October 17, 2000
by Kay Kimbrough
Viking, Penquin Group, 2000, $24.95.
RAVELSTEIN is a philosophical novel which investigates the contemporary world through the eyes and mind of Ravelstein, a lusty American who has consumed and digested the great ideas of the past and transmitted them to brilliant students who go on to do important jobs in the political arena. His friend Chick, a tentative, introverted writer who is no political philosopher himself but who is a close friend and admirer, has been given the task of writing his memoir.
This book is philosophical and intellectual, but the most memorable parts deal with the friendship between the subject and the narrator, an ideal relationship between a homosexual genius and a heterosexual who has survived many marriages and is married to a much younger woman although he is now in his seventies: "Although I was Ravelstein's senior by a good many years, we were close friends. There were sophomoric elements in my character as there were in his, and these leveled the ground and evened things up." Chick describes the tone of this friendship: "We were perfectly open with each other. You could speak your mind without offending. On either side there was nothing too personal, too shameful to be said, nothing too nasty or criminal. I did feel at times that he was sparing me his most severe judgments if I wasn't just then ready to stand up to them. I used to spare him, too. But it gave me tremendous relief to be as plain and clear with him as I would be with myself about weak or vicious things. In self-understanding he was well ahead of me. But every personal discussion turned finally into good, clean, nihilistic fun."
Friendship that includes intense love is at the heart of the novel, but Ravelstein is also a wildly comic character, one who could have been played by Zero Mostel with overtones of Balzac's outrageous excesses and Gore Vidal's shattering wit. The opening scenes feature the two friends walking though Paris in search of luxuries for Ravelstein to buy, for he is the ultimate American consumer, style-conscious, prodigal and newly rich, having written a book based on his class lectures, a book suggested by Chick as a means of satisfying Ravelstein's longing for fine food, clothes and drink. His physical appetites are a match for his intellectual hunger, and he is as selective in his choices of the former as he is in the world of ideas.
The walk through the rue St. Honore includes the fascinating conversation of the two friends. Love and longing are the bases of Ravelstein's political philosophy. "He rated longing very highly. Looking for love, falling in love, you were pining for the other half you had lost...This is the mutilation that mankind suffered. So that generation after generation we seek the missing half, longing to be whole again." Ravelstein sends Chick back to Plato's SYMPOSIUM: "To be human was to be severed, mutilated. Man is incomplete....Eros is a compensation granted by Zeus--for possible political reasons of his own. And the quest for your lost half is hopeless." The quest is what matters, what creates civilizations and philosophies.
Ravelstein entertains his friend while enlightening him on Rousseau, Plato, Balzac, Diderot, Whitehead and Russell. Once the guest of a rich socialite at a luncheon honoring T. S. Eliot, he is chastised for his manners: "You drank from your Coke bottle, and T.S. Eliot was watching -- with horror." Chick wonders what a Coke bottle was doing on the table in the first place, but reports Ravelstein's judgment on his hostess: "People who are self-glamourized invent their peculiar significance as they go along...Until they knit together a dazzling fantasy. They turn themselves into something like glorious dragonflies and whiz through an atmosphere of perfect unreality. Then they write essays, poems, whole books about each other..."
While writing his memoir of Ravelstein, Chick tells his own story. He spends a significant portion of the novel explaining and trying to understand his most recent ex-wife, a Russian scientist, Vela. Vela represents the obsession with science and technology that is obscuring political philosophy, literature, history and the fine arts in the modern intellectual world. Ravelstein complains that one can get a good technical education in American universities, but the humanities are no longer taught. Chick is now married to a loving intellectual named Rosamund, Ravelstein's former student, and she saves his life from a devastating health crisis. "Rosamund had studied love--Rousseauan romantic love and the Platonic Eros as well, with Ravelstein--but she knew far more about it than either her teacher or her husband." So the humanities, with the help of a good doctor, can save your life, Bellow advises.
RAVELSTEIN is a hymn to both kinds of love, as well as a lament for those who master the intellectual and creative heritage of the past. It also praises the zest for life that Ravelstein represents, a zest that includes frequent weekend trips to Paris, disdain for caution and calm acceptance of death. Chick's promise to memorialize his friend is kept, and Chick believes the need to fulfill this promise contributed to his survival. He concludes, "You don't easily give up a creature like Ravelstein to death."
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