By Charles Matthews

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

6. Herzog, by Saul Bellow, pp. 224-261

Herzog (Penguin Classics)From He took Ramona to her shop after breakfast.... through ... Some kill, then cry. Others, not even that.
Herzog and Ramona indulge in a public display of affection in front of her store. "Had he had trouble enough, and paid his debt to suffering and earned the right to ignore what anyone might think?" Still, the experience leads him to some soul-searching when he returns home: What, at the age of forty-seven, "did he have to show for himself at the bar of judgment? He had had two wives; there were two children; he had once been a scholar, and in the closet his old valise was swelled like a scaly crocodile with his uncompleted manuscript," whose thesis had been published two years ago by a Berkeley professor, "confounding, overwhelming, stunning everyone in the field, as Herzog had meant to do."

He is spurred to do two things: write to Daisy that he would, after all, visit Marco at camp on Parents' Day, and "have a talk with lawyer Simkin. Immediately." He telephones Harvey Simkin for advice about his daughter, telling Simkin that he doesn't necessarily want to sue for custody but that he's concerned about her  welfare. Simkin suggests a private investigator, but warns that they are very expensive. He also suggests that Herzog "Get a clean-cut gentile lawyer from one of the big firms. Don't have a lot of Jews yelling in the court. Give your case dignity." Simkin has a history with Madeleine and her family, having been "like an uncle to her" during her neglected bohemian childhood. But Madeleine turned against him when he disapproved of her conversion to Catholicism. He also claims that Madeleine "injured a little cousin of mine, an epileptic girl, a sickly immature, innocent frail mouse of a woman who couldn't take care of herself," but when Herzog presses for details, Simkin only says, "That's another long story."

Herzog says, "I often think, if she died I'd get my daughter back. There are times when I now I could look at Madeleine's corpse without pity," but Simkin's reaction to the remark makes him cautious about saying more. "He wants me to say that I actually feel capable of mudering them both. Well, it's true. I've tested it in my mind with a gun, a knife, and felt no horror, no guilt. None." But he decides not to say anything of the sort to the lawyer. Simkin explains that he would have to prove that Madeleine and Gersbach "have an adulterous relationship to which the child is exposed." Merely being sexually intimate is not enough. "But if the fucking is at home and the child exposed to it, the judicial attitude is different. Damage to the little psyche." He also warns Herzog that the case would attract the attention of the Chicago papers. But Herzog thinks that Gersbach, who has become a local celebrity, would be more damaged by the publicity than he would be.

Herzog again feels himself "in the grip of that eccentric, dangerous force that had been capturing him," and he opens up to Simkin, admitting, "I sent him a telegram from the airport as I was leaving. I wanted to say that 'd kill him on sight. But Western Union doesn't accept such messages. So I wired five words -- Dirt Enters At The Heart. The first letters spell death." Simkin backs off from Herzog's increasingly obsessive talk, however. His client, he says, is waiting for him.  He gives Herzog the phone number of a cousin who works in the district attorney's office, and says he'll meet with Herzog later that day.

Left on his own again, Herzog tries to pull himself together, but he can't shake the obsession.
What really is on my mind? Probably this: shall I put those two on the stand under oath, torture them, hold a blowtorch to their feet? Why? They have a right to each other; they seem even to belong together. Why, let them alone. But what about justice? --- Justice! Look who wants justice! Most of mankind has lived and died without -- totally without it. People by the billions and for ages sweated, gypped, enslaved, suffocated, bled to death, buried with no more justice than cattle. But Moses E. Herzog, at the top of his lungs, bellowing with pain and anger has to have justice.
While he gets dressed, he thinks again about his other decision of the day: to visit Marco at camp. It would relieve Daisy of a burden, because she has been dealing with her mother's descent into senility. Polina "had got it into her head that Moses had divorced Daisy because she was a streetwalker" and had been badgering her to stop prostituting herself. Daisy, of course, in no way resembles a streetwalker: "An utterly steady, reliable woman, responsible to the point of grimness, Daisy was a statistician for the Gallup Poll." Finally, Polina had been sent to "a home for the aged somewhere on Long Island. So this is how the strongest characters end!"

He takes a cab to the courthouse, and accidentally gets the same cabbie who had driven him and Ramona to her shop that morning. The driver, Teodoro Valdepenas, is full of admiration for Herzog because of the ardor that Herzog and Ramona had demonstrated on parting. "When I get old I'm going to be doing just like you," he tells Herzog.

At the courthouse he has time to kill, so he takes a seat in a courtroom and watches a magistrate arraign a black man accused of assault and a young German who had been lured into making a pass at a plainclothes detective in a men's room. Herzog "opposed this perverse development in law enforcement. Sexual practices of any sort, provided they didn't disturb the peace, provided they didn't injure minor children, were a private matter. Except for the children. Never children. There one must be strict." That case is followed by a male prostitute accused of attempted robbery. Herzog realizes that he has been watching all of this attentively
with his look of intelligent composure, of charm and sympathy -- like the old song, he thought, the one that goes, "There's flies on me, there's flies on you, but there ain't no flies on Jesus." A man who looked so fine and humane would be outside police jurisdiction, immune to lower forms of suffering and punishment. 
He looks in his pocket for a dime for the pay phone, and stands up to reach the coins. "As soon as he was on his feet, he realized that there was something the matter with him." He wonders if he's having a heart attack, and he hurries out of the courtroom, gasping for air. In a few minutes he feels better: "The burning within his chest subsided. It had felt like swallowing a mouthful of poison.... To see people in the hands of the law agitated him."
Simkin seemed to see him as he saw that sickly innocent girl, the epileptic cousin whom Madeleine supposedly injured. Young Jews, brought up on moral principles as Victorian ladies were on pianoforte and needlepoint, though Herzog. And I have come here today for a look at something different. That evidently is my purpose.
He remembers when he was six or seven, he had asked his mother how Adam had been created from dust. She had taken him to a window and rubbed the palm of her hand, "rubbed until something dark appeared on the deep-lined skin, a particle of what certainly looked to him like earth. 'You see? It's true.'" And then he remembers when she died. He was sixteen, and his father worked nights. Herzog would sit in the kitchen reading books he had bought "out of the thirty-nine-cent barrel at Walgreen's -- The World as Will and Idea and The Decline of the West." He was reading the Spengler when his mother came from the sickroom to scold him for sitting up so late. She "thought I would need my eyesight and my strength on a certain day of reckoning." A few days later she lost the ability to speak, and "lifted up her hands and showed him her fingernails. They were blue. As he stared, she slowly began to nod her head up and down as if to say, 'That's right, Moses, I am dying now.'" He remembers how his brother Willie cried at the funeral. "Moses shook his head to be rid of such thoughts. The more he thought, the worse his vision of the past."

He telephones Wachsel, the man whose number Simkin had given him, but Wachsel hadn't heard from Simkin. He tells Herzog that Simkin is in a trial somewhere in the building and gives him some room numbers. Herzog goes into a courtroom where the trial of a couple accused of killing their three-year-old child is being held. He listens to one of the witnesses, who had known the defendant and had tried to be kind to the child.
I fail to understand! thought Herzog, as this good man, jowls silently moving, got off the stand. I fail to ... but this is the difficulty with people who spend their lives in humane studies and therefore imagine once cruelty has been described in books it is ended. Of course he really knew better -- understood that human beings would not live so as to be understood by the Herzogs. Why should they?
The description of the death of the child affects him even more. "Again he wondered if he was going to come down with sickness. Or was it the terror of the child that had gotten into him?" As he hurries from the courtroom, tasting "an acrid fluid in his mouth that had to be swallowed," he bumps into a woman walking with a cane. "She did not speak at all but was not ready to let him off. Her eyes, prominent, severe, still kept him standing, identifying him thoroughly, fully, deeply, as a fool."

He tries to focus on the murdered child, but "Herzog experienced nothing but his own human feelings, in which he found nothing of use."
And what was there in modern, post ... post-Christian America to pray for? Justice -- justice and mercy? And pray away the monstrousness of life, the wicked dream it was. He opened his mouth to relieve the pressure he felt. He was wrung, and wrung again, and wrung again, again.

No comments:

Post a Comment