Herzog by Saul Bellow


  But Moses checked himself. Come to the point. But what was the point? The point was that there were people who could destroy mankind and that they were foolish and arrogant, crazy, and must be begged not to do it. Let the enemies of life step down. Let each man now examine his heart. Without a great change of heart, I would not trust myself in a position of authority. Do I love mankind? Enough to spare it, if I should be in a position to blow it to hell? Now let us all dress in our shrouds and walk on Washington and Moscow.

  Let us lie down, men, women, and children, and cry, "Let life continue- we may not deserve it, but let it continue."

  In every community there is a class of people profoundly dangerous to the rest. I don't mean the criminals.

  For them we have punitive sanctions. I mean the leaders. Invariably the most dangerous people seek the power.

  While in the parlors of indignation the right-thinking citizen brings his heart to a boil.

  Mr. Editor, we are bound to be the slaves of those who have power to destroy us. I am not speaking of Strawforth any more. I knew him at school.

  We played ping-pong at the Reynolds Club.

  He had a white buttocky face with a few moles, and fat curling thumbs that put a cheating spin on the ball.

  Clickety-clack over the green table. I don't believe his I. q. was so terribly high, though maybe it was, but he worked hard at his math and chemistry. While I was fiddling in the fields. Like the grasshoppers in Junie's favorite song.

  Grasshoppers three a-fiddling went. Hey-ho, never be still. They paid no money towards their rent But all day long with elbows bent They fiddled a song called Rillabyrillaby. They fiddled a song called Rillabyrill.

  Delighted, Moses began to grin. His face wrinkled tenderly at the thought of his children. How well kids understand what love is! Marco was entering an age of silence and restraint with his father, but Junie was exactly as Marco had been. She stood on her father's lap to comb his hair. His thighs were trodden by her feet. He embraced her small bones with fatherly hunger while her breath on his face stirred his deepest feelings.

  He had been wheeling the child's stroller on the Midway, saluting students and faculty with a touch to the brim of his green velours hat, a mossier green than the slopes and hollow lawns.

  Under the tucks of her velvet bonnet, the little girl had very much her Papa's looks, so he thought.

  He smiled at her with large creases, dark eyes, while reciting nursery rhymes: "There was an old woman Who flew in a basket Seventeen times as high as the moon."

  "Mole," the child said.

  "And where she was going Nobody could tell you For under her arm she carried a broom."

  "More, more."

  The warm lake wind drove Moses westward, past the gray gothic buildings. He had had the child at least, while mother and lover were undressing in a bedroom somewhere. And if, even in that embrace of lust and treason, they had life and nature on their side, he would quietly step aside. Yes, he would bow out.

  The conductor (one of an ancient vanishing breed, this gray-faced conductor) took the ticket from Herzog's hatband. As he punched it, he seemed about to say something. Perhaps the straw hat carried him back to old times. But Herzog was finishing his letter.

  Even if Strawforth were a philosopher-king, should we give him the power to tamper with the genetic foundations of life, pollute the atmosphere and the waters of the earth? I know it is cranky to be indignant.

  But...

  The conductor left a punched cardboard slip under the metal of the seat number and went away, leaving Moses still writing on his valise. He might have gone to the club car, of course, where there were tables, but there he'd have to buy drinks, talk to people. Besides, he had one of his most essential letters to write, to Dr.

  Edvig, the psychiatrist in Chicago.

  So, Edvig, Herzog wrote, you turn out to be a crook too! How pathetic!

  But this was no way to begin. He started over.

  My dear Edvig, I have news for you.

  Ah, yes, much better this way. A provoking thing about Edvig was that he behaved as if he were the one with all the news-this calm Protestant Nordic Anglo-Celtic Edvig with his grizzled little beard, clever, waving, mounting hair, and glasses, round, clean, and glittering.

  Admittedly I came to you in a bad way.

  Madeleine made psychiatric treatment a condition of our staying together. If you remember she said I was in a dangerous mental state. I was allowed to choose my own psychiatrist. Naturally I picked one who had written on Barth, Tillich, Brunner, etc. Especially since Madeleine, though Jewish, had a Christian phase as a Catholic convert and I hoped you might help me to understand her. Instead, you went for her yourself. You did, it's undeniable, the more you learned from me that she was beautiful, had a brilliant mind, by no means sane, and was religious, to boot.

  And she and Gersbach managed and planned every step I took. They figured a headshrinker could help to ease me out-a sick man, exceptionally neurotic, perhaps even hopeless. Anyway the cure would keep me busy, absorbed in my own case.

  Four afternoons a week they knew where I was, on the couch, and so were safe in bed. I was near the point of breakdown, the day I came to see you - wet weather, trickling snow, the overheated bus.

  The snow certainly made my heart no cooler. The street plastered with yellow leaves. That elderly person in her green plush hat, unturbulent green, and like a deadly bag in soft folds on her head. But it was not such a bad day at that. Edvig said I was not off my rocker. Simply a reactive-depressive.

  "But Madeleine says I'm insane. That I ..." Eager and trembling, his sore spirit distorted his face, swelled his throat, painfully. But he was encouraged by the kindness of Edvig's bearded smile.

  He then did his best to draw Edvig out, but all he would tell him that day was that depressives tended to form frantic dependencies and to become hysterical when cut off, when threatened with loss. "And of course," he added, "from what you tell me, you haven't been guiltless. And she sounds like an angry person to begin with. When did she lapse from the Church?"

  "I'm not sure. I thought she was through long ago.

  But last Ash Wednesday she had the soot on her forehead. I said 'Madeleine, I thought you stopped being a Catholic. But what do I see between your eyes, ashes?"' But she said, "I don't know what you're talking about." She tried to pass it off as one of my delusions, or something. But it was no delusion. It was a spot. I swear it was at least half a spot. But her attitude seems to be, a Jew like me, what would I know about this stuff."

  Herzog could see that Edvig was fascinated by every word about Madeleine. Nodding, he raised his head, his chin rose at every sentence, he touched his neat beard, his lenses glittered, he smiled. "You feel she's a Christian?"

  "She feels I'm a Pharisee. She says so."

  "Ah?" Edvig sharply commented.

  "Ah, what?" Moses said. "You agree with her?"

  "How can I? I scarcely know you. But what do you think of the question?"

  "Do you think that any Christian in the twentieth century has the right to speak of Jewish Pharisees? From a Jewish standpoint, you know, this hasn't been one of your best periods."

  "But do you think your wife has a Christian outlook?"

  "I think she has some home-brewed otherworldly point of view." Herzog sat straighter in his chair, and pronounced his words with slight portentousness, perhaps. "I don't agree with Nietzsche that Jesus made the whole world sick, infected it with his slave morality. But Nietzsche himself had a Christian view of history, seeing the present moment always as some crisis, some fall from classical greatness, some corruption or evil to be saved from. I call that Christian. And Madeleine has it, all right.

  To some extent many of us do. Think we have to recover from some poison, need saving, ransoming. Madeleine wants a savior, and for her I'm no savior."

  This was the kind of thing Edvig apparently expected from Moses. Shrugging and smiling, he took it all as analytic material and seemed very
pleased.

  He was a fair, mild man; his shoulders had a certain slender squareness. Old-fashioned, with pink nearly colorless frames, his glasses made him drably, humbly, thoughtful and medical.

  By degrees, and I don't quite know how it happened, Madeleine became the principal figure in the analysis, and dominated it as she dominated me.

  And came to dominate you. I began to notice how impatient you were to meet her. Because of the unusual facts of the case you said you had to interview her. By and by you were deep in discussions of religion with her. And finally, you were treating her, too. You said you could see why she had fascinated me. And I said, "I told you she was extraordinary. She's brilliant, the bitch, a terror!" So you knew, at least, if I was stoned out of my skull (as they say), it was by no ordinary woman. As for Mady, she enriched her record by conning you. It all added to her depth. And because she was getting her Ph. d. in Russian religious history (i guess), your sessions with her, at twenty-five bucks a throw, were for several months a course of lectures on Eastern Christianity. After this, she began to develop strange symptoms.

  First, she accused Moses of hiring a private detective to spy on her. She began this accusation with the slightly British diction he had learned to recognize as a sure sign of trouble. "I should have thought," she said, "you'd have been far too clever to engage such an obvious type."

  "Engage," said Herzog. "Whom have I engaged?"

  "I mean that horrible man-that stinking, fat man in the sports coat." Madeleine, absolutely sure of herself, flashed him one of her terrible looks. "I defy you to deny this. And it's simply beneath contempt."

  Seeing how pale she had become, he cautioned himself to be careful and above all not to mention the British manner. "But, Mady, this is simply a mistake."

  "It is no mistake. I never dreamed you might be capable of this."

  "But I don't know what you're talking about."

  Her voice began to rise and tremble. She said fiercely, "You sonofabitch! Don't give me this soft treatment. I know all your fucking tricks."

  Then she shrieked, "This must stop! I will not have a dick tailing me!" Staring, those marvelous eyes grew red.

  "But why would I have you followed, Mady? I don't understand. What could I find out?"

  "Now that man dogged my steps around F-Field's, all afternoon." She often stammered when she was enraged. "I waited in the 1-a-ladies' room half an hour, and when I came out he was still there. Then in the I. c. tunnel... when I was buying f-f-flowers."

  "Maybe it was only some fellow trying to pick you up. It's got nothing to do with me."

  "That was a dick!" She clenched her fists. Her lips were frighteningly thin, and her whole body trembled. "He was sitting on the screen porch next door this afternoon when I got home."

  Moses, pale, said, "You point him out, Mady.

  I'll go right up to him.... Just show the man to me."

  Edvig termed this a paranoid episode, and Herzog said, "Really?" He took this in for a moment and then exclaimed, with a burst of feeling, looking at the doctor with large eyes, "Do you really think this was a delusion? Do you mean to tell me she's disturbed?

  Insane?"

  Edvig said, conservatively, measuring his words, "One incident like this doesn't indicate insanity.

  I meant precisely what I said, a paranoid episode."

  "But it's she who's sick, sicker than I am."

  Ah, poor girl! It was a clinical matter.

  She was really unwell. Toward the sick, Moses was always especially compassionate. He assured Edvig, "If she really is as you say, I'll have to watch my step. I must try to take care of her."

  Charity, as if it didn't have enough trouble in this day and age, will always be suspected of morbidity - sado-masochism, perversity of some sort. All higher or moral tendencies lie under suspicion of being rackets. Things we simply honor with old words, but betray or deny in our very nerves.

  At any rate, Edvig did not congratulate Moses on his pledge to look after Madeleine.

  "What I must do," said Edvig, "is inform her of this tendency."

  But it did not seem to disturb Madeleine to be warned professionally against paranoid delusions. She said it wasn't exactly news to her that she was abnormal. In fact, she took the whole thing calmly. "Anyway, it'll never be boring," was what she said to Herzog.

  The trouble was not over yet. For a week or two, Field's delivery truck was bringing jewelry, cigarette boxes, coats and dresses, lamps, carpets, almost daily. Madeleine could not recall making these purchases. In ten days she ran up a twelve-hundred-dollar bill. All these articles were choice, very beautiful-there was some satisfaction in that. She did things in style, even when unbalanced. As he sent them back, Moses felt very tender toward her. Edvig predicted that she would never lapse into a true psychosis, but would have such spells for the rest of her life. It was melancholy for Moses, but perhaps his sighs expressed some satisfaction too. It was possible.

  The deliveries presently stopped.

  Madeleine turned back to her graduate studies. But one night, in the disorderly bedroom, when they were both naked, and Herzog, lifting the sheet, made a sharp remark about the old books underneath (big, dusty volumes of an ancient Russian encyclopedia), it was too much for her.

  She began to scream at him, and threw herself on the bed, tearing off blankets and sheets, slamming books on the floor, then attacking the pillows with her nails, giving a wild, choked scream. There was a plastic cover on the mattress, and this she clutched and twisted, still cursing him shrilly, inarticulate, an odd white grime in the corners of her mouth.

  Herzog picked up the overturned lamp.

  "Madeleine-don't you think you ought to take something ... for this?" Stupidly, he reached out a hand to soothe her, and at once she straightened and hit him in the face, too clumsily to hurt him. She jumped at him with her fists, not pummeling womanlike, but swinging like a street fighter with her knuckles.

  Herzog turned and took these blows on his back.

  It was necessary. She was sick.

  Maybe it's just as well that I didn't hit her.

  I might have won back her love. But I can tell you that my meekness during these crises infuriated her, as if I was trying to beat her at the religious game. I know you discussed agape with her, and similar high ideas, but the least sign of the same in me put her in a frenzy. She thought I was a faker. For in her paranoid mind 1 was disintegrated into my primitive elements. This is why I suggest her attitude might have changed if I had belted her. Paranoia is perhaps the normal state of mind in savages. And if my soul, out of season, out of place, experienced these higher emotions, I could get no credit for them anyway.

  Not from you, with your attitudes toward good intentions.

  I've read your stuff about the psychological realism of Calvin. I hope you don't mind my saying that it reveals a lousy, cringing, grudging conception of human nature. This is how I see your Protestant Freudianism.

  Edvig sat calmly through Herzog's description of the assault in the bedroom, smiling a bit. Then he said, "Why do you suppose it happened?"

  "Something about the books, maybe. Interference with her studies. If I say the house is dirty, it stinks, she thinks I'm criticizing her mind and forcing her back into housework. Disrespectful of her rights as a person..."

  Edvig's emotional responses were unsatisfactory. When he needed a feeling reaction, Herzog had to get it from Valentine Gersbach. Accordingly, he took his troubles to him. But first, ringing Gersbach's doorbell, he had to face the coldness (he couldn't understand it) of Phoebe Gersbach, who answered. She was looking very gaunt, dry, pale, strained. Of course-the Connecticut landscape raced, rose, contracted, opened its depths, and the Atlantic water shone-of course, Phoebe knew her husband was sleeping with Madeleine. And Phoebe had only one business in life, one aim, to keep her husband and protect her child. Answering the bell, she opened the door on foolish, feeling, suffering Herzog. He had come to see his friend.

  Phoebe w
as not strong; her energy was limited; she must have been past the point of irony. And as for pity, what would she have pitied him for? Not adultery-that was too common to be taken seriously by either of them.

  Anyway, to her, having Madeleine's body could never seem a big deal. She might have pitied Herzog's stupid eggheadedness, his clumsy way of putting his troubles into high-minded categories; or simply his suffering. But she probably had only enough feeling for the conduct of her own life, and no more. Moses was sure that she blamed him for aggravating Valentine's ambitions-Gersbach the public figure, Gersbach the poet, the television-intellectual, lecturing at the Hadassah on Martin Buber. Herzog himself had introduced him to cultural Chicago.

  "Val's in his room," she said. "Excuse me, I've got to get the kid ready for Temple."

  Gersbach was putting up bookshelves.

  Deliberate, heavy, slow-moving, he measured the wood, the wall, and jotted figures on the plaster. He handled the level masterfully, looked over the toggle bolts. With his thick, ruddy-dark, judicious face and his broad chest and his artificial leg which made him stand tilted, he concentrated on the choice of a bit for the electric drill as he listened to Herzog's account of Madeleine's strange assault.

  "We were getting into bed."

  "Well?" He made an effort to be patient.

  "Both naked."

  "Did you try anything?" said Gersbach. A severe note entered his voice.

  "Me? No. She's built a wall of Russian books around herself. Vladimir of Kiev, Tikhon Zadonsky. In my bed! It's not enough they persecuted my ancestors! She ransacks the library. Stuff from the bottom of the stacks nobody has taken out in fifty years. The sheets are full of crumbs of yellow paper."

  "Have you been complaining again?"

  "Maybe I have, a little. Eggshells, chop bones, tin cans under the table, under the sofa.... It's bad for June."

  "There's your mistake! Right there-she can't bear that nagging, put-upon tone. If you expect me to help straighten this out, I've got to tell you. You and she- it's no secret from anybody-are the two people I love most. So I must warn you, chaver, get off the lousy details. Just knock off all chicken shit, and be absolutely level and serious."

 
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