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

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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.

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