Philosophy and Literature 24.2 (2000) 451-466
[Access article in PDF]
The Rage over Ravelstein
This article takes its point of departure from the critical debate over Saul Bellow's recent novel Ravelstein, whose eponymous main character, Abe Ravelstein, is identified by most reviewers as based on Allan Bloom, former professor of political philosophy at the University of Chicago. For many years, Bellow and Bloom were both members of that university's prestigious Committee on Social Thought, where they together taught classes dealing with politics and literature. But the meaning of Ravelstein cannot be reduced to arguments over how suitable a representation Ravelstein is of the real life Allan Bloom. I argue that Bellow's real contribution in Ravelstein is to provoke readers' sense of wonder about the larger relationship of literature to politics, consistent with the orientation of Bloom's political philosophy as distinct from reviewers' curiosity about Professor Ravelstein's lifestyle.
Ravelstein has begun a new chapter in that old controversy over the place of literature in the study of politics. 1 At the center of much of the interest in the novel is Abe Ravelstein, a professor of political science given to speaking philosophically about the current situation in world politics. As a noted teacher of politics, Ravelstein has many former students now serving in high public office. Through the character of Professor Ravelstein, the novel brings together the Great Politics school of world affairs and the "great books" school of political philosophy. [End Page 451]
As a concept, Ravelstein sounds too abstract: academics rarely make interesting characters in novels, and academic philosophers are hardly the exception that proves the rule. But Ravelstein works because politics is put in its place and made subordinate to philosophy, as a necessary but insufficient pursuit for human happiness. Professor Ravelstein's hard-nosed interest in affairs of state is subservient to his warm-hearted interest in the state of the soul, and in the place of politics in satisfying a soul's longing for completeness through human fellowship. Politics both makes and breaks the highest human achievements. Referring to Shakespeare's Roman plays, Professor Ravelstein says: "without great politics the passions could not be represented" (p. 198). Ravelstein is punctuated by similar references to the contribution of literary works to our understanding of this fundamental longing.
It is unusual in itself to have a Nobel Prize-winning author like Bellow publish a novel dealing with political philosophy. It is even more unusual to have a novelist of Bellow's stature telling a story about the state of world affairs by focusing primarily on a political theorist. It is through the eyes and opinions of this quite worldly theorist that we size up contemporary political realities, drawn ever closer into Ravelstein's reliance on the loftiest standards of his version of the "great books" tradition from Plato's Republic through to Nietzschean postmodernism.
Bellow's Ravelstein has much to contribute to our appreciation of the relationship between politics and literature. Properly approached, it promises to freshen our enthusiasm for literary contributions to political understanding, including the limits of politics. This dimension has not been prominent in the commentary on this eagerly-awaited and much-discussed novel. To this point, most of the commentary has been on the probable identity of the model for the central characters: Chick the narrator of the story being presumably based on Bellow himself and Ravelstein being inspired by Bellow's association with his late University of Chicago teaching colleague, Allan Bloom, a prominent student of the political philosopher Leo Strauss--here identified as the "famous, controversial Felix Davarr" (p. 51). Bloom is best known for his 1987 best-seller The Closing of the American Mind, which included a Foreword by Bellow. 2 This was an unusually controversial book. For one thing it gave rise to other books devoted solely to bringing together the vast critical response it excited. 3 More relevant here, Bloom's book is the only work I know where both Bloom and Bellow appear together as themselves and speak in their own names. In that work...