The Ken Griggs 100: №78, ‘Herzog’

Moses Herzog thinks too damn much. He thinks so much he’s lost two wives, because he’s a brooding asshole. He has children he doesn’t talk to. His writing career is in the crapper. And he’s running from commitment with his new lover, Ramona. He’s a mess because all he wants to do is over-analyze, over-indulge in his perverted pedantry. Herzog is drowning himself in thought. There’s a sadness in it like watching someone drink themselves to death. On the surface it’d be easy to hate Herzog, a lonely professor who wallows in a great amount of self-pity. It’s a shame Jerry Fielding hadn’t slapped him in the face and recited his famous words, “We’ve come this far, let’s not ruin it with thinking.”

But, like any great novelist who draws up a flawed character, there is redemption lurking in the weeds for Saul Bellow’s “Herzog.” And that’s one of many reasons why I’m placing here at no. 78.

The Great Burden

“The description might begin with his wild internal disorder, or even with the fact that he was quivering. And why? Because he let the entire world press upon him. For instance? Well, for instance, what it means to be a man. In a city. In a century. In transition. In a mass. Transformed by science. Under organized power. Subject to tremendous controls. In a condition caused by mechanization. After the late failure of radical hopes. In a society that has no community and devalued the person. Owing to the multiplied power of numbers which made the self negligible. Which spent military billions against foreign enemies but would not pay for order at home. Which permitted savagery and barbarism in its own great cities. At the same time, the pressure of human millions who have discovered what concerted efforts and thoughts can do. As megatons of water shape organisms on the ocean floor. As tides polish stones. As winds hollow cliffs. The beautiful supermachinery opening a new life for innumerable mankind. Would you deny them the right to exist? Would you ask them to labor and go hungry while you enjoyed delicious old-fashioned Values? You — you yourself are a child of this mass and a brother to all the rest. Or else an ingrate, dilettante, idiot. There, Herzog, thought Herzog, since you ask for the instance, is the way it runs … Oh, for a change of heart, a change of heart — a true change of heart!”

Bellow claims that this novel’s coincidences with his own life — two-time divorced writer with roots in Chicago — are, well, coincidental. I bellow bullshit. I’ll live to be older than Moses if this book isn’t clearly a reflection of his own life. My claims aside, the fact remains this book depicts an author and academic struggling to cope in the world. The world is littered with authors who were haunted with the idea of never finishing everything they wanted to do. In other words, they were obsessed with communicating literally everything they had to say.

Remember Ernest Hemingway’s “The Snows of Kilimanjaro?” The protagonist, Harry, is a writer dying of gangrene. And this fictional writer is a disgustingly obvious portrait of Hemingway himself. He is terrified that he’s left stories untold. Something left unsaid. What a burden this is for someone. Think about the obsession and self-indulgence it takes to be an author. Think for a moment the monomania involved in hoping to squeeze that last word out of yourself because you are fully fucking frontally aware of your own mortality. And as the time creeps away, you start to push harder. And when you push harder, then you start thinking harder. It’s when thinking overtook writing and art and love that Herzog became inert and altogether worthless, unable to write or produce. Thought was holding him back.

Instead of recognizing the moment-to-moment of simply being, Herzog became consumed with a writing-obsessed existentialism. I’m not sure that sentence makes a lick of sense. What I do know is that Bellow knew how much he wanted — needed — to say before he died. Every author does. This desire of Herzog’s to fully communicate himself to others through letters, to everyone from his ex-wife to Nietzsche, is a representation of not just Bellow the author, but all authors.

Herzog is an intellectual in a world, it would seem, not needing intellectuals any longer (have we ever needed those fuckers?). But worse still, he is a man convinced the world is trying to destroy itself and he wants nothing more than to help stop it, convinced he has this great burden of being a voice of the people.

“The point was that there were people who could destroy mankind and that they were foolish and arrogant, crazy, and must be begged not to do it.”

Preventing him, of course, is the inability to make a dent in a world so vast with its vast amount of problems. He also has a crazy ex-wife, Mady, whom he laments throughout for having married in the first place. And so, burdened with thought and impossible task of using writing to solve anything, Herzog drips with contempt for his powerlessness.

“Intelligent people without influence feel a certain self-contempt, reflecting the contempt of those who hold real political or social power, or think they do.”

Herzog mentions his love for Rainer Maria Rilke (which calls to mind Captain Blicero’s fascination for death in “Gravity’s Rainbow”) and questions and praises a handful of other philosophers, writers and poets — usually in epistolary fashion. But the major influence, it would seem, would have to be transcendentalism and Emerson and Thoreau. Lured to the countryside where he buys a house, this is where Herzog seems happiest (though Mady loathed the place). Removed from the world and able to clear his mind, because he can’t recognize true happiness among others — as he said of his Japanese lover, Sono, “to tell the truth, I never had it so good. But I lacked the strength of character to bear such joy.” The amount of wisdom in this novel is striking and makes up for the total lack of plot.

In Thoreau’s spirit: “Grief, sir, is a species of idleness.”

Bending Emerson’s famous axiom: “Hitch your agony to a star.”

By the end of the novel, only about 340 pages, the reader isn’t left with much plot to ponder. Mostly the story is about his interactions with friends from Chicago and NYC and Mady’s new lover — his former friend — Gersbach while his immediate family, aside from his brother, Will, loiters in the background. From a purely story-telling standpoint, the novel would bore the socks off of many. But those people are idiots. It would be fair to say that Herzog is the American equivalent, at least in some aspects, to Leo Tolstoy’s Levin from “Anna Karenina.”

Like Levin, Herzog has an epiphany near the end of the novel, though it mightn’t be vocalized. Life is about love and cherishing those around you. It’s not about how many cars you own. It’s not about the size of your house. Hell, it’s not even about how many books you’ve read — which is ironic for me since those are the rocks I use to fill my ego box. In “Herzog” we are gifted the exemplary character for proving that even human thought has a saturation point. Live in the moment and know that no matter how much thinking you do, there’s no changing certain things. Perhaps Herzog’s eventual salvation can be best summed up by combining Fielding’s quote with Walter Sobchak’s: “We’ve come this far, just remember, nothing is fucked.”