Herzog by Saul Bellow

  Dear Daisy, I have a few things to say to you.

  By my irregularity and turbulence of spirit I brought out the very worst in Daisy. I caused the seams of her stockings to be so straight, and the buttons to be buttoned symmetrically. I was behind those rigid curtains and underneath the square carpets. Roast breast of veal every Sunday with bread stuffing like clay was due to my disorders, my huge involvement comhuge but evidently formless-in the history of thought. She took Moses' word for it that he was seriously occupied. Of course a wife's duty was to stand by this puzzling and often disagreeable Herzog. She did so with heavy neutrality, recording her objections each time-once but not more. The rest was silence-such heavy silence as he felt in Connecticut when he was finishing Romanticism and Christianity.

  The chapter on "Romantics and Enthusiasts" nearly did him in-it almost ended them both. (the Enthusiastic reaction against the scientific mode of suspending belief, intolerable to the expressive needs of certain temperaments.) Here Daisy picked up and left him alone in Connecticut.

  She had to go back to Ohio. Her father was dying.

  Moses read the literature of Enthusiasm in his cottage, by the small nickel-trimmed kitchen stove. Wrapped in a blanket like an Indian, he listened to the radio-debated the pros and cons of Enthusiasm with himself.

  It was a winter of rocklike ice. The pond like a slab of halite-green, white, resonant ice, bitterly ringing underfoot. The trickling mill dam froze in twisting pillars. The elms, giant harp shapes, made cracking noises. Herzog, responsible to civilization in his icy outpost, lying in bed in an aviator's helmet when the stoves were out, fitted together Bacon and Locke from one side and Methodism and William Blake from the other. His nearest neighbor was a clergyman, Mr. Idwal.

  Idwal's automobile, a Model A Ford, was running when Herzog's Whippet had frozen solid. They drove to the market together. Mrs.

  Idwal made graham-cracker pies filled with chocolate gelatin, and left them, neighborly, on Moses' table. He returned from his solitary walks on the pond, in the woods, and found pies in big Pyrex plates on which he warmed his numb cheeks and fingertips. In the morning, eating gelatin pie for breakfast, he saw Idwal, ruddy and small, with steel spectacles, in his bedroom swinging Indian clubs, doing knee-bends in his long underwear. His wife sat in her parlor, hands folded, the spidery design of lace curtains thrown on her face by sunlight. Moses was invited to play his oboe, accompanying Mrs. Idwal, who played a melodeon, on Sunday evenings while the farm families sang hymns. And were they farmers?

  No, they were the country poor-odd-job people. The little parlor was hot, the air bad, the hymns pierced with Jewish melancholy by Moses and his reeds.

  His relations with the Reverend and Mrs. Idwal were excellent until the minister started to give him testimonials by orthodox rabbis who had embraced the Christian faith. The photos of these rabbis in fur hats, bearded, were put down with the pies. The large eyes of those men and especially their lips thrust out from foaming beards began to seem crazy to Moses, and he thought it time to get away from the snowbound cottage. He was afraid for his own sanity, living like this, especially after the death of Daisy's father. Moses thought he saw him, met him in the woods, and when he opened doors he encountered his father-in-law, vivid and characteristic, waiting by a table or sitting in the bathroom.

  Herzog made a mistake in rejecting Idwal's rabbis. The clergyman was keener than ever to convert him and dropped in every afternoon for theological discussions until Daisy returned. Sad, clear-eyed, mostly mute, resistant. But a wife. And the child!

  The thaws began-ideal for making snowmen. Moses and Marco lined the drive with them. Little anthracite eyes glittered even by starlight. In spring the blackness of night was filled with shrilling cheepers. Herzog's heart began to warm toward the country. The blood-colored sunsets of winter and solitude were behind him. They didn't seem so bad now that he had survived them.

  Survival! he noted.

  Till we figure out what's what. Till the chance comes to exert a positive influence.

  (personal responsibility for history, a trait of Western culture, rooted in the Testaments, Old and New, the idea of the continual improvement of human life on this earth. What else explained Herzog's ridiculous intensity?)

  Lord, I ran to fight in Thy holy cause, but kept tripping, never reached the scene of the struggle.

  He saw through this as well. If nothing else, he was too rich in diseases to be satisfied with such a description. From the middle height of New York, looking down, seeing lunchtime crowds like ants upon smoked glass, Herzog, wrapped in his wrinkled robe and sipping cold coffee, set apart from daily labor for greater achievements, but at present without confidence in his calling, tried now and again to get back to work.

  Dear Dr. Mossbach, I am sorry you are not satisfied with my treatment of T. E.

  Hulme and his definition of Romanticism as "split religion." There is something to be said for his view. He wanted things to be clear, dry, spare, pure, cool, and hard. With this I think we can all sympathize.

  I too am repelled by the "dampness," as he called it, and the swarming of Romantic feelings. I see what a villain Rousseau was, and how degenerate (i do not complain that he was ungentlemanly; it ill becomes me). But I do not see what we can answer when he says "je sens mon coeur et je connais les homines."

  Bottled religion, on conservative principles - does that intend to deprive the heart of such powers - do you think? Hulme's followers made sterility their truth, confessing their impotence. This was their passion.

  Still fighting it out, Herzog was fairly deadly in polemics. His polite formulas often carried much spleen. His docile ways, his modest conduct-he didn't deceive himself. The certainty of being right, a flow of power, rose in his bowels and burned in his legs. Queer, the luxurious victories of anger! There was passionate satire in Herzog. Still he knew that the demolition of error was not it.

  He began to have a new horror of winning, of the victories of untrammeled autonomy.

  Man has a nature, but what is it? Those who have confidently described it, Hobbes, Freud, et cetera, by telling us what we are "intrinsically," are not our greatest benefactors. This is true also for Rousseau. I sympathize with Hulme's attack on the introduction by the Romantics of Perfection into human things, but do not like his narrow repressive-ness, either. Modern science, least bothered with the definition of human nature, knowing only the activity of investigation, achieves its profoundest results through anonymity, recognizing only the brilliant functioning of intellect. Such truth as it finds may be nothing to live by, but perhaps a moratorium on definitions of human nature is now best.

  Herzog abandoned this theme with characteristic abruptness.

  Dear Nachman, he wrote. I know it was you I saw on 8th St. last Monday.

  Running away from me.

  Herzog's face darkened.

  It was you. My friend nearly forty years ago - playmates on Napoleon Street. The Montreal slums.

  In a beatnik cap, on the razzle-dazzle street of lion-bearded homosexuals wearing green eye paint, there, suddenly, was Herzog's childhood playmate. A heavy nose, hair white, thick unclean glasses. The stooped poet took one look at Moses and ran away. On gaunt legs, under urgent pressure, he fled to the other side of the street. He turned up his collar and stared into the window of the cheese shop.

  Nachman! Did you think I'd ask for the money you owe me? I wrote that off, long ago. It meant very little to me, in Paris after the war. I had it then.

  Nachman had come to Europe to write poetry.

  He was living in the Arab slum on Rue St.

  Jacques. Herzog was installed in comfort on the Rue Marbeuf. Wrinkled and dirty, Nachman, his nose red from weeping, his creased face the face of a dying man, appeared at Herzog's door one morning.

  "What's happened!"

  "Moses, they've taken my wife away-my little Laura."

  "Wait a minute-what's up?" Herzog was perhaps a little cold, then, repelled by such excesses.

  "Her father. The old man from the floor-covering business. Spirited her away. The old Sorcerer.

  She'll die without me. The child can't bear life without me. And I can't live without her. I've got to get back to New York."

  "Come in. Come in. We can't talk in this lousy hallway."

  Nachman entered the little drawing room. It was a furnished apartment in the style of the twenties- spitefully correct. Nachman seemed hesitant to sit down, in his gutter-stained pants.

  "I've been to all the lines already. There's space on the Hollandia tomorrow. Lend me dough or I'm ruined. You're my only friend in Paris."

  Honestly, I thought you'd be better off in America.

  Nachman and Laura had been wandering up and down Europe, sleeping in ditches in the Rimbaud country, reading Van Gogh's letters aloud to each other-Rilke's poems. Laura was not too strong in the head, either. She was thin, soft-faced, the corners of her pale mouth turned down. She caught the flu in Belgium.

  "I'll pay you every penny." Nachman wrung his hands. His fingers had grown knobby-rheumatic. His face was coarse-slack from illness, suffering, and absurdity.

  I felt it would be cheaper in the long run to send you back to New York. In Paris I was stuck with you. You see, I don't pretend that I was altruistic.

  Perhaps, thought Herzog, the sight of me frightened him.

  Have I changed even more than he has? Was Nachman horrified to see Moses?

  But we did play in the street together. I learned the aleph-beth from your father, Reb Shika.

  Nachman's family lived in the yellow tenement just opposite. Five years old, Moses crossed Napoleon Street. Up the wooden staircase with slanted, warped treads. Cats shrank into corners or bolted softly upstairs.

  Their dry turds crumbled in the darkness with a spicy odor. Reb Shika had a yellow color, Mongolian, a tiny handsome man. He wore a black satin skullcap, a beard like Lenin's. His narrow chest was clad in a winter undershirt-Penman's woolens. The Bible lay open on the coarse table cover. Moses clearly saw the Hebrew characters- dmai ochicho-the blood of thy brother. Yes, that was it. God speaking to Cain. Thy brother's blood cries out to me from the earth.

  At eight, Moses and Nachman shared a bench in the cellar of the synagogue. The pages of the Pentateuch smelled of mildew, the boys' sweaters were damp. The rabbi, short-bearded, his soft big nose violently pitted with black, scolding them. "You, Rozavitch, you slacker.

  What does it say here about Potiphar's wife, V'tispesayu b'vigdi..."

  "And she took hold of..."

  "Of what?



  A coat."

  "A garment, you little thief.


  I'm sorry for your father. Some heir he's got!

  Some Kaddish!

  Ham and pork you'll be eating, before his body is in the grave. And you, Herzog, with those behemoth eyes- V'yaizov bigdo b'yodo."

  "And he left it in her hands."

  "Left what?"

  "Bigdo, the garment."

  "You watch your step, Herzog, Moses. Your mother thinks you'll be a great lamden coma rabbi. But I know you, how lazy you are. Mothers' hearts are broken by mamzeirim like you! Eh! Do I know you, Herzog? Through and through."

  The only refuge was the W. c., where the disinfectant camphor balls dwindled in the green trough of the urinal, and old men came down from the shul with webby eyes nearly blind, sighing, grumbling snatches of liturgy as they waited for the water to come. Urine-rusted brass, scaly green.

  In an open stall, pants dropped to his feet, sat Nachman playing the harmonica. "It's a Long, Long Way to Tipperary."

  "Love Sends a Little Gift of Roses." The peak of his cap was warped. You heard the saliva in the cells of the tin instrument as he sucked and blew. The bowler-hatted elders washed their hands, gave their beards a finger-combing. Moses observed them.

  Almost certainly, Nachman ran away from the power of his old friend's memory. Herzog persecuted everyone with it. It was like a terrible engine.

  Last time we met - how many years ago was that?

  -I went with you to visit Laura.

  Laura was then in an insane asylum. Herzog and Nachman had transferred at six or seven corners. It was a thousand bus stops out on Long Island. In the hospital the women in green cotton dresses wandered in the corridors on soft shoes, murmuring. Laura had bandaged wrists. It was her third suicide attempt that Moses knew of. She sat in a corner, holding her breasts in her arms, wanting to talk of French literature only. Her face was moony, lips however moving quickly. Moses had to agree with what he understood nothing of-the shape of Valery's images.

  Then he and Nachman left, toward sunset. They crossed the cement yard after an autumn rainfall.

  From the building, a crowd of ghosts in green uniforms watched the visitors depart. Laura, at the grill, raised her taped wrist, a wan hand.

  Good-by. Her long thin mouth silently said, Good-by, good-by. The straight hair fell beside her cheeks-a stiff childish figure with female swellings. Nachman was hoarsely saying, "My innocent darling. My bride. They've put her away, the grim ones, the machers comour masters. Imprisoned her. As if to love me proved she was mad. But I shall be strong enough to protect our love," said gaunt, furrowed Nachman. His cheeks were sunken. Under the eyes his skin was vellow.

  "Why does she keep trying to kill herself?" said Moses.

  "The persecution of her family. What do you think?

  The bourgeois world of We/chester! Wedding announcements, linens, charge accounts, that was what her mother and father expected of her. But this is a pure soul that understands only pure things. She is a stranger here. The family only wants to part us. In New York we were wanderers too. When I came back-thanks to you, and I'll repay you, I'll work!-we didn't have money to rent a room. How could I take a job? Who would look after her? So friends gave us shelter. Food. A cot to lie down.

  To make love."

  Herzog was very curious, but he merely said, "Oh?"

  "I wouldn't tell anyone but you, old friend. We had to take care. In our ecstasies we had to warn each other to be more moderate. It was like a holy act-we mustn't make the gods jealous...." Nachman spoke in a throbbing, droning voice. "Good-by, my blessed spirit-my dear one. Good-by." He blew kisses at the window with painful sweetness.

  On the way to the bus, he went on lecturing in his unreal way, fervent and dull. "So back of it all is bourgeois America. This is a crude world of finery and excrement. A proud, lazy civilization that worships its own boorishness. You and I were brought up in the old poverty. I don't know how American you've become since the old days in Canada-you've lived here a long time. But I will never worship the fat gods. Not I. I'm no Marxist, you know. I keep my heart with William Blake and Rilke.

  But a man like Laura's father! You understand! Las Vegas, Miami Beach. They wanted Laura to catch a husband at the Fountainblue, a husband with money. At the edge of doom, beside the last grave of mankind, they will still be counting their paper. Praying over their balance sheets...." Nachman went on with boring persistent power. He had lost teeth, and his jaw was smaller, his gray cheeks were bristly.

  Herzog could still see him as he had been at six.

  In fact he could not dismiss his vision of the two Nachmans, side by side. And it was the child with his fresh face, the smiling gap in his front teeth, the buttoned blouse and the short pants that was real, not this gaunt apparition of crazy lecturing Nachman.

  "Perhaps," he was saying, "people wish life to end. They have polluted it. Courage, honor, frankness, friendship, duty, all made filthy. Sullied. So that we loathe the daily bread that prolongs useless existence. There was a time when men were born, lived, and died. But do you call these men? We are only creatures. Death himself must be tired of us.

  I can see Death coming before God to say "What shall I do? There is no more grandeur in being Death.

  Release me, God, from this meanness."

  "It isn't as bad as yo
u make out, Nachman,"

  Moses remembered answering. "Most people are unpoetical, and you consider this a betrayal."

  "Well, childhood friend, you have learned to accept a mixed condition of life. But I have had visions of judgment. I see mainly the obstinacy of cripples. We do not love ourselves, but persist in stubbornness.

  Each man is stubbornly, stubbornly himself. Above all himself, to the end of time. Each of these creatures has some secret quality, and for this quality he is prepared to do anything. He will turn the universe upside down, but he will not deliver his quality to anyone else. Sooner let the world turn to drifting powder. This is what my poems are about.

  You don't think highly of my New Psalms.

  You're blind, old friend."


  "But a good man, Moses. Rooted in yourself. But a good heart. Like your mother. A gentle spirit.

  You got it from her. I was hungry and she fed me.

  She washed my hands and sat me at the table. That I remember. She was the only one who was kind to my Uncle Ravitch, the drunkard. I sometimes say a prayer for her."

  Yiskor elohim es nishmas Imi... the soul of my mother.

  "She's been dead a long time."

  "And I pray for you, Moses."

  The bus on giant tires advanced through sunset-colored puddles over leaves, ailanthus twigs. Its route was interminable, through the low, brick, suburban, populous vastness.

  But fifteen years later, on 8th Street, Nachman ran away. He looked old, derelict, stooped, crooked as he sprinted to the cheese shop. Where is his wife? He must have beat it to avoid explanations. His mad sense of decency told him to shun such an encounter. Or has he forgotten everything? Or would he be glad to forget it?

  But I, with my memory-all the dead and the mad are in my custody, and I am the nemesis of the would-be forgotten. I bind others to my feelings, and oppress them.

  Was Ravitch actually your uncle, or only a landtsman? I was never certain.

  Ravitch boarded with the Herzogs on Napoleon Street. Like a tragic actor of the Yiddish stage, with a straight drunken nose and a bowler pressing on the veins of his forehead, Ravitch, in an apron, worked at the fruit store near Rachel Street in 1922. There at the market in zero weather he was sweeping a mixed powder of sawdust and snow. The window was covered with large ferns of frost, and against it pressed the piled blood-oranges and russet apples. And that was melancholy Ravitch, red with drink and cold. The project of his life was to send for his family, a wife and two children who were still in Russia. He'd have to find them first, for they were lost during the Revolution. Now and then he soberly cleaned himself up and went to the Hebrew Immigrants' Aid Society to make an inquiry. But nothing ever happened. He drank his pay-a shicker.

Previous Page Next Page
Should you have any enquiry, please contact us via [email protected]