Shadia B. Drury
224 pages, hardcover
The publication of Saul Bellow's novel Ravelstein has once again focused attention on the influence of Leo Strauss and Allan Bloom on Canadian and American intellectual life. But has Bellow shed any light on this vexed topic?
Bellow has gone out of his way to declare to the media that his novel is based on his intimate acquaintance and close friendship with Allan Bloom. He claims that Bloom asked him and trusted him to write his memoir, and that the novel is intended as a tribute to his friend. And this is how it has generally been received. But the story itself does not support this claim. On the contrary, it calls into question the suggestion that Bloom was admirable as a man, a teacher or a thinker. The novel also raises serious questions about Bellow. How well did he understand his friend? And what kind of friendship was it anyway?
Bellow presents a story about an aging academic, Abe Ravelstein, who is dying of AIDS. He describes Ravelstein as an eccentric with a large bald head and "erratic gestures," a slob who was "impatient with hygiene," and a rude ingrate who nevertheless loved elegance. We are told that he had a colossal contempt for the bourgeoisie, but was nevertheless addicted to every bourgeois luxury imaginable. What could be more bourgeois than an obsession with brand names, designer labels and expensive wine glasses? His shirts were custom made by Turnbull & Asser--contemptuously dubbed Kisser & Asser by his friend Chick, who represents Bellow in the novel.
We learn about Ravelstein's Lanvin jacket (worth US $4,500) that he soiled only minutes after it was purchased. But no matter, money was no issue once he struck it rich with a best-selling book condemning academe. That made it possible to live in style without borrowing money from his friends, as he was wont to do.
We also learn about Ravelstein's love of fine bedding. He and his partner Nikki (a young Oriental man with boyish good looks) slept on "Pratesi linens and under beautifully cured angora skins." Nikki was dressed by "Versace, Ultimo and Gucci"--which is to say that he "was better dressed than the Prince of Wales." And when you are dressed like that, you do not take the subway, so Ravelstein bought him a chestnut-coloured BMW with more gadgets than a pilot's cockpit.
Bellow surmises from all this that Ravelstein's training with the great Professor Davarr (the fictitious version of Leo Strauss) taught him how to live like a philosopher. Is Bellow being ironic? Or is he just confused? Or does Professor Davarr think that the philosophic life consists in the unbridled pursuit of pleasure?
Then there is Ravelstein's obsession with Eros in general and sex in particular. Again and again, the novel revisits the Aristophanic sex myth according to which all human beings were androgynous (having two sets of sex organs) until the gods split them into two halves; ever since they have been wandering in search of their other half. Ravelstein was “earnest about this quest, driven by longing.” But he was also socially practical; he knew that marriages had to be concluded and the quest set aside. Yet Ravelstein was not willing to set the quest aside himself.
Bellow makes no bones about the fact that Ravelstein's misfortunes were the result of his own sexual excesses. He tells us bluntly that Ravelstein was "destroyed by his reckless sex habits." But now that Ravelstein was so "fatally polluted," he could only think with longing of the "pretty boys in Paris." One cannot help but conclude that the Aristophanic sex myth was a fancy excuse for promiscuity. Bellow does not draw this conclusion. He does not know what conclusion to draw.
Although he emphasizes the closeness of the friendship, the discerning reader draws a different conclusion. Chick did not know his friend very well. He admits that he did not know exactly what sort of relation Ravelstein had with his apparent heir, Nikki. Was Nikki a gold digger? Or did he love Ravelstein before he struck it rich? We are not told. What did Ravelstein have in common with a young man who could not be part of his philosophical conversations? What did he see in a youth who watched kung fu Movies to all hours of the night and slept until two in the afternoon? Nikki was surely a most unlikely soul-mate for Ravelstein. But then, was Ravelstein really looking for his soul-mate, his severed half?
Nothing that Bellow tells us makes Ravelstein's character endearing. There is nothing admirable about a character who is self-indulgent and hypocritical and has delusions of grandeur. As a reader, it is difficult to feel any empathy for Ravelstein or for his suffering and death. There is nothing sad, let alone tragic, about a character who is the architect of his own doom.
I did not know Allan Bloom as a man, so I cannot judge the accuracy of this portrait. But one thing is clear: it is not flattering. Yet Bellow insists that the work is a tribute to his friend. What could he be thinking?
Some of Bloom's admirers have criticized Bellow for "outing" his friend. But Bloom's homosexuality was well known within the academy. Besides, his sexual preferences are of no interest. What is interesting is the fact that Bloom wrote a book defending family values--a book that neoconservatives claim as their own, but in truth, Bloom had no use for marriage or families whatsoever. Bellow understands this well. He tells us that Ravelstein regarded marriage as a prison, and a faithful husband as a prisoner with no time off for good behaviour and no applying for parole. Those of us who heard Bloom on CBC Radio's Ideas some years ago know that Bellow got it right. His novel reveals the extent of Bloom's hypocrisy. What Bellow fails to grasp is that this duplicity cuts to the root of the Straussian philosophy itself.
Then there is the question of Bloom's greatness as a teacher. In the novel, Bellow tells us that Ravelstein trained his students exactly as he had been trained by Davarr. His students used the same esoteric jargon and shared the same vision of the world. And Ravelstein agonized about which students to entrust with the secret teaching. But Bellow has no idea what the secret teaching is.
Bellow describes Ravelstein's students as holding important posts on national newspapers and in the U.S. State Department and other world centres of power. We hear them reporting to their guru at regular intervals--phoning from around the world, discussing their daily triumphs, dilemmas and strategies. As presented by Bellow, Ravelstein spent hours on the telephone--which made possible an ongoing seminar on the "policy questions" and the answers of Plato, Rousseau and Nietzsche. In this way, the guru remained in charge of the education of his "old boys" even when they were into their forties.
As Bellow portrays the matter, the guru took pleasure in being the éminence grise, the power behind the throne, the mastermind of a shadow government. He prided himself on having taught his students well, and now he was rewarded by their serious efforts to put his ideas into action.