Their own version of existence under the crushing weight of mass.

In his novel Herzog, Saul Bellow creates a character more complex than the one I see, late at night, looking at myself.

This is to say a number of things – Not least, a certain narcissism on the part of this writer; but we can leave that for later. To say that Saul Bellow creates a character, is to note first that he is writer of a certain kind, of an older tradition that believes in literature as exploration of the self, or better, as exploration of the human soul. People in Bellow´s novels are not ideas, wielded like surgical tools (as in the thesis novel of Camus or Sartre), or figures to be pushed through the elegant twists of narrative (like the action novels of Hemingway). It is to say that Bellow is a novelist who believes in character. Also, it is to say that Bellow's characters, many-dimensional, rich, complex, enigmas – that they are just like us.

Thus, we begin with a vision of what it means to be human: freed from type. Freed from the predictable. Too diverse for ideology, too beautiful to be any one thing. Humans are not photographs, constituted of one moment, but portraits, layered with time. Montainge remarked that man is ondoyant et divers – wavelike and varying. To this end, when a Peruvian friends asked me the other day at the dinner table, “Estás triste?” I responded, “No. Yo Soy humano.”

This understanding of character and of humans is not evidently true. It is an expression of self-understanding, which came about in the 17th century, with the growth of city life and a shift in literature.1 What is modern about this vision is only that it is now a subject of discussion. Character and what it means to be human are no longer entirely synchronous.

“The novel of characters belongs entirely to the past.” Saul Bellow, in his Nobel address, quotes Alain Robbe-Grillet as stating. “It describes a period: that which marked the apogee of the individual.” Any account of the artistic enterprise in the past decades says a similar thing. We live in an age more modest, they say, as we no longer believe in the unlimited preciousness of the individual spirit; but also more ambitious. We can look beyond what is human, only human. To conduct a discussion like this, tracing the history of "the self " in literature – this is to dance with shadows in a dark land. But it must be noted, however briefly, that the very existence of a book entitled Loss of Self in Modern Literature is indicative of our times. Something has changed. What would Doestovesky have thought, I wonder, of a literature divorced from the human?

This is not a stodgy point or a pedantic one, mainly because books are not written in a vacuum. If one is to believe these critics when they talk about the decline of the self in literature, then one must also believe that a similar phenomenon coterminously is occuring with how we perceive ourselves. T.S. Eliot said that “the progress of an artist is a continual sef-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality” and Joyce that “personality...finally refines iself out of existence, impersonalizes itself, so to speak.” What does this indicate about the role of the individual consciousness in the modern world?

· · ·

To this question, Moses Herzog, Bellow´s protagonist, might begin, “Dewey tells us that mankind distrust its own nature and tries to find stability beyond or above, in religion or philosophy.” Then: “Come to the point. But what was the point?...Let the enemies of life stand down.”

Herzog is a well-regarded but failing professor; he is a failed but loving father; and – the axis on which the book turns – he has suddenly become a failed husband. His wife left him for his best friend. Herzog, amidst this royal screwing, finds that his academic thoughts provide no answers to cure him of rage, weakness, defeat. Much like the novel (which has almost no action) Herzog is set adrift within a relentless, vital, nervous stream of voices, theorems, clarifications, explanations. “There is too much of everything,” Bellow says in The Adventures of Augie March “...too much culture to keep track of, too many details, too much example, too much influence, too many guys who tell you to be as they are, and all this hugeness, abundance, turbulence, Niagara Falls torrent."

It is from this this mass of everything, that Bellow begins his exploration of character.

The book of has been criticized as solipsisitc. (Saul Bellow after all is a man of magisterial arrogance.) This is true, but it is also just the point. The novel´s narcissism and self-infatuation, its rage, its pity, is because Herzog is not just a book with character, but also a book of character; its purpose is as much to use humans, as it is to understand humans, the modern self and how it exists within an increasingly universal age. Herzog, that bundle of contradictions and jarring self-divisions, filled with marvelous qualities, vaguely comprehended, is a character, free from definition, set in a world equally labyrinthine and contradictory. But Herzog is also trying to understand character. Sitting at his desk, with his letters, Herzog is reading Herzog.

Bellow is not just a returning to a more humane literature. He is, with exploration of character, making a statement about how to survive as a human within a modern mass, filled with a nervous stream of voices, too many voices and too much indiscriminate authority.

· · ·

Herzog has read all the books; he has lived throughout Europe, Chicago clumsy, stinking, tender, Chicago,” New York; he has rode on the subways, with their “subterranean roar of engines, voices, and feet in the galleries with lights like drops of yellow brother...” Herzog has confronted the mass. “You – you yourself are a child of this mass and a brother to all the rest” he says to himself. To continue the duties of living, you find a place within this

...what it means to be a man. In a city. In a century. In transition. In a mass. Transformed by science. Under organized power. Subject to tremendous controls. In a condition caused by mechanization. After the late failure of radical hopes. In a society that was no community and devalued the person. Owing to the multiplied power of numbers which made the self negligible. Which spent military billions against foreign enemies but would not pay for order at home. Which permitted savagery and barbarism in its own great cities. At the same time, the pressure of human millions who have discovered what concerted efforts and thoughts can do …

We live in what must be considered a universal age. In 17thcentury this concentration began, when feudalism declined and cities formed. Cultural historians tell us that all the complex pycho-historical developments resulting from the shift to cities – the emergence of the individual self, for example (the genre of autobiography began at this time) and the large-scale liberation of the mind from the “idiocy of village life” (Marx´s term) – all this can be summed by saying that “society,” as we understand it now, first appeared, simply because men were forced unto themselves, in great number, for the first time, seen, heard, smelled.

A society of the mass (a universal age) is now forming, as accumulation continues today, with no end in sight. We are lavishly poured together. Blogs, YouTube videos, city squares with throbbing crowds, libraries with too many books. Billions of collected insights from people I have never met, from places I will never travel. We all feel it. There is the prospect that our technology might indeed sum-total and index all human knowledge Ten millions genes have been identified, catalogued into a database. Craig Venter says that number will be doubled by the end of the year.

None of this is news to anyone. People, of course, have no obligation to be philosophers, and few read philosophy. But this collected mass can be felt in the air. Uncertainty, nihilism, massacre, cubism, democracy, emancipation, etiquette, analysis – these, once our highest ideas, are now everywhere, sensed atmospherically, like a foggy cloud floating among us.

In the January 7th copy of Newsweek (of all places) the article “The New New Thing: Same as it Ever Was” tells us: “A wrinkle or two, sure, but another major breakthrough now seems unthinkable: every possibility has already been thought of, and acted upon.” We are an old society, with too many ideas.

Many have been lifted from the idiocy of village life, that is true; and we thank our forces of accumulation. But many, like this Herzog, are lost within the mass. Suffocated. Frightened and confused. Even Newsweek tells us that there is too many, too much and nothing new can come about. How might I keep up the burden of self-hood despite the excess of everything. Who I am among this mass? Where does a feeble voices fit, among this group, these thinkers, possessors of every wisdom, alive and dead, among this great authority, indiscriminate, teeming, swollen, vast. I am completely lost.

This is Saul Bellow´s modernity: the man within the mass. It is this condition that accounts for the excesses of Bellow´s engorged prose; it is this condition responsible for the anxiety, floating like a cloud in Seize the Day, that grips, ravagely, the heart of Herzog.

We see this in his letters. Letters he sends first to family, the newspaper, the government, then to the personal dead and finally to the famous dead: to Heidegger (“Dear Doktor Professor...I should like to know what you mean by the expression ´the fall into the quotidian.´ When did this fall occur? Where were we standing when it happened”), to city officials (“The size of the rats in Panama City, when I passed through, truly astonished me...My suggestion is that you put birth-control chemicals in the baits”) and finally, to God (How my mind has struggled to make coherent sense. I have not been too good at it.). Philip Roth wrote in his introduction, that in this book of a thousand delights, none is greater than these letters. This is true, they are delightful; but there is also something pitiful about it all: a grown man desperate to make sense, to explain, to clarify – but most of all, a man, like a small child, needing to be heard. He wants to be noticed, by someone, by anyone. He is lost within this mass. “As if anyone cared what he was doing here. As if it affected the fate of the world in any way.”

There is vanity to this feeling, of course -- How I must be special. It is to understand that particular bitterness of the modern man, the knowledge that he is not a genius. “Three thousand million human beings exist, each with some possessions, each a microcosmos, each infinitely precious, each with a peculiar treasure” – each telling Herzog that his own uniqueness is bunk. But if this is vain, then it is a human vanity. It is the fear that the individual is lost within an infinite greatness. We hear in Pascal´s remark that “the eternal silence of this infinite space frightens me,” feel it looking at the night stars; it is that fear which brings us to religion, or to cry, alone.

T.S. Eliot said, ninety years ago, that “The existing order is complete before the new work arrives.” The artist has to break into this order; art is a process of supervention; to murder and to create, they necessarily come together. This brings up the question of how to continue being a human – and what it means to be human – despite the mass. This is not, Herzog tells us, in our universal age, a question for only the artist.

· · ·

If Bellow´s novel does not give us an answer, then at the least, it hints at a solution: You´ve got to survive. You human, rich, complex -- you´ve got to continue being.

There is a story that is relevent. Saul Bellow tells of a doctor who wrote a letter to Freud. The doctor writes that he lost his nerve for professional medicine when he saw the body of a beautiful young woman on a dissecting table. Freud responds, saying that “of course” what the doctor had seen was his mother, lying there on the operating table.

To Bellow, this is intellectual fascism, directly offensive to a vision of character as freed from the predictable. Baudelairian, Nietzschean, Marxian, Psychoanalytic, etcetera, etcetera – these are the masterminds whose plans push the individual into the fixity of an idea. Grab onto a truth, no matter how limited, or how cold. Accept, for truth, the grand systems of a mastermind, coming down on the spirit like a butterfly net.

Bellow´s question to Freud is: “Was it not possible to experience beauty or pity without thinking of your mother?”

In an interview, Bellow said that Herzog is a man who “comes to realize that what he considered his intellectual ´privilege´ has proved to be another form of bondage...He needs to dismiss a great mass of irrelevancy and nonsense in order to survive” Before we accept authorities, with their love of apocalypse; before we accept the Ramonas in our lives, telling us to “renew the spirit through the flesh (a precious vessel in which the spirit rested), we must simply be human. Before we accept the Sandor Himmelstein that tells us that facts are nasty and

you must sacrifice your poor, squawking, niggardly individuality – which may be nothing anyway (from an analytic viewpoint) but a persist infantile megalomania, or (from a Marxian point of view) a stinking little bourgeois property – to historical necessity. And to truth. And trth is true only as it brings down more disgrace and dreariness upon human beings, so that if it shows anything except evil it is illusion, and not truth.

Before we accept any of this higher eduction, we must first live. “Your extremists must survive...your immoralists also eat meat.”

Herzog has not succeeded as a professor and it important that he has failed, because Bellow´s point is that ideas must fail. We are too limber and too rich to be pushed into any one thought. Trying to clarify the streaming and mildly audible voices in the human mass, can never be done, sufficiently exact. One must accept ambiguity: the luxary of bewilderment is the central claim of character in a novel, and of a human freed from predictability.

“We love apocalypse too much...Excuse me, no, I´ve had all the monstrosity I want...No more of that for me – no, no! I am simply a human being.”

Accepting the inexact, the ambiguous, the richness of simply a human being is what allow us to survive in the mass, to cut out the irrelevancy, to enjoy simpler, more durable human goods. Hundred of letters later, Herzog lies in the hammock besides the Locust trees on his property. The sky has a blue intensity, he notices. The birds are loud. He has nothing more to say.

1. Before the period of Shakespeare and later of Montainge, the prevailing theory was that personality was the product of chemicals which ran though in the veins called humors: black choler, yellow choler, phlegm and blood. An overabundance of one or the other resulted in the melancholic person, the phlegmatic, the choleric or the sanguine.



Blogger Gary said...

I find your essay to be fascinating and insightful. Thank you for sharing it.

10:45 AM  

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