Herzog by Saul Bellow


  I am the husband, or ex-husband, of a young woman whom you converted, Madeleine Pontritter, the daughter of the well-known impresario. Perhaps you remember, she took instruction from you some years ago and was baptized by you. A recent Radcliffe graduate, and very beautiful....

  Was Madeleine really such a great beauty, or did the loss of her make him exaggerate-did it make his suffering more notable? Did it console him that a beautiful woman had dumped him? But she had done it for that loud, flamboyant, ass-clutching brute Gersbach. Nothing can be done about the sexual preferences of women. That's ancient wisdom. Nor of men.

  Quite objectively, however, she was a beauty. So was Daisy, in her time. I myself was once handsome, but spoiled my looks with conceit...

  Her complexion healthy and pink, fine dark hair gathered in a bun behind and a fringe on her forehead, a slender neck, heavy blue eyes and a Byzantine nose which came straight down from the brow. The bangs concealed a forehead of considerable intellectual power, the will of a demon, or else outright mental disorder.

  She had a great sense of style. As soon as she began to take instruction she bought crosses and medals and rosaries, and suitable clothes. But then, she was just a girl, really, just out of college. Still, I believe she understood many things better than I.

  And I want you to know, Monsignor, that I am not writing with the purpose of exposing Madeleine, or attacking you. I simply believe you may be interested to find out what may happen, or actually does happen, when people want to save themselves from...

  I suppose the word is nihilism.

  Now then, what does happen? What actually did happen? Herzog tried to understand, staring at the brick walls to which he had fled again from the Vineyard. I had that room in Philadelphia-that one-year job-and I was commuting to New York three or four times a week on the Pennsylvania train, to visit Marco. Daisy swore there would be no divorce. And, for a time, I was shacked up with Sono Oguki, but she didn't answer my purpose. Not serious enough. I wasn't getting much work done. Routine classes in Philadelphia. They were bored with me, and I with them. Papa got wind of my dissolute life, and was angry. Daisy wrote him all about it, but it was none of Papa's business.

  What actually happened? I gave up the shelter of an orderly, purposeful, lawful existence because it bored me, and I felt it was simply a slacker's life. Sono wanted me to move in with her. But I thought that would make me a squaw man. So I took my papers and books, and my Remington office machine with the black hood, and my records and oboe and music down to Philadelphia.

  Dragging back and forth on the train, wearing himself out-the best sacrifice he could offer. He went to visit his little boy, and faced the anger of his ex-wife.

  Daisy would try to be stolid. It did great harm to her looks. She met Moses at the top of the stairs, her arms crossed, turning herself into a square figure with green eyes and chopped hair, waiting to say he must bring Marco home within two hours. He had a horror of these meetings.

  Of course she always knew exactly what he was doing, whom he was seeing, and now and then would say, "How's Japan?" or "How's the Pope?" It was not funny. She had good qualities, but a sense of humor was not among them.

  Moses prepared for his outings with Marco. The time passed heavily otherwise. On the train he memorized facts about the Civil War-dates, names, battles-so that while Marco was eating his hamburger at the Zoo Cafeteria, where they always went, they could talk. "Now it's time to tell you about Beauregard," he said. "This part is very exciting."

  But Herzog could only try to fix his mind on General Beauregard or on Island Number 10 or Andersonville. He was thinking how to deal with Sono Oguki, whom he was deserting for Madeleine-it felt like a desertion. The woman was waiting for him to call; he knew that. And he was often tempted, when Madeleine was too busy with the Church and refused to see him, to drop in and have a talk, nothing more, with Sono. This confusion was ugly, and he despised himself for creating it. Was this all the work a man could find to do?

  Losing self-respect! Lacking clear ideas!

  He could see that Marco sympathized with his confused father. He played the game with Moses, asking more questions about the Civil War simply because it was all that he had to offer. The child would not reject his well-meant gift. There was love in that, thought Herzog, wrapped in his paisley cotton, his coffee turning cold. These children and I love one another. But what can I give them? Marco would look at him with clear eyes, his pale child's face, the Herzog face, freckled, his hair crew-cut, by his own choice, and somewhat alien. He had his Grandmother Herzog's mouth. "Well, okay, kid, I've got to go back to Philadelphia now," said Herzog. He felt, on the contrary, nothing necessary about this return to Philadelphia.

  Philadelphia was entirely a mistake. What need was there to ride that train? Was it necessary, for instance, to see Elizabeth and Trenton? were they waiting for him to look at them? Was his single cot in Philadelphia expecting him? "It's just about train time, Marco." He pulled out his pocket watch, a gift twenty years ago from his father.

  "Take care on the subway. And around the neighborhood, too. Don't go down into Morningside Park. There are gangs down there."

  He repressed the impulse to dial Sono Oguki's number from a sidewalk booth and got on the subway instead, which carried him to Penn Station.

  In his long brown coat, tight in the shoulders and misshapen by the books stuffed into the pockets, he walked the underground tunnel of shops-flowers, cutlery, whisky, doughnuts and grilled sausages, the waxy chill of the orangeade.

  Laboriously he climbed into the light-filled vault of the station, the great windows dustily dividing the autumn sun-the stoop-shouldered sun of the garment district. The mirror of the gum machine revealed to Herzog how pale he was, unhealthy-wisps from his coat and wool scarf, his hat and brows, twisting and flaming outward in the overfull light and exposing the sphere of his face, the face of a man who was keeping up a front. Herzog smiled at this earlier avatar of his life, at Herzog the victim, Herzog the would-be lover, Herzog the man on whom the world depended for certain intellectual work, to change history, to influence the development of civilization. Several boxes of stale paper under his bed in Philadelphia were going to produce this very significant result So, by the expanding iron gate with its crimson plaque, lettered in gold, Herzog holding his unpunched ticket marched down to the train. His shoelaces were dragging. Ghosts of an old physical pride were still about him. On the lower level the cars, smoky red, were waiting. Was he coming or going? At times he didn't know.

  The books in his pockets were Pratt's short history of the Civil War and several volumes of Kierkegaard. Although he had given up tobacco, Herzog was still drawn to the smoker. He liked the fumes. Sitting in a dirty plush seat he took out a book and read For dying means that it is all over, but dying the death means to experience death, trying to think what this might signify. If...

  Yes... No... on the other hand, if existence is nausea then faith is an uncertain relief.

  Or else-be demolished by suffering and you will feel the power of God as he restores you. Fine reading for a depressive! Herzog, at his desk, smiled.

  He let his head fall into his hands, almost silently laughing. But on the train he was laboriously studying, totally serious.

  All who live are in despair.)?) And that is the sickness unto death. werehiswere It is that a man refuses to be what he is.)?)

  He closed the book as the train reached the junk heaps of New Jersey. His head was hot. He found coolness by pressing the large Stevenson button on his lapel to his cheek. The smoke in the car was sweet, rotten, rich. He sucked it deep into his lungs- a stirring foulness; he raptly breathed in the swampiness of old pipes.

  The wheels were speeding with a sharp racket, biting the rails. The cold fall sun flamed over the New Jersey mills. Volcanic shapes of slag, rushes, dumps, refineries, ghostly torches, and presently the fields and woods. The short oaks bristled like metal. The fields turned blue.

  Each radio spire was like a
needle's eye with a drop of blood in it. The dull bricks of Elizabeth fell behind. At dusk Trenton approached like the heart of a coal fire. Herzog read the municipal sign-Trenton Makes, the World Takes!

  At nightfall, in a cold electric glitter, came Philadelphia.

  Poor fellow, his health was not good.

  Herzog was grinning as he thought of the pills he had taken, and the milk he had drunk in the night.

  By his bed in Philadelphia there often stood a dozen bottles. He sipped milk to calm his stomach.

  Living amid great ideas and concepts, insufficiently relevant to the present, day-by-day, American conditions. You see, Monsignor, if you stand on television in the ancient albs and surplices of the Roman church there are at least enough Irishmen, Poles, Croatians watching in saloons to understand you, lifting elegant arms to heaven and glancing your eyes like a silent movie star-Richard Barthelmess or Conway Tearle; the R. c. working class takes great pride in him.

  But I, a learned specialist in intellectual history, handicapped by emotional confusion...

  Resisting the argument that scientific thought has put into disorder all considerations based on value...

  Convinced that the extent of universal space does not destroy human value, that the realm of facts and that of values are not eternally separated.

  And the peculiar idea entered my (jewish) mind that we'd see about this! My life would prove a different point altogether. Very tired of the modern form of historicism which sees in this civilization the defeat of the best hopes of Western religion and thought, what Heidegger calls the second Fall of Man into the quotidian or ordinary. No philosopher knows what the ordinary is, has not fallen into it deeply enough. The question of ordinary human experience is the principal question of these modern centuries, as Montaigne and Pascal, otherwise in disagreement, both clearly saw.

  - The strength of a man's virtue or spiritual capacity measured by his ordinary life.

  One way or another the no doubt mad idea entered my mind that my own actions had historic importance, and this (fantasy?) made it appear that people who harmed me were interfering with an important experiment.

  Herzog tragically sipping milk in Philadelphia, a frail hopeful lunatic, tipping the carton to quiet his stomach and drown his unquiet mind, courting sleep. He was thinking of Marco, Daisy, Sono Oguki, Madeleine, the Pontritters, and now and then of the difference between ancient and modern tragedy according to Hegel, the inner experience of the heart and the deepening of individual character in the modern age. His own individual character cut off at times both from facts and from values. But modern character is inconstant, divided, vacillating, lacking the stone-like certitude of archaic man, also deprived of the firm ideas of the seventeenth century, clear, hard theorems.

  Moses wanted to do what he could to improve the human condition, at last taking a sleeping pill, to preserve himself. In the best interests of everyone.

  But when he met his Philadelphia class in the morning, he could hardly see his lecture notes.

  His eyes were swollen and his head asleep, but his anxious heart beat faster than ever.

  Madeleine's father, a powerful personality, first' rate intelligence, many of the peculiar and grotesque vanities of theatrical New York in him, however, told me I might do her a great deal of good.

  He said, "Well, it's about time she quit hanging around with queers. She's like a lot of bluestocking college girls- all her friends are homosexuals. She's got more faggots at her feet than Joan of Arc. It's a good sign that she's interested in you." But the old man also thought him a poor fish. That psychological fact was not concealed. He had come to see Pontritter in his studio-Madeleine had said, "My father insists on having a talk with you. I wish you'd stop in." He found Pontritter dancing the samba or the cha-cha (herzog didn't know one from the other) with his own instructress, a middle-aged Filipino woman who had once belonged to a well-known tango team (ranion and Adelina). Adelina had put on weight in the middle, but her long legs were thin. Her makeup didn't much lighten her dark face.

  Pontritter, this immense figure of a man with single white fibers growing from his tanned scalp (he used a sun lamp all winter) was making tiny steps in his canvas, rope-soled slippers. His seat-fallen trousers moved from side to side as he swayed his wide hips. His blue eyes were severe.

  The music played, sucking and knocking, tiny, rapping, scraping steel-band rhythms. When it stopped, Pontritter said with somewhat distant interest, "You Moses Herzog?"

  "That's right."

  "In love with my daughter?"

  "Yes."

  "It isn't doing much for your health, I see."

  "I haven't been too well, Mr.

  Pontritter."

  "Everyone calls me Fitz. This is Adelina.

  Adelina -Moses. He's laying my daughter.

  I thought I'd never live to see the day. Well, congratulations... Hope Sleeping Beauty will wake up."

  "Allo, guapo," said Adelina. There was nothing personal in this greeting. Adelina's eyes were concentrated on the lighting of her cigarette. She took a match from Pontritter's hand. Herzog remembered thinking how purely external that match game was, under the studio skylight. Artificial heat or none at all.

  Later in the day, he had a talk with Tennie Pontritter, too. As Tennie spoke of her daughter, tears quickly came to her eyes. She had a smooth, long-suffering countenance, slightly tearful even when she smiled, and most mournful when you met her by chance, as Moses did on Broadway, and saw her face comshe was above the average height-coming toward him, large, smooth, kindly, with permanent creases of suffering beside her mouth. She invited him to sit with her in Verdi Square, the tattered grass plot railed in and always surrounded by a seated throng of dying old men and women, and by begging cripples, lesbians swaggering like truck drivers and fragile Negro homosexuals with dyed hair and earrings.

  "I don't have much influence with my daughter," said Tennie. "I love her dearly, of course. It hasn't been easy. I had to stand by Fitz. He was blacklisted for years. I couldn't be disloyal. After all, he is a great artist...."

  "I believe it...." Herzog muttered. She had waited for him to accept this.

  "He's a giant," said Tennie. She had learned to say such things with utter conviction. Only a Jewish woman of a good, culture-respecting background- her father had been a tailor and a member of the Arbeiter-Ring, a Yiddishist-could sacrifice her life to a great artist as she had done. "In a mass society!" she said. She looked at him still with the same sisterly gentleness and appeal.

  "A money society!" He wondered at this.

  Madeleine had told him, very bitter toward her parents, that the old man needed fifty thousand a year, and that he got it, too, the old Svengali, out of women and stage-struck suckers. "So Mady thinks I let her down. She doesn't understand comhates her father. I can tell you this, Moses, I think people must trust you instinctively. I see that Mady does, and she's not a trusting girl. So I think she must be in love with you."

  "7 am, with her," said Moses, emotionally.

  "You must love her-I think you do.... Things are so complicated."

  "That I'm older-married? Is that what you mean?"

  "You won't hurt her, will you? No matter what she thinks, I am her mother. I have a mother's heart, whatever she says." She began crying, softly.

  "Oh, Mr. Herzog... I'm always between the two of them. I know we haven't been conventional parents.

  She feels I just turned her out into the world. And there's nothing I can do. It's up to you. You'll have to give the child the only thing that can help her."

  Tennie took off her elaborate glasses, now making no effort to disguise her weeping. Her face, her nose reddened, and her eyes, shaped to make what seemed to Moses a crooked appeal, darkened blindly with tears. There was a measure of hypocrisy and calculation in Tennie's method, but behind this, again, was real feeling for her daughter and her husband; and behind this real feeling there was something still more meaningful and somber. Herzog was all too
well aware of the layers upon layers of reality-loathsomeness, arrogance, deceit, and then-God help us all!-truth, as well. He understood he was being manipulated by Madeleine's worried mother. Thirty years the bohemian wife, the platitudes of that ideology threadbare, cynically exploited by old Pontritter, Tennie remained faithful, chained in the dull silver "abstract" jewelry that she wore.

  But it would never happen to her daughter, if she could help it. And Madeleine was just as determined that it should not. And this was where Moses came in, on the bench in Verdi Square. His face was shaven, his shirt was clean, his nails clean, his legs, somewhat heavy in the thighs, were crossed, and he listened to Tennie very thoughtfully-for a man whose mind had stopped working. It was too full of his grand projects to think anything clearly. Of course he understood that Tennie was setting him up, and that he was a sucker for just the sort of appeal she made. He had a weakness for good deeds, and she flattered this weakness, asking him to save this headstrong deluded child of hers. Patience, loving-kindness, and virility would accomplish this. But Tennie flattered him even more subtly. She was telling Moses that he could bring stability into the life of this neurotic girl and cure her by his steadiness. Among this crowd of the aged, dying, and crippled, Tennie making her appeal to Moses for his help, stirred his impure sympathies intensely. Repulsively. His heart felt sick. "I adore Madeleine, Tennie," he said. "You don't have to worry. I'll do everything possible."

  An eager, hasty, self-intense, and comical person. Madeleine had an apartment in an old building, and Herzog stayed with her when he was in town. They slept together on the studio sofa with the morocco cover.

 
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