Herzog by Saul Bellow

  The black face, framed in bandages, heavy-lipped, dry, eyes red, stared at the lawyer. "I don't know him."

  "Any of those blows might have killed this fellow."

  "Assault with intent to rob," Herzog heard. The magistrate added, "I assume plaintiff was drunk to begin with."

  That is-his blood was well thinned with whisky as it dropped into the coal dust. Whisky-blood was bound to be shed in some such way. The criminal began to go, the same wolfish tension within his voluminous, ridiculous pants. The cop, with pads of police fat on his cheeks, looked almost kindly as he led him to the cells. Lard-faced, he held the door open and sent him on his way with a pat on the shoulder.

  A new group stood before the magistrate, a plainclothesman testifying. "At seven-thirty-eight p. m. at a urinal in the lower level men's lavatory, Grand Central Station... this man (name given) standing in the adjacent space reached over and placed his hand upon my organ of sex at the same time saying..." The detective, a specialist in men's toilets, Herzog thought, loitering there, a bait. By the speed and expertness of the testimony you knew it was routine.

  "I therefore arrested him for violations...." Before the plainclothesman had finished listing the ordinances by number, the magistrate was saying, "Guilty-not guilty?"

  The offender was a tall young foreigner; a German.

  His passport was shown. He wore a long brown leather coat tightly belted, and his small head was covered with curls; his brow was red. He turned out to be an intern in a Brooklyn hospital. Here the magistrate surprised Herzog, who had taken him for the ordinary gross, grunting, ignorant political magistrate, putting on an act for the idlers on the benches (including Herzog). But, both hands tugging at the neck of his black robe, demonstrating by this gesture, thought Herzog, that he wanted the accused man's lawyer to stop, he said, "Better advise your client if he pleads guilty he'll never practice medicine in the U. s. a."

  That mass of flesh rising from the opening of the magistrate's black cloth, nearly eyeless, or whale-eyed, was, after all, a human head. The hollow, ignorant voice, a human voice. You don't destroy a man's career because he yielded to an impulse in that ponderous stinking cavern below Grand Central, in the cloaca of the city, where no mind can be sure of stability, where policemen (perhaps themselves that way given) tempt and trap poor souls. Valdepenas had reminded him that cops now went in drag to lure muggers, or mashers, and if they could become transvestites in the name of the law, what else would they think of! The deeper creativity of police imagination... He opposed this perverse development in law enforcement. Sexual practices of any sort, provided they didn't disturb the peace, provided they didn't injure minor children, were a private matter. Except for the children. Never children. There one must be strict.

  Meanwhile he watched keenly. The case of the intern was continued, and the principals in an attempted robbery appeared at the bar. The prisoner was a boy; though his face was curiously lined, some of its grooves feminine, others masculine enough. He wore a soiled green shirt. His dyed hair was long, stiff, dirty. He had pale round eyes and he smiled with empty-no, worse than empty-cheerfulness. His voice, when he answered questions, was high-pitched, ice-cold, thoroughly drilled in its affectations.


  "Which name, your honor?"

  "Your own name."

  "My boy's-name or my girl's-name?"

  "Oh, I see...." The magistrate, alerted by this, swept the courtroom, rounding up his audience with his glance.

  Now hear this.

  Moses leaned forward. "Well, which are you, a boy or a girl?"

  The cold voice said, "It depends what people want me for. Some want a boy, and others a girl"

  "Want what?"

  "Want sex, your honor."

  "Well, what's your boy's-name?"

  "Aleck, your honor. Otherwise I'm Alice."

  "Where do you work?"

  "Along Third Avenue, in the bars. I just sit there."

  "Is that how you make your living?"

  "Your honor, I'm a prostitute."

  Idlers, lawyers, policemen grinning, and the magistrate himself relishing the scene deeply-only one stout woman standing by with bare, heavy arms did not participate in this. "Wouldn't it be better for your business if you washed?" the magistrate said. Oh, these actors! thought Moses. Actors all!

  "Filth makes it better, judge." The icy soprano voice was unexpectedly sharp and prompt. The magistrate showed intense satisfaction. He brought his large hands together, asking, "Well, what's the charge?"

  "Attempted holdup with toy pistol Fourteenth Street Notions and Drygds. He told the cashier to hand over the money and she struck him and disarmed him."

  "A toy! Where's the cashier?"

  She was the stout woman with the thick arms. Her head was dense with graying quills. Her shoulders were thick.

  Earnestness seemed to madden her pug-nosed face.

  "That's me, your honor. Marie Poont."

  "Marie? You're a brave woman, Marie, and a quick thinker. Tell us how it happened."

  "He only made in his pocket like a gun, and gave me a bag to fill with money." A heavy and simple spirit, Herzog saw; a mesomorph, in the catchword; the immortal soul encased in this somatic vault. "I knew it was a trick."

  "What did you do?"

  "I have a baseball bat, your honor. The store sells them. I gave a slam on the arm."

  "Good for you! Is this what happened, Aleck?"

  "Yes sir," he answered in his clear, chill voice. Herzog tried to guess the secret of this alert cheerfulness. What view of things was this Aleck advancing? He seemed to be giving the world comedy for comedy, joke for joke. With his dyed hair, like the winter-beaten wool of a sheep, and his round eyes, traces of mascara still on them, the tight provocative pants, and something sheep-like, too, even about his vengeful merriment, he was a dream actor. With his bad fantasy he defied a bad reality, subliminally asserting to the magistrate, "Your authority and my degeneracy are one and the same."

  Yes, it must be something like that, Herzog decided.

  Sandor Himmelstein declared with rage that every living soul was a whore. Of course the magistrate had not spread his legs literally; but he must have done all that was necessary within the power structure to get appointed. Still, nothing about him denied such charges, either. His face was illusion-less, without need of hypocrisy. Aleck was the one who claimed glamour, even a certain amount of "spiritual" credit. Someone must have told him that fellatio was the path to truth and honor. So this bruised, dyed Aleck also had an idea. He was purer, loftier than any square, did not lie. It wasn't only Sandor who had such ideas- strange, minimal ideas of truth, honor. Realism. Nastiness in the transcendent position.

  There was a narcotics record. That was to be expected. He needed the money for the dope, was that it?

  "That was it, your honor," said Aleck. "I almost didn't try because this lady looked so butch. I knew she might be tough. But I took a chance anyway."

  Unless spoken to, Marie Poont said nothing.

  Her head hung forward.

  The magistrate said, "Aleck, if you keep this up you'll be in Potter's Field....

  I give you four-five years."

  In the grave! Eyes really empty, and this strained sweetness rotted from the lips. Well, Aleck, how about that? Will you think-be serious? But where would it get Aleck to be serious? What could he hope from it? Now he was going back to the cell, and he called out, "G'by all. Good-by." Sugary and lingering.

  "By-ee." An icy voice. They pushed him out.

  The magistrate shook his head. These fairies, what a bunch! He fetched up a handkerchief from the black gown and wiped his neck, raising his chin and catching the gold of many lights on his face. He was smiling. Marie Poont still waited, and he said, "Thank you, Miss. And you may go now."

  Herzog discovered that he had been sitting, legs elegantly crossed, the jagged oval rim of his hat pressed on his thigh, his striped jacket still buttoned and strained by his eager posture, t
hat he had been watching all that happened with his look of intelligent composure, of charm and sympathy-like the old song, he thought, the one that goes, "There's flies on me, there's flies on you, but there ain't no flies on Jesus." A man who looked so fine and humane would be outside police jurisdiction, immune to lower forms of suffering and punishment. Herzog shifted his weight on the bench, forcing his hand into his pocket. Did he have a dime for the phone? He must call Wachsel. But he couldn't reach his coins (was he getting fat?) and he stood up. As soon as he was on his feet, he realized that there was something the matter with him. He felt as though something terrible, inflammatory, bitter, had been grated into his bloodstream and stung and burned his veins, his face, his heart. He knew he was turning white, although the pulses beat violently in his head. He saw that the magistrate was staring at him, as though Herzog owed him the courtesy of a nod in leaving his courtroom....

  But he turned his back, and hurried into the corridor, thrusting aside the swinging doors. He opened his collar, struggling with the stiff buttonhole of the new shirt. The sweat broke out on his face.

  He began to breathe more normally as he stood beside the broad high window. It had a metal grille at its base. Through this a draft of cooler air passed, and the dust silently circulated under the folds of the green-black window blind. Some of Herzog's dearest friends, not to mention his Uncle Arye comhis own father, come to think of it-had died of heart failure, and there were times when Herzog thought he might be having an attack too. But no, he was really very strong and healthy, and no... What was he saying? He finished his sentence, however: no such luck. He must live. Complete his assignment, whatever that was.

  The burning within his chest subsided. It had felt like swallowing a mouthful of poison. But he now grasped the floating suspicion that this poison rose from within. He knew in fact that it did. What produced it? Must he suppose that something once good in him had spoiled, gone bad? Or was it originally bad? His own evil? To see people in the hands of the law agitated him. The red forehead of the medical student, the trembling legs of the Negro he found horrible.

  But he was suspicious of his own reaction, too.

  There were people, Simkin, for instance, or Himmelstein, or Dr. Edvig, who believed that in a way Herzog was rather simple, that his humane feelings were childish. That he had been spared the destruction of certain sentiments as the pet goose is spared the ax. Yes, a pet goose! Simkin seemed to see him as he saw that sickly innocent girl, the epileptic cousin whom Madeleine supposedly injured. Young Jews, brought up on moral principles as Victorian ladies were on pianoforte and needlepoint, thought Herzog. And I have come here today for a look at something different. That evidently is my purpose.

  I willfully misread my contract. I never was the principal, but only on loan to myself. Evidently I continue to believe in God. Though never admitting it. But what else explains my conduct and my life? So I may as well acknowledge how things are, if only because otherwise I can't even be described. My behavior implies that there is a barrier against which I have been pressing from the first, pressing all my life, with the conviction that it is necessary to press, and that something must come of it. Perhaps that I can eventually pass through. I must always have had such an idea. Is it faith? Or is it simply childishness, expecting to be loved for doing your bidden task? It is, if you're looking for the psychological explanation, childish and classically depressive. But Herzog didn't believe that the harshest or most niggardly explanation, following the law of parsimony, was necessarily the truest. Eager impulses, love, intensity, passionate dizziness that make a man sick. How long can I stand such inner beating? The front wall of this body will go down.

  My whole life beating against its boundaries, and the force of balked longings coming back as stinging poison.

  Evil, evil, evil*Excited, characteristic, ecstatic love turning to evil.

  He was in pain. He should be. Quite right. If only because he had required so many people to lie to him, many, many, beginning, naturally, with his mother. Mothers lie to their children from demand. But perhaps his mother had been struck, too, by the amount of melancholy, her own melancholy, she saw in Moses. The family look, the eyes, those eye-lights. And though he recalled his mother's sad face with love, he couldn't say, in his soul, that he wanted to see such sadness perpetuated. Yes, it reflected the deep experience of a race, its attitude toward happiness and toward mortality. This somber human case, this dark husk, these indurated lines of submission to the fate of being human, this splendid face showed the responses of his mother's finest nerves to the greatness of life, rich in sorrow, in death.

  All right, she was beautiful. But he hoped that things would change. When we have come to better terms with death, we'll wear a different expression, we human beings. Our looks will change.

  When we come to terms!

  Nor had she always lied to spare his feelings. He remembered that late one afternoon she led him to the front-room window because he asked a question about the Bible: how Adam was created from the dust of the ground.

  I was six or seven. And she was about to give me the proof. Her dress was brown and gray-thrush-colored. Her hair was thick and black, the gray already streaming through it. She had something to show me at the window. The light came up from the snow in the street, otherwise the day was dark.

  Each of the windows had colored borders comyellow, amber, red-and flaws and whorls in the cold panes.

  At the curbs were the thick brown poles of that time, many-barred at the top, with green glass insulators, and brown sparrows clustered on the crossbars that held up the iced, bowed wires.

  Sarah Herzog opened her hand and said, "Look carefully, now, and you'll see what Adam was made of." She rubbed the palm of her hand with a finger, rubbed until something dark appeared on the deep-lined skin, a particle of what certainly looked to him like earth.

  "You see? It's true." A grown man, in the present, beside the big colorless window, like a static sail outside Magistrate's Court, Herzog did as she had done. He rubbed, smiling; and it worked; a bit of the same darkness began to form in his palm. Now he stood staring into the black openwork of the brass grille. Maybe she offered me this proof partly in a spirit of comedy. The wit you can have only when you consider death very plainly, when you consider what a human being really is.

  The week of her death, also in winter. This happened in Chicago, and Herzog was sixteen years old, nearly a young man. It occurred on the West Side. She was dying. Evidently Moses wanted no part of that. He was already a free-thinker, Darwin and Haeckel and Spencer were old stuff to him. He and Zelig Koninski (what had happened to that gilded youth?) disdained the branch library. They bought thick books of all sorts out of the thirty-nine-cent barrel at Walgreen's- The World as Will and Idea and The Decline of the West.

  And what was going on! Herzog knitted his brows to force his memory to work. Papa had the night job, and slept days. You had to tiptoe through the house. If you woke him he was furious. His overalls, reeking of linseed oil, were hung behind the bathroom door. At three in the afternoon, half dressed, he came out for Ms tea, silent, his face filled with stern anger. But by and by he became an entrepreneur again, doing business out of his hat on Cherry Street, opposite the Negro whorehouse, among the freight trains. He had a roll-top desk. He shaved his mustache. And then Mama started to die. And I was in the kitchen winter nights, studying The Decline of the West.

  The round table was covered with an oilcloth.

  That was a frightful January, streets coated with steely ice. The moon lay on the glazed snow of the back yards where clumsy lumber porches threw their shadows. Under the kitchen was the furnace room. The janitor stoked the fire, his apron a burlap sack, his Negro beard gritty with the soft coal.

  The shovel scraped on the cement, and then clanged in the mouth of the furnace. He would slam the metal door shut with his shovel. And then he carried ashes out in bushels-old peach baskets. As often as I could, I hugged the laundry girls, down in the tub ro
om. But I was poring over Spengler now, struggling and drowning in the oceanic visions of that sinister kraut. First there was antiquity, for which all men sigh-beautiful Greece! Then the Magian era, and the Faustian. I learned that I, a Jew, was a born Magian and that we Magians had already had our great age, forever past. No matter how hard I tried, I would never grasp the Christian and Faustian world idea, forever alien to me. Disraeli thought he could understand and lead the British, but he was totally mistaken. I had better resign myself to Destiny.

  A Jew, a relic as lizards are relics of the great age of reptiles, I might prosper in a false way by swindling the goy, the laboring cattle of a civilization dwindled and done for. Anyway, it was an age of spiritual exhaustion-all the old dreams were dreamed out. I was angry; I burned like that furnace; reading more, sick with rage.

  When I looked away from the dense print and its insidious pedantry, my heart infected with ambition, and the bacteria of vengeance, Mama was entering the kitchen. Seeing light under the door, she came the whole length of the house, from the sickroom.

  Her hair had to be cut during her illness, and this made those eyes hard to recognize. Or no, the shortness of her hair merely made their message simpler: My son, this is death.

  I chose not to read this text.

  "I saw the light," she said. "What are you doing up so late?" But the dying, for themselves, have given up hours. She only pitied me, her orphan, understood I was a gesture-maker, ambitious, a fool; thought I would need my eyesight and my strength on a certain day of reckoning.

  A few days afterward, when she had lost the power to speak, she was still trying to comfort Moses. Just as when he knew she was breathless from trudging with his sled in Montreal but would not get up. He came into her room when she was dying, holding his school books, and began to say something to her. But she lifted up her hands and showed him her fingernails. They were blue. As he stared, she slowly began to nod her head up and down as if to say, "That's right, Moses, I am dying now." He sat by the bed. Presently she began to stroke his hand. She did this as well as she could; her fingers had lost their flexibility.

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