Summary and Analysis
There is an idyllic quality in Bellow's descriptions of Herzog's home in Ludeyville. The peaceful environment reflects the restored sanity of Herzog's mind and spirit. In his absence, the property has become a "sanctuary" for many birds as it had once been a sanctuary for Herzog's foolish dreams. His mind continues to operate by the principle of "mental extension," for he views his house as a symbol of his efforts as a Jew to become a member of the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant community. In those days, he was blind to the corruption and absurdity of his own character.
Appropriately, Moses has not returned to take up his old roles as intellectual, scholar, and victim. He is only pausing to complete the process of therapy which he began after the breakup with Madeleine. Contrary to earlier descriptions of his obsession to be a handyman, he is now self-controlled, orderly, and purposeful. His physical gestures are slow and methodical, symbolizing the inner stability which he has finally achieved. Standing on the property which reminds him of his failures, Herzog quotes from Shelley's "Ozymandias" because he is now intensely aware of its theme that all human greatness must perish. In other words, the protagonist's blind faith in the intellect and in the ideologies of history perished because reason cannot adequately cope with emotional and personal problems.
In this section, Herzog writes a last series of notes that reflect his newfound stability. There is a strong tone of acceptance. He can now live with his failures and his personal shortcomings. Although he still feels great sorrow for what he has been, he is no longer distraught. He can contemplate the contradictory concepts of intellectual history which once obsessed him, but he will not take up his study of Romanticism and Christianity again because he no longer feels the need to classify and explain.
The letter to Professor Mermelstein is one of the longest in the book and is important in resolving Herzog's confusions about the public self and the private self. He sees that, ironically, the larger the silent middle class seems to grow, the more extreme the stimulus needed to shake them from their apathy; the mass mind perverts the individual because it robs him of his own volition. Mediocre truths fail to excite the masses, which demand violence or intensity.
Although he sees some elements of truth in the theories of Calvinism and in apocalyptic Romanticism, Herzog refuses to believe that humanity is doomed to horror and suffering. He scorns philosophers who comfortably legislate pain as a means of self-consciousness. Like religious thinkers, such philosophers (Nietzsche, for example) tend to become didactically narrow in placing theory over reality. Their ideologies become terrifying games of paranoia, masochism, and guilt. Suffering for its own sake, especially in terms of religion, repels Herzog. Too often, suffering fails to lead to virtue. Instead, it destroys the private self and crushes it beneath the weight of guilt. From his own experiences, the hero has learned that suffering can become a self-deceiving excuse for dignity and value. People with large imaginations, like Herzog, tend to theorize the need for pain. Now Moses has learned that he can free his heart from such delusions. The heart, Bellow's major concern in Herzog, needs no excuse to feel compassion, love, and need. It does not need exaggerated stimulation in order to feel. To be human means simply to have a heart open to spontaneous impulses.
Another important letter is the one to Nietzsche. For Nietzsche, superior individuals (through the Dionysian impulse) can transcend suffering, destruction, and the void after death. Pain, to Nietzsche, was necessary to develop great personalities. But Nietzsche's theories have been disproved by history, Herzog comments, since no true heroes have arisen from the ashes and destruction of the terrible twentieth-century wars. He can sympathize with Nietzsche's main motives to strip people of illusions and to make them face death and the lack of justification, but Herzog cannot accept Nietzsche's condemnation of the ordinary, common masses. Such theories are as perverted to Moses as those of Christianity, which Nietzsche was attacking. He ends his letter by referring to the veil of Maya, an allusion to the layers of delusive appearances in which humanity wraps itself.
The color green becomes symbolic of what Herzog has learned in his journeys from Ludeyville and back. The green piano is an allusion to the theme of concealed identity, and the green trees in the reflection suggest that the hero's identity has been reduced to a more natural state. The green well water is polluted with a dead rat at the bottom, yet it is also a mixture of purity; thus it reiterates the water imagery of earlier parts and the theme of the amphibious self.
Herzog's greatest obsession had been his need for total explanations, but he has discovered that the lives of philosophers can be as chaotic as those of common people. Herzog has returned to common humanity because he no longer seeks to be an extraordinary intellectual. He can open his heart to impulses which his rationality denied him.
Although Herzog is able to relax in the idyllic rural setting, he cannot spontaneously write a poem. His mind, presently, is too strong a mixture of insight and imagination. The vague songs within himself are too elusive for definition. He confesses that so much of his life has been a futile effort to make sense out of existence. Soon his brother is coming and will want to talk about property and "concrete matters." Instead of matters concrete, however, Herzog has just completed an understanding of matters ambiguous.
There is a sense of irony in Herzog's stability in Part IX, for he is still the victim of subjectivity and is still alienated from commitments. Although he has purged himself of the maniacal need to explain reality, he still attempts to justify and rationalize what he has done. The continuing quest of Bellow's heroes has been to find meaningful personal relationships. In Herzog, the resolution has barely begun with Moses' acceptance of his mixed condition. His journeys have cleansed him of hate and have renewed his ability to love. Although he lacks the capacity to understand them fully, he comprehends the conflicting powers within himself.
Herzog slowly prepares to begin his gradual involvement with society again. Throughout the novel, he has been burdened by his own character, but now he has lost weight, suggesting that he has cleansed himself of the weight of egotism, self-righteousness, and willfulness. He has also cured himself of Romantic quests for the extraordinary and the transcendental. He has accepted the evasiveness of truth, the limitations of time and place, the demands of the flesh, the burdens of failure and memory, and the needs of the heart.
Moses pities his materialistic brother because he sees that success has robbed Will of a passionate nature. Practical considerations about money and status have dulled Will's emotional capacities. It is apparent that Will loves Herzog, but he cannot express it. He is restrained and polite. Thus Herzog has to force himself to appear rational and self-controlled. He cannot be spontaneous because, to Will, this will seem strange and weak. But he does refuse his brother's suggestion that he go to a hospital for a rest. Herzog has no faith in psychiatrists and their theories. He tries to explain that he must work out his own problems, and he decides to stay on at Ludeyville to further stabilize himself.
As he waits for Ramona, Herzog listens to the birds and watches the beauty of the sunset. Earlier in Part IX, birds were compared to the human spirit when Herzog opened the windows to free the birds trapped in the house. In the same way, Herzog's spirit is no longer trapped by the memories which the house holds for him; his "servitude" to Madeleine has ended. At the end of the novel, Herzog is peacefully aware of the strange demands of flesh and spirit. He is limited physically, mentally, and spiritually; he is an animal who cannot prove his divinity, a finite being struggling to become eternal, and a sexual creature with the capacity to love. He can now freely obey the dictates of the heart rather than those of the head or the flesh.
Is he sane, he wonders. He realizes that he is purged of hate and the need for total explanations. He has learned to control his madness, although he has not achieved total sanity. Herzog is, however, a man who can live with himself; he is a man without messages for humanity, without ideologies to force upon others, without a need to feel superior. To be human, he has learned, means to accept, to tolerate, to endure ambiguity. The human species, the novel demonstrates, is a composite of extremes — of madness and sanity, of hate and love, of reason and feeling, and of doubt and truth.