By Charles Matthews

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

7. Herzog, by Saul Bellow, pp. 262-297

Herzog (Penguin Classics)From New York could not hold him now.... through ... "Good night, Moses." They shook hands.

This would be a good time to think about the narrative voice in Herzog. Who is it, exactly? The anonymous omniscient authorial voice? Or is it Herzog himself, telling the story in the third person? There is, of course, something creepy about speakers who refer to themselves in the third person. (Bob Dole, I'm looking at you.) But creepiness is not exactly alien to the character of Moses Herzog. This is, after all, a person whose first words in the novel were "If I am out of my mind, it's all right with me, thought Moses Herzog." We have just seen Herzog go out of his mind in the New York City courthouse.

So the question must be: If Herzog is the narrator, then how much can we trust what he's telling us? Can we really be sure that he is the aggrieved party, that he has been cuckolded by Madeleine and Gersbach, and that his daughter, June, is really in more jeopardy from them than she would be in Herzog's custody? Think back to the list of characteristics of paranoia that his psychiatrist drew up for him: "It read 'Pride, Anger, Excessive 'Rationality,' Homosexual Inclinations, Competitiveness, Mistrust of Emotion, Inability to Bear Criticism, Hostile Projections, Delusions.'" How many of those, which he applied to Madeleine, apply to Herzog?

Enough rhetorical questions. Herzog is now in Chicago, where his first stop is the house his father owned. We now learn of the existence of his father's second wife, Taube, whom Herzog refers to as "Tante Taube." She is "very ancient" and lives "quite alone in this small museum of the Herzogs." But she is shrewd enough to be a little wary of Moses, who finds himself contemplating a photograph of himself taken when he got his M.A. degree:
His younger face expressed the demands of ingenuous conceit. A man in years he then was, but in years only, and in his father's eyes stubbornly un-European, that is, innocent by deliberate choice. Moses refused to know evil. But he could not refuse to experience it. And therefore others were appointed to do it to him, and then to be accused (by him) of wickedness.
There is more than a whiff of paranoia in that observation.

We now learn something else that the narrator has neglected to tell us: Moses' father once threatened to shoot him. The cause of the conflict was his unstable behavior: the breakup with Daisy, the affairs with Sono and Madeleine, and the rumor that Moses was going to convert to Catholicism. He threatened to disinherit Moses and leave everything to Willie and Helen, and when he said, "Go. And don't come to my funeral," Moses replied, "All right, maybe I won't." Whereupon Father Herzog went and got his pistol and chased him from the house.
The old man in his near-demented way was trying to act out the manhood you should have had. Coming to his house with that Christianized smirk of the long-suffering son. Might as well have been an outright convert, like Mady. He should have pulled the trigger.
They would reconcile and quarrel again before his father's death.

Now Herzog tells Taube that he's come for something in his father's desk. Taube, sensing something, hesitates when he asks for the key, saying that it's hard to remember where it is. When he recalls that the key used to be in a music box, she claims that his father had taken it from there. But Herzog knows he has guessed right, and asks her to make some tea while he looks for it. He finds the music box in her room, and when he opens it "the cylinder turned within, the small spines picking out the notes from Figaro. Moses was able to supply the words:
Nel momento 
Della mia cerimonia 
Io rideva di me 
Senza saperlo."
A few words about this little verse, which means "At the moment of my ceremony I was laughing at myself without knowing it." But the curious thing about it is that it's not a tune that one would ever choose for a music box. It's not even a verse: It's the orchestra-accompanied recitative that precedes Figaro's Act 4 aria, "Aprite un po' quegli quegli occi." The words quoted above are taken from a longer sentence: "Nel momento della mia cerimonia ei godeva leggendo, e nel vederlo io rideva di me senza saperlo." A trick was being played on Count Almaviva, who had been trying to seduce Figaro's bride, Susanna, and Figaro had laughed to see the count reading the letter that supposedly arranged a meeting between the count and Susanna. But since then Figaro has come to believe that he is the butt of the joke, and Susanna is really meeting with the count. In the opera he goes on to sing a scathing aria about the unfaithfulness of women:

But if the little phrase is entirely inappropriate for a music box tune, it also evokes Herzog's central preoccupation: his cuckoldry by Valentine Gersbach. And Figaro's aria, in its bitter denunciation of women, echoes all of Herzog's troubles with them.

He finds the key and with it finds in the desk what he has been looking for: "Father Herzog's pistol. An old pistol, the barrel nickel-plated." It has two bullets in it, which is all he needs. He also takes some old rubles from pre-Revolutionary times that he and Willie had used as play money when they were kids. He has told Taube that he wants to give them to Marco. He returns to the kitchen, where Taube shrewdly sees through him again: "She muttered, 'You got a lot of trouble? Don't make it worser, Moshe." He assures her that everything's fine and takes a hurried leave.

He then drives to Madeleine's house.
What he would do when he got to Harper Avenue he hadn't yet decided. Madeleine had threatened him with arrest if he so much as showed his face near the house. The police had his picture, but that was sheer bunk, bunk and paranoia, the imperiousness of imaginary power that had once impressed him. 
He convinces himself that justice is on his side: "They had opened the way to justifiable murder. They deserved to die. He had a right to kill them. They would even know why they were dying; no explanation necessary." He parks around the corner from the house and walks down the alley behind it. From the back yard he can see Madeleine in the kitchen. He walks around the house to the bathroom window. Once, when he was putting up storm windows, he had stood on a concrete block to remove the screen before he discovered there wasn't a storm window that fit it. The concrete block is still there, and he stands on it as he watches Gersbach bathing June.

Gersbach speaks to June "not unkindly ... with authority, but affectionately.... Then Gersbach ordered her to stand, and she stooped slightly to allow him to wash her little cleft. Her father stared at this. A pang went through him, but it was quickly done." This moment of intimacy proves to be a turning point in Herzog's plan. The little girl leaves the bathroom and Gersbach stays to clean the tub:
Moses might have killed him now. He might have shot Gersbach as he methodically salted the yellow sponge rectangle with cleansing powder. There were two bullets in the chamber.... But they would stay there. Herzog clearly recognized that.... I seem to think because June looks like a Herzog, she is nearer to me than to them. But how is she near to me if I have no share in her life? Those two grotesque love-actors have it all.... As soon as Herzog saw the actual person giving an actual bath, the reality of it, the tenderness of such a buffoon to a little child, his intended violence turned into theater, into something ludicrous. He was not ready to make such a complete fool of himself.... Lingering in the alley awhile, he congratulated himself on his luck. His breath came back to him; and how good it felt to breathe! It was worth the trip.
So then he goes to see Phoebe Gersbach. And she contradicts everything that we have learned from Herzog about Valentine and Madeleine. She tells him that she and Valentine "had a quiet life till you and Madeleine descended on Ludeyville and forced yourself on me."
"You never understood a thing about him. He fell for you. Adored you. Tried to become an intellectual because he wanted to help you -- saw what a terrible thing you had done in giving up your respectable university position and how reckless you were, rushing out to the country with Madeleine. He thought she was ruining you and tried to set you on the right track again. He read all those books so you'd have somebody to talk to, out in the sticks, Moses. Because you needed help, praise, flattery, support, affection. It never was enough. You wore him out. It nearly killed him trying to back you up." 
She also denies that Valentine is living with Madeleine. He urges her to sue for divorce, to name Madeleine in the suit. "Together we could nail them." But Phoebe insists, "Valentine comes home every night. He's never out late. He should be here soon.... When I'm even a little delayed somewhere, why, he gets frantic with worry. He phones all over the city." And Herzog concludes, "With Gersbach she could still be a wife. He came home. She cooked, ironed, shopped, signed checks. Without him, she couldn't not exist, cook, make beds. The trance would break." He gives her a kiss that she can't avoid and leaves. And the novel is left on an uneasy balance between Herzog's view and Phoebe's, neither of which seems wholly adequate or free from delusions.

He goes to see Lucas Asphalter, who gives him a couch to sleep on for the night, and also arranges with Madeleine for Herzog to visit with June the next day. "She doesn't want to see you. Otherwise, you can visit with your little girl to your heart's content." Asphalter also reveals that he had written Herzog about a job revising the history entries in an encyclopedia. And he tells Herzog about a psychiatrist he has been seeing who has his patients imagine themselves dead and in a coffin. Herzog is skeptical: "Do you have to think yourself into a coffin and perform these exercises with death? As soon as thought begins to deepen it reaches death, first thing. Modern philosophers would like to recover the old-fashioned dread of death. The new attitude which makes life a trifle not worth anyone's anguish threatens the heart of civilization."

And he tells Asphalter about his letter-writing:
"I go after reality with language. Perhaps I'd like to change it all into language, to force Madeleine and Gersbach to have a Conscience. There's a word for you. I must be trying to keep tight the tensions without which human beings can no longer be called human. If they don't suffer, they've gotten away from me. And I've filled the world with letters to prevent their escape. I want them in human form, and so I conjure up a whole environment and catch them in the middle." 

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