The Egg-Head’s Egger-On

Christopher Hitchens

  • Ravelstein by Saul Bellow
    Viking, 254 pp, £16.99, April 2000, ISBN 0 670 89131 2

Novelists can be lucky in their editors, in their friends, in their mentors and even in their pupils. Sometimes they are generous or sentimental enough to fictionalise the relationship. In Keep the Aspidistra Flying, George Orwell gave his friendless, dowdy and self-pitying protagonist, Comstock, one true pal: the editor and patron Ravelston, proprietor of the small yet reliable magazine Antichrist. This Ravelston – some composite of Sir Richard Rees and John Middleton Murry – was a hedonistic yet guilt-ridden dilettante, good in a pinch, and soft on poets, but too easily embarrassed by brute exigence. Saul Bellow – who has already shown a vulnerability to exigent poets in his wonderful Humboldt’s Gift – now presents us with Ravelstein, a hedonistic kvetch who manifests patience towards none. As is known to all but the meanest citizens of the republic of letters, the novel is an obelisk for the late Allan Bloom, author of the 1987 shocker, The Closing of the American Mind. This book, which was a late product or blooming of the University of Chicago Committee on Social Thought, argued that the American mind was closed because it had become so goddamned open – a nice deployment of paradox and a vivid attack on the relativism that has become so OK on campus these days. Bloom’s polemic swiftly became a primer for the right-wing Zeitgeist; a bookend for the shelf or index sternly marked ‘all downhill since 1967’. And even then, there were those who detected a Bellovian lending, or borrowing as the case might be.

When The Closing of the American Mind first came out, Robert Paul Wolff, then a professor of philosophy at Amherst, wrote a short review in Academe, the journal of the American Association of University Professors. Let me quote from his prescient opening staves:

Aficionados of the modern American novel have learned to look to Philip Roth for complex literary constructions that play wittily with narrative voice and frame. One thinks of such Roth works as My Life as a Man and The Counterlife. Now Saul Bellow has demonstrated that among his other well-recognised literary gifts is an unsuspected bent for daring satire. What Bellow has done, quite simply, is to write an entire coruscatingly funny novel in the form of a pettish, bookish, grumpy, reactionary complaint against the last two decades. The ‘author’ of this tirade, one of Bellow’s most fully-realised literary creations, is a mid-fiftyish Professor at the University of Chicago, to whom Bellow gives the evocative name ‘Bloom’. Bellow appears in the book only as the author of an eight-page ‘Foreword’, in which he introduces us to his principal and only character.

Right away one thought of Herzog, the super-kvetch of all kvetches. But here again, in his foreword to Bloom or ‘Bloom’, Bellow kept us guessing. As he phrased it (teasingly?):

There are times when I enjoy making fun of the educated American. Herzog, for instance, was meant to be a comic novel: a PhD from a good American university falls apart when his wife leaves him for another man. He is taken by an epistolatory fit and writes grieving, biting, ironic and rambunctious letters not only to his friends and acquaintances, but also to the great men, the giants of thought, who formed his mind. What is he to do in this moment of crisis, pull Aristotle or Spinoza from the shelf and storm through the pages looking for consolation and advice?

Rather archly, perhaps, Bellow went on to smile at the simplicity of some of his public:

Certain readers of Herzog complained the book was difficult. Much as they might have sympathised with the unhappy and comical history professor, they were occasionally put off by his long and erudite letters. Some felt that they were being asked to sit for a difficult exam in a survey course in intellectual history and thought it mean of me to mingle sympathy and wit with obscurity and pedantry. But I was making fun of pedantry!

Well, taking things all in all, I think we had better be the judge of that. Because now we have an ostensibly full-out novel, this time under Bellow’s real name, which reveres pedantry and is all about the life and death of Allan Bloom. Indeed, with its many real names and actual locations, it constitutes a novelistic and realistic memoir of him. And it is related, partly in anguish, by a Herzog character – ‘a PhD from a good American university’ whose wife has just left him for another man, or at any rate for other men.

For some reason that I cannot pretend to decode, this Boswell is named ‘Chick’. He it is who proposes that Ravelstein write the egghead bestseller (‘It’s no small matter to become rich and famous by saying exactly what you think’) and who in return accepts Ravelstein’s commission to become his – probably posthumous – biographer. So far, so accurate: Bellow was the egghead’s egger-on, and also his angel in the publishing world, and here we find the second half of the debt redeemed. The story is authentic too, as far as it goes, about Ravelstein/ Bloom’s egghead allegiances. Bloom was an adept or disciple of the Chicago philosopher Leo Strauss, a German-Jewish émigré who was, according to your bias, sinister or arcane. Modelling himself on Aristotelian and Machiavellian theories of the covert formation of princes, Strauss never sought public renown and insisted on close explication of the occult element in classic and classical texts. His American disciples, of whom Francis Fukuyama is probably the most celebrated, achieved a brief nearness to real power during the Reagan and Bush Administrations, one of them (William Kristol, son of Irving) being the Aristotelian mentor of Dan Quayle. The giveaway in Straussian critiques is the employment of the term ‘regime’ to denote styles of rulership. Bellow captures this neo-cultist element quite deftly:

But Ravelstein knew the value of a set. He had a set of his own. Its members were students he had trained in political philosophy and longtime friends. Most of them were trained as Ravelstein himself had been trained, under Professor Davarr, and used his esoteric vocabulary. Some of Ravelstein’s older pupils now held positions of importance on national newspapers. Quite a number served in the State Department. Some lectured in the War College or worked on the staff of the National Security Adviser. One was a protégé of Paul Nitze. Another, a maverick, published a column in the Washington Times. Some were influential, all were well informed; they were a close group, a community. From them Ravelstein had frequent reports, and when he was at home he spent hours on the telephone with his disciples. After a fashion, he kept their secrets. At least he didn’t quote them by name.

That’s the first and almost the last we hear of the crucial and seminal Felix Davarr, who as Leo Strauss is mentioned only once in The Closing of the American Mind, where he makes the oddly trite observation that the moderns ‘built on low but solid ground’. Bloom’s reticence, though, is appropriate: it is that of the close-mouthed and knowing initiate, while Bellow treats Strauss as if he were like Anthony Powell’s Sillery: no more than a don with a number of influential ex-pupils. When Alexandre Kojève is mentioned a few pages later, he is drawn in the same rather lifeless terms as ‘the famous Hegelian and high official who had educated a whole generation of influential thinkers and writers’. Someone who had really done that could once have expected a more lapidary (or do I just mean less tired?) sentence from Bellow’s pen.

The cynicism of Strauss’s theory and practice was summarised in his antithesis between Athens and Jerusalem. I am certain to vulgarise the recondite here, but Straussians believe in religion and not in God. Philosophy is the high calling of the élite: a strenuous and contemplative effort directed at the moulding of a cultural and political leadership. Obviously, superstition and piety are mere encumbrances in the discharging of this elevated task. But the masses, of whom no such effort can be expected, must draw their ethical and disciplinary rations from the commissary of the supernatural. ‘Chick’/ Bellow shows no grasp at all of this dialectic, which he repeatedly expresses as Ravelstein’s fascination with Athens and Jerusalem, as if Plato and the Talmud were equal treasures from the bran tub of antiquity.

That of course was the ad hoc conclusion of the autodidact and omnivore Augie March, Bellow’s most superbly rendered fictional creation. March passes long stretches on the periphery of the University of Chicago, and at one point makes a sort of jackdaw living by stealing ‘great books’ on commission for scholars like the lanky Hooker Frazer. His first major haul is ‘a big Jowett’s Plato’ but he soon diversifies: ‘Two volumes of Nietzsche’s Will to Power I had a hell of a time swiping, for they were in a closed case at the Economy Book Store; I also got him Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, as well as the last volumes of Capital from the Communist bookshop on Division Street, Herzen’s Autobiography, and some de Tocqueville.’ The influence of the University on the city, especially on its outcast or indigent element, can be felt all the time in The Adventures of Augie March. There is Padilla, the impoverished Mexican who gets a scholarship to develop his genius for mathematics, and there’s Clem, amassing erudition in a fly-blown rooming-house.

In Augie March, too, we sense Bellow’s interest in gurus and savants and mentors. Here’s the disabled local fixer and broker William Einhorn:

The first superior man I knew. He had a brain and many enterprises, real directing power, philosophical capacity, and if I were methodical enough to take thought before an important and practical decision and also if I were really his disciple and not what I am, I’d ask myself: ‘What would Caesar suffer in this case? What would Machiavelli advise or Ulysses do? What would Einhorn think?’ I’m not kidding when I enter Einhorn in this eminent list. It was him that I knew, and what I understand of them in him. Unless you want to say that we’re at the dwarf end of all times and mere children whose only share in grandeur is like a boy’s share in fairy-tale kings.

When Einhorn’s father dies, his self-educated and slum-bred son reaches for the ‘deep-water greatness’ of the ancients and strains pathetically but nobly for an elevated note and a high calling. In his dignified filial death-notice for the neighbourhood paper he writes without embarrassment: ‘“My father was not familiar with the observation of Plato that philosophy is the study of death, but he died nevertheless like a philosopher, saying to the ancient man who watched by his bedside in the last moments … “That was the vein of it.’

I can’t resist adding two more themes from Bellow’s triumph in 1953. One is a hatred of workhouse condescension towards the underclass: ‘Something in his person argued what the community that contributed the money wanted us poor bastards to be: sober, dutiful, buttoned, clean, sad, moderate.’ And the other a real demotic admiration for the Greeks, for their ancient willingness to face things as Augie tries to face the humilations of jail and the Stygian gloom of Erie, Pennsylvania and other wasteland spots:

Only some Greeks and admirers of theirs, in their liquid noon, where the friendship of beauty to human things was perfect, thought they were clearly divided from this darkness. And these Greeks too were in it. But still they are the admiration of the rest of the mud-sprung, famine-knifed, street-pounding, war-rattled, difficult, painstaking, kicked in the belly, grief and cartilage mankind, the multitude, some under a coal-sucking Vesuvius of chaos smoke, some inside a heaving Calcutta midnight, who very well know where they are.

By contrast, Ravelstein, and Ravelstein, are shadows on the wall of Augie March’s cave. The great city of Chicago is now represented as a heaving Calcutta midnight, awash in feral delinquency. Ravelstein segregates himself in an apartment building, with the pretentious name of ‘The Alhambra’, where his only contact with the world of the streets is a superannuated black skivvy: ‘As nearly as any honky could, he took into account her problems with her prostitute daughter, her jailed criminal son, and with the other son whose HIV troubles and scrambled wives and children were too complicated to describe.’ Why does one get the impression that Bellow would rather these people were ‘sober, dutiful, buttoned, clean, sad, moderate’? Ravelstein, meanwhile, looks on his students as the raw material of a future conservative hierarchy owing a debt to himself. (In a moment of lucid callousness we are informed that ‘if they weren’t going to make it he didn’t hesitate to throw them out.’) Also, we soon discover that this new maître, who possesses none of the coarse vigour of Einhorn, has ‘HIV troubles’ of his own.

Chaos, most especially the chaos identified with pissed-off African Americans, was the whole motif of The Closing of the American Mind. Bloom had taught at Cornell during the campus upheaval of 1968, and never recovered from the moment when black students produced guns to amplify their demands. (He also never reconciled himself to the ghastly fondness of the young for rock music. ‘Whether it be Nuremberg or Woodstock,’ he wrote in a passage of extreme dyspepsia comparing everybody to the Brownshirts, ‘the principle is the same.’) However, there was hope. A small group of classics students copied out and xeroxed a passage against ochlocracy from Plato’s Republic and passed it out as a leaflet. Bloom sounds just like Bellow when he recalls this moment: ‘They had learned from this old book what was going on and had gained real distance on it.’

Actually, Glaucon’s evening with Socrates would have been a poor shadowy guide to an American ‘regime’ which was then engaged in confronting a revolt of the helots, and in fighting a war far more cruel and unjust and irrational than the Peloponnesian. But what Bloom liked was the attachment to form. At least, he liked it most of the time. The worst thing he could think of to say about one of his academic antagonists was that he was ‘an assiduous importer of the latest Paris fashions’. By this of course he meant an interest in Sartre or Althusser or perhaps Foucault; it makes it all the funnier that when we first meet ‘Ravelstein’ he is in Paris on a vulgar spree of consumerism: Lanvin jackets, costly scarves, Lucullan restaurants and hotel suites; if you’ve got it, baby, flaunt it. Before too long there is a fast car with all the fixings being ordered for ‘Nikki’, the travelling companion, and we further learn that Abe (Ravelstein’s seldom used first name) is en rapport with at least some young blacks for his fashion sense alone. By these signs, and a few others, Bellow makes it easy to know what ‘Bloom’ never admitted in his paeans to the Greek style: that for all his contempt for the counter-culture he was a live-dangerously homosexual.

As depicted by Bellow, this is perhaps the most attractive and sympathetic aspect of the man. But, as the novel fails to register, it was also a negation of his whole public stance. Allan Bloom thought, and Abe Ravelstein thinks, that sex – any sex – is a poor expression of Eros, but better than nothing at all. Heavy weather is made of this simple point:

Naturally there was a Greek word for it, and I can’t be expected to remember every Greek word I heard from him. Eros was a daimon, one’s genius or demon provided by Zeus as a compensation for the cruel breaking-up of the original androgynous human whole. I’m sure I’ve got that part of the Aristophanic sex-myth straight. With the help of Eros we go on, each of us, looking for his missing half. Ravelstein was in real earnest about this quest, driven by longing. Not everyone feels that longing, or acknowledges it if he does feel it. In literature Antony and Cleopatra had it, Romeo and Juliet had it. Closer to our own time Anna Karenina and Emma Bovary had it, Stendhal’s Madame de Rênal in her simplicity and innocence had it. And of course others, untaught, untouched by open recognition, have it in some obscure form.

The ‘obscure form’ in which ‘Bloom’ really experienced it was of this kind:

One day he said to me: ‘Chick, I need a cheque drawn. It’s not a lot. Five hundred bucks.’

‘Why can’t you write it yourself?’

‘I want to avoid trouble with Nikki. He’d see it on the cheque stub.’

In the first proof of the novel that I read, Bellow went on to be explicit about the sexual elements that were masked by this accountant version of anonymity. He has since excised that paragraph, perhaps or presumably in deference to the unease produced by his candour about Bloom’s escapades. (Pre-publicity for the book drew some moans of pain from the old-school Chicago hands.) However, the chief point is allowed to survive its euphemisation: Allan Bloom died of Aids, as was finally and reluctantly admitted by his admirers. Nor is this a detail. Bloom never mentioned the gay movement in his series of assaults on promiscuous Modernism. Throughout his posthumously published book Love and Friendship, a rather superior effort to analyse Eros and agape from Alcibiades to Émile, he hoarded his own views on pederasty well on the other side of the closet door. No ordinary reticence was involved here. The philosophical movement associated with Leo Strauss regards ‘sodomy’ as sterile and nihilistic, and as an unmanly betrayal of tribe and family. And the Straussian intellectuals have undergone a schism, every bit as sulphurous and Talmudic as the Trotskyist faction-fights that were known to Augie March and indeed the young Bellow. Professor Harry Jaffa, Strauss’s most ardent disciple and Bloom’s one-time collaborator in a volume on Shakespeare’s politics, has authored a stream of polemics against homosexuality as a violation of ‘natural law’. This very trope currently forms the moral cement of the American Right. There may or may not be a suggestive and contradictory connection between ‘Ravelstein’s’ secretive sex life and his attachment to arcane doctrines – between the erotic and the esoteric – but Bellow can’t seem to be bothered with it.

This is perhaps because his narrator has problems of his own. Domestic traumas – heterosexual and banal ones, to be sure – are eating him up, and like Herzog he finds little release in pulling Aristotle or Spinoza from the shelf. Indeed, when he tries to scan anything at all, this happens:

One day when I was reading a book (my regular diet of words) she wandered into the room entirely nude, came to my bedside and rubbed her pubic hair on my cheekbone. When I responded as she must have known that I would she turned and left with an air of having made her point. She had won hands down without having to speak a word. Her body spoke for her, and very effectively too, saying that the end was near.

Bellow has always had a fierce instinct for the blunt messages that female pudenda can convey, especially in closure. The much younger and tougher Augie March had to endure the following:

In heat like this she preferred to go naked in her room. When I wanted to recall how she was, naked, I found I could do it very well. She saw my eyes on her lower belly and her hand descended to hold the edge of the robe there. Seeing that colourful, round-fingered hand descend, I bitterly felt how my privilege had ended and passed to another man.

The pubis-flaunting female in the present case – enough to drive anyone nuts, if not necessarily queer – is the coldly scientific and dedicated Romanian wife we last met in The Dean’s December. By degrees, as Ravelstein sickens and dies, ‘Chick’ shuffles forward to become the subject and object of his own novel. He realises that his wife has outpointed him emotionally and also legally. Lamenting his own dullness, and also lapsing into terrible colloquialism, he kvetches: ‘You deaden your critical powers. You stifle your shrewdness. Before you know it you are paying a humongous divorce settlement to a woman who had more than once declared that she was an innocent who had no understanding of money matters.’ The spring-heeled and amoral Ravelstein is probably the near-perfect friend to have in such a fix; he mocks the wife’s robotic ways and her frigidly perfectionist style, and suggests that her Romanian pals are probably Iron Guard fascists anyway. (He punctuates his monologues with the tic phrasing ‘thee-ah, thee-ah’, which Bellow records skilfully without noting that such mannerisms are designed to make the speaker uninterruptible, and are thus an unfailing sign of the closet authoritarian.) Still, Chick’s best-ever pal turns out to be his next wife, who realises that he is not just sick but actually in mortal peril after he eats the wrong fish on a Caribbean holiday, and who exerts herself to pluck him back from the lip of the grave. I’m sorry that the narrative breaks off before the latest big news in Bellow’s life, which is his fathering of a daughter at the age of eighty-plus, with the same staunch and estimable woman who did the plucking.

Thin though this novel may be, and perfunctory in keeping its commitment as the unwritten memoir that Bellow promised to Bloom in a moment of weakness, it does exemplify some of the stoicism of the neo-conservative mentality. ‘Ravelstein’ doesn’t whine as the end approaches. We don’t actually see him die (Bellow’s own near-death experience follows, perhaps, too hard upon) but we witness him in the humiliating shipwreck of his last illness and he remains a wise-cracking atheist and materialist. ‘Chick’ chooses to see this as a pose, and to take literally Ravelstein’s expiring gags about a reunion beyond the grave, which strikes me in the light of a slight but significant breach of faith. Say what you will about the Straussians, they aren’t hypocrites or weaklings and they don’t burble about heavenly rewards to make up for when the mind has gone. Indeed, they have made rather a pointed study of the dignified hemlockian terminus. Bloom should have been allowed this last nobility.

Bellow’s own attitude to Jerusalem is given a mild work-out in these pages. In the past few decades he has had a fluctuating relationship with the neo-conservative movement. He first endorsed the bogus work of the pseudo-demographer Joan Peters, who argued that there had been no Palestinian population to be dispossessed in the first place, and then honourably withdrew his encomium when the facts about the book became known. He signed up with the grandiosely titled Committee for the Free World, run by Midge Decter and Norman Podhoretz, and then let his sponsorship lapse when the same outfit published hysterical slanders against Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal. In the argument about standardised courses in ‘Western Civilisation’, he intervened with the now notorious remark that the Papuans had no Proust and the Zulus had no … was it Zola? He wrote a crabbed and resentful account of a visit to the Holy City, which seemed to some of us to be an Arab v. Jewish allegory of the fears and resentments – about black populism and demagogy in New York and Chicago – which have been more cheaply annexed by Tom Wolfe but which found an outlet also in Mr Sammler’s Planet. In Ravelstein he presents the Jewish experience principally and unexceptionably as one of survival. With a tinge of self-pity, though, he also advances it as something that non-Jews can’t be expected to understand. Even great humanists like Maynard Keynes, when you con the list of ‘great books’, disclose their rodent prejudice. ‘I had a Jewish life to lead in the American language, and that’s not a language that’s helpful with dark thoughts.’ There’s a quavering note here which, ironically in its way, contrasts with Abe Ravelstein’s robust and amoral and defiant and very American style; a style 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.