The chief vice and virtue of friendship come to the same thing: overestimation. In the narrow world of those who knew him personally, it seemed possible that Allan Bloom, professor of political science at the University of Chicago, author in 1987 of The Closing of the American Mind, should have been counted among the immortal thinkers. The sales of his book, and the millions of dollars it generated in profits, were the material proof of an intellectual project so strong and necessary that Americans craved it as wanderers in the desert need water.
In the larger world, the evidence for Bloom's genius is thinner. A reading of his book today is an exercise in forbearance. Shrillness drowned his best insights. Traditionalism crowded his iconoclasm. "Cultural relativism," Bloom's great target, doesn't scare anybody anymore. Sometime in the years before his death, his ideas were unceremoniously remaindered on the stock shelves of the American mind. That mind didn't close--it just moved on to other problems.
The value of Saul Bellow's new novel-memoir Ravelstein, and its portrait of Bloom as exalted intellect, is that this is how the Chicago philosopher appeared to a figure who probably is great or, at any rate, has been flirting with immortal greatness for five decades. The aging novelist, now 84, is a rare artist. He has a painter's gift of line. He is one of America's two living Nobel laureates in literature. He was Bloom's close friend, and his record of their friendship exceeds most recent literature for elegance and emotion.
Politically, Bellow is also one of America's more discomforting men of letters, illiberal in ways that this book gives us a fresh chance to evaluate. Bellow here is making a political argument--for the type of greatness, and elitism, that Bloom controversially praised. Fiction reviewers can plumb the novel for the secrets it reveals, the quality of Bellow's renderings (masterful), and the construction of the book's plot (scarcely adequate). That misses the point. The book needs to be understood in the context of a career endgame on Bellow's part and as a kind of joint project between the Nobel laureate and his late friend--at once memorial and polemical.
In America, elitism is the unpardonable sin. Americans are meant to be a free and open people who allow every citizen the same presupposition of ordinariness, who are quick to encourage and slow to judge. Our successes are counted in particular achievements; our exemplars are not those who occupy a pinnacle but those who successfully strive for it. Few on the political spectrum will say much for an elite class, fixedly better than the rest of us.
Yet philosophy and literature are two enterprises that seem to require an elite--essentially benign, since most of its members are dead--a canon with which trainees must learn to contend. No businessman needs to imagine himself in a struggle with J.P. Morgan to create himself as "someone who makes money"; to succeed, he just makes the money. A philosopher isn't a philosopher, though, who doesn't duke it out with Nietzsche or Rousseau. Indeed, the wish to become a member of that elite may be identical with the wish to philosophize or to write, in a serious sense. Aspiring to be better is thus not entirely separable from believing in an elite of better people--and from there, it's not much of a stretch to disdain the rest of humanity. Ravelstein is a defense of elitism that makes this unfortunate slide to arrogance and tries to embody its argument in a single, irresistible person.
The novel opens after Abe Ravelstein, Chicago philosopher, has written his big book, when he is in Paris, spending his royalties with both hands. He's a hero, cut from whole cloth, as the narrator--a writer named Chick--portrays him. Ravelstein is bent upon greatness, recklessly pursuing whatever is higher and better, with a perfect disregard for all that is small, inadequate, possessing no part of the eternal. As a late twentieth-century individual, he does some of his best (and funniest) aspiring while shopping. If an object isn't very fine, Ravelstein won't touch it; if it is, he'll pay any sum for it without hesitation. "Ah well," he says with magnificent indifference, all the same, when he dribbles coffee on his $4,500 Lanvin jacket. "I've fucked it up again."
It's also clear, however, that Abe and Chick aren't just concerned with aspiring to greatness; they've decided that they've made it. It puts them outside society. In the book's major sequences, the protagonists are always holed up in some hermitage or aerie. In Chicago they have similar apartments on high floors of nearby apartment buildings. At the Hotel Crillon, overlooking the streets of Paris, the two of them are in a penthouse adjoining Michael Jackson--and they think he's weird for being so cut off from the city and its people.
The novel follows what we know of a few real lives quite closely. Abe Ravelstein shares in all the incidents and activities that Bellow described as Bloom's in his published 1992 eulogy, often in precisely the same words. Ravelstein's ideas, more importantly, are Bloom's ideas. "As Ravelstein had famously said, American nihilism was nihilism without the abyss"--well, that was Bloom, on page 155 of The Closing of the American Mind. Chick's experiences in the book likewise belong to Bellow. His wife Vela, a Romanian physicist, divorces him. (Bellow's Romanian wife, who divorced him, was a mathematician named Alexandra.) He marries Rosamund, a Chicago graduate student in her 30s. (In 1989 Bellow married 31-year-old grad student Janis Freeman.) After Ravelstein's death, Chick travels with Rosamund to the Caribbean, where he ingests cigua toxin from a contami-nated fish and nearly dies. (This happened to Bellow in 1994.) That's all the plot there is.
The thin autobiographical disguise doesn't hinder Bellow from metaphorizing Ravelstein's ways and his fate. Ravelstein's death is the salvation of Chick, who survives poisoning in order to write his friend's life. And Ravelstein's passions are a stand-in for the passion--the longing for something perhaps impossible to attain--that Bloom insists sets the great apart. This is true especially of the revelation, through Ravelstein, that Allan Bloom was gay and died of AIDS:
@block quote:[Ravelstein] was doomed to die because of his irregular sexual ways. About these he was entirely frank with me, with all his close friends. He was considered, to use a term from the past, an invert. Not a "gay." He despised playful homosexuality and took a very low view of "gay pride." There were times when I simply didn't know what to make of his confidences. But then he had chosen me to do his portrait, and when he spoke to me he spoke intimately but also for the record. To lose your head was the great-souled thing to do. I suppose that even in this age people will understand the term "great-souled," though it is not the standing challenge it used to be.
@body space above:"To lose your head was the great-souled thing to do": This is what matters to Bellow about Bloom's sexuality. However, it's the "outing" of his friend that's been the subject of gossip and controversy in newspapers and universities. There is a reason the book's revelations have looked like an assault on the Chicago philosopher: They've put him at risk of hypocrisy. The Closing of the American Mind, a book about passions, evidently dissembled the philosopher's own erotic commitments in anecdotes of his "first girlfriend" and hetero love. It had a straight man's complacency and sets of reassurances for traditionalists that now seem to undercut Bloom's arguments on behalf of the truth-seeking power of eros.
The notion of "greatness" as passion and aspiration is one of the smarter ideas that Bellow took up from Bloom. "Spirited men and women, the young above all, were devoted to the pursuit of love. By contrast the bourgeois was dominated by fears of violent death," Chick says. "There ... you have a sketch of Ravelstein's most important preoccupations."
Unfortunately, Bellow in Ravelstein also takes up Bloom's social analysis of the decline of greatness in America. He draws notions from the most small-minded pages of The Closing of the American Mind, where its author lapsed into the talk of any 1980s radio talk show. Bloom preferred education to turn its resources to the class of those who would excel: "Survival itself depended on better education for the best people." He blamed feminism for taking women from their natural roles, African Americans for failing their own freedom.
In Ravelstein, the unsavory attitudes run on. He deplores "faggot behavior." He is unkind to Chicago blacks. At best, they know to admire his tailored suits. "They're intuitively responsive," Ravelstein explains. At worst, they are the corrosive darkness within the modern city, roiling up out of a "noisy, pointless, nihilistic turmoil."
t a glance, it certainly looks as if the nonfiction Bellow--elegant in essays, lordly in lectures--also believes a lot of this stuff. He breathed fire in his Jefferson Lectures of 1977, deploring the decline of Chicago. The "slums," he said, are now "ruined" by the migrants from the South who replaced the skillful European strivers of pre-1924 immigrations. You see only devastation in the welfare system, the schools, the courtrooms: "The schools are now almost entirely black and Puerto Rican." These have been common themes for him ever since, in the Bloom style. But the question becomes, how does Bellow believe them, and with what import? If you read backwards in the Bellovian oeuvre, it becomes clear that his stance against the ordinary multitude reaches back a long way--and it is more complex, and more deeply felt, than is now visible.
Even in the 1950s and 1960s, the author of Dangling Man and The Victim, The Adventures of Augie March and Herzog--then a liberal--had much the same disappointed view of the public. Back then, his polemical critique came from the left. "Mass man" had been beaten down by his stultifying environment. Recently, his critique has come from the right: The most visible public for him now is "the underclass," deficient by nature. Beneath both arguments is the profounder risk that all artists face when they compare their attentiveness to detail and beauty to the shapelessness of unaestheticized life and decide that the world is somehow failing them. As a much younger writer, in 1960, he diagnosed the disdainful stance that had taken hold of artists in the past. He noted the "tyrannical" aesthetic dismay that exists in "novelists like Flaubert ... and Virginia Woolf and James Joyce... . We are greatly compensated with poetry and insight, but it often seems as though the writer were deprived of all power except the power to see and to despair."
For three decades now, Saul Bellow has been the Ameri-can author that American intellectuals, primarily those on the left, don't know what to do with anymore. He once stood for energy, comedy, a certain seriousness about the European West--but also for the liberal concerns of the Age of Anxiety. He represented the best claim the New York intellectuals and the Partisan Review set could make to lasting literary position. In his youth, he had passed through all the experiences to burnish a young radical: as a Depression-era writer for the WPA, a student of anthropology, a Trotskyite who was in Mexico to see the great man laid out after his assassination, and the founder of a socialist club. He had the credentials.
Then the late 1960s came and broke open the shell of the postwar consensus, and it is sometimes believed that a different Bellow emerged. Mr. Sammler's Planet (1970) had New York City, and America, going to hell. What's best remembered about the book is a bit of symbolism for which Bellow has never quite been forgiven: the black penis-- tool of annihilation--which a well-dressed pickpocket exposed to poor, aging Artur Sammler, a scholar who had escaped European fascism only to meet a late-century American rule of force and chaos. Bellow's output since then has many of the hallmarks of the drift toward neoconservatism that has consumed so many minds in these years.
A few years ago, in an interview, Bellow claimed that any change in his politics had been quite simple: He had renounced "meliorism." Authors were always trying to make things better. Instead, they usually made things worse--if, that is, anybody ever listened. It was a retreat from responsibility with a long literary history, though it had never kept authors from producing great work subsequently, even as their politics grew stodgier. Joseph Conrad used almost precisely the same language of disavowal at the turn of the twentieth century in letters to his socialist friend R.B. Cunninghame Graham. Conrad was through with the betterment game, he said, no question about it. But he then proceeded to write several of the century's most important political novels in the English language: Nostromo, The Secret Agent, and Under Western Eyes.
This is the paradox of Bellow, too. Anti-meliorism, quietism, and elitism may dictate the outlook of an author, but it is often washed away by the force of the work, by the full-blooded depiction of human aspirations and despairs that the good writer can't help but set out for us.
avelstein is Exhibit A, a book in which the artist's irresistible attraction to detail makes a counterargument to the attraction of a natural elite. Abstractions dissolve in what Chick, the author's surrogate, calls "a humanity bath." "God appeared very early to me," he reports. "His hair was parted down the middle." The length of a face or an awkward gait will always signify more to a writer like Bellow than the abstract idea of perfection. And the way these details are gathered in Ravelstein gives us a picture of greatness that transforms elitist doctrine. As Ravelstein, the character, starts to live and breathe in the pages of the novel, his eccentricity trumps everything.
For one thing, Bellow-the-artist is determined to show us Ravelstein bare. Here is one of our first glimpses of the man: "This morning Ravelstein wore a blue-and-white kimono... . He was very tall. He was not particularly graceful. The great garment was loosely belted and more than half open. His legs were unusually long, not shapely. His underpants were not securely pulled up." His vast defiance is contained in the picture, as are his sexuality and his inevitable decline. We follow the philosopher inside his bedroom, inside his hospital room, then to his deathbed. There is a persistent delineation of the physicality of Ravelstein, his appetites, his chain-smoking and messy eating, his clumsiness wedded to a largeness of spirit. "Faculty wives knew that when Ravelstein came to dinner they would face a big cleaning job afterward--the spilling, splashing, crumbling ... the wine sprayed out when he laughed at a wisecrack ... An experienced hostess would spread newspapers under his chair. He wouldn't have minded."
If Bellow's aim is to make us love Ravelstein, this is one way to do it. He gives us the "humanity" of the brilliant philosopher. But the focus on Ravelstein's eccentricity is also convincing in a way the philosophy never was. A hero without the capacity for excess and embarrassment would risk too little to move us. The greatness of soul that we come to value in Ravelstein is different from that of the conventional "great man"--a plaster bust in a forgotten alcove. It is the fum-bling, errant preposterousness of Ravelstein that is always in motion toward something better.
This magnification of eccentricities is also the key to real friendship, as it is memorialized in Ravelstein, with its mutual overestimations, the deliberate overrating of a friend that helps you aspire to be worthy of the friend's outsized magnificence. Love between men isn't always a comfortable topic, even for a society growing in tolerance as America is. But the nature of the love in this friendship is made unusually clear here by the fact that Ravelstein is gay and Chick is not: It is an erotic relation in which the longing is for the character or compassion of the friend, and the desire is for the better self one can become in the friend's presence. In its earnestness and its comedy, it is an appealing, maybe even liberal, version of how greatness of soul might be pursued without contempt or blinders--in fact, with the friends themselves seeing their overrating for what it is, a beautiful put-on, founded on affection, not cold assessment.
A novelist can talk and talk--but we attend to what he shows us. Bellow assumes an elite realm, a debased ordinary world, and a conventional ordering of what is worthy; but his book shows a kind of greatness that always teeters on ridiculousness, a mix of low pleasures and high aspirations, an ethos of unsettling the world at every turn. When it succeeds at making us reimagine Allan Bloom, I hope what we're actually seeing is inner Bellow. I found myself going to the bookshelf to find an old jacket photo of Bloom as I read Ravelstein. It showed the promised sartorial magnificence, a huge sly-lidded face above a magnificent scarf, coy beneath an elegant fedora: Ravelstein incarnate! A swell guy! An uncommon teacher, whose wisdom must be as overwhelming as his personality! Well, Bloom-the-prophet's wisdom probably wasn't; Bellow-the-sociologist's probably isn't. But the fictional juncture of Bellow's artistry and Bloom's ideas adds up here to more than either man's declared philosophy. Bellow thought he was defending elitism; it turns out he's defending love. ¤