Summary and Analysis
If Himmelstein combated the "void" with hard-nosed pragmatism and Shapiro with pseudo-intellectualism, then Mady for a time attempted to find meaning for her life in religion. But she was tormented with guilt because she was having sex with her lover. Thus Moses thinks she was hypocritical. Through his hero, Bellow takes his stand against self-deceiving quests for moral justification. Mady's sexual excitement ironically increased because of the struggle between Msgr. Hilton and Herzog for her soul. She wanted to believe in the traditional American values — marriage, Christmas, Easter, and the fear of God. Most of all, she wanted to escape from her fears of death. Bellow is suggesting that too many individuals are obsessed with religious rituals simply because they dread living without some assurance that their lives have a purpose and that they will live on after death.
Interspersed with thoughts of Mady are memories of Herzog's relationships — and failures — with other women. It is paradoxical that he could not accept an orderly regulated life with Daisy, his first wife, while he pursued intellectual order and purpose in his studies of Romanticism and Christianity. Since this section immediately follows Herzog's condemnation of Mady's self-deception, it underscores the hero's own role-playing as a scholar. It also strengthens the accusations made by several other characters in the novel: Moses failed as a husband because he was always dealing in abstractions. It is painfully clear that each time the protagonist considers someone else's faults, he exposes his own shortcomings. This only increases his suffering, for, like everyone else, he wants to justify his existence.
In a richly descriptive scene that extends for nearly four pages, Bellow minutely details the physical and psychological barriers that Mady built around herself while she was Herzog's mistress. The description of Mady's clothes and make-up continues to the point of comic absurdity. Even her apartment was distinguished by artificiality and was coated with layers of paint and enamel. Besides being a graphic indictment of the "concealed self," this section is one of the finest stylistic achievements of the novel. In this respect, one should also note Bellow's use of the mirror imagery. All of Madeleine's methodical preparations take place before a mirror in which she makes herself disappear beneath cosmetics. Bellow's description of Herzog, naked under a trench coat, suggests that his personality is not as concealed as Mady's; he sits viewing the entire process, acutely aware that she is psychologically withdrawing into her role as a Catholic convert and that she is concealing the spirit, as well as the body. Her religious medals, her heavy clothes, and "her heavy heart" make it impossible for her spirit to be free. The thesis is obvious: The heart is burdened with our social deceptions and our obsessions for truth. This theme of concealed identity is further developed by Herzog's analysis of the personality of Tennie Pontritter. Each individual, he is aware, buries his identity beneath "layers." Tennie hides behind an eccentric costume, suffering, and calculated hypocrisy. She willingly chains herself to her poses, as Herzog willingly chains himself to his intellectual role-playing.
Herzog is rich in suggestive imagery and in the constant juxtaposition of sensation and contemplation. Consider Bellow's use of the fish imagery. The relationship of the fish in the market to Herzog is evident: the evocative descriptions of the damp, overcast sky, the polluted river nearby, the brackish air, and the fish packed together in ice — all these are symbols of Herzog's fragmented life. Herzog senses a message but cannot interpret it because he is still a prisoner of his perceptions and cannot fathom the inherent symbolism of the situation. But the meaning is clear because we have seen Moses react violently to becoming a victim of mass society and collective ideologies. The fish in this scene symbolize individuality sacrificed to collective mentality and lost in the pressures of urban life.
Part IV is important to Herzog's recognition of his absurd delusions of historical importance. In Part III, Moses listed the symptoms of paranoia; here he discusses some of the characteristics of existentialism. Like the existentialist, Moses despairs of his inability to find a purpose for his existence, and he is afraid to face death. He confesses that his emotional disorders prevent him from achieving his intellectual goals.
The section concerning Heidegger's theory of the "quotidian" is crucial to the problem of identity. Man must rediscover value in the "ordinary" since he has lost abstract, spiritual certainty. Contrasted with the frustrated efforts of Herzog and others to be extraordinary are "ordinary" emotions and sensations — the sights, sounds, smells, and experiences of daily living — eating, sleeping, washing, making love, walking down a crowded street; these are basic and should have value. Too often they do not. Moses understands that abstract theories and scientific pessimism are alien to the sensations and emotions which make up day-to-day existence.
In only a few pages of Part IV, Bellow effectively sums up the condition of his hero — and, in the process, of modern man. Moses Herzog cannot concentrate on any subject very long. At one moment, he is obsessed with theories about humanity in general, and, in the next moment, he is obsessed with personal emotions of jealousy, hate, and love. Although he struggles against nihilism, he despairs that he cannot comprehend the purpose of life. Nor can he even understand his own feelings. For Bellow, his hero's condition is symptomatic of an age which lacks the certainties of less complicated ages when science had not disproved many suppositions about the state of nature and humanity.
If certitude is impossible, then many of Herzog's actions become absurd, especially his scholarly quest to resolve the problems of Christianity and Romanticism. Herzog had been so obsessed with historical personages — such great thinkers as Hegel, Kant, Rousseau, and Spinoza — that he lost contact with real people. He explored the "law of the heart" in intellectual history but failed to cope with it in his own life. It is now his aim to restore the power of his own heart.
Herzog's efforts to be an exceptional man, an intellectual hero, are frustrated by his inability to unite the contradictions of mind and heart, theory and fact. On one hand, he rejects Romantic idealism which overemphasizes emotion, and, on the other hand, he rejects sterile definitions which deny emotion as a valid source of understanding oneself. Emotionalism robs us of reason; rationalism robs us of feeling. The protagonist dangles between the two extremes.
The comedy of the novel arises from the incongruous situations which parallel intellectual pursuits and everyday necessities — the scholar wearing an aviator's helmet to keep warm as he reads philosophy. No matter how much he tries to be scholarly, Moses cannot escape the ordinary. The elaborate descriptions of his cluttered life in Ludeyville exemplify the dichotomy of theory and fact. They also, externally, represent the hero's internal confusion. Instead of establishing order in the house, as he also tried to establish philosophical coherence, he finds himself being overwhelmed by the problems of being a handyman. The toilet irritates him as much as the problems of Romanticism. If nothing else, the Ludeyville section points out the impossibility of Herzog's seriously considering Romanticism or nihilism when he is faced with the problems of a rusty toilet or egg-encrusted dishes.
The end of Part IV concerns death. The dead are fixed, settled, and limited by the finality of death; and because so many people have perished and suffered, individual pain is no longer unique. Consequently, as with the fish earlier in this section, identity is depersonalized. The profound emotion which Herzog feels, however, in remembering the past implies that one person can preserve the past within himself, alive in memory and feeling. One need not be a nihilist simply because death is inevitable.
Nachman, Herzog's boyhood friend, is sharply juxtaposed to the hero. Personal tragedies drove Nachman to nihilism and despair. Like Himmelstein, he came to deny values such as friendship, love, and honor. But Nachman has one important value: He is able to recognize in Herzog a unique quality of heart. And, if Part IV demonstrates how Herzog wasted his financial inheritance, it also concerns his spiritual inheritance, his schooling in grief, and the training of the heart. The hero's emotionalism and impracticality, it is evident, are inherited from his father and mother. Although he has squandered the $20,000, he is struggling to retain the inheritance of the heart.
One key to comprehending some of Herzog's confusion is in his memories of the drunken Yiddish actor, Ravitch. Ravitch has been unable to accept the changed social climate of Canada, much as Jonah Herzog could not adjust to the demands of materialism. Similarly, Moses is dislocated from the changed conditions of life in America where such characters as Himmelstein and his own brother Shura demand that Herzog become hardhearted and pragmatic. Another key is Herzog's ideas about childhood. Herzog constantly wishes he could return to the simplicity of childhood despite the physical hardships and suffering because he fondly remembers the love of his mother and the enduring dignity of his father. Childhood is a state of innocence and affection for Herzog, a better state of being than adulthood and its complexities. Childhood is a time of greater feeling as well. Yet even in childhood Herzog encountered a reality-instructor — his aunt Zipporah. She lectured his father and called him names, much as Himmelstein and others lecture Herzog and call him names.
From childhood, then, Herzog has opposed reality-instructors who would have him lose the capacity to feel. He recoils from the nihilism of Nachman and from the pessimistic Machiavellianism of Himmelstein. Throughout Part IV, he resists limiting identities and ideologies. In the tradition of the American individualist, developed through James Fenimore Cooper's Natty Bumppo, Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn, and even the heroes of Ernest Hemingway, Moses Herzog refuses to be swallowed by the "facts" of materialism and civilization — the fragmentation and competition of urban existence, the violence of people, and all the suffering which has led others in the novel to nihilism. Yet he is also in the tradition of the European existential hero who, like Camus' hero in The Fall, alienates himself from artificial roles and is forced back into his own emptiness. Again, we are faced with the duality within Herzog. The assertion of the individual's ability to endure is pitted against the fear that existence is meaningless. And if Herzog is free from the artificial roles of society, that is, if he chooses not to be a businessman, a materialist, or a citizen who accepts the violence and corruption of his environment, then what is he free to choose? Thus far in the novel, the protagonist has found all roles limiting.