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  • Philosophers into Fiction
  • Theodore Ziolkowski

With the title figure of his final novel, Ravelstein (2000), Saul Bellow paid a moving tribute to his friend, the philosopher Alan Bloom (1930–92), author of translations and studies of Plato and Rousseau along with his best-selling diatribe against The Closing of the American Mind (1987) and, in his posthumously published Love and Friendship (1993), subjective analyses of such writers as Shakespeare, Stendhal, Austen, and Tolstoy. In accordance with Bloom’s own wishes, Bellow was unsparing in his depiction of his friend’s character: his love of gossip about his colleagues at the University of Chicago, his delight in insider news from former students well placed in politics, his open homosexuality, and his unmitigated pleasure in the luxury with which he was able to surround himself thanks to the royalties from The Closing of the American Mind—not to mention his equal pleasure in the rancor of his colleagues at his sudden wealth.

What we do not find—again in keeping with Bloom’s specifications—is any systematic account of Bloom’s philosophy. “He clearly didn’t want me to write about his ideas,” the narrator states.1 “He had expounded those fully himself and they’re available in his theoretical books. I make myself responsible for the person.” This injunction, repeated several times in the course of the novel, provides a compositional clue to a group of other novels based on the lives of twentieth-century philosophers. [End Page 271]

Few recent thinkers have had the same appeal for nonspecialists as did Hans Blumenberg (1920–96). His prolific and accessible writings on metaphorology, phenomenology, and myth draw on examples from literature, religion, politics, and philosophy, and include such books as Schiffbruch mit Zuschauer, 1979 (translated as Shipwreck with Spectator, 1996), a paradigm of existence; meditations on caves as a metaphor of life (Höhlenausgänge, 1989); and a posthumously edited collection of thirty-two reflections on lions as depicted in literature, art, music, and religion (Löwen, 2001).

This last work caught the attention of the German prize-winning novelist Sibylle Lewitscharoff, who makes use of it in her novel Blumenberg (2011). The author never knew or studied with Blumenberg but enjoyed the benefit of an acquaintance with the philosopher’s daughter, who contributed personal details.2 The novel revolves around Blumenberg’s infatuation with lions, which is so compelling that one evening in 1982 a lion actually appears in his study and henceforth, unseen by others, accompanies him on his daily rounds, lying in front of the lectern during his lectures at the University of Münster. The novel includes accounts of four students, all of whom suffer early deaths—one by suicide, out of unrequited love; another by murder, in exile in Brazil, where he’d been driven by his intellectual shortcomings; a third by madness from excessive commitment to his ideas; and the fourth, Blumenberg’s most successful protégé, by fatal stroke on the eve of his promotion to tenure. The final chapter brings them all together, after Blumenberg’s own death, in—where else?—a cave, where—what else?—a lion “snatches him into another world” (B, p. 216).

Again, as in Bellow’s case, Lewitscharoff concedes in her acknowledgment that “one will seek in vain for correct Blumenberg quotations” (B, p. 219). She has incorporated only brief formulations, modified thoughts, and single phrases, with no sustained exposition of his ideas. But several of Blumenberg’s more popular works—about the lions, the cave, and, in the protagonist’s memories of a trip to Egypt, the shipwreck—inspired the central scenes of the novel. Both Bellow and Lewitscharoff, in sum, are concerned with the lives of their philosophers and only incidentally with their thought. We find precisely the same emphasis in most other novels dealing with prominent philosophers of the twentieth century.

It should be noted that this focus on the man rather than the ideas is quite different from that in another group of works that popularize philosophy into fiction rather than the philosopher.3 The international bestseller Sophie’s World (1991) by Jostein Gaarder, which—though [End Page 272] rejected contemptuously by professional philosophers...


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