… a sample of his great prose, and some words about why it’s great.

This is from Herzog, the book UD considers by far his best.

Moses Herzog, an urban American intellectual in his forties, is having a slow-motion nervous breakdown as his personal life falls apart. Here he’s in Chicago on a hot day, getting into his car to take his young daughter (who lives with his about-to-be-ex-wife and the man with whom she was unfaithful to Herzog) to visit an aquarium.

He had an extraordinary number of keys, by now, and must organize them better in his pockets. There were his New York house keys, the key Ramona had given him, the Faculty Men’s Lounge key from the university, and the key to Asphalter’s apartment, as well as several Ludeyville keys. “You must sit in the back seat, honey. Creep in now, and pull down your dress because the plastic is very hot.” The air from the west was drier than the east air. Herzog’s sharp senses detected the difference. In these days of near-delerium and wide-ranging disordered thought, deeper currents of feeling had heightened his perceptions, or made him instill something of his own into his surroundings. As though he painted them with moisture and color taken from his own mouth, his blood, liver, bowels, genitals. In this mingled way, therefore, he was aware of Chicago, familiar ground to him for more than thirty years. And out of its elements, by this peculiar art of his own organs, he created his version of it. Where the thick walls and buckled slabs of pavement in the Negro slums exhaled their bad smells. Farther west, the industries; the sluggish South Branch, dense with sewage and glittering with a crust of golden slime; the Stockyards, deserted; the tall red slaughterhouses in lonely decay; and then a faintly buzzing dullness of bungalows and scrawny parks; and vast shopping centers; and the cemeteries after these – Waldheim, with its graves for Herzogs past and present; the Forest Preserves for riding parties; Croatian picnics, lovers’ lanes, horrible murders; airports; quarries; and, last of all, cornfields. And with this, infinite forms of activity – Reality. Moses had to see reality. Perhaps he was somewhat spared from it so that he might see it better, not fall asleep in its thick embrace. Awareness was his work; extended consciousness was his line, his business. Vigilance. If he borrowed time to take his tiny daughter to see the fishes he would find a way to make it up to the vigilance-fund. This day was just like – he braced himself and faced it – like the day of Father’ Herzog’s funeral. Then too, it was flowering weather – roses, magnolias. Moses, the night before, had cried, slept, the air was wickedly perfumed; he had had luxuriant dreams, painful, evil, and rich, interrupted by the rare ecstasy of nocturnal emission – how death dangles freedom before the enslaved instincts: the pitiful sons of Adam whose minds and bodies must answer strange signals. Much of my life has been spent in the effort to live by more coherent ideas.

Let’s analyze this paragraph. My comments are in parenthesis, in blue.

He had an extraordinary number of keys, by now, and must organize them better in his pockets. [Ends on his strongest word – pockets – and a word tonally at odds with the other words in the sentence. It kind of pops out sharply – pockets – at the end of a sentence that has been mainly about mushy words. This little wake-up, this little satori, at the end of the sentence, rouses us for the next sentence, subliminally leads us to expect an intensification or deepening or emotionalizing of the idea of personal disorder. The keys, we must be led to understand – but led at the same time as Herzog himself is led to understand, since it’s the motion of his consciousness moving unsteadily toward difficult truths that we’re following in real time – symbolize Herzog’s inner deterioration, his having lost the key to existence. We must grasp this subtly, incompletely, obliquely, as a particularly defensive and clotted human consciousness grasps it. Note, then, how his prose will accomplish this feat.] There were his New York house keys, the key Ramona had given him, the Faculty Men’s Lounge key from the university, and the key to Asphalter’s apartment, as well as several Ludeyville keys. [Attempting to organize himself mentally, Herzog first simply lists the keys and their provenances; this is a familiar mental game we all play, pulling our thoughts together by identifying things, listing things. Formally, it’s also a clever move, since this list serves as a kind of summary of the plot so far, reminding the readers about the scenes and characters we’ve encountered.] “You must sit in the back seat, honey. Creep in now, and pull down your dress because the plastic is very hot.” [Bellow will interrupt his stream of consciousness with the intrusive facts of immediate social reality. His character has not fallen so far that he’s psychotic, unable to register and assimilate external event. Yet the narrative back and forth between long involved paragraphs of thought, memory, reasoning, and sudden brief flashes from the outside world conveys the difficulty Herzog’s having negotiating his oppressed and trying-to-puzzle-it-out consciousness and the simple fact of other people and a daily social life.] The air from the west was drier than the east air. [Note that this very simple, essentially monosyllabic sentence will be followed by a series of more and more complex sentences as Herzog gradually transitions from the outer world – he has just said something to his daughter - to his much more engrossing inner world.] Herzog’s sharp senses detected the difference. [All of Bellow’s books are about the effort to intensify consciousness, to apprehend the truth of the natural, the human, and the divine. He has endowed Herzog with the same hypersensitive awareness he gives most of his protagonists, an awareness at once the glory of humanity – our insight and lucidity are amazing, our distinguishing power – and – at least for people like Herzog – our doom. For Herzog is debilitatingly self-conscious, a comic figure asking for more illumination than his human mind can yield. His wife in fact has left him for an idiot, but a big happy lusty idiot.] In these days of near-delerium and wide-ranging disordered thought, deeper currents of feeling had heightened his perceptions, or made him instill something of his own into his surroundings. [Note by the way the indirect discourse technique Bellow has adopted here. We’re clearly in the mind of Herzog, but things are being rendered in third-person. But notice also, later in this passage, that we will slip out of third into first-person. Bellow learned this technique – and so much else – from James Joyce’s Ulysses. He even got his hero’s name – Moses Herzog – from a minor character in Ulysses. Moving always from third to first back to third, etc., is a way of registering not only our restless consciousness, but the way we shift from regarding ourselves with a certain neutral objectivity to often simply being enmeshed in a direct and not particularly reflective way in the ongoing business of being us. And this idea of instilling oneself into one’s surroundings — isn’t that the way we perceive and encounter and lend meaning to the world? We interpret it as a projection of our consciousness; we shade each external object with our particular internal emotional condition, our inner coloration. Thus, for instance, Wallace Stevens in “Sunday Morning” talks about passions of rain.] As though he painted them with moisture and color taken from his own mouth, his blood, liver, bowels, genitals. [This bizarre sentence and idea is one mark of the great writer. It has an almost repellent anatomical literalness, a grotesque and off-putting oddness. And yet this sentence has an important function in the evolving consciousness of this passage, moving us yet closer to the disordered, suffering, vulnerable existential state of Herzog. He is becoming naked in this passage, exposed, just as his mental illness, if you will, involves the destruction of his privacy, defenses, self-control, self-respect. He has been laid bare by misfortune. It’s like Prufrock:

And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,
When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall…

When very bad things happen to you, suddenly everyone can see you. It’s one of the many indignities of misfortune: There it is in all its glory for the world to see: Your weakness, your failure.]

In this mingled way, therefore, he was aware of Chicago, [Note that words like extraordinary and therefore mark what’s left of Herzog’s intellectual orientation. His impressive reasoning mind is being overtaken by emotional chaos, but this language marks his effort to keep analytical dispassion alive. Thus we remain in the third-person for this; only when he’s at his most naked will Herzog move into first-person.] familiar ground to him for more than thirty years. And out of its elements, by this peculiar art of his own organs, he created his version of it. [Creating your version of the world is knowing it the only way we can know it; it is marking it with our consciousness in the way a dog marks his territory, makes it his.] Where the thick walls and buckled slabs of pavement in the Negro slums exhaled their bad smells. [Note that assonance: walls/buckled/slabs/slums/exhaled/smells. Notice buckled and slums. Notice slabs/slums/smells. All of it gives poetry, of all things, to this sort of description, and thereby – since it is Herzog’s poetry – gives his consciousness individuality, romance.] Farther west, the industries; the sluggish South Branch, dense with sewage and glittering with a crust of golden slime; the Stockyards, deserted; the tall red slaughterhouses in lonely decay; and then a faintly buzzing dullness of bungalows and scrawny parks; and vast shopping centers; and the cemeteries after these – Waldheim, with its graves for Herzogs past and present; the Forest Preserves for riding parties; Croatian picnics, lovers’ lanes, horrible murders; airports; quarries; and, last of all, cornfields. [You see how we’ve gone from that earlier short monosyllabic sentence to this massive list, this amazing and still-romantic rendering of Chicago? And see how he’s kept his degraded/glorious contradiction going? Glittering, golden, vast, lovers… We could take these words and make this place a Wordsworthian delight. But also sluggish – see how sluggish picks up and extends the slabs/slums/smells series? – and crust, decay, scrawny, murders… See too how subtly Herzog personalizes this passage, reminding the reader of his particular losses and the way they mark the city’s land – the graves of Herzogs. Notice above all at this point how much Bellow is juggling: The immediate present of his daughter, the drive to the aquarium; his rageful, troubled consciousness; his analytical, truth-seeking consciousness; his personal coloration/interpretation of the city and larger world; his reckoning with his past and with death…] And with this, infinite forms of activity – Reality. Moses had to see reality. [By now, you’re picking up on Bellow’s constant poetic shaping of his language: all of those short i’s: with, this, infinite, activity, reality.] Perhaps he was somewhat spared from it so that he might see it better, not fall asleep in its thick embrace. [A recurrent theme in Herzog is the character’s privileged American immunity from real suffering — physical suffering, the suffering of poverty, the sort of suffering so comprehensive as to make it impossible to take that analytical step backward and see reality.] Awareness was his work; extended consciousness was his line, his business. [I think we are meant to smile at this as a species of delusion, arrogance. Bellow always described Herzog as a comic send-up of intellectual arrogance. Here we have a man, Moses Herzog, exceptionally intellectually gifted and yet living one of the stupidest lives imaginable. His big brain isn’t doing him any good. Arguably it’s making things worse.] Vigilance. If he borrowed time to take his tiny daughter to see the fishes he would find a way to make it up to the vigilance-fund. [Vigilance-fund signals the truth of what I just wrote. This is Herzog self-aware enough to satirize his endeavor.] This day was just like – he braced himself and faced it – like the day of Father’ Herzog’s funeral. [Okay and note: No paragraph break as we switch to this family theme. This is stream of consciousness. Also, it’s not as if we haven’t been prepared for what will now be a memory of and meditation on death, and the weird relationship of the living to the dead. Already his family cemetery has been mentioned.] Then too, it was flowering weather – roses, magnolias. [Herzog heads into his memory of the day of his father’s funeral. Like everyone, he moves, consciousness-wise, via associations. The particular spring weather this day has prompted thoughts of the same weather that day. And again the poetry: roses, magnolias. To his other conflicts in this passage we can add the conflict of death on a day of intense flowering life.] Moses, the night before, had cried, slept, the air was wickedly perfumed; he had had luxuriant dreams, painful, evil, and rich, interrupted by the rare ecstasy of nocturnal emission – how death dangles freedom before the enslaved instincts: the pitiful sons of Adam whose minds and bodies must answer strange signals. Much of my life has been spent in the effort to live by more coherent ideas. [Cool, huh? Start with the end: Of course now we get one of our forays into first person: Most of MY life… Having really stripped himself as this passage concludes, Herzog has nowhere else to go but to the “pitiful” fact of his own particular fleshly, enslaved self. This passage has taken us from the heights of rational consideration of the world to the nighttime depths of one vulnerable infantilized weeping utterly overcome slob. The air was wickedly perfumed; his dreams were evil. The obscene grotesquerie of his father’s death inspiring in Herzog not noble philosophical despair but ecstatic sexual liberation so strong as to inspire a wet dream — what are we to do with this? These are incoherent ideas, incoherent feelings – one’s beloved father’s death as a seductive spectacle of freedom? – and then this absurd final sentence, written as if part of a grant application:

Much of my life has been spent in the effort to live by more coherent ideas.

So – nothing new here. Like all of us, Herzog is torn between instinct and reason, his animal and higher nature. This passage puts us right into the seriousness, pathos and comedy of that grappling. It reminds us (the dreams, the nocturnal emission) just how enslaved our instincts are, and how elusive the keys (you remember the keys) to ourselves and to the world.]

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6 Responses to “On Saul Bellow’s birthday…”

  1. dmf Says:

    http://www.c-spanvideo.org/program/313185-7

  2. Sherman Dorn Says:

    This is wonderful. Juxtaposed to your recent posts on the DSM, I now want a Bellow story about someone who deludes himself into thinking he wrote an epic poem that the American Psychiatric Association stole and rewrote into DSM-IV.

  3. Margaret Soltan Says:

    Sherman: Thanks. LOL.

    UD

  4. Dr_Doctorstein Says:

    Always nice to take a break from the usual UD fare of academic scandals and scandalous grammar and watch a skillful reader do her thing.

  5. Margaret Soltan Says:

    Thanks, Dr_Doctorstein.

  6. Charlie Stephen Says:

    Bellow was brilliant at describing landscapes, especially cityscapes and most of all Chicago, and was simply matchless in his descriptions of the human body. Too bad, then, that he couldn’t develop characters, tell a compelling story, or ever understand women. I think little of his work will survive — Herzog, perhaps, possibly Augie March, and for some, Sammler as a sociological document.

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