Herzog by Saul Bellow

  "Would you switch off that whining Egyptian, please?

  He needs his tongue wiped with a dishrag."

  She stopped the phonograph with a touch, and said, "Just a few minutes," softly closing the door.

  "A few minutes" was a figure of speech. She was long at her preparations. He had gotten used to waiting, saw the point of it, and was no longer impatient. Her reappearance was always dramatic and worth waiting for. In substance, however, he understood that she was trying to teach him something and he was trying (the habit of obedience to teaching being so strong in him) to learn from her. But how was he to describe this lesson? The description might begin with his wild internal disorder, or even with the fact that he was quivering. And why? Because he let the entire world press upon him. For instance? Well, for instance, what it means to be a man. In a city. In a century. In transition. In a mass.

  Transformed by science. Under organized power.

  Subject to tremendous controls. In a condition caused by mechanization. After the late failure of radical hopes. In a society that was no community and devalued the person. Owing to the multiplied power of numbers which made the self negligible. Which spent military billions against foreign enemies but would not pay for order at home. Which permitted savagery and barbarism in its own great cities. At the same time, the pressure of human millions who have discovered what concerted efforts and thoughts can do. As megatons of water shape organisms on the ocean floor. As tides polish stones. As winds hollow cliffs. The beautiful supermachinery opening a new life for innumerable mankind. Would you deny them the right to exist? Would you ask them to labor and go hungry while you enjoyed delicious old-fashioned Values? You-you yourself are a child of this mass and a brother to all the rest. Or else an ingrate, dilettante, idiot. There, Herzog, thought Herzog, since you ask for the instance, is the way it runs. On top of that, an injured heart, and raw gasoline poured on the nerves. And to this, what does Ramona answer? She says, get your health back.

  Mens sana in corpore sano.

  Constitutional tension of whatever origin needed sexual relief. Whatever the man's age, history, condition, knowledge, culture, development, he had an erection. Good currency anywhere.

  Recognized by the Bank of England. Why should his memories injure him now? Strong natures, said F. Nietzsche, could forget what they could not master.

  Of course he also said that the semen reabsorbed was the great fuel of creativity. Be thankful when syphilitics preach cha/y.

  Oh, for a change of heart, a change of heart-a true change of heart!

  Into that there was no way to con yourself. Ramona wanted him to go the whole hog (pecca jortiter!).

  Why was he such a Quaker in lovemaking? He said that after his disappointments of recent date he was glad enough to perform at all, simple missionary style. She said that made him a rarity in New York. A woman had her problems here. Men who seemed decent often had very special tastes. She wanted to give him his pleasure in any way he might choose. He said she would never turn an old herring into a dolphin. It was odd that Ramona should sometimes carry on like one of those broads in a girlie magazine. For which she advanced the most high-minded reasons. An educated woman, she quoted him Catullus and the great love poets of all times. And the classics of psychology. And finally the Mystical Body. And so she was in the next room, joyously preparing, stripping, perfuming. She wanted to please. He had only to be pleased and to let her know it, and then she would grow simpler. How glad she would be to change! How it would relieve her if he said, "Ramona, what's all this for?" But then, would I have to marry her?

  The idea of marriage made him nervous, but he thought it through. Her instincts were good, she was practical, capable, and wouldn't injure him. A woman who squandered her husband's money, all psychiatric opinion agreed, was determined to castrate him. On the practical side-and he found it very exciting to have practical thoughts-he couldn't stand the disorder and loneliness of bachelorhood. He liked clean shirts, ironed handkerchiefs, heels on his shoes, all the things Madeleine despised. Aunt Tamara wanted Ramona to have a husband. There must be a few Yiddish words left in the old girl's memory- shiddach, tachliss.

  He could be a patriarch, as every Herzog was meant to be. The family man, father, transmitter of life, intermediary between past and future, instrument of mysterious creation, was out of fashion. Fathers obsolete? Only to masculine women-wretched, pitiful bluestockings. (how bracing it was to think shrewdly!) He knew that Ramona was keen about scholarship, his books and encyclopedia articles, Ph. D., University of Chicago, and would want to be Frau Professor Herzog. Amused, he saw how they would arrive at white-tie parties at the Hotel Pierre, Ramona in long gloves and introducing Moses with her charming, lifted voice: "This is my husband, Professor Herzog." And he himself, Moses, a different man, radiating well-being, swimming in dignity, affable to one and all. Giving his back hair a touch. What a precious pair they'd make, she with her tics and he with his! What a vaudeville show! Ramona would get revenge on people who had once given her a hard time.

  And he? He too would get back at his enemies.

  Yemach sh'mo!

  Let their names be blotted out! They prepared a net for my steps. They digged a pit before me. Break their teeth, O God, in their mouth!

  His face, his eyes especially, dark, intent, he took off his pants, further loosened his shirt.

  He wondered what Ramona would say if he offered to go into the flower business. Why not? More contact with life, meeting customers. The privations of scholarly isolation had been too much for a man of his temperament. He had read lately that lonely people in New York, shut up in their rooms, had taken to calling the police for relief. "Send a squad car, for the love of God! Send someone! Put me in the lockup with somebody! Save me. Touch me.

  Come. Someone- please come!"

  Herzog couldn't say definitely that he would not finish his study. The chapter on "Romantic Moral-ism" had gone pretty well, but the one called "Rousseau, Kant, and Hegel" had him stopped cold. What if he should actually become a florist? It was an outrageously over-priced business, but that didn't need to be his problem. He saw himself in striped trousers, suede shoes. He'd have to get used to odors of soil and flowers. Thirty-some years ago, when he was dying of pneumonia and peritonitis, his breath was poisoned by the sweetness of red roses. They were sent, probably stolen, by his brother Shura who worked, then, for the florist on Peel Street. Herzog thought he might be able to stand the roses now. That pernicious thing, fragrant beauty, shapely red.

  You had to have strength to endure such things or by intensity they might pierce you inside and you might bleed to death.

  At this moment Ramona appeared. She thrust the door open and stood, letting him see her in the lighted frame of bathroom tile. She was perfumed and, to the hips, she was naked. On her hips she wore the black lace underthing, that single garment low on her belly. She stood on spike-heeled shoes, three inches high. Only those, and the perfume and lipstick. Her black hair.

  "Do I please you, Moses?"

  "Oh, Ramona! Of course! How can you ask!

  I'm delighted!"

  Looking downward, she laughed in a low voice.

  "Oh, yes. I see I please you."

  She held back the hair from her forehead as she bent a little to examine the effect of her nudity on him-how he reacted to the sight of her breasts and female hips. Open wide, her eyes were intensely black. She held him by the wrist, where his veins were large, and drew him toward the bed. He began to kiss her. He thought, It never makes sense. It is a mystery.

  "Why don't you take off your shirt. You won't really need it, Moses."

  They both laughed, she at his shirt, he at her costume. It was a stunner! No wonder clothes were so important to Ramona, they were the setting of that luxurious jewel, her nakedness. His laughter as it became silent, internal, was all the deeper. Her black lace pants might be utter foolishness, but they had the desired result. Her methods might be crude, but her calculations were corr
ect. He was laughing, but it got him. His wit was tickled but his body burned.

  "Touch me, Moses. Should I touch, too?"

  "Oh, please, yes."

  "Aren't you glad you didn't run away from me?"

  "Yes, yes."

  "How does this feel."

  "Sweet. Very, very sweet."

  "If only you would learn to trust your instincts...

  The lamp, too? Would you rather in the dark?"

  "No, never mind the lamp now, Ramona."

  "Moses, dear Moses. Tell me you belong to me. Tell me!"

  "I belong to you, Ramona!"

  "To me only."


  "Thank God a person like you exists. Kiss my breasts. Darling Moses. Oh! Thank God."

  Both slept deeply, Ramona without stirring.

  Herzog was awakened once, by a jet plane-something screaming with great power at a terrible height. Not fully roused, he got out of bed and sat heavily in the striped chair, prepared at once to write another message-perhaps to George Hoberly. But when the noise of the plane passed the thought went, too. His eyes were filled by the still, hot, flutter-less night- the city, its lights.

  Ramona's face, relaxed by lovemaking and sleep, had a rich color. In one hand she held the frilled binding of the summer blanket, and her head was raised on the pillows in a thinking posture-it reminded him of that photograph of the pensive child in the next room. One leg was free from the covers- the inside of the thigh with its wealth of soft skin and faint ripples-sexually fragrant. Her instep had a lovely fleshy curve. Her nose was curved too. And then there were her plump, pressed toes, in descending size. Herzog, smiling at the sight of her, went back to bed with sleepy clumsiness. He stroked her thick hair and fell asleep.

  He took Ramona to her shop after breakfast. She was wearing a tight red dress, and they were hugging and kissing in the taxi. Moses was stirred and laughed a great deal, saying to himself more than once, "How lovely she is! And I'm making it." On Lexington Avenue he got out with her and they embraced on the sidewalk (since when did middle-aged men behave so passionately in public places?). Ramona's rouge was superfluous, her face was glowing, even burning, and she pressed him with her breasts as she kissed him; the waiting cabbie and Miss Schwartz, Ramona's assistant, both were watching.

  Was this perhaps the way to live? he wondered. Had he had trouble enough, and paid his debt to suffering and earned the right to ignore what anyone might think?

  He clasped Ramona closer, felt that she was swelling, bursting, heart in the body, body in the tight-fitting red dress. She gave him still another perfumed kiss. On the sidewalk before the window of her shop were daisies, lilacs, small roses, flats with tomato and pepper seedlings for transplanting, all freshly watered. There stood the green pot with its perforated brass spout.

  Drops of water assumed blurred shapes on the cement. In spite of the buses which glazed the air with stinking gases, he could smell the fresh odor of soil, and he heard the women passing by, the rapid knocking of their heels on the crusty pavement. So between the amusement of the cabbie and the barely controlled censure of Miss Schwartz's eyes behind the leaves, he went on kissing Ramona's painted, fragrant face.

  Within the great open trench of Lexington Avenue, the buses pouring poison but the flowers surviving, garnet roses, pale lilacs, the cleanliness of the white, the luxury of the red, and everything covered by the gold overcast of New York. Here, on the street, as far as character and disposition permitted, he had a taste of the life he might have led if he had been simply a loving creature.

  But as soon as he was alone in the rattling cab, he was again the inescapable Moses Elkanah Herzog.

  Oh, what a thing I am-what a thing!

  His driver raced the lights on Park Avenue, and Herzog considered what matters were like: I fall upon the thorns of life, I bleed. And then? I fall upon the thorns of life, I bleed. And what next?

  I get laid, I take a short holiday, but very soon after I fall upon those same thorns with gratification in pain, or suffering in joy- who knows what the mixture is! What good, what lasting good is there in me? Is there nothing else between birth and death but what I can get out of this perversity-only a favorable balance of disorderly emotions? No freedom? Only impulses? And what about all the good I have in my heart-doesn't it mean anything?

  Is it simply a joke? A false hope that makes a man feel the illusion of worth? And so he goes on with his struggles. But this good is no phony. I know it isn't. I swear it.

  Again, he was greatly excited. His hands shook as he opened the door of his apartment. He felt he must do something, something practical and useful, and must do it at once. His night with Ramona had given him new strength, and this strength itself revived his fears, and, with the rest, the fear that he might break down, that these strong feelings might disorganize him utterly.

  He took off his shoes, his jacket, loosened his collar, opened his front-room windows. Warm currents of air with the slightly contaminated odor of the harbor lifted his shabby curtains and the window shade. This flow of air calmed him slightly.

  No, the good in his heart evidently didn't count for much, for here, at the age of forty-seven, he was coming home after a night out with a lip made sore by biting and kissing, his problems as unsolved as ever, and what else did he have to show for himself at the bar of judgment? He had had two wives; there were two children; he had once been a scholar, and in the closet his old valise was swelled like a scaly crocodile with his uncompleted manuscript.

  While he delayed, others came up with the same ideas. Two years ago a Berkeley professor named Mermelstein had scooped him, confounding, overwhelming, stunning everyone in the field, as Herzog had meant to do. Mermelstein was a clever man, and an excellent scholar. At least he must be free from personal drama and able to give the world an example of order, thus deserving a place in the human community. But he, Herzog, had committed a sin of some kind against his own heart, while in pursuit of a grand synthesis.

  What this country needs is a good five-cent synthesis.

  What a catalogue of errors! Take his sexual struggles, for instance. Completely wrong. Herzog, going to brew himself some coffee, blushed as he measured the water in the graduated cup. It's the hysterical individual who allows his life to be polarized by simple extreme antitheses like strength-weakness, potency-impotence, health-sickness. He feels challenged but unable to struggle with social injustice, too weak, so he struggles with women, with children, with his "unhappiness."

  Take a case like that of poor George Hoberly-Hoberly, that sobbing prick! Herzog washed off the ring inside his coffee cup. Why did Hoberly rush in a fever to the luxury shops of New York for intimate gifts, for tributes to Ramona?

  Because he was crushed by failure. See how a man will submit his whole life to some extreme endeavor, often crippling, even killing himself in his chosen sphere. Now that it can't be political, it's sexual. Maybe Hoberly felt he had not satisfied her in bed. But that didn't seem likely, either. Trouble with the member, even a case of ejaculatio praecox, would not throw a woman like Ramona. If anything, such humiliations would challenge or intrigue her, bring out her generosity.

  No, Ramona was humane. She simply didn't want this desperate character to cast all his burdens on her. It's possible that a man like Hoberly by falling apart intends to bear witness to the failure of individual existence. He proves it can't work.

  He pushes love to the point of absurdity to discredit it forever. And in that way prepares to serve the Leviathan of organization even more devotedly.

  But another possibility was that a man bursting with unrecognized needs, imperatives, desires for activity, for brotherhood, desperate with longing for reality, for God, could not wait but threw himself wildly upon anything resembling a hope. And Ramona did look like a hope; she chose to. Herzog knew how that was, since he himself had sometimes given people hope. Emitting a secret message: "Rely on me."

  This was probably a matter simply of instinct, of health o
r vitality. It was his vitality that led a man from lie to lie, or induced him to hold out hopes to others. (destructiveness created lies of its own, but that was another matter.) What I seem to do, thought Herzog, is to inflame myself with my drama, with ridicule, failure, denunciation, distortion, to inflame myself voluptuously, esthetically, until I reach a sexual climax.

  And that climax looks like a resolution and an answer to many "higher" problems. In so far as I can trust Ramona in the role of prophetess, it is that. She has read Marcuse, N. O. Brown, all those neo-Freudians. She wants me to believe the body is a spiritual fact, the instrument of the soul. Ramona is a dear woman, and very touching, but this theorizing is a dangerous temptation. It can only lead to more high-minded mistakes.

  He watched the coffee beating hi the cracked dome of the percolator werecomparable to the thoughts in his skull). When the brew looked dark enough, he filled his cup and breathed hi the fumes. He decided to write Daisy saying that he would visit Marco on Parents' Day, not plead weakness. Enough malingering! He decided also that he must have a talk with lawyer Simkin. Immediately.

  He ought to have phoned Simkin earlier, knowing his habits. The ruddy, stout Machiavellian old bachelor lived with his mother and a widowed sister and several nephews and nieces on Central Park West. The apartment itself was luxurious, but he slept on an army cot hi the smallest of the rooms. His night table was a pile of legal volumes and here he worked and read, far into the night. The walls were covered from top to bottom by abstract-expressionist paintings, unframed. At six Simkin rose from his cot and drove his Thunderbird to a small East Side restaurant-he found out the most authentic places, Chinese, Greek, Burmese, the darkest cellars hi New York; Herzog had often eaten with him. After a breakfast of onion rolls and Nova Scotia, Simkin liked to lie down on the black Naugahyde sofa hi his office, cover himself with an afghan knitted by his mother, listening to Palestrina, Monteverdi, as he elaborated his legal and business strategies. At eight or so he shaved his large cheeks with Norelco, and by nine, having left instructions for his staff, he was out, visiting galleries, attending auctions.

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