Biography, Elegy, and the Politics of Modernity in Saul Bellow’s Ravelstein

HomeArticlesBiography, Elegy, and the Politics of Modernity in Saul Bellow’s Ravelstein

Saul Bellow’s Ravelstein is a biographical roman a clef, an undisguised fictive account of the life and death of Bellow’s friend, Allan Bloom. At the time of his death in 1992 from complications related to HIV/AIDS, Bloom was an infamous University of Chicago political philosopher, classicist, student of Leo Strauss, and cultural provocateur, who had infamously penned The Closing of the American Mind in 1987, for which Bellow had written a forward. Ravelstein is an elegy for Bloom, a first-person fictive meditation on the significance of Bloom’s life and death, mediated in part by Bellow’s fictionalized account of his own brush with death after a toxic dinner in St. Maarten. It is also, if implicitly, a defense of Bloom and his intellectual and political values, a defense seemingly occasioned by Bellow’s own fraught encounters with the American cultural Left of the 1990s.

The intersection of biography and elegy govern the unfolding narrative of Bellow’s novel. The generic interests of biography and elegy complement each other in Ravelstein, especially in Bellow’s construction of character. Character, as even a casual reader of Bellow knows, has theoretical consequence in his novels. Bellow’s characters almost always project a sense of realism, not only because he often bases them on real people, as he so evidently does in Ravelstein, but also because he gives them speaking life in the closely met way that we encounter personal affect. He does so in a way that inverts traditional realism, as speech takes precedence over narrative and dialogue contains much of a novel’s narrative information. Uniformly, Bellow’s fictive universe bases itself strongly on the observation of affect, both structurally and thematically. Affect for Bellow amounts to a metonymy for ethical choice, for the energetic hotwires of personhood that give the keen observer a measure of another’s character, as well as of the character of otherness. Such measures of character in turn imply judgments about American culture, and so the biographical basis for Ravelstein serves Bellow’s usual purpose of exploring character as the ground for exploring the excesses and vicissitudes of American life, here most challengingly, perhaps, because of Bellow and Bloom’s intense friendship.

Yet the biographical element of Ravelstein also reveals a larger elegaic purpose, one comprised of an implied high modernist intellectual response to Bloom and Bellow’s detractors on the cultural Left, especially during the early 1990s, the period of “political correctness.” Chick, Bellow’s narrator and stand-in, describes their detractors condescendingly as the “campus ‘free spirits’,” whose job “was to make you aware of the bourgeois upbringing from which your education was supposed to free you.”[1] With distaste, he refers to the “liberated teachers” who “offered themselves as models, sometimes seeing themselves as revolutionaries” and who “sometimes spoke youth gibberish . . . Ph.D. hippies and swingers.”[2] For Bellow, such behavior amounts to a juvenile abuse, in the form of theatricalized self-indulgence that turns away from both philosophical rigor and political prudence, of the moral seriousness of the Left’s historical position. The substance of Bellow’s response to what is for him the noisy, self-congratulatory Left comes in Ravelstein in the form of an elegy to what for Bellow is its opposite: the intense, aestheticized intellectual engagement that, in the novel, Abe Ravelstein represents. Bellow thus makes Ravelstein’s death signify, not only the end of a very large life, but also the end of an era, one that is here given the philosophical weight of Ravelstein’s (and, of course, Bloom’s) Platonic preoccupation with “the purpose of our existence:…the correct ordering of the human soul.”[3]

Of course, this philosophical heft comes with the expected Bellovian irony about anything as serious as death, since, after all, “death does sharpen the comic sense,” as Chick says on beginning his story about coming to write a biography of Abe Ravelstein.[4] The biography that Chick discusses with Ravelstein is self-reflexively the biography that we read, but self-reflexivity is very much not Bellow’s theme here. Rather, it is only a narrative pretext. Bellow is more concerned with showing Ravelstein, and thus Bloom, as a living person, whose otherness confronts the reader with a sense of its truth. Bellow’s realism concentrates on what might be called an aesthetic of great personhood, with “greatness” revealing itself metonymically as aestheticized relational energy, in the way that “dining, drink, conversation, Athenian-style” consumed Ravelstein.[5] “We aren’t doing psychobiography here,” Chick says almost defiantly, but Bellow is constructing, in the character of Abe Ravelstein, a representative anecdote of a highly unique, eroticized intellectual comportment.[6] Chick says that, at the conclusion of the novel’s introductory section on Ravelstein as a subject of biography, in “approaching a man like Ravelstein, a piecemeal method is perhaps best,” a method that both assembles character and takes it apart.[7] The understatement of “perhaps” aligns with Bellow’s usual mixing of high intellectual culture and “the living creature and his needs.”[8] The greatness of Ravelstein, his greatness of soul, is, for Bellow, a lesson in the aesthetic brilliance of the mundane, in the way that, as Chick declares, “The simplest of human beings is, for that matter, esoteric and radically mysterious.”[9]

At the root of Bellow’s defense of Bloom is his sense that the life of the mind is necessarily above, necessarily transcendent, of politics. Bloom, for Bellow, was both a superior intellectual and a scapegoat for the politically correct attitudes of the 1990s, the early years of the culture wars. In his eulogy for Bloom in It All Adds Up, Bellow says this of his old friend and ally, in terms that might interchangeably be said of Bellow himself:

He had the nerve to show American society to itself nakedly, and for this he was denounced – he was blasted, he provoked deadly hostility and became the enemy, the bête noire of armies of kindly, gentle, liberal people here and abroad who held all the most desirable, advanced views on any public question: people who did good works but, through some queer inexplicable shift of psychic currents, were converted into a killer mob.[10]

The bitterness behind the irony is evident here – the “kindly, gentle, liberal” doers of good works become a “killer mob,” one attacking someone they thought to be a “rigid conservative bound to a traditional canon” but who is – and for Bellow this is an incontestable matter of fact – a world-class intellectual whose philosophical speculations and life-long work were not reducible to “a camouflage for partisanship.”[11] Of course, exposing “American society to itself nakedly” was also Bellow’s most fervent novelistic commitment, his modernist belief, as asserted in a 1990 interview with Bostonia magazine, that “conceptualization is a weak substitute for this sort of feeling for things and beings as they are immediately perceived.”[12]

The tone of this passage, with its dig at the self-righteousness of Bloom’s critics on the cultural Left, shows to what extent Bellow felt that Bloom had been misunderstood and at what cultural cost. This skepticism about the Left of his youth is always evident in Bellow, along with his ready admission of his own involvement. In the same lengthy 1990 interview with Bostonia, Bellow remarks that, though he saw immediately that Kristallnacht was “evil and dangerous,” he accepted as his reason to support the war the Trotskyist line that World War II would advance “the historical cause of socialism” because it was a war against “the whitest of white regimes, a white guard, anti-revolutionary regime.”[13] In this way, he says, he “belonged to a special group of cranks that knew a little history and some Marxist doctrine and used to discuss matters on an ‘elevated plane’,” one that, he implies, traded awareness of an uncomfortable reality for the urgency of ideals.[14] Similarly, in a 1998 letter to Phillip Roth commenting on a manuscript of Roth’s I Married a Communist, Bellow addresses the question that bedeviled the old Left and that, in the form of beliefs about the across-the-board depredations of “American Exceptionalism,” still emerges persistently in the discourse of the contemporary American Left.

Of course, the question directed to the late-20th century Left, is “how were they able to accept Stalin – one of the most monstrous tyrants ever”?[15] Bellow’s answer is both familiar and streetwise: “the hatred of one’s own country,” which he sees in retrospect as a “deep and perverse stupidity.”[16] According to son Gregory Bellow, Bellow’s “political radicalism” in his student days of the 1930s and early 1940s included studying “politics, philosophy, and literature in search of an explanation for the human condition.”[17] This intellectual agenda was intimately tied to his sense of vocation as a novelist, and when Bellow and Isaac Rosenfeld became part of the Partisan Review circle, it seems, according to his son, that, even though his father was aware of the political biases of the magazine, he saw his philosophical views about art and politics, and about their relation, as consistent with at least the intellectual version of the Old Left in that particular incarnation.[18] As Alan Berger points out, the link between “radical politics and modernist culture define the PR crowd.”[19] It is only later when the Marxist pieties of the Old Left become the slogans of the New that Bellow, along with the PR group, came to see, post-Holocaust and post-1967, that the New Left had little interest in the history and genealogy of its own slogans.

Bellow thus sees, in the move from the Old Left of his background to its subsequent permutations in the New Left of 1960s America, a willed blindness to “the simple facts available to everybody,” facts that, had anyone chosen to look at them unblinkingly, would reveal the ways in which people can so willingly by blinded by abstract notions of ideological truth.[20] Thus, Bellow sees Bloom’s aggressive claims in The Closing of the American Mind about the depraved, hollow excesses of pop culture and their effect on American teenagers as part of the need “to show American society to itself nakedly” and not as the special pleading of a conservative party hack. For Bellow, the book is an orotund, even literary declamation of a truth by someone with the intellectual credibility, the “learning, confidence, and authority” to back it up.[21]

Indeed, there is in Ravelstein an unstinting respect for and a palpable desire to protect Bloom’s against-the-odds intellectual and social attainments as the character Ravelstein represents him from political over-simplification, attainments inseparable from what Bellow calls the “vital force” transmitted in his teaching. At one point, in describing the “foundations of [Ravelstein’s] teacher’s vocation,” Chick is moved to say: “I am doing what I can with the facts. He lived by his ideas. His knowledge was real, and he could document it, chapter and verse.”[22] That Ravelstein is indeed in command of something like the scriptural exactitude of “chapter and verse,” that he knew Plato, Machiavelli, and Rousseau in the original languages and could cite them movingly, that he worked tirelessly, devotedly, and erotically “to make certain if he could that the greatness of humankind would not entirely evaporate in bourgeois well-being,” all underwrite Chick’s need in the novel to protect Ravelstein from the superficialities of political sloganeering, to eulogize him with a tribute to the great ideas and books by which he lived.[23] As Chick puts it in the novel, “He had written a book – difficult but popular – a spirited, intelligent, warlike book, and it had sold.”[24] He defends Ravelstein’s book, saying: “You have to be learned to capture modernity in its full complexity and to assess its human cost…Universities were permissive, lax,” incapable of teaching “politics as Aristotle or Plato understood the term, rooted in our nature”[25] Bellow has Chick say that the argument of Ravelstein’s book, and thus of Bloom’s, “was that while you could get an excellent technical training in the U.S., liberal education had shrunk to the vanishing point.”[26] The book “was not at all wild,” yet, as Bellow has Chick point out in defense of his friend, “all the dunces were united against him,” consciously invoking the satires of Swift and Pope.[27]

Of course, Bellow’s own public scrapes with the burgeoning multicultural attitudes of the American cultural Left in the 1990s were not quiet ones, despite his characteristic public reticence. In 1988, James Atlas, Bellow’s eventual biographer, did a profile of Bloom for the New York Times Magazine in the wake of the success of The Closing of the American Mind. The point of the piece was basically this: who is this unknown, elite University of Chicago intellectual who wrote this scathing piece on American culture, read (or at least bought) by about a million people? Atlas’s profile concerns itself mainly with the venerable high-mindedness of the Committee on Social Thought. But late in the article, following a reference to students at Stanford protesting, with Jesse Jackson’s support, the university’s Western Civilization program on the grounds of its racism, Bellow is quoted by Atlas parenthetically as asking, now infamously, ”Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus? The Proust of the Papuans? I’d be glad to read them.”[28] This perhaps ill-conceived remark was given life again six years later in the New Yorker by longtime Bellow friend Alfred Kazin.

In a “Personal History” entitled “Jews,” Kazin reflects on his own life as well as on other major figures of Jewish life, both literary and artistic, who were his acquaintances and friends. Bellow, no surprise, is among the latter category. In 1965, Kazin had written a tribute piece on Bellow in the Atlantic called “My Friend Saul Bellow,” and in a letter to Kazin shortly after the article’s appearance, a grateful Bellow modestly says that Kazin “may have been a little too generous.”[29] But the 1994 New Yorker profile could hardly be called a “tribute.” Kazin, who, in the 1980s, was holding the line of old liberalism against the conservative positions of Commentary and the like, refers to Bellow as having “moved in the company of the conservative Big Thinkers at the University of Chicago” and that “he had been moving right.”[30] The tone of the description here is far from the laudatory one of 1965, where Kazin calls Bellow “a scholar in the formidable University of Chicago style, full of the Great Books and jokes from the Greek plays.”[31] A significant difference between the two assessments is that, in the 1965 piece, Kazin praises Bellow’s Chicago affiliation with a genuine veneration of the academic study of the humanities. In the 1994 profile, however, Bellow becomes for Kazin an unfortunate dupe of a vast right-wing conspiracy, his University of Chicago connection no longer an intellectual credential but a lapse in political and ethical judgment. In this way, Kazin’s remark reflects the intervention of “post-68” cultural politics in the academic study of the humanities in an obvious and largely anodyne way. But then Kazin brings up the flippant witticism from the 1988 profile of Bloom by Atlas: “My heart sank when I heard that Bellow once said “‘Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus? The Proust of the Papuans? I’d be glad to read them’.”[32] One can imagine that hearts must have been sinking at chez Bellow, too, because, in an op-ed in the New York Times of March 10, 1994, curiously enough only days after the release of Kazin’s New Yorker piece and two years after Bloom’s death, Bellow is obviously seething about what he takes to be an attack on his integrity and possibly because of its unlikely source. Clearly, much more was at issue here for Bellow than the attributive accuracy of a perhaps injudicious witticism.

“Papuans and Zulus” begins indirectly, with an elegiac paragraph in the mode of ironic Biblical prophecy. Bellow wishes for “a week’s moratorium, dear Lord, from the idiocies that burn on every side and let the pure snows cool these overheated minds and dilute the toxins which have infected our judgments.”[33] The phrase “toxins that have infected our judgments” refers nonspecifically to the cluster of positions of the emergent “new New Left” or “post-Left,” the premises of which are familiar and, by now, sedimented in the micropolitics, not only of academe, but also of public intellectual life. Bellow’s frustration seems to refer to a cluster of positions recently outlined by Gabriel Noah Brahm as a “genealogy of ressentiment” and consisting in the following: an inverted sense of “American Exceptionalism,” where everything “American” is either racist, mammonistic, or “war-mongering”; a celebratory “Third Worldism,” where the empowered victims of American imperialism and capitalism possess a moral superiority whose capacity for “resistance” represents the potential for a “transformation of consciousness”; and an a priori consistency of belief impervious to revision, fact, or experience.[34] In “Papuans and Zulus,” Bellow disclaims the remark, saying that “Nowhere in print, under my name, is there a single reference to Papuans or Zulus” and that the scandal is entirely…the result of a misunderstanding that occurred (they always do occur) during an interview.”[35] However, the core of Bellow’s outrage comes in this passage:

I had been quoted as saying that the Papuans had had no Proust and that the Zulus had not as yet produced a Tolstoy, and this was taken as an insult to Papuans and Zulus, and as a proof that I was at best insensitive and at worst an elitist, a chauvinist, a reactionary and a racist — in a word, a monster.[36]

The problem here, for Bellow, is what he takes to be the simple-minded way he is labeled “an elitist, a chauvinist, a reactionary, and a racist.” He objects, that is, to the combination of the “celebratory ‘Third Worldism’” and self-appointed moral superiority of his accusers, what he imagines as their impervious certitude of belief. It’s not only that his integrity is attacked, nor that he is accused of abhorrent ethical lapses, though both reactions are at work here. Rather, what he takes to be a way of intellectual life is here abominated by “the official falsehood machine,” a “petty thought-police campaign provoked by the inane magnification of ‘discriminatory’ remarks,” a “kind of “Stalinism.” For Bellow, 1990s political correctness is a matter of what Brahm calls the ressentiment of post-68 leftist politics in America, its self-justifying anger, which, as Bellow puts it, premises “the majority’s admission of guilt for past and present injustices, and counts on the admiration of the repressed for the emotional power of the uninhibited and ‘justly’ angry.”[37] For Bellow, while the “failure” of the post-68 American Left is, in this editorial, an ad hominem failure – the failure of a faction of people whose pursuit of political self-interest includes hostile name-calling – the larger failure that emerges here for him are the attendant failures of reasonableness, judiciousness, and honest reckoning.

In this way, Bellow sees “politics,” finally, as “not for the likes of us,” who should “stick to fictions,” as he tells friend and literary mentee, the novelist Martin Amis, in a letter of late 1990.[38] The advice speaks to the combination of high-modernist aesthetic indifference and politically ruffled feathers that continually converge in Ravelstein. The letter to Amis is occasioned by Salman Rushdie’s later retracted “re-embrace” of Islam in an attempt to neutralize the fatwa pronounced on him. Bellow refers Amis to the mistaken belief that “the civilization of the West had once and for all triumphed over exotic fundamentalism.”[39] Bellow sees “barbarism,” very definitely not in the culture of “pre-literate peoples,” whose cultures he studied as a University of Chicago graduate student in Anthropology, but in 1990s leftist posturing against his quip about the achievements of two “Western” novelists. Indeed, Bellow is at pains in the New York Times editorial to point out his respectful acquaintance with cultural difference and its complexity.

If Bloom represents for Bellow a misunderstood modernist intellectual and aesthetic ideal in contrast to this kind of politicizing, then we should expect Bloom’s own writing to offer a version of this ideal. The Closing of the American Mind is little more than popular provocation and was intended to be so. A more concise declaration of Bloom’s intellectual position comes in his “Editor’s Introduction” to Alexandre Kojeve’s Introduction to the Reading of Hegel, originally from 1969. Kojeve, a Soviet émigré in France, was a lifelong friend of Leo Strauss and Bloom’s teacher. He is also one of the most influential thinkers on the development of existential Marxism and post-Structuralist thought in post war France, linked often to names like Bataille, Lacan, and Foucault. There is, of course, an irony to this genealogical convergence, and it is an irony that should not be lost on those for whom, in the 1990s, concepts that had been rigorously interrogated by post-structuralism, concepts like “subject,” “history,” “agency,” and class, were seen to reemerge unscathed in an ethically aggressive, often moralizing retrenchment of self-authorizing, free-standing “subjectivity,” a subjectivity rooted, essentially, in the transparent agency of those touting a radical transformation of social consciousness.[40] While linking Bellow’s thinking with post-structuralism does indeed make for strange intellectual bedfellows, the common concern here with an interrogation of unexamined subjectivism and redeemed moral confidence is significant for the way that Bellow sees Bloom’s intellectual depth and importance.

In his “Editor’s Introduction” to Kojeve’s Introduction to the Reading of Hegel, Bloom somewhat tendentiously lays Kojeve’s “special merit” in what Bloom calls “the contemplation of the fundamental alternatives” faced in the clashes of history and human reason.[41] This clash between reason and history is, for Kojeve, as Bloom sees it, reducible to the different positions of Hegel and Nietzsche. Hegel, as Bloom reads him through Kojeve, and in any standard analysis, represents comprehensive hindsight, the après-coup of philosophical analysis, the necessary after-the-fact of understanding and the potential basis of any “state grounded on the principles” of reason. But reason’s dream of encompassing and comprehending all must acknowledge the chaotic, nomad impulses of its own motives. So, for Bloom, Kojeve “sees that the completion of the human task may very well coincide with the decay of humanity, the rebarbarization or even the reanimalization of man.”[42] It is important to point out here that Bloom’s reading of Kojeve is not in any way a simple-minded apology for a folk-Straussian version of Kojeve’s “end-of-history” argument, where the unexamined celebration of liberal democracy, transcending state sovereignty and founded on the revolutionary principles of the “dignity of man,” effaces the historicist, materialist version of evolving historical and cultural antagonism. Instead, Bloom sets up an opposition between reason and history, that is, between the ambitions of liberalism’s sovereignty of human dignity and the inevitable forces (migration, insurrection, extremes of inequality, etc.) that destabilize it.

In doing so, Bloom raises the question “whether the citizen of the universal homogeneous state” isn’t also “Nietzsche’s Last Man, and whether Hegel’s historicism does not by an inevitable dialectic force us to a more radical and somber historicism which rejects reason.”[43] In other words, in Bloom’s reading of Kojeve’s “end of history,” the antagonisms of what the Italian philosopher, Giorgio Agamben, calls “bare life” potentially erupt against social and intellectual complacency in ways that can’t necessarily be incorporated by philosophical hindsight.[44] Indeed, as Bloom puts it here, the evolution of capitalism and liberal democracy might contain the very prescription for their own failure. In this way, Bloom gives Kojeve’s Marxism full attention. In fact, Bloom is here surprisingly close to Benjamin’s idea, from the “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” that “historical materialism wishes to retain that image of the past which unexpectedly appears to man singled out by history at a moment of danger,” the flash point of disruption where “danger affects both the content of the tradition and its receivers,” so that, predictably, “in every era the attempt must be made anew to wrest tradition away from a conformism that is about to overpower it.”[45] In other words, for both Benjamin and for Bloom, the idea of the past as a living present relativizes history in ways that redefine the significance of past and present, of each for the other, creating the space for radical forms of thought. Of course, for Benjamin, these radical forms of thought are theological, “messianic,” while for Bloom they open up the possibility for socially ordering “truths.” But for both, and, indeed, for the elegiac motifs in Ravelstein, the opening up of history to thought and thought to history – the blowing up of history in the name of ideas – forms the basis of philosophical insight. Thus, while Bloom credits Kojeve as seeing in Hegel the proposition that reality is rational and hence provides its own homologous justification for rational discourse – that is, the ideal becomes the real at the “end of history” – the coalescence of rationality might also be the grounds for its own unraveling, resulting in the “decay of humanity” in the form of the “reanimalization” it unleashes.

Moreover, Bloom explicitly presents his reader a picture of Kojeve as “above all a philosopher.”[46] For Bloom, this means that Kojeve’s “passion for clarity is more powerful than his passion for changing the world” and that he “despises those intellectuals who respond to the demands of the contemporary audience and give the appearance of philosophic seriousness without raising the kinds of questions that would bore that audience or be repugnant to it.”[47] It is not insignificant that, in his review in the Neo-Conservative journal, The National Interest, of Frances Fukuyama’s The End of History, a more-or-less Kojevean analysis of the possibility of a universalized, rational, liberal state, Bloom, while praising the Straussian Fukuyama for having “introduced practical men to the necessity of philosophy, now that ideology is dead or dying, for those who want to interpret our very new situation,” also calls into question Fukuyama’s reading of Kojeve.[48] Bloom asserts that, though “liberalism has won…it may be decisively unsatisfactory,” looking more and more like a victory for Nietzsche’s “degraded Last Man.” [49] In other words, Bloom, in 1989, after the success of his popular book, was not peddling Neo-Conservative ideology. Rather, in this review of an influential book by a former student, he emphasizes the crucial social role played by the challenges and consolations of philosophy, which he sees as the most salient aspect of Kojeve’s concept of the “end of history,” one missed by Fukuyama. That is, rather than simply extolling the complacencies of liberal democracy, Kojeve, Bloom insists, thinks profoundly through Hegel and Marx as a “refutation of the claim that the end is a peak and of the possibility that reality can ever be rational.”[50]

Thus, in Bloom’s philosophical idealism, Kojeve should be a guide, not only for those anti-historicists looking toward “a reconsideration of Plato and Aristotle,” but also for those historicists working with “that mixture of Marxism and Existentialism which characterizes contemporary radicalism.”[51] Bloom’s position here promotes philosophical engagement over politics, but with the ironic codicil of having the philosophical representative of his position form part of the left-leaning genealogy of his eventual detractors. And so, as Christopher Hitchens, with deft irony, put it in a review of Ravelstein in the London Review of Books, Bellow’s Bloom is an intellectual whose “style [is] redeemed from being merely reactionary by its understanding of the ancients, and the understanding (to which it incidentally or accidentally assists us) that intellectuals never sound more foolish than when posing as the last civilised man.”[52] Bellow would seem to agree with “incidentally” as the process whereby character unfolds in fiction; but even “accidently” serves Bellow’s self-humbling elegiac purpose in the novel and scores a point against Bellow’s critics on the Left, whose own posturing seems to him determined to sound the foolish notes of sanctimony at all costs, but most dismayingly at the cost of honest reckoning.

Thus, in Ravelstein, Abe Ravelstein – professor, provocateur, philosopher, and lover of wisdom – is Bellow’s attempt to foreground an ethics of reading and enlightened observation against what he takes to be the simple, reactive political posturing of the post-1968 American Left. In the name of expansive, literate personhood, Ravelstein, as Chick presents him, is far from a simple human being. Though Bellow has Chick assert, “I am not interested in presenting his ideas,” Bellow clearly finds those ideas, the ideas of the classical political philosopher Bloom, very congenial, especially those stemming from Plato’s Symposium.[53] This, of course, is no surprise. Bellow makes Ravelstein into Big Desire, all appetite and intellect and thus a seething, shining, shaking, stammering, looming, sartorially bedecked, slobbering, brilliant connoisseur of the Platonic paradox of erotic and intellectual passion. Ravelstein, Chick tells us:

rated longing very highly. Looking for love, falling in love, you were pining for the other half you had lost, as Aristophanes had said. Only it wasn’t Aristophanes at all, but Plato in a speech attributed to Aristophanes…if you were continually in his company, you had to go back to the Symposium repeatedly. To be human was to be severed, mutilated. Man is incomplete… Without its longings your soul was a used inner tube maybe good for one summer at the beach, nothing more.   Spirited men and women and women, the young above all, were devoted to the pursuit of love. By contrast the bourgeois was dominated by fears of violent death.”[54]

Chick immediately qualifies this summary with a worry about its simplicity, but the Platonic allusion allows Bellow to make the connection between desire and intellect that characterizes the paideia, the education of souls to knowledge of the truth of their desire, which is the Straussian first principle that Bellow saw Bloom heroically upholding.

It also allows Bellow to cast the relationship between Ravelstein and Chick as lovers of wisdom,” engaged in the shared enterprise of making knowledge, and thus introduces the theme of self-examination that dominates the middle of the novel, as Ravelstein declines toward death as a result of complications of HIV/AIDS. Bellow follows the Platonic turn here as a strategy of hoisting his critics on the cultural left with their own petard. Bellow, it has been alleged, “outed” Bloom, and the ethics of the outing colored the novel’s reception.[55] But the Platonic themes locate Ravelstein’s appetites in the deeply reasoned repertoire of the great-souled man, making him into a complex, heroic subject of desire and not a caricature or mere category of sexual orientation. This strategy also allows Bellow to discard as simplistic the “outside” of sexual orientation as a form of public identity and subsume it more generally under the classical ethical category of the proper disposition of desire. Ravelstein’s excesses become, in this characterization, manifestations of passion in search of its Platonic other. Ravelstein’s connoisseurship of expensive clothes and restaurants, the sojourns in Paris, the intoxicating success of his ranting book against popular culture, his deeply appreciative, deeply analytical relationships with his students, and his trenchantly intimate analyses of Chick, all amount to a “large-scale mental life” that manages the balancing act between indulgent desire and the discrimination of truth from self-deception.[56]

In a way, Bellow’s critics fell into their own trap. Ravelstein’s sexuality emerges here as an Eros that both transcends its object and yet still sees its own relation to those objects as fodder for “Catskill entertainments.”[57] Bellow thus makes Ravelstein more enlightened and liberated than those on the academic Left who would damn both of them as conservatively essentialist and revile Bloom for his seeming “hypocrisy” about his sexuality. In doing this, Bellow affirms Ravelstein’s critique of modernity’s weak solution to the problem of desire: “not love but a sexual attachment – a bourgeois solution, in bohemian dress.”[58]

Bellow also presents Ravelstein’s relationships with his students in a defensively positive light. The reason for being defensive is well enough known. The students of Leo Strauss, in the eyes of their critics, form both a cabal of initiates and a neo-conservative political faction of sinister significance, especially in their role in the Bush administration and thus in the Iraq war. Moreover, as Anne Norton has argued in her book, Leo Strauss and the Politics of American Empire, “Bloom, far more that Strauss, has shaped the Straussians who govern America.”[59] According to Norton, The Closing of the American Mind “was meretricious, not merely speaking but pandering to the vulgar. Cavalier polemic had taken the place of scholarship,” and Bloom’s “turning from philosophy, his self-indulgence, his squandering of ability took literary form in it.”[60]

In the novel, the character Gorman, Ravelstein’s student, who is a stand-in for Paul Wolfowitz, President George W. Bush’s Secretary of Defense, is said to have “a grasp of Great Politics.”[61] Referring to the scene in the novel where Ravelstein proudly gets a phone call from Gorman with advance military information, Norton notes that “it says something about Bloom and something about Wolfowitz that most Straussians believe the incident to be a fictional gift from Bellow to Bloom, a moment of posthumous wish fulfillment.”[62] But if this passage is the fulfillment of Bloom’s wish to be important in educating conservative political leaders, those who understand “Big Politics,” what would such wish fulfillment suggest about Bellow? Beyond simple respect and affection, it suggests that, for Bellow, the seemingly vulgar turning away from philosophy in The Closing of the American Mind should not be allowed to detract from the intellectual achievements and aesthetic vision that Bloom, through Ravelstein, represents. Bellow doesn’t want his critics on the Left, the ones who took what he thought to be a cheap opportunity to disparage him as racist for the “Proust of the Papuans” quip, to be allowed to cheapen either the elite intellectual world of Bloom or Bellow’s own high modernist principle of the relation of ideas and feeling. Moreover, Bloom represents in the novel, not only an endangered form of high-culture intellectualism and aestheticism and the access to difficult texts on which that world is built, but also its convergence with an endangered sense of cultural Jewishness. Bellow has Chick and Ravelstein talk about both the insider’s perspective on high culture, but also the times and places where the alleged insiders, basking in their white male privilege, are still outsiders, Jews who, a generation before, had no access to worlds like the Committee on Social Thought or the salons of Hyde Park.

Yet, the novel Ravelstein is only partly about Ravelstein as Allan Bloom; it is also about Chick, and so about Bellow. The novel moves from the subject of biography, through the dying, great-souled being of Ravelstein, to Chick’s near-death experience. As it does, the reader becomes aware of a sub-plot consisting of Chick’s self-examination, which in turn consists of his own awareness of his projective relationship to Ravelstein, his Platonic other half. Here, the conceptual inflections of Chick’s own ruminations on desire and death take on an aesthetic cast. But this self-reflexive aspect of the novel’s last section is also, in a more covert way, a political response. As Chick puts it, “I permanently kept in mind the approach of death.”[63]

The novel’s elegiac mode turns the process of mourning a person and the intellectual comportment he represents – Athens and Jerusalem, ancients and moderns, the classics as living in the sometimes passionate, sometimes deadened lives of students and friends – into an appeal to see rightly the contribution made, to see that the work and its traditions continue. An ungenerous reading of Bellow’s self-representation in this novel would be to see it as an appropriation of Bloom to mediate the end game of his own literary legacy. If this is true, then it is trivially true. Less trivial, however, is the degree to which Bellow has, in this novel, articulated more clearly perhaps than anywhere else the metaphysics behind his aesthetics of fiction. The underlying notion of intense Platonic friendship that the novel gives us becomes a metonymy of a deep, atemporal conception of the whole of culture. In this conception, a single moment, if attended to in its complex qualities and relations, speaks suggestively of an interlineated univocity of being. It does so, not only as an ideological gesture in the name of the Old Left’s disdain for the New Left and its politically-correct progeny, but also as an illocutionary act of faith in the name of this possibility of a shared tradition of ideas and textual methods. It speaks, that is, of a stratum of powerfully shared experience.

In this way, Bellow echoes Bloom’s own complicated, Straussian evocation of the relation of historicism to texts and ideas in the introduction to Kojeve’s notes on Hegel. Bellow is ahistoricist about the value of art and ideas, but he acknowledges, like Bloom, the radically historical moment of the revelation of an idea. Indeed, Bellow seems here to be reducing everything to a final moment, and the novel becomes a distillation of collective affect. Thus Chick speaks openly of the “overflow” of Ravelstein’s persona and of the way that “the famous light of Paris was concentrated on his bald front.”[64] This is more than admiration; it is a conception of a Platonically erotically interpersonal relation inseparable from both an aesthetics of fiction and an ethics of great ideas and books, one in which the qualities of character coalesce into a point of high cultural significance and do so on the model of “a magnetic imperative that was simply there.”[65] This is Bellow’s Bloom, but this, too, is Bellow’s wish for his own character-centered fiction, with its famously keen, detached observations of a world of deep complexity.

Such high-minded theorizing, moreover, is consistent with the strong tones of Jewish identity and history in the book. Rosamund, Ravelstein’s former graduate student and Chick’s current wife, says astutely to Chick: “You’ve given lots of thought to all kinds of problems, except the most important one. You began with the Jewish question.” And Chick replies: “Of course that’s what this conversation is circling – what it means to the Jews that so many others, millions of others, willed their death . . . As Ravelstein saw it I refused to do the unpleasant work of thinking it all through.”[66] If this biographically inspired, elegaic novel can be considered a wrapping up of Bloom’s life through fiction, then insofar as Bellow’s life in fiction is wrapped up here as well, it is so by the belief that the apotheosis of Western morals is finally, not solely Mosaic law or classical ethics, but is contained in Ravelstein’s paraphrased remark that “we, as Jews, now knew what was possible.”[67] “The Jews were historically witnesses to the absence of redemption,” Chick quotes Ravelstein as saying in the manner of his teacher, Professor Davarr, the novel’s stand-in for Leo Strauss.”[68] It is, after all, the smug confidence in achieved “redemption” that Bellow seems most to abhor in his critics on the Left in the early 1990s, a stance not unsurprising given his explicit re-embrace of Jewish identity in the late 1960s in the writing of Mr. Sammler’s Planet.[69]

In this way, the encomium to Bloom becomes a trope for the impossibility of unqualified knowing, of moral confidence, and the question of the Jews looms as the central conundrum of the history of the cultural highlife that Ravelstein embodies. The life of “the political history of this civilization” is the life of its failings for Bellow, and, though the novel defends his friend and himself from the ideological simplicities of their neo-Left detractors, Bellow is finally more interested, in Ravelstein, in exposing something of the history of that failure. One cannot forget that Germany, at the beginning of the atrocities against the Jews, was considered to be the height of culture. As the novel closes, Chick and Bellow can only console themselves with the “pleasure and astonishment” of “ideas in the form of feeling.”[70] Bloom was, for Bellow, a grand example of “ideas in the form of feeling,” and so Ravelstein, Bellow’s elegiac tribute to his friend, is also an elegy to an ideal of modernity’s intellectual and aesthetic possibilities, his high modernist “breather” in the face of the ideological “toxins which have infected our judgments.”[71]



[1] Saul Bellow, Ravelstein (New York: Viking, 2000), 50.

[2] Ibid., 50.

[3] Ibid., 44.

[4] Ibid., 14.

[5] Ibid., 40.

[6] Ibid., 17.

[7] Ibid., 16.

[8] Ibid., 31.

[9] Ibid., 22.

[10] Saul Bellow, “Allan Bloom.” In It All Adds Up: From the Dim Past to the Uncertain Future. (New York: Viking, 1994), 277.

 [11] Bellow, It All Adds Up, 277.

 [12] Saul Bellow, “A Half Life: An Autobiography in Ideas.” In Conversations with Saul Bellow, Gloria Cronin and Ben Siegel, eds. (Jackson, MS: The University Press of Mississippi), 2004, 261. This interview also appears in Bellow, Saul. It All Adds Up:From the Dim Past to the Uncertain Future (New York: Viking, 1994), 287-313.

[13] Bellow, “A Half Life: An Autobiography in Ideas,” 270.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Bellow, Saul. Letters, ed. Benjamin Taylor, ed. (New York: Viking. 2010), 540.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Gregory Bellow and Alan Berger, “Blinded by Ideology: Saul Bellow, the Partisan Review, and the Impact of the Holocaust,” Saul Bellow Journal, Volume 23, Nos. 1 & 2 (Fall 2007 & Winter 2008), 9.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid., 10.

[20] Bellow, Letters, 540.

[21] Bellow, Ravelstein, 76.

[22] Ibid., 53.

[23] Ibid., 53.

[24] Bellow, Ravelstein, 4. In a high-profile review of The Closing of the American Mind for the New York Review of Books (“Undemocratic Vistas.” Volume 34, No. 17, November 5, 1987), Martha Nussbaum tersely points out the book’s popular intentions. She asks: “How good a philosopher, then, is Allan Bloom? The answer is, we cannot say, and we are given no reason to think him one at all. His book is long on rhetoric, painfully short on argument.” Nussbaum, however, acknowledges that “if we approach Bloom’s book expecting it to be a work of Socratic philosophy, answering the Socratic demand for definitions, explanations, and rational arguments, we may be mistaking its purpose,” though that purpose upholds, she rightly points out, a “contemplative and quasi-religious” understanding of philosophy, one “removed from ethical and social concerns, and the preserve of a narrow elite.” She suggests, instead, an democratically “noble wish for a country in which the souls of all citizens would flourish, each in its own setting, and find respect…as an antidote to Bloom’s apocalypse.”

[25] Bellow, Ravelstein, 9.

[26] Ibid., 47.

[27] Ibid., 47-48.

[28] James Atlas, “Chicago’s Grumpy Guru,” New York Times Magazine, January 3, 1988, 31.

[29] Bellow, Letters, 250.

[30] Alfred Kazin, “Jews” [“Personal History”], New Yorker, March 7, 1994, 67.[31] Alfred Kazin, “My Friend Saul Bellow,” Atlantic, January 1965, 52.

[32] Kazin, “Jews” [“Personal History”], 68.

[33] Saul Bellow. “Papuans and Zulus.” New York Times, March 10, 1994, “Op-Ed,” A25.

[34] Gabriel Noah Brahm, Jr., “The Post-Left: An Archaeology and a Genealogy” Democratiya (Summer 2008), 108-109.

[35] Bellow, “Papuans and Zulus,” “Op-Ed,” A25.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Bellow, Letters, 476.

[39] Ibid.

[40] See Fredric Jameson’s “Transformation of the Image in Postmodernity.” In The Cultural Turn: Selected Writings on the Postmodern, 1983-98 (London: Verso, 1998), 93-135, especially 94-96 and 103-105. For what remains an invaluable study in English of Kojeve’s contribution of the existential roots of post-structuralism, see Poster, Mark. Existential Marxism in Postwar France: From Sartre to Althusser (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1975), especially 8-18.

[41] Allan Bloom, “Editor’s Introduction.” In Alexandre Kojeve, Introduction to the Reading of Hegel: Lectures on the Phenomenology of Spirit, edited by Allan Bloom, translated by James H. Nichols (New York: Basic Books. 1969), vii-xii, xii.

[42] Ibid., xii.

[43] Ibid., xi.

[44] Agamben, Giorgio. Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (1995), translated by Daniel Heller-Roazen,(Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998).

[45] Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History.” In Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, Hannah Arendt, ed., Harry Zohn, trans. (New York: Schocken Books), 1969, 257-258.

[46] Bloom, “Editor’s Introduction,” viii.

[47] Ibid.

[48] Allan Bloom, “Response to Fukuyama,” National Interest (Summer 1989), 21.

[49] Ibid.

[50] Ibid., 20-21.

[51] Bloom, “Editor’s Introduction,” viii.

[52] Christopher Hitchens, “The Egg-Head’s Egger-On. Review of Ravelsteinby Saul Bellow,” London Review of Books, Volume 22, No. 9 (27 April, 2000), 21-23.

[53] Bellow, Ravelstein, 14.

[54] Ibid., 24-25.

[55] Atlas, James. Bellow: A Biography (New York: Random House, 2000), 596-97.

[56] Bellow, Ravelstein, 47, 115.

[57] Ibid., 15.

[58] Ibid., 120.

[59] Norton, Anne. Leo Strauss and the Politics of American Empire (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2004), 58.

[60] Ibid.

[61] Bellow, Ravelstein, 60.

[62] Norton, Leo Strauss and the Politics of American Empire, 58-59.

[63] Bellow, Ravelstein, 105.

[64] Ibid., 31.

[65] Ibid., 96.

[66] Ibid., 167.

[67] Ibid., 174.

[68] Ibid., 179.

[69] Bellow and Berger, “Blinded by Ideology: Saul Bellow, the Partisan Review, and the Impact of the Holocaust,” 16.

[70] Bellow, Ravelstein, 60 and 252-53.

[71] Bellow, “Papuans and Zulus,” “Op-Ed,” A25.

Available is the introduction to A Political Companion to Saul Bellow with the following chapter: “Our Father’s Politics: Gregory, Adam, and Daniel Bellow” ; also see “The Search to be Human in Dangling Man,” “Transformative Love and The Recovery of Tradition in Mr. Sammler’s Planet,” and “Fathers and Sons: Saul Bellow’s Politics and Political Thought.”

This was originally published with the same title in A Political Companion to Saul Bellow ( University of Kentucky Press, 2013).

Willis Salomon

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Willis Salomon is Associate Professor of English at Trinity University in Texas. He is editor of Rhetoric and Ethics: Historical and Theoretical Perspectives (Edwin Mellen Press, 1991).