Herzog by Saul Bellow


  Herzog! you must stop this quarrelsomeness and baiting of great men.

  No, really, Herr Nietzsche, I have great admiration for you. Sympathy. You want to make us able to live with the void. Not lie ourselves into good-naturedness, trust, ordinary middling human considerations, but to question as has never been questioned before, relentlessly, with iron determination, into evil, through evil, past evil, accepting no abject comfort. The most absolute, the most piercing questions. Rejecting mankind as it is, that ordinary, practical, thieving, stinking, unilluminated, sodden rabble, not only the laboring rabble, but even worse the "educated" rabble with its books and concerts and lectures, its liberalism and its rd-mantic theatrical "loves" and "passions"

  - it all deserves to die, it will die. Okay. Still, your extremists must survive. No survival, no Amor Fati.

  Your immoralists also eat meat. They ride the bus. They are only the most bus-sick travelers. Humankind lives mainly upon perverted ideas. Perverted, your ideas are no better than those of the Christianity you condemn. Any philosopher who wants to keep his contact with mankind should pervert his own system in advance to see how it will really look a few decades after adoption. I send you greetings from this mere border of grassy temporal light, and wish you happiness, wherever you are. Yours, under the veil of Maya, M. e. h.

  Dear Dr. Morgenfruh.

  Dead for some time now.

  This is Herzog, Moses E.

  Discover yourself.

  We played billiards in Madison, Wisconsin.

  Tell him more.

  Until Willie Hoppe arrived to demonstrate, and put us to shame.

  The great billiard artist got absolute obedience from those three balls; as if he whispered to them, stroked them a little with his cue, and they would part and kiss again. And old Morgenfruh with his bald head and fine, humorous, curved nose and foreign charm, applauding, getting up all his breath to exclaim "Bravo." Morgenfruh played the piano and made himself weep. Helen played Schumann better but she had less at stake. She frowned at the music as if to show that it was dangerous, but that she could tame it. Morgenfruh, however, groaned, sitting at the keys in his fur coat.

  Next he sang along, and lastly he cried-it overcame him. He was a splendid old man, only partly fraudulent, and what more can you ask of anyone?

  Dear Dr. Morgenfruh, Latest intelligence from the Olduvai Gorge in East Africa gives grounds to suppose that man did not descend from a peaceful arboreal ape, but from a carnivorous, terrestrial type, a beast that hunted in packs and crushed the skulls of prey with a club or femoral bone. It sounds bad, Morgenfruh, for the optimists, for the lenient hopeful view of human nature. The work of Sir Solly Zuckerman on the apes in the London Zoo, of which you spoke so often, has been superseded. Apes in their own habitat are less sexually driven than those in captivity. It must be that captivity, boredom, breeds lustfulness. And it may also be that the territorial instinct is stronger than the sexual.

  Abide in light, Morgenfruh. I will keep you posted from time to time.

  Despite the hours he spent in the open he believed he still looked pale. Perhaps this was because the mirror of the bathroom door into which he stared in the morning reflected the massed green of the trees.

  No, he did not look well. His excitement must be a great drain on his strength, he thought. And then there was the persistently medicinal smell of the tapes on his chest to remind him that he was not quite well. After the second or third day he stopped sleeping on the second floor. He didn't want to drive the owls out of the house and leave a brood to die in the old fixture with the triple brass chain. It was bad enough to have those tiny skeletons in the toilet bowl. He moved downstairs, taking with him a few useful articles, an old trench coat and rain hat, his boots ordered from Gokey's in St. Paul-marvelous, flexible, handsome snake-proof boots; he had forgotten that le had them. In the storeroom he made other interesting discoveries, photographs of the "happy days," boxes of clothing, Madeleine's letters, bundles of canceled checks, elaborately engraved wedding announcements, and a recipe book belonging to Phoebe Gersbach. The photographs were all of him. Madeleine had left those behind, taking the others. Interesting-her attitude. Among the abandoned dresses were her expensive maternity outfits. The checks were for large sums, and many of these were paid to Cash. Had She secretly been saving? He wouldn't put it past her. The announcements made him laugh; Mr. and Mrs.

  Pontritter were giving their daughter in marriage to Mr. Moses E Herzog Ph. d.

  In one of the closets he found a dozen or so Russian books under a stiff painter's drop cloth. Shestov, Rozanov-he rather liked Rozanov, who was, luckily, in English. He read a few pages of Solitaria.

  Then he looked over the paint situation-old brushes, thinners, evaporated, crusted buckets.

  There were several cans of enamel, and Herzog thought, What if I should paint up the little piano? I could send it out to Chicago, to Junie. The kid is really highly musical. As for Madeleine, she'll have to take it in, the bitch, when it's delivered, paid for. She can't send it back. The green enamel seemed to him exactly right, and he wasted no time but found the most usable brushes and set himself to work, full of eagerness, in the parlor.

  Dear Rozanov.

  He painted the lid of the piano with absorption; the green was light, beautiful, like summer apples.

  A stupendous truth you say, heard from none of the prophets, is that private life is above everything. More universal than religion. Truth is higher than the sun. The soul is passion. "I am the fire that consumeth." It is joy to be choked with thought. A good man can bear to listen to another talk about himself. You can't trust the people who are bored by such talk. God has gilded me all over. I like that, God has gilded me all over.

  Very touching, this man, though extremely coarse at times, and stuffed with violent prejudices. The enamel covered well but it would probably need a second coat, and he might not have enough paint for that. Putting down the brush he gave the piano lid time to dry, considering how to get the instrument out of here. He couldn't expect one of the giant interstate vans to climb this hill. He would have to hire Tuttle from the village to come in his pick-up truck. The cost would amount to something like a hundred dollars, but he must do everything possible for the child, and he had no serious problems about money. Will had offered him as much as he needed to get through the summer.

  A curious result of the increase of historical consciousness is that people think explanation is a necessity of survival. They have to explain their condition. And if the unexplained life is not worth living, the explained life is unbearable, too. "Synthesize or perish!" Is that the new law? But when you see what strange notions, hallucinations, projections, issue from the human mind you begin to believe in Providence again.

  To survive these idiocies... Anyway the intellectual has been a Separatist. And what kind of synthesis is a Separatist likely to come up with?

  Luckily for me, I didn't have the means to get too far away from our common life. I am glad of that. I mean to share with other human beings as far as possible and not destroy my remaining years in the same way. Herzog felt a deep, dizzy eagerness to begin.

  He had to get water from the cistern; the pump was too rusty; he had primed it and worked the handle but only tired himself. The cistern was full. He raised the iron lid with a pry bar and put down a bucket.

  It made a good sound, dropping, and you couldn't get softer water anywhere, but it had to be boiled. There was always a chipmunk or two, a rat, dead at the bottom though it looked pure enough when you drew it up, pure, green water.

  He went to sit under the trees.

  His trees. He was amused, resting here on his American estate, twenty thousand dollars' worth of country solitude and privacy. He did not feel like an owner. As for the twenty grand, the place was certainly not worth more than three or four. Nobody wanted these old-fashioned houses on the fringes of the Berkshires, not the fashionable section where there were music festivals and modern dancing, riding to hounds
or other kinds of snobbery.

  You couldn't even ski on these slopes. No one came here. He had only gentle, dotty old neighbors, Jukes and Kallikaks, rocking themselves to death on their porches, watching television, the nineteenth century quietly dying in this remote green hole. Well, this was his own, his hearth; these were his birches, catalpas, horse chestnuts. His rotten dreams of peace. The patrimony of his children-a sunken corner of Massachusetts for Marco, the little piano for June painted a loving green by her solicitous father. That, too, like most other things he would probably botch. But at least he would not die here, as he had once feared.

  In former summers, when cutting the grass, he would sometimes lean on the mower, overheated, and think, What if I were to die suddenly, of a heart attack? Where will they put me? Maybe I should pick my own spot. Under the spruce? That's too close to the house. Now he reflected that Madeleine would have had him cremated.

  And these explanations are unbearable, but they have to be made. In the seventeenth century the passionate search for absolute truth stopped so that mankind might transform the world. Something practical was done with thought. The mental became also the real. Relief from the pursuit of absolutes made life pleasant. Only a small class of fanatical intellectuals, professionals, still chased after these absolutes. But our revolutions, including nuclear terror, return the metaphysical dimension to us. All practical activity has reached this culmination: everything may go now, civilization, history, meaning, nature. Everything!

  Now to recall Mr. Kierkegaard's question...

  To Dr. Waldemar Zozo: You, Sir, were the Navy psychiatrist who examined me in Norfolk, Va., about 1942, and told me I was unusually immature. I knew that, but professional confirmation caused me deep anguish.

  In anguish I was not immature. I could call upon ages of experience. I took it all very seriously then. Anyway, I was subsequently discharged for asthma, not childishness. I fell in love with the Atlantic.

  O the great reticulated, mountain-bottomed sea!

  But the sea fog paralyzed my voice, and for a communications officer it was the end. However, in your cubicle, as I sat naked, pale, listened to the sailors at drill in the dust, heard what you told me about my character, felt the Southern heat, it was unsuitable that I should wring my hands. I kept them lying on my thighs.

  From hatred at first, but later because I became objectively interested, I followed your career in the journals. Your article "Existential Unrest in the Unconscious" recently beguiled me. It was really quite a classy piece of work. You don't mind if I speak to you in this way, I hope. I am really in an unusually free condition of mind. "In paths untrodden," as Walt Whitman marvelously put it. "Escaped from the life that exhibits itself..." Oh, that's a plague, the life that exhibits itself, a real plague! There comes a time when every ridiculous son of Adam wishes to arise before the rest, with all his quirks and twitches and tics, all the glory of his self-adored ugliness, his grinning teeth, his sharp nose, his madly twisted reason, saying to the rest - in an overflow of narcissism which he interprets as benevolence com8I am here to witness. I am come to be your exemplar."

  Poor dizzy spook!

  ...

  Escaped, anyway, as Whitman says, from the life that exhibits itself and "talked to by tongues aromatic."

  ...

  But here is a further interesting fact. I recognized you last spring in the Primitive Art Museum on 54th Street.

  How my feet ached! I had to ask Ramona to sit down. I said to the lady I had come with, "Isn't that Dr.

  Waldemar Zozo?" She happened also to know you, and brought me up to date: You were quite rich, a collector of African antiquities, your daughter a folk singer, and much else. I realized sharply how I still loathed you.

  I thought 1 had forgiven you, too. Isn't that interesting? Seeing you, your white turtle-necked shirt and dinner jacket, your Edwardian mustache, your damp lips, the back hair trained over your bald spot, your barren paunch, apish buttocks (chemically old!) I recognized with joy how I abhorred you. It sprang fresh from my heart after 22 years!

  His mind took one of its odd jumps. He opened a clean page in his grimy notebook, and in the twig-divided shade of a wild cherry, infested with tent caterpillars, he began to make notes for a poem. He was going to try an Insect Iliad for Junie. She couldn't read, but maybe Madeleine would allow Luke Asphalter to take the child to Jackson Park and read the installments to her as he received them. Luke knew a lot of natural history. It would do him good, too. Moses, pale with this heartfelt nonsense, stared at the ground with brown eyes, standing round-shouldered, the notebook held behind him as he thought it over. He could make the Trojans ants. The Argives might be water-skaters. Luke might find them for her along the edge of the lagoon, where those stupid caryatides were posted. The water-skaters, therefore, with long velvet hairs beaded with glittering oxygen.

  Helen, a beautiful wasp. Old Priam a cicada, sucking sap from the roots and with his trowel-shaped belly plastering the tunnels. And Achilles a stag-beetle with sharp spikes and terrible strength, but doomed to a brief life though half a god. At the edge of the water he cried out to his mother Thus spoke Achilles And Thetis heard him in the ooze, Sitting beside her ancient father In glorious debris, enough for all.

  But this project was quickly abandoned. It wasn't a good idea, really not. For one thing, he wasn't stable enough, he could never keep his mind at it. His state was too strange, this mixture of clairvoyance and spleen, esprit de I'escalier, noble inspirations, poetry and nonsense, ideas, hyperesthesia-wandering about like this, hearing forceful but indefinite music within, seeing things, violet fringes about the clearest objects. His mind was like that cistern, soft pure water sealed under the iron lid but not entirely safe to drink. No, he was better occupied painting the piano for the child. Go! let the fiery claw of imagination take up the green brush. Go! But the first coat was not dry yet, and he wandered out to the woods, eating a piece of bread from the package he carried in his trench-coat pocket.

  He was aware that his brother might now show up at any time. Will had been disturbed by his appearance.

  It was unmistakable. And I had better look out, thought Herzog, people do get put away, and seem even to intend it. I have wanted to be cared for. I devoutly hoped Emmerich would find me sick. But I have no intention of doing that-I am responsible, responsible to reason. This is simply temporary excitement. Responsible to the children. He walked quietly into the woods, the many leaves, living and fallen, green and tan, going between rotted stumps, moss, fungus disks; he found a hunters' path, also a deer trail. He felt quite well here, and calmer. The silence sustained him, and the brilliant weather, the feeling that he was easily contained by everything about him Within the hollowness of God, as he noted, and deaf to the final multiplicity of facts, as well as, blind to ultimate distances. Two billion light-years out. Supernovae.

  Daily radiance, trodden here Within the hollowness of God To God he jotted several lines.

  How my mind has struggled to make coherent sense.

  I have not been too good at it. But have desired to do your unknowable will, taking it, and you, without symbols. Everything of intensest significance.

  Especially if divested of me.

  Returning once more to practical considerations, he must be very careful with Will and talk to him only in the most concrete terms about concrete matters, like this property, and look as ordinary as possible. If you wear a wise look, he warned himself, you'll be in trouble, and fast. No one can bear such looks any longer, not even your brother. Therefore, watch your face! Certain expressions burn people up, and especially the expression of wisdom, which can lead you straight to the loony bin. You will have earned it!

  He lay down near the locust trees.

  They bloomed with a light, tiny but delicious flower-he was sorry to have missed that. He recognized that with his arms behind him and his legs extended any way, he was lying as he had lain less than a week ago on his dirty little sofa in New York. But was it on
ly a week- five days? Unbelievable! How different he felt!

  Confident, even happy in his excitement, stable. The bitter cup would come round again, by and by. This rest and well-being were only a momentary difference in the strange lining or variable silk between life and void.

  The life you gave me has been curious, he wanted to say to his mother, and perhaps the death I must inherit will turn out to be even more profoundly curious. I have sometimes wished it would hurry up, longed for it to come soon. But I am still on the same side of eternity as ever, its just as well, for I have certain things still to do. And without noise, I hope. Some of my oldest aims seem to have slid away.

  But I have others.

  Life on this earth can't be simply a picture.

  And terrible forces in me, including the forces of admiration or praise, powers, including loving powers, very damaging, making me almost an idiot because I lacked the capacity to manage them.

  I may turn out to be not such a terrible hopeless fool as everyone, as you, as I myself suspected.

  Meantime, to lay off certain persistent torments.

  To surrender the hyperactivity of this hyperactive face. But just to put it out instead to the radiance of the sun. I want to send you, and others, the most loving wish I have in my heart. This is the only way 1 have to reach out - out where it is incomprehensible. I can only pray toward it. So... Peace!

  For the next two days-or were there three?- Herzog did nothing but send such messages, and write down songs, psalms, and utterances, putting into words what he had often thought but, for the sake of form, or something of the sort, had always suppressed. Once in a while he found himself painting the little piano again, or eating bread and beans in the kitchen, or sleeping in the hammock, and he was always slightly surprised to discover how he had been occupied. He looked at the calendar one morning, and tried to guess the date, counting in silence, or rather groping over nights and days. His beard informed him better than his brain. His bristles felt like four days' growth, and he thought it best to be clean-shaven when Will arrived.

 
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