YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

November 12, 2011

The Woman Question in Saul Bellow’s Herzog

Saul Bellow

It is easy to see why Saul Bellow, the son of Jewish Russian émigrés who were as declassed as many French aristocrats during the French Revolution, would be attracted to Herman Melville’s The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade (1857), for Melville not only paraded his gallery of intriguing grotesques in that novel (written in the same Berkshires that are the setting for the final passages of Herzog) ; HM declared his unambiguous opposition to the money-mad materialist civilization that had brought his own family down.*

And Melville could be as misogynistic (see his description of the promethean “Goneril” in CM) as Moses Herzog, the chief character and semi-narrator of a novel that is considered to be one of the 100 most important books ever written.  I have not surveyed the literary criticism of Bellow’s novel, but have noted that his novels are said to be frankly barely disguised autobiography, and that Sam Tanenhaus, for one, has criticized Bellow for his unflattering portraits of ex-wives in that novel. What is striking to me, however, is the venom that is directed toward the second wife, “Madeleine”— a stunningly beautiful but hyper-critical, unfaithful woman who, like Melville’s own mother after the publication of Pierre, believes him to be mad and wants him to be institutionalized.  “Madeleine” is an intellectual and a graduate student in Russian literature and philosophy. Her real life counterpart was the second of five wives, Alexandra Tsachacbasov, perhaps a woman who could challenge him in the field said to be influential in his own development: the Russian 19th century novel.

In Bellow’s novel, lodged in the Berkshires (near Pittsfield, Melville’s home for his most productive years, called Arrowhead)  in a country home that Herzog has improved with his own hands, he comes to a belief that he is not crazy, and ceases writing messages to persons living and dead, never sent, but sprinkled throughout the tale.

One of these unsent messages is to his discarded psychiatrist “Edvig”: “You gave me good value for my money when you explained that neuroses might be graded by the inability to tolerate ambiguous situations.  I have just read a certain verdict in Madeleine’s eyes, “For cowards, Not-being!” Her disorder is super-clarity. Allow me modestly to claim that I am much better now at ambiguities. I think I can say, however, that I have been spared the chief ambiguity that afflicts intellectuals, and this is that civilized individuals hate and resent the civilization that has made their lives possible. What they love is an imaginary human situation invented by their own genius and which they believe is the only true and the only human reality. How odd! But the best treated, most favored and intelligent part of any society is often the most ungrateful. Ingratitude, however, is its social function. Now there’s an ambiguity for you!….” (p.304)

Is it any wonder that Herzog became a best-seller and marked the turning point in Bellow’s reputation? Not only has Bellow tossed overboard the hope of human amelioration as idiotically utopian, we are  supposed to despise Freudians ( because the latter rejected religion for a materialist, historical understanding of human suffering, and even proposed in The Future of an Illusion that a society tolerating unnecessary poverty did not deserve to persist?).  As for Melville and ambiguity, his much-ridiculed novel Pierre, or the Ambiguities (1852), limned the conflict between a complacent upper-class life versus one committed to the rescue of abandoned suffering humanity. His hero, the romantic Pierre, does not regret his decision to choose originality in form and content over conventional narratives like Typee, no matter whose ox is gored. The ambiguity lay in the possibly mixed motives in choosing the orphaned Dark Lady “Isabel” over his genteel fiancée, Lucy.  For Freudians, and for Melville in other works, ambiguity lay in separating out free will from determinism.  Is the “truth” we seek a straightforward matter, or is it clouded in subjective dispositions, selective amnesia, and self-interest? (For ambiguity in Melville see https://clarespark.com/2013/01/08/is-ahab-ahab-the-free-will-debate/.)

Clearly, “Madeleine” is guilty of “super-clarity.”  She thinks she can see through her husband, diagnose his disorder while cracked herself, and perhaps she is overconfident in her intellectual competence as compared to Herzog, who conveniently has rejected both Marx and Freud, at a time (1964) when the U.S. counter-culture had moved sharply into anti-materialist New Ageism and other forms of “spirituality”—perhaps the kind offered by Rudolf Steiner, the founder of anthroposophy, studied by Bellow at one time.

I have argued elsewhere on this website, that misogyny and antisemitism are linked, and that the key to their twinning is the Medusa/Gorgon stare of the modern mother, who, since the late 18th century and the rise of capitalism that elevated her as the bearer of morality,  first lays down the law for the child–perhaps in the case of this poetic author,  a  child who never severed the cord, for Bellow’s own mother had died when he was only seventeen years old. If my inferences are correct, it was no accident that Bellow named his doppelgänger Moses.

*See the Bellow bio on Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saul_Bellow. It is curious that Melville is not seen as a literary influence, especially given the specificity of Pittsfield, Mass. as the location where Herzog finds peace and stability ensconced in nature. However, Melville did not find peace anywhere, and as for nature, its deceptively benign, beckoning  exterior could conceal “the charnel house within.”

Alexandra Ionescu Tulcea and Bellow


Blog at WordPress.com.