Herzog by Saul Bellow


  "And Madeleine snatched it right up."

  "Yes. They divvied me up. Valentine took my elegant ways and Mady's going to be the professor. Isn't she coming up for her orals?"

  "Right away."

  Remembering now the death of Asphalter's monkey, Herzog said, "What got into you, Luke? You didn't catch T. b. from your pet, did you?"

  "No, no. I've taken the tuberculin test regularly. No."

  "You must have been out of your mind, giving Rocco mouth-to-mouth respiration. That's letting eccentricity go too far."

  "Did they report that too?"

  "Of course. How else would I know? How did it get into the papers?"

  "One of the little bastards in Physiology picks up a few bucks by spying for the American."

  "Didn't you know the monkey was tubercular?"

  "I knew he was ailing, but had no idea.

  And I certainly wasn't expecting to be so hard hit by his death." Herzog was not prepared for the solemnity of Asphalter's look. His new beard was vari-colored but his eyes were even blacker than the hair he had lost. "It really threw me into a spin. I thought that palling around with Rocco was a gag.

  I didn't realize how much he meant to me. But the truth is, I realized that no other death in the world could have affected me so much. I had to ask myself whether the death of my brother would have shook me up half as much. I think not. We're all some kind of nut or other, I realize. But..."

  "You don't mind if I smile," Herzog apologized. "I can't help it."

  "What else can you do?"

  "A man could do worse than to love his monkey," said Herzog.

  "Le coeur a ses raisons.

  You've seen Gersbach. He was a dear friend of mine.

  And Madeleine loves him. What have you got to be ashamed of? It's one of those painful emotional comedies. Did you ever read Collier's story about the man who married a chimpanzee?

  His Monkey Wife.

  An excellent story."

  "I've been horribly depressed," said Asphalter. "It's better now; but for about two months I did no work, and I was glad I had no wife or kids to hide these crying jags from."

  "All because of that monkey?"

  "I stopped going to the lab. I doctored myself with tranquilizers, but that couldn't continue. I had to face the music, finally."

  "And you went to Doctor Edvig?" Herzog was laughing.

  "Edvig? No, no. Another headshrinker. He calmed me down. But that was only two hours a week. The rest of the time, I was shaking. So I got some books out of the library.... Have you read the book by that Hungarian woman Tina Zokoly about what to do in these crises?"

  "No. What does she say?"

  "She prescribes certain exercises."

  Moses was interested. "What are they?"

  "The main one is facing your own death."

  "How do you do that?"

  Asphalter tried to maintain an ordinary, conversational, descriptive tone. Obviously it was a very difficult thing for him to talk about.

  Irresistible, though.

  "You pretend you have already died," Asphalter began.

  "The worst has happened.... Yes?" Herzog turned his head as if to hear better, listen more intently. His hands were folded in his lap, his shoulders had drooped with fatigue, his feet were turned inward. The musty bookish room with a clamp-light affixed to one of the crates and the stirring of leaves in the summer street brought Herzog some peace.

  True things in grotesque form, he was thinking. He knew how that was. He felt for Asphalter.

  "The blow has fallen. The agony is over," said Asphalter. "You're dead, and you have to lie as if dead. What's it like in the casket? Padded silk."

  "Ah? So you construct it all. Must be pretty hard. I see...." Moses sighed.

  "It takes practice. You have to feel and not feel, be and not be. You're present and absent both. And one by one the people in your life come and look. Father.

  Mother. Whoever you loved, or hated."

  "And what then." Herzog, wholly absorbed, looked at him more obliquely than ever.

  "And then you ask yourself, "What have you got to say to them now? What do you feel for them?"' Now there's nothing to say but what you really thought. And you don't say it to them because you're dead, but only to yourself.

  Reality, not illusions. Truth, not lies. It's over."

  "Face death. That's Heidegger. What comes out of this?"

  "As I gaze up from my coffin, at first I can keep my attention on my death, and on my relations with the living, and then other things come in-every time."

  "You begin to get tired?"

  "No, no. Time after time, I see the same things."

  Lucas laughed nervously, painfully. "Did we know each other when my father owned the flophouse on West Madison Street?"

  "Yes, I used to see you at school."

  "When the Depression hit, we had to move into the old hotel ourselves. My father made an apartment on the top story. The Haymarket Theatre was a few doors away, do you remember?"

  "The burlesque house? Oh yes, Luke. I used to cut school to watch the bumps and grinds."

  "Well, first of all, what I begin to see is the fire that broke out in that building. We were trapped in the loft. My brother and I wrapped up the younger kids in blankets and stood by the windows.

  Then the hook-and-ladder company came and rescued us.

  I had my little sister. The firemen took us down, one by one. Last of all was my Aunt Rae. She weighed nearly two hundred pounds. Her dress flew up as the fireman carried her. He was very red in the face from the weight and strain. A great Irish face. And I was standing below and watched her buttocks coming slowly nearer-that tremendous rear part, and the huge cheeks, so pale and helpless."

  "And is this what you see when you play dead? A fat-assed old auntie saved from death."

  "Don't laugh," said Asphalter, himself grimly laughing. "That's one of the things I see. Another is the burlesque broads from next door. Between turns, they didn't have anything to do. The picture was running -Tom Mix. They got bored in their dressing rooms. So they'd come out in the street and play baseball. They loved it. They were all big hearty corn-fed girls, they needed exercise.

  I'd sit on the curb and watch them play."

  "They were in their burlesque costumes?"

  "All powdered and rouged. Their hair done up. And their tits heaving as they pitched and batted and ran the bases. They played piggy-move-up-softball. Moses, I swear to you ..." Asphalter pressed his hands to his bearded cheeks, and his voice shook. His fluid black eyes were bewildered, painfully smiling. Then he drew his chair back, out of the light. Perhaps he was about to cry. I hope he won't, thought Herzog.

  His heart went out to him.

  "Don't feel so bad, Luke. Now listen to me.

  Maybe I can tell you something about this. At least I can tell you how I see it. A man may say, "From now on I'm going to speak the truth." But the truth hears him and runs away and hides before he's even done speaking. There is something funny about the human condition, and civilized intelligence makes fun of its own ideas. This Tina Zokoly has got to be kidding, too.".

  "I don't think so."

  "Then it's the old memento mori, the monk's skull on the table, brought up to date.

  And what good is that? It all goes back to those German existentialists who tell you how good dread is for you, how it saves you from distraction and gives you your freedom and makes you authentic.

  God is no more. But Death is. That's their story.

  And we live in a hedonistic world in which happiness is set up on a mechanical model. All you have to do is open your fly and grasp happiness. And so these other theorists introduce the tension of guilt and dread as a corrective. But human life is far subtler than any of its models, even these ingenious German models. Do we need to study theories of fear and anguish? This Tina Zokoly is a nonsensical woman. She tells you to practice overkill on yourself, and your intelligence answers her with wit. But you're pushing mat
ters. This is self-ridicule to the degree of anguish.

  Bitterer and bitterer. Monkeys and buttocks and chorus girls playing piggy-move-up."

  "I was hoping we could have a talk about this," said Asphalter.

  "Don't abuse yourself too much, Luke, and cook up these fantastic plots against your feelings. I know, you're a good soul, with real heartaches. And you believe the world. And the world tells you to look for truth in grotesque combinations. It warns you also to stay away from consolation if you value your intellectual honor. On this theory truth is punishment, and you must take it like a man. It says truth will harrow your soul because your inclination as a poor human thing is to lie and to live by lies. So if you have anything else waiting in your soul to be revealed you'll never learn about it from these people. Do you have to think yourself into a coffin and perform these exercises with death?

  As soon as thought begins to deepen it reaches death, first thing. Modern philosophers would like to recover the old-fashioned dread of death. The new attitude which makes life a trifle not worth anyone's anguish threatens the heart of civilization. But it isn't a question of dread, or any such words at all.... Still, what can thoughtful people and humanists do but struggle toward suitable words? Take me, for instance. I've been writing letters helter-skelter in all directions. More words. I go after reality with language. Perhaps I'd like to change it all into language, to force Madeleine and Gersbach to have a Conscience.

  There's a word for you. I must be trying to keep tight the tensions without which human beings can no longer be called human. If they don't suffer, they've gotten away from me. And I've filled the world with letters to prevent their escape. I want them in human form, and so I conjure up a whole environment and catch them in the middle. I put my whole heart into these constructions. But they are constructions."

  "Yes, but you deal with human beings. What have I got to show? Rocco?"

  "But let's stick to what matters. I really believe that brotherhood is what makes a man human. If I owe God a human life, this is where I fall down. "Man liveth not by Self alone but in his brother's face.... Each shall behold the Eternal Father and love and joy abound." When the preachers of dread tell you that others only distract you from metaphysical freedom then you must turn away from them. The real and essential question is one of our employment by other human beings and their employment by us. Without this true employment you never dread death, you cultivate it. And consciousness when it doesn't clearly understand what to live for, what to die for, can only abuse and ridicule itself. As you do with the help of Rocco and Tina Zokoly, as I do by writing impertinent letters.... I feel dizzy. Where's that bottle of Cutty Sark? I need a shot."

  "You need to go to sleep. You look ready to cave in."

  "I don't feel bad at all," said Herzog.

  "I've got some things to do, anyway. Go to sleep.

  I haven't finished grading all my exams."

  "I guess I am folding," Moses said. "The bed looks good."

  "I'll let you sleep late. Plenty of time," said Asphalter. "Good night, Moses." They shook hands.

  AT last he embraced his daughter, and she pressed his cheeks with her small hands and kissed him. Hungry to feel her, to breathe in her childish fragrance, to look in her face, her black eyes, touch her hair, the skin under her dress, he pressed her little bones, stammering, "Junie, sweetie, I've missed you." His happiness was painful. And she with all her innocence and childishness andwiththe pure, or amorous, instinct of tiny girls, kissed him on the lips, her careworn, busted, germ-carrying father.

  Asphalter stood by, smiling but feeling somewhat awkward, his bald scalp perspiring, his new particolored beard looking hot. They were on the long gray staircase of the Museum of Science in Jackson Park. Busloads of children were entering, black and white flocks, herded by teachers and parents. The bronze-trimmed glass doors flashed in and out, and all these little bodies, redolent of milk and pee, blessed heads of all hues, shapes, the promise of the world to come, in the eyes of benevolent Herzog, its future good and evil, hurried in and out.

  "My sweet June. Papa missed you."

  "Poppy!"

  "You know, Luke," Herzog spoke out with a burst, his face both happy and twisted. "Sandor Himmelstein told me this kid would forget me. He was thinking of his own Himmelstein breed-guinea pigs, hamsters."

  "Herzogs are made of finer clay?" Asphalter put it in the interrogative form. But it was courteous, he meant it kindly. "... I can meet you right at this spot at four p. m.," he said.

  "Only three and a half hours? Where does she get off! Well, all right, I won't quarrel.

  I don't want any conflict. There's another day tomorrow."

  One of his units of mental extension swelling and passing, a lengthy aside (much heartbreak to relinquish this daughter. To become another lustful she-ass? Or a melancholy beauty like Sarah Herzog, destined to bear children ignorant of her soul and her soul's God? Or would humankind find a new path, making his type-he would be glad of that!-obsolete? In New York, after giving a lecture, he had been told by a young executive who came up rapidly, "Professor, Art is for Jews!" Seeing this slender, blond, and violent figure before him, Herzog had only nodded and said, "It used to be usury"), departed with another of those twinges. That's the new realism, he thought.

  "Luke? Thank you. I'll be here at four. Now don't you spend the day brooding."

  Moses carried his daughter into the museum to see the chickens hatching. "Did Marco send you a postcard, baby?"

  "Yes. From the camp."

  "You know who Marco is?"

  "My big brother."

  So Madeleine was not trying to estrange her from the Herzogs, whatever course of madness she was running.

  "Have you gone down in the coal mine, here in the museum?"

  "It scared me."

  "Do you want to see the chickies?"

  "I seen them."

  "Don't you want to see them more?"

  "Oh, yes. I like them. Uncle Val took me last week."

  "Do I know Uncle Val?"

  "Oh, Papa! You fooler." She hugged his neck, snickering.

  "Who is he?"

  "He's my stepfather, Papa. You know it."

  "Is that what Mama tells you?"

  "He's my stepfather."

  "Was he the one who locked you up in the car?"

  "Yes."

  "And what did you do?"

  "I was crying. But not long."

  "And do you like Uncle Val?"

  "Oh, yes, he's fun. He makes faces. Can you make good faces?"

  "Some," he said. "I have too much dignity to make good faces."

  "You tell better stories."

  "I expect I do, sweetheart."

  "About the boy with the stars."

  So she remembered his best inventions. Herzog nodded his head, wondering at her, proud of her, thankful.

  "The boy with all the freckles?"

  "They were like the sky."

  "Each freckle was just like a star, and he had them all. The Big Dipper, Little Dipper, Orion, the Bear, the Twins, Betelgeuse, the Milky Way. His face had each and every star on it, in the right position."

  "Only one star nobody knew."

  "They took him to all the astronomers."

  "I saw astronomers on television."

  "And the astronomers said, "Pooh, pooh, an interesting coincidence. A little freak." his "M. M."

  "At last he went to see Hiram Shpitalnik, who was an old old old man, very tiny, with a long beard down to his feet. He lived in a hatbox.

  And he said, "You must be examined by my grandfather." his "He lived in a walnut shell."

  "Exactly. And all his friends were bees. The busy bee has no time for sorrow. Great-grandfather Shpitalnik came out of the shell with a telescope, and looked at Rupert's face."

  "The boy's name was Rupert."

  "Old Shpitalnik had the bees lift him into position, and he looked and said it was a real star, a new discovery. He had been watching for that star....
Now, here are the chicks." He held the child on the railing; to his left, so that she would not press against the pistol, wrapped in her great-grandfather's rubles. These were in his right breast pocket still.

  "They're yellow," she said.

  "They keep it hot and bright in there. See that egg wobble? The chick is trying to get out. Soon his bill will go through the shell. Watch."

  "Papa, you don't shave at our house any more, why not?"

  He must stiffen his resistance to heartache now. A kind of necessary hardness was demanded. Otherwise it was as the savage described the piano, "You fight "im 'e cry." And this Jewish art of tears must be suppressed. In measured words he answered, "I have my razor in another place.

  What does Madeleine say?"

  "She says you didn't want to live with us any more."

  He kept his anger from the child. "Did she? Well, I always want to be with you. I just can't."

  "Why?"

  "Because I'm a man, and men have to work, and be in the world."

  "Uncle Val works. He writes poems and reads them to Mama."

  Herzog's sober face brightened. "Splendid."

  She had to listen to his trash. Bad art and vice hand in hand. "I'm glad to hear it."

  "He looks ooky when he says them."

  "And does he cry?"

  "Oh, yes."

  Sentiment and brutality-never one without the other, like fossils and oil. This news is priceless. It's sheer happiness to hear it.

  June had bent her head, and held her wrists to her eyes.

  "What's the matter, darling?"

  "Mama said I shouldn't talk about Uncle Val."

  "Why?"

  "She said you'd be very very angry."

  "But I'm not. I'm laughing my head off. All right. We won't talk about him. I promise. Not one word."

  An experienced father, he prudently waited until they reached the Falcon before he said, "I have presents for you in the trunk!"

  "Oh, Papa-what did you bring!"

  Against the clumsy, gray, gaping Museum of Science she looked so fresh, so new (her milk teeth and sparse freckles and big expectant eyes, her fragile neck). And he thought how she would inherit this world of great instruments, principles of physics and applied science. She had the brains for it. He was already intoxicated with pride, seeing another Madame Curie in her. She loved the periscope. They spied on each other from the sides of the car, hiding behind tree trunks and in the arches of the comfort station. Crossing the bridge on the Outer Drive they walked by the lake. He let her take off her shoes and wade, drying her feet afterward in his shirttail, carefully brushing out the sand between her toes. He bought her a box of Cracker Jack, which she nibbled on the grass. The dandelions had blown their fuses and were all loose silk; the turf was springy, neither damp as in May nor dry and hard as in August, when the sun would scorch it. The mechanical mower was riding in circles, barbering the slopes, raising a spray of clippings.

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