The Suffering Joker

I’ve been reading Saul Bellow’s Herzog and finding it a dense, slow read, but one that has a lot to say about the pitiful condition of the intellectual in the contemporary world. I’ve been wondering for a long time why it is that academics turn up so frequently in novels and why they always appear such shambolic and damaged creatures. In that respect, Herzog is a good case study, as he dominates the entire narrative, and is as complex, brilliantly insightful and existentially disastrous as they come.

So Herzog is an internal monologue that spans days in real time but crosses back and forth across the whole extent of Herzog’s life, from his beginnings in happy poverty with his beloved, careworn mother and entrepreneurial but doomed father, through two failed marriages and many love affairs, through his career as an academic working with intellectual history, the publication of his book on Romanticism and his terrible struggles to write the subsequent volume (and, boy, do I know how that feels!). All these redoubtable adventures bring him to this pathetic point in time, convalescent still from the battle wounds of his last marriage, unable to make sense of his life and its future, and channeling his restless, confused energies into a series of unsent letters. The letters are the trademark of this novel as Herzog addresses friends, enemies, colleagues, the dead and finally, the famous dead. He never seems to finish a letter, or finish a train of thought (the two seeming to be one and the same thing) but the only time he seems to be enjoying himself is when he is picking a posthumous fight with Eisenhower, Spinoza or Shrodinger. There is no intellectual battle that Herzog will not engage in, torn as he is between resentment and hope that philosophy might provide the only way through the absurd morass of existence: ‘Believing that reason can make steady progress from disorder to harmony and that the conquest of chaos need not be begun anew every day. How I wish it! How I wish it were so!’ But it is not only the intellectual giants of old that Herzog takes issue with. Many of the letters chip away at old wounds, at lost relationships and unresolved emotional battles. Moses Herzog has a sense of himself as a broken man, one brought low by the demands and the complaints of others that are not exactly their fault but part of an inevitable project of history to give mankind a really bad time: ‘his recent misfortunes might be seen as a collective project, himself participating, to destroy his vanity and his pretensions to a personal life so that he might disintegrate and suffer and hate, like so many others, not on anything so distinguished as a cross, but down in the mire of post-Renaissance, post-humanistic, post-Cartesian dissolution, next door to the Void. Everybody was in on the act.’

This is a novel with a lot to say about the current state of affairs in America (this being the early 60s). There’s a very good introduction to my Penguin copy by the wonderful (sadly now deceased) Malcolm Bradbury. When Bellow wrote this, he tells us, he had been reading the European Existentialists and was intrigued to follow their line of thought through his native land. The crisis of history he believed to be viewed abroad as the inevitable product of bloodless reason or logic, taking over control of events. Americans, according to Bellow, were less bothered by intellectual justification. Bradbury says that ‘in post-war American writing the violence of being, the absurdity of existence, the state of alienation are presented as plain and brute empiricism, a view of the way things just are.’ But Bellow had his own take on that, talking of ‘the disheartening expansion of trained ignorance and bad thought. For, to put the matter at its baldest, we live in a thought world and thinking has gone very bad indeed.’ Herzog embraces this idea, writing in one of his endless letters, this time to an American governor that ‘the instinct of the people was to reject mentality and its images, ideas, perhaps mistrusting them as foreign. It preferred to put its trust in visible goods.’ And yet in doing so, the consumer society is based on a terrible, fundamental delusion, for people hunger after ‘good sense, clarity, truth – even an atom of it. People are dying – it is no metaphor – for lack of something real to carry home when the day is done.’

I found all of this very fascinating because it crystallizes for me the paradox surrounding the world of academics. I think it’s true that people long for clarity and understanding, no matter what their condition, an idea to grasp hold of the way you might wish on a falling star. And yet there is a general mistrust of the world of the intellect in case it turns out to exclude us, to function above our heads and rob us of control, in case the clever compositions it offers as the truth might turn out to be insufficient and disappointing. It’s also true that we’ve rarely been in such an anti-intellectual climate in our lengthy history; confidence in reason or thought to solve the problems of existence appears to be at an all-time low, and yes, it appears to be this way because thought itself has brought us to this impasse. The dreaded postmodern, poststructuralist way of thinking is regularly charged as having crumbled to dust the steady rock of intellectual endeavour on which we thought we stood. I don’t think it’s all theory’s fault: economics has a lot to answer for if you ask me, but still, we are talking of Herzog. And here’s where the paradox becomes sharpest, most intense. For Herzog is clearly a brilliant man, a man whose extensive learning has furnished him with profound insight into the intellectual history of the world, an eloquent, angry, searching man, compulsively engaged in the quest for insight and understanding. And he is a man who is incapable of being happy and whose appellation for himself is the suffering joker. What good, we might ask ourselves, is all this knowledge, if it cannot improve our being in the world? The worst is that Herzog’s researches have led him to the place where he believes that happiness itself is an illusion: ‘No true individual has existed yet, able to live, able to die. Only diseased, tragic, or dismal and ludicrous fools who sometimes hoped to achieve some ideal by fiat, by their great desire for it. But usually by bullying all mankind into believing them.’ Herzog has reached a place of almost invalid-ish incapacity, his mind a tortured mass of thoughts, ideas, grudges, concepts. To see reality without the dulling veil of simple material gain, of brute or thoughtless acceptance, is to imprint a damaging image on the retina that will subsequently overlay all other images. It is not comfortable to see the world as it really is, and intellectuals like Herzog pose a terrible menace to the good, simple life, with their threat of revealing their own brand of unpleasant truth on a resistant humanity.

Not a pretty picture, right? And yet a hundred, a hundred and fifty years ago it was all so very different, and the intellectual was a prince among mankind. Now were we right then, or are we right now? And will we ever find a middle way in which intellectual thought can be respected, welcomed and incorporated into our average lives? Or is it the nature of intellectual endeavour to challenge and disquiet? I don’t know, but I think it’s something I want to seriously consider.

11 thoughts on “The Suffering Joker

  1. I never thought of it this way, but now I do think it’s the nature of intellectual endeavor to challenge and disquiet. It’s a good explanation for why so many shy away from it, since most people don’t really want to be challenged too much or made to feel too uncomfortable. I, like you, will have to think on this some more.

  2. It’s such an intriguing problem for me, why we don’t much like academics, and I can only think it’s because it’s moved from being the discipline that will perfect us, to the one that will undermine us. But such a thought needs more work on it! It always heartens me to think you see what I’m saying, dear Emily!

  3. I read this some time ago and think you’ve persuaded me to read it again although other unread books are pressing. My favourite Bellow is ‘Mr Sammler’s Planet’. There’s also a fascinating biography but it’s immensely long. His final novel, ‘Ravelstein’ goes back to the topic of the intellectual by the way. I’m never quite convinced by this image of respect for the eighteenth century intellectual as it’s portrayed. For most of the population, then as now, the intellectual was a distant something, vaguely floating at the edge of the everyday world, acclaimed by other intellectuals and the small (percentage-wise), number of the educated and informed. But I’m no expert so I could be wrong – it’s just an impression. Great post on a great book.

  4. I haven’t read Herzog, but I’ve read other books that paint academics as crusty, bitter and superior. It is hard to reconcile this with the ones I know in real life who are curious, animated, brilliant and, well, kind of heroic, (except for that one Botany professor). I know that there is another type of academic who is covetous of knowledge and contemptuous of ignorance and smells of raw onions and mothballs, (I better be careful, this might be me in twenty years) but at my small college the dynamics of the academics has been the best part. I’ve criticized postmodernism as well, but I’ve never studied a subject that made me understand the metaphysics of “reality” more than these difficult theories. My criticism may be a result of this difficulty. By the way, your blog allows me to lift my head up into that lofty area of theory, and I surely appreciate it.

  5. I added this book to my wishlist a couple months ago.

    “And will we ever find a middle way in which intellectual thought can be respected, welcomed and incorporated into our average lives?”

    A bit off-topic, but I recently discovered that there exist highly educated adults who are nevertheless so incapable of understanding satire that they don’t allow their teenaged children to watch The Simpsons. That horrified me. The Simpsons has such a lowbrow reputation but is actually (in my opinion) possibly the most brilliant satire of our times. And part of what makes it so brilliant is the insidiousness of the way it encourages non-conformist thought through a lowbrow medium. If there’s any top culprit preventing us from incorporating intellectual thought into our average lives, it’s censorship, and the worst possible type of censorship is the censoring of something you know nothing about and choose not to experience before making a judgment about it.

  6. I’m not familiar with Bellow’s book, but the loss of “status” for lack of a better word of the intellectual is both frustrating and complex, I think. In the US especially right now there seems to be a huge anti-intellectual movement, which we can witness with regards to our president, who either IS the dumbest man in the history of the world or owner of the world’s most brilliant rhetorical strategy. Lots of people voted for him because he doesnt’ “act” better than they, he plays upon the down-home strategy of relating to the average man, like he somehow just stumbled his way into the presidency by fearing God and doing right. when I was a teaching assistant, I even felt there was a divide from when I went to college to the students going now…the students didn’t want to be challenged (for the most part) or stretched intellectually…instead they just wanted easy grades they had always achieved. But then again, this is a product of a college education being mandated even for people who shouldn’t go to college, who should, in fact, follow a different path. I’ve noticed even in my profession as a cancer writer, I am constantly accused of my writing being too complex, that I don’t “write down” to Every Reader, as though our audience is a group of second graders. It’s this weird duality…everybody wants to be “smart” while not ever being challenged.

  7. Oh Litlove, I’ve always wondered what Herzog was about because I’ve seen it around and heard good things about it. I will now have to make an effort to fit it into my reading. Thanks!

    You ask some interesting questions. I think the nature of intellectual endeavor is definitely to challenge but maybe since I am not an academic I have always thought of it on a personal level, my pursuits are meant to challenge my thinking. Yet, inevitably it spills over and my choices and beliefs challenge others which isn’t always comfortable for anyone concerned. Perhaps with so much uncertainty in the world anti-intellectualism is, in part, due to people’s desire for stability and comfort? A need for something solid and sure in a world that isn’t even if that solid and sure thing is an illusion.

  8. What a wonderful review, and a great “pondering” of the questions posed! I look forward to reading where you go with this. It’s so sad to read his summation of Americans as “less bothered by intellectual justification.”

    True then, and painfully truer this decade.

    I got a lot out of this book three decades ago, including little things like the word “trepverter.” I know so well those words you don’t think of until you’re out the door and walking down the steps!

    The arresting use of cuckolding as a plot device; that people he knows (a friend? relative?) lead him out of the way for his best friend & his wife to betray him.

    his window-peeping scene, watching his former best friend bathe his own daughter — heartwrenching, as he defies a restraining order, deperate to see his girl.

    Visiting his house in the Berkshires, overrrun by wild animals — in my early 20 it was very striking to me that he took a ‘live and let live’ attitude toward this. Everyone I knew would have been shooing out those owls and all else.

    But I really like what you’re doing with the over-arching theme, and again, look forward to where you take it.

    p.s. “Bookboxed”, I loved Mr. Sammler’s Planet. So topical to the late 60s; have meant to re-read that in view of all the changes since.

  9. Dear Bookboxed – I’m sure you are quite right! The only difference is that now we have a mass media to transmit the views of non-academics to academics whereas previously there was blissful ignorance on both sides and a legacy of polite praise within the profession! Ian – I loved your comment so much! Thank you for every word of it! When I went to see my first teaching room I was introduced to an elderly don at the bottom of the staircase who was falling to pieces. He had crutches and a skin disease and a creaky, broken voice and I thought, oh my god, it’s nemesis. They’re going to stick me up in that attic room for the next 30 years and I’m going to come down looking exactly like him. But yes, there are wonderful, vibrant academics too, who are almost normal. Dew – we are a big Simpsons household here, so you are talking to the right person. I agree with you very strongly, that we have to be allowed to think everything and consider everything because there’s no real freedom unless we can say ‘things could be different.’ It’s the basis of all intellectual thought, and I think from some angles that must look very frightening. Courtney – what you say rings so very true to me. For some reason it seems that making mistakes has been demonised and so we all have to be right all the time. Yet no one is every completely right – it has to be that way, or else we’d be locked in determinism. And oh don’t get me started on Bush’s IQ. I’m one of the people who misunderestimates him. Stefanie – I think you are absolutely onto something there and I love the way you say it. I think it is basically a need for stability that drives people to fear challenge and difference, and it ought to be an important part of education to understand that thinking is still a fine way to make life better, if we follow it through. Ombudsben, you write so well and so passionately about this book I wish you would post on it yourself! You highlight some beautiful details there and it is a book packed with extraordinary detail. ‘Trepverter’ is wonderful. I also know it in French as ‘l’esprit d’escalier’ – exactly the same thing!

  10. Litlove, I find Bellow a slow read, too, because he seems more of an essayist or theorist than a novelist. We might easily polish off a 400-page novel in a few days, but a 400-page volume of theory? Not likely. He’s a worthy read, but no page-turner. Ombudsben mentions mostly plot in his comments, while your post ignores it altogether, which seems to suggest there are two ways to read and remember this book. I’m afraid your hoped-for middle ground for intellectual thought (in America) has already been bought and sold by commercial interests. Intellectual challenge here is something to be suffered in college, then escaped. The only classes we’ll endure after graduation are business courses guaranteed to raise our salaries. And our idea of deep thought can be found on television, where self-proclaimed experts on human behavior and psychology offer instant analyses of complex situations in such a way that the audience always knows when to applaud. Bellow was right, but nobody is reading him.

  11. David – that middle ground goes the same way here in the UK, I’m afraid, with the keyword to all supposed exercises of the intellect being ‘vocational’. That’s a wonderful point you make about Bellow being a theorist. The letters Herzog writes are really quite complex engagements with already difficult intellectual history, and I found I had to read them a couple of times in places to get their full implications. I think you can do better with theory than that, but I’ll have to work on it.

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