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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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You will recall that when Augie March went to Mexico, he hooked up with an eagle, which he called Caligula. (He also ran into Leon Trotsky, navigating "by the great stars." In this, Augie was luckier than his creator, Saul Bellow, who had an appointment in 1940 to see Trotsky on the very morning of his murder and ended up in Coyoacán looking at a corpse: "A cone of bloody bandages was on his head. His cheeks, his nose, his beard, his throat, were streaked with blood and with dried iridescent trickles of iodine." But already I digress.) Suppose that instead of an eagle, Augie had grabbed a parrot, like a bag of Magical Realist feathers, and sneaked it back to Chicago. This might explain the marvel that knocks three times at the stained-glass window of Ravelstein.

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...

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(1) Abe Ravelstein, a political philosopher just out of intensive care and feeling shaky, is escorted by his friend Chick, a much-married older novelist, from the University of Chicago campus back to his apartment, stopping at every other corner to catch his breath. They happen, remarkably, on a flock of parrots in a clump of trees with red berries. Though not really interested in nature, Ravelstein needs to know: "What are we looking at?" Chick explains that the parrots, descendants of an escaped pair of caged birds, first built their long, sacklike nests in the lakefront park and later colonized the alleys; that "hundreds of green parrots" live in "bird tenements" hanging from utility poles; that the new "garbage-based ecology" involves raccoons and even possums, besides your usual rats and squirrels. "You mean," says Ravelstein, "the urban jungle is no longer a metaphor."

(2) Thirty pages later, two years after Abe's death, Chick thinks back to "the morning of the day when he and I had come upon the parrot-filled holly bushes where the birds were feeding on red berries and scattering the snow." He re-experiences his friend's surprise: "You're just back from the dead, and you run into an entire tribe of green parrots, tropical animals surviving a midwestern winter." And this time a grinning Ravelstein is made to say: "They even have a Jew look to them."

(3) Finally, at the end of this lambent novel, this prayer for the dead, Chick seems to be channeling Ravelstein: "He loses himself in sublime music, a music in which ideas are dissolved, reflecting these ideas in the form of feeling. He carries them down to the street with him. There's an early snow on the tall shrubs, the same shrubs filled with a huge flock of parrots--the ones that escaped from cages and now build their long nest sacks in the back alleys. They are feeding on red berries. Ravelstein looks at me laughing with pleasure and astonishment, gesturing because he can't be heard in all this bird-noise."

By now, Bellow's got it down like a scroll painting or a haiku. Indeed, for all that, Ravelstein is spiced with Western Civ's greatest hits--with long views from Athens and Jerusalem, as seen through the eyes of the noble dead (Plato, Rousseau, Nietzsche), the compulsive scribblers (Xenophon, Dr. Johnson, Joyce, Céline), the exemplary-prophetic (Job and Tolstoy) and the merely peculiar (Marie Antoinette and Whittaker Chambers), at whom, because "death does sharpen the comic sense," we are even encouraged to laugh "like Picasso's wounded horse in Guernica, rearing back"--there is something oddly Oriental about the novel, as if it were told by an odalisque with a folding fan. Or, to be even fancier, as if it were a series of tai chi exercises, a sequence of strenuous poses. Thus, for Ravelstein's many eccentricities--a white crane flashing its wings. For Chick's many marriages--a master strumming his lute. For the price exacted by world history and personal choice--a wild horse shaking its mane. And, for a teller done with his tale, a hunter holding the tail of a bird. ("As birds went," Chick says of Abe, "he was an eagle, while I was something like a flycatcher.")

I'm about to suggest that Ravelstein is the story of two deaths--of the philosopher and the novelist--with only one Lazarus, who isn't Socrates. I will argue that as much as Saul Bellow enjoyed the company of Allan Bloom, they had profound differences on how to live and die, what happens afterward and the way we best explain each other. These differences, as much as their friendship, are what animate the novel. They are in fact what make it a novel and not a tacky roman à clef, shellacked to fix its gaudy colors. But first the tabloid tease.

Humboldt wanted to drape the world in radiance, but he didn't have enough material.
      (
Humboldt's Gift)

That Ravelstein is Bloom is obvious not only on the basis of internal evidence--the gift for teaching; the bestselling book; the messy eating habits; the expensive tastes and sexual secrets; gossipy friends in high places; contempt for relativism, feminism, black power, gay pride, the social sciences and rock and roll--but also on the basis of Bellow's own remarks at a memorial service for Bloom in 1992, included in It All Adds Up (1994), which reappear here almost word for word. (Mercedes will become BMW, and Michael Wu will become Nikki, and Persian carpets, Chinese chests, Hermes porcelain and Ultimo cashmere coats will turn into Armani suits, Vuitton luggage, Lalique crystal and Cuban cigars, but the chain-smoking, the Chicago Bulls and Plato's Symposium remain the same.) That Chick is Saul is equally obvious from the novels, the marriages and the gnarly grain of the prose, plus what we know from the news about Bellow's near death from food poisoning in 1994. Chick even paraphrases a passage in an earlier Bellow novel, More Die of Heartbreak, on how he imagines death: "I said that the pictures would stop." Of course, while everybody who ever met him at the University of Chicago knew Bloom to be a gay diva, there's no closet quite like the Committee on Social Thought, and so at the memorial they chose to blame his death on liver failure instead of AIDS.

OK, Abe is Allan, Chick is Saul and we are told in the April Lingua Franca that Rakhmiel Kogon is Edward Shills and Radu Grielescu is Mircea Eliade. I am already wise to Vela, the Romanian-born "chaos" physicist who dumps Chick, because I met her before in The Dean's December, when she was a Romanian-born astronomer named Minna. Thanks be, she will exit in time to make room for Chick's new wife, Rosamund, about whom there's reason to worry, because if she really was a student of Bloom's, she should be feeling attenuated, if not invisible, since he is said to have looked right through even the brightest of his female students to likelier candidates for his coterie. This still leaves mysterious the secret identities of Battle, the Sanskrit-speaking ex-paratrooper who looks like "the Quaker on the oatmeal box," and of Morris Herbst, who's written a book on Goethe's Elective Affinities in spite of his weakness for dice and cards. One supposes we must wait for the infinitely receding James Atlas tell-all bio.

Or maybe not. While sometimes interesting, this piggish snuffling after factoid truffles is usually distracting, approximately as helpful as being told that García Márquez patterned the six chapters of The Autumn of the Patriarch on Bartok's six string quartets and Virginia Woolf's The Waves, and invariably reductive in the cranky manner of Ruth Miller's Saul Bellow: A Biography of the Imagination (1991), in which she insists that all the novels are autobiographical, cookie-cut to an identical pattern: a family that's a pain. (They may love him, but they don't understand him; he's a spiritual orphan.) Alter egos who are the same compulsively talkative, intellectually alienated, wisecracking, soul-stricken and culture-freaked manic-depressive (Russian-Jewish Chicago street-smarties even when, like Henderson or Corde, they're not supposed to be). And women who do him wrong: "frumps," says Miller, "predators, trollops, cheats, mousies, doxies, harridans, emasculators, manipulators, betrayers, or rigid unyielding martinets, paranoids, dollies, or chumps." (Herzog wonders, "Will I ever understand what women want?... They eat green salad and drink human blood.")

But this is to read each novel as though it were a grudge--a settling of private scores on the reader's time. If you want to know who is (or isn't) Isaac Rosenfeld, Harold Rosenberg, Meyer Schapiro, Dwight Macdonald, John Berryman or R.P. Blackmur--if it matters to you that Joe Alsop is taken in vain in The Dean's December--then Miller's where to go. She even interviewed Owen Barfield on anthroposophy. She will explain away Henderson the Rain King as a parodic acting-out, in Africa, of the Reichian analysis Bellow submitted to in the mid-fifties, while keeping an orgone box like an aspidistra in his Queens apartment. And explain away Herzog as the story of ex-wife Sondra and a perfidious Jack Ludwig. And explain away Humboldt's Gift as Saul's revenge on crazy Delmore Schwartz, who had accused him of selling out.

All this says zilch about what Bellow does to everything he notices, the glad coatings he gives to a terrible world, his Jackson Pollock trickles and streaks and spatters, the ciphers he finds, like Mr. Sammler, in straws and spiders, those magic acts of levitating language by which unhappy childhoods, scorched-earth marriages, erotic disasters, intellectual debacles or debauches, a plenitude of feeling, a hunger for transcendence, the death of a friend, the murder of a people or the decline of the West, are transmuted into agencies of sublime awareness. That style--snaky and hot, wrote Cynthia Ozick, "pumping street-smarts into literary blood-vessels," a "profane and holy comedy of dazzling, beating, multiform profusion"; barbed, breezy, disheveled and surreal; salt-savoring and brain-fevered; the brilliant twitchy patter and the Great Books patois of colloquial and mandarin, sentimental and neo-baroque, Talmudic mutter and gangster slang; deep chords and stop-action; the long irony, the low laugh, the short fuse and a three-cushion bank shot into a side pocket where the anguish they speak is Yiddish--such a style miracle-whips.

Moses Herzog will cry out against "the canned sauerkraut of Spengler's Prussian socialism, the commonplaces of the Wasteland outlook, the cheap mental stimulants of Alienation, the cant and rant of pipsqueaks about Inauthenticity and Forlornness," and "a merely aesthetic critique of modern history! After the wars and mass killings! You are too intelligent for this. You inherited rich blood. Your father peddled apples." And while we are told in Humboldt that "a heart can be fixed like a shoe. Resoled. Even new uppers," that's not what it feels like after we've heard Sorella in The Bellarosa Connection explain "the slapstick side" of the death camps:

Being a French teacher, she was familiar with Jarry and Ubu Roi, Pataphysics, Absurdism, Dada, Surrealism. Some camps were run in a burlesque style that forced you to make these connections. Prisoners were sent naked into a swamp and had to croak and hop like frogs. Children were hanged while starved, freezing slave laborers lined up on parade in front of the gallows and a prison band played Viennese light opera waltzes.

Some apples this father peddles.

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)

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.

For all that Chick tells us about Abe's disapproval "of queer antics and of what he called 'faggot behavior,'" about how "he couldn't bear the fluttering of effeminate men," about how "he despised campy homosexuality and took a very low view of 'gay pride,'" he also worries the subject like a sick tooth's socket. Sometimes this nervousness is high-minded:

In matters of sex, I sometimes felt, Ravelstein saw me as a throwback, an anachronism. I was his close friend. But I was the child of a traditional European Jewish family, with a vocabulary for inversion going back two millennia or more. The ancestral Jewish terms for it were, first, Tum-tum, dating perhaps from the Babylon captivity. Sometimes the word was andreygenes, obviously of Alexandrian, Hellenistic origin--the two sexes merged in one erotic and perverse darkness.

At least as often, however, we are closer to wincing home. When Vela accuses Chick of having had corrupt sex with Ravelstein, "I laughed like anything. I told her I didn't even know how the act was done, and that I wasn't ready to learn, at my age." He concedes that "you couldn't, as the intimate and friend of Ravelstein, avoid knowing a great deal more than you had an appetite for. But at a certain depth there were places in your psyche that still belonged to the Middle Ages. Or even to the age of the pyramids or Ur of the Chaldees." Are we clear? Abe is "doomed to die because of his irregular sexual ways," to be "destroyed by his reckless sex habits." Ravelstein's sinful "taste for sexy mischief," his relish for "louche encounters, the fishy and the equivocal," combined perhaps with his impatience for hygiene, his "biological patchiness" and his "faulty, darkened heart and lungs"--"When he coughed you heard the sump at the bottom of a mine shaft echoing"--add up to a shadowing of "risk, limit, death's blackout" on "every living moment." To be sure, "to prolong his life was not one of Ravelstein's aims," but it is certainly one of Chick's, and has been ever since he chose, at age 8, not to die of peritonitis: "No one can give up on the pictures."

So the white crane flashing its wings faces off against the master strumming his lute. Abe is an "atheist-materialist." Chick, for all his passionate attachment to the faces of people and surfaces of things, for all his sense of "privilege" at being "permitted to see--to see, touch, hear" an "articulated reality" in "the interval of light between the darkness in which you awaited first birth and then the darkness of death that would receive you," nonetheless believes that "the pictures must and will continue." The dead aren't gone for good. Daily, he will talk to Ravelstein.

But only after he has gone there himself and then come back, "blindly recovery-bent," with "the deep and special greed of the sick when they have decided not to die." If the philosopher was teaching us how to go, the novelist, with the heroic help of his wife, will teach us how to stay. The last fifty extraordinary pages of Ravelstein take us from Abe's memorial service...to a Caribbean vacation for Chick and Rosamund...to a French restaurant, a toxic fish, food-poisoning and nerve damage to a bewildered Chick...to an emergency airlift, actually an angelic skyjacking, prestidigitated by resourceful Rosamund...to oxygen and Boston and a hospital "end zone"...to a falling passage through circles of hellish hallucination--nightmares of cannibalism, cryonics, bank vaults and Filene's Basement--to the light again and the wife who saved him. This may be the same light Saul Bellow once found in Jerusalem, whose filtering of blood and thought allowed him to imagine "the outer garment of God." But the wife is the novelist's own, the mother-to-be of a brand-new child for an octogenarian adept of due process. About this woman, Lazarus will say: "Rosamund had studied love--Rousseauan romantic love and the Platonic Eros as well, with Ravelstein--but she knew far more about it than either her teacher or her husband." [Emphasis added.]

There's a punch line, like the grandest of ideas dissolved by music into a form of feeling, like the opening of an American mind.

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