The pleasures of Bellow and the unexpected moment in Herzog

One of the pleasures of reading and rereading Bellow comes from the unexpected moments that ceaseless arise. I’ve read most of Bellow’s novels two or three times, but this bit regarding Herzog’s mind stands out: “It was too full of his grant projects to think anything clearly.” The contradiction of a full mind, which we usually consider orderly, brilliant, professorial, and the failure to think “clearly,” which is normally a problem of the undereducated or the thoughtless, seems perfectly right for someone who is being put back together by falling apart (or vice-versa; with Bellow, you never know). Here’s the larger context for that passage:

But it would never happen to her daughter, not if she could help it. And Madeleine was just as determined that it should not. And this was where Moses came in, on the bench of Verdi Square. His face was shaven, his shirt was clean, his nails clean, his legs, somewhat heavy in the thighs, were crossed, and he listened to Tennie very thoughtfully—for a man whose mind had stopped working. It was too full of his grant projects to think anything clearly.

So who is Moses, the man whose mind isn’t working clearly but who is also presented as a good and thoughtful bourgeois provider, at least here, with his cleanliness and full/empty mind? That I don’t have a good answer, two or three or however many times through, reminds me of Bellow’s subtlety, his habit of slipping in that idea that’s endlessly forgotten and rediscovered, and which makes him unexpected even when I superficially know what’s going to happen.

Moses Herzog and Bellow also know what’s going to happen, of course, which is why images of death are so pervasive in Herzog and many of Bellow’s other novels. The question is how we deal with that fact and how it animates our social and intellectual lives. The (partial) answer to that question is the complete works of Saul Bellow; I say “partial” because I suspect the larger point is that there is no answer, only more questions. No wonder so many people exist in such a neurotic world.

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