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Ravelstein ()

Nobel Prize Winners

    The challenge of modern freedom, or the combination of isolation and freedom which confronts you, is to make yourself up.  The danger
    is that you may emerge from the process as a not-entirely-human creature.
        -Saul Bellow, Ravelstein

Saul Bellow's affectionate roman a clef about the renowned professor Allan Bloom, author of the surprise bestseller The Closing of the American Mind : How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today's Students  (1987) (Allan Bloom   1930-1992), stirred up quite a ruckus, because it revealed to the public (it was apparently well known to his friends, students, and colleagues) that Bloom was a homosexual who had died of AIDs, not liver failure has had been pronounced the cause of death.  Yet in the novel, Bloom (Abe Ravelstein) specifically requires of Bellow (Chick) that he write a memoir of him when he is gone and since Ravelstein is honest to a fault, especially with his friends, it's hard to imagine that Bloom would have objected to Bellow merely being truthful.    More importantly, Bloom's homosexuality--well, really the early and unnecessary death that his homosexuality caused, 'destroyed by his reckless sex habits", is how Chick puts it--is the mystery that lies at the core of the book.  There would be no tension to the book without it and without our expectation that Bellow will eventually unravel the mystery, and the ultimate failure of the book is that he never does, perhaps can not.

The Ravelstein who emerges in these pages is a fascinating figure : a physically large man; a mesmerizing pedagogue; a brilliant conversationalist; mentor to many powerful political and academic players;  and, like Bellow's character Henderson, The Rain King, he is a creature of wants, a man of enormous appetite for luxury.

    He took you from antiquity to the Enlightenment, and then—by way of Locke, Montesquieu, and Rousseau onward to Nietzsche,
    Heidegger—to the present moment, to corporate, high-tech America, its culture and its entertainments, its press, its educational system, its
    think tanks, its politics. He gave you a picture of this mass democracy and its characteristic—woeful—human product. In his classroom,
    and the lectures were always packed, he coughed, stammered, he smoked, bawled, laughed, he brought his students to their feet and
    debated, provoked them to single combat, examined, hammered them. He didn't ask, "Where will you spend eternity?" as religious
    the-end-is-near picketers did but rather, "With what, in this modern democracy, will you meet the demands of your soul?"

His conversations with Chick are much the best thing in the book, which loses steam whenever Ravelstein is not on scene.  The two share a marvelous friendship, engaging each other on an elevated intellectual plane, much as Bloom described in his posthumous book, Love & Friendship, a plane upon which Ravelstein manifestly does not meet his soap opera addicted lover. As the novel ends, Chick says, "You don't easily give up a creature like Ravelstein to death."  The reader is likely to agree.

What are we to make then of this man who was so in love with life, who rejected the idea of eternity and so had nothing to hold on to but life and thought and friendship, yet who in his personal behavior chose a self-destructive course, sacrificing all three to mere pleasures of the flesh?   Bloom became famous, and quite rich, by telling us that American education, indeed the American mind, was being diminished by the failure to study and engage with the great philosophers of the Western tradition.  The book made him a hero to conservatives and anathema to the Left.  But what did he himself believe; what was his personal philosophy, or was his philosophy just that it was good to study philosophy?

Here Bellow gives us a clue to the problem :

    Though I was his senior by some years he saw himself as my teacher.  Well, that was his trade--he was an educator.  He never presented
    himself as a philosopher--professors of philosophy were not philosophers.  He had  had a philosophical training and had learned how a
    philosophical life should be lived.  That was what philosophy was about, and this was why one read Plato.  If he had to choose between
    Athens and Jerusalem, among us the two main sources of higher life, he chose Athens, while full of respect for Jerusalem.  But in his last
    days it was the Jews he wanted to talk about, not the Greeks.

Yes, in the midst of one's life it may seem sufficient to think about all the big ideas, but shouldn't one also choose from among them and create a moral structure for one's life?  As Ravelstein lies dying he does focus on the fact of his own Jewishness, as if, finally brought to the brink of the void, he suddenly realizes the importance of the ethical life too.  But Bellow does not explore this any further.  Instead, after Ravelstein's death he turns to his own near death experience, after eating some bad fish, and his struggle to write the book.

Throughout the book Ravelstein and Chick discuss Chick's lack of perception.  At one point Chick says :

    I do shut off my receptors sometimes and decide, somehow, not to see what there is to be seen.

The reader can't help wishing that Bellow had seen what was there to see.  It might have transformed a decent but minor book into an excellent and important one, one that would explain how this exceptional man reconciled his atheism and his licentiousness with the conservative impulse.  That it fails utterly in this task makes it a great disappointment.


Grade: (C)


See also:

Saul Bellow (3 books reviewed)
General Literature
Nobel Prize Winners
Saul Bellow Links:

    -WIKIPEDIA: Saul Bellow
    -OBIT: Author Saul Bellow Dies at 89 (MEL GUSSOW and CHARLES McGRATH, 4/05/05, NY Times)
    -FEATURED AUTHOR: Saul Bellow (NY Times)
    -OBIT: Author Depicted Men's Spiritual Crises (Jon Thurber and Mary Rourke, April 6, 2005, LA Times)
    -OBIT: Author Saul Bellow dies at 89 (HENRY KISOR, April 6, 2005, Chicago Sun-Times)
    -OBIT: Saul Bellow, novelist who charted ironies of modern soul, dies at 89 (Gail Caldwell, April 6, 2005, Boston Globe)
    -OBIT: Saul Bellow chastised America for its own good: He was a prose master who could bring to life any environment with a realism not limited to the surfaces of life. (Roderick Nordell, 4/07/05, CS Monitor)
    -TRIBUTE: Saul (Leon Wieseltier, 04.14.05, National Review)
    -TRIBUTE: Big ideas and wandering fools: Saul Bellow (1915-2005): The great Chicago novelist created a unique imaginative universe that made sense of modern human experience of crisis and change, says Tom McBride. (Tom McBride, 7 - 4 - 2005, Open Democracy)
    -ESSAY: What to Read Before and After The Adventures of Saul Bellow: Readings on the Life and Works of a Literary Icon (Literary Hub, December 9, 2022)
    -INTERVIEW: ‘Augie March’ Turns 70: An Interview with Saul Bellow’s biographer Zachary Leader. (Riley Moore, 22 Sep 2023, Quillette)
-Saul Bellow (1915-) (kirjasto)
    -SHORT STORY: Mosby's Memoirs (Saul Bellow, 1968-07-20, The New Yorker)
    -FEATURED AUTHOR : Saul Bellow (NY Times Book Review)
    -AUTHOR PAGE : SAUL BELLOW (1915-) (The Guardian)
    -Saul Bellow Society and Journal
    -EXCERPT : Chapter One of Ravelstein
    -ESSAY : Saul Bellow's Introduction to 'The Closing of the American Mind'
    -Choosing the Necessary:   Remarks by Saul Bellow to Padgett Powell's Graduate Class in Fiction Writing at the University of Florida,  Gainesville,  February 21, 1992
    -INTERVIEW : Saul Bellow seizes the day : A near-fatal dose of food poisoning has given Saul Bellow a new sense of urgency at 81. He talks to Desmond O'Grady about his latest novel (Electronic Telegraph)
    -INTERVIEW : The Full Bellow Treatment : At 84, novelist Saul Bellow has two new progeny: an infant daughter and a controversial novel. Friends say the new book is a paean to his friend Allan Bloom; foes say it's a malicious outing. (Sandra Martin, , April 29, 2000, Books Reporter)
    -INTERVIEW : Fathers and sons : Martin Amis discusses art, death and family relationships with his mentor and kindred spirit, Saul Bellow (Electronic Telegraph)
    -INTERVIEW : with Saul Bellow (Joanna Coles, September 10, 1997, The Guardian)
    -ESSAY : With Friends Like Saul Bellow : His support helped to make Allan Bloom a famous cultural conservative. But now that Bellow has written a roman á clef revealing that Bloom was gay (and possibly died from AIDS), his critics are crying betrayal. He fears they may be right. (D.T. MAX, April 2000, NY Times Magazine)
    -ESSAY :   A Bellow Novel Eulogizes a Friendship (DINITIA SMITH, January 27, 2000, NY Times)
    -ESSAY : Bellow's betrayal blots his copybook : Nobel laureate forced to repent over the 'outing' of Thatcher's favourite author (Ed Vulliamy, and Vanessa Thorpe, April 23, 2000, The Observer)
    -PROFILE : The wordly mystic's late bloom : He is one of our greatest novelists and has a Nobel prize to prove it. Married five times, he describes himself as a serial husband. Now, at 84, after a near-fatal illness, he has produced a vibrant novel and a baby daughter. James Wood, April 15, 2000, The Guardian)
    -PAL: Perspectives in American Literature:  A Research and Reference Guide: "Chapter 10: Late Twentieth Century: 1945 to the Present - Saul Bellow (1915 - )"
    -Herzog: Essay Topics and Critical Commentary
   -MARTIN AMIS: Between the Influences of Bellow and Nabokov (Victoria N. Alexander, The Antioch Review Fall 1994)
    -Shame and Saul Bellow's "Something to Remember Me By" (Saul Bellow Journal)
    -ESSAY : Saul Bellow, Allan Bloom, and Abe Ravelstein (Robert Fulford, Globe and Mail, November 2, 1999)
    -ESSAY : Fictional characters and their real-life models (Sanford Pinsker, Special to N.J. Jewish News)
    -ESSAY : Poison Ivy (David L. Kirp, American Prospect)
    -ESSAY : Wrestling in the Halls of Academe (Michael Miner, Chicago Reader)
    -ESSAY : Death and the Men of Letters : Measuring Roth and Bellow by the Way They Handle the Final Question (MARK KRUPNICK, The Forward)
    -LINKS : Saul Bellow (The Guardian)
    -ARCHIVES : Allan Bloom (Upstream)
    -ARCHIVES : "Saul Bellow" (Find Articles)
    -ARCHIVES : "Saul Bellow" (Mag Portal)
    -Mr. Bellow's Planet (from Commentary)
    -The Quest for the Self in Bellow's Henderson
    -Saul Bellow (from Nobel Prize Site)
    -INTERVIEW:  A CANDID TALK WITH SAUL BELLOW  (D.J.R. Bruckner, NY Times Book Review)
    -ESSAY : The Great American Augie : Saul Bellow won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1976, but the great novel that set him on the course for the prize had been published 23 years earlier, in 1953. The peripatetic hero of The Adventures of Augie March spoke in an idiom entirely new to American literature--an astonishing mix of the high-flown and the low-down. (Christopher Hitchens , Wilson Quarterly)
    -ESSAY: Rereading Saul Bellow (Philip Roth, 2000-10-09, The New Yorker)
    -ESSAY: Finding Augie March: Saul Bellow’s first novels. (Joan Acocella, 2003-10-06, The New Yorker)
    -ESSAY : So, Charlie Chaplin and Jean Cocteau walk into a bar ...  Unpredictable, startling and mysterious meetings (Robert Fulford, National Post)
    -ESSAY: Bellow at 85, Roth at 67 (Norman Podhoretz, Commentary)
    -REVIEW : of Ravelstein (Michiko Kakutani, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of Ravelstein (Jonathan Wilson, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Ravelstein by Saul Bellow (complete review)
    -REVIEW : of Ravelstein (Barton Wong, Spintech)
    -REVIEW : of Ravelstein by Saul Bellow (Floyd Skloot, SF Chronicle)
    -REVIEW : of Ravelstein (Louis Menand, NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW : of Ravelstein ( J. Bottum, Weekly Standard)
    -ESSAY : Saul Bellow's Ravelstein (J. Bottum, The Crisis)
    -REVIEW : of Ravelstein (Christopher Hitchens, London Review of Books)
    -REVIEW : of Ravelstein  (Lorin Stein, Salon)
    -REVIEW : of Ravelstein (George Walden, This is London)
    -REVIEW : of Ravelstein (James Wood,  April 15, 2000, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW : of Ravelstein (Ron Charles, Christian Science Monitor)
    -REVIEW : of Ravelstein (Gary Giddins, Village Voice)
    -REVIEW : of Ravelstein (Mark Greif, American Prospect)
    -REVIEW : of Ravelstein (The American Enterprise, Leon Aron)
    -REVIEW : of Ravelstein (Adam Mars-Jones, The Observer)
    -REVIEW : of Ravelstein (John Mullan, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW : of Ravelstein (Zachary Leader, Independent uk )
    -REVIEW : of Ravelstein (John Leonard, The Nation)
    -REVIEW : of Ravelstein (Stephen Mitchelmore, Spike)
    -REVIEW : of Ravelstein (PAUL GRAY, TIME)
    -REVIEW : of Ravelstein (Chris Wood, Richmond Review)
    -REVIEW : of Ravelstein (JOSHUA PERRY, Harvard Advocate)
    -REVIEW: of Ravelstein (Juliana Geran Pilon, Humanitas)
    -REVIEW : of Ravelstein (Bob Wake, Culture Vulture)
    -REVIEW : of Ravelstein (The Gaping Void)
    -REVIEW : of Ravelstein (Cornel Bonca, Orange County  Weekly)
    -REVIEW : of Ravelstein  (ROBERT WEIBEZAHL, Book Page)
    -ESSAY : Robert Fulford's column about James Atlas & Saul Bellow (The National Post, December 12, 2000)
    -ESSAY : Bellow: the novelist as homespun philosopher by Robert Fulford (The National Post, October 23, 2000)
    -ESSAY : Stephen Moss assesses the critical response to Saul Bellow's long-awaited Ravelstein (The Guardian)
-REVIEW ESSAY: ‘Mr. Sammler’s Planet’: Saul Bellow’s howl of rage (Jeffrey Meyers, 5/19/24, The Article)
    -REVIEW: of Mr. Sammler’s Planet< (Daniel J. Sundahl, Imaginative Conservative)
-REVIEW : of  It All Adds Up: A Non-Fiction Collection by Saul Bellow (Peter Conrad, The Observer)
    -REVIEW : of The Actual by Saul Bellow (Grey Gowrie, Electronic Telegraph)
    -REVIEW : of Editors: The Best from Five Decades Saul Bellow and Keith Botsford (George Walden, This is London)
    -REVIEW: Mr. Bellow's Planet: Trailing clouds of glory, The Actual caps a career of fictional soul-making (Hillel Halkin, Commentary)
    -REVIEW : of Collected Stories of Saul Bellow  (Paul Gray, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Collected Stories of Saul Bellow (Stephen Amidon, New Statesman)
    -REVIEW : of Saul Bellow's Collected Stories (Alex Clark, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW : of Collected Stories by Saul Bellow (Jenny Shank, Rocky Mountain News)
    -REVIEW : of Bellow: A Biography by James Atlas (Richard Poirier, London Review of Books)
    -REVIEW : of Bellow : A Biography of Saul Bellow (Frances Kiernan, SF Gate Books)
    -REVIEW : of Bellow : a Biography by James Atlas (Lawrence Rainey, Independent uk)
    -REVIEW : of Bellow: A Biography. By James Atlas (EILEEN BATTERSBY , Irish Times)
    -REVIEW : of JAMES ATLAS: Bellow: A Biography (Richard Stern, The Nation)
    -REVIEW : of Bellow by James Atlas (James Wood, New Republic)
    -REVIEW : of Bellow by James Atlas (Edward Neuert, Salon)
    -REVIEW : of Bellow by James Atlas (Hywel Williams, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW : of Bellow by James Atlas (Adam Mars-Jones, The Observer)

Book-related and General Links:

-ESSAY: The Prophets: Allan Bloom: Nearly 40 years ago, a University of Chicago professor warned that higher education was closing Americans’ minds. Today, he could be called the grandfather of our culture wars. (Thomas Chatterton Williams, March 30, 2024, free Press)
    -INTRODUCTION to Closing of the American Mind : The Civilized Barbarian Reader (SAUL BELLOW, March 8, 1987, NY times)
    -EXCERPT : Music from The Closing...
    -The Allan Bloom Forum of Yale University
    -TRIBUTE : Bloom Focused Life on Great Books (Veena Iyer, May 20, 1997 , Chicago Maroon)
    -OBIT : Obituary, Allan Bloom  (Nicholas Cassimatis)
    -BIO : Allan Bloom (Lisa H.Tanner)
    -ESSAY : The distinguished professor. (Roger Kimball, 04/01/97, New Criterion)
    -ESSAY : The Real Allan Bloom (Kenneth R. Weinstein, May 2000, Weekly Standard)
    -ESSAY : A tale of two Blooms : Allan and Harold Bloom dared to buck the conformity and cowardice of the academy. (Camille Paglia, Salon)
    -ESSAY : Longing : Remembering Allan Bloom (Andrew Sullivan, The New Republic, April 17, 2000)
    -ESSAY : Allan Bloom's Last Testament (Paul Varnell, Independent Gay Forum)
    -ESSAY : Allan Bloom and the American Moment  (Robert O. Slater, Essays on Democracy, Education and the American Experiment)
    -ESSAY : The Moralist's Big Fibs : Bloom-in' Hypocrisy! (Norah Vincent, Village Voice)
    -ESSAY : The Spy Who Loved Hegel (Matthew Price, Lingua Franca)
    -ESSAY : The Closing of the American Mind, revisited. (S.J.D. Green, Antioch Review, 01/01/98)
    -ESSAY : In re Allan Bloom: A Respectful Dissent (GEORGE ANASTAPLO, Essays on The Closing of the American Mind,)
    -ESSAY : From Plato to NATO: the Idea of the West and Its Opponents (National Review, September 28 1998 by Roger Kimball)
    -ESSAY : Only the life of the mind : on the end of the required core curriculum at the University of  Chicago (New Criterion, February 1999)
    -ESSAY : The Spiritual Basis of Romanticism : A brief examination of the motivation which led Rousseau to launch the romantic movement, based on the discussion in Allan Bloom's Love and Friendship (Forrest W. Schultz)
    -ARCHIVES : "Allan Bloom: (NY Review of Books)
    -ARCHIVES : "Allan Bloom" (Mag Portal)
    -ARCHIVES : "Allan Bloom" (Find Articles)
    -REVIEW : of Closing of the American Mind (Roger Kimball, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of  The Closing of the American Mind by Allan Bloom (Thomas G. West, Claremont Institute)
    -REVIEW : of The Closing of the American Mind (Pseudo-intellectual ram-blings || Ram Samudrala)
    -REVIEW :  of Closing of the American Mind  (Bobby Matherne, A Reader's Journal) -REVIEW : of The Closing of the American Mind. (Fred Matthews, The American Historical Review)
    -REVIEW : of "The Student and the University." (Brigitte Lovell, U Texas)
    -REVIEW : of Love and Friendship. By Allan Bloom (Edward T. Oakes, First Things)

    -ESSAY: How Conservatives Failed ÔThe CultureÕ (Claes G. Ryn, April 2000, Humanitas)
    -ESSAY : They have the numbers; we, the heights : On The Best of the Best American Poetry, 1988-1997 (Harold Bloom, Boston Review)
    -ESSAY : Canon Fodder : There's one gay culture that would seem to belong peculiarly to gays, as is the case with the camp and diva worship often seen among gay men. There's also another gay culture: It constitutes much of the distinctive Western civilization that cultural conservatives would like to defend, and it belongs to everybody. (Bruce Bawer, Independent Gay Forum)
    -ARCHIVES : Philosophy of Liberal Education : selected bibliography of books and articles discussing liberal education  (Compiled by Andrew Chrucky)
    -REVIEW : of Harold Bloom: Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human  (Robert Atwan, Boston Review)
    -REVIEW : Harold Bloom's The Western Canon (Davis Wang)

    -REVIEW : of  Dictatorship of Virtue by Richard Bernstein & Two Steps Ahead of the Thought Police by John Leo (Terry Teachout, New Criterion)
    -REVIEW : of  Dictatorship of Virtue: Multiculturalism and the Battle for America's Future  by Richard Bernstein (George Scialabba, Boston Review)

    -The Opening of the American Mind : Canons, Culture, and History (1997) (Lawrence W. Levine) (
    -INTERVIEW : The University is not the U. S. Army (Sheldon Hackney, Humanities)
    -REVIEW : of  The Opening of the American Mind: Canons, Culture, and History by Lawrence W. Levine (Theo Emery, Boston Review)

    -ESSAY : The End of Courtship (Leon R. Kass, The Public Interest)
    -Higher Education Issue (Spintech June 2001)
    -ESSAY : The case of Michael Levin (Daniel Seligman, National Review, May 5, 1989)
    -ESSAY: DID THE 1960'S DAMAGE FICTION?  (Benjamin DeMott, NY Times Book Review)