Academic journal article Saul Bellow Journal

Body Language: Spoken vs. Silent Communication in Herzog

Academic journal article Saul Bellow Journal

Body Language: Spoken vs. Silent Communication in Herzog

Article excerpt

The human body as the reflection of one's personality, as the source and recipient of sensual pleasure, and as a fascinating and wondrous piece of sculpture has been a recurrent theme in Saul Bellow's work.

In his Dangling Man (1944), (1) Joseph's dour thoughts are momentarily diverted by the photograph of a young boxer. "What beautiful shoulders!" he marvels (107). Similarly, in Bellow's The Adventures of Augie March (1953), Augie is fascinated by the appalling sight of Mintouchian's feet, whose "yellow toenails were lacquered with clear polish, except the small toes grievously buried in the lifeworn foot with its skinful of vessels" (478). And in Henderson the Rain King (1959), Henderson's body, with its great size and strength, is an extension of his personality. Queen Willatale tells Henderson that he has a "great capacity" for suffering, "indicated by your largeness, and especially your nose" (82).

In Herzog (1964), (2) Bellow continues and surpasses the attention he devoted to the body in his earlier works. The physical descriptions in H don't merely intensify the reality of emotional states or dazzle through vividness or complement and dramatize character. Throughout H, the body in fact serves as the most reliable barometer for truth about any given character. Essentially, it is in the body that the true natures of the main characters--Madeleine, Gersbach, Ramona, and Herzog--are revealed.

The attention Bellow lavishes on physical description throughout all his novels results in what the critic Keith Opdahl called a glow or "uncanny intensity" (61). This intensity is part of what makes Bellow's characters super expressive, and this expressiveness is a central goal of Bellow's work. From the opening page of DM, Bellow's writing is marked by the need for the "truest candor" (9). And from the beginning, the way to achieve that candor has been through an over-heated level of expression. Talk was the way that Joseph, of Bellow's first novel, tried to accomplish complete expressiveness. He felt that even if he spoke nonstop with "as many mouths as Siva has arms," his case still would not be fully expounded.

No one with a taste for talk could be disappointed by H, either, but in H, talk itself is a subject. Herzog realizes that more words often result in less truth. He is weary of listening to "cocktail-party expressions" (317), the "cant and rant of pipsqueaks about Inauthenticity and Forlorness" (75), and the "silly talk of scholarly people" (191-92). The characters' low opinion of speech is not merely a function of Herzog's prejudices. As Tony Tanner wrote, "Bellow is very aware that words are now used more for exploitation than communication--deception rather than dialogue" (450). Thus, in H, Bellow has made talk a realm of falsehoods, evasions, lies, blather, and noise. Simkin's false meekness of voice explodes into "oceanic" volume as he delivers threats over the office speaker phone (29). "Crazy lecturing Nachman" drones on (133). Tennie repeats platitudes about Pontritter's greatness until "[s]he had learned to say such things with utter conviction" (136). Aunt Zipporah utters pious cliches (143), and Shapiro correctly pronounces "all foreign words whether in French, German, Serbian, Italian, Hungarian, Turkish, or Danish," but can't bring himself to say he has ulcers (70-71). Here precision deserts him. Instead, Shapiro claims a "stomach condition" (73). From the smallest encounters, such as when Herzog buys a sports coat and the apathetic salesman says the fit is "[l]ike tailor-made" (20), to more significant encounters, such as Madeleine's spirited assertion that she is "crushed" by the failure of her marriage (9), words are unreliable within H.

Few truthful or sane communications are spoken in the novel; moreover, saying the truth out loud is often considered either impolitic or dangerous. Gersbach does not give a fig for accuracy in speech. When Herzog corrects his Yiddish (it's berrimter, not ferimmter), Gersbach's response is "Fe--be, who cares" (61). …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.