Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Saul Bellow: The Polka in The Bathroom

Herzog by Saul Bellow
Viking Press 1961

It was about this time last year that I read/listened to The Adventures of Augie March. It was an inspiring experience because in many ways what Bellow does with Augie’s voice, similar in some ways to what Walker Percy does with Binx Bolling,  is very much what I’m after in The Healing of Howard Brown. Both voices are so completely natural and honest in their portrayal of thoughts and actions that I got the feeling that I was in a darkened parlor with a roaring fire listening to the characters tell their story.    
Like Augie, Moses Herzog has a distinct voice, different of course in that Herzog the novel is sometimes narrated in third person, and also dramatically different in tone: Augie is brash, confident, optimistic and agreeable; where Herzog is defeated, taciturn, lost, angry, and confused to the point of doubting his own sanity; exactly how we might expect a guy who’s wife has been fucking his best friend then kicks him out of his own house to feel.
In Herzog Bellow plainly draws from current experiences in his own life, which may be one reason the novel has such authenticity, honesty, and raw power. Obviously not all writers use real events and people in their lives to fuel the creation of their fiction, but the parallels between the real events of Bellow’s own life and Moses Herzog’s story are in plain view:
“At its heart is Bellow's profound shock at discovering, a year after his separation from Sondra, (Alexandra Tschacbasov, his second wife) her affair with their mutual friend, Jack Ludwig. The last of their circle to know he had been deceived, Bellow lapsed into deep depression and produced an intensely self-justifying hero who was tearful, cuckolded, and utterly humiliated. Moses Herzog, a Jewish intellectual is essentially precipitated into intellectual and spiritual crisis by the failure of his marriage.” ( - The Saul Bellow Journal)

Reading Herzog I got the feeling that Bellow was to some degree engaged in an act of literary catharsis
as a form of therapy. Moses Herzog is an intellectual at work on an academic analysis of Christianity and The Romantic Period, and he has something to say about the writings of every philosopher in history. Herzog’s compelling need to view his own suffering in the context of historic philosophical ideas is almost comic given that the primary source of his suffering (to use a term that Bellow might have employed were he writing today) is pussy. He can’t live with it and he can’t live without it, and Bellow makes it clear that all the philosophical salve in the world can’t comfort the cuckold, even if Herzog deserves to be cuckolded, or perhaps because Herzog deserves to be cuckolded.
If there is one strong similarity between Augie and Herzog, it’s their mutual vexation with the opposite sex, and many more recent critics often consider Bellow’s treatment of women misogynistic. If the mean spirited portrayal of Madeline in Herzog is any indication of Bellow’s own attitude towards women - and we might assume that it is given his own real-life relationship troubles over the course of five marriages - we have a classic example of art imitating life. But to be distracted by these accusations of misogyny, regardless of how old-fashioned Bellow’s troubles with “broads” and admissions that they wield a mysterious inscrutable power that is impossible to rationalize, is ultimately a waste of time. And while a feminist might say “sure you can say that because you’re a man”, there are messages of hope and redemption in Herzog for both men and women that far outweigh the protagonist’s indictment of his ex-wife.  
When Moses Herzog reflects on his attempts to balance his desire to be a “marvelous Herzog” in the context of the betrayal that has just befallen him, the flip-flop in sentiment and subsequent anger is portrayed so naturally we can’t help that Bellow was simply recording the way he felt about his own messed up situation:
“...but this was the cruel difficulty of a man who had strong impulses, even faith, but lacked clear ideas. What if he failed [at being a marvelous Herzog]? Did that really mean there was no faithfulness, no generosity, no sacred quality? Should he have been a plain, unambitious Herzog? No. And Madeleine would never have married such a type. What she had been looking for, high and low, was precisely an ambitious Herzog. In order to trip him, bring him low, knock him sprawling and kick out his brains with a murderous bitch foot. Oh, what a confusion he had made - what a waste of intelligence and feeling!” (p. 93)

We might guess that the author has experienced such anger directly in his own life, given it’s power and sincerity. Would an author who had been happily married and had nothing but pleasant, smooth relationships his whole life be able to conjure such emotions? Is it the ability to portray such feelings without necessarily having felt them what separates the great authors from the not-so greats? Could Bellow write this novel from Madeleine’s point of view? I doubt it.  
In Herzog, Bellow takes aim at the negativity and pessimism of the great thinkers and intellectuals: Shapiro, Banowitch, Hobbes, Freud, Dewey, Whitehead, Nietzsche, Heidegger Spengler, Darwin, Rousseau and more. I wonder if Bellow took to the old books in an attempt to soothe his own roiling heart, and, discovering no comfort there, used his experience to create Moses Herzog. Herzog’s summarized reaction to his own analysis of these thinkers and Rousseau in particular is spelled out forthrightly:
“We must get it out of our heads that this is a doomed time, that we are waiting for the end, and the rest of it, mere junk from fashionable magazines. Things are grim enough without these shivery games. People frightening one another--a poor sort of moral exercise. But, to get to the main point, the advocacy and praise of suffering take us in the wrong direction and those of us who remain loyal to civilization must not go for it. You have the power to employ pain, to repent, to be illuminated, you must have the opportunity and even the time.”
At the core Herzog is simply appealing for humans to start treating each other with compassion and empathy, to “repent” for having employed pain, to get our heads out of a “suffering” mindset and into one of illumination. This kind of message, delivered in the context of Herzog’s almost archetypal tale of betrayal and personal redemption, is what makes Herzog one of Bellow’s greatest novels.
If we were to simplify an imagined approach to writing fiction into a formula, it might seem that Bellow would periodically take stock of his life, then examine his experiences and thoughts in the light of various famous philosophies with the consistent intent of debunking them. Part of what makes Bellow work is exactly his ability to blend the ideas of the supposed great thinkers in with the everyday thoughts and events of everyman, particularly everyman in a state of moral crisis.
For example after a long description of Madeleine and Herzog’s dismal failure to work together
in restoring the house in Ludeyville, Herzog doing all the work himself to save money while Madeleine spends like a drunken sailor on unnecessary junk and bounces checks all over the place, Herzog reflects:  
“[Herzog] appeared to know how everything ought to go, down to the smallest detail (under the category of “Free Concrete Mind,” misapprehension of a universal by the developing consciousness - reality opposing the “Law of the heart,” alien necessity gruesomely crushing individuality, un-soweiter). Oh, Herzog granted that he was in the wrong. But all he asked, it seemed to him, was a bit of cooperation in his effort, benefiting everyone, to work toward a meaningful life. Hegel was curiously significant but also utterly cockeyed. Of course. That was the whole point. Simpler and without such elaborate metaphysical rigmarole was Spinoza’s Prop.  XXXVII; man’’s desire to have others rejoice in the good in which he rejoices, not to make others live according to his way of thinking - ex ipsius ingenio.” (p.123)
Herzog’s intellectualism and his tendency to use this or that philosopher’s credo to justify his own behavior is, I think, a double-edged sword.  While it expertly puts some rather dense thoughts into digestible layman’s terms, as in the passage above, it may also alienate those readers who have a thin, cursory knowledge of the great thinkers, or remember their names but not their work (like me.) If the reader has never heard of them there are long passages in the novel that would make no sense at all. In a sense Bellow has over-intellectualized Herzog the man as to make a dimension of him inscrutable to the average guy, which is unfortunate because the plot around what we would recognize as  one common version of The Midlife Crisis is entirely accessible and relevant. Then again the literati are apt to eat it up. So when I read that Herzog was on the NYT Bestseller list for almost a year I was surprised. I certainly don’t recall my Mom and Dad discussing it with their friends over Friday night cocktails. (Then again my Mother, from Chicago, was blatantly anti-semitic and my Father, from the south, had never met a Jew.)

But then Bellow brings Moses down from the mount to the bathroom to prepare for dinner with Ramona:
“He tuned in Polish dance music on the small transistor radio on the glass shelf over the sink, and powdered his feet. Then he gave in for a while to the impulse to dance and leap on the soiled tiles, so of which came free from the grout and had to be kicked under the tub. It was one of his oddities in solitude to break out in song and dance to do queer things out of keeping with his customary earnestness. He danced out the number until the Polish commercial ...He mimicked the announcer in the ivory yellow floom of the tile bathroom - the water closet, as he anachronistically called it. He was ready to go for another polka when he discovered, breathing hard, that the sweat was rolling down his sides…” (p. 158)

Aha! The intellectual is a private dancer! To polkas. In the bathroom no less! Adding this dimension to Moses Herzog is, as they say in business today, a “game changer.” From here on out we might begin to look at Moses in a slightly brighter light.
Listening to the audiobook version of Herzog is challenging because it can be difficult to distinguish between the first person narration of the protagonist’s letters versus the protagonist’s thoughts, also in the first person, versus the third person narrator’s telling of the story. It’s no problem on the page; the letters are all in italics. The narrator of the audiobook, Malcolm Hillgartner, makes a perfect Moses Herzog and a hilarious Sandor Himmelstein, and he handles the other characters beautifully. He makes a very subtle shift between Herzog’s letter writing voice and the voice of his thoughts, but it’s easy to mix up who’s who as you listen to the story. After listening to several dozen audiobooks that last few years, this is the first instance where I would recommend reading vs. listening.
But on the page Bellow gets away with jumping back and forth from first to their person with such subtle agility, it makes me wonder why they didn’t hire two voice talents just to keep the narrator and Herzog distinct. Here’s a small passage that exemplifies the seamless, punctuation-less transition from first to third and back again. And Bellow moves the POV around like a game of catch all through the novel.  
(The italics are mine - used to delineate Moses and the narrator.)
“I don’t blame him, thought Moses as Taube slowly and lengthily described her ailments. Papa couldn’t bear such an expression on the face of his youngest son. I aged. I wasted myself in stupid schemes, liberating my spirit. His heart ached angrily because of me. And Papa was not like some old men who become blunted toward their own death. No, his despair was keen and continual. And Herzog again was pierced with pain for his father.”  (p. 253)
Unlike the volumes and volumes of criticism written about each of Bellow’s novels (there are over 200 critical essays regarding Herzog alone on, aka The Saul Bellow Journal) I look at Bellow’s writing as his way of facilitating the examination of these big emotional upheavals for the primary purpose of making peace with them and putting them into a workable context. But I came across an abstract that made me feel like a hack literalist that is completely unaware of the subtle nuance of Bellow’s complex, multi-tiered art. Consider this intellectual’s interpretation:

"Argues that H employs discourses that center around disease, beneath which lies a racialized, specifically black, discourse. Argues that Bellow is not simply a racist writer, but rather one for whom the outside world can only be experienced through his own Holocaust experience. Hence racial blackness in the novel accentuates his introspective tendencies and causes him to be interested in little else. In H, Moses suffers from the disease of the single self. The invisibility of racial blackness in literature does not always denote an absence. Moses carries within himself the power of blackness which threatens to engulf him. Jewishness and blackness carry connotations of disease. As a romantic novel, His pitting the disease of his Jewish cerebral activity against the healing power of black sexuality. This is playing two stereotypes against each other. Given its proper historical and cultural dimensions, blackness may, after all, cure the disease of the single self."
Varvogli, Aliki. "'The Corrupting Disease of Being White': Notions of Selfhood in Herzog." Saul Bellow Journal16.2/17.1–2 (2001): 150–64.

Well. I guess that kind of sums it up, doesn’t it? I think if Saul Bellow were alive today, an abstract like that just might do him in. But at least he would die laughing. 

Don't be a bum
Go on and goose that thumb!
Don't be a cow

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