(The novel is not divided numerically, but for the sake of clarity and because Bellow clearly divides the novel into nine parts, the commentaries here are numbered.)
The opening pages clearly distinguish the direction of the novel. Burdened by his many failures, Moses E. Herzog is on the verge of insanity. His personal life has collapsed and the world itself seems chaotic and mad. He can explain none of it; life may be without meaning. Can rational thought reaffirm Herzog's sense of himself? Are there any moral certainties anymore? The novel shows us Herzog's desperate efforts to answer these questions.
Bellow begins his story in the Berkshires, in midsummer, as Herzog is attempting to cleanse his troubled spirit and purge himself of his neuroses. Who is he? What is reality? We witness a complex process of self-examination. Herzog ponders his failures as a son, a brother, a father, a husband, a lover, and a professor — as an American, as a Jew, and as a human being. He sifts through his memories and through historical and philosophical explanations of the human condition. There are no easy answers. One of the crucial questions which the hero must resolve is whether or not the individual can maintain sanity and exercise freedom of choice in a technological and materialistic society. These are the frustrations of a middle-aged, quixotic intellectual unable to cope with the disintegration of his marriage, his faith in people, and in philosophy itself. Everything Herzog believed in has proved false.
One of the first things that we must realize about Herzog is that he is alienated. He has been restlessly moving from place to place, from country to country, writing endless letters. He is isolated from friends and relatives. Unable to justify his social relationships and his intellectual theories, Moses Herzog "dangles" between engagement and disengagement. Symbolically, he cannot remain externally in one spot because his own internal state is so unbalanced.
From the beginning of the novel, Bellow emphasizes the dichotomy between body and spirit, and between reason and emotion. Because of Herzog's sensitivity to his physical surroundings, he cannot concentrate absolutely on his problems. Even as he jots down new thoughts, one part of his mind is sensitively aware of an abandoned marriage bed, a rat gnawing bread in the kitchen, insects, and an overgrown garden, all symbolic of his fragmented emotional state. There is comic irony in the descriptions of Herzog lounging sloppily in his seedy physical surroundings, struggling to make sense of his confused memories, yet being diverted by worrying about his hair falling out. He is tugged one way by serious contemplation, another way by vanity. However, out of all this confusion, Herzog does see a certain unity: Internally and externally, wherever he looks, he sees decay.
This idea of death and decay is emphasized by Bellow's using the images of middle-aged men and women foolishly trying to preserve their youth. Herzog is repulsed by the ludicrous exhibitionism of aging people with varicose veins and "pelican bellies." But this repulsion is a symptom of Herzog's own fears that he too is aging and will soon lose his still-youthful physique. Throughout the novel, he suffers from an unwillingness to accept his own physical deterioration. Death and decay, however, are truths; Herzog will have to accept them if he is to gain the maturity that he is seeking.
Another idea present in this section is that of victimization. It becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish whether Herzog is the victim of Madeleine or vice versa. Is he a victim, as well, of his own neuroses? Filled with self-pity and admitted masochism, Herzog is convinced that the world is against him; he simply does not know how to reassert his identity. He broods over his passivity and tries to convince himself that he is the victim of external forces. Yet the novel is permeated with Herzog's growing awareness of his own internal failings. This seems to be Herzog's way to recovery; in order to complete his process of self-therapy, he must honestly recognize all his faults.
One of the things which Herzog hoped to do in life was write the second volume of his study of the Romantics. He continued his interest in this subject, yet his second volume did not get written, just as his second marriage did not last. When did Herzog begin to fail? Until middle age, he lived what seemed a "normal" life. Socially, privately, professionally, everything seemed to be in order. His thesis was published and well received; he was a respected assistant professor and apparently a good husband to his first wife, Daisy. His "normalcy," it seems, began to deteriorate after his divorce from Daisy. Suddenly, Herzog realized that he was a failure, "dangling," as it were. Now he has returned to Ludeyville to try and justify and absolve himself. Instead of doing that, however, he becomes more obsessed with his own martyrdom. He immerses himself in his suffering, his sense of failure, and his victimization.
Who has victimized Herzog? If indeed he has been victimized, perhaps some of the blame can be placed on the reality-instructors. These are the friends — the lawyers, doctors, and relatives — who have attempted to convince Herzog of their own life views, their philosophies of survival. As the book progresses, we see that Herzog has had to reject one value system after another since all of them seem to endanger the survival of what he simply calls "the heart."
Among these reality-instructors are Dr. Emmerich, who recommends that Herzog forget himself by finding another woman; Dr. Edvig, Herzog's psychiatrist; Sandor Himmelstein and Simkin, his Chicago and New York lawyers. On the verge of a nervous breakdown, Moses is cut off from his close friends. He has only these reality-instructors, preaching at him, telling him that he is wrong. Why is he wrong? Why are they right? Herzog decides to travel; new places and new faces may give him perspective and clear his mind.
Herzog's letters and notes are extremely important in that they distinguish his efforts to explain his problems. Some are lengthy letters to people he has known, such as his Polish mistress, Wanda, and Dr. Emmerich and Dr. Edvig; other notes are merely nonsensical phrases and quotations that make sense only in the perspective of the entire novel. Such a phrase is tutto fa brodo, which means that everything turns into soup. Man's life, as the phrase suggests, is a frightful stew. Some letters are to historical personages, but some merely dangle and can only with difficulty be traced to a person. All, however, are really written by Herzog to Herzog as part of his therapy.
Herzog's strange mixture of attitudes toward women is developed through his scribbled notes to his mother and to some of the other women in his life. They derive from his painful memories of Madeleine, the woman who has hurt him the most. All his life, Moses has been a man passively dependent upon women. They have offered him stability. Each one has tried to convince him that he is exceptional. But, because of Madeleine, he cannot decide whether or not all women are cunning and deceitful. He fluctuates between feelings of love and hate for them.
Herzog's sexual experiences after his divorce are crucial in his self-therapy. His wife left his bed for another man's bed; he must reassess himself sexually. The most important figure in this "rehabilitation" is Ramona. In fact, most of the letter writing in this section is to her. A perfumed, seductive woman, she has taught Herzog one of his greatest lessons: No matter how abstract the mind becomes, the physical body can always respond with a "quack," a sexual reflex. It is Ramona's function throughout the novel to bring Herzog back to relative sexual stability. Whenever he is on the verge of insanity, Ramona offers herself as a physical demonstration that Herzog can still be a man. And Moses needs this affirmation because he doesn't feel like a man. He doesn't know, for sure, what a man is anymore, or even who he is. He is in a process of recoil. He recoils from ideologies; he recoils from the reality-instructors because they want to possess his mind; and, at times, he even flees Ramona because he fears that she might eventually possess his freedom. He recoils so that he won't have to face his failures; he wants to believe that he is a victim, yet he cannot convince himself of this. And just as he attempts to recoil from other people's ideas and theories, he also attempts to recoil from women. He needs them sexually, but he cannot decide whether to hate them or love them.
Herzog is, we realize, both heroic and superbly comic. He tries to make sense out of his existence and still affirm the importance of the heart, a heroic task. But Bellow is too sensitive to human absurdities to think that Herzog or any modern figure can be traditionally heroic. Saints, knights, and martyrs, for instance, were superior in fulfilling codified systems of living; these systems of living, however, no longer exist. There are no sure "codes" for living. Thus Bellow often shows us Herzog as a blundering Jewish schlemiel — a long-suffering victim who stumbles through his life, ironically aware of his absurdities. The comic stance is one of Bellow's responses to living; it offers Herzog a chance of sanity in a life filled with contradictions. Herzog's mother, for example, wanted him to become a rabbi, and his name, Moses, suggests his relationship to the Jewish prophet who led his people to the Promised Land. Moses Herzog, however, finds no new tablets of the Law; instead, he ends up standing alone amidst the clutter of his life in Ludeyville, remembering how ridiculous he looked in new bathing trunks and a straw hat. He recalls his grandiose projects to definitively clarify Romanticism and is able to laugh at himself for neglecting this goal while responding to the sexual "quack" in his nature. Such juxtapositions offer some of the richest moments in Herzog. They represent comic relief from the seriousness of Herzog's quest, and they permit a detachment which enables the reader to make more objective judgments about Herzog.