Herzog by Saul Bellow


  But in Chicago, in 1934, he was class orator at the Mc Kinley High School, his text taken from Emerson. He didn't lose his voice then, telling the Italian mechanics, Bohemian barrel makers, Jewish tailors.

  The main enterprise of the world, for splendor ... is the upbuilding of a man. The private life of one man shall be a more illustrious monarchy... than any kingdom in history. Let it be granted that our life, as we lead it, is common and mean....

  Beautiful and perfect men we are not now.... The community in which we live will hardly bear to be told that every man should be open to ecstasy or a divine illumination.

  If he had lost craft and crew somewhere near Biloxi, that didn't mean he wasn't in earnest about beauty and perfection. He believed his American credentials were in good order. Laughing, but pained, too, he remembered that a Chief Petty Officer from Alabama had asked him, "Wheah did you loin to speak English-at the Boilitz Scho-ool?"

  No, what Ramona meant, as a compliment, was that he had not lived the life of an ordinary American. No, his peculiarities had governed him from the start. Did he see any great value or social distinction in this? Well, he had to endure these peculiarities, so there was no reason why he shouldn't make use of them, a little.

  But, speaking of ordinary Americans, what sort of mother would Ramona make? Would she be able to take a little girl to Macy's parade? Moses tried to imagine Ramona, a priestess of Isis, in a tweed suit, watching the procession of floats.

  Dear Mc Siggins. I read your monograph, "The Ethical Ideas of the American Business Community." A field day for Mc Siggins.

  Interesting. Would have appreciated closer investigation of hypocrisy, public and private, in the American accounting system. Nothing to prevent the individual American from claiming as much merit as he likes. By degrees, in Populistic philosophy, goodness has become a free commodity like air, or nearly free, like a subway ride.

  Best of everything for everybody - help yourself. No one much cares. The honest look, recommended by Ben Franklin as a business asset, has a pre-destinarian, Calvinistic background. You don't cast doubts on another man's election. You may damage his credit rating. As belief in damnation vanishes, it leaves behind solid formations of Reliable Appearances.

  Dear General Eisenhower. In private life perhaps you have the leisure and inclination to reflect on matters for which, as Chief Executive, you obviously had no time. The pressure of the Cold War... which now so many people agree was a phase of political hysteria, and the journeys and speeches of Mr. Dulles rapidly changing in this age of shifting perspectives from their earlier appearance of statesmanship to one of American wastefulness. I happened to be in the press gallery at the UN the day you spoke of the risk of error in precipitating nuclear war.

  That day I put down a deposit on a chandelier, an old gas fixture, really, on Second Avenue. Another ten bucks squandered on Ludeyville.

  I was present also when Premier Khrushchev pounded the desk with his shoe. Amid such crises, in such an atmosphere, there was obviously no time for the more general questions of the sort I have been concerned with.

  Indeed, put my life into. But what do you want him to do about that?

  I gather from the book by Mr. Hughes, however, and from your letter to him expressing concern about "spiritual values" that I may not be wasting your time in calling your attention to the report of your own Committee on National Aims, published at the end of your administration.

  I wonder whether the people you appointed to it were the best for the job-corporation lawyers, big executives, the group now called the Industrial Statesmen.

  Mr. Hughes has noted how you were shielded from distressing opinions, insulated, as it were. Perhaps you will be asking yourself who your present correspondent is, whether a liberal, an egghead, a bleeding heart, or a nut of some kind. So let us say he is a thoughtful person who believes in civil usefulness. Intelligent people without influence feel a certain self-contempt, reflecting the contempt of those who hold real political or social power, or think they do.

  Can you make it all clear, in few words? It's well known he hates long, complicated documents.

  A collection of loyal, helpful statements to inspire us in the struggle against the Communist enemy is not what we needed. The old proposition of Pascal (1623-1662) that man is a reed, but a thinking reed, might be taken with a different emphasis by the modern citizen of a democracy. He thinks, but he feels like a reed bending before centrally generated winds.

  Ike would certainly pay no attention to this. Herzog tried another approach.

  Tolstoi (1828-1910) said, "Kings are history's slaves." The higher one stands in the scale of power, the more his actions are determined.

  To Tolstoi, freedom is entirely personal.

  That man is free whose condition is simple, truthful - real. To be free is to be released from historical limitation. On the other hand, GWF Hegel (1770-1831) understood the essence of human life to be derived from history. History, memory - that is what makes us human, that, and our knowledge of death: "by man came death." For knowledge of death makes us wish to extend our lives at the expense of others. And this is the root of the struggle for power.

  But that's all wrong! thought Herzog, not without humor in his despair. I'm bugging all these people-Nehru, Churchill, and now Ike, whom I apparently want to give a Great Books course. Nevertheless, there was much earnest feeling in this, too.

  No civil order, no higher development of mankind. The goal, however, is freedom. And what does a man owe to the State? It was with such considerations, reading your Committee's report on National Aims, that I seem to have been stirred fiercely by a desire to communicate, or by the curious project of attempted communication. Or bent by a disguised passion, offering these ideas about Death and History to the commander of SHAEF, like mocking flowers grown in the soil of fever and unacted violence. Suppose, after all, we are simply a kind of beast, peculiar to this mineral lump that runs around in orbit to the sun, then why such loftiness, such great standards? that I thought of the variation on Gresham's famous Law: Public life drives out private life. The more political our society becomes (in the broadest sense of "political"

  - the obsessions, the compulsions of collectivity) the more individuality seems lost. Seems, I say, because it has millions of secret resources. More plainly, national purpose is now involved with the manufacture of commodities in no way essential to human life, but vital to the political survival of the country. Because we are now all sucked into these phenomena of Gross National Product, we are forced to accept the sacred character of certain absurdities or falsehoods whose high priests not so long ago were mere pitchmen, and figures of derision - sellers of snake-oil. On the other hand there is more "private life" than a century ago, when the working day lasted fourteen hours. The whole matter is of the highest importance since it has to do with invasion of the private sphere (including the sexual) by techniques of exploitation and domination.

  His tragic successor would have been interested, but not Ike. Nor Lyndon. Their governments could not function without intellectuals-physicists, statisticians-but these are whirling lost in the arms of industrial chiefs and billionaire brass.

  Kennedy was not about to change this situation, either. Only he seemed to have acknowledged, privately, that it existed.

  A new idea possessed Moses. He would offer an outline to Pulver, Harris Pulver, who had been his tutor in 1939 and was now the editor of Atlantic Civilization.

  Yes, tiny, nervous Pulver with his timid, whole-souled blue eyes, his crumbled teeth, the profile of Gizeh's mummy as pictured in Robinson's Ancient History, the taut skin hectically spotted with high color.

  Herzog loved this man in his own immoderate, heart-flooded way.

  Listen, Pulver, he wrote, a marvelous idea for a much-needed essay on the "inspired condition"! Do you believe in transcendence downward as well as upward? (the terms originate with Jean Wahl.) Shall we concede the impossibility of transcendence? It all involves historical analys
is. I would argue that we have fashioned a new Utopian history, an idyll, comparing the present to an imaginary past, because we hate the world as it is. This hatred of the present has not been well understood.

  Perhaps the first demand of emerging consciousness in this mass civilization is expressive. The spirit, released from servile dumbness, spits dung and howls with anguish stored during long ages. Perhaps the fish, the newt, the horrid scampering ancestral mammal find their voice and add their long experience to this cry. Taking up the suggestion, Pulver, that evolution is nature becoming self-aware - in man, self-awareness has been accompanied at this stage with a sense of the loss of more general natural powers, of a price paid by instinct, by sacrifices of freedom, impulse (alienating labor, et cetera). The drama of this stage of human development seems to be the drama of disease, of self-revenge. An age of special comedy. What we see is not simply the leveling de Tocqueville predicted, but the plebeian stage of evolutionary self-awareness. Perhaps the revenge taken by numbers, by the species, on our impulses of narcissism (but also on the demand for freedom) is inevitable. In this new reign of multitudes, self-awareness tends to reveal us to ourselves as monsters. This is undoubtedly a political phenomenon, an action taken against personal impulse or against the personal demand for adequate space and scope. The individual is obliged, or put under pressure, to define "power" as it is defined in politics, and to work out the personal consequences of this for himself. Thus he is provoked to take revenge upon himself, a revenge of derision, contempt, denial of transcendence. This last, his denial, is based upon former conceptions of human life or on images of man at present impossible to maintain. But the problem as I see it is not one of definition but of the total reconsideration of human qualities. Or perhaps even the discovery of qualities. I am certain that there are human qualities still to be discovered. Such discovery is only hampered by definitions which hold mankind down at the level of pride (or masochism), asserting too much and then suffering from self-hatred as a consequence.

  But you will be wondering what happened to "the inspired condition." This is thought to be attainable only in the negative and is so pursued in philosophy and literature as well as in sexual experience, or with the aid of narcotics, or in "philosophical,"

  "gratuitous" crime and similar paths of horror. (it never seems to occur to such "criminals" that to behave with decency to another human being might also be "gratuitous.")

  Intelligent observers have pointed out that "spiritual" honor or respect formerly reserved for justice, courage, temperance, mercy, may now be earned in the negative by the grotesque. I often think that this development is possibly related to the fact that so much of "value" has been absorbed by technology itself. It is "good" to electrify a primitive area. Civilization and even morality are implicit in technological transformation.

  Isn't it good to give bread to the hungry, to clothe the naked? Don't we obey Jesus in shipping machinery to Peru or Sumatra? Good is easily done by machines of production and transportation. Can virtue compete? New techniques are in themselves bien pensant and represent not only rationality but benevolence.

  Thus a crowd, a herd of bien pensants has been driven into nihilism, which, as is now well known, has Christian and moral roots and for its wildest frenzies offers a "constructive" rationale. (see Polyani, Herzog, et al.)

  Romantic individuals (a mass of them by now) accuse this mass civilization of obstructing their attainment of beauty, nobility, integrity, intensity. I do not want to sneer at the term Romantic. Romanticism guarded the "inspired condition," preserved the poetic, philosophical, and religious teachings, the teachings and records of transcendence and the most generous ideas of mankind, during the greatest and most rapid of transformations, the most accelerated phase of the modern scientific and technical transformation.

  Finally, Pulver, to live in an inspired condition, to know truth, to be free, to love another, to consummate existence, to abide with death in clarity of consciousness without which, racing and conniving to evade death, the spirit holds its breath and hopes to be immortal because it does not live - is no longer a rarefied project. Just as machinery has embodied ideas of good, so the technology of destruction has also acquired a metaphysical character. The practical questions have thus become the ultimate questions as well. Annihilation is no longer a metaphor. Good and Evil are real. The inspired condition is therefore no visionary matter. It is not reserved for gods, kings, poets, priests, shrines, but belongs to mankind and to all of existence.

  And therefore - Therefore, Herzog's thoughts, like those machines in the lofts he had heard yesterday in the taxi, stopped by traffic in the garment district, plunged and thundered with endless-infinite!-hungry, electrical power, stitching fabric with inexhaustible energy. Having seated himself again in his striped jacket he was gripping the legs of his desk between his knees, his teeth set, the straw hat cutting his forehead. He wrote, Reason exists! Reason ... he then heard the soft dense rumbling of falling masonry, the splintering of wood and glass.

  And belief based on reason. Without which the disorder of the world will never be controlled by mere organization.

  Eisenhower's report on National Aims, if I had had anything to do with it, would have pondered the private and inward existence of Americans first of all.... Have I explained that my article would be a review of this report?

  He thought intensely, deeply, and wrote, Each to change his life. To change!

  Thus I want you to see how I, Moses E.

  Herzog, am changing. I ask you to witness the miracle of his altered heart-how, hearing the sounds of slum clearance in the next block and watching the white dust of plaster in the serene air of metamorphic New York, he communicates with the mighty of this world, or speaks words of understanding and prophecy, having arranged at the same time a comfortable and entertaining evening-food, music, wine, conversation, and sexual intercourse. Transcendence or no transcendence. All work and no games is bad medicine. Ike went trout fishing and played golf; my needs are different. (more in Herzog's vein of wide-eyed malice.) The erotic must be admitted to its rightful place, at last, in an emancipated society which understands the relation of sexual repression to sickness, war, property, money, totalitarianism. Why, to get laid is actually socially constructive and useful, an act of citizenship. So here I am in the gathering dusk, the striped jacket on my back, sweating again after my wash, shaved, powdered, taking my underlip in my teeth nervously, as if anticipating what Ramona will do to it. Powerless to reject the hedonistic joke of a mammoth industrial civilization on the spiritual desires, the high cravings of a Herzog, on his moral suffering, his longing for the good, the true. All the while his heart is contemptibly aching. He would like to give this heart a shaking, or put it out of his breast. Evict it. Moses hated the humiliating comedy of heartache. But can thought wake you from the dream of existence? Not if it becomes a second realm of confusion, another more complicated dream, the dream of intellect, the delusion of total explanations.

  He had gotten a significant warning once from Daisy's mother, Polina, when he had fallen in love for a while with his Japanese friend Sono, and Polina, the old Russian Jewish suffragette-fifty years a modern woman in Zanesville, Ohio (from 1905 to 1935 Daisy's father drove a soda-pop-and-seltzer truck there)-descended on him. Neither Polina nor Daisy actually knew anything about Sono Oguki then. (what a lot of romances! thought Herzog.

  One after another. were those my real career?) But...

  Polina flew in, gray-haired and wide-hipped, with her bag of knitting, an elegant, determined person.

  She arrived with a Quaker Oats box filled with apple stradel for Herzog-he still felt a pang at the loss of her stradel; it was truly great. But he was aware that his greed for it was childlike, and that there were adult questions to be decided. Polina had the peculiar stiffness and severity of the emancipated woman of her generation. Once a beauty, she was now very dry in appearance, with gold octagonal glasses and the sparse white hairs of an old woman at the
corners of her mouth.

  They spoke in Yiddish. "What are you going to become?" said Polina, "ein ausvurf - ausgelassen?"

  Outcast-dissolute? The old lady was Tolstoian, puritanical. She did eat meat, however, and she was a tyrant. She was frugal, arid, clean, respectable and domineering. But there was nothing so tart, sweet, soft, and fragrant as her strudel made with brown sugar and green apples. It was extraordinary how much sensuality went into her baking. And she never gave Daisy the recipe.

  "Well, what about it?" said Polina. "First one woman and then another, then another. Where will it end?

  You can't abandon a wife, a son for these women-whores."

  I should never have had these "explanations" with her, thought Moses. Was it a point of honor to explain myself to everyone? But how could I explain? I myself didn't understand, didn't have a clue.

  He stirred. He'd better be on his way. It was growing late. He was expected uptown. But he was not yet ready to leave. He took a new sheet of paper and wrote Dear Sono.

  She had gone back to Japan long ago. When was it? He turned his eyes upward as he tried to calculate the length of time, and he saw the white clouds rolling above Wall Street and the harbor.

  I don't blame you for going home.

  She was a person of means. She owned a house in the country, too. Herzog had seen the colored photographs-an Oriental countryside with rabbits, hens, piglets, her own hot spring in which she bathed. She had a picture of the village blind man who came to massage her.

  She loved massages, believed in them. She had often massaged Moses, and he had massaged her.

  You were right about Madeleine, Sono. I shouldn't have married her .1 should have married you.

 
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