Adrian Graham

Ravelstein book cover

Herzog and Ravelstein

Whatever happened, has already happened. Now we’re looking back at the past, trying to make sense. This is what Saul Bellow’s novels, Herzog and Ravelstein set out to do. We can only make sense of the past if we understand the thoughts that people experienced. We have to go into the mind of a character, the ideas that motivated them. Saul Bellow was fascinated by these thoughts and ideas. How people live in worlds of ideas and conceptualisation. Mindscapes. Or, as he put it: ‘We live among ideas much more than we live in nature.’ The characters, Herzog and Ravelstein, live within these interwoven layers: blame, excuses, goals, expectations, rationalisations, history… They are the servants of ideas. Ideas take hold of them. They are not in control. Both stories are about the ideated ‘I’ – Herzog (his world view) and ‘Chick’ (writing his memoir about his friend Ravelstein). They are about thinking back – accessing memories. We’re revisiting places, and times from their lives. We too are trying to make sense. The past has happened. It’s a place Herzog and Ravelstein (and ‘Chick’) can never return to – this is the rumination story.

Ravelstein is magnificent. A towering intellect, and a flawed man. A man of culture; a connoisseur. Ravelstein is always thinking (wrapped up in the grandeur of the classical world), always buying the best clothes – the consumer accessories necessary for a great man. He’s a Romantic figure travelling through the cultural wilderness of 20th Century America. Making sense of post-World War II USA. He’s a metaphor for America itself. Herzog is mentally preoccupied, troubled, tormented. Preoccupied with his girlfriends. Dumping them or being dumped by them. A latent mesh of ideas always blocking Herzog from himself. His relationships are dysfunctional. Women are won and then lost. Life is a big gambling casino: you never know what happens next. Loss is the only certainty. The loss of money. Of looks. Of Youth. Of feeling good about yourself – of lightness. To him, women are abundantly mercurial. Perplexing. A mysterious riddle. Always alluring. He sees through their snobbery, hypocrisy and arrogance while locked within his own faults. A meaningful connection is not possible. The dissatisfaction this creates preoccupies him. Ravelstein, on the other hand, is a man without the need for women. He’s a man’s man. A gay man. In his view, women distract great men from their great thoughts. His chosen ones, his student favourites, are like Greek statues in his own museum of favourites. The beautiful and the charming. They’re destined for great things – always beautiful, always charming.

At times ‘Chick’ and Ravelstein are like The Odd Couple. The comic surface interplay hides their deep emotional relationship. Love even. Herzog and Ravelstein (and ‘Chick, who is writing Ravelstein’s memoir) are searching for themselves. Searching for America. Never finding it. Because, no such thing exists. With all their grand posturing these ‘giants’, like the central character in Citizen Kane, are being carried along by life as much as anyone else. Hankering after simple, small things. Connections. Meanings. Ravelstein is contradictory. An intellectual who sees through the false gods, and yet he is a slavish consumer. He buys the latest 7 Series BMW, specially imported from Germany. He has a taste for the French fashion houses, and expensive Parisian hotels. During a Paris trip he stays at the same hotel as Michael Jackson. Ravelstein delights in his own excess – amused by the ridiculousness. The message of these rumination stories is that you can’t escape your past.

Ravelstein returns to his Jewish identity, forsaking the classical Greek world (another layer of bullshit ideas) for ‘Jerusalem’. We witness his declining health, and the near-death experience of ‘Chick’. We witness the circle of life coming to a close. Everything that begins – ends.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep is Philip K Dick’s 1968 post-apocalyptic novel. It’s a world where people synthetically ‘dial up’ their mood, aspire to keep a real animal as a pet, and organic androids (built as a slave class) are escaping from Mars to the earth.

The novel is a series of extraordinary and fascinating ideas that don’t quite cohere into a satisfying story. There’s a post-apocalyptic San Francisco, a world ravaged by nuclear radiation, the abandoned suburbs, mass emigration to Mars, Mercerism (the religion of the day), which values empathy for all living things, keeping animals as a status symbol, human-like organic robots (the enemy within), the Voight-Kampff Test (a way of identifying non-human behaviour through an involuntary physiological response to a repugnant suggestion), and even sex with robots (which, in the novel, is against the law).

Unlike Blade Runner, in the novel Deckard and his colleague both believe that they might be androids. Neither of them are. Deckard begins to feel empathy for androids, but after having sex with Rachael changes his mind when she tells him that she’s slept with other bounty hunters. Rachael is at the centre of this reversal. He almost kills her, but changes his mind. What is real? What is a simulation? Dick seems to say: if we believe something is ‘real’, then to us it is real.


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