On Harsh Realism, Ethical Hope, and the Meaning(s) of Jewishness in Saul Bellow’s Herzog – Part I

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The tension between Eastern European and Western European Jews (before the Holocaust and not long after) can be understood in many different ways. One of the most interesting ways to approach this tension can be found in their approach to life itself. Growing up I bore constant witness to a good friend of my father who saw Jewishness, like many American Jews of Eastern European descent, in terms of community, language, and moral goodness. He contrasted Eastern European approach (which he called “Yiddish”) to that of many German or Austrian-American Jews (which he called “Goyish”) who, he believed, were lacking all of these and who, in becoming Germans or Austrians, abandoned their Eastern European ways.

Daniel Boyarin, in his book Unheroic Conduct, echoes these views when he contrasts Sigmund Freud to his Eastern European father. The latter, in Boyarin’s view, is the paradigm of the traditional moral Jew while Freud is a paradigm of the more militant and “Goyish” “new Jew.” (Boyarin entitled a key chapter of his book, which illustrates this contrast, “Goyishe Nachas.”)  According to Boyarin, the latter, “new Jew” is foreign because s/he is more German, masculinist, and Romantic than Jewish, traditional, and pre-masculinist. Another way of looking at this tension is by way of the contrast between harsh realism and optimism which, according to Ruth Wisse, informs the Eastern European schlemiel character. While the German-Jewish skeptic scoffs at the schlemiel for not being realistic and being blind to the world, the Eastern European Jew finds a point of identification with the schlemiel’s heart-felt, and optimistic way of life.   Despite the fact that the world is evil, the schlemiel maintains some glimmering of ethical hope and moral dignity.

In Saul Bellow’s Herzog, we see this kind of contrast by way of his characterization of Nachman, an old friend of Moses Herzog, and his view of life to Herzog’s family and way of life. The differences between them give us a strong sense of what, according to Bellow, informs the life of the schlemiel in general and Moses Herzog in particular. The comic character, as Bellow constructs him, provides American readers with an ethical post-Holocaust schlemiel. He shows us that this character is not some absent-minded fool but a caring, reflective, and relevant individual who, though comical, comes from a good place.

In the midst of an angry letter full of satire and invective to a scholar he vehemently disagreed with, Herzog reflects on something closer to home. He goes from self-conscious wit to compassion when he remembers his childhood friend “Nachman.”

When we first meet Nachman, we see a ragged person who is stumbling through the streets of New York. When he sees Herzog, he runs away:

In a beatnik cap, on the razzle dazzle street of lion bearded homosexuals wearing green eye paint, there, suddenly, was Herzog’s childhood playmate. A heavy nose, hair white, thick unclean glasses. The stooped poet took one look at Moses and ran away. (129-130)

From Nachman’s name, one can guess that, before he was a poet, he was raised as a religious Jew. The narrator starts in the present and moves his way backwards to his religious roots. He describes a moment when the poet he knocked on Herzog’s door in Paris, where Herzog was researching and writing a book. Nachman is “wrinkled and dirty, his nose red from weeping, his creased face the face of a dying man”(130).

Nachman tells Herzog that the father of his girlfriend, Laura, had been taken away from him by her father in New York. And now he needs money: “Lend me dough or I’m ruined. You’re my only friend in Paris”(130).

Reflecting on this, Herzog starts differentiating central Europe from America and notes that Nachman and Laura read Rilke and Rimbaud and accustomed themselves to sickness, absurdity, and poverty.   Then, reflecting on himself, he wonders how “altruistic” he appears or if he has lost this quality of kindness. This brings him back to his memory of Nachman as a religious boy and Nachman’s father, Reb Shika, who was Herzog’s Torah teacher:

Reb Shika had a yellow color, Mongolian, a tiny handsome man. He wore a black skullcap, a mustache like Lennin’s…The Bible lay open on the course table cover. Moses clearly saw the Hebrew characters – DMAI OCHICHO – the blood of thy brother. Yes, that was it. God speaking to Cain. Thy brother’s blood cries out to me from the earth. (131)

This scene, which he reflects on, is of the harshest realism. In it, we find the theme of betrayal and murder; and what’s worse, it is the most unlikely kind of murder, which goes against nature: the murder of one brother by the other.

However, Herzog doesn’t stay on this theme (which returns later in the chapter). He turns, instead, to a memory of Reb Shika’s harshness. The Rabbi was tough with Herzog:

You watch your step, Herzog, Moses. Your mother thinks you’ll be a great lamden – a rabbi. But I know you, how lazy you are. Mothers’ hearts are broken by mamzeirim like you! Eh! Do I know you, Herzog? Through and through. (131)

Herzog remembers how this harshness spurred him to run away. But Herzog didn’t run away like Nachman did. While Herzog retained the memory, his Jewishness, and his questions about its meaning, Nachman did not.   Nachman stayed away from Herzog most of his life because Herzog “remembers” their shared past. Nachman wanted, like many Jews who left the ghetto behind, to start anew and without any memory.   Herzog, in contrast, “persecuted” everyone with his memory (131).

By using these terms in a witty manner, Bellow is suggesting that the schlemiel’s memory keeps him thinking about Jewishness. The narrator points out how, without memory, Nachman destroys himself and so does his girlfriend, Laura (who attempts suicide and ends up in a mental asylum).   He points out she brings her “French literature” into the institution with her and talks “only” of it (132).   Meanwhile, Nachman becomes more and more paranoid and angry. He suggests that his cynical view is based on the harsh realism of power and its designs. He speaks of it in a poetic manner and romanticizes his suffering and Laura’s captivity in a mental institution. His descriptions of Laura echo descriptions one might find of Swede’s daughter, Merry, in Philip Roth’s American Pastoral:

The persecution of her family. What do you think? The bourgeois world of Westchester! Wedding announcements, linens, charge accounts, that was what her mother and father expected out of her. But this is a pure soul that understands only pure things. She is a stranger here…In New York we were wanderers too. (133)

Herzog’s reflections on Nachman’s ranting show us that he finds this romanticism and harsh realism to be “unreal, fervent, and dull”(133).   In one of these rants, we see that Nachman would rather die (he capitalizes “Death” as something desirable) than be subjected to American “meanness.”

After this reactionary tirade, Herzog says “It isn’t as bad as you make out, Nachman…Most people are unpoetical, and you consider this a betrayal”(134). Nachman tells Herzog that he has “visions of judgment” while Herzog has “learned to accept a mixed condition of life”(134). He calls Herzog “blind” for not seeing how bad reality is.   And at this point, the reader can see two distinctly different views of life: one cynical, the other less so.

However, immediately after condemning Herzog, Nachman has a change of heart and remembers the good that Herzog’s mother did for him when he was down. Herzog may be “blind,” but because of his mother he is a blind “but a good man.”

“But a good man, Moses. Rooted in yourself. But a good heart. Like your mother. A gentle spirit. You got it from her. I was hungry and she fed me. She washed my hands and sat me at the table. That I remember. She was the only one who was kind to my Uncle Ravitch, the drunkard. I sometimes say a prayer for her.” (134)

Bellow suggests that the memory of goodness – and Herzog’s goodness – help to bring Nachman back to his senses. And since goodness is, for Bellow, the key quality of the schlemiel, one can see how it is also a challenge to a bleak European view of life.

Herzog goes on to remember Nachman’s drunken uncle and how his mother and father cared for him when no one else did. And all of these memories, taken together, remind Herzog of why it matters most in life to be kind to those who are rejected and downtrodden. He associates Jewishness more with this than with the harshness he experienced with Nachman’s father.

…to be continued….

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