Saul Bellow’s Herzog on “Downward Transcendence” and the “Humiliating Comedy of Heartache”

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What does a modern Jewish heart yearn for? And how is it torn? These are questions that were of great interest to Saul Bellow when he wrote his novel, Herzog. His main character’s last name, Herzog, means, in Yiddish, the Song of the Heart.   And this song is not just Herzog’s; it is the song of the American schlemiel (as Bellow understands him).   What makes Bellow’s version so interesting is that Herzog is not like I.B. Singer’s Gimpel the Fool (which Bellow translated from the Yiddish in an important issue of Partisan Review): he is an academic. But, like Gimpel, he has a heart and believes in goodness and truth. Like Gimpel, he lives his life in pursuit of it and it breaks his heart when he finds himself alone in his search and at yet another dead end.   However, in an important set of passages, we see the merging of the academic and the Jew.   The heart in search of truth and the broken heart mediates between the two.

In one of his letters to dead and living people, Herzog writes to “Harris Pulver, who had been his tutor in 1939 and was now the editor of Atlantic Civilization”(163).    Since Pulver is a historicist, what intrigues Herzog is the dialogue he can have with Pulver about the notion of transcendence which challenges it:

Listen, Pulver, he wrote, a marvelous idea for a much-needed essay on the ‘inspired condition’! Do you believe in transcendence downward as well as upward? (The words originate with Jean Wahl.) Shall we concede the impossibility of transcendence? It all involves historical analysis.   I would argue that we have fashioned a new utopian history, an idyll, comparing the present to an imaginary past, because we hate the world as it is. The hatred of the present has not been well understood. (163)

The name “Pulver” is an allusion to what is happening to human kind: it is being “pulverized” by historical and technological forces and it is this which causes the “hatred of the present” and a desire of a “downward transcendence.”   But that desire is overshadowed by cynicism and what Herzog calls “self-revenge.”

The drama of this stage of human development seems to be the drama of disease, of self-revenge. An age of special comedy. What we see is not simply the leveling de Tocqueville predicted, but the plebian state of evolutionary self-awareness. (164)

But the “comedy” is not seen by all because few lack a sense of “evolutionary self-awareness” like Herzog. That’s the irony. He is alone in bearing witness to this pulverization. He suggests, based on his own understanding of this comedy, that it is possible to attain an “inspired condition.”

This is thought to be attainable only in the negative and is so pursued in philosophy and literature as well as sexual experience, or with the aid of narcotics, or in a “philosophical,” “gratuitous” crime and similar paths of horror. (164)

As one can see, this “inspired condition,” this “downward transcendence” seems to be devoid of morality. The goodness provided by technology is desired, but is it really goodness? This issue troubles Herzog and his Jewish soul.

It is “good” to electrify a primitive area. Civilization and even morality are implicit in technological transformation. Isn’t it good to give bread to the hungry, to cloathe the naked…Good is easily done by machines of production and transportation. Can virtue compete? (164)

There is a tension at the heart of the modern project. (And in the following passage one can hear echoes of the Holocaust.)

Just as machinery has embodied ideas of good, so the technology of destruction has also acquired a metaphysical character. (165)

Now, all humankind instead of this or that intellectual or priest, has access to and is impinged upon by questions of good and evil, each has access to self-destruction or the “inspired condition.”

But Herzog worries that fate may take over. Will a person be prompted to “change” or will they be consumed by the energetics of technology and be pulverized? To test where he stands on all this, Herzog (and the narrator – which overlap at some points) puts himself (or Herzog) into the question or rather experiment.

Thus I want to see how I, Moses E. Herzog, am changing. I ask you to witness the miracle of his altered heart – how, hearing the sounds of slum clearance in the next block and watching the white dust of plaster in the serene air of metamorphic New York, he communicates with the mighty of this world, or speaks words of understanding and prophesy, having arranged at the same time a comfortable and entertaining evening – food, music, wine, conversation, and sexual intercourse. Transcendence or no transcendence. All work and no games is bad medicine. (166)

And this is where the Jew meets the academic or ordinary American. Herzog says that his needs are different from “Ike” (the prototypical American) who likes fishing, sex, etc.   “To get laid” is an “act of citizenship,” but Herzog is not simply a citizen. He transcends that because he, as a Jew and a schlemiel, is interested in goodness and not mere fulfillment and living well.

Powerless to reject the hedonistic joke of a mammoth industrial civilization on the spiritual desires, the high cravings of Herzog, on his moral suffering, his longing for the good, the true. All the while his heart is contemptibly aching. (166)

The description of the aching as “contemptible” is telling because it is so but not for Herzog so much as for “Ike.” Why care about goodness, truth, or morality when you can just have fun? His Jewishness inheres in being an American Jew who must, as a matter of course, ending the “humiliating comedy of heartache.”

He would like to give his heart a shaking, or put it out of his breast. Evict it. Moses hated the humiliating comedy of heartache. But can thought wake you from the dream of existence? (166)

The answer to this question is in the negative. As a schlemiel, as a Jew, he cannot commit himself to the academic “delusion of total explanations” or the “dream of the intellect”(166). His love for others and his pursuit of being good to them, loving them, ruin his dream of the intellectual solution and breaks his heart.   When it comes to people and goodness, actions may or may not be accepted. People die, are abused, and forgotten.   Who he is or what he becomes are riddled with his heartfelt relationships with others.   His transcendence is downward. It doesn’t lift itself beyond the world.

And if we put the pieces together of this narrative, we can see that despite the pulverization of technology and all its promises and evils, the greater appeal, the appeal of the heart, is what truly pulverizes him and situates Moses Herzog to the possibility of change and goodness. The schlemiel is oriented to the world and humankind; and in that orientation, s/he is and must be in pursuit of truth and goodness which happens between humans and not in this or that idea.   This is a comedy that is greater than the one prompted by progress and technology.

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