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Ravelstein

Ravelstein is Saul Bellow’s final novel—a memoir of his great-souled friend and co-lecturer Allan Bloom. My wife and I listened to it in the evenings over the course of a few weeks.

I hadn’t heard of Bellow before. My dad told me later that he’d started The Adventures of Augie March in college and couldn’t get into it, but Ravelstein kept my attention. I wanted to know what Bloom was like. I had just read his famous commentary on America’s universities and his translation of Plato’s Republic. The audiobook format also helped us to the end, propelling us past the unfamiliar foreign phrases and proper nouns and encouraging us to follow Mortimer Adler’s advice to read stories “quickly and with total immersion.” Not that Ravelstein is much of a story. Bellow’s pledge to write a memoir, and his struggle to do so, is the only semblance of a plot. The humor and delightful descriptions also kept us listening. Of the ten chapters, only the last one dragged a bit.

Did Ravelstein teach me anything about Bloom? Much more about his personality than his ideas. This was intentional. To Bloom, philosophy was a way of life—it’s more than the ideas. This is why he asked Bellow to write the memoir. Plato, his lode star, had made Socrates a personality with a mixture of poetry and philosophy. Bloom had shared his philosophy in The Closing of the American Mind, but he wanted the poetry too. Maybe he had hoped it could posthumously guide young American to the great books, or maybe the rational part of his soul hadn’t tamed the honor-loving part. Certainly his appetitive part was still wild—he had Jensen teapots, Quimper antique plates, expensive audio equipment and suits, a BMW, and so on. His materialism surprised me. So did his enthusiasm for the Chicago Bulls, his chain smoking, his love of gossip, and his sloppy manner of eating.

Yet his nobility shined through these flaws. His impulse to teach, strong until the end, was particularly endearing. He was a sincere friend. His band of life-time students demonstrates this. So did his connection with Saul Bellow—the trip he took out of the city to inspect his friends failing marriage comes to mind. (Bloom, like Socrates in the Phaedrus, didn’t like the country. He thought it was unhealthy: “All educated people make the same mistake—they think that nature and solitude are good for them. Nature and solitude are poison.”) Completing Ravelstein, at the age of 85 and after a near-death experience, attests to their bond. Thus there was good and bad in the man. I wonder how closely the character Ravelstein matches Bloom the person.

The book was enjoyable apart from my interest in Bloom. The character descriptions often eclipsed the philosophical dialogue. The man with his green ink, in particular, horrified me:

Rakhmiel was highly educated, but to what end? Every corner of his apartment was stuffed with books. Every morning, Rakhmiel sat down and wrote in green ink…. His mind was made up once and for all upon hundreds of subjects and maybe this was the sign that he had completed his course.

I don’t yet have a clear idea of the good, but somehow my encounter with this old scholar crystallized a sense that it shouldn’t be education. This is ironic, since Bloom would likely disagree. Philosophizing may be the point, he would say. Maybe he’d continue by pointing out that a poet is misleading me, and I need to chant a logical countercharm under my breath.