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Literature and Ideas

Showing posts marked with the following tag: book review

Weird Aphrodisiac

Bellow and Ravelstein both are elderly, cultured, bookish east-coast Jews who pulled themselves out of the mild poverty of their parents by the pulsing sweat of their brows, but the protagonist is not the author in disguise — except to the extent that this is always and almost inevitably the case. Ravelstein is, or represents, Allan Bloom, Bellow’s long-time friend and colleague at the University of Chicago. This is the key to the roman à clef.

Bloom was first accepted into Chicago at the early age of 15 as part of a recently instituted programme to provide “gifted youth” with a wide-ranging education in the liberal arts, requiring close reading of the canonical texts of what was still unironically called Western culture, and he remained an academic and critic for the rest of his life. He is best remembered now, if at all, for his partly prescient, partly overblown attack on the seemingly vapid moralism and anti-intellectualism of modern academe, The Closing of the American Mind, to which Bellow wrote the — of course, wholly approving — foreword. Indeed, one wit, the left-wing political philosopher Robert Paul Wolff, wrote a review of the book as though it had been, in toto, a Bellovian artifice, a particularly elegant way of reducing the author’s thesis to the ranting crackpottery of an unreliable narrator in the mould of Augie March or Moses Herzog, the sort of neurotic oddballs with whom Bellow made his name — although, in assuming that Bloom’s ardour for the Great Books was indicative of little more than the 1940s-style, eccentrically Chicagoan curriculum to which he was exposed, Wolff displays precisely the instinctive cultural relativism that the Closing, from its opening pages, argues against.

The Core Curriculum at Chicago, once rooted in Eurocentric universalism, has since splintered: present-day students can choose to specialise in such subjects as human rights, global colonialism, Semitic languages, South Asian politics, Islamic thought, pre-Columbian cultures and gender & sexuality. This widening of the syllabus must be seen as a good thing, or at least an inescapable one, in an ever more connected and contested world, but does every widening not also imply a shallowing? No, not in Chicago’s case, where experts in every field and discipline are aplenty, but it may be harder for lesser-ranked schools to offer such a smorgasbord of study without the focus becoming superficially synoptic. The other loss is that students no longer share a common intellectual grounding, even if only to struggle with and to kick against; they each speak, quite literally, their own languages, for no sooner have they matriculated than they have been sifted and sorted into their own ideological and civilisational silos. This was the oncoming trend that Bloom wanted to see put to a swift end, as Canute’s courtiers had wanted to stop the coming of the waves.

The book has a tripartite structure, not unlike a three-act play. Act one introduces the great man himself, through the eyes of Chick, the book’s barely fleshed narrator, who is also a Jewish academic. The midsection explores the onslaught of Ravelstein’s various illnesses and infections, which ultimately lead to his death. The final act takes place six years later: Chick had promised his dying friend that he would write a memoir, to memorialise his departing life for future generations, but he procrastinates, takes ill himself (from ciguatoxin ingested on a Caribbean vacation) and struggles in the task — we are, of course, to take this novel as the completed work.

In fact, there’s relatively little narrative, as conventionally conceived, for the book is taken up mostly in dialogue between the two men and in description of the magus, but this paucity is not unusual in a modern literary novel, where the prose itself is the plot. That said, and sacrilegious though it may be, I wasn’t too much enamoured with the writing style. It’s not badly written by any means, but the prose is quite spare and when it sets off its pyrotechnics, they fizzle like cigarettes in a rainstorm. I like a good pun, to my aetiolated taste it’s far from the lowest form of humour, but Bellow doesn’t get much better than Chick’s referring to the up-market London shirtmaker Turnbull & Asser by the sarcastic sobriquet “Kisser & Asser”. Many critics seemed impressed enough that the author still had a hand steady enough to write anything at the age of 85, and dutifully so, since it was clear that this would be Bellow’s final work; no one likes to beat an old dog, especially one with such impeccable years of service.

In my edition of the text, I noticed at least two errors, whether of proofreading, printing or the pen. On page 161, the second word of “papier timbre” [sic] was missing its acute accent and should be read instead as papier timbré, a not insignificant mistake given the pride that Ravelstein took in his fluency and ease in that language (we are told, for example, that he would often frequent a particular restaurant, Les Atouts, owned by Monsieur Kurbanski, a Franco-Serbian immigrant and friend, simply so that he could slip into French when ordering his meal). The second mistake, seen on pages 207 ff., is less important: the sedative drug Midazolam, so far as I have been able to make out, is sold only under the trade name Versed, not “Verset”, as written in multiple places.

Abe Ravelstein himself is a charming, powerful and erudite man; he is also an aesthete, a crank and a snob. Having accrued generous windfalls from his polemical bestseller, he could afford to climb ever higher in the ivory tower. He would, for instance, listen only to composers of the Italian Baroque played “on the original instruments” (and on $10,000 speakers). In depicting the man’s lavish lifestyle, more brand names are dropped than, I imagine, appear even in E.L. James’ penny dreadful 50 Shades of Grey — though fewer sportscars, sextoys and wristwatches, more mention of Lanvin jackets and Pratesi bedsheets, high-end items from the fashion houses of the Old World. His one point of contact with popular culture was basketball (still, there’s a hint of elitism even in his admiration for Michael Jordan, whom he describes as an American genius, on a par with the bullfighters of Spain and the ballerinas of Russia): he would host pizza parties for his favoured students (some of whom would go on to become prominent names in politics) whenever the Chicago Bulls had a big game, a way of initiating them gently into his scholastic cult. There was a pernicious rumour that the old “bugger-familias” would use these sorts of events to seduce and corrupt his students (much the same charge that, in 5th-century Athens, was raised against Socrates, an ancient dialectician who openly conflated pedagogy and pederasty, the sensual and the cerebral).

Ravelstein is a contradiction — by which I mean he is human. He is at once a monk who decries the long, harrowing death of God and an atheist who sees life as nought but “a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness” (not unlike Nabokov, from whose autobiography these words are taken). He decries, too, the decadence that grows in the wake of organised religion and yet he lives as a sybarite — fine food, good clothes, hot sex etc. — in the confidence of his cloister. Hypocrisy is the charge, and it sticks like sweat to silk.

Does this excuse Bellow’s outing of Ravelstein-Bloom? Allan Bloom spoke against sexual liberation and the stridency of queer politics, but, behind closed doors, he had ensconced himself away from the world with a same-sex partner half his age, named in the novel as Nikki, Ravelstein’s Singaporean boyfriend (not quite a lover, more companion), a man whom he adored despite his intellectual interests stretching no further than an encyclopaedic knowledge of martial-arts movies. Ravelstein, by contrast, once describes his own such interests, by means of grandiloquent metonymy, as “Athens and Jerusalem”, symbolising the two poles, in short, of philosophy and religion. Well, in sexuality he was wholly Athenian. Or, at least, Victorian: he called himself an “invert”, making use of the antiquated, 19th-century term that conceived of same-sex attraction as emanating from the combined lusts of — to use a more 21st-century idiom, of which he would undoubtedly have disapproved — a cisgender body and a transgender mind: in short, homosexuality as aberrance, as mental abnormality even, not as a lifestyle to be entirely equated with the immovable bedrock of heterosexual, monogamous marriage.

Odd though it may seem, this attitude is perhaps not an altogether atypical one for a certain sort of older, socially conservative gay intellectual to take. I am reminded of the late British art historian Brian Sewell, instantly identifiable by his supremely clipped accent, an almost absurd parody of received pronunciation: he called himself “queer” not in the reclaimed political sense but with the force of unreconstructed invective, and, just before his recent death, he spoke out against the legalisation of gay marriage as the needless project of a “noisy nucleus” of activists, heedless of the harm they were liable to cause to, as he saw it, the Christian underpinnings of society. David Starkey, Cambridge historian of the Tudor monarchs, public commentator and provocateur, has expressed similar qualms about the redefinition of marriage, but has shown few qualms in openly discussing his promiscuous nights on Hampstead Heath, prowling for partners to partake in the illicit thrust and parry of recreational sex.

If everything that once was frowned and looked down upon is not just allowed but encouraged, where is one to find that delicious thrill of forbidden pleasure but, at best, in the beatings and bitch-slappings that pass for online porn? So, at least, goes the argument: some rules are made to be broken, even if only by the few.

There are hints, moreover, that Ravelstein-Bloom died of AIDS, though such a potentially stigmatic diagnosis isn’t baldly stated anywhere in the book: instead, we hear of his enduring, amongst other ailments, Guillain-Barré syndrome, a condition sometimes, but not exclusively, associated with the bodily destruction of HIV. In fact, the only firm acknowledgement of such a virus’ existence is when Ravelstein tries to empathise with his black maid (“as nearly as any honky could”, for in her presence he is always uncomplicatedly white), whose son has contracted HIV and whose homelife is a stereotype of African-American struggle and dysfunction (criminality, poverty, prostitution etc.). Yet we sense a subtext: in the pages immediately after Ravelstein’s death, Chick tells us, invoking the late man’s own tendentious judgement, that “he was doomed to die because of his irregular sexual ways”. Ravelstein saw himself as a tragic figure, one who could see that he was destined to bring harm upon himself but who could only go and do it anyway, like Oedipus and his incestuous love. Nevertheless, the argument remains whether Allan Bloom was ever completely closeted at all: he never wrote or spoke publicly about his sexuality, but close friends and colleagues were aware of his extramural activity. Bellow claims that he had received explicit permission to write about this most private part of Bloom’s life, so long as the text were to be published after he had ceased to exist, and there is no reason to mistrust the author’s testimony on this point. Indeed, this very issue is raised in the novel itself. Ravelstein’s memoir was not the first that Chick had written: he had earlier sketched a life of Professor Kogon, a recently deceased colleague, and, upon reading it, Ravelstein retorted that he really ought to have commented on his subject’s “attraction to men”, regardless of the fact that there was no more than hearsay and supposition to work from. Art must be true to life, even if its living characters are not always so true to themselves.

Despite his dislike of identity politics, Ravelstein is all too aware of his own precarious identity: he knows that he is “American through and through”, but as a waspish Jew in a WASPish faculty, he knows, too, that he has to keep his wits about him in the face of prejudice, and perhaps this, in some small part, explains his deep attachment to the European cultural inheritance — the fervour of the convert, the outsider aching to break in, to root himself in established tradition. However, literature is, always and absolutely, of an importance beyond such quotidian questions of selfhood. Take the 20th-century French doctor-cum-literateur Louis-Ferdinand Céline, who was a vicious antisemite (his visceral screeds against Jewish influence, which he saw secreted almost everywhere, were too much even for the Nazi-German ambassador to France, Otto Abetz — “King Otto I” as Céline obsequiously crowned him — to take seriously) but also a most excellent novelist (his chef-d’œuvre being his angry and inebriating Journey to the End of the Night): Ravelstein and Chick repeatedly discuss his refracted responsibility for the Final Solution, yet Abe cannot help but recommend that everyone should read him. The work is more important than the author’s biography, however monstrous a man he may have been. In the same vein, albeit more flippantly, Ravelstein jokes to his bedside visitors, when he’s dying in hospital, lighting up beside the “No Smoking” sign, “If you leave because you hate tobacco more than you love ideas, you won’t be missed.”

An image that works well is Ravelstein’s comparing, offhand of course, the plight of the American Jew to those “green tropical parrots, surviving a Midwest winter”, that he sees clawed atop the timber that holds the power lines up: they are identifiably foreign (released from the petstore perhaps), but have also found a comfortable niche for themselves in their new environment, their newfound freedom. “They even have a Jew look to them”, he says, which one must, I guess, take to mean beakish, the self-deprecating humour of the in-group.

Ultimately, the novel centres on the companionship of two men (or two pairs of men, Ravelstein and Chick, Bloom and Bellow), in the midst of life’s everyday entanglements, looming death and uncertainty. Ravelstein suffers stoically: he has a sharp tongue, but never complains or blames anything but himself as his infections are slowly teasing and stripping him of his being. “I would never have expected death to be such a weird aphrodisiac”, he proclaims, as Chick awkwardly — loyally — tends to his final needs. Fever can feel like arousal, when the heart is pumping harder than it ordinarily would and the body is sweat-drenched, convulsing and flushed; the petite morte may serve, in part, as preparation for that great cessation of life that waits calmly in the unseen for us all. In Ravelstein-Bloom’s case it was also the cause. And he accepted this wretched circumstance with indefatigable dignity. So it cannot simply be his fine furniture, powerful friends and comfortable status as a respected doyen of the humane arts that this memoir, if we can call it that, really commemorates, but his strength and resolve in confronting without fear such bitter and unreasoning cruelty.

Something in the Water

Ever had the feeling that you’re right about something that most of the world is hopelessly mistaken over? Perhaps not, but I think Ibsen had it. He wrote, in 1881, Gengångare [Ghosts], a dark play about a respectable man who discovers that he has inherited syphilis from his father (whom he now knows to have been less respectable in his conduct than he had once believed) and, moreover, that the family’s maid is in fact his half-sister (though that doesn’t entirely dampen his desire to lay his loins upon her) and that the bacteria inside are slowly and painfully killing him, so that the curtain closes on his bitter entreaties to be euthanised: so many big issues, from incest to the stigma of sexually transmitted infections, that Ibsen felt needed to be brought out into the open, away from the hushed hypocrisies of the private household, but that his critics saw only as so much filth that degraded the dignity of the theatre.

The Daily Telegraph, for example, described its opening on the British stage a decade later with the following invective list of almost libellous metaphor: “an open drain, a loathsome sore unbandaged, a dirty act done publicly, or a lazar house with all its doors and windows open”.1 Maybe not a quote to emblazon on the promotional posters! Ibsen knew that his play was worth more than that sort of review, but the criticism was equally as vituperative in his native Norway, and may even have contributed to his decision to leave the country for Sorrento, on the southern coast of Italy. Which was where he wrote En Folkefiende [A Public Enemy], a play that is itself a study of man shunned and scapegoated by his community for doggedly telling it the uncomfortable truths that it would rather not hear.

Set in precisely the sort of small — small-minded even — Norwegian town from which Ibsen himself had fled, the play opens with the entire community united in their high spirits at the news that a health spa is to be built, and the local water source is to become a source of income. The town’s liberal newspaper, the People’s Tribune, is to publish an article by Dr. Thomas Stockmann, who played a significant role in developing the proposal for the baths, much to the chagrin of his brother, Peter, the town’s mayor, who would rather have the credit heaped solely upon himself. Already, we see that there is sibling rivalry between the two. Yet the article that Thomas intends to publish is not the publicity piece expected by Hovstad, the editor, a simple panegyric celebrating the construction and the great wealth that will inevitably flow to the town when the “invalids” come to bathe their sicknesses better. No, Thomas has discovered a fatal flaw with the original plan — and thus breaks open the great fissure at the centre of the play.

The water that would supply the baths is dangerously “riddled with toxins, billions of bacteria”. At the time the play was written and set, the germ theory, which held microorganisms responsible for infectious disease, had been scientifically proven (by, amongst others, Louis Pasteur, who, true to Gallic stereotypes, had been working on preservation methods to prevent the spoilage of wine and beer) but was still controversial or poorly understood among the general public. This provides moments of light comedy when Morten Kiil, a hard-headed industrialist and the father of Thomas’ wife, Katherine, ridicules the idea of invisible animals dancing around the pipes, as though they were fairies at the bottom of the garden.2 The son-in-law, however, couldn’t be more certain of himself: he had surreptitiously sent samples off to the university’s labs to be tested and has recently received confirmation that the water is, indeed, contaminated. As he says, “all we have to offer our visitors at the present time is a condition of permanent ill health”. But interests are vested: Kiil owns a tannery that Thomas considers to be the root of the pollution, and Hovstad soon becomes uncomfortable with the prospect of publishing the doctor’s findings, if they should cost taxpayer money to aright, as Peter, in his mayoral robes, is all too keen to suggest.

Threats are thrown towards Thomas, as he is encouraged to reconsider his stance for the sake of the town’s prosperity, which is intimately tied up with the development of the baths. Peter reminds his brother how he had supported him financially during leaner years and of the latter’s subordinate position as a public employee; when all else fails, he turns to emotional blackmail, imploring him not to harm his wife and children by embarking on this futile crusade. But the truth means more to him than his responsibilities do. It has become a point of principle. One cannot help but admire his courage and his bloody-minded devotion to his cause in the face of more or less universal opposition. Those traits are so admirable because so few people possess them. As the early-20th-century American wit Logan Pearsall Smith put it, “Most people sell their souls, and live with a good conscience on the proceeds”. A recent example that springs to mind is the UK government’s push for fracking: all opposition, all caution, has been brushed aside in the dash for gas. Of course, the situation is not quite so analogous, because there are many people opposed to its introduction, and local councils have voted against it (their vetoes soon overturned from above), but the billions of pounds worth of revenue that the industry will generate is enough to convince the decision-makers not to look too closely at any potential harms to the environment that may be also be generated.

Stockmann is clearly a man with a justified cause, but he becomes harder to sympathise with in the fourth and penultimate act, when he convenes a public meeting and delivers a roaring peroration in favour of the individual against the ignorant majority. Echoing the language of the 19th-century eugenicists, he claims that the mob is like “a stunted chicken [that] hasn’t the qualities of a Japanese hen”: how then can we expect it to be anything other than habitually mistaken, or moved like a marionette in one direction and then the other at the hands of devious demagogues? No doubt such sentiments would have found some favour with the comfortable theatre-goers of turn-of-the-century Europe, who could afford to consider themselves free-thinkers, but therein lies the paradox: in pandering to the prejudices of his audience, is Ibsen not playing to the crowd while, at the same time, claiming otherwise?

As the century closed, Gustave le Bon published his Psychologie des Foules: the title translates into English as Crowd Psychology or The Psychology of Crowds, but it might as well be translated The Psychology of Fools, for a crowd was, for him, often nothing but a collection of the most dangerous and cretinous elements of human nature — less than the sum of its parts. Of course, his argument is more nuanced than my précis, but le Bon does go so far as to suggest that when people congregate into a mob, they “enter upon a purely automatic and unconscious state, in which they are guided by suggestion”,3 as though groupthink were a form of mesmerism. So the play is clearly consonant with the spirit of its times, but the central attack on democracy as a form of “rule by morons” goes back millennia, an attack offered mostly by conservative advocates of aristocracy or autocracy. For example, Plato, who had been born into the Athenian aristocracy (and was therefore a natural opponent of its democratic rule), defines democracy as the system of government that dispenses “a sort of equality to equals and unequals alike”.4 Hovstad, by the fourth act, is indeed calling Stockmann an aristocrat, as an insult, and he doesn’t reject the label.

Like much of Ibsen’s work, An Enemy of the People is an example of what has been termed by critics a “problem play”, where the drama is little more than a means to debate wider issues, not an attempt to represent life in all its convoluted complexity. The machinery is visible: the stage is manned by cogs, not characters. The masses at the public meeting are portrayed as simpletons, each searching his immediate superior for signs of an opinion to steal. There is a drunk who interrupts proceedings and is eventually thrown out: he is surely intended to play no role other than to symbolise the common people at their worst. There is Horster, a sea captain, who is in Thomas Stockmann’s sitting room as the play opens and is there to symbolise the necessity of hierarchy in keeping the “ship of state” afloat: for example, when Billing, a subeditor at the Tribune, compares society to a vessel where “everyone should have a hand on the helm”, Horster duly replies, “Not on my ship!” Inevitably, the sea captain continues to stand by Thomas when the rest of the town has turned against him, and it is in his house that the public meeting is held. The Stockmann family’s maid never speaks, but we hear Thomas calling for her, in increasingly aggravated tones as the play progresses. More often than not, he forgets her name; finally, she becomes “that snotty-nosed girl”. Again, she is no more than a manifestation of his growing impatience with the masses.

This reliance on the “problem” as the central narrative force can become wearing, as though a universe has been created simply so that the playwright can prove a point. At times, I feel as though Ibsen himself might perhaps have done better by writing an angry letter to the newspaper or holding a public meeting to air his grievances, and to spare us the performance. Yet, once you understand that the characters are made of cardboard, it is possible to focus more fully on the clash of ideas that they enact.

The play, in recent years, has undergone something of a revival. It has been read by liberals as an all-too-relevant reminder of the limits of democracy in these times of political populism, as reflected by Trump in the US and by Brexit here. But this is a reading that plays to their prejudices, and not to their strengths: it is technocracy, rule by distant experts, the contemporary form of aristocracy, that increases the sense of powerlessness that many have, and telling them to quieten down and to pay better attention to the experts, as Thomas Stockmann does, is only likely to elicit a two-word response. Hilary Clinton’s characterisation of a quarter of the American population as no more than a “basket of deplorables” — regardless of whether you think it accurate or not — was, by her own admission, a “political gift” to the Republicans.5 It helped to support their narrative that sanctimonious liberals looked down on the ordinary sorts of folks who had often voted for them. It stoked resentment.

Let’s be honest, the people were hoodwinked if they expected a billionaire egotist to do anything other than cut his own tax rate. And they were played for fools by the demagogues at FOX News and elsewhere. But An Enemy of the People can just as much be read as a critique of liberal piety — of virtue signalling, if you like — as it can a critique of ochlocracy. Take Hovstad and his newspaper: claiming to support the forces of progressivism, he soon balks when any reforms might eat into his own pocket. When Petra, Thomas Stockmann’s daughter, refuses to translate a saccharine English novel for serialisation in the paper, on the grounds that its conventional worldview seemed diametrically opposed to that espoused by the editorials, he, likewise, tells her that such things are unimportant so long as they please the readers, who like such simple-minded stuff, and keep them engaged enough actually to read the editorials: he claims the moral high ground, but, when it comes down to it, the ends soon justify baser means, and his declared ends aren’t always the ones that he pursues.

In a world of ever-increasing complexity, there is always the temptation to imagine that if only power were vested in fewer, better hands, then things would run more smoothly. And power has been vested in fewer — more specialised — hands, because vast hierarchies are virtually essential to the running of complex systems such as the global economy that our prosperity depends upon. But if Thomas Stockmann says that “the strongest man in the world is the man who stands most alone”, he forgets to say that such a man is also unaccountable to anyone but himself. If power is to be spread more widely, as I think it must, so must the ability to wield it, to think critically and to challenge authority. To that extent, we all stand alone.


  1. George Bernard Shaw, The Quintessence of Ibsenism, p. 3.
  2. It may be worth remembering that the original term for a bacterium was an “animalcule” (literally, a “small creature”).
  3. Gustave le Bon, The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind (trans. anon.), ch. 2.
  4. Plato, The Republic (trans. Benjamin Jowett), book VIII.
  5. Hilary Clinton, What Happened, p.413.