Sunday, March 24, 2013

Ravelstein by Saul Bellow

What a masterpiece by Saul Bellow. Reminds me of the profound impact Dean's December had on me. This book examines many of the aspects of modern life - relationships, identity. And brought out by narrating the life of a man dying of a terminal illness by one of his closest friends.

But luckily - or perhaps not too luckily - this is cornucopia-time, an era of abundance in all civilized nations. Never, on the material side, have huge populations been better protected from hunger and sickness. And this partial release from the struggle for survival makes people naive. By this I mean their wishful fantasies are unchecked. You begin, in accordance with an unformulated agreement, to accept the terms invariably falsified, on which others present themselves.

There is a parallel between inner-city phenomena and the mental disarray of the U.S., the winner of the Cold War, the only superpower remaining. That's one way of boiling it down. He took you from an 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.

France, alas, was no longer the center of judgment, enlightenment. It no longer attracted the world's great intellects and the rest of the cultural schtuss. The French had had it. De Gaulle the human giraffe sniffing down his nostrils. Churchill saying about him that England's offense had been to help La France. The lofty military creature gazing on the tree-tops of the late-modern world could not suffer the thought that his country needed help.

We had both lived in France. The French were genuinely educated - or had been so. They had taken a bad beating in this century. However, they had a real feeling for beautiful objects still, for leisure, for reading and conversation; they didn't despise creaturely needs - the human basics.

Abe Ravelstein didn't at all mind being behind the ropes. Paris today was as Paris should be. The kings who had laid out Versailles directed the architects to build the magnificent public spaces of the capital. These, today, were Ravelstein's setting. He was the grandee in the new order of thing. These days, Ravelstein was a magnificent man.

As with "Dean's December", this book throws open the decay in a modern western civilization. But then again quite often it seems as if the protagonist is neck-deep in the mess of the western world.

To be human was to be severed, mutilated. Man is incomplete. Zeus is a tyrant. Mount Olympus is 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 compensation granted by Zeus - for possibly political reasons of his own. And the quest for your lost half is hopeless.

I was familiar now with Ravelstein's ideas on marriage. People are beaten at last with their solitary longings and intolerable isolation. They need the right, the missing portion to complete themselves, and since they can't realistically hope to find that they must accept a companionable substitute. Recognizing that they can't win, they settle. The marriage of true minds seldom occurs. Love that bears it out even to the edge of doom is not a modern project. But there was, for Ravelstein, nothing to compete with this achievement of the soul. The best we can hope for in modernity is not love but a sexual attachment - a bourgeois solution, in bohemian dress. I mention bohemianism because we need to feel that we are liberated. Ravelstein taught that in the modern condition we are in a weak state. The strong state - and this is what he learned from Socrates - comes to us through nature. At the core of the soul is Eros. Eros is overwhelmingly attracted to the sun. I am never done with Ravelstein and he was never done with Socrates, for whom Eros was at the center of the soul, where the sun nourishes and expands it.

An interesting perception of modern relationships. But then how should the strong state be achieved? But then Ravelstein never achieved it.

You had to be something of a specialist to follow the movements of his mind. You had to distinguish between what people had been taught that they ought to do and what they deeply desired to do. According to certain thinkers, all men were enemies; they feared and hated one another. There was a war of all against all, in the state of nature.

Of course we're good and fed up with personality profiles, or defects. One reason why violence is so popular maybe that psychiatric insights have worn us out and we get satisfaction from seeing them blown away with automatic weapons, or exploding in cars, or being garroted and stuffed by taxidermists.

Another similarity to Dean's December. An attempt to answer the question - why this senseless hatred and violence all around us? This book touches also on several aspects of the holocaust since both the main characters are Jewish. An attempt to answer the question - why was there so much hatred in the world that there were people who wanted all Jews to be exterminated? How should modern Jews learn history to know about a period the rest of the world would be quite happy to forget?

But you can't keep you innocence in this age. Nine-tenths of modern innocence is little more than indifference to vice, a resolve not be affected by all that you might read, hear or see. Love of scandal makes people ingenious. Vela was ingenious in her science and guiltless in her conduct.

The older you grow the worse the discoveries you make about yourself. He would have put to better use the years that I was allotted. To acknowledge the plain facts is the least that I can do. He thought I was being flippant about the sin of suicide when I said he had given the couple a very Jewish answer. But then he relented, saying, "Anyway, you can credit me with having saved two lives."

Quite a lot of the book marks the changing perceptions as you grow older. Wanting to correct past mistakes and make up for wasted time.

People are infinitely more clever than they used to be about pursuing your secrets. If they know your secrets, they have increased power over you. There's no stopping or checking them. Build as many labyrinths as you like, you're sure to be found out. And of course I was aware that Ravelstein didn't care a damn about secrets.

Shutting his eyes he flung himself bodily backward into laughter. In my own different style I did the same thing. As I've said before it was our sense of what was funny that brought us together, but that would have been a thin anemic way to put it. A joyful noise - immenso guibilo - an outsize joint agreement picked us up together, and it would get you nowhere to try to formulate it.

Quite a few passages about the close friendship between Ravelstein and Chick. That's something that makes this book an absolute joy to read. At times, it is just a narrative about friendship.

As for you, Chick, you're making your total American declaration of rights. It's very brave of you to do it, but it's also off the wall ... For miles around, you're the only Jew. Your neighbours have one another to rely on. Whom do you have - a gentile wife? You've got a theory - equality before the law. It's a big comfort to have constitutional guarantees on your side, and it's certain to be appreciated by other devotees of the Constitution itself.

"I like the kind who accept nihilism as a condition and live in that condition. It's the intellectual nihilists I can't stand. I prefer the sort who live with their evils, frankly. The natural nihilists. Celine recommended that the Jews be exterminated like bacteria. It's the doctor in him, I suppose. In his novels, the influence of art is a restraint on him, but in his propaganda he's a killer out and out."

I could see that he was following a trail of Jewish ideas or Jewish essences. It was unusual for him these days, in any conversation, to mention even Plato or Thucydides. He was full of Scripture now. He talked about religion and the difficult project of being man in the fullest sense, of becoming man and nothing but man. So he was dying thinking of these questions, Ravelstein formulated what he would say but was not able to deliver his conclusions. And one of his conclusions was that a Jew should take a deep interest in the history of Jews - in their principles of Justice, for instance. But not every problem can be solved. And what could Ravelstein have done?

Both the main characters being Jews, quite often the book touches on the topic of the Jewish identity - what it was to be a Jew in modern times.

Rakhmeil, who had figured since the forties in my life and since the fifties in Ravelstein's would be one of the crown taking off at intervals. Rakhmeil was highly educated, but to what end? Every corner of his apartment was stuffed with books. Every morning, Rakhmeil 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 felt I was summing him up for an obituary. It is possible that I was trying to replace Ravelstein with Rakhmeil so that I wouldn't have to think of Ravelstein's death. Lots of bitter facts, too horrible for contemporaries to contemplate. We can't actually bring ourselves to acknowledge them. Our souls aren't strong enough to bear that. And yet one can't give oneself a pass. A man like Rakhmeil would feel obligated to face up to the fact that this viciousness was universal. He believed that everybody had his share for it. You could find these murderous impulses in any person of mature

The rule for the dead is that they should be forgotten. After burial there is a universal gradual process towards oblivion. But with Ravelstein this didn't work altogether. He claimed and filled a more conspicuous space in Rosamund's life as well as mine. She remembered a text from her schooldays that went "Associate with the noblest you can find; read the best books; live with the mighty, but learn to be happy."

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 a philosophical training and he 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 respect for Jerusalem.But in his last days it was the Jews he wanted to talk about, not the Greeks.

The book brings in several different characters whom Ravelstein was fond of and somehow influenced him. And in a way, that seems to be the theme of the book - enjoy every relationship that comes your way. Lessons well learned are lessons worth remembering.

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