Herzog by Saul Bellow


  This was two days after the March blizzard. You wouldn't have known it had been raging winter that same week. The casement window was open on the Quadrangle. All the grimy cottonwoods had sprung to life, released red catkins from their sheaths. These dangled everywhere, perfuming the gray courtyard with its shut-in light. Rocco with sick eyes sat on his own straw chair, his look lusterless, his coat the color of stewed onions.

  "I can't stand to see you knock yourself out,"

  Asphalter said. "I'd better tell you-we have a lab assistant here who sits with your little girl, and she's been telling me about your wife."

  "What about her?"

  "And Valentine Gersbach. He's always there, on Harper Avenue."

  "Sure. I know. He's the only reliable person on the scene. I trust him. He's been an awfully good friend."

  "Yes, I know-I know, I know," said Asphalter. His pale round face was freckled, and his eyes large, fluid, dark, and, for Moses' sake, bitter in their dreaminess. "I certainly know. Valentine's quite an addition to the social life of Hyde Park, what's left of it. How did we ever get along without him. He's so genial comhe's so noisy, with those Scotch and Japanese imitations, and that gravel voice. He drowns all conversation out. Full of life! Oh, yes, he's full of it! And because you brought him here, everybody thinks he's your special pal. He says so himself. Only..."

  "Only what?"

  Tense and quiet, Asphalter asked, "Don't you know?" He became very pale.

  "What should I know?"

  "I took it for granted because your intelligence is so high-way off the continuum-that you knew something or suspected."

  Something frightful was about to descend on him. Herzog nerved himself for it.

  "Madeleine, you mean? I understand, of course, that by and by, because she's still a young woman, she must'

  ' she will."

  "No, no," said Asphalter. "Not by and by." He blurted it out. "All the while."

  "Who!" said Herzog. All his blood rose, and just as quickly and massively left his brain. "You mean Gersbach?"

  "That's right." Asphalter now had no control whatever over the nerves of his face; it had gone soft with the pain he felt. His mouth looked chapped, with black lines.

  Herzog began to shout, "You can't talk like that! You can't say that!" He stared at Lucas, outraged.

  A dim, sick, faint feeling came over him. His body seemed to shrink, abruptly drained, hollow, numbed. He almost lost consciousness.

  "Open your collar," said Asphalter. "My God, you aren't fainting, are you?" He began to force Herzog's head down. "Between the knees," he said.

  "Let up," said Moses, but his head was hot and damp and he sat doubled over while Asphalter gave him first aid.

  All the while, the large brown monkey, with arms folded over his chest, and red, dry eyes, was looking on, silently disseminating his grimness. Death, thought Herzog. The real thing. The animal was dying.

  "You better?" Asphalter said.

  "Just open a window. These zoology buildings stink."

  "The window is open. Here, drink some water." He handed Moses a paper cup. "Take one of these.

  Take this first, and then the green and white. Prozine.

  I can't get the cotton out of the bottle.

  My hands are shaking."

  Herzog refused the pills. "Luke... Is this really true, about Madeleine and Gersbach?" he said.

  Intensely nervous, pale, warm, looking at him with his dark eyes, his mottled face, Asphalter said, "Christ! you don't think I'd invent such a thing.

  I probably haven't been tactful. I thought you must have had a pretty good idea.... But it's absolutely true." Asphalter in his soiled lab coat put it to him with a complicated helpless gesture-I lay it all before you, was what it said. His breathing was labored. "You didn't know anything?"

  "No."

  "But doesn't it make sense? Doesn't it add up now?"

  Herzog rested his weight on the desk, knitting his fingers tightly. He stared at the dangling catkins, reddish and violet. Not to burst, not to die-to stay alive, was all he could hope for.

  "Who told you?" he said.

  "Geraldine."

  "Who?"

  "Gerry-Geraldine Portnoy. I thought you knew her. Mady's sitter. She's down in the anatomy lab."

  "What..."

  "Human anatomy, in the Med School, around the corner. I go out with her. In fact, you know her, she was in one of your classes. Do you want to talk to her?"

  "No," said Herzog violently.

  "Well, she's written you a letter. She gave it to me and said she'd leave it up to me, whether I should hand it over or not."

  "I can't read it now."

  "Take it," said Asphalter. "You may want to read it later."

  Herzog stuffed the envelope into his pocket.

  He was wondering, as he sat in the plush seat of the train, holding his valise desk, and leaving New York State at seventy m. p. h., why he hadn't cried in Asphalter's office. He could burst into tears easily enough, and he was not inhibited with Asphalter, they were such old friends, so similar in their lives- their backgrounds, their habits, temperaments. But when Asphalter raised the lid, revealed the truth, something bad was released in his office overlooking the Quadrangle; like an odor, hot and raw; or a queer human fact, almost palpable. Tears were not relevant. The cause was too perverse, altogether too odd for all concerned.

  And then, too, Gersbach was a frequent weeper of distinguished emotional power. The hot tear was often in his magnanimous ruddy-brown eye. Only a few days earlier, when Herzog landed at O'Hare and hugged his little daughter, Gersbach had been there, a powerful, burly figure with tears of compassion in his eyes. So evidently, thought Moses, he's fucked up weeping for me, too. At moments I dislike having a face, a nose, lips, because he has them.

  Yes, the shadow of death was on Rocco, then.

  "Damn unpleasant," said Asphalter. He smoked a bit and put out his cigarette. The tray was filled with long putts-he used up two or three packs a day. "Let's have some drinks. Let's all have dinner tonight. I'm taking Geraldine to the Beachcomber, near-north. You can size her up for yourself."

  Now Herzog had to consider some strange facts about Asphalter. It's possible that I influenced him, my emotionalism transmitted itself to him. He had taken that brooding, hairy Rocco into his heart.

  How else could you account for such agitation-lifting Rocco in his arms and forcing his lips open, breathing mouth to mouth. I suspect Luke may be in a very bad way. I must try to think about him as he is- strangeness and all.

  You'd better take the tuberculin test. I had no idea that you ... Herzog broke off. A dining-car steward rang the chimes for lunch, but Herzog had no time to eat. He was about to begin another letter.

  Dear Professor Byzhkovski, I thank you for your courtesy in Warsaw. Owing to the state of my health, our meeting must have been unsatisfactory to you.

  I sat in his apartment making paper hats and boats out of the Trybuna Ludu while he tried to get a conversation going. The professor-that tall powerful man in a sandy-tweed shooting costume of knickers and Norfolk jacket-must have been astonished. I'm convinced he has a kind nature. His blue eyes are the good sort. A fat but shapely face, thoughtful and manly. I kept folding the paper hats-I must have been thinking of the children. Mme.

  Byzhkovski asked me did I want jam in my tea, bending over hospitably. The furniture was richly polished, old, of a vanished Central European epoch-but then this present epoch is vanishing, too, and perhaps faster than all the others.

  I hope you will forgive me. I have now had an opportunity to read your study of the American Occupation of West Germany. Many of the facts are disagreeable.

  But I was never consulted by President Truman, nor by Mr. Mc Cloy. I must confess I haven't examined the German question as closely as 1 should. None of the governments are truthful, in my opinion. There is also an East German question not even touched upon in your monograph.

  I wandered in Hamburg into the red-
light district.

  That is, I was told that I should see it.

  Some of the whores, in black lace underthings, wore German military boots and rapped at you with riding crops on the windowpanes. Broads with red complexions, calling and grinning. A cold, joyless day.

  Dear Sir, wrote Herzog.

  You have been very patient with the Bowery bums who enter your church, pass out drunk, defecate in the pews, break bottles on the gravestones, and commit more nuisances. I would suggest that as you can see Wall Street from your church door you might prepare a pamphlet to explain that the Bowery gives additional significance to it. Skid Row is the contrasting institution, therefore necessary. Remind them of Lazarus and Dives. Because of Lazarus, Dives gets an extra kick, a bonus, from his luxuries.

  No, I don't believe Dives is having such a hot time, either. And if he wants to free himself, the doom of Skid Row awaits him. If there were a beautiful poverty, a moral poverty in America, that would be subversive. Therefore it has to be ugly. Therefore the bums are working for Wall Street -confessors of the name. But the Reverend Beasley, where does he get his dough?

  We have thought too little on this.

  He then wrote, Credit Department, Marshall Field and Co. I am no longer responsible for the debts of Madeleine P. Herzog. As of March 10, we ceased to be husband and wife. So don't send me any more bills - I was knocked over by the last - more than four hundred dollars. For purchases made after the separation. Of course I should have written sooner - to what is called the credit nerve-center -Is there such a thing? Where can you find it?- but I temporarily lost my bearings.

  Dear Professor Hoyle, I don't think I understand just how the Gold-Pore Theory works. How the heavier metals - iron, nickel-get to the center of the earth, I think 1 see. But what about the concentration of lighter metals? Also, in your explanation of the formation of smaller planets, including our tragic earth, you speak of adhesive materials that bind the agglomerates of precipitated matter....

  The wheels of the cars stormed underneath. Woods and pastures ran up and receded, the rails of sidings sheathed in rust, the dipping racing wires, and on the right the blue of the Sound, deeper, stronger than before.

  Then the enameled shells of the commuters' cars, and the heaped bodies of junk cars, the shapes of old New England mills with narrow, austere windows; villages, convents; tugboats moving in the swelling fabric-like water; and then plantations of pine, the needles on the ground of a life-giving russet color. So, thought Herzog, acknowledging that his imagination of the universe was elementary, the novae bursting and the worlds coming into being, the invisible magnetic spokes by means of which bodies kept one another in orbit. Astronomers made it all sound as though the gases were shaken up inside a flask. Then after many billions of years, light-years, this childlike but far from innocent creature, a straw hat on his head, and a heart in his breast, part pure, part wicked, who would try to form his own shaky picture of this magnificent web.

  Dear Dr. Bhave, he began again, I read of your work in the Observer and at the time thought I'd like to join your movement.

  I've always wanted very much to lead a moral, useful, and active life. I never knew where to begin. One can't become Utopian. It only makes it harder to discover where your duty really lies. Persuading the owners of large estates to give up some land to impoverished peasants, however ...

  These dark men going on foot through India. In his vision Herzog saw their shining eyes, and the light of spirit within them. You must start with injustices that are obvious to everybody, not with big historical perspectives.

  Recently, I saw Pather Panchali. I assume you know it, since the subject is rural India. Two things affected me greatly - the old crone scooping the mush with her fingers and later going into the weeds to die; and the death of the young girl in the rains.

  Herzog, almost alone in the Fifth Avenue Playhouse, cried with the child's mother when the hysterical death music started. Some musician with a native brass horn, imitating sobs, playing a death noise. It was raining also in New York, as in rural India. His heart was aching. He too had a daughter, and his mother too had been a poor woman.

  He had slept on sheets made of flour sacks.

  The best type for the purpose was Ceresota. What he had vaguely in mind was to offer his house and property in Ludeyville to the Bhave movement.

  But what could Bhave do with it? Send Hindus to the Berkshires? It wouldn't be fair to them. Anyway, there was a mortgage. A gift should be made in what they call "fee simple," and for that I'd have to raise another eight thousand bucks, and the Internal Revenue wouldn't give me a deduction on it.

  Foreign charities probably don't count.

  Bhave would be doing him a favor. That house was one of his biggest mistakes. It was bought in a dream of happiness, an old ruin of a place but with enormous possibilities-great old trees, formal gardens he could restore in his spare time. The place had been deserted for years. Duck hunters and lovers would break in and use it; and when Herzog posted the property the lovers and the hunters played jokes on him. Someone came in the night and left a used sanitary napkin in a covered dish on his desk, where he kept bundles of notes for his Romantic studies. That was his reception by the natives. A momentary light of self-humor passed over his face as the train flashed through meadows and sunny pines. Suppose I accepted the challenge. I could be Moses, the old Jew-man of Ludeyville, with a white beard, cutting the grass under the washline with my antique reel-mower.

  Eating woodchucks.

  He wrote to his cousin Asher, in Beersheba, I mentioned an old photograph of your father in his Czarist uniform. I have asked my sister Helen to look for it.

  Asher had served in the Red Army and was wounded. He was now an electro-welder, a moody-looking man with strong teeth. He went with Moses to visit the Dead Sea. It was sultry. They sat down in the mouth of a salt mine to cool off. Asher said, "Don't you have a picture of my father?"

  Dear Mr. President, 1 listened to your recent optimistic message on the radio and thought that in respect to taxes there was little to justify your optimism. The new legislation is highly discriminatory and many believe it will only aggravate unemployment problems by accelerating automation. This means that more adolescent gangs will dominate the under-policed streets of big cities.

  Stresses of overpopulation, the race question ...

  Dear Doktor Professor Heidegger, I should like to know what you mean by the expression "the fall of the quotidian." When did this fall occur? Where were we standing when it happened?

  Mr. Emmett Strawforth, U. s. Public Health Service, he wrote.

  Dear Emmett, 1 saw you on television making a damn fool of yourself. Since we were undergraduates together (m. E. Herzog '38) I feel free to tell you what I think of your philosophy.

  Herzog crossed this out and readdressed his letter to the New York Times. Again a government scientist, Dr. Emmett Strawforth, has come forward with the Philosophy of Risk in the controversy over fallout, to which has now been added the problem of chemical pesticides, contamination of ground water, etc. I am as deeply concerned with the social and ethical reasoning of scientists as I am with those other forms of poisoning. Dr. Strawforth on Rachel Carson, Dr. Teller on the genetic effects of radioactivity. Recently Dr. Teller argued that the new fashion of tight pants, by raising body temperatures, could affect the gonads more than fallout. People greatly respected in their generation often turn out to be dangerous lunatics. Take Field Marshal Haig. He drowned hundreds of thousands of men in the mud-holes of Flanders. Lloyd George was obliged to sanction this because Haig was such an important and respected leader. Such people simply have to be allowed to do their stuff. How paradoxical it is that a man who uses heroin may get a 20-year sentence for what he does to himself....

  They'll see what I mean.

  Dr. Strawforth says we must adopt his Philosophy of Risk with regard to radioactivity. Since Hiroshima (and Mr.

  Truman calls people Bleeding Hearts when they question
his Hiroshima decision) life in civilized countries (because they survive through a balance of terror) stands upon a foundation of risk. So argues Dr. Strawforth. But then he compares human life to Risk Capital in business. What an idea! Big business takes no chances, as the recent stockpiling investigation showed. I should like to call your attention to one of de Tocqueville's prophecies. He believed modern democracies would produce less crime, more private vice.

  Perhaps he should have said less private crime, more collective crime. Much of this collective or organizational crime has the object precisely of reducing risk. Now I know it's no cinch to manage the affairs of this planet with its population exceeding 2 billion. The number itself is something of a miracle and throws our practical ideas into obsolescence. Few intellectuals have grasped the social principles behind this quantitative transformation.

  Ours is a bourgeois civilization. I am not using this term in its Marxian sense.

  Chicken!

  In the vocabularies of modern art and religion it is bourgeois to consider that the universe was made for our safe use and to give us comfort, ease, and support. Light travels at a quarter of a million miles per second so that we can see to comb our hair or to read in the paper that ham hocks are cheaper than yesterday.

  De Tocqueville considered the impulse toward well-being as one of the strongest impulses of a democratic society. He can't be blamed for underestimating the destructive powers generated by this same impulse.

  You must be out of your mind to write to the Times like this! There are millions of bitter Voltairean types whose souls are filled with angry satire and who keep looking for the keenest, most poisonous word.

  You could send in a poem instead, you nitwit. Why should you be more right out of sheer distraction than they are out of organization? You ride in their trains, don't you? Distraction didn't build the railroad. Go on, write a poem, and kill "em with bitterness.

  They print little poems as fillers on the editorial page. But he continued his letter, nevertheless.

  Nietzsche, Whitehead, and John Dewey wrote on the question of Risk..,. Dewey tells us that mankind distrusts its own nature and tries to find stability beyond or above, in religion or philosophy. To him the past often means the erroneous.

 
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