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A Closing of the American Kind | The Nation

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A Closing of the American Kind

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Dear Doktor Professor Heidegger, I should like to know what you mean by the expression "The Fall into the Quotidian." When did this fall occur? Where were we standing when it happened?
      (
Herzog)

About the Author

John Leonard
John Leonard, the TV critic for New York magazine, a commentator on CBS Sunday Morning and book critic for The Nation...

But so long as we think of Abe as Allan we are distracted. We are still fighting the Culture Wars, still reviewing The Closing of the American Mind. We can't forget that this is the man who accused Louis Armstrong of trashing Weimar, who compared Woodstock to Nuremberg, who fled Ithaca for Hyde Park in the parricidal sixties as if from Pompeii to Atlantis. Wolfpacks of Dread Relativism on dawn patrol! Student power! Student sex! We underline what Ravelstein says about Hayek, Bloomsbury, Islam, the Gulf War, the Grateful Dead, Mrs. Thatcher, the liberal arts and the inner city--"the chaos the life of such people must be," he says after a chat with his cleaning lady; and, "Don't they give those people any training?" after a black nurse mentions in polite company that it's time for his AZT; but what do we expect from Chicago's dark South Side and its "noisy, pointless, nihilistic turmoil"?--as if we were writing articles of impeachment. Surely Saul Bellow, of all people, ought to prize diversity and inclusiveness. In the first twenty-seven pages of Augie March alone, mention was made of Heraclitus, Tom Brown's School Days, a coat factory, a laundry truck, Anna Karenina and Nabisco wafers; popcorn and Manon Lescaut, football and Yiddish theater, pickled fish and The Iliad. Why, in Ravelstein's Chicago, is it all right to love the Bulls but not the Beatles?

This is a mug's game. As male friendships in American literature go, Chick and Abe may not be in a league with Ishmael and Queequeg, Huck and Jim or Mason and Dixon, but they share a "sense of what was funny... A joyful noise--immenso giubilo--an outsize joint agreement picked us up together." You and I might have our doubts about a man who sends his neckties air-express to be laundered by a silk specialist in Paris, who must sleep on Pratesi linens, "under beautifully cured angora skins," and perk himself up in the morning with his very own espresso machine, while listening to eighteenth-century operas on compact disks through hi-fi speakers that cost $10,000 each, before venturing out to spend $4,500 on a Lanvin sports jacket the color of a Labrador retriever, on which he will sprinkle ashes from his incessant cigarettes, while delivering "little anti-sermons in a wacko style" about "mass democracy and its characteristic--woeful--product" or maybe the Treaty of Versailles. You and I might prefer to pledge a vow of Trappist silence than talk so eagerly on our mobile phones to well-placed inside-dopesters--former students, war criminals with training wheels--at the State Department, on the staff of the National Security Adviser or columnizing for the Washington Times. But Bellow has always indulged his taste for the flamboyant. And better Abe, so full of big ideas that go all the way back, than...well, in Augie, there was Einhorn, and in Seize the Day, Tamkin, and in Humboldt's Gift, Cantabile. Bald Abe, with his milky-white legs in his blue-and-white kimono "fit for a shogun," in the Hotel Crillon penthouse in Paris, among oil sheiks and Michael Jackson groupies, hating his father and scattering his food, is a distinct improvement on these charlatan gurus. At least, like his main man Socrates, he will die without self-pity.

Chick encouraged Abe to write his book, which is why Abe is now rich and no longer has to pawn his Jensen silver teapot and his Quimper antique plates to his colleagues and admirers to pay for the Dunhill lighter or the Mont Blanc pen that he suddenly can't live without. Abe laughs at Chick's jokes. (Example: "Maybe an unexamined life is not worth living. But a man's examined life can make him wish he was dead.") On the other hand, he seems to have an odd investment in Chick's guilelessness, especially about women. Whereas, while Chick likes to listen to Abe talk about anything--from Maimonides to Mel Brooks--he has his doubts about Abe's settled certainty on everything he talks about. ("Of course my needs were different from Ravelstein's. In my trade you have to make allowances, taking all sorts of ambiguities into account--to avoid hard-edged judgments.... In art, you become familiar with due process. You can't simply write off people or send them to hell.") Nor should you invite them to the country. Abe, for whom "nature and solitude are poison," is mystified by Chick's periodic idylls in the woods. ("He said, repeating the opinion of Socrates in the Phaedrus, that a tree, so beautiful to look at, never spoke a word and that conversation was possible only in the city, between men.")

Yet if we refuse to embrace the contradictions of our loved ones, we will be left loveless. Nobody wants to wind up like Norman Podhoretz, whose only remaining friend is America. So we are finally won over to these two old men, cranky and horny, discussing Greeks, Jews, death and sex, in their very own parrot-filled agora. "I was free," says Chick, "to confess to Ravelstein what I couldn't tell anyone else, to describe my weaknesses, my corrupt shameful secrets, and the cover-ups that drain your strength." And Ravelstein, although HIV-positive and dying of its complications and infections, nevertheless "insisted on telling me over and over again what love was--the neediness, the awareness of incompleteness, the longing for wholeness, and how the pains of Eros were joined to the most ecstatic pleasures":

He was not one of those people for whom love has been debunked and punctured--for whom it is a historical, Romantic myth long in dying but today finally dead. He thought--no, he saw--that every soul was looking for its peculiar other, longing for its complement.... there is a certain irreducible splendor about it without which we would not be quite human. Love is the highest function of our species--its vocation.

Thus, for Chick, even after flunking so many previous marriages, another gallant try with Rosamund. Thus, for Abe, even as the plague takes him, a devotion to Nikki that is reciprocated even after Nikki has stayed up till 4 in the morning watching kung fu movies from his native Singapore. But now we come to the distance between these strenuous poses.

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