By Charles Matthews

Monday, December 27, 2010

5. Herzog, by Saul Bellow, pp.164 -223

Herzog (Penguin Classics)From The telephone rang -- five, eight, ten peals.... through ... He stroked her thick hair and fell asleep.
The picture of Moses Herzog keeps getting filled in, bit by bit, after the previous section's account of his childhood.

Ramona telephones him. A woman who works in her shop had seen him at Grand Central, and she's curious about where he had gone, but Herzog manages to avoid telling her about his aborted flight from her to the Vineyard. She chides him for making her chase him down, and invites him to dinner. The news that her Aunt Tamara, her father's elderly sister who lives with her, will be out of town clinches the deal with its implied promise of sex.

Herzog now realizes how late in the day it is: "He was astonished that a whole day had been spent scrawling a few letters. And what ridiculous, angry letters!" As he gets ready to go to Ramona's he foresees (accurately) the meal she will prepare and the Egyptian music that she will play, and even imagines the conversation that will follow. "She transformed his miseries into sexual excitements and, to give credit where  it was due, turned his grief in a useful direction." And as he's washing up and getting dressed, he begins writing more letters: to the author of a monograph, "The Ethical Ideas of the American Business Community," to Dwight Eisenhower, to a former tutor who now edits a publication called Atlantic Civilization. He witnesses himself as he "communicates with the mighty of this world, or speaks words of understanding and prophecy, having arranged at the same time a comfortable and entertaining evening -- food, music, wine, conversation, and sexual intercourse."
The erotic must be admitted to its rightful place, at last, in an emancipated society which understands the relation of sexual repression to sickness, war, property, money, totalitarianism. Why, to get laid is actually socially constructive and useful, an act of citizenship.
Something in Herzog demands that everything in his life receive intellectual validation. But guilt, in the form of Daisy's mother, Polina, an "old Russian Jewish suffragette," arrives in his memory. Polina was "Tolstoian, puritanical," and she once chided him, "First one woman and then another, then another;. Where will it end? You can't abandon a wife, a son for these women -- whores." He has just asked himself of his various romances, "Were those my real career?"

And so he begins another letter, to Sono, telling her, "You were right about Madeleine, Sono. I shouldn't have married her. I should have married you." Sono had seen Madeleine only once and had told him afterward to be careful. Sono, who has returned to Japan, never mastered English. They communicated mostly in French, in which he tells her that his life has become a frightful nightmare. She was a student in Paris when the war broke out, so she stayed there and then went to study design in New York after the war ended. He recalls her three-room apartment with the high ceilings and the unmade bed where they made love:
Have all the traditions, passions, renunciations, virtues, gems, and masterpieces of Hebrew discipline and all the rest of it -- rhetoric, a lot of it, but containing true facts -- brought me to these untidy green sheets and this rippled mattress.... The Jews were strange to the world for a great length of teim, and now the world is being strange to them in return. 
Sono admired him for his intellectual seriousness: "'T'es philosophe. O mon philosophe, mon professeur d'amour. T'es très important. Je le sai.' She rated him higher than kings and presidents." Thoughts of her fill him with regret:
Sono asked for no great sacrifices. She did not want me to work for her, to furnish her house, support her children, to be regular at meals or to open charge accounts in luxury shops; she asked only that I should be with her from time to time. But some people are at war with the best things of life and pervert them into fantasies and dreams.
He had exploited her, making her delay returning to Japan, disobeying her father and not being there when her mother died. And in the end he betrayed her by falling in love with Madeleine, of whom she said, "Elle est méchante, Moso. Je suis pas jalouse. Je ferai amour avec un autre. Tu m'as laissée. Mais elle a les yeux très, très froids." Madeleine is wicked, she tells him. Sono isn't jealous, and she will make love with someone else. But Madeleine has very, very cold eyes.

"Ah, in the midst of such realizations, a man needs some company. Herzog once more set off on his visit to Ramona." What follows, as he leaves his apartment and takes the subway to Ramona's, is a wonderfully free-associative few pages delineating what goes through Herzog's head. It comes close to Leopold Bloom's peregrinations through Dublin, though without Joyce's verbal fireworks. A padlocked vending machine reminds him of bank robber Willie Sutton, to whom he begins a letter. This segues into a letter to Erwin Schrödinger:
In What Is Life? you say that in all of nature only man hesitates to cause pain. As destruction is the master method by which evolution produces new types, the reluctance to cause pain may express a human will to obstruct natural law. Christianity and its parent religion, a few short millennia, with frightful reverses ... The train had stopped, the door was already shutting when Herzog roused himself and squeezed through.... But reluctance to cause pain coupled with the necessity to devour ... a peculiar human trick is the result, which consists in admitting and denying evils at the same time. To have a human life, and also an inhuman life.... To bite, to swallow. At the same time to pity your food. To have sentiment. At the same time to behave brutally....
And so on until he is interrupted by reaching his station and confronting the sights, sounds and smells above ground.

Herzog is conscious of Ramona's previous affair with a man named George Hoberly, who has twice attempted suicide and is still stalking her, sending her gifts and even money. Ramona's Aunt Tamara, who had approved of Hoberly but accepts Herzog as a replacement, put the money in a savings account in Hoberly's name. Ramona opens the door to her apartment on the chain because of Hoberly.

Herzog has picked up some soot on his face and Ramona suggests he go freshen up. In the bathroom, he free-associates about free-associating, beginning a letter to Spinoza:
Thoughts not casually connected were said by you to cause pain. I find that is indeed the case. Random association, when the intellect is passive, is a form of bondage. Or rather, every form of bondage is possible then. It may interest you to know that in the twentieth century random association is believed to yield up the deepest secrets of the psyche. He realized he was writing to the dead. To bring the shades of great philosophers up to date. But then why shouldn't he write to the dead?  He lived with them as much as with the living -- perhaps more.
After peeking into Ramona's medicine cabinet, he joins her for a glass of Campari, and she puts on the Egyptian music he had anticipated. When she goes to the kitchen he walks into the parlor in Aunt Tamara's part of the apartment. He looks out of the window at the view of the Empire State Building and the Hudson, and tells himself that "this asylum was his for the asking, he believed. Then why didn't he ask? Because today's asylum might be the dungeon of tomorrow."

Moreover, Ramona, like Sono, took him seriously as "a philosophe who cared only about the very highest things -- creative reason, how to render good for evil, and all the wisdom of old books." Ramona "thought she could restore order and sanity to his life, and if she did that it would be logical to marry her.... And it would be a union that really unified. Tables, beds, parlors, money, laundry and automobile, culture and sex knit into one web. Everything would at last make sense, was what she meant."

Ramona finds him in her aunt's "Czarist museum." They go in to dinner, which is pretty much exactly has Herzog has imagined it would be. She asks him what he has been doing, and he retreats in vagueness, partly because he hasn't been doing anything of consequence. She asks if he was running away from her when he was spotted on the train. "Not from you. But I suppose I was running." She says he's "still a little afraid of" her, and he admits to "Confused. Trying to be careful." She replies, "You're used to difficult women." (Which implies that she isn't one.) "To struggle. Perhaps you like it when they give you a bad time." He parries with "Every treasure is guarded by dragons," and asks if she minds if he loosens his collar.

He retreats from this little dance into intellectualizing it:
To look for fulfillment in another, in interpersonal relationships, was a feminine game. And the man who shops from woman to woman, though his heart aches with idealism, with the desire for pure love, has entered the female realm.
She assures him once again, "You look for domineering women. I'm trying to tell you that you've met a different type in me." They grow a little edgy with each other as they explore their former relationships, he insisting that he was simply trying to please Madeleine, to accommodate her. "I thought I had entered into a secret understanding with life to spare me the worst. A perfectly bourgeois idea." But she rejects this: "There's nothing so ordinary about marrying a woman like Madeleine or having a friend like Valentine Gersbach."

He explains that Gersbach "was only a one-legged radio announcer" but "Then Madeleine and I arrived, and a glamorous life began in Ludeyville." He had naively trusted Gersbach when Madeleine took trips to Boston "to be alone and think things over." "I asked Valentine to go and reason with her." Madeleine wrote letters calling him "overbearing, infantile, demanding, sardonic, and a psychosomatic bully" -- the last because when he got sick she claimed it was a way of dominating her. But the crowning blow came when Madeleine phoned Gersbach to bring her some things, and one of them was her diaphragm.

Ramona is astonished, the more so when Herzog tells her that when he asked Madeleine if she was sleeping with Gersbach, she claimed that he was "the brother I never had, and that's all," and that he was not her type because of the stink he left in the bathroom: "'Do you think I could give myself to a man whose shit smells like that!' That was her answer." In response to Ramona's horror, he says, "Madeleine wasn't just a wife, but an education. A good, steady, hopeful, rational, diligent, dignified, childish person like Herzog who thinks human life is a subject, like any other subject, has to be taught a lesson." He says that what Ramona calls "this stupidity" went on for several years. "Madeleine and I got together again, a while after this. And then she and Valentine ran my life for me. I didn't know a thing about it. All the decision were made by them -- where I lived, where I worked, how much rent I paid."

Ramona is so upset by this conversation that she breaks it off, and they wash dishes together because "As even Ramona's fingers were sexual, Herzog wanted to see how she would do ordinary tasks." He tells her that he hasn't decided whether to stay in New York or go to Chicago to keep an eye on his daughter. She urges him to stay: "Chicago would be a mistake. You'd only suffer." He replies, "Perhaps, and suffering is another bad habit."

After they finish the dishes, they are beginning to make love when the telephone rings. She doesn't answer it: "it's George Hoberly. He must have seen you arrive, and he wants to spoil things for us." She switches off the phone, and he reflects on the irony of supplanting Hoberly the way Gersbach supplanted him: "I think it's that while in New York I am the man inside, in Chicago the man in the street is me." She assures him that he's nothing like Hoberly: "You aren't weak, whatever else. You have strength...."
Herzog nodded. Once more he was being lectured. And he didn't really mind it. That he needed straightening out was only too obvious. And who had more right than a woman who gave him asylum, shrimp, wine, music, flowers, sympathy, gave him room, so to speak, in her soul, and finally the embrace of her body? ... She was a clever woman and, even better, a dear woman. She had a good heart. And she had on black lace underpants. He knew she did.
Ramona leaves him for "a few minutes," and Herzog, in a peculiar pre-coital mood, goes through one of his internal rambles, including a critique of "a society that was no community and devalued the person. Owing to the multiplied power of numbers which made the self negligible. Which spent military biions against foreign enemies but would not pay for order at home. Which permitted savagery and barbarism in its own great cities." He frets about his sexual limitations: "Why was he such a Quaker in love-making? He said that after his diappointments of recent date he was glad enough to perform at all, simple missionary style." He ponders marriage, and its superiority to "the disorder and loneliness of bachelorhood." He thinks about going into the flower business with Ramona: "More contact with life, meeting customers. The privations of scholarly isolation had been too much for a man of his temperament." He wonders if he will finish his book: "The chapter on 'Romantic Moralism' had gone pretty well, but the one called 'Rousseau, Kant, and Hegel' had him stopped cold."

But then Ramona appears, naked to the hips, wearing "the black lace underthing" and three-inch spiked heels.

Herzog wakes only once in the night: "a jet plane -- something screaming with great power at a terrible height." He gets out of bed "prepared at once to write another message -- perhaps to George Hoberly. But when the noise of the plane passed the thought went, too.... He stroked her thick hair and fell asleep."

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