Wednesday, March 11, 2009


Ravelstein, by Saul Bellow
2000, 236 pp.

"Abe Ravelstein was a large, eccentric man. He wrote a famous book and got rich and bought highly expensive things. Everyone loved him, except ridiculous left-wingers. Then he died of AIDS and I got really bad food poisoning."

I have now saved you the trouble of reading Ravelstein. Had Saul Bellow not actually lived it, there would have been no reason for this book to exist; even though he did live it, it still might not really have needed to exist. By now the real story is easy to follow: Abe Ravelstein is a barely-concealed mask for Allan Bloom, the vaguely-notorious right-wing University of Chicago political philosopher and author of The Closing of the American Mind. He and Bellow (who appears here in the guise of the narrator who is inexplicably named "Chick") were friends for decades. Bloom did indeed write a book that made him rich, and did indeed die of AIDS, and Bellow did indeed shortly thereafter come down with terrible food poisoning. Interestingly, Ravelstein is therefore a sort of Pyrrhic victory over the modern vogue for doorstopper psycho-biographies laden with meticulous (and irrelevant) details about every aspect of an individual's daily life, rather than critical engagement with that individual's thought or reflections on their impact. Instead this is a biography partly as memoir and partly as novel, devoid of actual plot, but linked together by disconnected anecdotes and character sketches.

The character of Ravelstein (and therefore of Allan Bloom) is the central piece of this book, and its central problem. The gist of Bloom's famous book is that the American mind has become closed because it's so damn open: Americans began reading silly books by brown people and neglecting Plato, and that is leading our civilization over a cliff, just like the fall of Rome and Germany and all the other great empires. Now people like that new-fangled rock music! It's a travesty, I tell you.

Bloom was a student of Leo Strauss, who was also the teacher and mentor of Paul Wolfowitz, Francis Fukuyama, and William Kristol, the last of which in turn gave us Dan Quayle. So thanks for that. Bloom seems to have been irrevocably traumatized by the 1969 occupation of Willard Straight Hall by gun-toting brown people while he was teaching at Cornell, and apparently he spent the rest of his academic career generally being paranoid about what in another place and another time would be called the denigration of the white race and the pure Greco-Roman heritage at the hands of the unwashed, melanin-coated masses. Perhaps I caricature, but Bloom's book is by now the subject of almost universal ridicule: Martha Nussbaum savaged Bloom's scholarship in the New York Review of Books, David Rieff lambasted him in the Times Literary Supplement, and one inspired commentator observed that Saul Bellow contributed the introduction and decided to pretend that The Closing of the American Mind was really a clever satire. At the time, Milton Friedman was busily destroying Chile, Leo Strauss was polluting his ugly little disciples, and Friedrich von Hayek was still at work raving about socialism and serfdom. The University of Chicago was at its zenith of influence, having spread right-wing zealots all over the United States, in almost every field of endeavor. As Alexander Nehamas wrote in the London Review of Books, "Bloom's book and its enthusiastic reception are a testament to the pervasive (but not yet sufficiently noticed) influence which a group of Chicago-based intellectuals have been having on American politics, economics, law and literature. We are in the process of seeing the emergence of a Midwestern philosophy." Allan Bloom styled himself a political philosopher and produced an eccentric translation of Plato's Republic, Rousseau's Emile, and some poor readings of Shakespeare. Bloom seems to have been a repugnant person, a petty tyrant, a bigot, and a boor, and it shows through in Ravelstein, though I do not much think that was Bellow's intention. We are repeatedly assured that Ravelstein is the most intelligent person alive--he even knows who Plato and Thucydides were! We are reminded again and again how many important students he has had, and how much they love him. All of this is revoltingly repetitive: I began amusing myself by tallying each time Bellow told me that to be Ravelstein's friend, I had to know Plato. I got to eleven tallies. Indeed, the entire book is extremely repetitive, and it gives the slightly unkind impression of a very old man repeating himself with very little actual material to use and no editor to speak of.

Bellow might have gotten away with this were it not for the endless catalogues of brands and price tags. Ravelstein has a $5000 watch. Ravelstein spills coffee on his $4600 jacket. Ravelstein has his ties air-lifted to a silk-specialist in Paris. Ravelstein buys his gay lover a BMW to play with. Ravelstein wears Versace. Ravelstein stays at the most expensive hotel in Paris, where Michael Jackson stays. After a hundred and fifty pages, I wanted to shout "Just go down on him already!"

Apparently Bellow has something of a reputation for being an erudite, difficult read. Perhaps afficionados of the Oprah Book Club consider his stilted references to Plato to be some sort of Mensa crossword puzzle. Readers of Umberto Eco, however, will be alternately bored and annoyed. To someone who has actually read Plato and Thucydides, Bellow seems to have memorized a few names and buzzwords to drop in like an artillery barrage to cover up his retreat. The entire book reads like the rambling, self-aggrandizing nonsense spouted by a spoiled, overconfident lout in a freshmen philosophy survey course who thinks that since he can mispronounce "Xenophon" he is entitled to more sexual activity than he's actually getting. I was not impressed. Bellow also makes a few howling mistakes which someone somewhere really should have caught: if you are going declare someone the smartest person alive, you had better be sure that you know that General McAuliffe was at Bastogne, not Remagen, and that Athens lost their fleet at Aegospotami, not Salamis.

I should attempt to be fair. Sometimes Bellow's prose is splendid: "his blue alcoholic look," "taking a humanity bath," "he laughed like Picasso's wounded horse in Guernica," "everybody has something like a lawn of random knowledge." Of course, his sentence are too often too short and too declarative. By page six I was longing for a humble "and," let alone a debonair semicolon. Sometimes he doesn't even seem to be trying: "He made this super clear," for instance, wouldn't pass an English 100 class. The ending section which depicts Chick/Bellow's sickness has little to do with the rest of the book and is structurally awkward: it was included because it happened, not because it helped the book. The briefly interesting asides about the nature of remembrance, the impermanence of being, the attempt to craft a public persona are also weighted down with non-sequiturs about what it means to be Jewish in America, and whether anyone else Ravelstein and Chick meet are Jewish, like Jews, or hate Jews. It is a sagging, often unpleasant little book, and though Bellow may have been brilliant elsewhere, it is too rarely on display here.

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