Monday, January 16, 2023

Saul Bellow, Allan Bloom, "Ravelstein," and Materialism

From my old web site:

I've just finished reading Saul Bellow's Ravelstein (2000), and it inspired me to wonder what kind of person I am. The story behind this interesting little novel is itself quite interesting, full of ironies and ambiguities, and to explain my reaction I have to tell something of this story.

Ravelstein is Bellow's tribute to his friend Allan Bloom, a philosophy professor at the University of Chicago. The book is narrated by a man much like Bellow, called Chick, and tells the story of a man much like Bloom, called Abe Ravelstein. The real Bloom acquired fame and wealth by writing, at Bellow's urging, The Closing of the American Mind (1987), a book about why his students in the 70s and 80s preferred rock music to Plato. The answer, insofar as Bloom provides one, is to be found in a widespread intellectual decay that began with the phenomenology of Heidegger and other philosophers of the "continental school." This rather offbeat conclusion led one reviewer to suggest that "Allan Bloom" could not possibly be a real person; he must, instead, be a character in a Saul Bellow novel. Indeed, Bellow's books are full of intellectual cranks much like the Bloom of his bestseller, and since Bellow's fiction has been described as "a higher form of autobiography," one can see why the two men were friends.

In Ravelstein, Bloom actually became a Saul Bellow character, or rather was transmuted into one. (Bellow also gives us a savage portrait of a woman much like one of his ex-wives; since he has savaged all four of his ex-wives in print, you have to wonder how he keeps getting women to marry him; but that's a topic for another day.) The main focus of Bellow's novel is on the contrast between Chick, a man who, despite some success as a writer, remains in his own imagination a rather small and pathetic person, and Ravelstein, who lives every moment to the fullest. Ravelstein's devotion to philosophy is one part of a life devoted to the best of everything: the best in ideas, to go with the best art, wine, clothes, etc. After a lifetime of struggling to live large on a professor's salary, falling ever deeper into debt, Ravelstein is freed by his bestseller to pursue his taste in fine things to the limit. As the book opens he has flown to Paris, where he stays in the same hotel as Michael Jackson, takes Chick and his wife out for an extraordinary meal, and spends $4500 on a new Lanvin jacket. Chick later tells us that Ravelstein has replaced everything in his apartment, from the linens to the phone, and installed a state-of-the-art entertainment center where he watches Michael Jordan with his favorite students. As he lies dying of AIDS, Ravelstein's main concern is that the custom Lexus he has ordered for his lover, a beautiful young Asian man, be exactly perfect.

(Incidentally Bellow got some grief for revealing that Bloom was gay, a fact that was never mentioned during the vociferous public debate over The Closing of the American Mind; but Bellow said Bloom was not closeted and just didn't talk about his sexuality much, so there was no secret to conceal.)  

Trying to put Ravelstein together with what I remember of The Closing of the American Mind, I am left thinking that to Bloom his students' indifference to Plato mattered because it represented their estrangement from all that is best in human life. A kid who doesn't get The Symposium will probably never appreciate a 1929 Chateau Latour, a custom-made suit, true friendship, a Bach cantata, a Matisse drawing, a leather-upholstered Lexus, or the beauty of Michael Jordan's jump shot. Ravelstein complains, as he sips espresso in his new Lanvin jacket and Hermes tie, that those who don't understand what Plato was saying about Eros will never find meaning or happiness in their lives.

While I can see the appeal of Ravelstein's life, it seems to me that anyone who understands what Plato was saying about Eros would know that there is a difference between a $4500 sport coat and true friendship. One matters, and one does not. As I thought this, it immediately occurred to me what Ravelstein would say to my objections: he would say that I am a bourgeois pedant. And proudly so! I am the heir to a very long tradition of pedantry, the tradition that asserts the superiority of the spiritual to the material. Socrates, after all, had no use for fancy clothes; it is in the prologue to The Symposium that an acquaintance sees him going to the party and says, "Socrates! You're wearing shoes! Where are you going so dressed up?" I represent the school that cries foul whenever idealism is dismissed as a charade, or an economist argues in a footnote that median income is the best measure of the happiness of a society, or a cynic portrays politics as a game played by powerful men in which ideology is just one of the weapons and the people merely the playing field. Since I am an agnostic, and I do not really acknowledge the existence of anything that is not material, you may be wondering on what basis I prefer love or truth to the best hotel room service. I don't know, and that is why this book has set me to thinking so hard about myself.

All I can say is that while I wouldn't mind being able to fly to Paris on a whim, and I love fine music deeply, and I enjoy good wine and smooth sheets, high living doesn't seem to be very important to me, or, more to the point, to my happiness. I value my friends, my family, the pleasures of being with them and conversing with them, and the freedom to explore the universe with my mind; those are the things that make me happiest. Somewhere below those, I value the beauty of the world and the beauty of art, the comfort of my home, democracy, honesty, wit, and the pleasures of my body in sex, sport, and work. Ravelstein's life strikes me as empty in many ways, especially in having no partner and no children. I get that he was gay before adoption was a reasonable possiblity for gay people, but if our goal here is to live life to its fullest, I think he missed out on a lot.

Ravelstein also seems more a spectator than a participant in other, less significant ways. He watches basketball, listens to music, and reads philosophy, but he plays neither a sport nor an instrument and he doesn't seem to do any original philosophizing, either. My jump shot isn't as pretty as Michael Jordan's, but I bet it's better than Allan Bloom's ever was, and I always thought philosophy was supposed to help us think in new ways, not just recycle Plato on Eros. Perhaps my preferences show that I don't really understand what is best in life. I would rather play basketball in my own mediocre way than watch real excellence, which is something like saying, you know, Michelangelo is neat, but I'd rather do my own doodling than look at old pictures. And my ideas—well. They are mine, though, and they don't seem to keep me from enjoying Plato, any more than admiration for Churchill is reason not to run for the school board. Life, as the ad says, is not a spectator sport.

If you think I'm wandering in mental circles, perhaps you are right. On the other hand, the evidence I have suggests that I am a lot happier than the notoriously sour Saul Bellow. Given his wealth, his unhappiness can't possibly stem from the lack of fine linens and a state-of-the-art entertainment center. No doubt the real roots of his disenchantment with the human condition are in his own unhappy family life, and his four failed marriages probably say more about him than his views of Michelangelo or Michael Jordan. My own marriage is a thing more precious to me anything Bellow's money could buy, or even, despite my writing ambitions, his Nobel Prize. Neither Bellow's brilliant cynicism nor Ravelstein's extraordinary zest for life seems to me to offer anything comparable to the love, loyalty, and human connections I have managed, in my own mediocre way, to find for myself. I have grounded my own search for excellence in my love for my wife and my children, in my loyalty to my friends, and in my fidelity to foolish abstractions like truth, justice, and freedom. I offer no defense of my choices except that, so far, they seem to be working ok for me, and that is all, I think, we can really expect of life.

May 12, 2001 

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