The magic carpet of literature


I read Saul Bellow’s novel “Herzog” in the late ’60s, when I was a rabbinical student in Manhattan and living the joys and the challenges of a young marriage (which has now endured for 50 years).  I long ago discarded the falling-apart paperback, and would never have thought of rereading the book were it not for Rich Cohen’s provocative piece, “Tweets and Bellows,” in the fall 2018 issue of the Jewish Review of Books.

In the second paragraph of his piece, Cohen writes: “It’s through writing and reading that a person or people can access the quiet part of their brain, the voice amid the chaos that explains who one is and what one must do.  A person who reads has a different kind of focus and attention, a different kind of mind.”

Further on, Cohen adds: “As anyone who’s spent serious time writing … can tell you, the pen (or keyboard) connects to a different part of the mind, or a different mind, than the one that chatters in you endlessly through the day.”

Cohen turns to “Herzog” to explore a question made urgent by our brave new world of always-and-everywhere social media: “What happens when our writers and thinkers express themselves through Facebook, Snapchat, and Twitter instead of on the page?”

What I remembered of “Herzog,” before rereading it a few weeks ago, was the story of a neurotic middle-aged academic who saved himself from falling off a cliff into pure insanity by writing an abundance of letters, none of which he got around to actually mailing. 

My second reading of the novel has refreshed my memory of the long list of individuals who were the targets of his unsent letters: Herzog’s two ex-wives, Daisy and Madeleine; his ex-“best friend” Valentine, who had become Madeleine’s not-so-secret lover; his psychiatrists and lawyers; a host of public figures, including former President Dwight D. Eisenhower; and shapers of Western thought, alive and dead, including Martin Heidegger, Teilhard de Chardin, Baruch Spinoza and countless others.

Because of his vast learning and command of the English language, Herzog is able to begin to sort out the conflicts that have been tearing him apart by putting his thoughts down on paper or composing whole paragraphs in his head. 

In his never-sent letter to the monsignor who had converted his ex-wife Madeleine from Judaism to Catholicism – a conversion that failed to “stick” – Herzog expresses something of the complexity of his tormented inner life: “Living amid great ideas and concepts, insufficiently relevant to the present, day-to-day, American conditions … I, a learned specialist in intellectual history, handicapped by emotional confusion ….”

Though 47-year-old Moses Elkanah Herzog is as indecisive as Hamlet, he does have the language to formulate reasons for his indecisiveness.  For example, with respect to his ambivalence toward his current lover, Ramona, 10 years his junior, he muses: “This – this asylum [a settled, stable life with Ramona] was for the asking …. Then why didn’t he ask?  Because today’s asylum might be the dungeon of tomorrow.”  

Rich Cohen wonders whether a man like Moses Herzog could be even an imaginative possibility in today’s world – so far away, even estranged, from the once-was world of literature, a world that celebrated the kind of writing that takes time, patience and much intellectual, emotional and even physical effort.

Cohen writes, “… social media is not literature, and tweeting is not writing. The text, the tweet, the post – these hasty bits of content do not give access to the hidden mind.  They can’t make you better, but they can make you worse.”

Tweeting can’t save us from our lives of ever-expanding fragmentation. But literature can save us by providing a vehicle – a magic carpet, as it were – to carry us to a place where we can relearn what it means to be fully human – men and women with minds and hearts and bodies, people who at times need to be alone in their brokenness and who at other times need to share in the comforting embrace of brothers and sisters.

It is Herzog’s lifelong engagement with the acts of reading and writing – that is to say, with literature – that enables him at the novel’s end to reassure his brother, Will, that he is emotionally and psychologically OK: “… you mustn’t be distressed about me.  I’m in a peculiar state, but not in a bad one.”

JAMES B. ROSENBERG is rabbi emeritus at Temple Habonim, in Barrington. Contact him at