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


Since he is in constant motion, Saul Bellow’s schlemiel, Moses Herzog can’t hold on to things. He moves from place to place, from memory to memory, and from slow motion to speed. His narrative can turn on a dime.

Things move through him, too:

With me, money is not a medium. It passes through me – taxes, insurance, mortgage, child support, rent, legal fees. (31)

After mentioning these flows, he notes that his cab is stuck in traffic, in the “garment district,” the hub of business in NYC.

But in this sedentary state, he is overwhelmed by movement coming from outside of him, in: “electric machines” that “thundered in the lofts.” Their power makes the “whole street quiver.”   And the “street was plunged, drowned in the waves of thunder.”

His world, inside and out, is a series of flows or what Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari call “lines of flight” – these lines “describes a smooth space.”

A line that delimits nothing, the describes no contour, that no longer goes form one point to another but instead passes between points, that is always declining from the horizontal and the vertical and deviating from the diagonal, that is constantly changing direction, a mutant line of this kind that is without outside or inside, form or background, beginning or end that is as alive as a continuous variation – such a line is truly an abstract line, and describes a smooth space. (A Thousand Plateaus, 489)

Smooth Spaces are urban, like the NYC that Herzog travels through and like the money that “passes through” him. And, in these movements, Deleuze and Guittari would say that the city and Herzog, in their alternating movements, are “reconstructing” a smooth space.

Even the most striated city gives rise to smooth space: to live in the city as a nomad, or as a cave dweller.   Movements, speed and slowness, are sometimes enough to reconstruct a smooth space. (500)

But just because one is in a smooth space doesn’t mean, for them, that one is liberated. In fact, one might, like Herzog, get stuck.

Of course, smooth spaces are not in themselves liberatory. But the struggle is changed or displaced in them, and life reconstitutes its stakes, confronts new obstacles, invents new paces, switches adversaries. Never believe that smooth space will suffice to save us. (500)

The final warning, here, opens up a discussion which can to be found in Bellow’s novel. Can traveling through space be salvic? Will it “suffice to save us?” Here, Deleuze and Guittari would suggest that we remain skeptical about this possibility. However, everything they write about the nomadic line and smooth space seems to suggest something hopeful and full of life. Their practices create a kind of optimism about traveling through space which is almost…as they suggest salvational.

Can the nomad, or a Jewish schlemiel like Herzog, be saved through diaspora? This is something George Stiener seems to be suggesting in his famous essay, on diasporic text as his “homeland.”   Nonetheless, Deleuze and Guattari suggest we don’t believe in such “smooth spaces.” There may be “obstacles.” And, to be sure, we see such obstacles tossed in front of Herzog throughout his journeys from space to space, letter to letter, and city to city. Besides an exposure to noise, the thundering streets of New York promise many different things for the schlemiel.

Regardless, Herzog, like the cab, must move on. Herzog will have to leave the street he is in just like he will have to leave the station. But as the narrator tells us, Herzog can’t think about what he has left behind too much as Herzog believed the “acute memories are probably symptoms of disaster. To him, perpetual thought of death was a sin. Drive your cart and your plow over the bones of the dead”(32).

At the same time as he moves forward, he can, in the midst of Grand Central Station, feel “it all slipping away from him in the subterranean road of engines, voices, and feet and in the galleries with lights like drops of fat in yellow broth and the strong suffocating fragrance of underground New York”(33).

His life seems to be slipping away from him into this…smooth space…It seems liberating…but it’s not.  Or is it? In New York…anything is possible.

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