“If I’m out of my mind, it’s alright with me” – Revisiting Saul Bellow’s Moses Herzog

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In an essay for The New Yorker on Noah Baumbach’s films, Ian Parker informs us that Baumbach read Saul Bellow’s Herzog and Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint before writing the screenplay for Greenberg.   Of the two schlemiels we find in Bellow and Roth’s popular novels, however, Greenberg has more in common with Bellow’s Moses Herzog than with Roth’s Portnoy. After seeing the film and reading the review, I decided to revisit Bellow’s novel.   And what I discovered is that a lot was lost in translation. Baumbach’s Greenberg and Bellow’s Herzog have some things in common, not a lot. But instead of showing what Greenberg lacks, I’d like to look into the qualities that Bellow ascribes to the schlemiel. In many ways, his novel set an American precedent for the schlemiel and, prior to its translation into film, gave the schlemiel its proper literary treatment. After all, schlemiel folklore and literature predated the schlemiel in film. Nonetheless, Bellow creates an image of this character which begs for filmic translation. Given what the novel tells us about Herzog, how would he look on camera? Certainly not like Ben Stiller in Greenberg. I aver, as a schlemiel theorist, that every detail of Bellow’s portrayal of Moses Herzog be studied carefully so as to better understand what is at stake when it comes to translation.

Saul Bellow had a distinctive notion of Jewish comedy.   Irving Howe was very taken by his reading because he saw it in relation to the meaning of Jewish identity.   He included it in his preface to his collection Jewish American Stories:

In Jewish stories laughter and trembling are so curiously intermingled that it is not easy to determine the relation of the two. At times laughter seems to restore the equilibrium of sanity; at times the figures of the story or parable, appear to invite or encourage trembling with the secret aim of overcoming it by means of laughter.

For Howe, the oscillation between the two spoke to Jewish intellectuals such as himself since he felt he – in contrast to Jews who had passed as American – was constantly beset by the question of who he was. He was enveloped in “self-scrutiny”:

They (Jews) had achieved ‘a normal life’ in America, and for those with any taste for self-scrutiny, it was a life permanently beset by the question: who am I and why do I so declare myself? To live with this problem in a state of useful discontent was perhaps what it now meant to be a Jew.

And in this taste he has much in common not just with Saul Bellow but with Bellow’s character Moses Herzog. He suffers from too much self-scrutiny. And he also teeters between “laughter and trembling” and seems to be on the edge of insanity. But a kind of comic levity seems to save him.

The first few sentences of Bellow’s book –which take the reader to the moment that we return to at the end of the novel (when he is recluse in the Berkshires) – make this abundantly clear:

If I am out of my mind, it’s all right with me, thought Moses Herzog.

Some people thought he was cracked and for a time he himself had doubted that he was all there. But now, though he still behaved oddly, he felt confident, cheerful, clairvoyant, and strong.

But what gives him his comic cheer is writing letters that, ultimately, he never sends:

He had fallen under a spell and was writing letters to everyone under the son. He was so stirred by the letters that from the end of June he moved from place to place with a valise full of papers…Hidden in the country, he wrote endlessly, fanatically, to the newspapers, to people in public life, to friends and relatives and at last to the dead, his own obscure dead, and finally the famous dead. (1)

These letters, like Herzog himself, fail to reach their destination. He tries to relate to the world like he, at the very least, writes these letters; but he can’t send them or create strong bonds.   And he is painfully aware of this failure but not fully. At the end of the novel, which we get a taste of in the beginning, we see that “the corner of his mind remained open to the world” and although he “looked keenly at everything…he felt half blind”(2). His life is comic and tragic.

Following this foreshadowing of the end, Bellow gives us a sense of a person who falls short of the world in so many ways. Yet, he wants to go over the reasons for this failure, so as to understand. His crutch, so to speak, is his intense intellect which wants to address the meaning of failure:

Late in spring Herzog had been overcome by the need to explain, to have it out, to justify, to put in perspective, to clarify, to make amends. (2)

But this spring optimism is met with shocking realizations about how entrenched he is in failure. He is an academic who had possibilities when he first started in academia but he didn’t take advantage of them. And now, teaching “adult-education lectures” at “New York night school,” he has become reflective on his failure. And his students can’t help but see his absent-mindedness:

Professor Herzog had the unconscious frankness of a man deeply preoccupied. And toward the end of the term there were long pauses in his lectures. He would stop, muttering, “Excuse me,” reaching inside his coat for his pen. The table creaking, he wrote on scraps of paper with a great pressure of eagerness in his hand; he was absorbed, his eyes darkly circled…He was reasoning, arguing, he was suffering, he had thought of a brilliant alternative – he was wide-open, he was narrow; his eyes, his mouth made everything silently clear – longing, bigotry, bitter anger. One could see it all. (2)

As one can see from this passage, it is open that his self-scrutiny may be harmful. It is comic but it is also painful.

The narrator goes from this moment back to the moment where he is lying on the couch in the Berkshires thinking about how much of a failure he is. However, in the midst of his painful reflections, we find something endearing; namely, his choice to be a dreamer rather than a cunning man:

Considering his entire life, he realized that he had mismanaged everything – everything. His life was, as the phrase goes, ruined. But since it had not been much to begin with, there was not much to grieve about…He went on taking stock, lying face down on the sofa. Was he a clever man or an idiot? Well, he could not at this time claim to be clever. He might once have had the markings of a clever character, but he had chosen to be dreamy instead, and the sharpies cleaned him out. (3)

This choice is that of the schlemiel who, out of humility, opts out of being clever and aggressive. Like Moses himself – the Torah calls him the “most humble man on earth” – Moses Herzog shrugs his shoulders at his failures and renounces cunning. He complains and engages in constant self-mockery, but he realizes that although his character is negative, there are people worse off that he is.  And after coming to this conclusion, he shrugs:

What more? He was losing his hair. He read the ads of the Thomas Scalp Specialists, with the exaggerated skepticism of a man whose craving to believe was deep, desperate.   Scalp Experts! So…he was a formerly handsome man.   His face revealed what a beating he had taken. But he had asked to be beaten too, and had lent his attackers strength. That brought him to consider his character. What kind of character was it? Well, in the modern vocabulary, it was narcissistic; it was masochistic; it was anachronistic. His clinical picture was depressive – not the severest type; not a manic depressive. There were worse cripples around. (4)

The narrator, further on, reminds the reader that Herzog is not an aggressive or cunning man (29). He is a “confused high minded” person who was seen as a “grieving childish man”(29). But when he is around people, he has a positive affect on them. To be sure, Bellow tells us that his lawyer friend, Simkin, becomes humble and meek around Herzog. He changes Simkin’s ways and seems to be reminded of something better or more meaningful in life.

The comic twist, however, is that Herzog’s life, the comical, is, as Bellow would say, “mixed” with an intense consciousness of failure. The edge cuts both ways. But it is this self-scrutiny and failure – coupled with something endearing, comical, and anachronistic – that intrigued not just Saul Bellow but Irving Howe as well. Running through all the belatedness and failure is a deep sense of honesty and humility as well as a desire to believe that things can be better even though they are currently horrible. In these juxtapositions and in such intense and painful self-scrutiny, Howe found something distinctly Jewish.

In contrast to Baumbach’s Greenberg, who also writes letters with fervor, Herzog evinces hope in the midst of failure. Greenberg, according to Ian Parker of The New Yorker evinces the opposite. He is what Walter Benjamin would call a “scarecrow of determinism.” What was lost in translation is the sad and yet comic nature of Herzog’s choice to be a dreamer rather than a cunning and aggressive man.

Herzog finds his emblem in…a shoulder shrug which, in translation, says: “If I’m out of my mind, it’s alright with me.”

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