Herzog by Saul Bellow


  Out of the burning, the dust, down the stairs he hurried underground, listening for a train, fingers examining the coins in his pocket, seeking a subway token. He inhaled the odors of stone, of urine, bitterly tonic, the smells of rust and of lubricants, felt the presence of a current of urgency, speed, of infinite desire, possibly related to the drive within himself, his own steaming nervous vitality. (passion? Perhaps hysteria? Ramona might relieve him by sexual means.) He took a long breath, inhaling the musty damp air endlessly, on and on, stabbed in both shoulders as his chest expanded, but continuing. Then he let the air out slowly, very slowly, down, down, into his belly.

  He did it again, again, and felt better for it. He dropped his fare in the slot where he saw a whole series of tokens lighted from within and magnified by the glass. Innumerable millions of passengers had polished the wood of the turnstile with their hips. From this arose a feeling of communion-brotherhood in one of its cheapest forms.

  This was serious, thought Herzog as he passed through. The more individuals are destroyed (by processes such as I know) the worse their yearning for collectivity.

  Worse, because they return to the mass agitated, made fervent by their failure. Not as brethren, but as degenerates. Experiencing a raging consumption of potato love. Thus occurs a second distortion of the divine image, already so blurred, wavering, struggling. The real question! He stood looking down at the tracks. The most real question!

  Rush hour was just ended. Almost empty local cars were scenes of rest and peace, conductors reading the papers. Waiting for his uptown express, Herzog made a tour of the platform, looking at the mutilated posters-blacked-out teeth and scribbled whiskers, comical genitals like rockets, ridiculous copulations, slogans and exhortations.

  Moslems, the enemy is White. Hell with Goldwater, Jews! Spicks eat shit.

  Phone, I will go down on you if I like the sound of your voice.

  And by a clever cynic, II they smite you, turn the other face.

  Filth, quarrelsome madness, the prayers and wit of the crowd. Minor works of Death.

  Trans-descendence-that was the new fashionable term for it. Herzog carefully examined all such writings, taking his own public-opinion poll. He assumed the unknown artists were adolescents. Taunting authority. Immaturity, a new political category. Problems connected with the increasing mental emancipation of untrained unemployables. Better the Beatles. Further occupying the idle moment, Herzog looked at the penny scale. The mirror was wired-could not be smashed except by an ingenious maniac. The benches were bolted down, the candy-vending machines padlocked.

  A note to Willie the Actor, the famous bank robber now serving a life sentence.

  Dear Mr. Sutton, The study of locks.

  Mechanical devices and Yankee genius...

  He began again, Second only to Houdini, Willie never carried a gun. In Queens, once, he used a toy pistol. Disguised as a Western Union messenger, he entered the bank and took it over with his cap gun. The challenge was irresistible. Not the money, really, but the problem of getting in, and the companion problem of escape. Narrow-shouldered, with sunk cheeks and the mothy, dapper mustache, blue baggy eyes above, Willie lay thinking of banks. On his in-a-door bed in Brooklyn, sucking a cigarette, wearing his hat and a pair of pointed shoes, he had visions of roofs leading to roofs, of power lines, sewer connections, vaults. All locks opened at his touch. Genius cannot let the world be. He had buried his loot in Flushing Meadows, in tin cans. He might have retired. But he took a walk, he saw a bank, a creative opportunity. This time he was caught and went to prison. But he planned a great getaway, made an elaborate mental survey and drew a master plan, crawled through pipes, dug under walls. He almost had it made. The stars were in view. But the screws were waiting when he broke through the earth. They carried him back-this insignificant person, the escape artist; one of the greatest, and not very far behind Houdini, either. Motive: The power and completeness of all human systems must be continually tested, outwitted, at the risk of freedom, of life.

  Now he is a lifer. They say he owns a set of Great Books, corresponds with Bishop Sheen...

  Dear Dr. Schrodinger, In What Is Life? you say that in all of nature only man hesitates to cause pain. As destruction is the master-method by which evolution produces new types, the reluctance to cause pain may express a human will to obstruct natural law.

  Christianity and its parent religion, a few short millennia, with frightful reverses ... The train had stopped, the door was already shutting when Herzog roused himself and squeezed through. He caught a strap. The express flew uptown. It emptied and refilled at Times Square, but he did not sit down. It was too hard to fight your way out from a seat. Now, where were we?

  In your remarks on entropy ...

  How the organism maintains itself against death - in your words, against thermo-dynamic equilibrium ... Being an unstable organization of matter, the body threatens to rush away from us. It leaves. It is real. It! Not we! Not 1! This organism, while it has the power to hold its own form and suck what it needs from its environment, attracting a negative stream of entropy, the being of other things which it uses, returning the residue to the world in simpler form. Dung. Nitrogenous wastes.

  Ammonia. But reluctance to cause pain coupled with the necessity to devour ... a peculiar human trick is the result, which consists in admitting and denying evils at the same time. To have a human life, and also an inhuman life. In fact, to have everything, to combine all elements with immense ingenuity and greed. To bite, to swallow.

  At the same time to pity your food. To have sentiment.

  At the same time to behave brutally. It has been suggested (and why not!) that reluctance to cause pain is actually an extreme form, a delicious form of sensuality, and that we increase the luxuries of pain by the injection of a moral pathos. Thus working both sides of the street. Nevertheless, there are moral realities, Herzog assured the entire world as he held his strap in the speeding car, as surely as there are molecular and atomic ones. However, it is necessary today to entertain the vary worst possibilities openly. In fact we have no choice as to that....

  This was his station, and he ran up the stairs. The revolving gates rattled their multiple bars and ratchets behind him. He hastened by the change booth where a man sat in a light the color of strong tea, and up the two flights of stairs. In the mouth of the exit he stopped to catch his breath. Above him the flowering glass, wired and gray, and Broadway heavy and blue in the dusk, almost tropical; at the foot of the downhill eighties lay the Hudson, as dense as mercury. On the points of radio towers in New Jersey red lights like small hearts beat or tingled. In mid-street, on the benches, old people: on faces, on heads, the strong marks of decay: the big legs of women and blotted eyes of men, sunken mouths and inky nostrils. It was the normal hour for bats swooping raggedly (ludeyville), or pieces of paper (new York) to remind Herzog of bats. An escaped balloon was fleeing like a sperm, black and quick into the orange dust of the west. He crossed the street, making a detour to avoid a fog of grilled chicken and sausage. The crowd was traipsing over the broad sidewalk. Moses took a keen interest in the uptown public, its theatrical spirit, its performers-the transvestite homosexuals painted with great originality, the wigged women, the lesbians looking so male you had to wait for them to pass and see them from behind to determine their true sex, hair dyes of every shade. Signs in almost every passing face of a deeper comment or interpretation of destiny-eyes that held metaphysical statements.

  And even pious old women who trod the path of ancient duty, still, buying kosher meat.

  Herzog had several times seen George Hoberly, Ramona's friend before him, following him with his eyes from one or another of these doorways. He was thin, tall, younger than Herzog, correctly dressed in Ivy League Madison Avenue clothes, dark glasses on his lean, sad face. Ramona, with the accent on "nothing," said she felt nothing but pity for him. His two attempted suicides probably made her realize how indifferent she was to him.

  Moses had learne
d from Madeleine that when a woman was done with a man she was done with him utterly. But tonight it occurred to him that, since Ramona was keen on men's styles and often tried to guide his choices, Hoberly might be wearing the clothes she had picked for him. He is vainly appealing, in the trappings of his former happiness and love, like the trained mouse in the frustration experiment. Even being phoned by the police and running to Bellevue in the middle of the night to be by his side now bores Ramona. The whole feeling-and-sensation market has shot up-shock, scandal priced out of range for the average man. You have to do more than take a little gas, or slash the wrists. Pot? Zero! Daisy chains? Nothing! Debauchery? A museum word from prelibidinous times! The day is fast approaching-Herzog in his editorial state-when only proof that you are despairing will entitle you to the vote, instead of the means test, the poll tax, the literacy exam. You must be forlorn. Former vices now health measures. Everything changing. Public confession of each deep wound which at one time was borne as if nothing were amiss. A good subject: the history of composure in Calvinistic societies.

  When each man, feeling fearful damnation, had to behave as one of the elect. All such historic terrors come agony of spirit-must at last be released.

  Herzog began to be almost eager to see Hoberly, to have another look at that face wasted by suffering, insomnia, nights of pills and drink, of prayer-his dark glasses, his almost brimless fedora. Unrequited love. Nowadays called hysterical dependency. There were times when Ramona spoke of Hoberly with great sympathy. She said she had been crying over one of his letters or gifts. He kept sending her purses and perfumes, and long extracts from his journal. He had even sent her a large sum in cash. This she turned over to Aunt Tamara. The old lady opened a savings account for him. Let the money gather a little interest, at least.

  Hoberly was attached to the old woman. Moses, too, was fond of her.

  He rang Ramona's bell and the buzzer opened the lobby door at once. She was considerate that way.

  One more delicate attention. The arrival of her lover was never routine. The elevator let people out-a fellow with a heavy front, one eye shut, smoking a strong cigar; a woman with two chihuahuas, red nail polish matching the harness of the dogs. And perhaps in the whirling fumes of the street, through two glass doors, his rival watched him. Moses rode up.

  On the fifteenth floor Ramona had the door ajar, on the chain. She didn't want to be surprised by the wrong man. When she saw Moses, she unbolted and took his hand, drawing him to her side. She offered her face to him. Herzog found it full, and very hot. Her perfume sprang out at him. She wore a white satin blouse, cut to suggest the wrapping of a shawl and showing her bust.

  Her face was flushed; she did not need the added color of rouge. "I'm glad to see you, Ramona. I'm very glad," he said. He hugged her, discovering in himself a sudden eagerness, a hunger for contact. He kissed her.

  "So-you're glad to see me?"

  "I am! I am!"

  She smiled and shut the door, bolting it again. She led Herzog by the hand along the uncarpeted hall where her heels made a military clatter. It excited him. "Now," she said, "let's have a look at Moses in his finery." They stopped before the gilt, ornate mirror.

  "You have a great straw hat. And what a coat- Joseph's coat of stripes."

  "You approve?"

  "I certainly do. It's a beautiful jacket You look Indian in it, with your dark coloring."

  "I may join the Bhave group."

  "Which is that?"

  "Sharing large estates among the poor.

  I'll give away Ludeyville."

  "You'd better consult me before you start another give-away program. Shall we have a drink? Perhaps you'd like to wash up while I get the drinks."

  "I shaved before leaving the house."

  "You look hot, as if you've been running, and you've got soot on your face."

  He must have leaned against a subway pillar. Or perhaps it was a smudge from the wreckage bonfire.

  "Yes, I see."

  "I'll get you a towel, dear," said Ramona.

  In the bathroom, Herzog turned his tie to the back of his neck to keep it from drooping into the basin. This was a luxurious little room, with indirect lighting (kindness to haggard faces). The long tap glittered, the water gushed forth. He sniffed the soap.

  Muguet.

  The water felt very cold on his nails. He recalled the old Jewish ritual of nail water, and the word in the Haggadah, Rachatz!

  "Thou shalt wash." It was obligatory also to wash when you returned from the cemetery (beth Olam comthe Dwelling of the Multitude). But why think of cemeteries, of funerals, now? Unless... the old joke about the Shakespearean actor in the brothel. When he took off his pants, the whore in bed gave a whistle. He said, "Madam, we come to bury Caesar, not to praise him." How schoolboy jokes clung to you!

  He opened his mouth under the tap and let the current run also into his shut eyes, gasping with satisfaction. Broad disks of iridescent brightness swam under his lids. He wrote to Spinoza, Thoughts not casually connected were said by you to cause pain. I find that is indeed the case. Random association, when the intellect is passive, is a form of bondage.

  Or rather, every form of bondage is possible then. It may interest you to know that in the twentieth century random association is believed to yield up the deepest secrets of the psyche.

  He realized he was writing to the dead. To bring the shades of great philosophers up to date. But then why shouldn't he write the dead? He lived with them as much as with the living-perhaps more; and besides, his letters to the living were increasingly mental, and anyway, to the Unconscious, what was death? Dreams did not recognize it.

  Believing that reason can make steady progress from disorder to harmony and that the conquest of chaos need not be begun anew every day.

  How I wish it! How I wish it were so! How Moses prayed for this!

  As for his relation to the dead, it was very bad indeed. He really believed in letting the dead bury their own dead. And that life was life only when it was understood clearly as dying. He opened the large medicine chest. They used to build on the grand scale, in old New York. Fascinated, he studied Ramona's bottles-skin freshener, estrogenic deep-tissue lotion, Bonnie Belle antiperspirant. Then this crimson prescription-twice daily for upset stomach.

  He smelled it and thought it must contain belladonna comcalming for the stomach, mydriatic in the eyes.

  Made of deadly nightshade. There were also pills for menstrual cramp. Somehow, he didn't think Ramona was the type. Madeleine used to scream.

  He had to take her in a taxi to St. Vincent's where she cried for a Demerol injection. These forceps-looking things he thought must be for curling the eyelashes. They looked like the snail tongs in a French restaurant. He sniffed the scouring mitten. Especially for the elbows and heels, he thought, to rub away the bumps. He pressed the toilet lever with his foot; it flushed with silent power; the toilets of the poor always made noise.

  He applied a little brilliantine to the dry ends of his hair. His shirt was damp, of course, but she was wearing perfume enough for them both. And how was he otherwise? All things considered, not too bad.

  Ruin comes to beauty, inevitably. The space-time continuum reclaims its elements, taking you away bit by bit, and then again comes the void. But better the void than the torment and boredom of an incorrigible character, doing always the same stunts, repeating the same disgraces. But these instants of disgrace and pain could seem eternal, so that if a man could capture the eternity of these painful moments and give them a different content, he would achieve a revolution. How about that!

  Wrapping the palm of his hand tightly in the towel, like a barber, Herzog wiped the drops of moisture at his hairline. Next he thought he would weigh himself.

  He used the toilet first to make himself a little lighter, and stripped off his shoes without bending, climbing on the scale with an elderly sigh.

  Between his toes, the pointer swept past the 170 mark. He was regaining the weight he had
lost in Europe. He forced his feet into the shoes again, treading down the backs, and returned to Ramona's sitting room- her sitting and sleeping room. She was waiting with two glasses of Campari. Its taste was bittersweet and its odor a little gassy-from the gas main. But all the world was drinking it, and Herzog drank it too. Ramona had chilled the glasses in the freezer.

  "Salud."

  "Sdrutch!" he said.

  "Your necktie is hanging down your back."

  "Is it?" He pulled it to the front again.

  "Forgetful. I once tucked my jacket into the back of my trousers, coming from the gentlemen's room, and walked in to teach a class."

  Ramona seemed astonished that he would tell such a story on himself. "Wasn't that dreadful?"

  "Not too good. But it should have been very liberating for the students. Teacher is mortal.

  Besides, the humiliation didn't destroy him. This should have been more valuable than the course itself. In fact, one of the young ladies told me later I was very human-such a relief to us all...."

  "What is funny is how completely you answer any question. You are a funny man." Engagingly affectionate; her fine large teeth, tender dark eyes, enriched by black lines, smiled upon him.

  "It's the way you try to sound rough or reckless, though-like a guy from Chicago-that's even more amusing."

  "Why amusing?"

  "It's an act. Swagger. It's not really you."

  She refilled his glass and stood up to go to the kitchen. "I've got to look after the rice. I'll put on some Egyptian music to keep you cheerful." A wide patent-leather belt set off her waist. She bent over the phonograph.

  "The food smells delicious."

  Mohammad al Bakkar and his band began with drums and tambourines, and then a clatter of wires and braying wind instruments. A guttural pimping voice began to sing, "Mi Port Said..."

 
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