(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

In his eulogy for Allan Bloom (1930-1992), the controversial author of the surprise best-seller The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students (1987), Saul Bellow said of his friend:

When he was paralyzed by Guillain-Barré syndrome and sent down to the intensive care unit, he was not expected to survive. I was in his hospital room when he was brought upstairs and returned to his bed. He was no sooner in it than the phone rang—a saleswoman from Loeber Motors was calling. He indicated that he wanted to talk to her and held the phone in his strongly trembling hand. He then began to discuss the upholstery of the Mercedes he had ordered.

The same scene is repeated in Ravelstein; in the novel the Mercedes becomes a BMW, Bloom’s friend Michael Wu becomes Nikki, and Bellow himself is transmogrified into Chick, a writer “happy with middling returns.” Bellow has employed real-life models before, most notably the late lyric poet Delmore Schwartz in Humboldt’s Gift (1975). However,Ravelstein is a roman à clef with a vengeance, and critics chimed in with identifications. Professor Felix Davarr in the novel is Bloom’s mentor, the philosopher Leo Strauss. Morris Herbst is Bloom’s friend Werner Dannhauser; the mythologist Radu Grielescu, who takes great pains to cover over his fascist past, was said to be Mircea Eliade, the philosopher of comparative religion. Even if such one-to-one correspondences are accurate, though, Ravelstein is not a parlor game but a captivating meditation on the meaning of Eros.

Bellow presents Abe Ravelstein in a series of vignettes, beginning with breakfast in a penthouse room in Paris at the Hôtel Crillon. Ravelstein is immensely charmed when he encounters singer Michael Jackson and his entourage at the same hotel. Ravelstein’s publishing success had erased his debts forever, and he was free to indulge his deeply materialistic tastes. He was not only rich, but famous. British prime minister Margaret Thatcher and U.S. president Ronald Reagan had welcomed him as a guest. He had lectured the French about Jean-Jacques Rousseau and was mentored by the writings of Plato (427-347 b.c.e.), most notably Politeia (Republic, 1701) and Symposion(Symposium, 1701).

The Symposium had taught Ravelstein about Eros. Even though Chick takes pains to say, repeatedly, that his friend “clearly didn’t want me to write about his ideas,” Chick can hardly refrain from discussing love.

He thought—no, he saw—that every soul was looking for its peculiar other, longing for its complement. I’m not going to describe Eros, et cetera, as he saw it. I’ve done too much of that already: but there is a certain irreducible splendor about it without which we would not be quite human. Love is the highest function of the our species—its vocation. This simply can’t be set aside in considering Ravelstein. He never forgot this conviction. It figures in all his judgments.

In the novel, Chick notes that he had encouraged Ravelstein to put his ideas into a book. Though the published title is never mentioned, its original title is. “Souls Without Longing” is what Ravelstein wanted to call it. Chuck writes,

Without its longings your soul was a used inner tube maybe good for one summer at the beach, nothing more. Spirited men and women, the young above all, were devoted to the pursuit of love. By contrast the bourgeois was dominated by fears of violent death. There, in the briefest form possible, you have a sketch of Ravelstein’s most important preoccupations.

Ravelstein was no prig. “On the contrary,” Chick says, “he saw love as possibly the highest blessing of mankind. A human soul devoid of longing was a soul deformed, deprived of its highest good, sick unto death.”

Ravelstein’s story is intertwined with talk of love, of Eros. Allan Bloom, in the posthumously published Love and Friendship (1993), wrote that

Man is essentially an incomplete being, and full awareness of this incompleteness is essential to his humanity and ground for the specifically human quest for completeness or wholeness. . . . Eros, in its overwhelming and immoderate demands, is the clearest and most powerful inclination toward lost wholeness.

Such a view of Eros forms the backdrop of Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, to which Bellow contributed the foreword. One reviewer, Robert Paul Wolff, suggested that the entire book was a Bellow novel, a satire on the University of Chicago Great Books movement....

(The entire section is 1913 words.)