The opening section of Part II bombards us with naturalistic details of New York City's cluttered streets and its noisy, foul-smelling thoroughfares. These descriptive catalogues show us the physical distractions that can annihilate self-consciousness by over-stimulating it and overstraining the nerves and emotions. Bellow's portrait of this deterministic environment echoes those of Dreiser and Dos Passos. Merged in the city are many races and peoples pushing and shoving down noisy streets as dust swirls around them from demolished buildings. The terrible grinding racket of machinery assaults the ears, exhaust fills the nostrils, and the eyes water from pollution; little wonder that Herzog is anxious to escape to the clear air of the seashore.
In Parts I and II, Herzog expresses a deep-rooted anxiety about the meaninglessness of life that leads him to wish that he were lying alone on a beach or bathing in the Atlantic. He desires to be swallowed up, as it were, in the transcendental life processes which Walt Whitman once identified with the "Great Mother" sea. He wants to be absorbed by transcendental processes, but, on the other hand, he resists when the city threatens to overwhelm his sense of identity in physical and social complexities. The sweat that bothers him symbolizes the senses, continuously assaulted by disorders and distractions. As he struggles through the crowds at Grand Central Station, Herzog must restrain himself inwardly to maintain his rationality. Chaos engulfs him in waves of unrelated sensuous experiences. This same idea is developed in each of Bellow's novels. How is the individual to make sense of life in a cluttered urban environment? How can meaningful, genuine emotions be maintained when the self is threatened by nausea, distrust, hate, and false emotions?
The external action of Part II is minimal; the emphasis is primarily on Herzog's letters and memories. This section is important for providing us with fragments of Moses' life at the time of his breakup with Madeleine. We are given clearer, if incomplete, pictures of some of the people who are, and were, important in his life, and we learn more about what led to his mental and emotional disorders. This section also offers us fine examples of the free association of ideas. Bellow establishes a skillful balance between Herzog's memories and external events. As Herzog struggles through the crowds, he recalls other journeys at other times. He remembers flying a rickety airplane out of Warsaw and he relives a vacation trip taken with his family forty years before in Montreal. The suggestion is that we relive journeys of development each day; the past constantly interacts with the present.
As Herzog rides the train toward Martha's Vineyard, his thoughts are coordinated with his physical passage through darkness and the slums. The train has often been used as a literary symbol of time — in the conscious and the unconscious. Here, it symbolizes the hero's internal journey toward self-understanding. He is passing through the heart of darkness within himself and through the "slums" of his own disoriented mind. Bellow lyrically parallels stream-of-consciousness with the speeding train.
Herzog's letter to Zelda in this section foreshadows much of the rest of the novel. In the letter, Herzog says that he could have taken his father's gun from his desk and killed Mady and Gersbach, but he was not criminal enough for such an act. The truth is that Herzog is capable of doing it. Bellow is deeply interested in the evil potentials of the human spirit. And Herzog can never fully become a man until he also recognizes his capacity for evil. But what of this darkness, this capacity for evil in others? Moses is quick to recognize this; he despairs that society is based on power-hungry leaders (called Machiavellians in The Adventures of Augie March). These are the willful, domineering persons who manipulate and use others for their own ends. They are selfish and materialistic, for the most part; they are deluded that they are unique human beings.
This leads us back rather easily to the subject of reality-instructors, those people who want to dictate their special ideologies. When Herzog went to Zelda for sympathy, she blamed him for what happened in his marriage to Madeleine. Herzog resisted this blame and categorized Zelda as another truth-hungry female. Yet Zelda, like Dr. Edvig and Gersbach, was attempting to make Herzog confess his own egotism. It is true that these reality-instructors are selfish and very subjective, but they do enable Herzog to strip his consciousness slowly of delusions. Truth is ambiguous; although it was Mady's idea to buy the Ludeyville house, for example, Moses must eventually accept Zelda's accusation that he was wrong to turn the house into a prison for his wife. By his obsession for studying philosophical truth, he alienated his wife and left her to the boredom of isolated rural life. Who was the true victim then — Moses the cuckold or Mady the frustrated wife? This is one of the crucial ambiguities of the book.
Besides Zelda's trying to get Herzog to confess his own egotism, there have been others who have tried to instruct Herzog. Gersbach gave Herzog some of Martin Buber's books which advocated equating sex and social involvement with religious experiences. Edvig counseled him with "Protestant Freudianism." Moses, however, will not be fitted into a pre-cut mold. He has to learn to accept humanity and his own sense of humility without the consolations of philosophy or psychology or religion. He must work out his own problems and his own destiny, and he cannot delude himself with ideal, abstract theories. This is why he is disgusted with Madeleine's obsession with Catholicism. To Herzog, a person abdicates his responsibilities when he places his destiny in the hands of some presumed moral certainty. Ideals, Herzog has learned, more often confuse than resolve. Yet Herzog needs ideals; humanity needs ideals. But whose ideals? Those of the Romantics? the church? which philosopher? the scientist? This is part of Herzog's despair. Where does one go for answers when one's personal life has collapsed and one cannot produce professionally? Herzog reviews his past but cannot concentrate on the jumble of impressions he finds. There seems to be no overall pattern, only pieces that do not fit. He tries to escape to the seashore, to the elemental beginnings of humanity, but even there he is not able to find peace.