Roland Barthes on Charlie Chaplin as the “Primitive Proletarian”


In 1984, Bernard Malamud gave an important talk at Bennington College – where he taught writing –which was entitled “Long Work, Short Life.”   In the talk, he tells the audience that he began to write at an early age. He told stories “for praise.” But his inspiration didn’t come from within; it came from the “movies”(Talking Horse, 26).   He remembers his first major encounter with film on a “wet Sunday.” And the film he saw was by Charlie Chaplin. Malamud tells the audience that the “comedy haunted my soul.”   Out of his experience of Chaplin, he recalls how he would retell the movies to his “school friends.” This retelling of Chaplin’s “impossible tale” gave him great pleasure (26).   Chaplin shares something with the schlemiel: they “live on air.” Malamud was familiar “with this kind of person from childhood”(82). The poor would dream big but, in the end, most of them – like many characters in Sholom Aliechem or I.L. Peretz – turned into peddlers (26).   Notice that, for Malamud, the economic aspect of Chaplin’s comedy – as with the schlemiel – is foregrounded. But it is his survival through a variety of nuanced gestures that inspires him to become a writer and tell the “impossible tale.”

Speaking of Chaplin’s performance in Modern Times (1936) , Roland Barthes says that “no socialist work has yet succeeded in expressing the humiliated condition of the worker with so much violence and generosity.” For Barthes, Chaplain plays a “kind of primitive proletarian.”

Chaplin has always been the proletarian under the guise of the poor man: hence the broadly human force of his representations but also their political ambiguity. (Mythologies, 39)

According to Barthes, Chaplin is a few cards short of a Marxist reading of the proletarian. This is evident, claims Barthes, in the fact that with Chaplin we find the “proletarian still blind and mystified, defined by the immediate character of his needs, and his total alienation at the hands of his masters (the employees and the police)”(39).   Chaplin plays the “hungry” proletarian and is “ensnared in his starvation,” but “Chaplin-Man is always just below political awareness”(39).

Chaplin-Man, according to Barthes, may rebel against machines, but he is “at a loss before strikes, fascinated by the problem of bread-winning….but as yet unable to reach a knowledge of political causes and an insistence of collective strategy”(39).

Barthes Marxist reading of Chaplin sees schlemiel comedy through the eyes of Bertolt Brecht:

Brecht alone, perhaps, has glimpsed the necessity, for socialist art, of always taking Man on the eve of Revolution, that is to say, alone, still blind, on the point of having his eyes opened to the revolutionary light by the ‘natural’ excess of his wretchedness. (40)

In other words, while Chaplin-Man is blind, we, the viewers, are not. We are exposed: “Chaplin, in conformity with Brecht’s idea, shows the public its blindness by presenting at the same time a man who is blind and what is in front of him”(40).

As in a “Punch and Judy show,” it is the “children who announce to Punch what he pretends to see”(40).   Barthes’ Brechtian reading of the schlemiel turns it into a political figure that shows how not to see.   But there is a twist that displaces this the negative Marxist reading and that is his act of defying the “ideal of the American petit-bourgeois”(40).  He does this by not acting like they do; by being the odd one out, “the slightest ensnarements are made harmless, and the man who is poor is cut off from temptation”(40). The “temptation” Barthes refers to is the temptation of the petit-bourgeois ideal.

The impossible story that Malamud retold to his friends finds an interesting analogue in Barthes final words on Chaplin. Barthes tells us that, although Chaplin is a primitive proletarian, his anarchy makes for the “most efficient form of revolution in the realm of art.”

He escapes from everything, eschews any kind of sleeping partner, and never invests in man anything but man himself. His anarchy, politically open to discussion, perhaps represents the most efficient form of revolution in the realm of art. (40)

What matters most here, as in many a Buster Keaton film, is the art of escape. He frees himself of the very things that could trap him in the world. And although he is “blind,” a thinker like Walter Benjamin would see this not a political sense, as Barthes or Brecht would, but in a mystical sense. Chaplin’s blindness enables him to defy the world and suspend the political in the name of what Jacques Derrida would call politics to come. Schlemiel comedy – vis-à-vis Chaplin, Keaton, Aleichem, etc – comedy shows us something that is beyond even the Marxist framework which Brecht used to typify all art.  Chaplin-Man is more than just a “primitive proletarian,” he is feeling toward another event; and, at each turn, meets with it by way of this or that unexpected turn of events.   His “anarchy” is built into the fact that he faces the unexpected turn with a blind tenacity and hope for something better.   But, contrary to Barthes and Brecht, the audience can’t see it either.

The Memory of Death, Comedy & Humanity: Herzog’s Encounter with Suffering & his Mother’s Death


Religion, philosophy, literature, and the arts have, since time immemorial, been concerned with the meaning of death and suffering.  All religions, books, or artworks do not, by any means, have the same approach to death and suffering. And the ability to know and tell the difference between one and another is, if anything, a formidable and rewarding task.   But there is something more important than such an intellectual or scholarly enterprise. And that is the act of deciding on what approach is mine. One needs to ask what approach to death and suffering is most befitting of who or what I am or who I want to be.   The answer to this question will prompt one to decide.

Besides religion and philosophy, literature does an exceptional job of staging a crisis with death or suffering, this question, and the decision made in relation to it.   Saul Bellow’s Herzog, on the surface, seems to be a novel about the life and times of a modern schlemiel. When one thinks of Herzog – as when one thinks of many a schlemiel – one doesn’t think about death or suffering. To be sure, Sholem Aleichem’s penultimate schlemiel-character, Motl, who Saul Bellow knew very well, doesn’t seem to encounter death or suffering.

Motl’s schlemielkeit consists in the fact that he keeps on moving forward and retains a comic-optimistic view toward all he faces. And that, perhaps, is what makes his fiction Jewish. On other hand, one may argue that what makes Aleichem’s Motl so Jewish is not his optimism (or comic indifference) in the face of death and suffering so much as the juxtaposition between the readers who – at that time –were going through great suffering and Motl himself. It is the tension between the two that is of great interest to the Jewish reader.

Moses Herzog’s approach to death and suffering is different from Motl’s because Herzog is much more educated and is aware of how serious the encounter with death is for philosophers, writers, and artists of the Christian and Greek West.   He cannot simply shrug it off.   And this makes for a different kind of schlemiel.

Following Herzog’s harrowing experience at court of the perversity of justice – which led to his near-death experience – the narrator sets the tone for a schlemiel’s encounter with death and suffering:

He was in pain. And should be. Quite right. If only because he had required so many people to lie to him, many, many, beginning naturally with his mother. (232)

The last sentence is odd and requires a thoughtful engagement. It suggests, on the one hand, that he is in pain because he feels he has been lied to and betrayed.   On the other hand, it suggests that he is the source of this desire to be lied to (“he required so many people to lie to him”).   The lie is that comedy prevails and people are trustworthy. He wants – like I.B. Singer’s Gimpel the fool – to believe this.

The narrator tells us that Herzog “demanded” this from his mother because he was “melancholy.” But, as the narrator also notes, there was a point in her life where she could no longer keep the lie going; namely, when she was in her last days of life.

The narrator describes the “family look” so as to provide the reader with an acute sense of why Herzog would have such a demand. That look is the look of Jewish suffering and unhappiness juxtaposed with the “light of the eyes.” It is the latter that he wants to perpetuate, not the former:

The family look, the eyes, those eye-lights. And though he recalled his mother’s sad face with love, he couldn’t say, in his soul, that he wanted to see such sadness perpetuated.   Yes, it reflected the deep experience of a race, its attitude toward happiness and mortality. This somber human case, this dark husk, these indurated lines of submission to the fate of being human, this splendid face showed the responses to his mother’s finest nerves to the greatness of life, rich in sorrow, and death. (232)

After this meditation, Herzog entertains the possibility that, in “coming to terms” with death “things would change”(232).   The words used to describe this change, however, seem exaggerated and betray this belief as high idealistic. Notice the use of “we” in this following sentence and the emphasis on how we “look” in the face of death:

When we have come to terms with death, we’ll wear a different expression, we human beings.   Our looks will change. When we come to terms! (232)

Herzog’s humanism – in facing death – is in retrospect. And it comes with him remembering the days before his mother’s death. But will this remembrance change his “looks”? Will people notice this? This, at least, is what he believes to be the greatest truth.

Herzog recalls a memory when he asked her, Sarah Herzog, a question about the Bible: “how Adam was created from the dust of the ground”(232). He was “six or seven” when he asked the question. He recalls how the mother went to the window, opened her hand and said, “Look carefully, now, and you’ll see what Adam was made of”(232). “She rubbed the palm of her hand with a finger, rubbed until something dark appeared on the deep-lined skin, a particle of what certainly looked to him like earth”(232). And she said, “You see? It’s true.”

Bellow than turns to Herzog, a “grown man….besides the colorless widow…Herzog did as he had done”(233). But now, when he rubs, he “smiles” and it “worked; a big of the same darkness began to form on his palm”(233). In other words, his face had changed (as it were, facing death) from a frown to a smile. He muses on the comic nature of this gesture and the lesson his mother taught him:

Maybe she offered me this proof partly in a spirit of comedy. The wit you can have only when you consider death very plainly, when you consider what a human being really is. (233)

Instead of having a tragic-absurd or pessimistic vision of mankind, based on what he saw in the courtroom, Herzog has a comic vision of humanity that emerges “when you consider what a human being really is.”

Herzog returns to the rift between pessimism and optimism (as well as sadness and wit) in the paragraphs following this realization. He remembers how he was reading the work of two very cynical and pessimistic writers – Schopenhauer and Spengler – at the time of his mother’s death.   While his mother was in throes of death, he was “pouring over Spengler now. Struggling and drowning in the oceanic visions of that sinister Kraut”(233). He recalls coming across Spengler’s cynical anti-Semitism in the midst of his mother’s dying: “I had better resign myself to Destiny. A Jew, a relic as lizards are relics of the great age of reptiles, I might prosper by swindling the goy, the laboring cattle of civilization dwindled and done for”(234).

All of these hateful words about Jews, destiny, and history made Herzog “angry” and “sick with rage.” He wanted to write a book that would challenge Spengler’s cynicism. But when he “looked away form the dense print and its insidious pedantry,” he saw his mother enter the kitchen as a dying woman. Her message – or rather text – was clear: “My son, this is death.”   But, Herzog tells us, “I chose not to read this text”(234).

And, as a part of the deception she used to keep him away from death, his mother chose not to tell him what her death-text said:

She only pitied me, her orphan, understood I was a gesture-maker, ambitions, a fool; thought I would need my eyesight and my strength on a certain day of reckoning. (234)

And that day, suggests Herzog, is today. And it is by way of memory that he sees the meaning of that moment he didn’t get to experience while a young man. Perhaps, now, he will no longer be a schlemiel, a “gesture-maker…a fool.”

Her disclosure of death is comic in the sense that it was indirect and that it planted a seed that would grow and flower at the right time…when her son was ready for the punch line.

His last memory of her was on her death bed when she had “begun to change to earth!”(234) Her death, in other words, was a proof for a Biblical question asked by a child. And it made him believe more in God. But now, in retrospect, he sees its darker meaning. Now, he can read the text. And although he saw the comic way his mother conveyed death, now he feels only bitterness.

Does this mean he will, now a mature man, give up on the schlemiel and these childhood memories of his mother’s dying and death? Or will comedy be retained, somehow? Will his frown turn back into a smile or will it remain? Will he become a harsh realist and cynic in the face of death or will he retrain his comical view of humanity?

These are the questions that are tested, as the novel goes on, by reality.

Saul Bellow’s Literary Question: What Happens When a Schlemiel Nearly Dies While-Watching-A-Trial?


The experience of injustice can send one into deep reflection over the meaning and purpose of one’s life. And, depending on how meaningful the self-reflection is, such introspection may spur a will to change.   This is especially the case if the subject of injustice feels as if he or she has been betrayed and – so to speak – destroyed by those around him or her.

When this experience happens to the schlemiel, as it does in Saul Bellow’s Herzog, this is thought-provoking. Herzog’s lawyer, Simkin, suggests that Herzog has been betrayed and – so to speak – “murdered” by his ex-wife, Madeline and his friend Valentine Gersbach. But it is the ensuing breakdown at court and the schlemiel’s near death experience that suggests the most intriguing possibilities. Namely, that a schlemiel – in the wake of a near death experiences – will stop, so to speak, being what he or she is or has been: humane. And that he or she will become, in the wake of a dying dream of a world in which good triumphs over evil, more “realistic.”

Is this simply a matter of “growing up” or is more at stake? Bellow seems to think that this is not simply a question of maturity. At stake is a question about whether the schlemiel and its humanity, trust, and goodness has a future in this world which is becoming – more and more – like a caricature of justice.   As readers, we need to carefully watch this question unfold. We know where it starts. And we know how it develops and grows. But when does the question fully unfold?

After bearing witness to a courtroom full of perversity and inhumanity, Herzog has a near death experience.   His heart (remember Herzog, in Yiddish means Heart Song) nearly fails him. And when he returns to life, the narrator spells out his new imperative and mission which is in response to a question posed by the possibility of his own death: “He must live. Complete his assignment, whatever that was”(231).

After the “burning in his chest subsided,” Herzog felt as if he had “swallowed a mouthful of poison”(231). But, on second thought, he realizes that “this poison rose from within. He knew in fact that it did”(231). At this point he starts thinking of where it originated and this brings him face to face with himself:

What produced it? Must he suppose that something once good in him had spoiled, gone bad? Or was it originally bad? His own evil? (231)

This reflection doesn’t satisfy him, so he turns to what bothers him most about what he just saw. However, this creates a conflict between what is outside him and what is inside him.

To see people in the hands of the law agitated him…But he was suspicious of his own reaction, too. (231)

The reason why he is suspicious is because Simkin (his lawyer), Edvig (his psychiatrist), and Himmelstein (a friend and lawyer, as well), “believed that in a way Herzog was rather simple, that his humane feelings were childish”(231). In other words, Herzog is entertaining the possibility that he is a schlemiel (who, as we know from Singer’s Gimpel, Aleichem’s Motl, or Sforim’s Senderl or Mendl, is a simpleton and humane yet regarded by the society as “childish”).   He goes on to reflect on the metaphor – perhaps said by them – that we was like a “pet goose” who was “spared the axe” (of certain, schlemiel sentiments).

Moreover, he notes how Simkin likened Herzog to a “sickly innocent girl,” one of his “epileptic cousins” (keep in mind that Bellow is well aware that Dostoevsky’s Prince Myshkin – aka “The Idiot” – is an epileptic man-child character).   Herzog reflects how he was raised, like many “Young Jews”(capitalized), on “moral principles.” And yet “I have come here today for a look at something different. That evidently is my purpose”(231). In other words, Herzog entertains the possibility that purpose of his existence is not to live a life that is “simple,” “moral,” “humane,” (which is code for “childish”) but to live the life of a realist who must face the harshness of reality as he had, that day, done in court.

Following this thought (or rather possibility), Herzog takes himself as the target and becomes the anti-schlemiel-slash-realist. Yet, in the midst of it, he experiences a moment of faith and oscillates between faith and skepticism:

I willfully misread my contract. I never was the principal, but only on loan to myself. Evidently, I continue to believe in God. Though never admitting it. But what else explains my conduct and my life?…My behavior implies that there is a barrier against which I have been pressing from the first, pressing all my life…Perhaps I can eventually pass through. I must always have had such an idea. Is it faith? Or is it simply childishness, expecting to be loved or doing your hidden task. (231)

The narrator jumps in and takes sides when he claims that “Herzog didn’t believe that the harshest or most niggardly explanation, following the law of parsimony, was necessarily the truest”(231). But what is true? The way of faith and morality? Or is that childish and schlemiel-like?

Following the narrator’s, Herzog continues to “beat” himself. Moreover, playing on the word “beating,” we learn from the narrator that he feels as if he is constantly beating against boundaries. And this gets him angry and turns “ecstatic love” into “evil”(232).

After such a dramatic sentence, one would expect that Herzog would do something rash. But instead of providing the reader with this expected plot element, the narrator turns to a scene in Herzog’s memory (or rather scene) of his mother’s death. And in this memory, he re-experiences the feeling of becoming an orphan. But, in the process, he also rediscovers who much love he has for his mother’s Jewishness and her encounter with death.

To be sure, the experience of being an orphan is central to Sholem Aleichem’s last novel – published after his death – Motl the Cantor’s Son.   Motl – Aleichem’s best schlemiel character – goes to America in the wake of his father’s death. But, unlike Herzog, he doesn’t have the same deep understanding of his mother’s suffering. He seems to young or naïve to understand what has happened.

We cannot discount that fact that Bellow wrote a powerful review of Motl around the same time he wrote Herzog.  Taking both books into account, the attentive reader can see how Herzog and Motl are in a kind of schlemiel-dialogue.   That aside, we see in this moment how the argument for and against the schlemiel, as well as the question of whether or not to leave it behind, develops.   The new question here, however, is whether this deep emotion for his mother and this memory will supersede his other, more “adult,” desires that arise in the wake of his near death experience. What, one wonders, is the meaning of maturity? And how does an adult’s relationship with events in the past relate to being or not being a schlemiel? Can a schlemiel’s relationship with the past or possible be the catalyst for a sea-change?

Harold Lloyd has his own answer, but it may differ slightly from Saul Bellow’s.  Take a look:

A Schlemiel With a Russian Revolver: On the Unheroic Conduct of Saul Bellow’s Herzog – Part III


On November 18, 1917 Franz Kafka wrote in one of his Octavio Notebooks the following meditation on good and evil: “Evil knows the Good, but Good does not know of Evil.” What Kafka was getting at is quite profound. If there is in fact something Good or someone Good, he,she, or it cannot know evil. The best modern example we have of this is not a saint so much as a schlemiel. The schlemiel cannot – in theory (so to speak) – know evil.   But, as I have noted, Saul Bellow wants to take this premise to its limit by literally having Herzog – the main character of the novel by the same name – attempt to experience and know evil.

At the very least, Saul Bellow’s Herzog realizes that he has been duped by his close friend Gersbach. But even though he knows this, does he know Evil? Does he want to? It seems he doesn’t want to focus on it. But this may not be possible. Although he tries to think good thoughts about Gersbach, his lawyer, Simkin, prompts Herzog to slowly realize the grave injustice that has been done against him.   Gersbach, Simkin insists, is a thief and a liar. Simkin goes so far as to call him a murderer so as to prompt Herzog to feel the wrong done to him and to seek out justice. But, since Herzog is so good-natured and only wants to see the good, he has a hard time seeing (or as Kafka would say, knowing) the injustice in front of his own face.

What Bellow seems to be telling us is that the schlemiel doesn’t look for injustice. He stumbles across it.   And when he does, he has a hard time understanding what he is seeing because he only sees and knows the Good   Herzog is a case in point. When he goes to visit Simkin in court, he is already worked up but, still, he doesn’t understand the nature of evil and injustice.

The narrator prefaces the scene of Herzog’s first encounter with injustice (in court) by way of a series of juxtapositions. They prompt a kind of sadness and a sense of loss:

He turned to face the vast gray court building. Dust swirled on the broad stairway, the stone was worn. Going up, Herzog found a bouquet of violets, dropped from the hand of a woman. Perhaps a bride. Little perfume remained in them…he gave them burial in a trashcan, hoping they had not dropped from a disappointed hand. (224)

The smell of beauty has gone away and now, by facing injustice, he, in a way, is facing death and failure.   He is slowly experiencing Evil but he does this by way of feeling a sense of loss. The smell of the lost violets is dwindling but Herzog wants to imagine that they dropped from a hand that was joyful, not disappointed.

When he comes to sit in on a series courtroom trial, we see Herzog politely orienting himself not knowing what he is about to experience: “Herzog crossed his legs…and dark-eyed, attentive, averted his face slightly as he prepared to listen, a tendency inherited from his mother”(225).

The narrator, at this point, makes an interesting move: he lets the trial go on with little commentary from Herzog. This operates in such a manner as to register Herzog’s astonishment at the proceedings. He has never seen anything quite like this.

“…Dragged this man, drunk, off St. Nicholas Avenue, into the cellar of premises at – what is the exact address? With intention to rob…

“How much money did you have in your pocket?” “Sixty-eight cents, your honor,” the bandaged man said.

“And did he force you to enter the basement?”

“The defendant said, “No, suh.”

“I didn’t ask you. Now keep your mouth shut.” The magistrate was vexed. (225)

As the case unfolds, Herzog sees the court put together a story of how one man clobbered another in a basement for “sixty eight cents.” He was hit after having a drink with the man in a basement.   The betrayal of trust, Herzog noticed, is something to which the court was accustomed.   The whole process, the narrator notes, was a “dull routine.”

The narrator describes the scene in such a way as to bring out the shallowness and absurdity of it all and show how evil is, itself, stupid. And those who involve themselves with it are also a part of the stupid scene:

That is – his blood was well thinned with whisky as it dropped into the coal dust. Whisky-blood was bound to be shed in some such way.   The criminal began to go, the same wolfish tension within his voluminous, ridiculous pants. The cop…lard faced…held the door open and sent him on his way with a pat on the shoulder. (226)

The “new group” that comes in after this trial goes deeper into depravity. It starts with a testimony of how “this man (name given) standing in the adjacent space (toilet) reached over and placed his hand upon my organ of sex at the same time saying….”(227).   The offender, we learn, was a German intern at a hospital. If he were to “plea guilty” he would “never practice medicine in the USA”(227).

But before we can hear more of the case, the narrator shows a distracted Herzog who starts seeing the whole scene in a gross, physical manner. He sees their humanity but it is another kind of humanity. One that is more brutal and heartless:

That mass of flesh rising from the opening of the magistrate’s black cloth, nearly eyeless, or whale-eyed, was, after all, a human head. The hollow, ignorant voice, a human voice. You don’t destroy a man’s career because he yielded to an impulse in that ponderous stinking cavern below Grand Central, in the cloaca of the city, where no mind can be sure of stability, where policemen…tempt and trap poor souls. (227)

Herzog sees the depravity in the court. And this is intensified with each trial. But it comes to a head when a child is dragged in. Without a doubt, this hits hardest because Herzog, in many ways (and like all schlemiels), identifies with the child.

He opposed this perverse development in law enforcement. Sexual practices of any sort, provided they don’t disturb the peace, provided they didn’t injure minor children. Never children. There one must be strict.   (227)

Immediately after noting this, he sees a boy brought in:

The prisoner was a boy; though his face was curiously lined, some of its grooves feminine, others masculine enough. He wore a soiled green shirt. His dyed hair was long, stiff, dirty. He had pale round eyes and he smiled with empty…cheerfulness. His voice…was high pitched, ice-cold, thoroughly drilled in its affections. (228)

As the description above suggests, the boy passes between the masculine and the feminine. And then, to Herzog’s shock, we learn that the boy is a boy for some and a girl for others depending on what the client wants: “Your honor, I’m a prostitute.”

He enjoys the “dirt”: “Filth makes it better, judge.” And Herzog notes that all the court relishes this oddity.   He calls them all, including the boy, “actors”(228).   The courtroom becomes a theater rather than a place of justice.

But then things get more odd when we learn that he wasn’t caught in an act of prostitution so much as a holdup of a store. He was subdued by the owner who hit him with a baseball bat.

But what astonishes Herzog is the fact that the boy feels no remorse. He is “cheerful.”  For Herzog, this is a comedy of sorts – but a disturbing one, since the court is also involved:

He seemed to be giving the world comedy for comedy, joke for joke. With his dyed hair, like the winter beaten wool of a sheep, and his round eyes, traces of mascara around them, the tight provocative pants, and something sheeplike…he was a dream actor. With his bad fantasy he defied a bad reality, subliminally asserting to the magistrate, “Your authority and my degeneracy are one and the same.”(228)

What does Herzog take away from this? He sees everyone in the court as not just an actor but as a “whore.” This, he thinks, is what realism is all about. The idea of realism is “nastiness in the transcendent position.”

Someone must have told him that fellatio was the path to truth and honor. So this bruised, dyed Aleck also had an idea. He was purer, loftier than any square, did not lie….Realism. Nastiness in the transcendent position. (229)

But this is not a simple kind of meditation on Realism. It affects him deeply. As all of this goes on, Herzog starts feeling “something terrible, inflammatory, bitter, had been grated into his bloodstream and stung and burned his veins, his face, his heart. He knew that he was turning white, although his pulses beat violently in his head…He opened his color…The sweat broke of on his face”(230).

The narrator tells us that this court experience – which hit its zenith with the child prostitute and his comical-slash-defiant exchange with the court  – brought him near to his death but it gives him a new outlook:

He must live. Complete his assignment, whatever that was. (231)

What ensues is not so much a reflection on injustice as a meditation on who Herzog thinks he is and what he must do. The narrator suggests that he must go through this internal process if he is to encounter injustice.  This is his natural response to the courtroom circus with all its absurd comedy and perversity. His internal struggle is also a preface to his first real, heart-felt intimations of what evil and injustice are and have been done to him. After such knowing, Herzog must do something about it.   Mere reflection will not do.   But if he does something, will he continue to be a comic character…only knowing the Good but not knowing Evil?

… be continued

A Schlemiel With a Russian Revolver: On the Un-Heroic Conduct of Saul Bellow’s Herzog – Part II


What happens when a schlemiel has been offended and made into a fool? When they are duped, I.B. Singer’s Gimpel doesn’t get heated up and neither does Aleichem’s Menachem Mendel or Motl. Mendel Mocher Sforim’s Benjamin the IIIrd and Senderl and I.L. Peretz’s Bontshe Shvayg opt out of action altogether and choose, in the face of this or that challenge, to wait for something else…or to simply move on.

But for Saul Bellow, who had a particular interest in the schlemiel as a writer and translator, this question gets a central place in his novel, Herzog. In the novel Herzog gets heated up about a man named Valentine Gersbach who, basically, stole his wife and child in front of his face.   But it is his daughter that Herzog misses most. After a year of being away from her and upon visiting his lawyer, Herzog starts getting heated up and entertains the possibility of doing violence to Gersbach.

As readers, we wonder about whether Herzog can do something rash? Since the schlemiel is such a kind, good-hearted character, (Ruth Wisse suggests that this goodness is “existential”) this possibility is hard for us to imagine.   What makes Herzog’s anger unique – and unlike any schlemiel before him – is the fact that it shows us how the schlemiel and his goodness are put to the test in a society that has become more and more violent and confusing. A lot is at stake in his anger because it shows us what this character and its future preservation must face: harsh reality.

Words have a powerful way of spurring the mind to think in a deeper manner about this or that possibility. Moses Herzog let’s himself loose with his lawyer, Simkin.   He starts talking about things he usually doesn’t talk about such as violence, revolution, and ecstasy. But, as a schlemiel, Herzog knows that he “must stop this” or he will “crack”:

Herzog knew very well when he talked like this that he was again in the grip of that eccentric, dangerous force that had been capturing him. It was at work now, and he felt himself bending. At any moment he might hear a crack. He must stop this. (216)

Herzog has a hard time speaking about Gersbach (who is also a father, husband, and a “family man”). The reader can see that he is fighting with his desire to speak bad of him. His fault, one could argue, is that he found the man who duped him charming. Even though the line between hating him and admiring him is effaced the more Herzog talks, he always seems to slip back into admiration:

I only meant to say that Gersbach won’t let anything go, he tries everything on. For instance, if he took away my wife, did he have to suffer agony for me, too? Because he could even do better? And if he’s such a tragic-love figure, practically a demigod in his own eyes, does he have to be also the greatest of fathers and family men? His wife says he’s an ideal husband. Her only complaint is that he was so horny. (216)

Herzog notes how Gersbach, after Herzog’s divorce from his wife, Madeline, sent him “reports” about his daughter.   And Herzog tells us that he wrote them “faithfully, with real kindness”(216). This went on and on until “I found out he gave me the grief he was consoling me for”(216).

When Simkin asks him what he did when he found out, Herzog tells him that he “looked all over Chicago for him.” But when he couldn’t find him, he sent him a telegram that coded his desire to kill Gersbach:

I wanted to say that I’d kill him on sight. But Western Union doesn’t accept such messages. So I wired give words – Dirt Enters At The Heart. The first letters spell death. (216)

Egging him on, Simkin tells Herzog that Gersbach probably “bowled over by the threat”(216). But Herzog says, “with a smile,” that he “doesn’t know.”   And then he, once again, slips into thinking nicely about him. It seems as if these types of threats and feelings don’t or rather can’t stick.

Simkin, however, wants Herzog to feel and take ownership of his anger so he says that Gersbach is not a family man or a unique guy so much as “a psychopath on the make, boastful and exhibitionistic…One of those noisy crooks with a booming voice”(217).

Simkin’s words spur Herzog to be slightly mocking of Gersbach’s ability to dupe “literate people.” He calls Gersbach, who has a “head like a flaming furnace, a voice like a bowling alley, and the wooden leg drumming the stage,” a “Mongolian idiot singing Aida”(217). This is what a worked-up schlemiel sounds like.

After he leaves Simkin, he starts sweating. He goes to the bathroom, turns on the tap, and washes his face. He “sighs with shock and then pleasure.” And he “was shivering with the extreme violence of thought and feeling”(218).

The metaphor of washing is powerful since it suggests, here, that even though he washes himself, he can’t get rid of these violent thoughts and feelings as he used to do whenever he came in contact with them. Something has changed.

His body, it seems, is pushing him to entertain this violence. He looks into the mirror of the bathroom and is disgusted with himself after the thought crosses her mind that she, his ex, “loves that actor.” How can Herzog look at himself in the same way after realizing that she and he himself have been duped?

Oneself is simply grotesque! Herzog stated it impulsively, though with pain, and his mind immediately looking for formal stability…catching at ideas. (220)

But he can’t distract himself from his dark thoughts that lead him to a deep desire for some kind of justice. And even when this comes out, he fights with himself:

Now what is it?….What really is on my mind? Probably this: shall I put those two on the stand under oath, torture them, hold a blowtorch to their feet? Why? They have a right to each other; they even seem to belong together. Why, let them alone. But what about justice? – Justice! Look who wants justice! Most of mankind has lived and died without – totally without it. People by the billions and for ages sweated, gypped, enslaved, suffocated, bled to death, buried with no more justice than cattle. But Moses E. Herzog, at the top of his lungs, bellowing with pain and anger, has to have justice. It’s his quid pro quo, in return for all he has suppressed, his right as an Innocent Party. (220)

From this flight of ideas, we can see that the narrator agrees: Herzog must have justice. This leads to a series of fascinating scenes where we see a schlemiel’s experiences of injustice as if for the first time. The revelations of injustice are all the more powerful since they are, for Herzog, unique.   They add to the suffering of injustice which is at the core of the schlemiel character. Herzog’s desire for justice brings him to the limit of this character’s identity since it exposes the schlemiel to harsh realism.

….to be continued