Herzog scarcely knew what to think of this scrawling. He yielded to the excitement that inspired it and suspected at times that it might be a symptom of disintegration. That did not frighten him. Lying on the sofa of the kitchenette apartment he had rented on 17th Street, he sometimes imagined he was an industry that manufactured personal history, and saw himself from birth to death.
Herzog, like so many of Saul Bellow’s narrators, is an American. And, like many of Bellow’s narrators, this fact is exacerbated in every which way.
The Adventures of Augie March begins most famously with its narrator introducing himself:
I am an American, Chicago born — Chicago, that somber city — and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way: first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent. But a man’s character is his fate, says Heraclitus, and in the end there isn’t any way to disguise the nature of the knocks by acoustical work on the door or gloving the knuckles.
Each character seems to embody some near-mythical sense of the American self — an American dream, internalised but impossible and fatal to truly enact.
I’ve found myself enamoured by Bellow in recent weeks since picking up a 50p copy of Herzog left to a charity bookshelf in Surrey Quays Farm (which seems to have previously belonged to British philosopher AC Grayling?):
I’ve felt so strangely attracted to Bellow by the way that all of my knowledge of him, up until this point, seems to be informed by his being deployed as an infrequent reference in various contemporary folk songs (by Sufjan Stevens and Fionn Reagan, in particular, if you’re wondering).
The popular modernist image of him in my mind is completely other to these finger-picked coffee-shop reductions, and yet, in many ways, Herzog feels prescient, predicting its own reductions through its narrator’s own desires, lucidly enunciating our now-contemporary mundanities.
I can’t help but feel like Herzog would not be so readily shunned today, thanks to the infinite ways that the revolutionary American spirit has been tempered by communications technologies.
You see, Herzog, the book’s titular protagonist, writes letters. He writes them to everyone but he does not send them. The “scrawling” of which he scarcely knows what to think, referenced in this post’s opening quotation, refers to his obsessive compulsion to write notes to himself and others. He jots down all the vagrant fragments of his consciousness, committing them irregularly to a new materiality.
Bits of information, stray thoughts, questions and answers all addressed to others who are nonetheless encased within himself.
Would it be blasphemous to think of Herzog as a proto-microblogger? To think of Twitter as an inherently American medium, distilled to its most fundamental and marketable essence?
My first thoughts on starting the novel were that Herzog himself is in dire need of a Twitter account…
Whilst I haven’t yet finished the book — this post being woefully inchoate — I can’t stop thinking about the way that Herzog’s hyperactive drive towards communication is framed as the central symptom of his disintegration.
How does this hold up now, in light of the predominance of Twitter? In an age where the mental health of the US president is frequently called into question due to the tangential, scatterbrained nature of his own communicative missives?
Merely finding a language, learning to talk in a land where there are no conventions of conversation, no special class of idioms and no dialogue between classes, no continuing literary language — this exhausts the American writer. He is forever beginning…
The “beginning” referenced in this passage from Fiedler’s first book, Love and Death in the American Novel, seems to speak to a kind of becoming that is unique to the American spirit and similar to that which so fascinated Deleuze in his considerations of the nation’s literature.
Herzog, in his disintegration, comes to resemble a poignantly American schizophrenic, seeking immanence with his nation’s already-fragmented and mad history and all of its equally mad personages.
He is attempting to communicate with that most ‘pataphysical of communities: the Blanchotian community.
In returning to Blanchot over the weekend, whilst attempting to write something else, I also revisited Jean-Luc Nancy’s essay The Inoperative Community which was to provoke Blanchot into writing his most beautiful (I think) and concise work: The Unavowable Community.
Nancy, however, in his initial essay, writes on the immanence of “community” and the inoperativity of a pure immanence that can only be “death”. He writes that
immanence, if it were to come about, would instantly suppress community, or communication, as such. Death is not only the example of this, it is its truth. In death, at least if one considers in it what brings about immanence (decomposition leading back to nature—”everything returns to the ground and becomes part of the cycle”—or else the paradisal versions of the same “cycle”) and if one forgets what makes it always irreducibly singular, there is no longer any community or communication: there is only the continuous identity of atoms.
This is why political or collective enterprises dominated by a will to absolute immanence have as their truth the truth of death. Immanence, communal fusion, contains no other logic than that of the suicide of the community that is governed by it.
Of course, for Blanchot, Nancy’s consideration of death as wholly inoperative — simply because it is a limit-experience — is an unhelpful simplification and one which does not speak truth to the reality of “community” as that which occurs in the spaces between “us”.
For Blanchot, death is not the end of community, nor, by contrast, is birth its start — although there would, of course, be no community without either event. Birth and death are rather those events which are responsible for bringing the very community of which they are apart together. They are community at its most potent but that is not the same as being a bookend. What ruptures community in the taking-place of these events is that relation which escapes expression. In this sense, death may be the limit of the individual but it is the height of community, where love, at its most potent — “love” understood here, via Blanchot, as that name for the unshareable affectation of the communal — erupts within and without community, as it is physically instantiated.
We are all in the belly of a giant suicide machine — Land’s Making-It-With-Death comes to mind, of which Nazi Germany remains the most successfully destructive example — but that is not to say this analogy of suicide cannot be productive and emancipatory for others. (This is a discussion best saved for another post, however.)
Herzog’s madness is viewed by those outside himself as a kind of slow social suicide, enacted individually. And yet, at the same time, he is also enacting and living that paradox of the individual trying to communicate with its expanded “community”, with all of those who have lived and died and which occupy our thoughts and which think our world with us.
Just as Bataille’s communicative madness is exemplified by his communion with his long-dead friend, Mr. Nietzsche, Herzog disintegrates into his friendship with America.
Fiedler’s Love and Death in the American Novel is a mammoth tome which I’m currently blaming for my writer’s block, as it has knocked me over, deep into a well of all the American classics I’ve never yet read.
At school, in fact, I don’t think I ever studied an American novel.
Off the top of my head, I remember we read:
Macbeth, Dracula, Frankenstein, Romeo & Juliet, Enduring Love, The Bloody Chamber…
A heavy Yorkshire bias towards the Gothic.
Everything I remember reading for my GCSEs and A Levels considered the peculiarities of a very English madness.
Others read The Grapes of Wrath or Of Mice And Men or The Great Gatsby… I have still never touched those books.
I have only realised the full extent of this bias since reading Fiedler and I am now frantically playing catch-up.
As I try to read a cross-section of American classics all at once, dipping in and out of books spanning the last 150 years, on the verge of losing myself and any sense of narrative as I bite off more than I can chew, I am already getting a sense that something has shifted since the beginnings of this trajectory of the American literary psyche as it is sketched by Fiedler.
For instance, I have also started reading Cormac McCarthy this weekend. Having previously read The Road and No Country for Old Men in my late teens, I am now considering these books again, as well as hoping to read the rest of his novels for the first time, and finding them bathed in a new light.
Right now, as I re-read No Country for Old Men, alongside Herzog, I am thinking anew about that which I have always taken to be the style of the “American masculine” — an opinion parsed from overheard conversations about Hemingway and that lot, uttered by actual English literature students over the years; defined, in my mind, by a no-nonsense prose style, lacking in superlative adjectives. This style has now started to resembled a new kind of innocence, nonetheless paradoxically corrupted: the tight-lipped innocence of a post-traumatic episode. Less masculine and more withdrawn: the grunts of a troubled teenager.
Fiedler, of course, also writes of the ways that American novels “seem not primitive, perhaps, but innocent, unfallen in a disturbing way, almost juvenile.” He continues:
The great works of American fiction are notoriously at home in the children’s section of the library, their level of sentimentality precisely that of the pre-adolescent. This is part of what we mean when we talk about the incapacity of the American novelist to develop; in a compulsive way he returns to a limited world of experience.
However, this is also partly the lie that we tell ourselves, cherishing the innocence of a literature that can just as readily be defined by its violence and traumas.
Fieldler later writes how “the American novel is pre-eminently a novel of terror”, evoking the negative of that madness described by Deleuze and Guattari as a notably Gothic “line of flight”:
The enemy of society on the run toward “freedom” is also the pariah in flight from his guilt, the guilt of that very flight; and new phantoms arise to haunt him at every step. American literature likes to pretend, of course, that its bugaboos are all finally jokes: the headless horseman a hoax, every manifestation of the supernatural capable of rational explanation or the last page — but we are never quite convinced. […] Our literature as a whole at times seems a chamber of horrors disguised as an amusement park “fun house,” where we pay to play at terror and are confronted in the innermost chamber with a series of inter-reflecting mirrors which present us with a thousands versions of our own face.
The violence of McCarthy’s books, No Country for Old Men in particular, feels entirely modern in this sense, seemingly taking itself all too seriously, having shirked off the jokey illusion of a now adolescent American classicism.
More familiar with the film than the book, I am also struck now with just how cinematic McCarthy’s novel is, indelibly marked by that other American medium. The story is told through a clear succession of scenes and perspectives, contrasting abjectly with the flamboyant complexity of Herzog‘s patchwork, cubist interior. McCarthy reads like a post-Lovecraftian look in the mirror of modernity that no longer wavers at the sight of itself.
In this way, the message of McCarthy’s book is simple, expressed most succinctly by its title, but it is no less compelling despite this. The cat-and-mouse game that ensues between Llewellyn and Chigurh seems to unfold with all the familiar surreality of a Tom & Jerry cartoon, compared to the sobriety of Sheriff Bell’s steady old-man detective work.
Whereas Bell (and, to a certain extent, Llewellyn) seem to represent a kind of old guard, naturally in tune with the arid landscapes of the American South, unable to comprehend Chigurh’s rhizomatic ramblings and his psychopathic and violent nature, Chiguth himself comes to represent the dark corrupting of the contemporary American psyche that Fiedler had charted so exhaustively in its early stages. It is a madness come of age, devoid of all sentimentality (whilst nonetheless believing violently in fate: “What’s the most you’ve ever lost on a coin toss?”).
McCarthy’s is the mutant offspring of the accelerated canonisation of America’s classic madness — no longer rustic and homemade but shipped readymade, new and improved, bigger and better, at the end of society’s ever-more violently efficient, corrupting production line.
When McCarthy paints his picture of the American South and West as no country for old men, he seems to be writing, under the guise of a classic American primitivism, about the future of a near-Ballardian inner space.
This madness of the American psyche and its landscapes, as we’ve already been exploring in this blog’s recent posts on Westworld‘s second season, seem to have become more tangled than Fiedler could have ever possibly imagined, particularly in the nation’s fictions.
Now that these tendencies seem to have become canonical, normalised and further internalised, with madness now reigning far beyond the bounds of metaphor, today exemplified by the president’s own Twitter account, what other madnesses could we possibly imagine are to come next?
Expect more posts on Bellow, McCarthy and others as I continue to blog slow and read instead… There’s a lot of ground to cover. We’ll continue to see how well my writing can keep up…