Reading Saul Bellow's Ravelstein. Because he's fun to read, most of the time, and because the novel is an homage or roman a clef of sorts for his late friend Allan Bloom, author of Closing of the American Mind. My curiosity piqued by Times article outlining the genealogy of the neo-conservatives around Bush & Pentagon "descended" from U. Chicago philosopher Leo Strauss (Joe Duemer & I talked around this a few weeks ago). Strauss, I think, is the character "Davarr" in the novel, though he's only mentioned in passing. Pentagon's Wolfowitz was a student of Bloom.

Bellow is "philosophical" in the pleasure he takes in big questions & big ideas, the way he addresses them both directly & obliquely, and the way he makes them accessible through humor, irony, and plain speaking. He comes from a generation of novelists that blurred fiction & autobiography; his character "Chick" is transparently Bellow himself. This leads to some self-indulgent writing, but Bellow's role, as a serious "thinker" in fiction, adds an extra dimension in a novel about a figure like Bloom, an educator so concerned with Platonic dialogue, the classics & the function of cultural heritage in thought & inquiry. "Chick" is the poet in Bloom's philosophical grove.

Interestingly, as Ravelstein is dying, his concerns turn from "Athens" toward "Jerusalem", as his conversations with Chick begin to focus on the fate of Jews in the 20th century. Through an episode about another thinly-disguised U. Chicago prof, a famous mythographer with a Nazi-sympathizer past (Mircea Eliade, I think), Ravelstein speaks about the Jewish sense of shock & isolation in a 20th-century in which the world seems eager to destroy them all; the great demonic ideologies of Stalin & Hitler, & the millions who gave their silent or vocal assent to them.

This reality underlies some of the multiple paradoxes in a novel about a Jewish classicist "invert" (his term) calling for a return to Western civilized values; another is the interplay between philosophical "clear-sightedness" and human cold-heartedness (Ravelstein's intellectual snobbery; the narrator's exhausted, somewhat effete disdain for the "rabble" of the underclass). Both characters come across as complex - humane & cold, warm & full of joie de vivre, hope, self-doubt. Not despair, though.

Is it possible that the neo-con emphasis (descended from Strauss?) on moral certainty, absolute vs. relative good & evil, could lead to a realpolitik in which ends justify the means (a sort of "moral hardheadedness" which is actually inhumane)? That would be an ironic twist. But I haven't even read Bloom's book (now I want to), nor do I really understand the innards of neo-con policymaking (sorry, Joe).

I wonder where Bellow came up with the name Ravelstein. Reminds me of course of my mother's unusual maiden name, Ravlin. I always thought it was a variant of Rawlin or Rawlins, maybe old french in origin? Dunno. Stubborn Grew & sequels are on one level a memorial to several Ravlins. The books were triggered by a simple elegy for my uncle James Ravlin (who was the same generation & could have stepped straight out of a Bellow novel), & turned into a complex elegy for his daughter Juliet.

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