By Charles Matthews

Friday, December 31, 2010

9. Herzog, by Saul Bellow, pp. 336-371

Herzog (Penguin Classics)From He reached his country place the following afternoon....
A battered Herzog goes to Ludeyville and the old house.
Herzog's folly! Monument to his sincere and loving idiocy, to the unrecognized evils of his character, symbol of his Jewish struggle for a solid footing in White Anglo-Saxon Protestant America ("The land was ours before we were the land's," as that sententious old man declared at the Inaguration"). The "sententious old man" was Robert Frost, who had written a poem for the the inauguration of John F. Kennedy but, unable to read it in the glare and the chilling wind, instead recited his poem "The Gift Outright."
The land was ours before we were the land's.
She was our land more than a hundred years
Before we were her people. She was ours
In Massachusetts, in Virginia,
But we were England's, still colonials,
Possessing what we still were unpossessed by,
Possessed by what we now no more possessed.
Something we were withholding made us weak
Until we found out that it was ourselves
We were withholding from our land of living,
And forthwith found salvation in surrender.
Such as we were we gave ourselves outright
(The deed of gift was many deeds of war)
To the land vaguely realizing westward,
But still unstoried, artless, unenhanced,
Such as she was, such as she would become. 
Sententious, yes, but also possessing the usual Frostian ambiguities. And Herzog, too, is possessed by his possession, which is beginning to go back to the earth. He explores the house, finding dead birds in the toilet, owls in the light fixtures, and lingering traces of Madeleine and Gersbach: "The shower stall, for Gersbach's convenience -- the Gersbachs had no shower in Barrington -- was thoughtfully equipped with a handrail. 'If we're going to put it in, let's make it so Valentine can use it,' Mady had said. Ah well -- Moses shrugged."

But despite these traces of the past, Herzog finds himself liberated from it: 
He was surprised to feel such contentment ... contentment? Whom was he kidding, this was joy! For perhaps the first time he felt what it was to be free from Madeleine. Joy! His servitude was ended, and his heart released from its grisly heaviness and encrustation. 
Of course, we've seen Herzog in moods like this before, and an indication that he hasn't really been fully liberated shows itself in the fact that he starts writing letters. The first one is to "My dear sage and imbecilic Edvig," whom Madeleine had cited in the courtroom as an authority on Herzog's violent tendencies. He writes another to Ramona, but decides to conceal his whereabouts and have Asphalter post it from Chicago. Among other things in the letter, he contemplates the issue of suicide: 
Since the last question, also the first one, the question of death, offers us the interesting alternatives of disintegrating ourselves by our own wills in proof of our "freedom," or the acknowledging that we owe a human life to this waking spell of existence, regardless of the void. (After all, we have no positive knowledge of that void.)

Should I say all this to Ramona? Some women think that earnestness is wooing. She'll want a child. She'll want to breed with a man who talks to her like this. 
Yes, possibly a woman like Ramona would. He writes another letter to Marco, promising to come for Parents' Day, but including a grisly reference to Amundsen's Antarctic expedition which succeeded because they were able to butcher the weaker dogs and feed them to the stronger. And he puts them in an envelope to Asphalter, telling him he hopes he's recovered from his depression, but withholding his own state of mind: "But if I am out of my mind, it's all right with me." 

Another letter is drafted to Professor Mermelstein, whose book had made "a good deal of my work superfluous (Wallace and Darwin?" Again, he spirals off into reflections on suffering: 
I venture to say Kierkegaard meant that truth has lost its force with us and horrible pain and evil must teach it to us again, the eternal punishments of Hell will have to regain their reality before mankind turns serious once more. I do not see this. Let us set aside the fact that such convictions in the mouths of safe, comfortable people playing at crisis, alienation, apocalypse and desperation, make me sick. We must get it out of our heads that this is a doomed time, that we are waiting for the end, and the rest of it, mere junk from fashionable magazines. Things are grim enough without these shivery games.... More commonly suffering breaks people, crushes them, and is simply unilluminating.
And then comes a startling statement: "Thus began his final week of letters." There's something ominous in this: Herzog as we have known him is unimaginable without his letters. The statement can be taken to mean that he is cured and no longer needs to write the letters. But it can also mean that he dies. 

He posts none of the letters he has yet to write, even the ones to the living. There is a brief one to Madeleine and Gersbach, which while writing he recalls that Madeleine would look at her reflection in a knife blade while putting on lipstick in a restaurant. He tells Gersbach, "Enjoy her -- rejoice in her. You will not reach me through her, however. I know you sought me in her flesh. But I am no longer there." He writes to some anonymous "Sirs" about the rats in Panama City, urging them to try birth-control chemicals instead of poison, which only weeds out the weaker rats. And a longer one to Friedrich Nietszche, telling him, "Humankind lives mainly upon perverted ideas. Perverted, your ideas are no better than those of the Christianity you condemn." Another letter to the dead is addressed to a Dr. Morgenfruh, with whom he once played billiards in Madison, Wisconsin. "Until Willie Hoppe arrived to demonstrate, and put us to shame." 

He wanders through the house, finding more traces of his life there with Madeleine, including their wedding announcement and photographs -- all of him: "Madeleine had left those behind, taking the others. Intersting -- her attitude." He also finds the little piano they had bought, and decides to paint it green and send it to June in Chicago. He sits under the trees and contemplates the solitude of the place: "The patrimony of his children -- a sunken corner of Massachusetts for Marco, the little piano for June painted a loving green by her solicitous father. That, too, like most other things, he would probably botch. But at least he would not die here, as he had once feared." He once thought that he might die suddenly of a heart attack, and contemplated picking a spot there to be buried in. "Now he reflected that Madeleine would have had him cremated." 

He starts another letter to a Dr. Waldemar Zozo: "You, Sir, were the Navy psychiatrist who examined me in Norfolk, Va., about 1942, and told me I was unusually immature. I knew that, but professional confirmation caused me deep anguish." The diagnosis has haunted him, and he tells Dr. Zozo that he had seen him again last spring in the Primitive Art Museum in New York. Ramona was with him, and she told him that Zozo was a rich collector of African antiquities. "I recognized with joy how I abhorred you. It sprang fresh from my mind after 22 years!

"His mind took one of its odd jumps," and he starts to draft a version of the Iliad in which the characters are all insects, as a gift to June. But he quickly abandons the project. He wanders in the forest for a while, writes more in his diary, and then realizes that his eccentricities will be alarming to his brother Will. 
If you wear a wise look, he warned himself, you'll be in trouble, and fast. No one can bear such looks any longer, not even your brother. Therefore, watch your face! Certain expressions burn people up, and especially the expression of wisdom, which can lead you straight to the loony bin. You will have earned it!

The days pass. He paints the piano, he eats from the store of food in the house, he sleeps in the hammock. One morning he looks at the calendar and tries to figure out what day it must be. "His beard informed him better than his brain. His bristles felt like four days' growth, and he thought it best to be clean-shaven when Will arrived." 

Which Will does, driving his Cadillac up the hill to the house. Moses thinks he looks tired and needs something to eat, and offers to open a can of tuna for him. Will replies, "You're the one that doesn't seem to have eaten." But as they wander around the house, "Will showed him great politeness. He did not confront him harshly with fundamentals, as Shura would have done." But Moses is on his guard, especially when Will sensibly informs him that it would cost more than the piano is worth to ship it to June in Chicago. 
"Yes ... ? Only I like this color." This apple, parrot green, the special Ludeyville color. Moses' eyes were fixed upon his work with a certain inspired persistency. He was near a point of open impulsiveness, and some peculiarity might now dart forth. He couldn't allow that to happen. Under no circumstances must he utter a single word that might be interpreted as irrational. Things already looked bad enough.
And sure enough, Will carefully broaches the topic: "I'd like to see you less agitated. You must get some food and sleep. Probably a little medical care. A few days in the hospital, taking it easy." 

Moses' response is, "Will, I'm excited, not sick." He insists that he has to be at Marco's camp on the sixteenth, though he also admits that back in New York, he had thought about going to the hospital. But when Will reveals that he has already had his doctor phone a hospital in Pittsfield to arrange for his admittance, "'No,' said Moses, still shaking his head. 'No. Definitely.'" He insists that he is no more insane than their father: "Was it any more fantastic for me to have these wives, children, to move to a place like this than for Papa to have been a bootlegger? We never thought he was mad." And he recalls how their father had labels printed up for the booze he made: "White Horse, Johnnie Walker, Haig and Haig." And the children would paste them on the bottles, picking out their favorite labels: "My favorite was White Horse." 

He suggests that Will drive him into the town, he'll have the lights and the telephone turned on at the house, and he'll hire Mrs. Tuttle to clean up the place. So Will agrees, and at Tuttle's store he learns that Ramona has been trying to get in touch with him. She is in Barrington, and he telephones her. She says she's there visiting friends, and that "Everybody in Barrington says if you want things done in Ludeyville, call Tuttle," which is how she tracked him down. 
Will stood beside the booth, listening. Earnest, worried, his dark eyes discreetly appealed to Moses to make no more mistakes. I can't promise that, thought Moses. I can only tell him that I don't contemplate putting myself in the hands of Ramona or any woman, at this time. 
So he has Will drive him into Barrington where they meet Ramona. Moses invites her to have dinner with him. "Come up at six. We'll eat at seven and you can get back to your party in plenty of time." She agrees, and Moses goes into a store to buy some swordfish steaks. 

Will takes him back to Ludeyville and they say goodbye: 
"Am I leaving you in good hands, Mose?"

"Is it safe to go, you mean? I think you can, with confidence. Ramona's not so bad."  

"Bad? What do you mean? She's stunning. But so was Madeleine.  

"I'm not being left in anyone's hands." 
So Will leaves, and Mrs. Tuttle drives Moses back to the house, where the lights are turned on. Mrs. Tuttle starts to clean up. Moses goes out and picks flowers in the woods. 
He turned his dark face toward the house again. He went around and entered from the front, wondering what further evidence of his sanity, besides refusing to go to the hospital, he could show. Perhaps he'd stop writing letters. Yes, that was what was coming, in fact. The knowledge that he was done with these letters. Whatever had come over him during these last months, the spell, really seemed to be passing, really going.... Walking over notes and papers, he lay down on his Recamier couch. As he stretched out, he took a long breath, and then he lay, ... listening to the steady scratching of Mrs. Tuttle's broom. He wanted to tell her to sprinkle the floor. She was raising too much dust. In a few minutes he would call down to her, "Damp it down, Mrs. Tuttle. There's water in the sink." But not just yet. At this time he had no messages for anyone. Nothing. Not a single word.  
There are those who think that Herzog dies here. The ending is too peaceful, too promisingly conclusive for the manic Moses Herzog. But that conclusion is really irrelevant: For the reader, all characters are dead at the end of the fictions in which they appear -- they cease to act except in our imaginations. If we are optimists, we may conclude that Herzog is, despite what he told Will, in the good hands of two women: Mrs. Tuttle and Ramona. If pessimists, we may conclude that Herzog will find another way to screw things up. But that would be another novel, another letter from Herzog, which is what this novel is. All we can safely say about the ending is that Herzog is, at least for the moment, at rest.

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