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

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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:

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