By Charles Matthews

Saturday, November 13, 2010

8. Henderson the Rain King, by Saul Bellow, pp. 220-254

Henderson the Rain King17-18
"We talked and talked and talked, and I can't pretend that I completely understood him." That Henderson is taxed by the king's ideas a sign of Dahfu's intellectual superiority, or is it a warning that he's not to be fully trusted? For sometimes the king sounds an awful lot like a New Age guru whose ideas are not fully anchored to this Earth:
He had some kind of conviction about the connection between insides and outsides, especially as applied to human beings.... And what he was engrossed by was a belief in the transformation of human material, that you could work either way, either from the rind to the core or from the core to the rind; the flesh influencing the mind, the mind influencing the flesh, back again to the mind, back once more to the flesh.
So the reader may be pardoned in approving Henderson's question, "Are you really and truly sure it's like that, Your Highness?"

In the end, Dahfu gives Henderson some of the books and journals he had brought with him from medical school. "Dahfu and Horko had loaded it on the donkey when they came over the mountains from the coast. Afterward the beast was butchered and fed to the lioness." But Henderson is not quite up to the task of reading. "Firstly I was afraid to find out that the king might be a crank." And Henderson is "a nervous and emotional reader. I hold a book up to my face and it takes only one good sentence to turn my brain into a volcano."  Reading in one of his father's books, "The forgiveness of sin is perpetual" was like "being hit in the head with a rock.... I didn't want to hear any more than that about sin. Just as it was, it was perfect, and I might have been afraid the guy would spoil it when he went on."

[Let me interrupt here for an observation: Those last two sentences remind me -- in tone, cadence and diction -- of Mark Twain. And it's not the first time I've been reminded of Twain in this novel. "All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn," as we know, because Hemingway told us so. More on this later.]

Characteristically, Henderson is daunted by his hunger to have it all: "When I started to read something about France, I realized I didn't know anything about Rome, which came first, and then Greece, and then Egypt, going backward all the time to the primitive abyss. As a matter of fact, I didn't know enough to read one single book." But he makes a stab at one of the journals Dahfu had given him because the first paragraph of an article by a man named Scheminsky looks easy. He begins to skim when he encounters the term Obersteiner's allochiria. (Allochiria is a neurological disorder in which a stimulus on one side of the body is felt on the opposite side.)  But he manages to glean that "Most of these articles had to do with the relation between body and brain ... and a few of the descriptions were absolutely dandy. What I kept thinking was, 'I'd better scour, brighten, freshen up the old intelligence, and understand what the man is driving at, for my life may depend on it.'"

That conclusion is reinforced when he is paid a visit by Horko, the Bunam, and the man, clad in black leather, who had pointed the way to the village. "These three made way to let a fourth person enter, an elderly woman who had the look of a widow." This is Dahfu's mother, Yasra. And they have come "to get me to reveal about the lioness and then also to use any influence I might have with the king. He was in trouble, and very seriously, over Atti." They are upset at the king's failure to capture Gmilo, the lion they believe to be Dahfu's father. "They claimed that the lioness was seducing Dahfu, and made him incapable f doing his duty, and it was she who kept Gmilo away."

Finally, "the Bunam signaled to his assistant by snapping his fingers, and the black-leather man drew from his rag cloak an object which I mistook at first for a shriveled eggplant.... This was the head of one of the lion-women -- a sorceress. She had gone out and had trysts with lions. She had poisoned people and bewitched them." She had been captured and strangled. "But she had come back. These people made no bones about it, but said she was the very same lioness that Dahfu had captured. She was Atti."
I could not take my eyes from the shriveled head with its finished, listless look. It spoke to me as that creature had done in Banyules at the aquarium after I had put Lily on the train. I thought, as I had then, in the dim watery stony room, "This is it! The end!"

That night, Henderson startles Romilayu by joining him in prayer:
"Oh, you ... Something," I said, "you Something because of whom there is not Nothing. Help me to do Thy will. Take off my stupid sins. Untrammel me. Heavenly Father, open up my dumb heart and for Christ's sake preserve me from unreal things. Oh, Thou who tookest me from pigs, let me not be killed over lions. And forgive my crimes and nonsense and let me return to Lily and the kids."
The next morning he goes to see Dahfu and asks to talk to him privately. When he takes the king away from the women who are entertaining him, "some attacked me with shrill voices ... while several shrieked, 'Sdudu lebah!' Lebah -- I had already picked the word up -- was Wariri for lion. They were warning him about Atti; they were charging him with desertion." Since the king's life depends in part on his ability to service his wives, Henderson is right to be concerned.

But when Henderson tells him, "In case you don't know it you are in a hell of a position," Dahfu says he knows. He calls the display of the shrunken head "the well-known fear business. We will withstand it." He insists, "I will capture Gmilo and the trouble will entirely cease. No one will dispute or contest me then. There are scouts daily for Gmilo. As a matter of fact reports have come of him. I can assure you a capture very soon."

Meanwhile, Henderson has realized that the king is taking him to see Atti again. But he has grown so dependent on his friendship with Dahfu that although he expresses his fear, he backs off when the king says, "If it is positively beyond you we may as well exchange goodbye and go separate ways." Henderson realizes that "unless I understood about lions, no deepening of the friendship was possible." The threat of losing the king's friendship is too strong. "The threat was exceedingly painful also to him. Yes, I saw that he suffered almost as hard as I did. Almost. Because who can suffer like me? I am to suffering what Gary is to smoke. One of the world's biggest operations."

Dahfu then explains what he can learn from the lion: "First she is unavoidable. Test it, and you will find she is unavoidable. And this is what you need, as you are an avoider.... She will force the present moment upon you. Second, lions are experiencers. But not in haste. They experience with deliberate luxury. The poet says, 'The tigers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction.' Let us embrace lions also in the same view.... She has much to teach you." Henderson is prodded forward by the possibility that he might change.

His terror doesn't fade when he enters the den with Dahfu, but he follows the king's instructions, even to the point of going down on all fours. "I understood that he wanted me to imitate or dramatize the behavior of lions," but he's not certain to what end. "I intend to loosen you up, Sungo," the king tells him, "because you are so contracted." Each of his forefathers, he says, "absorbed lion into himself," and he wants Henderson to do likewise. Atti, meanwhile, stretched out on the platform, "with crossed paws, only occasionally looked at us." The king chides Henderson for his reluctance: "Is this the Henderson who flew half around the world because he had a voice which said I want? And now, because his friend Dahfu extends a remedy to him, falls down?"

Eventually, Henderson gets into it:
And so I was the beast. I gave myself to it, and all my sorrow came out in the roaring. My lungs supplied the air but the note came from my soul. The roaring scalded my throat and hurt the corners of my mouth and presently I filled the den like a bass organ pipe. This was where my heart had sent me, with its clamor.... I had claws, and hair, and some teeth, and I was bursting with hot noise, but when all this had come forth, there was still a remainder. That last thing was my human longing.
The king praises Henderson, and gives him a break by shutting Atti away in her other room. But Henderson begins to come down from the experience. He realizes that he isn't the lion Dahfu wants him to be: "'It's the pigs,' I suddenly realized, 'the pigs! Lions for him, pigs for me. I wish I was dead.'"

But Dahfu is still full of ideas, particularly about the power of the imagination. "And then he began to repeat what a procession of monsters the human imagination had created.... 'Think of what there could be instead by different imaginations. What gay, brilliant types, what merriment types, what beauties and goodness, what sweet cheeks or noble demeanors. Ah, ah, ah, what we could be! Opportunity calls to rise to summits. You should have been such a summit, Mr Henderson-Sungo.'" Henderson had talked to him about "grun-to-molani. What could be grun-to-molani upon a background of cows?" Dahfu says, dismissing the commonplace ambitions of the Arnewi. But Henderson is only reminded of pigs again, and of his impulsive,  mocking decision to raise pigs in his conversation with Nicky Goldstein. He recalls when Frances protested against the pigs in the driveway and he told her not to harm them. "Those animals have become a part of me."

He begins to examine his body and find piggishness in it. "It seemed to me that I couldn't even breathe without grunting." And Dahfu notices "the peculiar noise" he is making. He tells Henderson, "You show the work of a powerful and original although blockaded imagination." For Dahfu the imagination is supreme:
"All human accomplishment has this same origin, identically. Imagination is a force of nature. Is this not enough to make a person full of ecstasy? Imagination, imagination, imagination! It converts to actual. It sustains, it alters, it redeems!... What Homo sapiens imagines, he may slowly convert himself to. Oh, Henderson, how glad I am that you are here. I have longed for somebody to discuss with. A companion mind. You are a godsend to me."

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