Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Nailing the Worldview of A Character in One Paragraph: Bellow's Herzog Teaches Us

Saul Bellow makes fantastic use of a scene with his slovenly protagonist, Moses E. Herzog, in the eponymous novel, that nails the worldview of the character in memorable fashion.

Herzog knows no end to personal tribulation and trial. His gorgeous ex-wife has left him, kicked him out of the house he bought for her, to shack up with his best friend, Valentine, who only has one leg but is a showy, bombastic SOB who seems to steal Ms. Herzog's heart in a way Moses E. never could.

One of the worst parts is Herzog's inability to finish his book on the Romantics, which was going to save humanity with new insights to boost humanity past the problem that material progress and production had liberated the masses, but then had left their lives unfulfilled (156).

Steeped in the similar malaise one finds in Percy's The Moviegoer and Richard Ford's Frank Bascombe novels, Bellow's Herzog meets with the lawyer, Simkin, and sums up what I consider the primary aim of Western civilization at the height of its material powers and its nadir of spiritual understanding and progress:
Simkin, sitting in his office, occupied a grand Sykes chair, beneath enormous rows of law books. A man is born to be orphaned, and to leave orphans after him, but a chair like that chair, if he can afford it, is a great comfort. Simkin was not so much sitting as lying in this seat (40).
"Orphaned, and to leave orphans after him" is nearly Shakespearean in its coiled brevity of summing humanity's earthly existence. How well it hits up or predicts the pangs of sorrow we all feel or will feel. Nobody escapes death, or the death of everyone he loves.

Yet, we might as well ride it out in as fine a chair as possible. One that even invites a posture "not so much sitting as lying".

Is that the Western world's antidote for spiritual despair and uneasiness, mental yearning and anxiety? Ride it out by pushing material progress to its niftiest conclusion?

Every novel should have a passage that carries the weight of the entire novel, even if it's humorous -- to nest the major themes into one quiet moment of clarification and concentration.

Saul Bellow. Herzog. Fawcett Crest. 1965.

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