Sunday, November 9, 2014

The Old Man and His Prejudices

"To be human was to be severed, mutilated. Man is incomplete. Zeus is a tyrant. Mount Olympus is a tyranny. The work of humankind in its severed state is to seek the missing half. And after so many generations your true counterpart is simply not to be found. Eros is a compensation granted by Zeus-- for possibly political reasons for his own. And the quest for your lost half is hopeless. The sexual embrace gives temporary self-forgetting but the painful knowledge of mutilation is permanent."

It had been a long time since I read my favorite Saul Bellow novels-- more than a decade in fact, since I'd loved Herzog, Mister Sammler's Planet, and Henderson and the Rain King-- but the excerpt above from his last novel, Ravelstein, reminded me why I'd once adored Bellow as a young man, conscious that love and sex could be entirely distinct pathos. His novels' heroes were so smart yet so troubled-- they compensated for their abysmal marriages with thoughtful narratives of love won and lost, though usually burning themselves out putting the question of love and sex on the fire too long to stand the heat. Every great novelist, no matter how many books he or she writes, has a certain, indisputable vibe and this was Bellow's: great intellectual men sundered by overanalyzed collapsing love affairs.

This is not the case of Bellow's last novel published before his death. There are elements of it, of course, but Ravelstein is some strange fictional hagiography to a gay celebrity academic (apparently modeled on Allan Bloom, a University of Chicago professor of philosophy). The narrator is Chick, an old friend of Ravelstein's, entrusted to write a biography of the man, focused on his rather unconventional life rather than his theories. Liking such a literary love letter then depends entirely on liking Ravelstein, an economic neoliberal polymath genius, but also a Francophile snob, a materialistic bon vivant, and a hypocrite, who for all his wealth of intelligence comes off as a distasteful boor rather than someone whose life we should admire.

Consider the superficiality of this: "Ravelstein had come to agree that it was important to note how people looked. Their ideas are not enough-- their theoretical convictions and political views. If you don't take into account their haircuts, the hang of their pants, their taste in skirts and blouses, their style of driving a car or eating a dinner, your knowledge is incomplete." Not only does he pass judgments on the basis of such elitist notions, there is the problem of the old coot being a tad sexist: "Nature, furthermore, gave women a longing for children, and therefore for marriage, for the stability requisite for family life. And this, together with a mass of other things, disabled them for philosophy." And for the hat trick he is a bit of a starfucker as well: "At Idlewild, once, he had spotted Elizabeth Taylor and for the better part of an hour tracked her through the crowds. It especially pleased him to have recognized her." How perfectly ordinary of you, Mr. Ravelstein!

And Ravelstein being a decrepit snob with untouchable credentials and experience must unduly disparage his contemporaries and the liberal arts scene: "No real education was possible in American universities except for aeronautical engineers, computerists, and the like. The universities were excellent in biology and the physical sciences, but the liberal arts were a failure." This is partially true-- no question that the American government and educational institutions find engineering, mathematics, and science a more lucrative investment than poetry or history, but it is a rather harsh and uncompromising generalization to label the arts "a failure" but this is the sort of personality Bellow built a novel around: an awful, judgmental personage that whom for all his dying, is never sympathetic.

Ravelstein was published in 2000 when Saul Bellow was 85 years old. The reviews for it are laudatory. Bellow was such a wonderful writer and, even here, his prose is never trite and often lyrical. But its subject is often trite and never lyrical and leaves me at a loss that Bellow-- who at that age had probably witnessed many, many friends pass on-- would choose to focus his last efforts on a personality who did not deserve his gorgeous gifts. So sad to see the swan song become an ugly duckling.

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