareness that aggravates and distorts his consciousness of himself. Herzog by Saul Bellow encompasses all the major themes of his earlier novels. It comes as a climax of Bellow’s persistent exploration of the problems and dilemmas he has posed in his earlier novels. Herzog the protagonist tries to sort out himself throughout the novel. Bellow suggests that excessive celebration renders large areas of experience unreal to the intellectual. Herzog has also realized the futility of an intellectual’s role as a separatist.

(8) Pressures of Urban Life

Bellow has dealt with the pressures of urban life in modern America in his earlier novels again and again. Herzog also faces the chaotic life of cities like Chicago and New York. Herzog adopts the strategy of temporary withdrawal from active volcano of crisis. This strategy is naturally ineffective. At the end, he develops an extended vision, enlarged awareness and stoic acceptance. His cynicism is replaced by confidence, understanding and acceptance. In his country house. surrounded by nature, he feels contented and at peace with himself. He returns to the state of nature for a temporary rehabilitation. This does not mean that he has left city life forever. He will have to return to agitation and turmoil of the cities like New York and Chicago but with an understanding and acceptance.

(9) Nature

Nature represents a kind of madness that Herzog lusts. The novel opens with his attunement to nature but his personal chaotic life and too much reflection mar his peace within. However, he knows that nature is also harsh and raw. The very acceptance of various dimensions of life would ultimately provide man with a kind of reconciliation. Nature can act as an escape or even as a balm to soothe the wounded soul. At the end of the novel, Moses finds peace in countryside home surrounded by nature.

(10) Madness

Herzog describes Madeline to the reader as maniacal and paranoid. He blames her for his unhappiness. Her mental state led her to Valentine, thinks Moses. He considers himself free from blame. He is seemingly shocked by her outbursts. However, it is a fact that Herzog himself is not mentally stable. He suffers from a streak of madness that upsets his life completely.

(11) The power of ambiguity

Major concepts like death, life, religion, faith, marriage, love, sex etc. are ambigously defined in Herzog and quite often by Herzog himself. They are often contradictory and ambiguous. Nothing seems to be certain. Everything is paradoxical. For example, Moses realizes that an individual needs society but he realizes it in solitude only after being totally alone, he can turn towards the world.

At the end of the novel, Moses writes in a letter to Dr. Edwig that he is now more capable of dealing with ambiguity. Uncertainty does not make him miserable anymore. God, death, faith and many other concepts are uncertain and ambiguous yet one must have optimism. Death is incomprehensible but one must accept it as an uncertain certainty. When it will come no ne knows but it shall certainly come that everyone knows. Life is about the beauty that comes between birth and death. He finally chooses to savour the brief moments of happiness instead of worrying about death.

Bellow likens death to soil through Moses’ mother. She wanted to prove that God created Adam out of the soil by rubbing his fingers into the palm till dirt rises up. In India, too, we have a story that Lord Ganesha was created by Mother Parvati with the dirt of her body while bathing. Moses says that when his mother died, she had begun to change into the earth. Her story and death echo the famous Biblical phrase from the Genesi’s ‘dost thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.’ This means that we are all part of the cycle as we all come from the dust and we ultimately return to the dust.

(12) The Internal Journey of Modern Man

Saul Bellow refers to the world war, the horrors of Nazism and the Great Depression. He even refers to the Vietnam War. Unlike many writers and poets of Europe, Bellow does not label modern age as ‘Waste Land’. He does not become cynical or pessimist like absurdist and existentialists. Moses had firsthand experience of the Holocaust and racial discrimination against the Jews. He had seen all pervading tragedy of death and destruction. He also condemns ‘aesthetic’ escapism in literature that ignores wars and massacres.

Moses in his ruminations claim that in spite of deaths and destruction, one should not become nihilistic. The feeling of alienation often acts as a cheap stimulant. He considers T.S. Eliot as a great poet and genius. However, he says that T.S. Eliot’s pessimistic views may mislead people. He believes that we must find optimism in spite of all the miseries around us. Solitude is one thing and sense of alienation is another. If one embraces society and considers himself as the part of the mankind, he finds solace. Man can also find consolation and hope in the beauty of nature. Ultimate it is stoic acceptance of reality and sharing with others makes life worth living.

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