Saul Bellow’s Moses Herzog: A Literary Treatment of the Traveling Schlemiel (Part I)


There are many portrayals of the schlemiel in literature, film, TV, and theater. But what Saul Bellow did with his portrayal of Moses Herzog – in his book Herzog – was to give the schlemiel a unique American face and literary treatment.   To understand the meaning of the novel, one must, to be sure, make a close reading of Herzog so as to assemble a picture of the schlemiel.   To do this, one must, with the narrator and Herzog, be a traveler of sorts.

Since Herzog’s thoughts go back and forth between the past and the present, between one world and another, and from one letter and another (he writes countless letters he never sends but carries along with him), one must read (travel) between the lines (memories, letters, and worlds) if one is to gather the pieces of the schlemiel puzzle.

First of all, the metaphor of traveling fast and trying to keep up with everything as it passes is central to the novel. Herzog’s motion prompts his mind to be here and…elsewhere. The schlemiel is, in this sense, excited, restless, out of place, and (un)timely:

In the cab through the hot streets of where brick and brownstone buildings were crowded, Herzog held the strap and his large brown eyes were fixed on the sights of New York. The square shapes were vivid, not inert, they have him a sense of fateful motion, almost of intimacy. Somehow he felt himself part of it all – in the rooms, the stores, cellars – and at the same time he sensed the danger of these multiple excitements. But he’d be all right. He was overstimulated. He had to calm down these overstrained galloping nerves, put out this murky fire inside. He yearned for the Atlantic….He knew he would think better, clearer thoughts after bathing in the sea. His mother had believed in the good effects of bathing. But she had died so young. (27)

After reflecting on his mother’s early death, he reflects on his own death and, in doing so, we see that he isn’t a Heideggarian subject. His death is not his own; in a Levinasian sense, he lives for the other. Herzog sees his death in terms of his children:

He could not allow himself to die yet. The children needed him. His duty was to live. (27)

Reflecting on this, which, as we have seen, emerged out of traveling through New York and reflecting on this mother, Herzog lists his priorities:

To be sane, and to live, and to look after his kids.(27)

Even though, at the beginning of the novel, he notes that he is going mad and that it’s ok (“If I am out of my mind, it’s all right with me, thought Moses Herzog.”), we see, here, that there is more than madness on his mind. There is responsibility and being a good father to his kids.

In fact, the narrator tells us that “this” confluence of life, sanity, and responsibility, “was why he was running from the city now, overheated, eyes smarting.”

All of his flights from one place to another are a part of his schlemiel character:

Although he didn’t know what lay ahead except the confining train that would impose rest on him (you can’t run in a train) through Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusets…his reasoning was sound. Seashores are good for madmen – provided they’re not to man. He was ready. (ibid)

…ready to move. But then we learn that he is not in a train but in a cab in New York City. And this makes him want to write letters, which give him yet another form of transport:

But all at once, the seat of the cab heating in the sun, he was aware that his angry spirit had stolen forward again, and that he was about to write letters. (ibid)

According to the narrator, the letter is about how uncomfortable he is about stuck in one place, at a meeting. He becomes self-conscious and, like a schlemiel, he tells us how he spills soup over everyone: “I try to look right an proper but my face turns dead with boredom, my fantasy spills soup and gravy on everybody, and I want to scream out or fade away”(ibid).

To take his mind off of being a sedentary schlemiel, Herzog thinks about himself in a comical manner. But then his mind drifts back to the bad state of the world when he thinks about how mad post-WWII America is. This realism juxtaposes with his schlemiel-like optimism:

Think what America could mean to the world. Then see what it is. What a breed it might have produced. But look at us – at you, at me. Read the paper, if you can bear it. (28)

But before he can settle in to this cynical view of things, he is distracted by places he sees in Manhattan which evoke childhood memories. He remembers his aunt Tennie and her husband, Pontritter, who she divorced. But he is less interested in Pontritter (Pon) who is a WASP – “he was burly, masterful, there was a certain peevish power and intelligence in his dark face…Powerful, isolated” – than he is in the divorce lawyer, Simkin.

What he remembers about Simkin is his humanity. Simkin cares for Tennie since he says that her “feelings are hurt.” Recalling Simkin, Herzog remembers how, although Simkin had a head that “was shaggy and aggressive,” when he spoke with Herzog he took on a “diffident, almost meek tone”(29). What attracts Herzog is the fact that, with Simkin, he can see the effect of his humility. That it is real. And this is a place that, unlike meetings or places that were sedentary, Herzog can be or stay.

The narrator tells us why Simkin respected Herzog. But this respect is mixed with pity. Nonetheless, Simkin is smart enough to see that the schlemiel tries to “keep his dignity,” that is, his humanity, and that is worthy of respect:

Though Simkin was a clever lawyer, very rich, he respected Herzog. He had a weakness for confused high-minded people, for people with moral impulses like Moses. Hopeless! Very likely he looked at Moses and saw a grieving childish man, trying to keep his dignity. (29)

The juxtaposition of Simkin’s voice – with his secretary as opposed to Herzog – demonstrates humanity and its effacement. With Herzog, Simkin’s voice is “very small, meek, almost faint,” but when he answers his secretary it “expands” and is “loud” and “stern.”   Simkin is Herzog’s “reality instructor.” Herzog “brings” such instructors “our” (30). But reality is not a lesson that Herzog is crazy about since it is so cruel and deceptive.

Bellow is telling us, via Herzog, that kindness and humanity is not to be found in business, American style; it is not worldly. It is other-worldly. And this, it seems, is what prompts Herzog to want to always be elsewhere.   Regardless, he sticks around this or that place because he wants to spread humility and goodness.

He sticks around because he is moral, but he also leaves because he is moral.

When he snaps out of this memory, he is in a cab in the midst of a Manhattan (a world) that is mad and even poisonous. He is stuck in it. And he wants to get out and be somewhere else…by the seashore “where he could breath.” But he’s not there, he’s in the city, in the real (violent) world:

Crashing, stamping pile-driving below, and higher, structural steel, interminably and hungrily going up into the cooler, more delicate blue…But down in the street where buses were spurting the poisonous exhaust of the cheap fuel, and the cars crammed together, it was stifling, grinding the racket of machinery and the desperately purposeful crowds – horrible! He had to get out the seashore where he could breath. He ought to have booked a flight. But he had enough of planes…(32)

….to be continued….

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