Academic journal article Saul Bellow Journal

Effusive Paralysis: A Pre-Oedipal Reading of Saul Bellow's Herzog

Academic journal article Saul Bellow Journal

Effusive Paralysis: A Pre-Oedipal Reading of Saul Bellow's Herzog

Article excerpt

In Herzog Saul Bellow has constructed an epistolary novel that illustrates the close relationship between identity and language. The eponymous narrator--a middle-aged intellectual and professor living in the ideologically, scientifically and technologically shifting mid-twentieth century--is plagued by a sense of incompleteness and attempts to repair what is missing through the utilization of language alone. Using various linguistic strategies--language-based constructs meant to maneuver and appease Moses Herzog tries to define who he is by negotiating the space between himself and the environment.

Viewing this process through a psychoanalytic lens lays bare what keeps Herzog from achieving that end. The linguistic strategies that Herzog and his author employ dramatically and structurally reveal the protagonist to be locked in a narcissistic paralysis that language alone cannot extricate him from. Herzog's difficulties are, ironically, pre-verbal and cannot be rectified through merely linguistic means.

To comprehensively grasp the text, one must understand, in Freudlan and Neo-Freudlan terms, the pre-oedipal stage of development--from whence primary narcissism (1) emerges--and its influence upon the psyche. Especially critical is this stage's impact in this novel on self-exploration in a climate of social disruption. While there is a body of criticism approaching Herzog from a psychoanalytic angle that centers on Herzog's oedipal issues, or makes reference to his narcissistic challenges, (2) these analyses leave room for a dynamic exploration of how the protagonist's narcissistic perception shapes his conundrums.

Herzog's narcissistic tendencies become critical when his wife, Madeline, leaves him for his closest friend, Valentine Gersbach. Herzog is amorphous to begin with, empowering Madeline to "dominate" (72) and define him, and the divorce "feels like death" (104) to Herzog because it marks the death of the self he believes she sustained: "everyone close to Madeline ... became exceptional, deeply gifted, brilliant. It had also happened to him." (51). After he and Madeline part, the inchoately developed Herzog thinks, unwittingly, that he must isolate himself to regroup, but as one cannot flourish in a vacuum, this severing is "... like death." (104)

Enraged and out of control, Herzog projects himself to the ends of the horizon. Despite knowing that, in general, "in anger people become dictatorial," (83) Herzog does not recognize that his need to impose order suffocates the world and turns it into an extension of himself. Without the possibility of contrasts, which enable intake and growth, Herzog beseeches the world to supply him with what he believes Madeline has offered: the very definition his imposition of self ultimately eclipses from emerging. Occupying all the space of his vision renders Herzog immobilized, able to work only "at about two percent of efficiency" (121).

Herzog's projections blur the boundaries that separate phenomena, people, and things from himself and each other. This confusion impacts his life in personal, professional, and social spheres. For instance, with regard to Herzog's reading of Valentine, he perceives the other's physicality as encroaching upon his own bodily perimeters, something illustrated by statements he makes, such as, "At moments I dislike having a face, a nose, lips, because he has them" (45).

Annie Reich notes in "Pathologic Forms of Self-Esteem Regulation" that the need for narcissistic inflation intensely competitive as a rule and involving contempt for others--derives from threats to one's bodily intactness (48). Herzog's comment indicates both the underlying belief that his corporeal self is not fully separated from Valentine's, and his disdain towards the other and himself--being tied to him--for the existence of the problem.

Herzog feels violated by and powerless against Valentine because he perceives his rival as having all the traits so troubling about himself. …

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