Herzog by Saul Bellow


  I love little pussy, her coat is so warm

  And if I don't hurt her, she'll do me no harm.

  I'll sit by the fire and give her some food,

  And pussy will love me because I am good.

  That's more like it, he thought. Yes. You must aim the imagination also at yourself, point-blank.

  But when all was said and done, Madeleine didn't marry in the Church, nor did she baptize her daughter. Catholicism went the way of zithers and tarot cards, bread-baking and Russian civilization. And life in the country.

  With Madeleine, Herzog had made his second attempt to live in the country. For a big-city Jew he was peculiarly devoted to country life.

  He had forced Daisy to endure a freezing winter in eastern Connecticut while he was writing Romanticism and Christianity, in a cottage where the pipes had to be thawed with candles and freezing blasts penetrated the clapboard walls while Herzog brooded over his Rousseau or practiced on the oboe. The instrument had been left to him at the death of Aleck Hirshbein, his roommate at Chicago, and Herzog with his odd sense of piety (much heavy love in Herzog; grief did not pass quickly, with him) taught himself to play the instrument and, come to think of it, the sad music must have oppressed Daisy even more than the months of cold fog. Perhaps Marco's character had been affected by the experience, too; at times he showed a streak of melancholy.

  But with Madeleine it was going to be altogether different. She dropped from the Church and after a struggle with Daisy and her lawyers and his own, and under pressure from Tennie and Madeleine, Moses was divorced and remarried. The wedding supper was cooked by Phoebe; Gersbach. Herzog, at his desk, gazing at great scrolls of cloud (the sky unusually clear for New York), remembered the Yorkshire pudding and the home-made cake.

  Phoebe baked incomparable banana cakes, light, moist, white icing. A doll bride and groom. And Gersbach, boisterous, yucking it up, poured whisky, wine, pounded the table, danced, stumping, with the bride. He wore one of his favorite loose sports shirts, which opened on his big chest and slipped away from his shoulders softly.

  Male [email protected]`e. There were no other guests.

  The house in Ludeyville was bought when Madeleine became pregnant. It seemed the ideal place to work out the problems Herzog had become involved with in The Phenomenology of Mind comthe importance of the "law of the heart" in Western traditions, the origins of moral sentimentalism and related matters, on which he had distinctly different ideas. He was going-he smiled secretly now, admitting it-to wrap the subject up, to pull the carpet from under all other scholars, show them what was what, stun them, expose their triviality once and for all. It was not simple vanity, but a sense o responsibility that was the underlying motive. That the would say for himself. He was a bien pensant type. He took seriously Heinrich Heine's belief that the words of Rousseau had turned into the bloody machine of Robespierre, that Kant and Fichte were deadlier than armies. He had a small foundation grant, and his twenty-thousand-dollar legacy from Father Herzog went into the country place.

  He turned into its caretaker. Twenty thousand and more would have gone down the drain if he hadn't thrown himself into the work-Papa's savings, representing forty years of misery in America. I don't understand how it was possible, thought Herzog.

  I was in a fever when I wrote the check. I didn't even look.

  But after the papers were signed he inspected the house as if for the first time. It was unpainted, gloomy, with rotting Victorian ornaments. Nothing on the ground floor but a huge hole like a shell crater.

  The plaster was coming down-moldy, thready, sickening stuff hung from the laths. The old fashioned knob-and-tube wiring was dangerous. Bricks were dropping from the foundations. The windows leaked.

  Herzog learned masonry, glazing, plumbing. He sat up nights studying the Do-It-Yourself Encyclopedia, and with hysterical passion he painted, patched, tarred gutters, plastered holes. Two coats of paint counted for nothing on old, open-grained wood. In the bathroom the nails hadn't been set and their heads worked through the vinyl tiles, which came loose like playing cards. The gas radiator was suffocating. The electric heater blew fuses.

  The tub was a relic; it rested on four metal talons, toy-like. You had to crouch in it and sponge yourself. Still, Madeleine had come back from Sloane's Bath Shop with luxurious fixtures, scallop-shell silver soap dishes and bars of Ecusson soap, thick Turkish towels.

  Herzog worked in the rusty slime of the toilet tank, trying to get the cock and ball to work. At night he heard the trickle that was exhausting the well.

  A year of work saved the house from collapse.

  In the cellar was another lavatory with thick walls like a bunker. In summer the crickets liked it best, and so did Herzog. Here he loitered over a ten-cent bargain Dryden and Pope. Through a chink he saw the fiery morning of high summer, the wicked spiny green of vines, and the tight, shapely heads of wild roses, the huge elm in front, dying on him, the oriole's nest, gray and heart-shaped.

  He read, "I am His Highness" dog at Kew." But Herzog had a touch of arthritis in the neck. The stony cell became too damp. He removed the top of the tank with a grating noise and pulled the rubber fitting to release the water. The parts were rusty, stiff.

  ... His Highness' dog at Kew, Pray tell me, Sir, whose dog are you?

  Mornings he tried to reserve for brainwork. He corresponded with the Widener Library to try to get the Abhandlungen der Koniglich Sdchsischen Gesellschaft der Wissenschaft.

  His desk was covered with unpd bills, unanswered letters. To raise money, he took on hackwork.

  University presses sent manuscripts for his professional judgment. They lay in bundles, unopened. The sun grew hot, the soil was damp and black, and Herzog looked with despair on the thriving luxuriant life of the plants. He had all this paper to get through, and no help. The house was waiting-huge, hollow, urgent Quos Vult Perdere Dementat, he lettered in dust. The gods were working on him, but they hadn't demented him enough yet In commenting on monographs, Moses' very hand rebelled. Five minutes at a letter and he got writer's cramp. His look turned wooden. He was running out of excuses.

  I regret the delay. A bad case of poison ivy has kept me from my desk.

  Elbows on his papers, Moses stared at half-painted walls, discolored ceilings, filthy windows. Something had come over him. He used to be able to keep going, but now he worked at about two per cent of efficiency, handled every piece of paper five or ten times and misplaced everything. It was too much!

  He was going under.

  He picked up the oboe. In his dark study, vines clutching the bulging screen, Herzog played Handel and Purcell-jigs, bourrees, contredanses, his face puffed out, fingers fleet on the keys, the music hopping and tumbling, absent-minded and sad.

  Below, the washing machine ran, two steps clockwise, one step counter. 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.

  Madeleine, to get away from his music, slammed the screen door, slammed the car door. The motor roared. The Studebaker had a split in the muffler. She started down the slope. Unless you remembered to bear right the tailpipe would scrape on the rocks. Herzog played softer as he waited for the sound. That muffler would come off one of these days, but he had stopped mentioning it to her. He had too many subjects of this sort. They made her angry.

  Through a cover of honeysuckle that bent the screen inward he watched for her to reappear on the second curve of the slope. Pregnancy had thickened her features but she was still beautiful. Such beauty makes men breeders, studs and servants. As she drove, her nose worked involuntarily under the sight-obscuring fringe of her hair (all part of the process of steering). Her fingers, some elegant, some nail-bitten, gripped the agate steering wheel.

  He declared it was unsafe for a pregnant woman to drive. He thought she must at least get a driver's licen
se. She said if a state trooper stopped her, she could sweet-talk him.

  When she was gone, he dried the oboe, looked over the reeds, shut the frowzy plush case. He wore field glasses about his neck. Once in a while he tried to examine a bird. Usually it was gone before he could get it in focus. Abandoned, he sat at his desk, a flush door on wrought-iron legs. Philodendrons grew from the base of his lamp, twining about the iron. With a rubber band he shot wads of paper at the horseflies on the paint-streaked windows. He was not a skillful painter. He tried a spray gun at first, attaching it to the rear of the vacuum cleaner, a very efficient blower. Muffled in rags to protect the lungs, Moses sprayed ceilings, but the gun speckled the windows and banisters and he went back to the brush. Dragging the ladder and buckets and rags and thinners, scraping with his putty knife, he patched and painted, reaching left, right, above, this stretch, beyond, way out, to the corner, to the molding, his taut hand trying to achieve a straight line, laying paint on in big strokes or in an agony of finesse.

  Spattered and streaming sweat when the frenzy wore off, he went into the garden. Stripped naked, he fell in the hammock.

  Meanwhile, Madeleine toured the antique shops with Phoebe Gersbach, or brought home loads of groceries from the Pittsfield supermarkets.

  Moses was continually after her about money. Beginning his reproaches, he tried to keep his voice low. It was always something trivial that set him off-a bounced check, a chicken that had rotted in the icebox, a new shirt torn up for rags.

  Gradually his feelings became very fierce.

  "When are you going to stop bringing home this junk, Madeleine-those busted commodes, these spinning wheels."

  "We have to furnish the place. I can't stand these empty rooms."

  "Where's all the dough going? I'm working myself sick." He felt black with rage inside.

  "I pay the bills-what do you think I do with it?"

  "You said you had to learn to handle money. No one ever trusted you. Well, you're being trusted now and the checks are bouncing. The dress shop just phoned-Milly Crozier. Five hundred bucks on a maternity outfit. Who's going to be born-Louis Quatorze?"

  "Yes, I know, your darling mother wore flour sacks."

  "You don't need a Park Avenue obstetrician.

  Phoebe Gersbach used the Pittsfield hospital. How can I get you to New York from here? It's three and a half hours."

  "We'll go ten days before."

  "What about all this work?"

  "You can carry your Hegel to the city. You haven't cracked a book in months anyway. The whole thing is a neurotic mess. These bushels of notes.

  It's grotesque how disorganized you are. You're no better than any other kind of addict-sick with abstractions. Curse Hegel, anyway, and this crappy old house. It needs four servants, and you want me to do all the work."

  Herzog made himself dull by repeating what was right.

  He was maddening, too. He realized it. He appeared to know how everything ought to go, down to the smallest detail (under the category of "Free Concrete Mind," misapprehension of a universal by the developing consciousness-reality opposing the "law of the heart," alien necessity gruesomely crushing individuality, und so weiter).

  Oh, Herzog granted that he was in the wrong. But all he asked, it seemed to him, was a bit of cooperation in his effort, benefiting everyone, to work toward a meaningful life. Hegel was curiously significant but also utterly cockeyed. Of course. That was the whole point Simpler and without such elaborate metaphysical rigmarole was Spinoza's Prop. XXXVII; man's desire to have others rejoice in the good in which he rejoices, not to make others live according to his way of thinking- ex ipsius ingenio.

  Herzog, mulling over these ideas as he all alone painted his walls in Ludeyville, building Versailles as well as Jerusalem in the green hot Berkshire summers. Time and again he was brought down from the ladder to the telephone. Madeleine's checks were bouncing.

  "Jesus Christ!" he cried out. "Not again, Mady!"

  She was ready for him in a bottle-green maternity blouse and knee-length stockings. She was becoming very stout. The doctor had warned her not to eat candy.

  On the sly, she greedily devoured enormous Hershey bars, the thirty-cent size.

  "Can't you add! There's not a damn reason in the world for these checks to come back." Moses glared at her.

  "Oh-here we go with this same petty stuff."

  "It's not petty. It's damn serious...."

  "I suppose you'll start on my upbringing now-my lousy, free-loading bohemian family, all chiselers. And you gave me your good name. I know this routine backwards."

  "Do I repeat myself? Well, so do you, Madeleine, with these checks."

  "Spending your dead father's money. Dear Daddy!

  That's what you choke on. Well, he was your father. I don't ask you to share my horrible father. So don't try to force your old man down my throat."

  "We've got to have a little order in these surroundings."

  Madeleine said quickly, firmly, and accurately, "You'll never get the surroundings you want. Those are in the twelfth century somewhere.

  Always crying for the old home and the kitchen table with the oilcloth on it and your Latin book.

  Okay-let's hear your sad old story. Tell me about your poor mother. And your father. And your boarder, the drunkard. And the old synagogue, and the bootlegging, and your Aunt Zipporah... Oh, what balls!"

  "As if you didn't have a past of your own."

  "Oh, balls! So now we're going to hear how you saved me. Let's hear it again. What a frightened puppy I was. How I wasn't strong enough to face life. But you gave me love, from your big heart, and rescued me from the priests. Yes, cured me of menstrual cramps by servicing me so good. You saved me. You sacrificed your freedom.

  I took you away from Daisy and your son, and your Japanese screw. Your important time and money and attention." Her wild blue glare was so intense that her eyes seemed twisted.

  "Madeleine!"

  "Oh-shit!"

  "Just think a minute."

  "Think? What do you know about thinking?"

  "Maybe I married you to improve my mind!" said Herzog. "I'm learning."

  "Well, I'll teach you, don't worry!" said the beautiful, pregnant Madeleine between her teeth.

  Herzog noted from a favorite source- Opposition is true friendship. His house, his child, yea, all that a man hath will he give for wisdom.

  The husband-a beautiful soul-the exceptional wife, the angelic child and the perfect friends all dwelt in the Berkshires together. The learned professor sat at his studies.... Oh, he had really been asking for it. Because he insisted on being the [email protected] whose earnestness made his own heart flutter - zisse n'shamele, a sweet little soul, Tennie had called Moses.

  At forty; to earn such a banal reputation! His forehead grew wet. Such stupidity deserved harsher punishment-a sickness, a jail sentence. Again, he was only being "lucky" (ramona, food and wine, invitations to the seashore). Still, extreme self-abuse was not really interesting to him, either. It was not the most relevant thing.

  Not to be a fool might not be worth the difficult alternatives. Anyway, who was that non-fool?

  Was it the power-lover, who bent the public to his will-the scientific intellectual who administered a budget of billions? Clear eyes, a hard head, a penetrating political intelligence-the organizational realist? Now wouldn't it be nice to be one? But Herzog worked under different orders-doing, he trusted, the work of the future. The revolutions of the twentieth century, the liberation of the masses by production, created private life but gave nothing to fill it with. This was where such as he came in. The progress of civilization-indeed, the survival of civilization-depended on the successes of Moses E. Herzog. And in treating him as she did, Madeleine injured a great project. This was, in the eyes of Moses E. Herzog, what was so grotesque and deplorable about the experience of Moses E. Herzog.

  A very special sort of lunatic expects to inculcate his principles.

  Sandor Himmelstein,
Valentine Gersbach, Madeleine P. Herzog, Moses himself.

  Reality instructors. They want to teach you - to punish you with - the lessons of the Real.

  Moses, a collector of pictures, had kept a photograph of Madeleine, aged twelve, in riding habit. She was posed with the horse, about to mount, a stocky long-haired girl with fat wrists and desperate dark shadows under her eyes, premature signs of suffering andofa craving for revenge. In jodhpurs, boots, and bowler she had the hauteur of the female child who knows it won't be long before she is nubile and has the power to hurt.

  This is mental politics. The strength to do evil is sovereignty. She knew more at twelve than I did at forty.

  Now Daisy had been a very different sort of person comcooler, more regular, a conventional Jewish woman. Herzog had photographs of her, too, in his foot locker under the bed, but there was no need to examine pictures, he could evoke her face at will- slant green eyes, large ones, kinky, golden but luster-less hair, a clear skin. Her manner was shy but also rather stubborn. Without difficulty, Herzog saw her as she had appeared on a summer morning beneath the El on 51st Street, Chicago, a college student with grimy texts-Park and Burgess, Ogburn and Nimkoff. Her dress was simple, thin-striped green-and-white seersucker, square at the neck.

  Beneath its laundered purity, she had small white shoes, bare legs, and her hair was held at the top by a barrette. The red streetcar came from the slums to the west. It clanged, swayed, wallowed, its trolley shedding thick green sparks, tatters of paper flying in its wake. Moses had stood behind her on the carbolic-reeking platform when she gave her transfer slip to the conductor. From her bare neck and shoulders he inhaled the fragrance of summer apples. Daisy was a country girl, a Buckeye who grew up near Zanesville. She was childishly systematic about things. It sometimes amused Moses to recall that she had a file card, clumsily printed out, to cover every situation. Her awkward form of organization had had a certain charm. When they were married she put his pocket money in an envelope, in a green metal file bought for budgeting. Daily reminders, bills, conceit tickets were pinned by thumbtacks to the bulletin board. Calendars were marked well in advance. Stability, symmetry, order, containment were Daisy's strength.

 
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