Herzog by Saul Bellow


  Dear Moses E. Herzog, Since when have you taken such an interest in social questions, in the external world? Until lately, you led a life of innocent sloth. But suddenly a Faustian spirit of discontent and universal reform descends on you.

  Scolding. Invective.

  Dear Sirs, The Information Service was kind enough to send a package from Belgrade containing articles of winter wear. I did not want to take my long-johns to Italy, the paradise of exiles, and regretted it. It was snowing when I got to Venice. I couldn't get into the vaporetto with my valise.

  Dear Mr. Udall, A petroleum engineer I met recently in a Northwest (et told me our domestic oil reserves were almost used up and that plans had been completed for blasting the polar caps with hydrogen bombs to get at the oil beneath. What about that?

  Shapiro!

  Herzog had a lot to explain to Shapiro, and he was certainly waiting for his explanations. Shapiro was not good-humored although his face wore a good-humored look. His nose was sharp and angry and his lips appeared to be smiling away their anger. His cheeks were white and plump, and his thin hair was combed straight back, glistening in the Rudolph Valentino or Ricardo Cortez style of the twenties. He had a dumpy figure, but wore natty clothes.

  Still, Shapiro was in the right this time.

  Shapiro, I should have written sooner to tell you... to apologize... to make amends....

  But I have a splendid excuse-trouble, sickness, disorder, afflictions.

  You've written a fine monograph. I hope I made that clear in my review. My memory abandoned me complete in one place, and I was all wrong about Joachim da Floris.

  You and Joachim must both forgive me. I was in a terrible state. Having agreed to review Shapiro's study before the trouble broke, Herzog couldn't get out of it. He dragged the heavy volume with him all over Europe in his valise. It caused much pain in his side; he feared a hernia from it, and also ran up considerable overweight charges.

  Herzog kept reading away at it for the sake of the discipline, and under a growing burden of guilt. Abed in Belgrade, at the Metropol, with bottles of cherry juice, the trolley cars whizzing past in the frozen night.

  Finally, in Venice, I sat down and wrote my review.

  My excuse for the botch I made now follows: I assume, since he's at Madison, Wisconsin, you've heard that I blew up in Chicago last October. We left the house in Ludeyville some time ago. Madeleine wanted to finish her degree in Slavonic languages.

  She had about ten courses in linguistics to take, and she got interested also in Sanskrit. Perhaps you can guess how she would work at things - her interests, passions. Do you remember that when you came to see us in the country two years ago, we discussed Chicago?

  Whether it would be safe to live in that slum.

  Shapiro in his stylish pin-striped suit, pointed shoes, as if dressed for dinner, sat on Herzog's lawn. He has the profile of a thin man. His nose is sharp but his throat sags and his cheeks hang a little toward the lips. Shapiro is very courtly. And he was impressed with Madeleine.

  He thought her so beautiful, so intelligent.

  Well, she is. The conversation was spirited. Shapiro had come to see Moses ostensibly to get "advice"-actually to ask a favor-but he was enjoying Madeleine's company. She excited him and he was laughing as he drank his quinine water. The day was hot but he didn't loosen his conservative necktie. His sharp black shoes glistened; and he has fat feet, with bulging insteps. On the grass, mowed by himself, Moses sat in torn wash pants. Stirred by Madeleine, Shapiro was particularly lively, almost shrieking when he laughed, and his laughter becoming more frequent, wilder, uncaused. His manner at the same time grew more formal, measured, judicious. He spoke in long sentences, Proustian he may have thought-actually Germanic, and filled with incredible bombast. "On balance, I should not venture to assay the merit of the tendency without more mature consideration," he was saying. Poor Shapiro! What a brute he was! That snarling, wild laugh of his, and the white froth forming on his lips as he attacked everyone. Madeleine was greatly stirred by him too, and on her high manners. They found each other exceedingly stimulating.

  She came from the house with the bottles and glasses on the tray-cheese, liver paste, crackers, ice, herring. She had on blue trousers and a yellow Chinese blouse, the coolie hat I bought her on Fifth Avenue. She said she was subject to sunstroke. Stepping quickly, she advanced from the shadow of the house into the sparkling grass, the cat leaping from her path, the bottles and glasses clinking. She hastened because she didn't want to miss any of the conversation. As she bent to set things out on the lawn table, Shapiro couldn't keep his eyes from the fabric.

  Madeleine, "stuck away in the woods," was avid for scholarly conversation. Shapiro knew the literature of every field-he read all the publications; he had accounts with book dealers all over the world. When he found that Madeleine was not only a beauty but was preparing for her doctoral examination in Slavonic languages, he said, "How delightful!" And it was he himself who knew, betraying the knowledge by affectation, that for a Russian Jew from Chicago's West Side that "How delightful!" was inappropriate. A German Jew from Kenwood might have gotten away with it-old money, in the dry-goods business since 1880. But Shapiro's father had had no money, and peddled rotten apples from South Water Street in a wagon. There was more of the truth of life in those spotted, spoiled apples, and in old Shapiro, who smelled of the horse and of produce, than in all of these learned references.

  Madeleine and the dignified visitor were talking about the Russian Church, Tikhon Zadonsky, Dostoevski, and Herzen. Shapiro made a great production of learned references, correctly pronouncing all foreign words whether in French, German, Serbian, Italian, Hungarian, Turkish, or Danish, snapping them out and laughing-that hearty sucking, snarling, undirected laugh, teeth moist, head worked back onto his shoulders. Ha! The thorns crackled.

  ("Like the crackling of thorns under a pot is the laughter of fools.") The cicadas in great numbers were singing. That year, they came out of the ground.

  Under such stimulation, Mady's face did strange things. The tip of her nose moved, and her brows, which needed no help from cosmetics, rose with nervous eagerness, repeatedly, as if she were trying to clear her eyesight. Dr. Edvig said this was a diagnostic trait of paranoia. Beneath the huge trees, surrounded by the Berkshire slopes, with not another house in sight to spoil the view, the grass was fresh and dense, the slender, fine grass of June. The red-eyed cicadas, squat forms vividly colored, were wet after molting, sopping, immobile; but drying, they crept, hopped, tumbled, flew, and in the high trees kept up a continuous chain of song, shrilling.

  Culture-ideas-had taken the place of the Church in Mady's heart (a strange organ that must be!).

  Herzog sat thinking his own thoughts on the grass in Ludeyville, his wash pants torn, feet bare, but his face that of an educated Jewish gentleman with fine lips, dark eyes. He watched his wife, on whom he doted (with a troubled, angry heart, another oddity among hearts) as she revealed the wealth of her mind to Shapiro.

  "My Russian is not what it could be," said Shapiro.

  "But how much you know about my subject," Madeleine said. She was very happy. The blood glowed in her face, and her blue eyes were warm and brilliant.

  They opened a new subject-the Revolution of 1848. Shapiro had sweated through his starched collar.

  Only a dollar-crazed Croatian steelworker would have bought such a striped shirt. And what were his views of Bakunin, Kropotkin? Did he know Comfort's work? He did. Did he know Poggioli? Yes.

  He didn't feel that Poggioli had done full justice to certain important figures-Rozanov, for instance. Though Rozanov was cracked on certain questions, like the Jewish ritual bath, still he was a great figure, and his erotic mysticism was highly original- highly.

  Leave it to those Russians. What hadn't they done for Western Civilization, all the while repudiating the West and ridiculing it!

  Madeleine, Herzog thought, became almost dangerously excited. He could tell, when her voi
ce grew reedy, when her throat sounded positively like a clarinet, that she was bursting with ideas and feelings. And if Moses did not join in, if he sat there, in her own words, like a clunk, bored, resentful, he proved he didn't respect her intelligence. Now Gersbach always boomed along in conversation. He was so emphatic in style, so impressive in his glances, looked so clever that you forgot to inquire whether he was making sense.

  The lawn was on an elevation with a view of fields and woods. Formed like a large teardrop of green, it had a gray elm at its small point, and the bark of the huge tree, dying of dutch blight, was purplish gray. Scant leaves for such a vast growth. An oriole's nest, in the shape of a gray heart, hung from twigs. God's veil over things makes them all riddles. If they were not so particular, detailed, and very rich I might have more rest from them. But I am a prisoner of perception, a compulsory witness. They are too exciting. Meantime I dwell in yon house of dull boards. Herzog was worried about that elm.

  Must he cut it down? He hated to do it.

  Meanwhile the cicadas all vibrated a coil in their bellies, a horny posterior band in a special chamber. Those billions of red eyes from the enclosing woods looked out, stared down, and the steep waves of sound drowned the summer afternoon. Herzog had seldom heard anything so beautiful as this massed continual harshness.

  Shapiro mentioned Soloviev-the younger one. Did he really have a vision, in the British Museum, of all places? It so happened that Madeleine had made a study of the younger Soloviev, and this was her opportunity. She had enough confidence now in Shapiro to speak freely-it would be appreciated, genuinely.

  She gave a brief lecture on the career and thought of this dead Russian. Her offended look passed over Moses. She complained that he never really listened to her.

  He wanted to shine all the time. But that wasn't it. He had heard her lecture on this subject many times, and far into the night. He didn't dare say he was sleepy. Anyway, it had to be quid pro quo, given these conditions-buried in the remote Berkshires-for he had to discuss knotty points of Rousseau and Hegel with her. He relied completely on her intellectual judgments. Before Soloviev, she had talked of no one but Joseph de Maistre. And before de Maistre-Herzog made up the list-the French Revolution, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Schliemann's excavations at Troy, extrasensory perception, then tarot cards, then Christian Science, before that, Mirabeau; or was it mystery novels (josephine Tey), or science fiction (isaac Asimov)?

  The intensity was always high. If she had one constant interest it was murder mysteries. Three or four a day, she'd read.

  Black and hot under the green, the soil gave off its dampness. Herzog felt it in his bare feet.

  From Soloviev, Mady naturally turned to Berdyaev, and while speaking of Slavery and Freedom comthe concept of Sobornost comshe opened the jar of pickled herring. Saliva spurted to Shapiro's lips. Quickly, he pressed his folded handkerchief to the corners of his mouth.

  Herzog remembered him as a greedy eater. In the cubicle they had shared at school, he used to chew his pumpernickel-and-onion sandwiches with an open mouth. Now at the smell of spice and vinegar Shapiro's eyes flooded, though he managed to keep his portly, good-humored, sharp-nosed, refined look as he pressed the handkerchief to his shaven jowls. His plump hairless hand-his quivering fingers. "No, no," he said, "thank you very much, Mrs. Herzog. Delightful! But I have a stomach condition." Condition! He had ulcers. Vanity kept him from saying it; the psychosomatic implications were unflattering. Later that afternoon, he vomited in the wash basin. He must have eaten squid, thought Herzog, who had to do the cleaning up.

  Why didn't he use the toilet bowl-too stout to bend?

  But that was in the aftermath of his visit. Before that, Moses recalled, there was a visit from the Gersbachs, Valentine and Phoebe. They stopped their little car under the catalpa tree-then in flower, though last year's pods still hung from the twigs. Out came Valentine, in his swaying stride, and Phoebe, pale at every season of the year, calling after him in her complaining voice, "Val-Va-al." She was returning a casserole she had borrowed, one of Madeleine's great iron pots, red as lobster shell-Desco-ware, made in Belgium. These visits often gave Herzog a depressed feeling he couldn't account for.

  Madeleine sent him for more folding chairs. Perhaps it was the rotted honey fragrance of the white catalpa bells that got him. Faintly lined with pink within, heavy with pollen dust, they dropped on the gravel.

  Too beautiful! Little Ephraim Gersbach was making a pile of bells. Moses was glad to go for the chairs, into the musty disorder of the house, down to the stony deaf security of the cellar. He took his time about the chairs.

  When he returned, they were speaking of Chicago.

  Gersbach, standing with his hands in his hip pockets, his face just shaved and his plume-like hair revealing heavy copper depths, was saying that his advice was to get the hell out of this backwater. Nothing interesting had happened here since the Battle of Saratoga, over the hills, for Christ's sake. Phoebe, looking tired and pale, smoked her cigarette, faintly smiling, and hoping, probably, to be let alone. Among assertive, learned, or eloquent people, she seemed to feel her dowdiness and insufficiency. Actually she was far from stupid. She had fine eyes, a bosom, good legs. If only she didn't make herself look like the head nurse, letting her dimples lengthen into disciplinary creases.

  "Chicago, by all means!" said Shapiro. "That's the school for graduate studies. A little woman like Mrs. Herzog is just what the old place needs, too."

  Fill your big mouth with herring, Shapiro! Herzog thought, and mind your own fucking business. Madeleine gave her husband a rapid sidelong look. She was flattered, happy. She wanted him to be reminded, if he had forgotten, how high a value other people set upon her.

  Anyway, Shapiro, I was in no mood for Joachim da Floris and the hidden destiny of Man.

  Nothing seemed especially hidden - it was all painfully clear. Listen, you said long ago, already pompous as a young student, that someday we would "join issue," meaning there were important differences between us even then. I think it must have started in that seminar on Proudhon and the long arguments we had, back and forth with old Larson, about the decay of the religious foundations of civilization.

  Are all the traditions used up, the beliefs done for, the consciousness of the masses not yet ready for the next develop- development? Is this the full crisis of dissolution? Has the filthy moment come when moral feeling dies, conscience disintegrates, and respect for liberty, law, public decency, all the rest, collapses in cowardice, decadence, blood? Old Proudhon's visions of darkness and evil can't be passed over. But we mustn't forget how quickly the visions of genius become the canned goods of the intellectuals. The canned sauerkraut of Spengler's "Prussian Socialism," the commonplaces of the Wasteland outlook, the cheap mental stimulants of Alienation, the cant and rant of pipsqueaks about Inauthenticity and Forlornness.

  I can't accept this foolish dreariness. We are talking about the whole life of mankind. The subject is too great, too deep for such weakness, cowardice - too deep, too great, Shapiro. It torments me to insanity that you should be so misled. A merely aesthetic critique of modern history! After the wars and mass killings! You are too intelligent for this. You inherited rich blood. Your father peddled apples.

  I don't pretend that my position, on the other hand, is easy. We are survivors, in this age, so theories of progress ill become us, because we are intimately acquainted with the costs. To realize that you are a survivor is a shock. At the realization of such election, you feel like bursting into tears. As the dead go their way, you want to call to them, but they depart in a black cloud of faces, souls. They flow out in smoke from the extermination chimneys, and leave you in the clear light of historical success - the technical success of the West. Then you know with a crash of the blood that mankind is making it - making it in glory though deafened by the explosions of blood. Unified by the horrible wars, instructed in our brutal stupidity by revolutions, by engineered famines directed by "ideologists" theirs of Marx a
nd Hegel and trained in the cunning of reason), perhaps we, modern humankind (can it be!), have done the nearly impossible, namely, learned something. You know that the decline and doom of civilization refuses to follow the model of antiquity. The old empires are shattered but those same one-time powers are richer than ever. I don't say that the prosperity of Germany is altogether agreeable to contemplate. But there it is, less than twenty years after the demonic nihilism of Hitler destroyed it. And France? England? No, the analogy of the decline and fall of the classical world will not hold for us. Something else is happening, and that something lies closer to the vision of Comte - the results of rationally organized labor - than to that of Spengler. Of all the evils of standardization in the old bourgeois Europe of Spengler, perhaps the worst was the standardized pedantry of the Spenglers themselves this coarse truculence born in the Gymnasium, in cultural drill administered by an old-fashioned bureaucracy.

  I intended in the country to write another chapter in the history of Romanticism as the form taken by plebeian envy and ambition in modern Europe.

  Emergent plebeian classes fought for food, power, sexual privileges, of course. But they fought also to inherit the aristocratic dignity of the old regimes, which in the modern age might have claimed the right to speak of decline. In the sphere of culture the newly risen educated classes caused confusion between aesthetic and moral judgments. They began with anger over the industrial defilement of landscapes (ruskin's British "Vales of Tempe") and ended by losing sight of the old-fashioned moral characteristics of the Ruskins. Reaching at last the point of denying the humanity of the industrialized, "banalized" masses. It was easy for the Wastelanders to be assimilated to totalitarianism. Here the responsibility of artists remains to be assessed. To have assumed, for instance, that the deterioration of language and its debasement was tantamount to dehumanization led straight to cultural fascism.

 
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