By Charles Matthews

Friday, November 12, 2010

7. Henderson the Rain King, by Saul Bellow, pp. 190-220

Henderson the Rain King15-16
Henderson is in a bad way, "filthy, naked, and bruised," and he says to himself, "I lost the bet and am at the guy's mercy." But he follows Romilayu's counsel: "You sleep, sah. T'ink tomorrow." When he wakens, two amazons bring him the clothing of the Sungo: green silk trousers that he slips on over his stained jockey shorts. "In spite of my rest I was not in top condition. I still had fever."

He refuses the offer of the two amazons, Tamba and Bebu, to walk on his back in a therapeutic massage, but eats a little pineapple and drinks a little whisky before Tatu the generaless comes to take him to King Dahfu. The Bunam's wives watch as he passes by. "I guess I must have caused them to smile in those billowing, swelling, green drawers of the Sungo and the pith helmet and my rubber-soled desert boots."

The king begins by anticipating Henderson's question: "You see, the Bunam felt sure you would be strong enough to move our Mummah. I, when I saw what a construction you had, agreed with him. At once." But Henderson asks about the wager: How could he be sure that it would rain? Dahfu says that he wasn't: "That was in a spirit of wager and nothing else.... I knew as little about it as you do." And when Henderson asks if the ceremony always works, Dahfu admits, "Very far from always. Exceedingly seldom."

Dahfu tells him about his education and travels. "From my point of view the science instruction was most especially worth while. I was going for an MD degree, and would have done it except for the death of my father." When Henderson observes that it's hard to reconcile the interest in science and medicine with the king's life among the Wariri, Dahfu replies, "It is interesting, I do admit. But also it is not up to me, Henderson -- Henderson-Sungo -- to make the world consistent."

Henderson observes, "Like all people who have a strong gift of life, he gave off almost an extra shadow -- I swear. It was a smoky something, a charge. I used to notice it sometimes with Lily.... It is something brilliant and yet overcast; it is smoky, bluish, trembling, shining like jewel water." He had felt it with Willatale but more strongly with Dahfu than with anyone."

The king then reminds him of the story about how he became king: his father's death, the maggot that bred in his body, and the lion cub that was captured and presented as a replacement. The cub was set free by the Bunam, and now that it has grown, Dahfu has to "capture it alive and keep it with me." The lion that Henderson has been hearing is "quite another animal. I have not yet captured Gmilo. Accordingly I am not jet fully confirmed in the role of king. You find me at a midpoint. To borrow your manner of speaking, I too must complete Becoming."

Henderson is still trying to bring a coherent image of the king into focus: "you saw yesterday what savagery can be if you never saw it before, throwing passes with his own father's skull. And now with the lions. Lions! And the man almost a graduate physician. The whole thing is crazy." Henderson has not yet recognized in the king what amounts almost to a parody of his own "savagery" -- his own disrespect for his father in turning the estate into a pig farm -- or the irony that while he always talked about becoming a physician, and urged his son to become one, it is the "savage" king who actually attended medical school but left to honor a cultural tradition.

And yet, the king is also alienated from his culture, from the people he leads. Henderson initiates a pact between them: They will always expect the truth from each other. And Dahfu confesses, "I intentionally wished to keep you with me a while hoping that exchanges of importance would be possible. For I do not find it easy to express myself to my own people. Only Horko has been in the world at all and with him I cannot freely exchange, either. They are against me here...."

Henderson observes that "it has been going through my mind for some time that there is a connection between truth and blows," and tells the king that when he was chopping wood last winter a piece of it flew up and broke his nose. "So the first thing I thought was truth!" While the king doesn't entirely agree with the relationship of truth to violence, he observes that "there is a law of human nature in which force is concerned. Man is a creature who cannot stand still under blows. Now take the horse -- he never needs a revenge. Nor the ox. But man is a creature of revenges. If he is punished he will contrive to get rid of the punishment. When he cannot get rid of punishment, his heart is apt to rot from it."

Henderson replies, "You say the soul will die if it can't make somebody suffer what it suffers?" And Dahfu says, "For a while, I am sorry to say, it then feels peace and joy." Henderson recognizes the application to himself and to the gods who were punished in the ceremony, but observes that "there are some guys who can return good for evil." Dahfu agrees: "A brave man will try to make the evil stop with him. He shall keep the blow." But, he adds, human nature will have to be transformed for this to be the rule rather than the exception. "Perhaps I am not the one to make a prediction, Sungo, but I think the noble will have its turn in the world." And he asks Henderson's pardon for using him in the ceremony.

"I saw that he was some kind of genius," Henderson says. "Much more than that. I realized that he was a genius of my own mental type." Whatever that may be. Dahfu follows by expressing his admiration for Henderson:
"I see the world in your constitution. In my medical study this became the greatest of fascinations to me and independently I have made a thorough study of the types, resulting in an entire classification system, as: The agony. The appetite. The obstinate. The immune elephant. The shrewd pig. The fateful hysterical. The death-accepting. The phallic-proud or hollow genital. The fast asleep. The narcissus intoxicated. The mad laughers. The pedantics. The fighting Lazaruses. Oh, Henderson-Sungo, how many shapes and forms. Numberless."
As for Henderson, "everything about you ... cries out, 'Salvation, salvation! What shall I do? What must I do? At once! What will become of me? And so on. That is bad." And then he says he wants to show him "something without which you will never understand thoroughly my special aim nor my point of view."

Accompanied by Tatu, Henderson follows the king down a staircase, with Tatu shutting and bolting the doors behind them as they descend. He loses sight of the king in the darkness as they go deeper under the palace until finally he realizes where they have been going: "A low ripping sound behind the door was self-explanatory. It was the lion's den." Dahfu has gone before to prepare the animal for him. "She rubbed herself against him so that I felt the stress of her weight through the medium of his body. She stood well above our hips in height." Dahfu reassures him that she is going to accept him, and tells him that her name is Atti. Henderson watches as Dahfu leads the lioness to a platform where he sits, "taking her head on his knee, scratching and stroking, while she pretended to box at him." Henderson stays put, not even moving to push back his helmet when it falls over his face. "No, I stood there, half deaf, half blind, with my throat closing and all the sphincters shut."

Finally the king tells Henderson to shut the door through which they entered. (Tatu has long since remained behind.) He urges Henderson to come forward slowly and sit on the platform by him. The lioness sniffs at Henderson, and the king tells him not to be afraid. Henderson replies, "It's not only that I'm scared of her, and I'm scared all right, but it isn't that alone. It's the richness of the mixture. That's what's getting me. The richness of the mixture. And what I can't understand is why, when fear has taken me on and licked me so many times, I am not able to stand it."

Dahfu tells him "to appreciate the beauty of this animal," and that he's not testing Henderson. "If I were not positive of my control I would not lead you into such a situation. That would truly be scandalous." And Henderson watches as Dahfu puts his arm into the lion's mouth and then lies down and wraps his legs around her body and his arms around her neck. "Face to face she carried him up and down while he talked to her.... On her own animal level it was clear beyond any need of interpretation that she loved the guy. Loved him! With animal love. I loved him too. Who could have helped it?"

The king takes Henderson's hand and presses it to the lioness's flank. "Slowly her fur passed under my fingertips and the nails became like five burning tapers. The bones of the hand became incandescent. After this a frightful shock passed right up the arm into the chest." But what Dahfu delights in is Henderson's fear:
"And how you are afraid! Really! In the highest degree. I am really delighted by it. I have never seen such a fear manifestation. It resembled anxious pleasure to me. Do you know, many strong people love this blended fear and satisfaction the most? I think you must be of that type.... And when you cried! I adored when you began to cry."
Then Dahfu says, "Atti and I influence each other. I wish you to become a party to this." Henderson is shocked to realize that Dahfu has something in mind that involves him and the lion. Dahfu promises to explain what.

Then he opens a gate that lets the lion into another part of the den and closes it behind her. "Once again I brought to mind that old prophecy Daniel made to Nebuchadnezzar. They shall drive thee from among men, and thy dwelling shall be with the beasts of the field. The lion odor was still very keen on my fingers. I smelled it repeatedly and there returned to my thoughts the frogs of the Arnewi, the cattle whom they venerated, the tenant's cat I had tried to murder, to say nothing of the pigs I had bred. Sure enough, this prophecy had a peculiar relevance to me, implying perhaps that I was not entirely fit for human companionship."

Dahfu explains that he captured Atti about a year or so ago to the great disapproval of the tribe, and especially the Bunam. There is supposed to be only one lion in the palace, "who is the late king. It is conceived the rest are mischief-makers and evildoers." The lion that is the late king must be captured and not left among the evildoer lions. "I am the object of a double criticism. Firstly I have not yet succeeded in obtaining Gmilo, my father-lion. Secondly it is said that because I keep Atti I am up to no good." He vows to capture Gmilo, and when Henderson wishes him luck the king grasps his arm -- surprising Henderson, because the king never does anything abruptly. The king goes on:
"Men of most powerful appetite have always been the ones to doubt reality the most. Those who could not bear that hopes should turn to misery, and loves to hatreds, and deaths and silences, and so on. The mind has a right to its reasonable doubts, and with every short life it awakens and sees and understands what so many other minds of equally short life span have left behind... That human creatures by pondering should be correct. this is what makes a fellow gasp. Yes, Sungo, this same temporary creature is a master of imagination."
Henderson is slow to grasp what Dahfu is getting at, but the king explains, "I am convinced you are a man of wide and spacious imagination, and that also you need ... You particularly need." And then Henderson tells him about the voice: "The form it actually takes is, I want, I want." And that the voice has never told him what it wants. The king is fascinated: "How much better I an interpret now why you succeeded with Mummah. Solely on the basis of that imprisoned want." Henderson is grateful for the recognition, and recalls an article in Scientific American about desert plants that bloom only once in forty or fifty years, and then only when they get the right among of rainfall. "It has to wash over them for a certain number of days. And then for the first time in fifty or sixty years you see lilies and larkspurs and such. Roses. Wild peaches." And the fact that the magazine was one Lily subscribes to brings her to mind. "To speak of Lily also moved me very greatly."

Then the king says that he wants Henderson's "patient confidence. Plus, at the very outset, I request you to believe that I did not leave the world and return to my Wariri with an aim of withdrawal." The king, like Henderson, has something he wants.  

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