Summary and Analysis
Some critics have said that Herzog's continued introspection and the lack of dramatic action are flaws in this novel. Saul Bellow, however, is using this technique to demonstrate the dark kaleidoscope of delusions and frustrations that can drive a well-educated, sensitive man to the edge of his sanity. Out of his fears and memories, Moses Herzog is slowly and reluctantly discovering that he must accept what he is — not a whole, unified man, but an ambiguous mixture of qualities.
For instance, he is now comprehending that he often used his passivity and masochism as a foil. He sees that he was attempting to escape his own emotional problems through his role as an intellectual hero. Or else, when pained by his failures as a husband and as a scholar, he yearned for his mother's affection and for the simple truths he had as a child. What he must now accept is that adult problems are always more entangled than those of the child; there are no simple absolutes, no simple solutions for Herzog now.
Identity for Herzog depends upon what Bellow labels "orientation." In preceding sections, Herzog attempted to gain insight into himself by examining where he came from and what he was like; he was attempting to gain temporal orientation. In the following sections, he will attempt sexual, social, and moral orientation. Self-awareness depends, in other words, upon diverse and complex perspectives into the past, present, and future — in the social context and in the psychological make-up of each moment; a human is a paradoxical union of flesh and spirit. The physical act of shaving reinforces the idea of the concealed self, the concealed identity, for it is not the reflection in the mirror that represents the identity of the hero but the total experiences of his past and the confused impulses of his heart. Although Herzog is preparing to play the role of lover, he knows that he is, in reality, running away from his fears of living without justification and purpose.
Part V deals at length with Herzog's need to feel that he is an American. While in high school, he was attracted to the transcendentalism of Ralph Waldo Emerson, who quested for the "essential self" in the realms of abstract, idealistic unity. Emerson was the first great American spokesman for individualism. But the implication throughout this novel is that Romantic individualism is impossible in modern society because the intuitions of the heart are frustrated by conflicting emotions, by doubts that ideals are not relevant to a world torn by violence and wars, and by fears that individuality is out of place in a society growing more and more crowded and collective. Herzog is too obviously an outsider to be "American." He flatly rejects the ethics of Benjamin Franklin, the materialism of the business world, and the hypocrisies of Calvinism. He is concerned about the loss of individual identity to a political system that promotes commodity as a higher value than personality.
Herzog's thoughts, however, do not remain on one side of the philosophical fence. Again they become ambiguous and contradictory because he looks too deeply into things. Although he is repelled by a system that promotes economics instead of individual autonomy, it is apparent to him that the American materialistic economy has also created more free time and opportunity. Progress has robbed the private life of freedom by making people dependent on political and economical conditions; yet, at the same time, technology has given the individual more free time by shortening the working day.
Two important images, already used in previous sections, become crucial to Herzog's problem of identity in this section. The first, the description of rooms, relates back to Madeleine's apartment and the house in Ludeyville. Mady's rooms symbolized her concealed identity, and the chaos at Ludeyville reflected Herzog's internal confusion and his inability to bring order to his life. In this section, both Sono and Ramona live in hedonistic luxury that symbolizes their Oriental exoticism, which is generally considered alien to Western civilization. Both bar their doors when Herzog enters, suggesting that sexuality can be as imprisoning as marriage or scholarly pursuits. In effect, the feline Sono conceals Herzog's identity in the sensuous atmosphere of her apartment.
Through the second image — Herzog's ritual of washing — Bellow achieves a fusion of several of the novel's motifs. The recurrent references to Herzog's sweat suggest that the hero is as burdened by his physical needs as he is by his obsession to explain his existence rationally. Moses labors under the weight of his flesh and its uncleanliness. He is constantly washing because he is attempting to cleanse himself of his human corruption and of too much thinking. Sono soothed him to the point of self-forgetfulness. Stripped of his clothes, Herzog was also stripped of his layers of identity and of emotional neuroses. With Sono, the hero was alienated from his Jewish, as well as his American, heritage. But the baths in Sono's apartment, despite their intense sensual joy, were antithetical to Herzog's nature. Too many other needs continued to dominate him. His real identity was too solidly forged by the past and by self-consciousness, which he lost when Sono locked her doors and stripped him of his clothes. Herzog cannot escape his suffering nor his driving need to find coherence and truth. These cravings prove greater than the impulse to forget oneself in eroticism.
Ramona's eroticism, however, is most important in establishing Herzog's identity. For her, sex is almost a religion, and she is a "priestess"; Sono was an agnostic and used sex to conceal the self instead of fulfilling it. Ramona, Bellow reveals, gives sexual experiences transcendental connotations and tries to unite the flesh and spirit. She consciously makes an effort to restore Moses' sanity by calming his troubled spirit. She is aware of the human necessity to be sensual and physical, as well as abstract and rational.
In a digression, Herzog returns to the theme of the "ordinary," introduced in Parts II and III. With the failure of the Emersonian and transcendental impulse, humanity has turned to more grotesque and monstrous extremes. Emotional perversions have been spawned by our mechanical and urbanized society-in particular, the emotional perversions evidenced in the nihilism of Nachman, the cold pessimism of Himmelstein, the role-playing of Gersbach, and Madeleine's obsession to be extraordinary. Americans have lowered their sights, so to speak, and are satisfied with corrupting sources of inspiration (such as narcotics). Instead of questing after honor, mercy, justice, courage, and temperance — those virtues Nachman despairs are lost — the average American has perverted his better instincts and has lost his emotional freedoms. Instead of seeking spiritual inspiration, modern humanity has settled for mindless, physical satisfactions.
But Herzog recoils from the temptation of nihilism and reaffirms the endurance of human values. Individuality has not been lost, for it takes individuals to create progress and technology; if visionary power has been given to the masses, instead of to the poets, then goodness and evil, beauty and nobility, and other human aspirations belong to everyone and not just to a select few.
Returning to the theme of the heart, Herzog smiles at himself. He yearns for the inspiration of intellectual truth and goodness; yet he is not wholly a "thinker"; he is also a victim of the sexual need which has driven him from woman to woman, from one physical satisfaction to another. Humanity, he ponders, turns to sex as it turns to materialism or puritanical piety in order to ease the aching heart. Moses is slowly comprehending that the heart is a complex and elusive center of consciousness, yearning for stability and purpose. Millions of human beings guard their hearts, attempting to preserve their own subjective convictions. Sono and Ramona lock their doors; Herzog locks his, as millions of citizens lock in their possessions. But to be free, Herzog suggests, the individual must occasionally break his locks and tear down the barriers which prevent him from seeking a higher understanding.
Through his hero, Saul Bellow is making acute observations about the psychological motivations and needs of modern people. His protagonist, in quest of a meaningful identity, fears that he lacks coherent purpose. He wants desperately to assert his identity, yet thus far he has only been able to affirm his opposition to emotional excesses like those of Valentine, to materialism like that of Himmelstein, and to self-deceptions like those of Madeleine and the Pontritters. Humanity needs a reason to survive, but it cannot, with certainty, believe in any truths that enable it to transcend the demands of the flesh.
The mind has its own forms of bondage, for everything seems to lead Herzog back to thoughts of death. The intensity of his suffering derives in great part from Herzog's inability to stop thinking about the past. He has been "writing" to dead philosophers, and he has spent much of his life working with the theme of death in his scholarship. In effect, he has placed his faith in neither God nor humanity but in the reasonings of the dead.
Symbolically, each time Herzog washes, he is preparing his body for death. One lives only by understanding that he is always dying, Moses thinks. Bellow has asserted on numerous occasions that people must learn to confront the dominating fact of death instead of deceiving themselves with an obsession for eternal youth. In Herzog, Bellow is constantly repeating the theme that everything must perish and that the flesh is inevitably reclaimed by the earth. Life must pass finally into the void of death. Herzog, for instance, sees this in the aging bodies of people he meets; he sees it in the old buildings being demolished in the city; he sees it in his own flesh. And it is the fear that there is only a void after death that drives him to despair.
The hero is also discovering that all asylums can become prisons — the house in Ludeyville, his apartment, Sono's apartment, and Ramona's rooms. He is afraid that Ramona's locks may shut him in instead of keeping others out. Nevertheless, it is his mistress' compassion and stability that attracts him to her; Moses feels that in an irrational world, one needs an asylum where the rare values of the heart endure.
Ramona is in sharp contrast to Madeleine. Herzog's second wife was frigid and emasculating in that she made sex demeaning. Her obsession for a spiritual or intellectual value in sex alienated the body and the spirit. Ramona, on the other hand, comprehends his sensual needs and tries to help him discover the spirit through the flesh. For her, sexual gratification could establish a basic stability in Herzog's life. There is a strongly implied sense of approval in Bellow's treatment of Ramona. Unlike Madeleine, she does not need to be dominating, and she does not try to legislate Herzog's life for him. Unlike Mady, she does not dramatize every situation; she is not constantly role-playing.
Herzog has been a philosopher seeking the meaning of life by denying the body, but when his clothes are removed and he experiences erotic delight, he discovers the joyful fulfillment of his relationship with Ramona. When all the elaborate theories of existence are stripped away, he uncovers the basic need for a woman s love. The aching heart needs another heart in order to fulfill itself. Sexuality has a tremendous impact on Herzog's troubled spirit. Ramona sets out to teach him that he can be released from the burdens of a mass technological society. She teaches him that the instincts survive and that the private self endures. From Ramona, Moses learns the need for sincere emotions; he is purged of thinking too much.
The overall impact of Part V is one of synthesis. It unites several important motifs in the bathing and washing images. It effectively demonstrates the potential union of flesh and spirit between a man and a woman. It partially resolves the conflict of the private and public selves by affirming the continuing endurance of the personal in the midst of the collective. And, more important, it brings Herzog out of his isolationism and into social relationships and awareness; the emphasis of the novel is beginning to change from introspection to dramatic action.