conceives his characters as split between reason and heart, between
mind and body, between rational knowledge and mystical adumbrations.
The characters are deeply divided in their thoughts, perceptions
and feelings. Though Bellow focuses mostly on intellectuals, men
with a highly refined mental life, he instills in them an awareness
of transcendental realities which cannot be apprehended by reason
alone. Since rationalist epistemology does not operate in the transcendental
realm, the individual remains dangling between what his heart perceives
as true and what his mind tells him to be the only acceptable reality.
The fact that Bellow chose to focus on intellectuals gave him the
opportunity to analyze the role played by reason in knowing the
phenomenal world. Bellow questions, however, the reliability of
the rational approach to life, just as he questions the Western
rationalist traditions. He tries to offer an answer to the question
of whether one can live by reason alone, ignoring the other inner
voices of which one is aware. Or, if the individual refuses to ignore
these voices, Bellow tries to find out how the individual accommodates
these voices which battle over him and drive him in different directions.
He investigates the way in which one appropriates these voices,
without going out of one’s mind, as Herzog seems to do.
Furthermore, in a materialistic, technological age, in which the
ever-increasing specialization is turning human beings into machines,
Bellow chooses to address the question of the soul, convinced as
he is that “where there is no correspondence between inner
life and outer, you’re a barbarian. You may look civilized,
but you’re not” (Cronin and Siegel 232). But this is
no easy task, since one finds it hard nowadays to dismiss objective
data generated by the intellect, and pursue, instead, the elusive
voices of the soul.
Bellow foregrounds in his work two modes of consciousness, which
Ellen Pifer calls “the analytic and the intuitive” (12).
As she rightly points out, “[t]he conflict that arises in
Bellow’s characters stems […] from the tendency, so
prevalent in a culture enamored of scientific rationalism, to confuse
reasoned analysis with metaphysical truth – and to uphold
analytic methods as proof against the exigencies of the spirit”
(1). Bellow’s characters alternate between these analytic
methods and the awareness of some higher principle in life.
In an interview with Gordon Lloyd Harper, Bellow makes a distinction
that is essential for a proper understanding of his work. He mentions
those “skeptical, rebellious or simply nervous writers […]
who denounce or reject life because it fails to meet their standards
as philosophical intellectuals” (72). In Bellow’s view,
such writers have blinded themselves to life because of their “confident
denial.” Consequently they can no longer perceive the mystery
of life. “The mystery is too great. So, when they knock at
the door of mystery with the knuckles of cognition it is quite right
that the door should open and some mysterious power should squirt
them in the eye” (72).
Bellow touches here on an essential epistemological issue. The methods
and the means of knowledge should be in keeping with the object
of knowledge. Otherwise, the epistemological search will not lead
anywhere. Time and again, Bellow points to the danger of crushing
the mystery of existence by approaching it with “the knuckles
of cognition.” He emphasizes the danger of sifting everything
through the filter of reason or through other kinds of inadequate
filters which destroy the mystery of life.
The movement of Bellow’s fiction is from the workings of reason
to those of the soul which discovers and increases the mystery of
life. Bellow sheds light on the way the enstatic intellect works,
i.e., by passing everything through the filter of reason. This is
the case especially of Bellow’s survivor novels where the
protagonist has gained a certain degree of self-confidence and consequently
tries to define his identity in close connection with the epistemological
search in which he got engaged. One notices a certain progression
in Bellow’s survivor novels, from a protagonist who is totally
absorbed in his epistemological search, so much so that he loses
touch with reality, to a protagonist who is more detached and who
is aware of the fact that being is more important than knowing.
One also becomes aware of a certain recurrent theme in Bellow’s
survivor novels, namely the fact that Bellow foregrounds what he
calls the “primordial person” of which one loses sight
in the hustle and bustle of existence. “The primordial person,”
Bellow explains in an interview with Matthew Roudané in 1984,
not made by his education, nor by cultural or historical circumstances.
He precedes culture and history… This means that there is
something invariable, ultimately unteachable, native to the soul.
A variety of powers arrive whose aim is to alter, to educate, to
condition us. If a man gives himself over to total alteration I
consider him to have lost his soul. (276)
In another interview given in the same year to Rockwell Gray et
al., Bellow calls this primordial person “the I you first
knew when you came to know that you were a self. And that first
self is embraced with a kind of fervor, excitement, love –
and knowledge. Your formal schooling is really a denaturing of that
first self” (214).
Bellow argues that the primordial person gets buried under the mass
of data, information, scientific knowledge the individual acquires
all through his life. To put it differently, reason with its incessant
search for certainties, ultimately annihilates this primordial self
which is the only instrument human beings have to perceive the mystery
of life. Bellow’s fiction traces the intellectual’s
efforts to renounce the scientific approach to life as the only
valid path to knowledge and to discover other channels of communication
with the universe which are nothing but channels of the primordial
person. Beyond the shadow of a doubt, this is a courageous stand
that Bellow takes in a century in which reason is increasingly regarded
as the only reliable instrument of knowledge.
That Bellow advocates other modes of knowledge, besides reason,
is obvious in his novels. Take for instance the point Charles Citrine
makes in Humboldt’s Gift:
not a mystic. Anyway… it doesn’t mean much more than
the word religion, which some people still speak of with respect.
What does religion say? It says that there’s something in
human beings beyond the body and the brain and that we have ways
of knowing that go beyond the organism and its senses… Test
me on the scientific world-view and I’d score high. But it’s
just head stuff. (227-28)
creates characters who start by trusting reason and the rational
approach to life, but end up realizing that reason prevents them
from perceiving life in its complexity and strangeness. The characters
come to intuitively realize that there is more to life than meets
the senses and that reason by itself will never give one the feeling
of oneness with the universe. Rather than ignore the questions to
which reason has no answer, Bellow’s characters will try to
detect other ways of knowing, even if they might not be accepted
by society at large.
Most of Bellow’s protagonists are born with an intuitive knowledge
of the soul but they ignore it until life confronts them with circumstances
which force them to remember it. However, the promptings of the
soul are strong only in Bellow’s survivor novels. In Bellow’s
victim and adventurer novels, where the novelist saw human nature
as dominated by animal instincts, the characters could hardly perceive
intimations of immortality. Bellow’s training in anthropology
was largely responsible for this view of the human being as “a
noble savage,” to quote the title of the literary journal
Bellow edited with Keith Botsford at the beginning of the ‘60s.
Nonetheless, even this noble animal could hear a voice crying from
the depths of its being. Thus, in Seize the Day, Tommy Wilhelm is
aware of the promptings of his soul which tells him about the real
business of life. Tamkin, the reality instructor also points to
the multitude of souls which drive the individual in different,
sometimes opposite directions: “In here the human bosom –
mine, yours, everybody – there isn’t just one soul.
There’s a lot of souls. But there are two main ones, the real
soul and the pretender soul… The interest of the pretender
soul is the same as the interest of social life, the society mechanism.
The true soul loves the truth” (70).
In like manner, Henderson is driven to Africa by a voice which keeps
telling him “I want, I want.” Though Henderson can hardly
make sense of this voice, he leaves for Africa which he believes
to be the place where the human species got its start, where he
will learn to assume moral responsibility for himself and for others,
to care less for himself and more for others.
It is quite obvious that Bellow’s protagonists are driven
by voices which have their origin in unconscious sources. In an
interview given in 1979 to Maggie Simmons, Bellow clarified what
he meant by unconscious sources, a syntagm which was perceived as
vague, ambiguous. Bellow explained that when he spoke of unconscious
sources, he did not have in mind any Freudian or Jungian unconscious,
but “a much-neglected metaphysical unconscious.” Bellow
also accounted for the way in which he regarded this metaphysical
unconscious. He stated that “we receive epistemological guidance
of which we are unaware and that we actually have infinitely deeper
and better ways of knowing than those we’ve been ‘educated’
in” (167). Bellow also made clear his view on scientific rules
which give one only the illusion of understanding the world. In
reality, rational thinking employed indiscriminately may transform
the world into an absurd one: “We think we understand what
we see about us, and we are, at the conscious level, persuaded that
we can understand our own behavior and that of others if we apply
the ‘scientific’ rules recommended by rational teaching.
But if we really tried to live by this teaching, life would be even
more absurd than it is” (167).
Bellow also points to “deeper motives, impulses of which we
are not conscious.” Such impulses make people behave in ways
which are beyond the understanding of reason. This makes Bellow
conclude that “[t]he human understructure is much larger than
any measure our culture gives us” (167).
This human understructure can tune in, in Bellow’s view, to
a higher consciousness which exists outside time and which is not
affected by historical developments. This higher consciousness,
however, can only be perceived through one’s soul, as Bellow
argues in his foreword to Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the
the channel [to the soul] is always there, and it is our business
to keep it open, to have access to the deepest parts of ourselves
– to that part of us which is conscious of a higher consciousness,
by means of which we make final judgments and put everything together.
The independence of this consciousness, which has the strength to
be immune to the noise of history and the distractions of our immediate
surroundings, is what the life struggle is all about. The soul has
to find and hold its ground against hostile forces, sometimes embodied
in ideas which frequently deny its very existence and which indeed
seem to be trying to annul it altogether. (16-17)
is a gradual progression in Bellow’s characters with regard
to their awareness of this higher consciousness and their confidence
in other ways of knowing. Herzog, the first character who is a survivor
is very much dominated by reason. He filters everything through
reason but instead of advancing in his project of writing the grand
synthesis, he gets stuck and realizes he will never be able to write
it. In order to find himself, Herzog must move “beyond”
contemporary culture and history, beyond the supremacy of rational
explanations and theoretical arguments. He must silence the voice
of reason in order to be able to hear the soul’s messages.
Reason is shown in Herzog to depend, to a large extent, on words,
on linguistic constructs. As Ellen Pifer perceptively notes, Herzog
“hacks his way through a verbal forest of philosophical, scientific
and legal formulations. Through the deterministic thickets of psychoanalysis,
historicism and countless fashionable ideologies, he presses forward
in search of his soul” (114).
However, the awareness of his soul is constantly pushed to the back
of his mind by the analytic intellect which tries to totalize the
universe and offer a utopian, all-encompassing view of it. The analytic
intellect however, does not give Herzog a sense of fulfillment;
on the contrary, it gives him the sensation of choking: “I
am in his grip. When I speak of him I feel him in my head, pounding
for order. He will ruin me” (11). The intellect asks for order
in a world of disorder. It asks for explanations in a world which
sometimes precludes explanations. It asks for all-encompassing syntheses
when all it uses is words which fail to render the essence of certain
Symbolically enough, the novel’s first sentence points to
the protagonist’s imprisonment in the sphere of his mind:
“If I’m out of my mind, it’s all right with me”
(1). However, Herzog’s trouble is, as a critic cogently pointed
out, that he is too much in his mind, too much a slave of the intellect
which keeps him in thrall, which pushes him hither and thither,
not allowing him to stop and reconsider his approach to life. “The
need to explain, to have it out, to justify, to put in perspective”
(2) keeps Herzog busy all the time, preventing him from discovering
the beauty of the phenomenal world.
Already at the beginning of the novel, Bellow points to the problems
Herzog has in perceiving reality. “He looked keenly at everything
but he felt half blind” (2). He is half blind because he looks
too keenly at the phenomenal world, and by fixing his gaze on reality,
he blends with it and fails to perceive what lies beyond it. Bellow
intimates the fact that one’s physical eyesight will never
lead to illumination if the channels to spiritual vision are all
blocked. And these channels are blocked because Herzog sifts everything
through the intellect, because the data his eyesight takes in from
the phanic are processed by the analytic intellect which neutralizes
any kind of spiritual or cryptic dimension of the phenomenal world.
The character is also half blind because most of the time he fails
to look at reality. He does not see anything because he fails to
look around. In other words, he sees only when he opens his eyes.
The trouble is that he is too engrossed in the sphere of his mind
to be able to look outward. “When he opened his eyes in the
night, the stars were near like spiritual bodies” (1). Herzog’s
problem is that he fails to open his eyes to look around. Herzog
is half blind because he fails to silence his intellect, so that
he could be able to perceive the spiritual, cryptic dimension of
the phenomenal world. Only a night of the intellect may lead to
Further proof of the problems he has in perceiving reality is that
only “one corner of his mind remained open to the external
world” (2). His gaze is turned inward so that he is unable
to appropriate messages coming from the external world. Moreover,
it is a corner of the mind which is open to the phenomenal world,
consequently the reader is given to understand that only the rational,
empiric approach to life is accepted by Herzog.
Herzog must break free from the “the dream of the intellect,
the delusion of total explanations” (166). Explanations only
estrange him from reality, creating a “realm of confusion.”
He gets carried away by abstractions and loses his grip on the real.
A symbolic scene is the one presenting the physical mess of the
house in which he and Madeleine are living. While Herzog studies
Hegel’s Phenomenology of the Mind, “the kitchen was
foul enough to breed rats. Egg yolks dried on the plates, coffee
turned green in the cups – toast, cereal, maggots breeding
in marrow bones, fruit flies, house flies, dollar bills, postage
stamps and trading stamps soaking on the formica counter”
(121). The contrast between Herzog’s refined intellect and
the gross mess in which he lives emphasizes how much Herzog got
estranged from the real.
Herzog comes to realize, however, that “theorizing is a dangerous
temptation. It can only lead to more high-minded mistakes”
(209). Consequently, he must silence the voice of the analytic intellect
and search within himself, listen to the longing of his heart, listen
to that desperate “longing for reality, for God” (208).
Every now and then, however, Herzog is visited by intimations of
a higher world. The trouble is that Herzog’s hyperactive intellect
does not allow him to pay attention to such signals coming from
the world beyond the senses. Herzog has one such intimation when
his gaze shifts from inward to outward. While he is waiting for
the ferry at the Waterside in Woods Hole,
looked through the green darkness at the net of bright reflection
on the bottom. He loved to think about the powers of the sun, about
light, about the ocean. The purity of the air moved him. There was
no stain in the water where schools of minnows swam. Herzog sighed
and said to himself: ‘Praise God – Praise God’.
His breathing had become freer. His heart was greatly stirred by
the open horizon […] but principally by the green transparency
as he looked down to the stony bottom webbed with golden lines…
becomes aware of the mystery of life. The phenomenal world which
is not analyzed now, dissected by the enstatic intellect, but contemplated,
admired, makes him aware that what he sees can yield far more mysteries.
Now, when the voice of the intellect has been turned down, Herzog
thinks of his soul. However, he only thinks of it, being unable
yet, to perceive the world through his soul. It is still the intellect
which approaches the world and appropriates it. “If his soul
could cast a reflection so brilliant, and so intensely sweet, he
might beg God to make such use of him. But that would be too simple.
But that would be too childish. The actual sphere is not clear like
this, but turbulent, angry” (91-92). Herzog’s intimation
of immortality cannot develop because the intellect steps in and
blurs the vision by suggesting complications and intricacy. The
temporary insight Herzog experiences cannot prevail against the
attraction of the actual sphere. As long as Herzog keeps his eyes
on the actuality of the phenomenal world, the numinous echoes recede
in the background. The cryptic refuses to yield its mystery to the
To conclude with, though Bellow knows he cannot prove anything regarding
the higher consciousness in which he believes, and though he is
aware of the importance of proofs, of evidence in our materialistic,
rationalistic society, the writer decides to address the question
of the soul which he regards as the channel of communication with
the universe. This leads him to a vision of human nature as divided
between intellect which operates with tangible, material evidence
and which relies on the information offered by the senses, and the
soul which goes by intuition, by illumination, by knowledge that
is deeply ingrained in ourselves, which we all know but find it
difficult to express. This view of human nature as split between
rational knowledge and mystical adumbrations, is not threatened
by the danger of sounding artificial since Bellow articulates his
vision in a natural, organic way by focusing on characters who are
intellectuals and consequently involved in the pursuit of knowledge.
Their epistemological searches which always begin by recourse to
the intellect, lead them to the realization that the intellect cannot
perceive the mystery of life, the secret of our being. This determines
the characters to try to detect other channels of communication
with the universe. What these channels are, and how they work, Bellow
leaves the reader to decide.
Bellow, Saul. Herzog. New York: Viking Press, 1964.
___ Seize the Day. New York: Penguin Books, 1996.
___. Foreword. The Closing of the American Mind. By Allan Bloom.
New York: Touchstone, 1987: 11-23.
Cronin, Gloria and Ben Siegel (eds.). Conversations with Saul Bellow.
Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1994.
Pifer, Ellen. Saul Bellow against the Grain. Philadelphia: University
of Pennsylvania Press, 1990.
Roudané, Matthew. “An Interview with Saul Bellow.”
Contemporary Literature 25. 3 (Fall: 1984): 265-280.