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.’1
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, the grand old queer in Saul Bellow’s 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.
Bellow’s characters are working out their identity. Ravelstein seeks the philosophical truth, the right aesthetic, the splendour of luxury. He revels in his elitism, but part-identifies with the street, the place of his humble beginnings. Always going about his important work, dressed for the part. He’s a dandy of sorts, an accomplished wit, capable of cutting observations when required, a man whose academic knowledge stretches from Ancient Greece to the modern world – Athens, Rome, Paris, and Jerusalem. The world of the ancients is his domain of excellence, and it’s also another layer of the bullshit ideas that distract him from being him.
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.
Horzog’s women are also imprisoned within this same mesh of ideas. They’re motivated by false truths, bogus arguments – unclaimed baggage. The baggage Herzog feels compelled to pick up and deal with but can never resolve. His advice is unwanted or ignored. Instead, he makes do by recalling the details. Their facial expressions, the irony filed conversations – listening to their backstories. He attempts to fathom the apparently impossible, to understand women as if they’re a classical text that can be analysed rationally. He’s the Captain Spok of Academia. 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.
Feminists will have a lot of trouble with Ravelstein, and no doubt Herzog. Women don’t get equal billing in either of these novels. It’s their mindshare we are missing. All the thoughts come from Herzog or ‘Chick’. The world is processed by men, through the male mind. Herzog tells the reader about women, to great length, but struggles to understand them himself. Why should we care for his opinion when it’s based on his dysfunctional relationships?
The left will have trouble with Ravelstein; it’s a story about a rich man. Ravelstein is the American elite, part of an academic community of ‘experts’, spoilt by pampering and overblown paycheques. They lecture one another within their campus bubbles, exhibiting carefree snobbery – disconnected from the contemporary realities. There’s a whiff of ivory towers here. Relics. The polishing of statues.
Conservatives will have trouble with Ravelstein because he’s a gay man through and through. An unabashed liberal. A man who loves the arts, fashion eccentricities, and passes comment about the world’s injustice.
Liberals will have problems with Ravelstein. He’s a gay man whose politics is profoundly conservative. He’s a traditionalist, immersed in classical studies, enjoying his connections with Capitol Hill. He sees no need for gay pride festivals.
If Bellow’s language wasn’t quite so brilliant Herzog’s account would seem tirelessly dull. His talent is making an otherwise dull character seem interesting. Herzog is a middle-aged bore with too many hang-ups. Bellows uses his character as a puppet to reveal the mirage of ideas that Herzog exits within. While we get a whole novel inside Herzog’s mind and most of Ravelstein is about Abe Ravelstein; women are weirdly on the periphery. They lack a voice. Herzog and ‘Chick’ do the talking. Women have lines of dialogue, but their voice is dialled down, deemphasised by male explanation. Whatever women say is deconstructed, exposed for its flawed logic. This makes the narrative feel ‘locked in’, claustrophobic. Limited. Bellow’s male characters take centre stage. They rationalise the world, and yet fail to see their own irrationality. They are big babies. Angry and winging. Worrying about the inconsequential.
Some people write about goblins or talking rabbits. Bellows writes about men stuck within a haze of bullshit ideas. Ideas that make them unhappy. He writes about men without women. Herzog can’t understand women. Ravelstein has no need for women.
Herzog and Ravelstein are Romantic figures looking out across the American landscape. They are reminded of their ‘otherness’. Their otherness echoes their intellectual separateness, a certain smugness perhaps, and an overwhelming Jewishness in the face of a uniformly waspish American academia.
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.
Abe Ravelstein is close to death, dying from HIV. (‘Chick’s’ memoir is Bellow’s thinly disguised memoir of his own friend.) Herzog and Ravelstein explore the grand old mansion of the twentieth century, of twentieth century man. While the characters can be unpalatable, Bellow’s writing (and the observations of his characters) is remarkable. The unexamined life is not worth living – Ravelstein comments – but what if the examined life makes you wish that you were dead?
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.
To be more accurate these two stories are rumination portraits. The characters reconcile themselves with the finite nature of life. Their ‘moment’ has gone. Or is about to go. And they know it. Lost youth. Lost importance. Loss. Always loss. Herzog ruminates on his life, fearing that he may have lost his sanity. ‘Chick’ ruminates on the loss of Ravelstein, his great friend. Everything that begins – ends.
1 Conversations with Saul Bellow, Edited by Gloria L Cronin, and Ben Seigel (University of Mississippi Press, 1994).