Originally appeared in Saul Bellow and the Struggle at the Center, ed. Eugene Hollahan (NY: AMS Press, 1996), pp. 57-76
Herzog's Divorce Grief
by Andrew Gordon
"If I'm out of my mind, it's all right with me, thought Moses Herzog." Thus begins Saul Bellow's novel Herzog. But is Herzog really crazy? I would argue instead that he is temporarily crazed with grief over the breakup of his second marriage and that his apparently irrational thoughts and actions can be explained as normal for the process of grief.
Herzog is undeniably a unique fictional character. Nevertheless, his thoughts and behavior are representative of those of many men in his situation, During the novel, we see Herzog move through various stages which are typical for those mourning a divorce: first, shock and denial right after his wife suddenly throws him out; second, months of depression which he defends against through restless travel and brief sexual flings; third, after he discovers his wife had been carrying on an affair with his best friend, a phase of homicidal anger mixed with nearly suicidal depression, culminating in an impulsive flight to Chicago and a plan to kill her and her lover (he lurks outside her house but can't do it); and fourth and last, after an accident and an arrest for possession of an unregistered gun bring him down with a crash, a withdrawal to the country where he begins recuperation and acceptance, able to forgive others and, most of all, to forgive himself.
The psychiatrist Gerald F. Jacobson writes that "the divorce process requires a profound readjustment that in many instances produces a picture indistinguishable from that of more deep-seated pathology" (Jacobson 37). Although grief may resemble mental illness, it is a temporary, normal healing process that usually follows predictable stages. The individual may even emerge strengthened at the end, as Herzog seems to do. Nevertheless, "Bereaved people are so surprised by the unaccustomed feelings of grief that they often ask, 'Am I going mad?'. . ." (Parkes, Bereavement 164)--just as Herzog does.
Jacobson found two principal differences between bereavement and divorce: in divorce, the spouse is still alive, which complicates grief work, and there is much more anger (Jacobson 66-67). The separated and divorced are also much more likely than the bereaved to think of suicide or to attempt it. To kill oneself, claims Jacobson, is to kill the introject of the hated spouse (Jacobson 68-70). Studies have also found that the psychological and physical consequences of marital breakup are more severe for men than for women: divorced or separated men have higher admission rates to psychiatric hospitals, more deaths from suicide, and higher mortality rates from nearly all causes than do divorced or separated women (Bloom). And a spouse who is suddenly and unexpectedly dumped by a partner (as is Herzog) is the most vulnerable of all to psychological distress (Myers 8). Murderous rage and homicidal fantasies are also frequent among the separated and divorced-- and sometimes they actually murder their spouses.
The psychiatrist Michael Myers found through clinical research and private practice that the following behaviors were characteristic of divorcing men: "violent behavior directed against their wives. . .; violence toward their children and strangers; decreased work efficiency and productivity including absenteeism from work; compulsive and frenetic dating; indiscriminate sexual behavior. . .; isolation from family and friends; limited and superficial relationships with other men; and early entry into new relationships with women" (Myers 13). Herzog demonstrates every one of these behaviors except the violence toward children and strangers (although even that is arguable because of his fascination with the trial of a woman who murdered her child, because of the auto accident when Herzog is driving and his daughter is a passenger, and because of the frequently angry tone of his letters to people he has never met). In that sense, Herzog is not out of his mind but is acting like a typical divorcing man.
I would rank Herzog with F. Scott Fitzgerald's Tender is the Night as one of the finest and most psychologically accurate portraits in American fiction of divorce and its aftermath. The difference is that Fitzgerald's Dick Diver goes into an irreversible decline (the 1930s were not called "the Depression" for nothing), whereas Herzog is apparently able to pull himself up by his psychic bootstraps. Bellow suspects that Herzog was a bestseller in 1965 because "it appeals to the unconscious sympathies of many people," including "those who had been divorced," who wrote him fan mail (Harper 354). In fact, after stabilizing in the 1950s, the divorce rate soared by 70% in the 1960s (Weiss Marital Separation 5), so Herzog was a particularly timely novel. Obviously, its hero was a representative man in whom many Americans could see aspects of themselves or of their own experiences.
Moreover, Herzog might appeal to anyone who has ever suffered the loss of a loved one, whether through divorce or death. And America at the time of the publication of Herzog in 1964 had just suffered a traumatic loss. Significantly, Herzog's wife Madeleine chucks him out of the house in November 1963, the month that John F. Kennedy was assassinated; thus Herzog's grief coincides with the nation's.
Beyond the sufferings of one divorced individual or the problems of America at a particular historical moment, Herzog deals with a crisis of contemporary Western consciousness. As one critic points out, "it is not only the social and psychological ramifications of divorce with which Bellow is concerned. Bellow is interested in the components of Western suffering" (Wilson 6). Nevertheless, we would not be interested in Bellow's abstract ideas on "Western suffering" unless they were grounded in the psychologically believable suffering of a fully realized fictional character.
We could say that, in part, Bellow is working out his private woes (he had then been divorced two times) through his fictional creation, making artistic capital out of his suffering. He endows Herzog with some of his own childhood memories and adult experiences (including a wife who has an affair with her husband's best friend), as well as some of his depression, rage, and intellectual egomania. Like Bellow, Herzog tends to intellectualize his personal misery into universal problems. But Bellow distances himself from his emotional turmoil through art: form, style, and comedy. He makes fun of his defenses, including overintellectualization, by exaggerating them in his hero.
The activity in Herzog is largely mental; the hero is undergoing what Freud called "grief work" and sorting through his memories and emotions in a process of "obsessive review" ("Mourning" ). According to Gerald Caplan, the crisis precipitated by loss disrupts routine behavior; the mourner is challenged to abandon old assumptions about the self and the world and to discover new ones (Parkes, Bereavement 35). The grieving person, writes C.M. Parkes in Bereavement, needs to "'make sense' of what has happened, to explain it, to classify it along with other comparable events, to make it fit into one's expectations of the world" (Parkes 75). This is precisely what Herzog is doing as he reviews his marriage and his life: "Late in spring, Herzog had been overcome by the need to explain, to have it out, to justify, to put in perspective, to clarify, to make amends" (2).
Herzog is told in a chronologically complex, layered fashion which seems to mirror the hero's knotty intellect and his turbulent emotions. It begins with Herzog alone in his house in Ludeyville in June of 1964 and then flashes back for over 300 pages to the events of the preceding week, until it finally ends where it began. The chronicle of that week of crisis, a novel-length extended flashback, is itself interrupted by frequent flashbacks, as Herzog broods on the past, and is punctuated by the composition of Herzog's mental letters, following his erratic thought processes.
Throughout most of the story, then, Herzog does not act physically but remembers acting. He is lying down, reflecting, in an unbroken stream of consciousness. His immobilization, relentless self-scrutiny, and free association resemble the process of psychoanalysis (Dutton 121-22), as the analysand follows his memories, feelings, and associations wherever they take him, dredging his past, circling apparently at random until he arrives at the crucial moments of trauma . Everything in the novel--action, description, memory, intellection, and compulsive letter writing--is both a clue to Herzog's emotional state and a part of his "talking cure." He ends the novel as he began, reclining on a couch, like a patient in analysis, but one who is temporarily at peace with himself. As at the end of Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint, the long lament is over, and the protagonist has no more messages for anyone. The analytic session is finished, and if the patient is not yet cured, as Portnoy's analyst, Dr. Spielvogel says, "Now we may perhaps to begin?"
Unlike Portnoy, Herzog acts as both analyst and analysand, and we observe the process of his self-analysis, both identifying with and distancing ourselves from the character's trauma and mental disturbance. The distancing is created through the semblance of objectivity in the guise of a third-person, limited-omniscient narrator. Nevertheless, this control is casual since the narrative shifts easily and constantly between "he" and "I." But we are thus offered some necessary buffering from the unstable emotions of the protagonist even as the narrative approaches maximum subjectivity, plunging us into the maelstrom of Herzog's consciousness. The depressing subject matter is alleviated by the brilliance and intensity of the descriptive passages and by the frequent wit of the letters, which sometimes serve as comic relief: "Dear Doktor Professor Heidegger, I would like to know what you mean by the expression 'the fall into the quotidian.' When did this fall occur. Where were we standing when it happened?"
Although Herzog is rich in psychoanalytic material, applying a psychoanalytic approach to it is rendered problematic by Bellow's ambivalence to Freud. Herzog quotes "Mourning and Melancholia" and at times labels himself "narcissistic," "masochistic," and "depressive" (4), although his intellectual understanding does not enable him to control his feelings or live any more rationally. But Herzog (and Bellow too) is suspicious of such labels even as he uses them, suspicious, in fact, of the entire "modern vocabulary," especially existentialism and psychoanalysis (Fuchs 27). For Bellow, the human soul is mysterious and "amphibian," dwelling in many different elements (258), and psychoanalysis is too narrow and deterministic. For example, Herzog says of his behavior, "It is, if you're looking for the psychological explanation, childish and classically depressive. But Herzog didn't believe that the harshest or most niggardly explanation. . .was necessarily the truest" (231).
Bellow satirizes psychoanalysis in the novel through the portrait of Dr. Edvig (Wilson 51). Edvig failed Herzog, for his psychoanalytic explanations only gave Herzog convenient justifications for Madeleine's misbehavior: she was a poor "paranoid," a sick woman he must care for. And Edvig ended up being taken in by Madeleine, played for a fool just as Herzog was. Nevertheless, despite the resistance of both the author and his hero to psychoanalysis, numerous critics (especially Wilson, Fuchs, Clayton, Le'vy, and Shechner) have argued that Herzog is a profoundly psychological novel that actually illustrates many Freudian ideas through the behavior of its hero.
The Marriage of Moses and Madeleine
Before considering the process of Herzog's divorce grief, it is necessary to consider the nature of his marriage to Madeleine. The particularities of mourning depend upon the the individual's life history, psychic needs and perceptions, and relationship with the loved one prior to the loss. As one divorce therapist notes, most divorces occur because the marriages took place for the wrong reasons, such as "a need to parent someone, or . . . a need to be parented . . . a need for power and to be in control of someone, or to be controlled" (Fisher 3). Indeed, "sometimes we have to go through several relationships and divorces to rework our parental relationships" (Fisher 88).
Herzog left his first wife Daisy because she was too conventional, a Jewish woman perhaps too much like his own mother. He saw her as rigidly ordered and boring: "Stability, symmetry, order, containment. . . . By my irregularity and turbulence of spirit I brought out the very worst in Daisy" (126). In Madeleine, he finds the other extreme, a character more irregular and turbulent than his own. He marries her ostensibly because she is young, beautiful, brilliant, intense, and offers excitement and change. "As long as Moses was married to Daisy, he had led the perfectly ordinary life of an assistant professor, respected and stable" (5). But ordinary is not good enough for Herzog, who considers himself extraordinary. Madeleine "hadn't wanted him to be an ordinary professor" (6). She offers dramatic glamor: "Everyone close to Madeleine, everyone drawn into the drama of her life became exceptional, deeply gifted, brilliant. It had happened also to him" (38).
Madeleine is a harsh, angry, self-dramatizing spirit, more like Herzog's father than like his mother. John J. Clayton sees Herzog as a masochist who feels guilty for his sexual sins and wants to do penance to his father; "Mady the bitch is then a father substitute" (Clayton 197).
The marriage is indeed self-punishing. Herzog pays a heavy price for buying into Madeleine's script. After they are wed, Madeleine's disorder and chaos bring out the worst in Herzog, making him play Daisy's role as rulemaker and nag, constantly complaining about her sloppy housekeeping and spendthrift ways. He wanted to be a brilliant scholar, but she does not provide the stability he needs in order to work. As he becomes more critical of her, he grows to resemble his namesake, Moses the lawgiver. And Madeleine commits adultery and then dumps him, just as Herzog did to Daisy.
He also married because he felt she could be an intellectual helpmate: "he relied completely on her intellectual judgments" (72). But as time goes on, she sees Herzog as an intellectual rival and competes with him: "I understood that Madeleine's ambition was to take my place in the learned world" (76).
There is a markedly sadomasochistic element in their relationship: Madeleine is the dominatrix Herzog secretly yearns for. He says, " I see exactly what I should avoid. Then, all of a sudden, I'm in bed with that very thing and making love to it. As with Madeleine. She seems to have served a special need" (333-34). He refers to himself "writhing" under her "elegant heel" (76) and to her desire to bring him down and "kick out his brains with a murderous bitch foot" (93). He admits that "there was a flavor of subjugation in his love for Madeleine. Since she was domineering and since he loved her, he had to accept the flavor that was given" (8). But he will not admit that perhaps he loves her because she is domineering.
Herzog confesses, however, that he is "masochistic" and that "he had asked to be beaten too, and had lent his attackers strength" (4). In his attraction to disaster, he perhaps unconsciously emulates his late father, the aptly named Jonah Herzog, who specialized in suffering and failure and was betrayed and beaten in business. Herzog even believes in a morality of suffering, and "under his own rules he had suffered more and was special" (62). At times, he claims "credit for his power to suffer" (40). Ramona tells him, "'You're used to difficult women, to struggle. Perhaps you like it when they give you a bad time'" (187) and "'Poor Moses--unless you're having a bad time with a woman you can't believe you're being serious'" (157). The critic Bernard J. Paris claims Herzog chose Madeleine because he craved "a brilliant, domineering partner who will at once humble and exalt him," fulfilling his contradictory desires for suffering and for grandeur, or perhaps for grandeur through suffering (Paris 253).
But there is more to his attraction to Madeleine than his grandiose and masochistic desires. Herzog seems to be most erotically stimulated only when he is involved in a romantic triangle (Le'vy 182-83): with Madeleine and the Monsignor, with Madeleine and Gersbach, with Wanda and her husband, and with Ramona and her rejected lover, George Hoberly, who hangs around her apartment when Herzog visits. Later Herzog mimics the jealous Hoberly by spying outside Madeleine's house while Gersbach is inside with her, as if he wants to catch them in the act. In other words, Herzog keeps getting mixed up in oedipal triangles, and his guilt about his sex life and his desire for punishment may be closely connected to this.
Gersbach, who is a kind of double for Herzog, functions in two ways in the oedipal narrative: first, he is a stand-in for the avenging father, punishing Herzog by taking away Madeleine; and second, he acts out Herzog's own oedipal rebellion. In the former scenario, Gersbach is the father, "like a judge in Israel, a king" (59), and "dealing with Valentine was like dealing with a king" (61); Herzog also calls his own father "a king" (147). In the latter scenario, Gersbach is instead the rebellious son and Herzog is the monarch Gersbach deposes. Herzog says Gersbach reminds him of "the French and Russian revolutions. . . . the mobs breaking into the palaces and sacking Versailles. . ." (215). Paradoxically, Gersbach is both the potent son, cuckolding Herzog, and the castrated father (missing a leg).
Madeleine seems attracted to Herzog partly because she is playing out her own Electra complex. Madeleine's father, Pontritter, is an egotistical theatrical impresario. Her mother, Tennie, sacrificed herself to this "genius," who treated her like a slave and then left her, although Tennie is still in Pontritter's thrall. Consequently, "Madeleine hated her father violently" (8) and is determined not to repeat her mother's marriage. But in a sense she does, if only to get revenge against Pontritter through the "genius" Herzog. Madeleine is in her twenties and Herzog in his forties, and "to her he was a fatherly, graying, patient seducer" (112). She writes her mother that Herzog "resembled her father in too many ways. . . . I [Herzog] seemed to swallow amd gulp all the air and left nothing for her to breathe. I was overbearing, infantile, demanding, sardonic, and a psychosomatic bully" (191). Herzog suspects she married him because "maybe she wouldn't make a father of anyone she liked" (334). Marrying Herzog was a way for her both to marry a tyrannical father figure and to punish him by doing to him what her father did to her mother: she will enslave Herzog and then reject him.
Thus the union of Herzog and Madeleine provided a matching of neurotic needs. "Probably all of us marry, at least in part, to defend old solutions to old conflicts. The difficulty comes when two people so interlock their old conflicts and solutions that they cannot become aware of them, and hence cannot solve them" (Bohannon 6). Herzog and Madeleine stayed together for years in an unhealthy and unhappy relationship, taking turns playing masochist or sadist, mother or father to each other. A bad marriage can serve many needs, such as discharging anger or relieving guilt through being punished by the partner (Jacobson 72-74). And even a burdensome marriage may "continue to provide security at least to the extent of fending off anxiety" (Weiss, "Emotional Impact" 137).
Nevertheless, their marriage began to disintegrate almost from the beginning. Madeleine displayed her discontent in many ways, both covert and overt, both financial and sexual. Marital conflict is often displaced into fights over money or sex, when the real difficulties "lie in unconscious or inadmissible areas" (Bohannon 38). The first signs of breakdown in communication in a marriage are "the absence of knowledge about the other person's expenditures" and loss of sexual rapport, but these are symptoms, not the basic cause of the problem (Bohannon 39).
Madeleine becomes a shopaholic, running up a twelve-hundred-dollar tab in ten days on purchases she claims she cannot recall making. Herzog interprets this as a sign of mental illness and "felt very tender toward her" (57). He is not so tender when she begins bouncing checks and spends five-hundred dollars on one maternity outfit. Herzog asks sarcastically, "'Who's going to be born--louis Quatorze?'" However, if Herzog secretly thought of himself as a King, then it's not surprising he married a Princess. Obviously the purchases are not a sign of her mental disintegration but of her dissatisfaction with the marriage and of her hostilty toward Herzog. After the divorce, he thinks, "A woman who squandered her husband's money, all psychiatric opinion agreed, was determined to castrate him" (202).
This castration also takes place in the marriage bed. Their sex life becomes so bad that Herzog suffers from premature ejaculation and occasional impotence. These symptoms, as well as Madeleine's excruciatingly painful menstruation, may be physical expressions of their psychic pain: "the build-up of disappointment, hurt, and anger" over their first crisis of marital alienation (Crosby 5).
Worse yet, Madeleine complains about Herzog's sexual inadequacy to female confidantes, including her mother, her Aunt Zelda, and even the babysitter, thus going public with her dissatisfaction and preparing for the dissolution of the marriage (Vaughan 42-43). Displaying public discontent marks the second crisis of marital alienation (Crosby 5).
Evidently Herzog tried to recoup his losses through other women, for Aunt Zelda accuses him, "'You've been reckless about women. . . .while you were still married`" (38-39). Herzog flushes but does not deny it, merely saying, "'She made it tough for me, too. Sexually'" (39).
But if Herzog was unfaithful (and we get no further information on this--a curious and perhaps revealing omission), Madeleine ups the ante by carrying on for years behind Herzog's back with his best friend Gersbach. Even adultery "may be an attempt to communicate something, an unconscious effort to improve the marriage itself." Or else it may be "an attempt to humiliate the spouse into leaving" (Bohannon 40).
Gersbach began as a go-between, a friend to both partners in the troubled marriage. Gradually his role changed to Madeleine's lover and Herzog's false friend. Such situations are not uncommon in real life (Weiss, Marital Separation 150). Herzog begins to suspect the two when she goes without Herzog to Boston, ostensibly "to think it all through and find a way to save this marriage" (192). A week later, she sends Gersbach to pick up some things, and, as Herzog says, "what he mainly came for--her diaphragm" (192). Madeleine now seems deliberately flaunting her affair to wound Herzog, but when he asks her if Gersbach is her lover, she denies it.
At this stage in the marriage, she is not yet sure enough in her relationship with Gersbach to break up with Herzog. According to the sociologist Diane Vaughan, "The initiator [the spouse who eventually initiates the divorce] will not risk losing the relationship until he or she has created what seems to be a secure niche elsewhere" (Vaughan 78). In fact, Madeleine and Gersbach keep their affair secret from their respective spouses for years (although not from selected friends and relatives) because it is to their benefit to maintain their marriages. The secrecy gives Madeleine power over Herzog. "By the effective monitoring of information, the initiator can create a separate world that the partner does not even know exists" (Vaughan 26). Perhaps Madeleine began the adultery to annoy Herzog or to send him signals of her dissatisfaction, but gradually it provides her with an identity independent of him. The decision to divorce is typically a slow, reluctant one, arrived at, on the average, over a period of two years (Goode 137), which is about how long it takes Madeleine to decide.
"The initiator's planning often culminates in a precise moment when, according to schedule, resources at hand, and with a well-rehearsed speech, the initiator confronts the partner about wanting to end the relationship" (Vaughan 85). This is precisely what Madeleine does, and Herzog is stunned, seeing her calculation and her well-rehearsed speech as cruel. But he fails to recognize that Madeleine must have already grieved this marriage. "Not understanding that the initiator's ability to cope with the immediate effects of separation is the product of a transition long underway, the partner feels a heightened sense of rejection and loss" (Vaughan 135).
During the years of Madeleine's affair, Herzog must have been getting many clues, but he heard only those that fit his frame of reference and ignored or dismissed discordant ones. "Certainly Bellow does not mean us to believe that Herzog was unaware of what was going on," writes John J. Clayton. "We must believe that he unconsciously needed to be the ground-under-heel cuckold" (Clayton 194). Herzog's denial preserved his sense of security but also maintained an unhealthy status quo. "In deceiving ourselves. . .we keep secret from ourselves the truth we cannot face" (Bok 20). Thus Madeleine and Herzog collaborate in keeping up appearances in the marriage, suppressing and denying the truth about her affair, a common phenomenon in troubled marriages (Vaughan 64). But by Herzog's willful self-blinding, he contributes to his own cuckolding, victimizes and punishes himself.
"Partners may attribute the negative signals . . . to a physical or mental affliction they think temporarily has beset the initiator. And this--not the relationship or themselves--is the source of the trouble" (Vaughan 75). Herzog is so eager to misinterpret Madeleine's behavior that he urges her to see his psychiatrist, Dr. Edvig. When Madeleine accuses Herzog of hiring a private detective to tail her, Herzog, advised by Edvig, interprets this a symptom of her paranoia, although Madeleine has good reason to worry about what a detective might uncover! Madeleine uses Edvig against Herzog; he also builds up her confidence so she can leave the marriage (Vaughan 76).
Paradoxically, the more alienated and angry Madeleine becomes, the more meek and tender Herzog behaves in defense, conning himself into believing that she is mentally ill and that he will "cure" her. That is far more reassuring than to accept what is really happening: his marriage is on the rocks and his wife is fooling around with his best friend. Even before the marriage, he had seen himself as her benefactor, her knight of rescue (just as the original Moses saved the Jews), and he clings to that notion to justify remaining in a marriage in which both are suffering. "He still thought perhaps that he could win by the appeal of passivity, of personality, win on the grounds of being, after all, Moses--Moses Elkanah Herzog--a good man, and Madeleine's particular benefactor. He had done everything for her--everything!" (10). He tells Zelda, "'She's sick. She's a diseased woman. I took care of her'" (37). Perhaps the only happy memory he recalls from their entire relationship is when Madeleine tripped and injured herself and came crawling home to Herzog to nurse her. "He led her to the bed and lay down with her to warm and comfort her, just as she wanted him to" (118). Nursing and being nursed often evoke warm feelings in Bellow's heroes, including Joseph in Dangling Man and Tommy Wilhelm in Seize the Day; perhaps these are screen memories from the earliest mother-child bond.
Madeleine becomes enraged over Herzog's attempts to make her feel guilty about his sacrifices in the cause of love:"Oh, balls! So now we're going to hear how you SAVED me. Let's hear it again. What a frightened puppy I was. How I wasn't strong enough to face life. But you gave me LOVE, from your big heart, and rescued me from the priests. Yes, cured me of menstrual cramps by servicing me so good. You SAVED me. You SACRIFICED your freedom." (124)
In accepting Madeleine's abuse, Herzog adopts the role of the self-martyring Jewish mother--imitating, in fact, his own mother--while Madeleine plays an ungrateful, spoiled brat such as Herzog guiltily imagines himself as being towards his mother.
Many critics have wondered: if Madeleine is the heartless, castrating bitch that Herzog portrays (the narrative offers no corrective to his distorted view), then why does he mourn so heavily the loss of this marriage? Shouldn't he instead be celebrating his freedom from bondage?
The fact is, mourning is inescapable, even for a lousy marriage, because so many years and so much of one's self-concept and psychic needs are invested in the relationship. In a sense, any marital partner, even a bad one, "is an attachment figure, just as a parent is for a child" (Parkes, Recovery 72). In fact, the worst mourning occurs not after good marriages but after "marriages which were conflict-ridden, thoroughly troubled" (Parkes, Recovery 97). Moses was freed from bondage to Pharaoh but then had to wander the desert for years before finding the promised land. Something similar happens to Moses Herzog.
Moreover, Herzog did not want the divorce; Madeleine did. He knew the marriage had problems, but he had assumed things were improving. Then, without warning, she kicked him out of the house.
There is also the fact that grief is personal, and "no one can say what constitutes a loss to another." Losses "are always phenomenological; that is, defined in terms of the meaning to the bereaved and not to the observer" (Simos 339). Herzog is mourning not just the loss of a wife and marriage but also of an idea of himself, of part of his own identity. Certain childish, grandiose, and neurotic conceptions of himself that he had nourished for decades have now utterly collapsed. At age 47, he mourns the wasted years, his second major failure as lover, husband, and father. He is angry at Madeleine but equally angry at himself for having played the fool.
Just as his marriage went nowhere, so his scholarly career has stagnated. He made no progress during his marriage on the magnum opus that was supposed to revolutionize the field of intellectual history and tell everyone in the modern world how to live. With his abandoned project has gone his sense of himself as a productive man and an intellectual. And he feels he has failed as a Jewish son, failed to fulfill his parents' high expectations, which adds to his burden of guilt.
He has lost not just a wife but also a daughter, his best friend Gersbach, and his wife's relatives, some of whom he was fond of, particularly his mother-in-law Tennie and Madeleine's Aunt Zelda and Uncle Herman. He feels like a displaced person: he has left his job and his home in Chicago, his entire secure existence, along with the identity that went with it.
Even his past has been robbed from him, with his belated discovery of Madeleine's adultery. Writes Vaughan, "The partner is stunned. These revelations result in social embarrassment and loss of face--the partner not only must adjust to the content of the lie, the hidden life, but the fact of the lie itself and the betrayal. The partner contemplates not only the loss of the future, but of the past, for the past was not what it seemed" (Vaughan 149). Herzog feels he has been played for a cuckold and a fool; he thinks everyone else knew about the affair except him, and were laughing at him behind his back or conspiring with Madeleine to betray him, especially Aunt Zelda and Tennie. He becomes bewildered, enraged, and intensely self-loathing; he has been injured not only in his masculine sexual pride but in his entire self-concept. He begins to doubt his judgment: if for years he could so completely misinterpret his own wife, best friend, and in-laws, then he may be wrong about everything. So much for his career as a brilliant intellectual!
Divorce is a kind of psychic death. As Herzog tells his friends, "'Another divorce--out again, at my time of life. I can't take it. I don't know. . .it feels like death'" (81). No wonder that Herzog undergoes a nervous breakdown and is obsessed by thoughts of suicide and homicide. Considering all the mental trauma he has suffered in a few months--being kicked out by Madeleine, losing his daughter, his job, his best friend, his in-laws, his home, and his home town, and then, after discovering the adultery between Madeleine and Gersbach, losing his self-respect as well--it is surprising that he has not become seriously physically ill as well. Nevertheless, he is healthy but hypochondriacal (he thinks a urinary tract infection is gonorrhea, punishment for his promiscuity) and goes for a complete physical check-up, half wishing for a diagnosis that will win him hospitalization, care and sympathy of the kind that divorce never elicits.
Herzog's problems are compounded by the fact that he withdraws from people and defends against his own mourning. From his parents, he has "a great schooling in grief" (148) and there is "much heavy love in Herzog; grief did not pass quickly with him" (119). Nevertheless, he berates himself for mourning, which he sees as idle, unmanly, effeminate, or childish behavior. He quotes epigrams: "Grief is a species of idleness" (3), and "The busy bee has no time for sorrow" (276). He says, "I'm not even greatly impressed with my own tortured heart. It begins to seem another waste of time" (17). He is ashamed of his feelings and ashamed to unburden himself before others.
Part of his problem is due to social attitudes toward grief, particularly toward divorce grief. Divorce is stigmatized and there are no socially acceptable rituals to cope with the grief resulting from the breakup of a marriage. "Mourning is treated as if it were a weakness, a self-indulgence, a reprehensible bad habit instead of a psychological necessity" (Gorer). Grief is seen as idleness when it is really hard work. "Most divorced people in need of help do not seek it because, consciously or not, they have bought society's picture of them as failures. . . . They feel they deserve whatever suffering they are going through" (Krantzler 44). People in mourning may isolate themselves, but just as often they are shunned by others, as if they were tainted by the loss, or as if death or divorce were contagious diseases. "It often happens that only those who share the the grief or have themselves suffered a major loss remain at hand" (Parkes, Bereavement 8). The only close male friend Herzog has left is Lucas Asphalter, who is also grieving (over the death of his beloved laboratory monkey!).
Herzog flees Chicago soon after the separation for a lecture tour in Europe; he is embarrassed and afraid to see relatives or friends. He surrounds himself instead with strangers and tries to ignore his pain through restless movement and to reassure himself of his potency through a series of brief affairs. But he has avoided doing the work of grief and returns to Chicago in March, after several months of travel, in worse shape than when he left. At that point, his friend Asphalter reveals Madeleine and Gersbach's betrayal. If grief resembles a physical injury, then the healing process is prolonged when "a further injury reopens a healing wound" (Parkes, Bereavement 5). This new blow triggers the second and more severe phase of Herzog's mourning, which climaxes in late June, in the week of crisis which is the center of the narrative.
Characteristic of Herzog's avoidance of mourning through restless movement and withdrawal from others is the episode in which he flees New York City and his growing romantic involvement with Ramona to visit an old friend, Libbie Sissler, in Martha's Vineyard. He spends the whole day on the train, only to flee the Sisslers' home less than an hour after he arrives, leaving a note and sneaking out the back door. He seems to feel he is not fit to be seen by anyone in his shameful condition of grief. A mass of contradictions, he approaches people only to avoid them.
Another complication in Herzog's grief is that even a minor loss can reactivate the emotions one felt (or failed to feel) at a major loss (Bowlby 160). So in mourning the loss of Madeleine, Herzog is at the same time mourning once more the crucial losses of his life: the death of his mother when he was 16 and of his father when Herzog was past 40, crises he remembers at critical points in the narrative. Herzog is re-experiencing separation anxiety, whose symptoms "in adults are similar to those exhibited by younger children who have lost attachment figures. . . .reactions among children to loss of a parent include. . .rage and protest over desertion, maintenance of an intense fantasy relationship with the lost parent, persistent efforts at reunion, anxiety, and a strong sense of narcissistic injury" (Weiss, "Emotional Impact" 140). Herzog mentions his fear of "desertion," "his childish disorder, that infantile terror of death that had bent and buckled his life into these curious shapes" (266). The psychiatrist Edvig tells him that "depressives tended to form frantic dependencies, and to become hysterical when cut off, when threatened with loss" (53). This describes Herzog's situation perfectly.
In one case study, a woman undergoing marital separation compared her experience to being separated as a child from her mother:When my husband left I had this panicky feeling which was out of proportion to what was really happening. I was afraid I was being abandoned. I couldn't shake that feeling. I remembered later that the first time I had that feeling was when I had pneumonia and my mother left me in the hospital, in a private room, in the winter. . . . And I had such a feeling of panic and fear at being left (Weiss, "Emotional Impact" 140).
Early in the narrative, Herzog also remembers being left in the hospital in the wintertime as a child: "he had been eight years old, in the children's ward of the Royal Victoria Hospital, Montreal. . . . From the hospital roof hung icicles like the teeth of fish. . ." (22). This memory is bracketed by memories of his mother.
However, he associates the hospital specifically with the weekly visits there of a Christian lady who had him read the Bible:Beside his bed, the goyische lady sat in her long skirts and button shoes. The hatpin projected from the back of her head like a trolley rod. A paste odor came from her clothing. And then she had him read. . . . she seemed to him a good woman. Her face, however, was strained and grim (22).
When Madeleine is a convert to Catholicism, Herzog associates her with this lady. Madeleine wears long skirts and a hat "like the hat worn by the Christian lady. . . . There was even a hatpin" (112). Madeleine's face, too, is "strained and grim." This Christian lady is an ambiguous figure: she is a substitute mother while Herzog's own mother is absent, and she seems a good person, but she is trying to convert him to her religion, she is "grim," and she wears that dangerous-looking hatpin. Madeleine, who is compared to the Christian lady, could be a similar alien, repressive mother for Herzog, a figure he childishly clings to only because he feels abandoned by his own mother.
Herzog recalls his mother about two dozen times in the novel. She was a poor, dreamy, melancholy woman, and Herzog believes he has inherited a lot of her temperament. She sacrificed for her improvident, failed husband and her four children, especially for her youngest child, Herzog, whom she spoiled. She had great ambitions for him and wanted him to be a rabbi. Now he feels guilty for having failed her and neglected her and writes a mental letter: "Dear Mama, as to why I haven't visited your grave in so long. . . ." (11). Thirty years later, he still feels guilty that he ignored his mother while she was dying! He can't forgive himself, even though any young child will have great difficulty coping with death, especially with the death of a parent. At 16, he felt intense anger--"sick with rage" (234)--but associated his anger with the book he was reading, not with her dying. This is a typical defense of Herzog's: he displaces intimate, personal guilt and rage into impersonal, intellectual anger, with which he finds it easier to deal. Thus all his angry letter writing and intellectual polemics. His final memory about her death is that at the funeral his brother Willie cried but Herzog could not. He was unable to mourn, a problem that still plagues him.
Thus the divorce from Madeleine has reactivated all the mixed feelings Herzog never fully worked through about his mother's death: the separation anxiety, guilt, anger, and inability to mourn.
In addition, since his separation crisis reactivates all his unresolved feelings toward his parents, it precipitates a renewed oedipal crisis. The climax of the novel--Herzog's stealing his father's gun and spying on Madeleine and Gersbach with murder on his mind--replays the oedipal situation. In mourning his father, Herzog attempts to become the father. He usurps his father's role and his gun and spies on a "primal scene." Herzog's auto accident and arrest the following day constitute his punishment for oedipal rebellion (Clayton 222). Everything after this scene is decrescendo, for Herzog has passed through his oedipal crisis by acting it out.
Just as Herzog has inherited a lot of his mother's softness and melancholy, so he also resembles his father: angry, impulsive, self-dramatizing, and a frequent failure. Herzog has two central memories of violence concerning his father. His father was an irascible man given to violent talk, but he himself was never the instigator but only the victim of violence. First, he was beaten up by his business partner Lazansky, a gross and ignorant baker who is intended to remind us of the gross and ignorant Gersbach. Next, he was set up by Voplonsky, his partner in bootlegging. Voplonsky, like Gersbach, has red hair and is described as "a rat" (145). This partner arranged for their shipment to be hijacked; Jonah Herzog resisted the hijackers and was badly beaten. When he displayed his torn clothing and his wounds before the children, he cried and they cried as well. "It was more than I could bear that anyone should lay violent hands on him--a father, a sacred being, a king" (147).
Finally, Herzog remembers how he once quarrelled with his father and his father angrily waved his gun and threatened to kill him. When Herzog steals the gun but is unable to shoot Madeleine or Gersbach, he realizes he has been acting like his father, a "gilded little gentleman" who spoke violently but had never in his life "pulled the trigger of this gun. Only threatened" (146). "But of course, thought Herzog, all of Papa's violence went into the drama of his life, into family strife, and sentiment" (146). And, one might add, into self-victimization, just like Herzog. Early in the novel, Herzog had contemplated shooting Madeleine and Gersbach with a pawnshop revolver or his father's gun, but dismissed the possibility. "But I'm no criminal, don't have it in me; frightful to myself instead" (41). Herzog thereby foreshadows the climax of the novel.
In his violent behavior, Herzog identified with his father. Stealing the gun was an oedipal rebellion, but having his car rammed from behind by a truck (symbolic perhaps of homosexual rape) and arrested with the gun in his possession is Herzog's punishment, the father's revenge (Clayton 222). Like his father's, Herzog's drama is self-defeating. Finally, when Herzog's little daughter June sees her father bloodied by the accident, he is reenacting yet another scene in his father's family drama.
Thus we see that, in his grief over the divorce, Herzog is mourning again the loss of his parents. As Freud suggested in "Mourning and Melancholia," the mourner resurrects the dead by in part becoming the lost person. Herzog both identifies with his parents and reenacts his anger and oedipal rebellion against them. His acting out with the gun is both cathartic and self-punishing and momentarily relieves his mental anguish, both his anger and his guilt, which had paralyzed him and blocked his mourning. His behavior is rash and bizarre, but had he not partially acted out his homicidal impulses, he might have turned totally against himself, his rage combining with his guilt, resulting in self-destruction. Herzog frequently feels he does not deserve to live and contemplates suicide as a solution to his crisis.
Once we recognize that Herzog's grief crisis is both an identity crisis and an oedipal crisis, incidents in the novel can be read in a different light. For example, Herzog's panic and flight during his visit to the Sisslers makes sense if we consider the couple as symbolic parents to Herzog. The Sisslers are welcoming and emotionally reassuring: Libbie loves Herzog, (the two had never been lovers, although they had once considered it); her husband is a wise, kindly older man who immediately senses that Herzog has a troubled soul. Nevertheless, Herzog feels like a third party intruding in a happy marriage. Living in their house represents for him coming between a married couple, a situation which is uncomfortably close to the one he both desires and fears: thus he panics.
Aside from Herzog's identification with his parents, his identification with his little daughter June plays a significant role in the process of his grief. Several times Herzog remembers a nursery rhyme he recited to June--"I love little pussy/Her coat is so warm/And if I don't hurt her/She'll do me no harm"--and realizes he had been living by this puerile verse in respect to Madeleine.
When Herzog decides to take revenge against Madeleine and Gersbach, his justification is that he is not acting on his own behalf but is a father defending his daughter against two psychopathic child abusers. There is frequent reference to child abuse in the novel: Madeleine claims to have been sexually molested as a child, Herzog remembers being raped as a child by a bum, and the woman defendant in a murder trial was sexually abused as a girl. That trial, which spurs Herzog to fly to Chicago with violent revenge on his mind, is of a woman and her lover accused of battering her son to death; the couple and the child are obvious counterparts to Madeleine, Gersbach, and June. They kept the child in a closet, just as Madeleine and Gersbach once shut June in the car. But the abused boy could represent Herzog as well as June, for he was beaten with "the heel of a woman's shoe" and the bruises are heaviest "in the region of the genitals" (237), just as Herzog writhed under Madeleine's heel and felt castrated by her. Mark Shechner writes, "As a man and injured husband he has never acted to defend himself. It is as a battered child, however, and in the name of his daughter, that he resolves to take revenge on his wife and her lover. . ." (Shechner 144).
Herzog could be said to be suffering in his divorce from the battered child syndrome. "Even when marriages turn bad and other components of love fade or turn into their opposites, attachment is likely to remain. The spouses resemble battered children in their feelings" (Weiss, "Marital Separation," 44). That is, they may be fearful and angry and desire revenge, yet they remain dependent and attached. In one case study, a divorced woman was bothered by her continuing yearning for her husband, and said, "You never find a battered child that does not want to be back with its parents, because they are the only parents it has. I just have very much this feeling" (Weiss, "Emotional Impact" 137).
Nevertheless, at the end of the novel, Herzog appears to have emerged successfully from the crisis. He is living alone in his old house in the country and refuses his brother's offer to send him to a psychiatric hospital for a rest. He plans to visit his son at summer camp. He has the power restored in the house and a cleaning lady fixing it up. He has invited Ramona for dinner but he doesn't want her to spend the night. And he has stopped his compulsive letter writing. "For perhaps the first time he felt what it was like to be free from Madeleine. Joy! His servitude was ended, and his heart released from its grisly heaviness and encrustation" ( ).
Despite the positive signs, there are negative ones as well: Herzog wanders around the house so distracted that he loses track of the days and forgets to eat or sleep. When his brother Will visits, Herzog appears to have lost ten pounds in less than a week.
Robert S. Weiss writes,Sometimes loss of attachment gives rise not to separation distress, but rather to its opposite, euphoria; or it may alternate with or be interrupted by euphoria. . . . Instead of needing the other, the individual feels that he or she needs only the self. Furthermore, removal of the other has made available to the self new opportunities for gratification and self-realization. This euphoria does not seem to be an integrated or lasting aspect of the separated individual's personality. . . . Most who experienced euphoria report that it proved fragile. When I have talked with individuals describing themselves as euphoric, it has seemed to me that they often displayed tension and anxiety without being aware of it. (Marital Separation 53-55).
Thus Herzog's joy may only be fragile and temporary, perhaps a manic cycle countering his depression. John J. Clayton speculates that Herzog's cycle of guilt and masochism will repeat itself (Clayton 229). Bernard J. Paris believes that Herzog has overcome the crisis, but that Herzog is still as neurotic as ever, simply more detached for the moment (Paris 260).
Although I agree with both critics, I wonder if they are demanding too much. First, recovery from grief does not necessarily constitute a transformation of personality. Those who were neurotic before the loss remain neurotic after recovery, although they may reorganize their defenses. Second, there are no miracle cures in any Bellow novel; his heroes all go through a learning process, but at the end they have not undergone a change of character, merely a change of heart. We leave them after they have taken a first step toward becoming more fully human. Herzog may still be neurotic, but he has learned something from having survived his grief crisis. Writes C. M. Parkes, "The pain of grief is just as much a part of life as the joy of love; it is, perhaps, the price we pay for love, the cost of commitment" (Bereavement 5-6).
One thing we can be grateful for is that Herzog's mania at the end, if that is what it is, does not manifest itself in further logorrhea. Herzog, that compulsive intellect, has finally shut up. And the novel concludes peacefully: "At this time he had no messages for anyone. Nothing. Not a single word" (341).
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