Summary and Analysis
In this section, there is a fine blending of physical movement, memories, letter writing, and contemplation. A good example is Herzog's riding the ferry toward Martha's Vineyard while his memories go back to other journeys. As he writes letters, he recalls the past in a series of finely developed associations. Physical interruptions of his memories give us perspective and reiterate the juxtaposition of internal and external journeys toward self-knowledge. His inward journey has taught Herzog that he cannot escape from himself, nor can he expect to hide in self-pity. His contemplation as he reaches the Sissler home marks one of the psychological turning points of the novel, just as his flight back to New York from Martha's Vineyard marks a physical turning point. Moses reviews the state of human nature, and he recognizes the comedy of his efforts to suffer in an extraordinary manner. Herzog has survived great emotional turmoil. All around him he witnesses death, decadence, and pessimism. Although he has tried to solve humanity's problems intellectually, he has been unable to find rational coherence. Although he has embraced a series of women, he has not found sexual fulfillment.
Modern identity, Herzog discovers, dangles between the extremes of Emersonian transcendentalism and the materialistic despair of Thomas Hobbes. He juxtaposes allusions to Hobbes with those of Jean Jacques Rousseau. Hobbes saw the state of nature as one of brutality, the hunger for power and warfare. Rousseau, on the other hand, pioneered the Romantic faith in the inherent goodness, innocence, and beauty of human nature. But it is difficult to reconcile ideals with facts. Thus, intellectually and emotionally, Herzog is unable to accept either attitude. Other characters in the novel seem to gravitate toward the Hobbesian pessimism, but Moses is attracted toward Romantic optimism.
However much Herzog is attracted to the Romantics, he cannot find symbols of spiritual truth in reality, as do the Romantics. Secluded in his Ludeyville retreat, he attempted to lose himself in nature but instead found himself unable to perceive either unity or truth. He looked too deeply at nature. He does the same thing now: He is stirred by the beautiful setting at Woods Hole while awaiting the ferry, but he realizes that nature, the universe, is not merely beautiful; it is also turbulent and angry. The Romantic vision is too often an illusion and too often only one side of the picture. If one looks, say, at nature, he can also see-besides its contradictory aspects — what humans have made of nature with their materialism, mechanization, and confusion. Thus Herzog, who at first was warmed by the beauty of nature, finds himself lost in contradictions and confusion.
In addition to Herzog's confusion at seeing contradictory aspects of a person or an idea, he is also disturbed by what he calls "potato love." He defines this love as a kind of sloppy sentimentalism that ultimately defeats humanism and rationality. He applies the term to himself, suggesting that his own intellectual failures have resulted from his emotionalism. Finally, he will realize that "potato love" is a positive impulse toward love and brotherhood; it is the spontaneous power of the heart. It is corrupted when the individual submits mindlessly to the emotions of the majority. The overall effect of Herzog's musings in this section will become clearer later in the novel as Moses ponders the loss of identity to the demands of society and as he slowly comprehends the inability of the intellect to fathom the needs of the heart.
The letters and memories involving Sandor Himmelstein are central to the novel since this New York lawyer confronts Moses with his failures as a husband and as a man. A dwarfish, crippled pragmatist, Himmelstein is typical of the reality-instructor figure found in all of Bellow's novels. He is loud, gruff, and profane in his diatribes against weak emotionalism. Like Herzog's psychiatrist, his doctor, and his relatives and friends, Sandor verbally attacks Moses. Yet more than by Himmelstein's criticism of Herzog as a person, Moses is more upset by his lawyer's negativism about the condition of human nature. He is outraged at Sandor's insistence on "facts" as the basis of reality; Moses refuses to surrender to a mass of "facts."
In an important moment of his quest, Herzog accepts the dictum of Spinoza that a man must first desire to exist, to survive, before he can live well or discover happiness. By rejecting Himmelstein's pessimism and the existential despair of the void, the meaninglessness of life, he achieves a desire to survive and asserts the continued endurance of the heart through "potato love," that spontaneous, genuine ability to love other people despite their shortcomings.
Part III ends with a significant turn in the plot. Herzog has just affirmed "potato love," yet the letter from Geraldine Portnoy shows us that the protagonist has not yet purged himself of hate and the need for revenge. The letter contains one of the central motivations of the novel. When Herzog learns of Valentine's treatment of June, he threatens to kill his wife's lover. Vicious hate, which Herzog deplores in other people, is deeply rooted in Herzog himself.