By Charles Matthews

Friday, December 24, 2010

3. Herzog, by Saul Bellow, pp. 73-111

Herzog (Penguin Classics)From Dear Governor Stevenson, Herzog wrote.... through ... I don't think Madeleine is a bad mother, actually.
Still writing letters on the train, he starts one to Adlai Stevenson about wanting an intellectual to be president, then begins an apology to Ramona for his abrupt departure.
He exclaimed mentally, Marry me! Be my wife! End my troubles! -- and was staggered by his rashness, his weakness, and by the characteristic nature of such an outburst, for he saw how very neurotic and typical it was. We must be what we are. That is necessity. And what are we? Well, here he was trying to hold on to Ramona as he ran from her. And thinking that he was binding her, he bound himself, and the culmination of this clever goofiness might be to entrap himself.
What traps Herzog, of course, is his inability to understand women, or to understand why he doesn't understand them. And for many readers the real puzzle may be why Herzog feels so compelled to be married, when he has proved so bad at it. For here he is again, talking himself into marrying: "Ramona truly was a desirable wife. She was understanding. Educated. Well situated in New York. Money. And sexually, a natural masterpiece." On the other hand, "Herzog had unfinished business," which includes a letter to Zinka, whom we have not yet met.

And then his mind wanders off to letters to Nehru, and to Martin Luther King Jr.: "I for one wish to go on record recognizing the moral dignity of your group." Then to Chicago politicians -- like the train, Herzog's mind rushes on from subject to subject. "He was in a whirling ecstasy," and even starts a letter to himself:
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.

And his mind lights on Shapiro, whose book he is supposed to be reviewing. Shapiro is one of his intellectual colleagues and/or rivals: "He spoke in long sentences, Proustian he may have thought -- actually Germanic, and filled with incredible bombast." Shapiro and Madeleine were "stirred" by each other when he visited them at Ludeyville. "They found each other exceedingly stimulating."
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.
It's clear that Shapiro has engaged Herzog in an academic dick-measuring contest, and that Herzog has lost. "Madeleine, Herzog thought, became almost dangerously excited." Shapiro reminds him of Gersbach: "He was so emphatic in style, so impressive in his glances, looked so clever that you forgot inquire whether he was making sense." Of course, the other problem is that Shapiro is also also showing up Herzog by taking such a deep interest in Madeleine's intellect, which she accuses Herzog of not doing: "She complained that he never really listened to her. He wanted to shine all the time."

In his memories of this conversation, Herzog characteristically tries to escape from the unpleasantness by recalling the sound of the cicadas shrilling in the trees: "Herzog had seldom heard anything so beautiful as this massed continual harshness." He also concentrates on the physically unpleasant aspect of Shapiro, "a greedy eater" who, when they had shared a cubicle at school "used to chew his pumpernickel-and-onion sandwiches with an open mouth." Herzog also recalls that, later in the afternoon of his visit, Shapiro had "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 -- too stout to bend?"

The afternoon had also been made unpleasant by a visit from the Gersbachs. But the worst blow was when Shapiro urged Madeleine to go to the University of Chicago to pursue her studies -- precipitating their move from Ludeyville and the house Herzog had bought for them. "'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 though, and mind your own fucking business."

So his imaginary letter to Shapiro is larded with intellectual pretentiousness: "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." And so on. But eventually it comes down to his belief that he had been used by Madeleine as a stepping stone to her own intellectual career: "I understood that Madeleine's ambition was to take my place in the learned world. To overcome me.... Madeleine ... lured me out of the learned world, got in herself, slammed the door, and is still in there, gossiping about me."

In the imaginary letter, which he abandons because "it raised too many painful thoughts," he mentions that he had had his psychiatrist make a list of the characteristics of paranoia: "It read 'Pride, Anger, Excessive 'Rationality,' Homosexual Inclinations, Competitiveness, Mistrust of Emotion, Inability to Bear Criticism, Hostile Projections, Delusions." All of these he claims to have observed in Madeleine, which is why he wants to take custody of their daughter.

He starts a letter to his brother Alexander -- Shura -- asking for a loan.
Moses knew that the rich man would push a button and say to his secretary, "Send a check to screwloose Moses Herzog." His handsome stout white-haired brother in his priceless suit, vicuña coat, Italian hat, his million-dollar shave and rosy manicured fingers with big rings, looking out of his limousine with princely hauteur.
He also thinks of asking him to recommend a lawyer, since he had had a falling out with Sandor Himmelstein, whose couch he had slept on after the split with Madeleine. He begins a letter to Himmelstein, "a short man, misshapen from the loss of part of his chest. In Normandy, he always said.... It made Herzog uneasy, perhaps, that he had been discharged from the Navy owing to his asthma and never saw action." The stay at the Himmelsteins had not gone well, partly because of Himmelstein's teenage children, but mostly because Sandor and his wife, Beatrice, had sympathized with and defended Madeleine. "'I'll tell you,' said Sandor. 'It's your own frigging fault, too, if you want my opinion.... Because you're a highbrow and married a highbrow broad."

Himmelstein is the antithesis of Shapiro: loud, vulgar, anti-intellectual. Herzog's sense of isolation, of alienation, only deepens, even though Himmelstein insists that Herzog is "A human being! A mensch!" Bea Himmelstein assures Herzog that Madeleine loved him: "It was the middle-class female solidarity, defending a nice girl from charges of calculation and viciousness." Bea insists, "Basically, she must be a good person." Sandor maintains that Herzog will "come out of all this dreck smelling like a roast" -- he is given to malapropisms, describing Herzog as "baggard and gray-haired." But he tells Herzog that there's no way he can win custody of June from Madeleine in a jury trial.

Himmelstein rubs salt in the wound by praising Gersbach: "There's a man for you! That gimpy red-head knows what real suffering is. But he lives it up -- three men with six legs couldn't get around like that effing peg-leg." Herzog is furious at the advice not to sue for custody: "Madeleine put you up to that. She planted this, too. To keep me from suing." But Himmelstein insists that Herzog is a fool if he thinks he can win. In the letter Herzog tells him: "The more comfort you gave me, the closer I came to death's door. But what was I doing? Why was I in your house?" Then Himmelstein advises him to take out an insurance policy naming June as the beneficiary. He doesn't have to worry about Madeleine: "She'll be married soon. I took her to lunch at Fritzel's, and guys who haven't given Sandor H. the time of day for years came running with a hard-on, tripping over themselves. That includes the rabbi of my temple. She's some dish." And when Herzog protests that Madeleine is a "lunatic," Himmelstein shoots back:
"Who told you you were such a prince? Your mother did her own wash; you took boarders; your old man was a two-bit moonshiner. I know you Herzogs and your Yiches [Yiddish for "pedigree]. Don't give me that hoity-toity. I'm a Kike myself and got my diploma in a stinking night school."
Herzog and Himmelstein get in a furious fight. "He stood very close to Herzog, who was somewhat frightened by his shrillness and stared down, wide-eyed, at the face of his host." Herzog calls out for Beatrice to intervene, but she shuts the bedroom door. Finally, a shaken Herzog agrees to take out the insurance policy, which Himmelstein says will cost "four hundred and eighteen bucks." Having apparently calmed down, Himmelstein goes into the kitchen to make breakfast for Herzog, but throws another fit when he discovers dirty dishes in the sink: "He threw eggshells and orange rinds into the corner beside the garbage pail -- coffee grounds. He worked himself into a rage and began to smash dishes and glassware." Finally he calms down again and blames it all on his daughter Carmel: "I don't know how to handle her. I'm afraid the boys are getting into her pants already." He begs Herzog to "take an interest in her mental development.... Books -- ideas. Take her for a walk. Discuss with her. Please, Moses, I'm begging you!"

Himmelstein hits Herzog with a barrage of advice: rent a house in his neighborhood, hire a housekeeper who's "a good lay, too." He calls Herzog "my boy. My innocent kind-hearted boy." He kisses Herzog. "Moses felt the potato love. Amorphous, swelling, hungry, indiscriminate, cowardly potato love." And now, in the train, he calls himself a sucker: He gave Himmelstein money for an emergency and Himmelstein gave it to Madeleine to buy clothes. "Why did I become involved with him at all?"

The train reaches Woods Hole and he takes the ferry to Vineyard Haven where he catches a cab. "He had moments of sanity, but he couldn't maintain the balance for very long." When he reaches Libbie's house "he knew he had made a mistake." He is seething with resentment at what had been done to him. He wants to feel useful again: "Amorous Herzog, seeking love, and embracing his Wandas, Zinkas, and Ramonas, one after another? But this is a female pursuit. This hugging and heartbreak is for women. The occupation of a man is in duty, in use, in civility, in politics in the Aristotelian sense. Now then, why am I arriving here, in Vineyard Haven, on a holiday no less?"

He had helped Libbie "when her last husband, Erikson, went off his rocker and tried to stab her and take the gas himself.... But if she hadn't been so very beautiful, sexual, and obviously attracted to me, would I have been such a willing friend and helper?" Libbie comes out to meet him and introduces him to her husband, Arnold Sissler. Herzog admires their house and the view. "In the calm sky a helicopter steered toward Hyannis Port, where the Kennedys lived. Big doings there, once. The power of nations. What do we know about it? Moses felt a sharp pang at the thought of the late president."

Sissler shows him to his room and tells him that some neighbors are coming for dinner, including "One single lady. A singer. Miss Elisa Thurnwald. Divorced." He thanks him for helping Libbie. And he observes, "You got trouble, I can see that. Jumping out of your skin. You got a soul -- haven't you, Moses."

Moses lies down for a quarter of an hour, then writes a note: "Have to go back. Not able to stand kindness at this time." He slips out of the house, takes a cab to the airport where he flies to Boston and connects with a plane back to New York. "At eleven P.M. he was lying in his own bed, drinking warm milk and eating a peanut butter sandwich."

By his bed he has kept the letter from Geraldine Portnoy, Asphalter's student who revealed what was going on between Madeleine and Gersbach. He reads it now. In it, she too defends Madeleine: "I am not an enemy of Madeleine's. I sympathize with her, too. She is so vivacious, intelligent, and such a charmer, and has been so warm and frank for me. For quite a while, I admired her and as a younger woman was very pleased by her confidences. Herzog flushed. Her confidences would include his sexual disgrace." She notes that Asphalter had warned her "to look out for something dikey," which corresponds with the psychiatrist's odd inclusion of "Homosexual Inclinations" in his list of the symptoms of paranoia, "but then any intense feeling between members of the same sex is often, and unjustly, under suspicion."

She insists that "Madeleine is not bad with little June, basically." But then she reveals that when she came to sit for Madeleine, she found June locked in Gersbach's car. She has already noted that Gersbach "has an ambiguous position in this household." Gersbach had apparently quarreled with Madeleine and taken the child out to the car "and told her to play a while. He shut her up and went back in the house."

Herzog is enraged: "I'll kill him for that -- so help me, if I don't!" And he reads the rest of the letter which concludes, "I don't think Madeleine is a bad mother, actually."

It's possible at this point to wonder if Herzog isn't the only sane person in the novel.

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