Ravelstein by Saul Bellow

Ravelstein (Penguin 233 pages) is based on intellectual and historian of ideas Allan Bloom, whose Closing of the American Mind stands as the meat to this ultimately gossipy, but not unrevealing, portrait of the man (closet gay, incorrigibly sloppy, resolutely positive, a big cigarette-smoking pizza-eating exquisite furniture-buying Saint Bernard of a man who plays Platonic soulmate matchmaker for his students, and gives his Chinese helpmate a car when he finally makes it big). Bellow apparently urged Bloom to write the book (which despite its reputation as a narrow conservative tract is actually a brilliant example of applied Platonism) which became a huge best seller, and for which the novelist wrote the introduction. Apparently the favor was returned in Bloom’s wish for Bellow (if anyone) to chronicle his life. Bellow’s portrait is as much an homage as a novel; he is in awe of Bloom’s intellect but appears to approach it only obliquely through the admittedly interesting story of the days surrounding the book’s success up to and including Bloom’s death. The personal touches and interaction between the two men, who have their own Platonic relationship, is closely observed, as one would expect from Bellow. Perhaps best read as an introduction to The Closing of the American Mind, showing in no uncertain terms the humanity of this latter book, whose arguments, often and easily dismissed as mere conservative drek, but in fact a careful indictment of the intellectual poverty and logically opposed ideals (e.g., equality and diversity) at the core of modern academia (particularly the humanities) are more pertinent now than ever.

Dorion Sagan, author of The Devil’s Comic (2000) and co-author of Pack of Lies (forthcoming).

excerpt:

Odd that mankind’s benefactors should be amusing people. In America at least this is often the case. Anyone who wants to govern the country has to entertain it. During the Civil War people complained about Lincoln’s funny stories. Perhaps he sensed that strict seriousness was far more dangerous than any joke. But critics said that he was frivolous and his own Secretary of War referred to him as an ape.

Among the debunkers and spoofers who formed the tastes and minds of my generation H. L. Mencken was the most prominent. My high school friends, readers of the American Mercury, were up on the Scopes trial as Mencken reported it. Mencken was very hard on William Jennings Bryan and the Bible Belt and Boobus Americanus. Clarence Darrow, who defended Scopes, represented science, modernity, and progress. To Darrow and Mencken, Bryan the Special Creationist was a doomed Farm Belt absurdity. In the language of evolutionary theory Bryan was a dead branch of the life-tree. His Free Silver monetary standard was a joke. So was his old-style congressional oratory. So were the huge Nebraska farm dinners he devoured. His meals, Mencken said, were the death of him. His views on Special Creation were subjected to extreme ridicule at the trial, and Bryan went the way of the pterodactyl—the clumsy version of an idea which later succeeded—the gliding reptiles becoming warm-blooded birds that flew and sang.

I filled up a scribbler with quotes from Mencken and later added notes from spoofers or self-spoolers like W. C. Fields or Charlie Chaplin, Mae West, Huey Long, and Senator Dirksen. There was even a page on Machiavelli’s sense of humor. But I’m not about to involve you in my speculations on wit and self-irony in democratic societies. Not to worry. I’m glad my old scribbler has disappeared. I have no wish to see it again. It surfaces briefly as a sort of extended footnote.

I have always had a weakness for footnotes. For me a clever or a wicked footnote has redeemed many a text. And I see that I am now using a long footnote to open a serious subject—shifting in a quick move to Paris, to a penthouse in the Hotel Crillon. Early June. Breakfast time. The host is my good friend Professor Ravelstein, Abe Ravelstein. My wife and I, also staying at the Crillon, have a room below, on the sixth floor. She is still asleep. The entire floor below ours (this is not absolutely relevant but somehow I can’t avoid mentioning it) is occupied just now by Michael Jackson and his entourage. He performs nightly in some vast Parisian auditorium. Very soon his French fans will arrive and a crowd of faces will be turned upward, shouting in unison, Miekell Jack-sown. A police barrier holds the fans back. Inside, from the sixth floor, when you look down the marble stairwell you see Michael’s bodyguards. One of them is doing the crossword puzzle in the Paris Herald.

“Terrific, isn’t it, having this pop circus?” said Ravelstein. The Professor was very happy this morning. He had leaned on the management to put him into this coveted suite. To be in Paris—at the Crillon. To be here for once with plenty of money. No more of the funky rooms at the Dragon Volant, or whatever they called it, on the rue du Dragon; or in the Hotel de l’Académie on the rue des Saints Pères facing the medical college. Hotels don’t come any grander or more luxurious than the Crillon, where the top American brass had been quartered during the peace negotiations after the First World War.

“Great, isn’t it?” said Ravelstein, with one of his rapid gestures.


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