Sunday, February 27, 2005
Finished Ravelstein on Friday. I think this may be the stinkiest of the books I've read yet on my continuing Jewish kick. I was warned that the book didn't reveal much about Bloom's thinking; I suppose that's true, though it confirmed what a left-wing literature professor friend of mine once said about the distinction between right-wing Nietzscheans (exemplified by Bloom) and left-wing Nietzscheans:
Right-wing Nietzscheans: loved the elitism, hated the transvaluation of all values
Left-wing Nietzscheans: loved the transvaluation of all values, hated the elitism
Ravelstein is billed as a portrait of Bloom, "warts and all" but pretty much all you get are the warts. Bloom, as depicted, was a particular species of queen. All his eccentricities - his love of beautiful things and the good life; his obsessive consumption and dissemination of gossip, particularly of a sexual nature; his bouts of brutal honesty about his interlocutors' faults and subconscious motivations - these are just the standard behaviors of his species, one with which I am adequately familiar and for which I have plenty of affection in individual instances, but these do not add up to a life, or anything close to it. Bloom's thought, inasmuch as Bellow touches on it - Eros as the noblest but hopeless quest for your lost other half; the need to reject family and tradition and achieve your own, individual apotheosis - also comes off as typical or even symptomatic. Was Bloom really so uninteresting? Or did Bellow really not know any other gay men like this, to provide a frame of reference?
The real crime of the book is that it leaves you with no notion of what made Bloom so magnetic to his disciples, nor even what the basis was for his friendship with Bellow. A certain degree of affection does register, but barely; for so much of the book, the author-surrogate, Chick ruminates pointlessly on his own marriages, his health, his art, that we frequently lose sight of the book's purported subject altogether. Ravelstein, in his last days, begins, uncharacteristically, to ruminate on Jewish tradition and religious themes. But it all takes place behind a kind of screen; Chick doesn't get close enough, emotionally, nor is he serious enough intellectually to engage with this rumination, to see whether it means anything or whether it's just a late recognition of the ethical implications of universal mortality.
Anyhow: a big disappointment. Comparisons to Boswell - which are raised, outrageously, in the book itself - could not be less apposite.