by Saul Bellow.
Ravelstein, Saul Bellow’s roman à clef about the last years of philosopher-provocateur Allan Bloom, may be the best post-9/11 novel published in the year 2000.
Ravelstein has as many virtues as its subject has grabby, endearing vices. It’s a subtle portrayal of the blurred boundaries between eros, philia, paternal, and filial love. It calls attention to its own provisional nature: “I may return to this subject later,” the narrator says, but “I probably won’t.” It’s a loving portrait of a man who was both an appetitive personality and an inspiring teacher: “He didn’t ask, ‘Where will you spend eternity?’ as religious the-end-is-near picketers did but rather, ‘With what, in this modern democracy, will you meet the demands of your soul?’”
The year is never named, but the Gulf War is ending, the campuses are amoral rather than strenuously moralistic, and the unnamed epidemic is always AIDS. Abe Ravelstein’s former students constantly call him to give him the scoop from the State Department, or from their boss Brent Scowcroft. The professor loves this war-gossip from his “shadow government,” as he loves all creature comforts. (“He relished louche encounters, the fishy and the equivocal.”) He has trained his youth to reject their Midwestern, middle-class parents and view geopolitics through the lens of Thucydides and Plato.
Slowly a contrast emerges. Chick, our narrator, is a novelist. He’s a detail man, an observer. He is used to making allowances, “taking all sorts of ambiguities into account.” He loves Ravelstein, who dwells among ideas in the Great Conversation. Ravelstein tells him he attends too much to observations and epiphanies, and ignores man’s purpose. We have here the ant’s-eye view and the eagle’s.
And Ravelstein suggests that what is missing is the middle term: the moral world, where human particularity meets philosophical abstraction. The final, inescapable representatives of this middle world are the Jews. Both Jewish faith and the attempted extermination of the Jewish people force us to live in the moral world, where sublimity and historycollide.
Ravelstein himself realizes this before Chick does, and more deeply. He asks Chick what he noticed about Radu Grielescu, a European academic: “… I told him that at dinner he lectured about archaic history, he stuffed his pipe, and lit lots of matches.”
But what Ravelstein noticed about Radu Grielescu was that he had been a member of the Iron Guard, and a committed fascist.
Early on, Chick notes that in this “cornucopia-time” of prosperity, “You begin, in accordance with an unformulated agreement, to accept the terms, invariably falsified, on which others present themselves. You deaden your critical powers.… In approaching a man like Ravelstein, a piecemeal method is perhaps best.” What is it that Chick failed to notice in Ravelstein, and what did Ravelstein himself choose not to see?
When I arrived at Yale University in 1996, all the charismatic right-wingers loved Allan Bloom. His masterpiece of popularization, The Closing of the American Mind, was on every shelf. In debates and dinner-table arguments these exotic conservative philosophers, these traditionalist-Socratics, these lovers of paradox and dwellers in contradiction, introduced me to the same eternal questions Ravelstein pressed upon his swooning students. Why do you long for something you have never experienced or known? What is the purpose of your life? Why do you feel that the answers your parents and pop culture have provided are so bloodless and small?
In after years, the people who had gathered around those tables dispersed like their cigarette smoke. They went into think tanks and academic departments and magazines; many went to law school. Two or three entered the armed services, our other dream factory, where power becomes suffering and suffering justifies power. None of us were people who could tell you what the President was thinking.
And yet it’s not hard to see our part of the Right reflected in the sketchy images of Ravelstein’s students, flickering at the edges of Bellow’s book. There’s a parallel between Grielescu and Ravelstein. They are men strangely removed from the killing fields. They—like the conservative movement, in our ongoing humiliation—are men who court power instead of noticing its victims. Ravelstein loves the “handful of human beings [who] have the imagination and the qualities of character to live by the true Eros,” the “great-souled”; the rest, the average American, he ignores.
Ravelstein probably dies during Bush 41’s presidency (Bloom himself died in October ’92) but his children, with their moral realism and their hawkish foreign policy, shaped the Republican Party right up until yesterday. He strove to awaken their unfulfillable longings. If those longings led them at last to the tanks in the desert, well, every Socrates has his Alcibiades—and his Critias.
Ravelstein believed “the weather would adapt itself to whatever the people that mattered were thinking”: That line might serve as the epitaph of the George W. Bush presidency. Or the GOP.
Ravelstein is anything but a political screed. It’s about what it means to live after one’s death; about the tenderness found in untraditional and hard-to-explain forms of kinship. (This is a novel about attentiveness and tending: whom we tend, and what we fail to attend to. “I was past knowing how high my fever was,” Chick says, and so say we.) It’s about a certain utterly recognizable style of American Jewish masculinity, a cussing and gobbling style in which life is there to be devoured by those who are still alive and kicking.
But it’s also about the moment when you start to wonder: Why didn’t I see this coming?
Eve Tushnet writes from Washington, D.C. She is author, most recently of Amends, a novel.