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Bloom’s Gift

Ravelstein

by Saul Bellow
Viking, 233 pp., $24.95

Saul Bellow and Allan Bloom were friends. They taught together at the University of Chicago, and Bellow wrote the foreword to Bloom’s phenomenal best seller, The Closing of the American Mind, which came out in 1987. In spite of its popularity, The Closing of the American Mind was a quirky book. Many writers tried to imitate its success as a diatribe against American higher education, but very few tried to repeat its argument. For in many ways the book was a kind of personal fantasy—a contrarian reading of a handful of old philosophy texts offered as the explanation for the “relativism” of today’s professors and the soullessness of today’s youth, a condition whose supreme expression, in Bloom’s view, was rock music: “a muddy stream where only monsters can swim.”1

Just why The Closing of the American Mind caught fire will always be a bit of a mystery—it must have come as a surprise to readers who got that far to learn that much of what was wrong with American culture could be traced to certain theoretical deformations in the later work of Martin Heidegger—but the book’s success may have had something to do with the sense people had that they were encountering, in Bloom, an authentic character. Bloom didn’t seem a man engaged in ordinary department politics. He clearly believed this stuff, and he was not a writer who took many hostages. When he said that American democracy had lost its soul, he meant it, and could spend all day telling you why. He professed to be defending thought from political exploitation, and, to his credit, he was true to the claim. He declined to take part in the culture wars his book precipitated.

Robert Paul Wolff wrote a famous review of The Closing of the American Mind in which he explained that “Allan Bloom” was really the fictional creation of Saul Bellow, in the tradition of Moses Herzog, and that his “book” was a satirical send-up of Chicago-style Great-Books pedantry—a “coruscatingly funny novel in the form of a pettish, bookish, grumpy, reactionary complaint against the last two decades.”2 The conceit seemed a telling one, and it stuck. For a person who works up an erudite, all-purpose, single-variable, and essentially fantastic theory for why the world is going to hell is, indeed, exactly the kind of person Bellow has spent his career imagining.

Bellow himself is not a theorist. He is a novelist who is fascinated by theorists. The premise of his work (I think) is that the world is always going to hell, since each of us, over our lifetimes, is forced to suffer the gradual extinction of the world we were thrown into by birth, whatever world that was. Sensations fade, friendships break apart, people we love leave us or die, and nothing ever completely replaces them. Existence is, ineluctably, a terrible thing. Bellow has a special disaffection for the modern world, because the organized obliteration of the past seems to him to be its singu-lar obsession, and because he finds its rationalizations and consolations meretricious—though people continue to gobble them up and spew them out. Still, there is no cure for living, because the world, whatever we do or say, keeps on turning. Bellow is a nostalgist, and not in a simple sense. He is a nostalgist in the profound sense that almost every human being is instinctively a nostalgist. We hate change, because we fear death.

Most people, in Bellow’s fiction, give in. They pretend that the modern world, which really has no use for them, is their world all the same. Some people—the inner-city hustlers and their white counterparts, the big-shot lawyers and the gangsters—see right through the rationalizations and the consolations and grasp the essential fact that the whole enterprise of modern life is backed by nothing. These are people blessed by a perfect lack of affection; they are the socially adaptive sociopaths, born survivors, good for all possible worlds. But then, finally, there are the lonely and self-conscious maladaptives, the sensitives whom modern life makes sick, they can’t help it, and who react by building mad theoretical tree houses, which they try to inhabit at the cost of enduring the rest of their generation’s contempt for their refusal to flatter the present. To the extent that there are heroes in Bellow’s books, the tree house builders tend to be the ones.

All these character types are male. Modernity, evidently, is a guy problem. Which is not to say that women are unimportant on Mr. Bellow’s planet. Women are crucially important: sexual happiness is the principal ratification of male success and the only adequate compensation for male unsuccess. For the sensitives and the maladaptives especially, women are the focus of all desire, the real thing for which books and ideas and theories are just the wretched surrogates. Unfortunately, as we all know, la donna è mobile. Underneath all the neurotic complications of female sexual attachment, the essential impulse is the primitive one: they dally with the sensitives, but in the end, they go with the gangsters.

One imagines that a man like Allan Bloom must therefore have been something of a scandal to Bellow. For Bloom was a mad tree house builder and a gangster at the same time. He was thoroughly disenchanted with the modern world and thoroughly at home in it, a man who spent the millions he made from the publication of a cultural jeremiad on wall-mounted television screens, high-end audio systems, four-star hotel rooms, and Armani suits. He was a philosopher who air-expressed his neckties to Paris for cleaning. He was an atheist who regarded the fear of death as a contemptible bourgeois hangup. And he was homosexual. He short-circuited the entire Bellovian scheme. It is not surprising that Bellow found him completely fascinating. He must not have known entirely what to make of him.

There is a character based on Bloom (who died in 1992) in Ravelstein. Everyone knows this, since Bellow himself has said it. But it is odd how quick people have been to read the book as a memoir—as an essentially plotless, meditative, lightly fictionalized tribute to an unusual man and an unusual friendship. After all, Bloom’s name does not appear in its pages, nor does the name of his famous book. Anyone who picked up a copy of Ravelstein without having heard of Allan Bloom would recognize it as a familiar fictional genre: a novel in the form of a memoir written by one of the characters. Such a person would therefore assume that reading the book meant finding the novel inside the memoir, uncovering the story that is not told, or not quite told, within the story that is. Why did Bellow invent a name like “Ravelstein,” after all, if he did not wish us to understand that there was something to unravel?

The inner novel is not about Ravelstein. Ravelstein is, in fact, the least novelized character in the book. He is presented entirely from the outside, and (although, of course, he dies) nothing happens to him dramatically. He is seen through the eyes of the memoirist-narrator, whose name is Chick, and it is very much to the point that Chick cannot get imaginatively inside Ravelstein.

Chick is a successful Jewish writer who lives in Chicago, where he is associated with the university, and he is a more complicated fellow than he lets on. His manner is charming and unassuming, and in fact his tastes and impulses are quite conventional. But he is an intensely guarded person. His self-deprecation is a mask for his self-absorption, and his self-absorption centers on a deeply rooted fear of being taken for a fool. He reads widely and enjoys chatting about ideas, but he disowns any pretensions to being an intellectual. He craves emotional and sexual loyalty, but he is too cautious to do anything that risks humiliation or embarrassment. His take on other people is sharp and unforgiving, but he maintains a bland and noncommittal demeanor.

Chick is married to a brilliant physicist, originally from Eastern Europe, named Vela, and their marriage is the true subject of the book. Vela is a woman whose erotic endowments other men, and even women, cannot resist commenting on. She is perfectly conscious of her exceptional allure, and spends a lot of time and expense dolling herself up. But underneath the glamour, she is a heartless, uptight narcissist, a beautiful woman who doesn’t allow herself to be seen in public without her makeup. She knows she has Chick sexually under a spell, and she abuses him accordingly. She makes him do the housekeeping; she pursues her career with indifference to his; she withholds herself sexually from him while she has affairs with other men.

Chick, though, is in denial. He even allows Vela to cajole him into a friendship with one Radu Grielescu, a distinguished scholar of religion rumored to have been a member of the fascist Iron Guard during the war and involved in the torture and murder of Romanian Jews. Grielescu is naturally eager for these rumors to be forgotten, and so he is pleased to be seen dining with a well-known Jewish writer like Chick in local restaurants. Chick obliges by remaining politely clueless about what their relationship is really all about.

Chick’s eyes are opened to this and other truths about his marriage by Abe Ravelstein, a popular Chicago professor. Ravelstein is the protégé of an eccentric political philosopher named Felix Davarr, the practitioner of an exegetical method known as “esoteric reading,” which involves uncovering hidden subtexts in the works of the great philosophers. Ravelstein introduces Chick to the method by having him compare John Maynard Keynes’s published reports on the Council of Paris, in 1919, with the gossipy letters he was sending back home to his Bloomsbury friends at the same time. As a personality, Ravelstein is everything Chick is not—magnificently and unabashedly klutzy, intellectually imperious, homosexual. Chick, so wan and so defended by comparison, finds him irresistible.

Vela, naturally, is hostile to this new friendship, since she sees that Ravelstein, by nature insusceptible to her particular charms, has her number; and, after taunting Chick sexually, she walks out on him, picking the day he returns from his brother’s funeral to make her departure. Chick soon marries a pretty and devoted younger woman, Rosamund, a former student of Ravelstein’s. At Chick’s suggestion, Ravelstein publishes a book based on his unconventional philosophical views, and it becomes, unexpectedly, an international best seller, making Ravelstein rich and allowing him, for the first time in his life, to indulge his luxurious impulses without restraint. Soon after, Ravelstein dies, apparently of complications from AIDS. Before his death, he asks Chick to write a memoir of his life.

Chick, though, has not recovered from Vela’s laceration of his self-esteem, and he harbors animosities toward some of their Chicago colleagues, such as Grielescu, as well. He leaves Chicago to take a job in Boston, but during a vacation in the Caribbean, he comes down with a severe case of food poisoning and nearly dies. His life is saved by Rosamund, who rushes her husband to Boston and sits tirelessly by his side for weeks in an intensive care unit until he recovers. During Chick’s stay in the hospital, he has a series of hallucinations, in the last of which Vela tells him of her plans to have sex with a virile young Spaniard in order to find out what she has been missing in her marriage to him.

He plainly has not exorcized her yet. Then he realizes that he can take his revenge on Vela by writing a book that exposes her true character (and settles a few other scores as well) by masking it as a memoir of Ravelstein—the man who, after all, not only taught Chick about the perils of sexual dependency, but showed him how a book can set you free. Ravelstein is the book Chick writes. Ostensibly, it is a book about friendship and mortality, written in a loose, gossipy, amiable style. Esoterically, it is, like most of Bellow’s books, about the male heterosexual ego—its brittleness, its bottomless capacity for resentment, its inexhaustible neediness—and there is nothing particularly amiable about it. It seems to me a rather ingenious performance.

It is ingenious, that is, if the book is taken as a work of self-disclosure. For Bellow himself, of course, is a well-known Jewish writer from Chicago, was once married to a glamorous Romanian mathematician, is now married to a former student of Bloom’s, recently almost died from an attack of food poisoning, and so on. And Grielescu and a number of other sometimes acidly etched characters are plainly modeled on real human beings once associated with Bel-low, Bloom, and the University of Chicago.

It’s true that this is not the first time Bellow has based a novel on people and events in his own life; and if personal vengeance is being wreaked in these pages, that is a motive not entirely unknown to literature. But the whole story is a lot closer to the autobiographical bone than one is accustomed to in Bellow’s writing. It is hard, reading the book, not to feel that every fictional x is intended to be set equal to some real-life y. Ravelstein is a novel so à clef that not a single incident or character feels truly fictional, right down to the unfortunate Caribbean restaurateur who serves Chick the bad fish, and who is rewarded by being portrayed (no doubt with justice) as a greedy lout. Bellow did not wish to say something revealing about Allan Bloom in his book. He plainly had no idea—who would?—what made Bloom tick. He had some idea about himself, though, and he worked it up with subtle but unsparing honesty.

  1. 1

    The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students (Simon and Schuster, 1987), p. 74.

  2. 2

    Wolff’s review was published in Academe; it is reprinted, along with more than sixty other responses to Bloom’s book, in Essays on ‘The Closing of the American Mind, edited by Robert L. Stone (Chicago Review Press, 1989), pp. 18-21.

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