Tuesday, June 30, 2009

More Depression

The doctors spotted it before I did, or perhaps I should say, they correctly guessed that what I was going through was depression before I came to the same conclusion. A couple of months ago I started having physical symptoms: extreme fatigue and sleepiness, very low energy, physical pain, aching all over and extreme sensitivity, for example, to every bump in the road when I was in a car, feeling a jolt in my jaw and in my elbows if the car went over a pebble. The doctors -- more than one, because my primary care physician was on leave, for one thing, and for another because I called after regular clinic hours -- ordered lots of blood tests, which kept coming back negative. Finally, enough tests came back negative that I began to think my condition might be psychosomatic. So I I tried to deal with it with mind over matter: by getting out of bed eight hours after I went to bed, whether I felt rested ot not; by exercising much, much more. And low and behold, the fatigue and and the pain went away. At first I felt silly about the whole thing, like I had put the medical people through a lot of work for no reason. But then I thought how sometimes people's hair will fall out in clumps due to psychological stress, or how they will develop hives. No one says that those people are being silly. So I decided to give myself a break. Not only because I could see the analogy between my condition and conditions like hair loss due to trauma and hives and such, but also because the medical personnel whose time I felt I'd wasted all urged me to give myself a break. I've been very fortunate, some very kind people who are very good at their jobs having been helping me through all of this.

The good news was that I felt better physically when I forced myself to be more active. The bad news was that as I felt better physically, I suddenly felt much worse mentally and emotionally. It seems that the physical symptoms were distracting me from the psychological distress. I've never sensed the mind-body connection so profoundly as I have recently as a result of these strange and, for me, unprecedented experiences.

Monday, June 29, 2009


A lot of people get it -- or at least you'd think so by the amount of ads on TV for antidepressants. I've been depressed lately. That's why I haven't posted in a few days. Barring major problems such as depression, I hope to post in this blog at least once a day. I'm on an antidepressant right now, which either makes me trendy or a dupe of big pharm, neither of which I want to be, but there it is. I feel a little woozy from the happy pills, but woozy is a lot better than I felt last Tuesday, when I last posted here, and then had to take a little break. I wonder whether I'm mentally impaired from the antidepressants, but I'm not particularly worried about it. I'm not particularly worried right now, which is sort of the point of taking the stuff, I guess. When someone gets a lobotomy, or so I gather, they no longer worry very much about anything. They feel pretty happy. Friends and loved ones of the lobotomized patient may feel horrified, because they notice what is now lacking in him, now that part of his frontal lobes is gone, but the lobotomized one doesn't notice the difference, or miss what's gone. I hope I'm not currently chemically impaired, but if I were -- how could I tell? Maybe you, my readers, can let me know whether the blogger who writes the next few posts here, who's on antidepressants, seems significantly different than the one before.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

This Annoys Me

In the History Channel documentary The Crusades - Crescent & The Cross, William, Archbishop of Tyre, author of one of the most highly-regarded contemporary chroniclesof the Crusades, is portrayed in dramatic re-enactments by an actor in a long black robe, with a very long and unkempt grey beard and hair, so long and untidy that the viewer wonders whether might be some bugs or rats crawling around in them, speaking passages from his chronicles to other monks in what appears to be a very dark and dank northern European castle or monastery.

Why does this annoy me? Well, we happen to know that William didn't look anything at all like that, for one thing. He looked like this:

-- tonsured, and wearing light-colored robes, as was usual for Crusaders living in the Holy Land, as William did for almost his entire life. We can even deduce, from the way William points his left eye toward his writing in this and other pictures of him, that the vision in his right eye may have been impaired. In the case of many leading figures of the Crusades, we have to guess how they looked. In William's case no guessing was necessary, and still the History Channel managed to get his appearance about as wrong as possible. That's what annoys me.

I'm also annoyed by the way that the actor portraying William shouts and hisses the passages from William's work in such a way as to make William seem quite an unpleasant and fanatical creep. But maybe this wasn't intentional, maybe the actor was doing the best he could and unaware of how creepy he was being.

By our 21st-century standards, William certainly said much which was fanatical and bigoted. Compared to his 12th-century Crusader contemporaries, however, William was very unusually broad-minded and mild-tempered. But if you only know him from this History channel program, you're going to think he was a snarling bigot who looked like a Druid. But of course, that's par for the course for the History Channel. The narrator of The Last Days of World War II pronounces "Volkstuerm" as if it were spelled "Wochsstromm," and "Braun" like the English "brawn" instead of its correct pronunciation, which is identical to that of its synonym "brown." The History channel is the only place I've ever heard the word "ArMIStice" spoken with the emPHASis on the the second SylLABle.

They churn out nothing but crap and I hate them.

Sunday, June 21, 2009


Alexander the Great, the Emperor Augustus,Charlemagne and Napoleon, besides being great rulers and conquerors, had also each of them a great impact upon the culture of his time. Hard-bitten, practical men, politicians and merchants and so forth, often deride culture -- literature, philosophy, art and so forth -- as being both a waste of time and a refuge for weaklings who cannot deal with real life. These practical types tend to measure one's success in "real" life by one criterium: the amount of one's material possessions. At an opposite extreme, one thinks for instance of Nietzscheand Oscar Wilde,are those who maintain that art alone makes life worthwhile. As with many other instances of extreme differences of opinion, so here I feel that such extremes are rather silly. Art is important, but without food, shelter and other basics which the practical types are constantly, industriously providing, no-one would be able to create it. Both extremes contain kernels of truth: often artists are, in fact, pampered sillies who cannot cope very well with the world at large. And art does certainly make life nicer. The practical types probably have no conception of a world completely without art, and would be just as horrified as anyone else if they ever did get a glimpse of such a world.

Whether or not Alexander's relationship with Aristotlewas more than just an interesting historical coincidence, whether Aristotle ever thought of his pupil or Alexander of himself as a philosopher-king, or not -- he died rather young for a philosopher, and in the dozen years of his reign he was extremely busy with practical and political things -- at the very least, one must regard Alexander as an extraordinary patron of culture. Although his empire collapsed into many separate kingdoms almost immediately after his death, still, everywhere he had been, from the Adriatic to Afghanistan, Greek culture flourished for centuries, because Alexander had consciously planted it there. A philosopher, a rhetorician, a musician could travel all over the vast Hellenistic world and find a market for his services in every city, and that he owed directly to Alexander.

It is a commonplace that in the age of patronage, poets and princes had a relationship that was often self-serving on both sides: the princes wanted praise and so supported those poets who flattered them, and the poets realized that the princes were the best patrons, and so flattered ceaselessly, shamelessly and with no regard for the truth. Like many commonplaces, this one overstates the matter somewhat. Doubtless, many writers throughout the ages of patronage were toadies, just as many are today, and many princes were conceited fools ready to swallow any amount of flattery -- as are many leaders and wealthy people today. But it's a great oversimplification to dismiss every description of every prince by the writers of his court on these grounds.

It may not be such an oversimplification, however, in the case of Augustus. Augustus is justly celebrated as the initiator of the pax romana, the greatest period of peace the Mediterranean world, or indeed perhaps any portion of the world at all, has ever enjoyed. Because of his reforms, his institutions and his example, the peace lasted for centuries after Augustus' death. That is certainly to be praised. When one considers the arts, however, a chillier picture emerges. There seems to have been little room for poetry that did not praise the Emperor and his family, and no room at all for anyone who criticized or made fun of them. The Aeniad is a great poem. Perhaps Vergilcould have done no better if he had not been obligated to praise Augustus in his poem. but who knows how many other poets or would-be poets there were, of whom we have never heard, or who never began at all to compose and declaim, because their talent for flattery was too slight? And Ovid,the greatest of all Augustan poets, was banished to a fort on the Imperial frontier on the Black Sea coast, a particularly cruel punishment for such a thorough urbanite. We don't know exactly what Ovid did, how he gave offense to the Imperial house. We can be pretty sure, however, that the offense was pretty minor, of the sort that many princes would ignore, even if it hadn't come from the greatest poet of the age. We know that Ovid apologized profusely, begged pathetically and in vain to be forgiven, until he died on that frontier post. It is generally agreed that Latin literature declined precipitously after the Augustan age. Surprisingly seldom, in my opinion, does anyone think to blame this directly on Augustus.

Alexander and Augustus lived in a culture -- it was in very many respects one and the same culture -- in which it was taken for granted that a sovereign could read and write. By the time of Charlemagne, the Roman senatorial families, the heirs of the rulers of the western Empire, had faded from the scene, any power they might still have confined mostly to the Catholic Church. Almost all of whatever literacy remained was to be found in the monasteries. The rulers of Western Europe, the heirs of the barbarians who had swept away the remnants of the western Empire, could neither read nor write. They fought ceaselessly among themselves, not the least among their own families. Patricide, matricide, fratricide, filiocide and every other sort of depravity was rife, along with famine and plague. To appreciate how great Charlemagne's achievement was, one has to understand how thoroughly awful things had become before him.

Charlemagne united and for the most part pacified a large portion of Western Europe. It's true, he waged war ceaselessly, but he waged it mostly at the expanding borders of his empire, thus pacifying an ever-growing area within. Within his borders, palaces and monasteries were built on a vast scale, and in these monasteries Charlemagne gave great support to learning -- not only Christian learning, but also the preservation of the ancients. In his main palace at Aachen, centuries before universities began to appear in western Europe, there was a sort of academy, from which officials and clerks went to every corner of the Empire. Einhard,Charlemagne's friend, minister and biographer, says that the Emperor himself spoke excellent and fluent Latin in addition to his native German, and could understand Greek as well. The whole time since the collapse of the western part of the Roman Empire, its legitimate heirs had continued to rule in Constantinople. After Charlemagne was named Emperor of the West by the Pope in AD 800, he was, in his own eyes if not in theirs, the colleague and equal of the Byzantine Emperors. In any case, it was only natural that a dominion as large as Charles' would send and receive embassies to and from Constantinople. Einhard also says that Charlemagne tried very hard to learn to write, and was hampered in this only by the fact that he had begun late in life. Charlemagne's vast contributions to letters are not in doubt. Among other things, the first example of written German come from his time, upon his orders. Perhaps Einhard was flattering Charlemagne's memory in his description of the prince's linguistic abilities. We don't know. To me the description has the ring of truth.

A thousand years after Charlemagne, it was once again taken for granted in Europe that princes could read and write. Many other men, however, the bourgeoise, the businessmen, could also read and write, could build palaces, buy fine paintings, produce plays, maintain orchestras and so forth. Their wives and daughters, presumably, often had their hand in all this artistic enterprise. It was not seemly for middle-class women to be obviously, publicly concerned with business, but still they had their salons which could be as grand as those of any princess. For all that titles were losing their significance, however, it was not taken for granted that a man could rise to the rank of king or emperor on his own initiative. But then Napoleon went ahead and did it anyway, and we are still sorting out the consequences of his reign. And the contradictions, which are glaring: this Emperor came to power under the auspices of a Revolution which, or at least so many of its adherents had thought, was to do away with sovereigns. With all sovereigns, once and for all. Beethovennamed his third symphony after Napoleon, then, when he learned that Napoleon had crowned himself Emperor, almost destroyed the score in his rage. He neded up renaming the symphony "to the memory of an heroic man," to the memory of the younger, not-yet-corrupted Napoleon.

Goethewas less disturbed by titles, and met twice with the self-crowned Emperor. Beethoven accused Goethe of being too subservient to Napoleon, but I don't know if the accusation makes much sense. Their lives were so very different that it may have impeded their communication: Beethoven was the son of a musician in an age when musicians were servants. That Beethoven himself refused to be treated as a servant, to grovel before anyone, was a radical break with the past, and was very brave. Far from living out any such traumatic class struggles himself, Goethe was an aristocrat, although not quite as much of one as he claimed to be when describing the past of the Goethe family in Frankfurt, which he consistently, extravagantly exaggerated. He always had servants, he never was one, apart from the formulas of address required among various ranks of the aristocracy, which could very often include such formulations as "I am your most humble servant" and such. Perhaps Beethoven confused such figures of speech with actual servitude. There is no reason to confuse the two things. And in any case writers began earlier than musicians to free themselves from feudal patronage: pen and paper were cheaper than a musical instrument, much cheaper than an orchestra; the princes, although although they usually sought to control literature through censorship, did not compete with the businessmen, the bourgeoise, when it came to printing; and literature may always have attracted more solitary people, more prone to individual assertion and rebellion, than music, which flourishes in the direct interaction of groups.

Goethe himself was a very powerful man, a minister in the state of Weimar who looked after all sorts of things which were by no means confined to the realm of culture -- for example, mining and irrigation were under his purview -- and the most highly-respected poet in Germany, perhaps in all of Europe. The age of patronage had faded to a large degree, replaced by printing presses and mass readerships, and theatres and art galleries open to the public. Then again, things which are often thought of as belonging strictly to the past, have not, upon closer inspection, completely ceased to be. One visited Weimar and hoped to be received by the great man, very much as if he himself were a prince, and not strictly out of admiration for Goethe's talent, although that was always the stated purpose, but in hopes of furthering one's career, either with a job in Weimar or with a recommendation elsewhere. Among Goethe's local circle of friends was a rich and charming widow named Adele Schopenhauer, whose exceptionally gloomy son Arthurwould go on to be a philosopher, one whose fame, in keeping with his dark mood, was destined to be mostly posthumous. Arthur mostly quarreled with his mother, but got along quite well with the Herrn Geheimrat Goethe. Goethe and the young Schopenhauer collaborated on the study of optics, until such time as it dawned on Schopenhauer that Goethe's ideas on optics were unsound. His integrity would not allow him to lie to his master; but the respect he felt would not allow him to contradict him openly. So instead, Schopenhauer moved to Berlin, published his studies on optics, and left Goethe behind.

A few years later a young and still relatively unknown Jewish dandy named Heinrich Heinecame to Weimar and called upon the great man Goethe. Perhaps Heine had been insulted by an antisemitic remark in Goethe's house, or on the way there; for whatever reason, Heine did not deliver the awed respect usual among Goethe's literary visitors; indeed, he seems to have been relatively monosyllabic and just this side of ostentatiously rude. The old Geheimrat tried to draw him out, asked him: What are you working on now? Heine: A version of Faust. Goethe: Do you plan to stay long in Weimar? Heine: Actually, now that I've met your Excellency, my chores in Weimar are completed. And with that the young smart-ass bowed and took his leave. And it turned out that Heine's career blossomed greatly without the protection of Goethe or any other great man, an example of how things were changing. Unfortunately, other things were staying the same: Heine's big mouth, his fearless pen and, to be sure, his Jewish heritage combined to make him intolerable to the powers which were gradually making one Germany out of hundreds of principalities. Like his friend Karl Marx,Heine had to spend most of his life in exile. He settled in Paris and wrote most of his brilliant poems and essays there.

Antisemitism was widespread in Germany, but by no means universal or unchallenged. I doubt that Goethe personally offended Heine, but it's easy to imagine that Goethe's butler or some other of his servants, or one of his aristocratic friends, might have made some crude remark about how things were going to Hell, if this sort of person, pointing to Heine, could now get in to see that sort of person, pointing in the direction of Goethe's drawing-room. One acquaintance, erstwhile friend and colleague of Goethe's who was, unfortunately, clearly antisemitic, was Arthur Schopenhauer. Schopenhauer set himself up at the University of Berlin and quite brazenly announced philosophical lectures to be held at the same time as those of Hegel.Did his failure actually surprise Schopenhauer? Competing as an unknown against one of the most popular philosophers of all time, a thinker who was enjoying rock-star fame, speaking in the largest lecture-halls whose seats were always all taken while many other people crowded into the aisles and entrances, seems like the act of a man who wants to fail, all the better to be able to call all of academia sour grapes.

Whatever his subconscious motivations may have been, Schopenhauer quickly canceled his lectures and settled into a solitary bachelor's life, living comfortably on the income from inherited investments, writing philosophy, not voluminously but very brilliantly, and very biliously. His criticisms of academia in general, and of Hegel in particular, are extreme. Extreme as they are, I admire them, although I wonder if they and I are wrong. To put my cards on the table: I, like Schopenhauer, failed pretty badly in academia and tend to resent it for personal reasons. And I have never begun to understand what Hegel was talking about, and so am perhaps too eager to accept Schopenahuer's analysis: that Hegel wrote nothing but nonsense, that he was an unparalleled charlatan who drastically set back the cause of philosophy. What if Schopenhauer never understood what Hegel was talking about? I'm reminded of the stupid comments against all modern, non-representational or conceptual art, uttered by people who obviously have no conception of any aesthetic ideas from later than 1850 or so, and who probably are just as clueless about earlier art as well. I am troubled by the very many later philosophers who seem to take Hegel very seriously indeed.

In any case, though I tend to nod and agree as I read Schopenhauer's critiques of academia, of Professorenphilosophie fuer Philosophieprofessoren, and of Hegel, I shake my head in dismay when Schopenhauer comments upon the Jews. Still, Schopenhauer had high, rare praise for Heine, whom he discovered late in both their lives. Is it possible that he did not know that Heine was a Jew? (I think he did know.) Or is it possible that Heine's writing caused Schopenahuer to reconsider some of his prejudices? (I think it's quite possible.)

The age of patronage, as it was with Alexander, and still with Charlemagne, and to a large degree still with Napoleon, is now gone -- but completely? I don't know. In earlier ages culture was dependent upon princes. When the prince was enthusiastic and openminded like Alexander or Charlemagne, culture flourished, and therefore life flourished. (I'm closer to the one extreme I criticized at the start of this essay, which states baldly that art alone makes life worthwhile, than I am to its opposite. Maybe I'm wrong when it comes to most people, but in my own particular case I'm right: if I can't be surrounded by, drenched in art, then I'm in a pretty sorry state. I can understand Nietzsche and Wilde pretty well, I can't muster much besides horror when considering a Rockefeller or a Gates.) There are fewer princes around nowadays, the ones who survive have far less power and less to say, in the field of culture as elsewhere; but there still is a type of patronage. Businessmen have to some degree taken the place of princes, and unfortunately they often tend to be somewhere between unsophisticated about and downright hostile to culture. There is large-scale state sponsorship of the arts in many European countries, so large-scale that if they had an inkling of it, many American artists would emigrate. Back here in the home of the brave the most important patrons are the successful artists -- and the philosophers and historians and so forth who have the qualities of artists. Unfortunately we don't have one word which embraces them all, although they are a unity as they always have been, as much now as when Leonardo da Vinci was painting and sculpting and designing buildings and bridges and artillery and dissecting bodies and otherwise embodying the definition of the Renaissance Man -- who recognize and promote and more and more often finance their as-yet unrecognized peers. Ever since Plato, the idea has been to inspire and educate the princes. Well, the princes of the ancien regime are just about gone, and their remnants are more sad than inspiring, let alone inspired, less and less capable of sustaining the old fantasies of good princes. The more successful among the artists, however, have begun over the course of the last few centuries to resemble princes. I'm thinking here more of Coppola than Schwarzenegger, more of Bellow than of Rowling. Clearly, Schwarzenegger has at the moment more political power than Coppola. But one certainly has to hope that Coppola has more power in determining what films will be made, and how and by whom. And that Bellow's appreciative remarks on this or that fellow-writer will still resound when no one any longer remembers Harry Potter.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Saul Bellow and Others

Not all is vanity. There have been wise man and women who have told us great things. One valuable thing which philosophy often offers is the evaluation of the wisdom of others. Philosophers are voracious readers with high standards and strong opinions about each other. Saul Bellow'sfiction often resembles philosophy in that he, and so too his characters, have read so very widely; they digress from their immediate problems with family or business to reflect on Platoor Aquinusor Nietzsche,they connect their present surroundings to the developments and trends of centuries and millenia, and they are able to do this convincingly because they have read Plato and Aquinus and Nietzsche and a lot of the other authors on the great-books lists. No-one who's relied on secondary summaries, on Western Civ textbooks and such, would be able to talk to you that way. More, the constant name-dropping encourages one to seek out and read the great thinkers of Western society going back to ancient Athens, to learn different languages in order to read the great thinkers still more directly, untranslated -- in short, to take the full course oneself, as Charlie Citrine, the narrator and protagonist of Humboldt's Gift,describes the amount of reading one had to do in order to keep up with the thrilling, brilliant conversation of the novel's title character, Von Humboldt Fleischer, based on Bellow's erstwhile friend and sometime enemy Delmore Schwartz.

At least, I was encouraged to take the full course. And having read by now a few of the philosophers in the Western-Civ canon, I would not hesitate to list Bellow, or Goethe,for example, among them. The similarities far outweigh the incidental differences of genre. In France, as shown for example by the careers of Voltaireand Sartre,such division of labor is not so strongly insisted upon, and sometimes the French will point to countries like Germany and the United States, and criticize us for insisting that this thinker or that is either a novelist or a philosopher, either a poet or an historian, but not both at the same time, and they're absolutely right to criticize us for that. In Germany this rigid classification is much worse even than here, although at least two prominent German philosophers, other than Goethe who is not usually classified as a philosopher, have bucked the trend: Nietzsche, not only with his famous tale Also Sprach Zarathustra,but also with many highly-regarded shorter poems; and Peter Sloterdijk with his novel -- we would call it a novel, the Germans also subdivide this category -- Der Zauberbaum,published in 1985, set in France in 1785.)

So, yes, by all means, read Bellow, read Goethe, read Plato, Aristotle, Lucretius, Boethius, Dante, Machiavelli, Descartes, Spinoza, Hobbes, Vico, Hume, Kant, Voltaire, Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and Sartre. You probably can't read them all in their original languages -- but why not try? Maybe you can! At least try to learn some other languages. Read the people I didn't list. Suggest your own list. Doesn't have to be all Western Civ. I'm relatively ignorant of non-Western philosophy -- but I'm not proud of that, by no means determined to keep it that way, and do not wish to imply that I'm dismissing that that which I do not not know, nor that I support any sort of exaltation of the West at the cost of the rest of mankind. It's just that I happen to know a little about this particular corner of the library, and find much there of value, and hate to see it getting so dusty and being forgotten. Furthermore: within this corner, I favor those dead white man who are less bigoted. Not that everyone is in perfect agreement about who exactly is to what degree progressive or reactionary, cf below. For now let me just say that one should not expect a hymn of praise of Kipling from me, and that Juvenal'sxenophobia, for example, marks him out as just as dull and dreary amongst the poets of his age, as Kipling.

You'll do what you want to do. But if you happen to learn German, and read Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Adornoand Sloterdijk, you may notice that they present you with five distinct, often conflicting accounts of Hegel.Nietzsche's account stays very close to Schopenhauer's until very late in his career, to the point that one feels it may have been borrowed -- and then, in Jenseits Von Gut Und Boese,after having in his earlier books heaped scorn on Hegel very much in the manner of Schopenhauer, and having gradually shifted his position on Schopenhauer from one of unmixed praise to one mixed with steadily more contempt, Nietzsche comes forth with the very startling remark that Hegel and Schopenhauer were two great brother-geniuses of philosopher, and that in striving to opposite poles of the German spirit they had been unfair to each other as only brothers can be. Can it be that if he had written longer, Nietzsche would have become an Hegelian? Probably not; the mind boggles at the suggestion. More to the point is that Nietzsche neither entirely accepted not entirely rejected other thinkers based on hearsay. He kept thinking for himself, reading the primary texts for himself, revising his own positions. Some have accused Nietzsche, unfairly, I think, of inconsistencies. I see instead growth and a very unusual degree of self-criticism, with changing philosophical positions as their unavoidable consequence. Can it be that some philosophers even today seek absolute, unchanging truth?

I am a leftist, or at least, I see the left wing of the Democratic Party in the US, and the Social Democrats and Greens in other countries, as the lesser of the available evils. I've never been tempted to vote Republican, (I have to wonder what Teddy Roosevelt, environmentalist, enemy of racial discrimination and of the largest corporations, would make of the remains of his erstwhile party today. The image of Teddy in safari gear, boots and gauntlets, chasing W out of the White House with a riding crop, like Jesus with a reed in the temple among the moneychangers, is stuck in my mind.) nor to favor a conservative in another country. Mario Vargas Llosain Peru was a very intriguing presidential candidate, but I was a distant and largely ignorant observer of his political campaigns. I only know his fiction, not what his actual political platform looked like.

And then there's Bellow, whom I have praised above. They say he was a young Trotskyitewho became an old neocon. It's true that he was a young Trotskyite, and that his best friend was Allan Bloom,and that in his collection of nonfiction entitled It All Adds UpBellow says some things which don't add up at all, and which can only be described as reactionary. And so I feel I must offer an exasperated and qualified defense of Bellow. I feel that his books are beautiful and valuable, with several exceptions: in his first two novels, Dangling Manand The Victim,he has not yet fully found his remarkable style. And then there are It All Adds Up and, not beautiful at all, but very valuable indeed as an aid to understanding Bellow, his last novel, Ravelstein,a roman a clef. Ravelstein is Allan Bloom, the neocon puppetmaster, the narrator is Bellow himself, dancing enchanted on one of Bloom's many strings. Bellow a conservative? I don't know. I would prefer to think that Bellow was hypersensitive, emotionally needy, longing for close friendship, and that the nefarious Bloom saw the aching void in Bellow's soul and permanently occupied it.

Not that Bloom himself was all bad: in his hugely best-selling book The Closing of the American Mind-- helped onto the bestseller lists, perhaps, by his pal Bellow's foreword? Or did the book's success have more to do with Reagan and Bill Bennett? -- in this book, amidst some nonsense, Bloom does say some sensible things, as, for example, when he states that Nietzsche, although appropriated by many antisemites, was himself the opposite of an antisemite. (Perhaps eventually enough people will actually read Nietzsche himself to make such statements superfluous.) In his criticisms of the contemporary (1988) student, however, I cannot recognize any reality I knew as a student at the time. And, more to the point, nowhere in the entire book can I see anything remotely resembling the character Ravelstein. And I suppose I simply trust Bellow much more than Bloom. If you're going to read one of these two books, please read the other, too. Bellow was ordinarily very good at at recognizing other people's motives, passions, obsessions, delusions, agendas. He does not tend to be flattering in his depictions of politicians either of the left or of the right. In Ravelstein, however, you see how blind he was to his best friend's faults. (Another blind spot was his own relationships with women: Bellow's wives seemed to remain constantly in or near their 20's, while he himself got older and older like Dorian Grey's portrait.)

Apart from such reservations, however, I cannot go along with the general characterization of Bellow as conservative or reactionary. That's just too simple, and Bellow is irreducibly complex. It's true, he does attack some self-serving positions of the left, but he certainly is not kind to the right, either. Bellow reminds me of Nietzsche's dictum #579 in the 9th chapter, "Der Mensch mit sich allein," of Menschliches, Allzumenschliches:"Nicht geeignet zum Parteimann. — Wer viel denkt, eignet sich nicht zum Parteimann: er denkt sich zu bald durch die Partei hindurch." ("Not well-suited to be a party member: he who thinks too much is not well-suited to be a party member: he thinks his way too quickly through the party and out the other side.") Like many of Nietzsche's sayings, this one is very easy to recite and to misunderatnd, to superficially understand, extremely difficult to fully live up to. So many of us would like to think that we have broken away from the human herd, but how many of us can assert this of ourselves with any authority? Bellow was very unusually independent: he broke away from the Trotskyite crowd early on, and was not nearly so completely co-opted by by the neocons as many leftist critics, or some neocons, would have liked to believe. How many of Bellow's readers, from the left or the right, are anywhere near as free from the constraints of a party line as he was?