Summary and Analysis Part VII


Convinced that June, the only "genuine" product of his years with Madeleine, is being mistreated, Herzog speeds toward Chicago filled with the lust to kill. Hate has overpowered love within his heart. The poisoning desires of his heart for vengeance and personal justice have taken control of him. This section, then, is filled with the most hectic motion of the novel in order to parallel and intensify the hero's internal chaos.

As this section begins, Herzog is very much like a prodigal, returning to his father's Chicago home to visit the arthritic, half-blind Taube, Jonah Herzog's second wife. The old house, symbolic of his efforts to establish an understanding of his past, reminds Herzog that he (unlike the criminals in Part VI) cannot blame his environment for his murderous desires. The Herzogs have become a successful American family. Shura is a millionaire, Willie is a prosperous construction executive, and Helen is living a comfortable middle-class life. Even Herzog has six hundred dollars in the bank, so he cannot foist the responsibility for his failures and frustrations upon society.

Taube seems like a living corpse, locked in the darkness of the old house. Her face is deeply marked by time and suffering; her body is disfigured. As Herzog looks about the house, he understands that he is no longer the same person who once lived there. He is as alien to Taube's environment as Taube is to the society around her. A typical ache spreads through the hero's heart as he recalls his father's suffering. At this point, Moses Herzog has resolved the difference between his present self and the distant past, for he knows that he is no longer the child or young man that he once was. But he has not yet resolved the agonies inherited from his unfortunate marriage to Madeleine. He takes his father's pistol with the intention of revenging himself.

In an earlier section, Bellow wrote that man's knowledge is limited to what he is able to perceive; in this part, Herzog realizes that his perceptions are constantly warped by his "figurative" habit of mind. He rarely sees things as they are — fish become symbols of humanity, rooms become asylums, old hours are temples of the past. The figurative habit of mind is one which operates by imagination rather than by reason; it appeals to the emotions rather than to the intellect. But Herzog's chaotic feelings have enabled him to perceive truths of the human heart which reason could never discover. It was Shakespeare who associated the figurative habit of mind with elevated human capacities when he wrote in A Midsummer-Night's Dream:

Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,
Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend
More than cool reason ever comprehends.
The lunatic, the lover, and the poet
Are of imagination all compact.
One sees more devils than vast hell can hold;
That is, the madman. (V, i, 4-10)

In a sense, Herzog is a madman; convincing himself that he is justified in taking justice into his own hands to revenge himself as a cuckold and to protect his daughter, he sets out to murder Gersbach. Love and hate clash within Herzog when he sees that Gersbach is gentle and loving with June. He finally withdraws, declaring that the human spirit is an "amphibian." It was necessary that Herzog push himself to the edge of insanity and murder in order that he discover the true nature of his heart. Man lives in different elements; he is passive and violent, rational and irrational; he can love and he can hate. As Bellow writes in Part I, life is a "broth," a mixture of ambiguous qualities.

We must not get bogged down in this broth, Bellow is saying; we should not remain passive. Indeed, one of the major themes of this section relates to the motion motif developed earlier in Herzog's train, subway, and cab journeys. Herzog's wild driving parallels his inward quest for self-understanding. His inner journey requires that he travel physically to the locations of his traumatic experiences — New York, Chicago, and Ludeyville — and that he encounter the people involved in the development of his identity-Madeleine, Gersbach, Phoebe, Ramona, Asphalter, and others. He must also travel inwardly into the past of his childhood, into the historical past of his intellectual pursuits, and into the past when he lost control of his emotions. In his consciousness, he must reorder his experiences, his feelings, and his thoughts in order to free his concealed and aching heart from its shells and prisons and barriers.

From the beginning of this section, Moses Herzog is obsessed with time and motion and with man's existence as an amphibious creature of the flesh and spirit. He keeps glancing at his watch, aware that identity is fixed by time and space — but also that it can be defined by the contents of one's wallet.

In 1907, Bergson wrote in Creative Evolution that each individual exists both internally and externally and is constantly changing and passing from sensation to sensation — a phenomenon exemplified in Herzog's life story. For Bergson, memory provides the individual with his only source of "duration" and coherence since it accumulates fragmented mental conditions. Herzog, in alluding to Bergson, is suggesting that he has learned to bear the burden of his amphibious existence by establishing a conscious awareness of continuity. Identity, therefore, is the inescapable accumulation of memories and experiences, which explains Bellow's structural technique of free association. The seemingly unrelated memories and dislocated thoughts are fused only in the living Herzog. Duration for Bergson is a "multiplicity of moments" strung together in the unity of consciousness. For Moses, existence and identity develop in "duration." Thus he is — at the same time — child and man, cuckold and lover, a rational man and an emotional man. Reality achieves its only meaningful coherence in the private heart and through the individual.

Herzog feels that his character is out of place in the twentieth century; humanity has evolved so far that people with strong feelings are no longer suited to the non-personal environment. Private existence has become humiliating; one is cut off from other people by a social structure that can spare only small amounts of compassion. Yet the paradox of the public self versus the private self is that every isolated individual benefits from anonymous powers; history has done more for humanity in its evolutionary process than the individual could ever have achieved. All intellectual attempts to define the coherence of existence fail because they cannot resolve the contradictions of reality.

In his conversation with Lucas Asphalter, Herzog is again lectured by another of the many reality-instructors who are teaching him alternative viewpoints of reality. Lucas tells Moses to accept the reality of death. We realize that this has happened through the protagonist's memories and suffering. Moses has relived the deaths of his mother and father; he has recognized the death of his previous identities as a child, as an intellectual deluded by abstractions, as an unsuccessful husband, as a cuckold, and as a potential killer. Herzog has accepted death and, more important, has learned that life is comical because it is such an absurd mixture of contradictions. Most of all, Moses has learned that the human spirit is more complex than any definitions or any ideologies. The dialogue between Lucas and Moses is one of the most important parts of the novel because Herzog reveals a new confidence in his understanding of what it means to be human. Self-awareness is personal and cannot be limited by theories. The dilemma of words and definitions is that they are unsuitable for explaining human values. Herzog has resolved within himself the verbal madness that has driven him to write dozens of unfinished letters and notes. He had been attempting to define coherently what cannot be defined. Self-consciousness is an emotional and rational experience, not merely an intellectual conclusion. Human feelings cannot truly be documented.

Back to Top