saul-bellow-interview

Catching the Train on Randolph Street — A Thought on Saul Bellow, Literature, and Eros

by Chris Berger

According to his close friend Allan Bloom, novelist Saul Bellow had a saying: even if you plan on making the trip to eternity, you still have to catch the train on Randolph Street (at least if you’re setting out from Chicago).  To my knowledge he never penned this aphorism in any of his published works, but nevertheless it is reflective of a theme that seems to have preoccupied Bellow throughout his life.  Whether it is in his novels, his stories, or in his non-fiction works, the question of how human beings derive profound insight from personal, ordinary experience – and the comedic fortunes of great talents (real or imagined) in a frequently vulgar and self-serious world – is always present.  And there is nothing more personal and seemingly ordinary than one’s friendships with and attractions to others.

Across Bellow’s novels we bear witness to the struggling dissatisfied soul in contemporary life and the frequently bemusing calamities that beset him. These novels are comedies, but in the eyes of many readers, they are not conventionally funny.  For many readers, they are difficult; they are not the usual candidates for escapist entertainment on the beach.  Bellow’s protagonists are cerebral; he has them soliloquize at length on “high-brow” topics and invoke philosophical and literary giants as they struggle to make sense of their world.  Given what we typically expect from contemporary fiction, Bellow can come across to many readers as, quite frankly, pedantic.  However, Bellow pleads to readers in his “Foreward” to his friend’s best-selling bombshell The Closing of the American Mind: “But I was making fun of pedantry!”[1]

Bellow’s friendship with Bloom is a fascinating one, and they illuminate one another in striking ways.   Both are deeply personal writers, so if I may follow Bellow’s lead: “If [they] can be personal, I see no reason why I should remain the anonymous commentator.”[2]

My first encounter with Bellow was via Ravelstein, a thinly fictionalized memoir of the final years of the Bellow-Bloom friendship before the latter’s death.  Bloom’s Closing, a whirlwind polemic against modern intellectual and social life underlined with a masterful exposition of philosophical history, had hit me hard.  I was a second-year BA student at the time, and was pointed toward that book by an extraordinary teacher who made an immeasurably deep and lasting impression upon me and some of my now-closest friends.  It shook me to my core – it is always disturbing and almost never flattering to have a mirror forced into one’s face.  After having read it twice within a week in a fit of fascination and near panic, I was convinced (and remain so) that Bloom was and is essentially correct that there is something I crave desperately that I am not getting from the sources I was told I would.  I wanted to know more about him, and through a series of turns stumbled upon the roman a clef that is Ravelstein.

Ravelstein is rather idiosyncratic when stacked up against Bellow’s more famous novels like HerzogMr. Sammler’s PlanetHenderson the Rain King, or The Adventures of Augie March.  It is almost certainly his most autobiographical novel.  It is so personal because it is so focused on the centrality of erotic longing for a genuinely human life.  This use of the word “erotic” is going to require some explanation, I am sure, and for that we will need to consult Allan Bloom.  Typically known as a professor of political philosophy, he wrote a book on his death bed five years after Closing made him famous and infamous.  He dictated it to students and friends at his bedside as Guillain-Barré ravaged his paralyzed body.  This final book, published after his passing, is titled Love & Friendship.  He dedicated it to his lover (I refuse to sterilize either by saying “partner”), and its contents drew not from political theorists in the conventional academic sense but from Rousseau, Tolstoy, Austen, Stendhal, Flaubert, Montaigne, Shakespeare, and Plato.  It was these greats of literature to which he turned in order to make sense of the culmination of his life’s central concerns as summed up in the book’s title.

The first sentence begins: “This book is an attempt to recover the power, the danger, and the beauty of eros.”  Bloom goes on: “There is an impoverishment today in our language about what used to be understood as life’s most interesting experience”; upsettingly he concludes the first paragraph: “this almost necessarily bespeaks an impoverishment of feeling.”  Bloom’s reflections on eros, here and elsewhere in his work, boil down to an exhortation to readers to rebel against the “de-eroticization of the world” and to refuse to take as given the “lack of profound contact with other human beings” that is now “the disease of our time.”[3]  He defends his recourse to the greats of literature by asserting that it is through such literature that the overwhelming attraction of one human being to another, and the yearning for immortal perfection that it represents, retains its expression today when technical abstraction, impersonal detachment, and hyper-politicization are the norm and when eroticism, as Bloom notes in Closing, has been rendered lame.[4]

This digression sheds light on the friendship between Bloom and Bellow.  Bellow was a writer in the grand sense – not a would-be philosopher, not a theorist, not an academic, not an activist.  What he sought to do greatly resembles what Bloom said great writers do.  To return to what we noted earlier, Bellow’s novels show gifted protagonists struggling to satisfy souls with longing.  They do this in a world that masks over the sources of that longing.  Moses Herzog is forced to come to terms with the impossibility of relying solely on his books for enlightenment; his unsent letters to long dead authors are doomed to go unanswered, and he must grapple with his troubles under his own power.  In More Die of Heartbreak, Ken Trachtenberg searches in vain for meaning through sex; but love, genuine erotic experience – yes, believe it or not, eros does mean more than (though it by no means excludes) just sex – stubbornly eludes him.  But it seems to me that in Ravelstein, Chick (Bellow) finds through his friendship with Abe Ravelstein (Allan Bloom) an approximation, if nothing else, of how someone of great yearning and potential can cling to sanity, and even recover the experience of wonder, in a world that has utterly lost its senses.

The characters of Ravelstein each give us a glimpse of what is meant by eros.  Through his friend Ravelstein, Chick is paired with a love with whom he is finally, truly happy: Rosamund.  There is also an interesting irony laid bare by Rosamund’s character: for all Ravelstein’s obsession with the idea of eros, of divine longing for perfection as the central philosophic passion, Rosamund is in certain ways closer to representing eros than he is.  She dedicates the energies of her whole being to Chick in his hour of need as he nearly dies.  She resembles, quite honestly, the Eros of Diotima in Plato’s Symposium who longs for completion and is willing to work and suffer for it without assuming it will just “happen.”  Yet it cannot be forgotten that without Ravelstein’s bookish erudition and intellectual influence on Rosamund, she and Chick would never have got together.  However, there can be no doubt that Ravelstein cares deeply for his lover Nikki; he is not without experience to back up his book learning.  Whether he fully grasps all that this entails is an open question – bridging the gap between what one thinks one knows and what one is experiencing is seldom easy, even for geniuses and especially for lovers (though I am not sure that, in their deepest expressions, the two are not synonymous).  Chick’s “critique” of Ravelstein seems to be that his reverence for the highest philosophic contemplation on the one hand and his more conventionally erotic attachment to Nikki were not reconciled, but also that Ravelstein may have been better for having failed to transcend the “merely” mundane for the cosmic heights, for the unproblematic understanding of “the Beautiful,” and not an instance of a beautiful thing, as the object of erotic desire.  By this failure, Ravelstein retained Nikki in his life and therefore retained the initial experience that anchors the “golden thread linking eros to education.”[5]  The initial experience is not everything, but it is a necessary and intrinsically pleasant start.

In other words the highest pleasures, far from being lofty matters elevated above and cut off from passionate experience, have their roots in those very experiences.  They are part and parcel of one another.  The trick is to learn to recognize that the fleeting, mundane passions point above and beyond themselves, and that human beings are better equipped for viewing the low in light of the high than vice versa.  Today we like to debunk the high – it is fashionable to put on airs of disillusionment.  Bellow and Bloom pushed back against this; they sought to debunk debunking.  The other side of the coin is to remind oneself that, regardless of how high one climbs on the “ladder of love” (to steal an image from the Symposium), the lowest rung is still nevertheless a permanent, necessary, and often even desirable part on the ascent of of that ladder.  We are always returning to climb aboard on Randolph Street.

Saul Bellow articulated through his fateful friendship with Allan Bloom an awareness that, while literature cannot supplant lived experience (nor should we want it to), literature that is truly great can be an indispensable guide and companion in helping us to clarify the meaning of those experiences for ourselves and to understand some of the fundamental alternatives open to us as needy, social, thinking, yearning beings.  Bloom gave Bellow a writer’s dream: proof that there can still be people worth writing about.  In Chick’s own words, “you don’t easily give up a creature like Ravelstein to death.”[6]  Literature means that the people, experiences and ideas that fuel the search for the life most worth living need not be given up to death.  Bellow’s own books are such guides, and in them Bellow makes very clear that, in an age in which eros means the physical act of sex and nothing in addition to and elevating it; in which we have “relationships” instead of friends and mates; in which we have “partners” instead of lovers; in short, in which we substitute technical abstraction for what we actually feel, long for, and experience, we are in dire need of great literature perhaps more than ever.  Literature immortalizes loves and friendships for posterity and, as Bloom and Bellow together prove through their own example, it gives them new life, too.  Literature is not a substitute for life, but it certainly clarifies and accentuates it.

When, after an absence of over twenty years, I recently gave a lecture at Cornell University, a group of students unfurled a sheet that they hung from the balcony with the following message, “Great Sex is better than Great Books.”  Sure, but you can’t have one without the other.  – Allan Bloom, Love & Friendship, p. 546

[1] The Closing of the American Mind, p. 16

[2] The Closing of the American Mind, p. 12

[3] Love & Friendship, p. 13

[4] The Closing of the American Mind, p. 132-137

[5] Bloom’s words. The Closing of the American Mind, p. 134

[6] Ravelstein, p.233 (Penguin edition)

 

Visual courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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