Herzog by Saul Bellow

  "First he cut in front, then he slammed his brake."

  "You mashed him pretty hard. That means you were crowdin' him."

  "That's right. Looks like to me..." The senior policeman pointed two, three, five times with the rubber tip of his pencil before he spoke another word; he made you consider the road (there Herzog seemed to see the rushing of the Gadarene swine, multi-colored and glittering, not yet come to their cliff). "Looks to me, you were pushin' him, Harold. He couldn't get in the next lane so he thought he'd slow and give you a chance to pass. Hit the brake too hard, and you clobbered him. I see from the staple marks on your license you already got two moving violations."

  "That's right, and that's why I've been extra careful."

  God keep this anger from burning up your scalp, Harold. A very unbecoming red color, and all ridges, like a dog's palate.

  "Looks like to me, if you hadn't been on top of him, you wouldn't have hit him so flush. You'd "a tried to turn, and got him on the right. Got to write you a ticket, Harold."

  Then, to Moses, he said, "T pot to take you in. You gonna be booked for misdemeanor."

  "This old gun?"


  "Why, it's nothing. I have no record-never been booked."

  They waited for him to get to his feet.

  Sharp-nosed, the Volkswagen-truck driver knitted his ginger brows at him and, under his red, angry stare, Herzog stood and then picked up his daughter. She lost her bar-rette as he lifted her. Her hair came free beside her cheeks, quite long. He could not bend again to hunt for the tortoise-shell clip. The door of the squad car, parked on a slope, opened wide for him. He could now feel for himself what it was like to be in custody.

  No one was robbed, no one had died. Still he felt the heavy, deadly shadow lying on him. "And this is just like you, Herzog," he said to himself. He could not escape self-accusation. For this big, nickel-plated pistol, whatever he had vaguely intended yesterday to do with it, he should have left today in the flight bag under Asphalter's sofa. When he had put on his jacket in the morning and felt the awkward weight on his chest, then and there he might have stopped being quixotic. For he was not a quixote, was he? A quixote imitated great models. What models did he imitate? A quixote was a Christian, and Moses E.

  Herzog was no Christian. This was the post-quixotic, post-Copernican U. s. a., where a mind freely poised in space might discover relationships utterly unsuspected by a seventeenth-century man sealed in his smaller universe. There lay his twentieth-century advantage. Only-they walked over the grass toward the wheeling blue light-in nine-tenths of his existence he was exactly what others were before him.

  He took the revolver (his purpose as intense as it was diffuse) because he was his father's son. He was almost certain Jonah Herzog, afraid of the police, of revenue inspectors, or of hoodlums, could not stay away from these enemies. He pursued his terrors and challenged them to blast him (fear: could he take it? Shock: would he survive?). Ancient Herzogs with their psalms and their shawls and beards would never have touched a revolver. Violence was for the goy. But they were gone, vanished, archaic men. Jonah, for a buck, had bought a gun, and Moses, this morning, had thought, "Oh, hell-why not," and, buttoning the jacket, went down to his car.

  "What are we going to do about this Falcon?" he asked the police. He stopped. But they pushed him on, saying, "Don't you worry about that. We'll take care of it."

  He saw the tow truck coming up with its crane and hook. It too had the blue light spinning above its cab.

  "Listen," he said, "I have to get this kid home."

  "She'll get home. She ain't in no danger."

  "But I'm supposed to turn her over at four."

  "You got almost two hours."

  "But isn't this going to take longer than an hour?

  I'd certainly appreciate it if you'd let me look after her first."

  "Get goin", Moses...." Grimly kind, the senior patrolman moved him along.

  "She hasn't eaten lunch."

  "You in worse shape than she is."

  "Come on, now."

  He shrugged and crumpled the stained necktie, letting it drop at the roadside. The cut was not serious; it had stopped bleeding. He handed June in, and when he was seated in the fiery heat of the blue plastic rear, he took her on his lap.

  Is this, by chance, the reality you have been looking for, Herzog, in your earnest Herzog way? Down in the ranks with other people-ordinary life? By yourself you can't determine which reality is real? Any philosopher can tell you it's based, like all rational judgment, on common proof. Only this particular way of doing it was perverse. But it was only human. You burn the house to roast the pig. It was the way humankind always roasted pigs.

  He explained to June, "We're going for a ride, darling." She nodded and was silent. Her face was tearless, clouded, and this was far worse. It hurt him. It tore his heart. As if Madeleine and Gersbach weren't enough, he had to come running with his eager love and excitement, hugging, kissing, periscopes, anxious emotions.

  She had to see him bleeding from the head. His eyes smarted, and he shut them with thumb and forefinger. The door slammed. The motor gave a raw snort and raced smoothly, and the dry rich summer air began to flow in, flavored with exhaust gas. It aggravated his nausea like a forced draft. When the car left the lake front he opened his eyes on the yellow ugliness of 22nd Street. He recognized the familiar look of summer damnation.

  Chicago! He smelled the hot reek of chemicals and inks coming from the Donnelly plant.

  She had watched the cops going through his pockets.

  At her age he had seen everything vividly. And everything was beautiful or frightful. He was spattered forever with things that bled or stank. He wondered if she must remember just as keenly. As he remembered chicken slaughtering, as he remembered those fiery squawks when the hens were dragged from the lath coops, the shit and sawdust and heat and fowl-musk, and the birds tossed when their throats were cut to bleed to death head down in tin racks, their claws going, going, working, working on the metal shield. Yes, that was on Roy Street next to the Chinese laundry where the vermilion tickets fluttered, lettered with black symbols. And this was near the lane-Herzog's heart began to pound; he felt feverish-where he was overtaken by a man one dirty summer evening. The man clapped his hand over his mouth from the back. He hissed something to him as he drew down his pants. His teeth were rotten and his face stubbled. And between the boy's thighs this red skinless horrible thing passed back and forth, back and forth, until it burst out foaming. The dogs in the back yards jumped against the fences, they barked and snarled, choking on their saliva-the shrieking dogs, while Moses was held at the throat by the crook of the man's arm. He knew he might be killed. The man might strangle him. How did he know? He guessed. So he simply stood there.

  Then the man buttoned his army coat and said, "I'm going to give you a nickel. But I have to change this dollar." He showed him the bill and told him to wait where he was. Moses watched him recede in the mud of the lane, stooping and gaunt in the long coat, walking swiftly, with bad feet; bad feet, evil feet, Moses remembered; almost running. The dogs stopped barking, and he waited, afraid to stir. At last he fetched up his wet pants and went home. He sat on the stoop awhile and then turned up at supper as if nothing had happened. Nothing! He washed his hands at the sink with Willie and came to the table. He ate his soup.

  And later when he was in the hospital and the good Christian lady came, the one with the button shoes and the hatpin like a trolley-rod, the soft voice and grim looks, she asked him to read for her from the New Testament, and he opened and read, "Suffer the little children to come unto me." Then she turned to another place, and it said, "Give and it shall be given unto you. Good measure... shall men give into your bosom."

  Well, there is a piece of famous advice, grand advice even if it is German, to forget what you can't bear. The strong can forget, can shut out history.

  Very good! Even if it is self-flattery to speak of strength-these
aesthetic philosophers, they take a posture, but power sweeps postures away. Still, it's true you can't go on transposing one nightmare into another, Nietzsche was certainly right about that. The tender-minded must harden themselves. Is this world nothing but a barren lump of coke? No, no, but what sometimes seems a system of prevention, a denial of what every human being knows. I love my children, but I am the world to them, and bring them nightmares. I had this child by my enemy. And I love her. The sight of her, the odor of her hair, this minute, makes me tremble with love. Isn't it mysterious how I love the child of my enemy? But a man doesn't need happiness for himself.

  No, he can put up with any amount of torment-with recollections, with his own familiar evils, despair. And this is the unwritten history of man, his unseen, negative accomplishment, his power to do without gratification for himself provided there is something great, something into which his being, and all beings, can go. He does not need meaning as long as such intensity has scope. Because then it is self-evident; it is meaning.

  But all this has got to stop. By this he meant such things as this ride in the squad car. His filial idea (practically Chinese) of carrying an ugly, useless revolver. To hate, to be in a position to do something about it. Hatred is self-respect. If you want to hold your head up among people...

  Here was South State Street; here movie distributors used to hang their garish posters: Tom Mix plunging over a cliff; now it's only a smooth empty street where they sell glassware to bars. But what is the philosophy of this generation?

  Not God is dead, that point was passed long ago.

  Perhaps it should be stated Death is God. This generation thinks-and this is its thought of thoughts-that nothing faithful, vulnerable, fragile can be durable or have any true power. Death waits for these things as a cement floor waits for a dropping light bulb. The brittle shell of glass loses its tiny vacuum with a burst, and that is that. And this is how we teach metaphysics on each other. "You think history is the history of loving hearts? You fool! Look at these millions of dead. Can you pity them, feel for them? You can nothing! There were too many. We burned them to ashes, we buried them with bulldozers.

  History is the history of cruelty, not love, as soft men think. We have experimented with every human capacity to see which is strong and admirable and have shown that none is. There is only practicality. If the old God exists he must be a murderer. But the one true god is Death.

  This is how it is-without cowardly illusions."

  Herzog heard this as if it were being spoken slowly inside his head. His hand was wet and he released June's arm. Perhaps what had made him faint was not the accident but the premonition of such thoughts. The nausea was only apprehension, excitement, the unbearable intensity of these ideas.

  The car stopped. As if he had come to police headquarters in a rocking boat, over the water, he wavered when he got out on the sidewalk. Proudhon says, "God is the evil." But after we search in the entrails of world revolution for la foi nouvelle, what happens? The victory of death, not of rationality, not of rational faith. Our own murdering imagination turns out to be the great power, our human imagination which starts by accusing God of murder. At the bottom of the whole disaster lies the human being's sense of a grievance, and with this I want nothing more to do.

  It's easier not to exist altogether than accuse God.

  Far more simple. Cleaner. But no more of that!

  They handed his daughter out to him and escorted them to the elevator, which seemed roomy enough for a squadron.

  Two men who had been pinched-two other men in custody-went up with him. This was 11th and State.

  He remembered it. Dreadful here. Armed men came in, got out. As he was ordered, he followed the stout Negro policeman with the huge hands and wide hips down the corridor. Others walked behind him.

  He would need a lawyer and he thought, naturally, of Sandor Himmelstein. He laughed to think what Sandor would say. Sandor himself used police methods, clever psychology, the same as in the Lubianka, the same the world over. First he emphasized the brutal, then when he got the desired results he relaxed, could afford to be nicer. His words were memorable. He had screamed that he would drop from the case and let the shysters take Moses over, lock him up back and front, close his mouth, shut his bowels, put a meter on his nose and charge him by the breath. Yes, yes, those were unforgettable words, the words of the teacher of Reality. They were indeed.

  "You'll be glad to think of your death, then. You'll step into your coffin as if it were a new sports car."

  And then, "I'll leave my wife a rich widow, not too old to screw around, either." This he often repeated. It amused Herzog, now. Flushed, grimy, his shirt blood-spotted, he thought of it, grinning. I shouldn't look down on old Sandor for being so tough. This is his personal, brutal version of the popular outlook, the American way of life.

  And what has my way been? I love little pussy, her coat is so warm, and if I don't hurt her she'll do me no harm, which represents the childish side of the same creed, from which men are wickedly awakened, and then become snarling realists.

  Get smart, sucker! Or Tante Taube's version of innocent realism: "Gottseliger Kaplitzky took care on everything. I never even looked." But Tante Taube was canny as well as sweet. Between oblivion and oblivion, the things we do and the things we say... But now he and June had been brought into a big but close room, and he was being booked by another Negro policeman, a sergeant. He was well along in years, smoothly wrinkled. His creases were extruded, not internal.

  His color was dark yellow, Negro gold. He conferred with the arresting policeman and then looked at the gun, took out the two bullets, whispered more questions to the cop in shiny pants who bent down to whisper secretly.

  "Okay, you," he then said to Moses. He put on his Ben Franklin spectacles, two colonial tablets in thin gold frames. He took up his pen.



  "Middle initial?"

  "E. Elkanah."


  "Not living in Chicago."

  The sergeant, fairly patient, said again, "Address?"

  "Ludeyville, Mass., and New York City.

  Well, all right, Ludeyville, Massachusetts. No street number."

  "This your child?"

  "Yes, sir. My little daughter June."

  "Where does she live?"

  "Here in the city, with her mother, on Harper Avenue."

  "You divorced?"

  "Yes, sir. I came to see the child."

  "I see. You want to put her down?"

  "No, officer-sergeant," he corrected himself, smiling agreeably.

  "You're bein' booked, Moses. You weren't drunk were you? Did you have a drink today?"

  "I had one last night, before I went to sleep.

  Nothing today. Do you want me to take an alcohol test?"

  "It won't be necessary. There's no traffic charge against you. We're booking you on account of this gun."

  Herzog pulled down his daughter's dress.

  "It's just a souvenir. Like the money."

  "What kind of dough is this?"

  "It's Russian, from World War I."

  "Just empty your pockets, Moses. Put your stuff down so's I can check it over."

  Without protest, he laid down his money, his notebooks, pens, the scrap of handkerchief, his pocket comb, and his keys.

  "Seems to me you've got a mess of keys, Moses."

  "Yes, sir, but I can identify them all."

  "That's okay. There's no law against keys, exceptin' if you're a burglar."

  "The only Chicago key is this one with the red mark on it. It's the key to my friend Asphalter's apartment. He's supposed to meet me at four o'clock, by the Rosenwald Museum. I've got to get her to him,"

  "Well, it ain't four, and you ain't goin' anywhere yet."

  "I'd like to phone and head him off. Otherwise, he'll stand waiting."

  "Well, now, Moses, why ain't you bringin' the kid straight back to her mother?"

bsp; "You see... we're not on speaking terms.

  We've had too many scraps."

  "Appears to me you might be scared of her."

  Herzog was briefly resentful. The remark was calculated to provoke him. But he couldn't afford to be angry now. "No, sir, not exactly."

  "Then maybe she's scared of you."

  "This is how we arranged it, with a friend to go between. I haven't seen the woman since last autumn."

  "Okay, we'll call your buddy and the kid's mama, too."

  Herzog exclaimed, "Oh, don't call her!"

  "No?" The sergeant gave him an odd smile, and rested for a moment in his chair as if he had gotten from him what he wanted. "Sure, we'll bring her down here and see what she's got to say. If she's got a complaint in against you, why, it's worse than just illegal possession of firearms. We'll have you on a bad charge, then."

  "There isn't any complaint, sergeant. You can check that in the files without making her come all this way.

  I'm the support of this child, and never miss a check.

  That's all Mrs. Herzog can tell you."

  "Who'd you buy this revolver from?"

  There it was again, the natural insolence of the cops.

  He was being goaded. But he kept himself steady.

  "I didn't buy it. It belonged to my father. That and the Russian rubles."

  "You're just sentimental?"

  "That's right. I'm a sentimental sddo. b. Call it that."

  "You sentimental about these here, too?" He tapped each of the bullets, one, two. "All right, we'll make those phone calls. Here, Jim, write the names and numbers."

  He spoke to the copper who had brought Herzog in.

  He had been standing by, fat-cheeked, teasing the bristles of his mustache with his nail, pursing his lips.

  "You may as well take my address book, the red one there. Bring it back, please. My friend's name is Asphalter."

  "And the other name's Herzog," said the sergeant. "On Harper Avenue, ain't it?"

  Moses nodded. He watched the heavy fingers turning the pages of his Parisian leather address book with its scribbles and blots. "It'll put me in bad if you notify the child's mother," he said, making a last attempt to persuade the sergeant. "Why wouldn't it be the same to you if my friend Asphalter came here?"

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