In their latest books, two novelists at the height of their powers raise questions of love, friendship, politics, and mortality.
I am not the only critic to have been reminded in recent months that once during the 1950’s, when novelists of Jewish origin had suddenly moved to center stage in this country, Saul Bellow—referring to a well-known men’s-clothing manufacturer of the time—characteristically cracked that he, Bernard Malamud, and Philip Roth had become the Hart, Schaffner & Marx of American literature. With the death of Malamud in 1986, only Bellow, who has just turned eighty-five, and Roth, sixty-seven, are left among us, and both have just produced new novels.
Roth’s, entitled The Human Stain,1 is his third in as many years, which is a remarkable feat for a serious writer at any stage of his career; and the continued vitality Bellow demonstrates in Ravelstein2 at so advanced an age is equally remarkable. What is perhaps an even more impressive sign of vitality is that, in addition to a new novel, Bellow recently fathered a new baby. When asked by an old friend how he did it, the much-married Bellow’s answer was just as characteristic as his Hart-Schaffner-&-Marx crack: “I’ve had a lot of practice.” Well, he has also had a lot of practice writing—and it shows. As for Roth, though nearly eighteen years younger, he too has had a lot of practice writing (having, in fact, turned out more books than Bellow), and it shows as well.
But it is not merely the coincidence of publication dates that justifies discussing these two writers and their latest works together. For a start, there are certain curious similarities between the two novels. I hasten to add that these similarities do not extend to the all-important issue of style. No sentient or experienced reader could possibly mistake Ravelstein for a book by Roth, or by anyone else, for that matter: the word “inimitable,” so promiscuously thrown about by reviewers, applies perfectly to Bellow’s unique fusion of the high-literary and the demotic, with a spicy dash of the locutions and rhythms of Yiddish mixed in. Nor would The Human Stain sound to anyone with ears to hear like the writing of Bellow. If Roth’s prose does not bear quite so identifiable a signature as Bellow’s, it is still his and his alone.
Style aside, there remain interesting resemblances between Ravelstein and The Human Stain. The most obvious and striking is that both novels use almost exactly the same narrative device. Thus, it is at the behest of a late friend that Chick, the narrator of Ravelstein, has produced this book about the title character. Bellow makes so little effort to distance himself from Chick that it becomes impossible to regard the narrator as comparable to, say, Nick Carraway in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby or the figure of Marlow in a number of Joseph Conrad’s stories and novels. Besides being, like Bellow, a Jewish writer in Chicago, Chick speaks in Bellow’s voice and gives vent to Bellow’s views and opinions; he also undergoes experiences that Bellow himself has undergone and that are hardly altered in the rendering. Practically the only such alteration he makes is to present himself not as the Nobel-prize-winning novelist he is but as a humble “midlist biographer.”
In The Human Stain, the narrator—for the eighth time in Roth’s novels—is Nathan Zuckerman, whom Roth has dubbed not so much his alter ego as his “alter brain.” How much distance exists here, or in previous novels, between Roth and Zuckerman is difficult to determine. In the postmodernist spirit of mystification to which Roth has an unfortunate tendency to succumb now and then, he wants to keep us in the dark as to how fully he is to be identified with Zuckerman. But as the years pass and the novels pile up, it becomes harder and harder for someone like myself, who has been following Roth’s work from the very beginning and has read just about every word he has ever published, to distinguish between the author and even most of his other protagonists or narrators (going all the way back to Neil Klugman of Goodbye, Columbus and Alexander Portnoy of Portnoy’s Complaint), let alone to Nathan Zuckerman. Indeed, it is even hard to tell how much distance there is between the author and a character actually named Philip Roth in Operation Shylock.
This close identification between Roth and Zuckerman (to stick with him) does not necessarily include the details of Roth’s life to the degree that it does with Bellow in Ravelstein. I happen to know that Bellow, like Chick in Ravelstein, nearly died from eating a poisoned fish in the Caribbean, whereas I do not know (and have never tried to find out) whether Philip Roth has, like Zuckerman, suffered from prostate cancer and then been left impotent and incontinent by surgery.
I also happen to know that every character in Ravelstein, including Ravelstein himself, is based on a real person: though “based” is too weak a word to describe what are actually portraits of persons who are fictionalized only to the point of appearing under made-up names. I do not, however, know any such thing about The Human Stain. Though I suspect that it helps itself freely to the experience of Roth and people he has met or heard about, I would bet that much more of this book is the product of invention than Ravelstein is. It has repeatedly been proposed, for instance, that the model for the hero of The Human Stain was the critic Anatole Broyard, but even if that is true, Broyard had so different a biography from the one Roth gives to his hero that the character can be accepted as a genuinely fictional creation.
In due course I will go into the question of why all this is worth bringing up, but for the moment I want to dwell a bit more on the parallels between these two books by writers as different as Bellow and Roth. If Chick has produced Ravelstein because the late Abe Ravelstein himself—a college professor—asked him to write his biography, so too, the genesis of The Human Stain lies in a request by Nathan Zuckerman’s late friend Coleman Silk—also a college professor—to do a book about certain horrific things that had happened to him but which he himself had been unable to get down properly on paper.
As Hamlet lies dying, he tells his friend Horatio not to follow him immediately into the grave:
O good Horatio, what a wounded name
(Things standing thus unknown) shall
live behind me!
If thou didst ever hold me in thy heart,
Absent thee from felicity awhile,
And in this harsh world draw thy breath
To tell my story.
Bellow and Roth, each in his own way, play Horatio in their latest works to departed friends. In doing so, they both inevitably find themselves dwelling much on mortality. This is a theme that has preoccupied Roth almost obsessively since the two novels—An American Pastoral and I Married a Communist—that immediately preceded The Human Stain and that he somewhat mysteriously regards as the first two volumes of a trilogy of which his new book is the completion. (I say “mysteriously” because I cannot detect much that brings the three novels together.)
For his part, Bellow, whose nature contains very little, if any, morbidity, has (if memory serves) never before focused quite so sharply on death as he does in Ravelstein. Obviously, he has written about it often, but—so it seems to me—the idea of mortality hovers more heavily over this book than it does over any of his others.
Another theme that is central both to Ravelstein and The Human Stain is sex. It was, of course, largely (though by no means entirely) because of the explicit scenes of sexual activity in Portnoy’s Complaint that Roth first achieved great fame and notoriety; and it has become increasingly evident that age has not withered his interest in the subject nor custom staled the infinite variety of erotic delights he feels compelled to explore in his writings.
After (to speak very relatively indeed) giving sex a bit of a rest in An American Pastoral and I Married a Communist, Roth has returned to it with a vengeance in The Human Stain. At the center of this novel is a torrid affair between a seventy-one-year-old man, helped along by Viagra, and a woman in her thirties symbolically named Faunia. This creature (one of the most implausible characters Roth has ever given us) has sexual appetites that are almost, if not quite, on a par with those of Drenka, the heroine of Sabbath’s Theater. Drenka excited so much lust in the men on whom she bestowed her favors that, after her death, they took to masturbating over her grave (thereby showing that Roth, having in Portnoy’s Complaint been perhaps the first serious American novelist to write openly about masturbation, could go even himself one better).
Just as an affair between an old man and a young woman is at the heart of The Human Stain, so Ravelstein has as one of its main threads the story of a marriage between an old man (Bellow posing as Chick) and a young woman. True, this thread does not wind itself in Ravelstein through descriptions of sexual activity (and in general, where sex is concerned, Bellow has been a reticent prude as compared with Roth). But to both writers, the preoccupation with death is tempered by their continuing interest in sex.
Sex is not conceived either by Roth or Bellow as an escape from death. On the contrary: in The Human Stain, if his affair with Faunia revives Coleman Silk from a long bout of despair, it also eventually leads to his death; and if Chick is snatched from the grave by his young wife’s (nonsexual but loving) diligence, the homosexual Ravelstein is sent to his grave by AIDS. J. Bottom of the Weekly Standard has discerned in these contrasting fates of Chick and Ravelstein a statement about the essential difference between heterosexuality and homosexuality. It is an intriguing interpretation, but not one that entirely convinces. For the upshot—admittedly encrusted with many complications—is that to Bellow, as to Roth, sex signifies life, not death.
Finally, Ravelstein and The Human Stain provide new variations on a theme that runs through almost all the works of Bellow and Roth alike: the drive of so many Americans to cut loose from the genetic and social moorings of birth and to create themselves anew in images of their own devising. With Roth’s characters, this drive has usually assumed the form of an effort to escape from Jewishness and the constrictions that he—and they—have associated with it.
In Bellow, who has always had more positive and affectionate feelings toward Jewishness than Roth, what needs to be fled is the imposition of the conventional wisdoms that happen to be around at any given time. This is what connects one of his earliest heroes, Augie March, who was determined to “go at things” his own way, to his latest, Ravelstein, who (admittedly in this respect more Roth- than Bellow-like) loathes his midwestern Jewish family and forges a new self through the Great Books stemming from Athens and Jerusalem (if more the former than the latter) with which he falls in love at the University of Chicago.
There is also a line between, say, Alexander Portnoy and Coleman Silk, but it is given a highly ironic twist by Roth. In this instance, the character fleeing his origins, who we are at first told is a Jew (but, as a professor of classics, more a product of Athens than Jerusalem—in this respect being more Ravelstein than Portnoy-like) turns out to be a light-skinned black who has successfully been passing as a Jew.3
Obviously, Silk’s decision to renounce his racial and ethnic heritage is taken, and rightly so, as a gross betrayal by his family, and especially by his brother. The attitude of Roth (or am I supposed to say Nathan Zuckerman?) is more ambivalent: to him, there is something heroic about Silk, but he does not dismiss the charge of betrayal out of hand. The two are inexorably intertwined. As Roth told Charles McGrath, the editor of the New York Times Book Review, in a rare interview: “Self-transformation. Self-invention. The alternative destiny. Repudiating the past. Powerful stuff.”
It struck me as strange, however, that Roth makes so little of the fact that Silk should have decided to pass as a Jew rather than as a white Gentile. Given the evolution of Roth’s own attitudes toward Jewishness—from the outright disaffection expressed in the youthful Goodbye, Columbus and Portnoy’s Complaint to a growing sympathy and identification in some of his later works—I would have expected him to do more than he does with the changes in American society which have persuaded Silk that pretending to be Jewish has in some quarters become a greater advantage than passing as a WASP. But when McGrath suggests that this is “a book . . . about issues of race and of Judaism and where the two intersect,” Roth quickly disagrees, declaring that there was “nothing about Judaism in this book,” and going on to explain why Silk chooses to take on a Jewish identity:
As a means of deception, as a social disguise, as a pretext for his appearance. He doesn’t want to be a Jew for anything like the reasons that Frank Alpine, say, in Malamud’s novel The Assistant wants to be a Jew. Coleman’s choice has nothing to do with the ethical, spiritual, theological, or historical aspects of Judaism. . . . It’s a cunning choice that successfully furnishes him with a disguise in the flight from his own “we.” The choice is strictly utilitarian.
All this is true, but one reason I would have expected Roth to explore the implications of it in the novel itself is that, in the same interview, he stresses the importance of historical and political events in his “trilogy.” If I could find nothing that binds these three novels together, to their author they are of a piece because the lives of their characters are interpenetrated by the “historical moments in postwar America that have had the greatest impact on my generation.” The three moments he mentions are McCarthyism, Vietnam, and the impeachment of Bill Clinton. Yet surely the change for the better in the fortunes and status of Jews and blacks in America has a better claim to a place on that list than the impeachment of Clinton; and while Roth does go on to include race as another of the great developments of the era, he ignores the Jewish issue almost entirely.
It is at this juncture that I wish to delve into the question of why such factors are worth considering. In order to answer that question, I have to begin by affirming my belief in the principle of the autonomy of art, according to which works of art should be judged primarily on their aesthetic merits and extraliterary considerations should either be kept out of such judgments or brought in only under two conditions. One is when they impinge on the quality of the work in question—as when the imperatives of propaganda have clearly overridden the dictates of aesthetics (any piece of “socialist realism” will do for an example). The other is when it becomes useful in understanding a work to evoke the broader context out of which it has emerged. Yet even then, I would insist that aesthetic considerations come first.
This does not mean that moral or political factors are entirely ruled out in the framing of critical judgments. It does mean, however, that anyone who cares about literature is obligated to acknowledge the expressive and evocative powers of—to reach into the political sewers for an especially egregious instance—a novel like Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s Journey to the End of the Night before going on to condemn it on moral and political grounds. And the converse also applies. That is, the aesthetic weaknesses of a work of art ought not to be overlooked or denied just because it happens to embody moral or political sentiments of which the reader approves.4
Philip Roth, while perhaps an even more devout believer in the autonomy of art than I am, has always run into problems with these principles. He is a novelist whose talent is immense and many-sided. His ear and his mimetic skills are of the highest order. He can with equal success be hilarious and vulgar at one moment, almost theologically solemn and even priggish at another, and as lyrical as a first-rate poet at yet another. Topping it all off, he is capable of producing, to borrow a word he himself has used in praising another writer, “gorgeous” prose when the mood is upon him (as it has more and more been in his later years). Reading him, I invariably end up feeling that there is no weapon in the literary arsenal he cannot fire with perfect accuracy—or, to use a somewhat more appropriate metaphor, no instrument in the literary orchestra he cannot play like a virtuoso.
This has been true of him from the word go. When his first book, the collection of stories entitled Goodbye, Columbus appeared in 1959, it was Saul Bellow himself, reviewing it in these pages, who said, “Goodbye, Columbus is a first book, but it is not the book of a beginner. Unlike those of us who came howling into the world, blind and bare, Mr. Roth appears with nails, hair, and teeth, speaking coherently. At twenty-six he is skillful, witty, and energetic, and performs like a virtuoso.”5
More than 40 years and 22 books later, Roth has not only retained those powers with which he came into the world but developed and refined and added to them. Despite a few lapses and stumbles as he went along (When She Was Good, The Breast, and The Great American Novel, to name a few), and unlike so many other of his contemporaries who fell by the wayside—either drying up altogether or failing to fulfill their early promise—he has stayed the course, proving himself to be not only a serious writer but an homme sérieux: a serious man who demands and deserves to be taken with the utmost seriousness.
To do so, however, requires more than a recognition of his gifts and the admirable tenacity with which he has nourished and exercised and deepened them. It also demands following him into what Lionel Trilling famously called the “dark and bloody crossroads” where literature and politics (and, I would add, morality) meet. For despite Roth’s strong commitment to the autonomy of art, he has never been able to keep himself from straying into those crossroads, jumping around in them with abandon when feeling antic or genuflecting on his knees when infected by a bout of (almost always liberal) piety.
In the political sphere, I am not referring here mainly to a book like Our Gang, the crude and cliché-ridden satire he wrote about Nixon during Watergate. Nor, in the moral realm, do I have in mind the fun he made of American Jews early in his career in Goodbye, Columbus and Portnoy’s Complaint and that got him into so much trouble with the Jewish community. More to the point is the “thematic trilogy” consisting of his last three novels.
The first, American Pastoral, is in my opinion the best thing Roth has ever written, and only its structural flaws prevent me from unequivocally pronouncing it a great novel. I was very disappointed by I Married a Communist, and my hope that he would soon recover his form has been dashed by The Human Stain.6
Yet I cannot help asking myself how much the politics of these novels has influenced my critical judgment of them. Did I admire An American Pastoral so much because I was delighted by the surprising attack Roth launches there on the radicalism of the 60’s and its liberal apologists, and his even more unexpected defense of the middle-class values that were under such ferocious assault by that radicalism (and by his own younger self)? Was I disheartened by I Married a Communist because, instead of following up on what I, and not I alone, admired so much about An American Pastoral—the intellectually and spiritually heroic feat it performed in reconsidering the negative attitude toward this country Roth had always shared with most of the literary community—he returned to the same old stale attitudes in dealing with McCarthyism? And was the dashing of my prediction that this might turn out to be just a temporary regression—possibly even caused by an irresistible urge on Roth’s part to reassure his perplexed and worried faithful admirers that he had not sold out to the neoconservative enemy—responsible for my disappointment in The Human Stain?
In all honesty, I cannot dismiss the possibility that such considerations played some part in my differing judgments of these three novels. But only, I must immediately protest, a small one. I claim entitlement to this qualification on the ground that I felt let down by The Human Stain even though it centers on what is, to me, a highly congenial and satisfying account of the plague of political correctness in the universities.
Coleman Silk is victimized twice over by political correctness. First his academic career is ruined when he uses the word “spooks” (meaning ghosts) to describe two students who never show up in class. Though he does not even know they are black, he is accused of racism, and when he refuses to dignify this preposterous accusation with an apology, none of his friends or colleagues springs to his defense.7 Then, as if being ruined by a false charge of racism were not enough, Silk (by now a widower) is excoriated for sexual harassment when he enters into an affair with a female janitor at the college. This additional blow lands on him even though he has by then resigned, thereby becoming immune from the charge that he is using his power to coerce sexual favors from a subordinate in the workplace.
By ridiculing the prevailing tyrannies of political correctness on the issues of both race and sex, Roth shows that McCarthyism—which he surveyed with an unqualifiedly orthodox liberal eye in I Married a Communist—has now migrated to the Left; and in this, so far as I am concerned, he is on the side of the angels. Unfortunately, he winds up in less exalted company through his stated ambition to deal with “the historical moments that have had the greatest impact on [his] generation.” The way he pursues this ambition in The Human Stain is to connect both Vietnam and the impeachment of Bill Clinton with the trouble Coleman Silk gets into as a result of the tyranny of political correctness in matters of sex.
Despite being kept mostly implicit, this link still requires quite a stretch. But it does help explain why Roth should have made the peculiar choice of the impeachment as a moment of historical impact comparable to that of McCarthyism and Vietnam. Here again, as in I Married a Communist, he gives full play to the side of himself that has remained stuck in and intransigently uncritical of the liberal attitudes with which he grew up.
As The Human Stain tells it, Clinton (like Silk) was guilty in his alliance with Monica Lewinsky of nothing more than being a normal guy marked, as all of us are, by “the human stain” (something like original sin?). Not a word, not a syllable, in the passages devoted by Roth to the Clinton scandals so much as hints that the President (unlike Silk) committed and suborned perjury, and that this was the legal basis on which the attempt was made to remove him from office. Just the opposite: “What was being enacted on the public stage,” Roth informs McGrath in their New York Times Book Review interview, “seemed to have the concentrated power of a great work of literature. The work I’m thinking of is The Scarlet Letter.” I rub my eyes in disbelief. Can Philip Roth actually imagine that at its “moral core,” today’s America, “this huge and unknowable country,” is no different from the America of 17th-century Salem?
Such a statement would be breathtaking coming from anyone living at a time and in a place where sex in every shape and form is easily available, advocated, and even celebrated in every public forum and medium of entertainment, and where the only scarlet letters are pasted on those who offer so much as a smidgeon of resistance to this tidal wave of erotomania. But issuing from the mouth of a man who has achieved fame, honor, and riches with books that would have served as the kindling for burning him alive in the world described by Hawthorne, the comparison between the America of today and the America of The Scarlet Letter is very nearly demented.
As for Vietnam, it comes in through Lester Farley, the ex-husband of Silk’s girlfriend. Farley is a crazed veteran of that war who eventually contrives to kill both his former wife and her present lover, and who, as even Lorrie Moore, one of Roth’s liberal admirers, has said in the New York Times Book Review, is constructed “from every available cliché of the Vietnam vet.” Has Roth forgotten what he revealed about these very clichés in An American Pastoral? Or is he once more offering reassurance to those who worried after reading that book that he might be converting to neoconservatism?
If so, he has only partly succeeded. The same Lorrie Moore who, to her credit as a critic, spotted the character of Lester Farley as a literary weakness, immediately made up for this deviation from her own party line by complaining that The Human Stain “indulges in the sort of tirade against political correctness that is far drearier and more intellectually constricted than political correctness itself.” But in my opinion what Roth “indulges” in here is not a “tirade”: it is, rather, the determination to tell a truth that goes against the grain of his own liberal impulses, and this is to his credit.
I suppose the conclusion to be drawn is that in responding to a novel that raises contentious political (and/or moral) issues, it is virtually impossible to ignore—and, worse yet, to blind oneself to—those issues in reaching a critical judgment. To repeat: the aesthetic qualities of the work at hand ought to be the critic’s primary concern. But when the novelist insists on leaping into “the bloody crossroads,” it is the right and even the duty of the alert reader to follow after and to join in.
If Roth’s last few novels bring into sharp focus the troublesome problems surrounding the concept of the autonomy of art, Bellow’s Ravelstein does much the same thing with the possibly even more irksome problem of the relation between novels and the realities on which they often draw. As all the interested world knows, the character of Abe Ravelstein is based on the late Allan Bloom, who was Bellow’s dear friend. What is less well-known is that it was at Bellow’s urging that Bloom wrote The Closing of the American Mind. To everyone’s amazement, that book became a huge bestseller in 1987, making a previously penurious and relatively obscure professor at the University of Chicago both rich and famous.
But the hero is not the only portrait in Ravelstein of a real-life model. As with himself playing narrator, Bellow takes so little trouble to disguise the characters who appear here that they are all easily recognizable as this or that person. Calling Ravelstein a roman à clef therefore verges on understatement. Except for the names of the characters, nothing in it seems to be fictional; nothing seems to be invented. The “plot” consists entirely of incidents surrounding Bellow’s friendship with Bloom or that occurred until it ended with Bloom’s death. There is the breakup of Bellow’s fourth unhappy marriage and the contracting of his presently happy one to a student of Bloom’s; there are the spending sprees on which Bloom goes, frequently accompanied by Bellow, after his book becomes a great best-seller; there is Bloom’s illness and death; and there is the near-death of Bellow himself after eating a poisoned fish in the Caribbean.
What we have here, in short, is all clef and no roman: not a novel but a memoir.
Taking the opposite tack, Cynthia Ozick, in a long review in the New Republic, advises us to “throw away the clef.” Her argument is that “When it comes to novels, the author’s life is nobody’s business. A novel, even when it is autobiographical, is not an autobiography.” Nor is a novel a biography: “Ravelstein is not Bloom.” And she concludes, “What is a novel? A persuasion toward dramatic inferiority. A word-hoard that permits its inventor to stand undefined, unprescribed, liberated from direction or coercion. Freedom makes sovereignty; it is only when the writer is unfettered by external expectations that clarity of character . . . can be imagined into being.”
Ozick’s brief in support of her position about the novel in general, and of Ravelstein‘s right to be considered one, is dazzling and written with her usual brilliant flair. But it flows from two assumptions that are less than self-evident or axiomatic. One is that “the literary novel (call it the artist’s novel)” is superior in kind to such other literary forms as biography and memoir. Bellow would undoubtedly agree with Ozick, which is almost certainly one of the reasons he decided to offer this book about Allan Bloom as a novel rather than as a straightforward memoir. (Other reasons may involve a different and lower order of “freedom” from the one celebrated by Ozick: that is, the freedom to give the business to certain people—an ex-wife and an ex-friend or two—without the complications involved in using their real names.)
In her review of Ravelstein, however, Ozick comes close to ignoring the bold and brave warning she once sounded against violating the second of the Ten Commandments by turning art into an idol to be worshiped. Here she reminds me of the great British critic F.R. Leavis. It was Leavis who taught that the quasireligious attitude toward poetry in the Victorian age was a significant factor in the decline of that form, whereas the lesser regard in which the novel was held had the opposite effect. Yet Leavis himself later went on to speak of the novelists he admired in tones that were reminiscent of the very transports of exaltation for which he had faulted the Victorians.
In any event, with all due respect to Ozick’s veneration of the novel, it is no insult or denigration of Ravelstein to read it as a memoir. I would go even further by contending that a proper appreciation of Saul Bellow is impossible without recognizing that he is not now or ever has been a natural novelist. A wonderful writer, yes: probably the best American writer in any genre of the past half-century. But not a born novelist.
The born novelist is defined, for better or worse, by the power to express whatever it is he understands of the world and of life through the telling of stories about people who are made to seem real. Bellow, by contrast, is always telling us what he knows—which is much more than practically any of the born novelists who have marched across the literary stage beside him—through his own voice as informed by his own deep and vast intellect. Hence his stories are not gripping narratives, and his characters rarely, if ever, achieve the separation from their creators of authentic fictional creations. “Every major character in a Bellow novel is, in some way, Bellow,” as D.T. Max succinctly puts it in his New York Times Magazine article.
What I am trying to get at might be clarified by looking at “How Many Children Had Lady Macbeth?,” a once-notorious essay by L.C. Knights. This British scholar-critic raised the question after noticing that, while Lady Macbeth speaks of having “given suck,” there is no indication in Macbeth of the size of her family. But it was a silly question. Lady Macbeth is not a real person; she is a creature of Shakespeare’s imagination,8 and since he neglects to provide this information in his play, there is no way to unearth it. Nevertheless, silly and unanswerable as the question might have been, it testified vividly to Shakespeare’s success in, as it were, liberating Lady Macbeth from his own head and spinning her off into the illusion of an independent existence of her own.
Rarely, if ever, does anything comparable happen to Bellow’s characters. Even those who least resemble him (Tommy Wilhelm of Seize the Day, Henderson of Henderson the Rain King, Mr. Sammler of Mr. Sammler’s Planet, among others) soon turn into mouthpieces or counters for his own ideas. To exaggerate only slightly, Bellow’s books are monologues—almost always of surpassing brilliance and great fascination—forced into novelistic form.
I am not suggesting any deliberate deception on Bellow’s part. I am saying, rather, that his native talent (like that of certain other contemporary writers, James Baldwin for one and Bellow’s childhood pal Isaac Rosenfeld for another) got deflected into the wrong channel by the special prestige of the novel as the supreme form of literary art in our time, comparable to what poetry was to the Victorians. This is why, on the few occasions when Bellow has managed to liberate himself from the compulsion to dress up as novels the fruits of his own. endlessly fascinating mind and magnificent literary gift, he has been able to bring characters more vividly to life than any who appear in those novels. What is more, these characters are neither mouthpieces for Bellow nor reflections of him.
To Jerusalem and Back—his memoir of a stay in Israel—was one such occasion, and Ravelstein (though not presented as a memoir the way To Jerusalem and Back was) is, I believe, another. Cynthia Ozick has a point when she asks: “Why should we care for . . . those ephemeral figures that fictional characters are ‘based on’? The originals vanish; their simulacra, powerful marvels, endure.” But the Allan Bloom depicted as Ravelstein might better be compared with the portrait of, say, Richard Savage by Samuel Johnson. Savage, an otherwise forgotten 18th-century poet, has endured because he was evoked so vividly and poignantly by Dr. Johnson’s memoir; and so, I speculate, will be the happy fate of Bloom-Ravelstein. My only regret is that Bellow did not see fit to drop the pretense that he was writing a novel and simply given us much the same book in the form of a memoir called Bloom.
Having had a number of encounters with Allan Bloom, I can testify that Bellow captures him with such marvelous accuracy that Ravelstein might actually be, so to speak, the fully realized fictional creation Cynthia Ozick wishes to see in him. Admittedly, my testimony may be impeached by the fact that I was only acquainted with Bloom casually. Many who were much closer to him have heatedly denied that he is adequately depicted in Ravelstein, and some have even accused Bellow of betraying Bloom in this book, and in two different senses.
The first is to have “outed” him as a homosexual. The friends of Bloom who denounce this as a betrayal rightly assert that Bloom himself was careful never to make a public point of his homosexuality, and certainly never wanted anything to do with the politicization of his own sexual proclivities as represented by the gay-rights movement. The alleged betrayal here, then, is to have revealed something Bloom wished to keep hidden.
In this perspective, all the worse does the betrayal become when one considers that with his assault on contemporary culture and the degradation of the universities in The Closing of the American Mind, Bloom emerged as one of the most influential conservative intellectuals in the world. Never mind that he eschewed the term “conservative” not only for himself but for the entire school of thought deriving from his master and teacher, the philosopher Leo Strauss. Despite his protestations, virtually everyone else (with good reason, I would say) thought of him as a conservative. Consequently, in the context of the “culture war” in which Bloom’s book has played so large a part—a war that has featured the contention over homosexuality as one of its central fronts—Bellow stands accused of providing aid and comfort to his supposedly beloved friend’s liberal enemies. Again, never mind that Bloom himself never made an issue of homosexuality one way or the other in his many reflections on eros. By outing him, Bellow has—so the charge goes—made the entire conservative side in the culture war look hypocritical.
To this my response is that Allan Bloom’s homosexuality was no great secret, and that Bellow neither intends nor does harm to him or to his reputation in talking so easily about it. Writing in the New Republic as a gay-rights activist who is at the same time a self-declared conservative, Andrew Sullivan hopes that “One day, there will be a conservatism civilized enough to deserve [Bloom].” But the only way Sullivan the gay-rights activist can stake a claim to Bloom is to interpret the latter’s silence on homosexuality as a loud affirmation: “Bloom was gay, and he died of AIDS. The salience of these facts is strengthened, not weakened, by Bloom’s public silence about them.”9 Yet silence, whether public or private, was not the always exuberantly garrulous Allan Bloom’s notion of how to express an idea or make a point.
The second sense in which Bellow has been accused of betraying Bloom is—according to some of his other friends—to have shown him not as the great soul he is repeatedly called in the book (and that, they maintain, he indeed was in life) but as a vulgar materialist. Having become rich through his best-selling book, he seems to care about nothing but spending his money on expensive clothes, meals, and suites in luxurious hotels. The most passionate expression of this complaint I have come upon has been voiced by one of Bloom’s students, Kenneth R. Weinstein, in the Weekly Standard:
Rather than serving up Bloom’s thought, Bellow expounds upon the man’s colorful habits, including his taste for luxury goods. . . . But without a clear understanding that Bloom’s acquisition of Lalique crystal or Lanvin jackets was a lighthearted reflection of his love for beauty itself—the form of beauty, in Plato’s sense—he comes off in Ravelstein as merely a high-end consumer, an American fop on the Faubourg St. Honoré.
Weinstein’s rather solemn explanation of Bloom’s taste for luxury could have used a little lightheartedness itself (in truth, Bloom loved luxury for its own sake—and why not?), but otherwise it is fair enough: Bellow does give only a small taste of Bloom’s intellectual passions. If Ravelstein were really a self-contained novel, this omission would be a serious fault. But not so when we read the book as the memoir of a friendship that takes Bloom’s philosophical concerns for granted and (sometimes even explicitly) refers us to his written work for light on him as a thinker instead of attempting to summarize his ideas. (In his “Life of Richard Savage,” if I remember rightly, Dr. Johnson does not quote much of Savage’s poetry.)
Besides, this criticism of Ravelstein for leaving out “Bloom’s thought” fails to grasp Bellow’s conception of what it means to be, or to have, a great soul. Cynthia Ozick quotes a remark from The Adventures of Augie March that captures the essence of Bellow’s take on the matter: “He had rich blood. His father peddled apples.” This remark is one of my own favorites, too, though my gloss on it differs from hers. Extrapolating from it, I would say that for Saul Bellow, the richness of Allan Bloom’s blood (and mind) was thickened by his entanglement with what some dismiss as the grosser things of this world. There is also in Bellow’s eyes a kind of greatness—as spiritual as it is material—in the extremity of Bloom’s extravagance, no less than in his insatiable appetite for gossip, especially about the doings in high places, in his presumptuous meddling with the lives of his students, in his delight in dirty jokes (which he exchanges on his death bed with one of his close friends), and so on and so on into the lower depths and the higher reaches of life as it is lived from day to day.
Betrayal? if we are to speak of it at all in discussing the two latest works by Saul Bellow and Philip Roth, the word would better be applied to how Roth’s The Human Stain has reneged on the tantalizing hopes held out by An American Pastoral than to how Bellow treats Allan Bloom in Ravelstein. That this infinitely loving portrait should be considered a betrayal is to me nothing short of amazing.
Bellow has always been especially good with closing lines. I will cite only two. Augie March ends with: “Columbus too thought he was a flop, probably, when they sent him back in chains. Which didn’t prove there was no America.” And Mr. Sammler’s Planet, like Ravelstein, concludes in a meditation on the death of a friend: “[This man] was aware that he must meet, . . . and he did meet, the terms of his contract. The terms which, in his inmost heart, each man knows. As I know mine. As all know. For that is the truth of it—that we all know, God, that we know, that we know, we know, we know.”
Tough acts to follow, but Bellow pulls it off in the last line of Ravelstein: “You don’t easily give up a creature like Ravelstein to death.”
Not easily, and thanks to this memoir decked out in the false finery of a novel, maybe not at all. By which I mean that, good as his books are, if Allan Bloom lives on, it will not be through his own writings—though I would not be surprised if Ravelstein were to drive readers to seek them out in the future—but in the delightful and wondrous person of Ravelstein and through the love that enabled Saul Bellow to bring his friend back to life more truly than so many of his more pious disciples and comrades-in-arms want to think.
1 Houghton Mifflin, 361 pp., $26.00.
2 Viking, 233 pp., $24.95.
3 The main character in Ralph Ellison’s posthumous novel Juneteenth is also a black passing as white. Conceivably Roth, a great admirer of Ellison, was more inspired by this literary precedent than he was by the life of Anatole Broyard.
4 I am restricting myself here to literature, and more specifically the novel, but the same rule applies to the other arts as well. It has long been recognized that the novel, implicated as it almost always is in the world around it, is an aesthetically “messier” form than lyric poetry or music or painting, which are more capable of remaining fixed within the boundaries of their own formal qualities. For better or worse, then, it is harder for the novel (and this goes for theatrical works as well) than for the other arts to remain sealed off from political and moral issues. Or at least it used to be in the days before painters and sculptors became even more political than writers.
5 On the other hand, as D.T. Max recounts in a recent article in the New York Times Magazine, Bellow later grew less enthusiastic: “If you crossed him, he didn’t forget. After Philip Roth caricatured him in his novel The Ghost Writer as Felix Abravanel, a nattily dressed superstar writer who lived ‘in the egosphere,’ Bellow got back at him on the Dick Cavett show in 1981: ‘What hath Roth got?’ he said.”
6 I voiced this hope in an article entitled “The Adventures of Philip Roth,” written shortly after the appearance of I Married a Communist and published in the October 1998 issue of COMMENTARY.
7 Roth, while fully aware of the irony involved in the fact that Silk, unbeknownst to everyone else, is himself black, seems oddly blind to the additional irony that, from another angle, passing for white does convict Silk of racism. I would have thought that Roth—one of whose favorite authors is Franz Kafka—would pursue this fascinating twist. But he never does. Then again, why should he be expected to do so here when he has never been able to understand that the repudiation of Jewishness by Jews can be taken as a form of anti-Semitism?
8 To forestall the obvious objection, I should note that the characters in Macbeth were historical personages. In writing a play about them, however, Shakespeare not only relied on his imagination but (lest he be accused of calling into question the legitimacy of Britain’s ruling dynasty) misrepresented Macbeth as a usurper when it was actually the other way around.
9 The question of AIDS brings up a subsidiary aspect of this particular allegation of betrayal on Bellow’s part, which is not that he reveals a hidden truth about Bloom but that he spreads a lie. Bloom did not, say his other friends, die of AIDS as Ravelstein does; and Bellow has now admitted that he was not sure about this but merely assumed it.
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Bellow at 85, Roth at 67
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Radicalism and self-injury.
As a candidate, Donald Trump promised to be uncompromising when it came to immigration. For the most part, he has delivered. An executive order that restricted refugee intake and access to temporary visas in the first days of his administration sparked a wave of popular unrest, but the outrage subsided as Trump’s assaults on America’s permissive immigration regime became routinized. Only when Trump began breaking up the families of asylum seekers did the powerful public aversion we saw with the introduction of the “travel ban” again overtake the national consciousness. The abuse was so grotesque, the victims so sympathetic, and the administration’s insecurity so apparent that it broke the routine.
Opponents of this administration’s “zero tolerance policy” for border crossers and some asylum seekers currently have the upper hand. But as the debate over what to do next heads to Congress, where the mundanities of a legislative fix will come to dominate the national conversation, the liberal-activist wing risks sacrificing its sympathy. Such activists have convinced themselves that this is an extreme situation that requires extreme measures in response. Down that road lies marginalization and, ultimately, defeat.
On Tuesday night, Homeland Security Sec. Kirstjen Nielsen went out to dinner at a Mexican restaurant, and it was deemed by activists and reporters to be a galling provocation that could not stand. Activists descended on the restaurant, shouting “If kids don’t eat in peace, you don’t eat in peace!” Reporters marveled at Nielsen’s gauche “optics,” and even speculated that her choice of venue was a subtle effort by the White House to bait their opponents into an overreaction (as if baiting were necessary). Nielsen was forced to leave the restaurant.
This is the kind of mania that can only afflict those hysterical enough to disregard the fact that Mexicans no longer make up the majority of the illegal population in America, and that most border crossers travel north from violence-plagued “Northern Triangle,” which consists of Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala. That kind of reaction from activists in and out of journalism is understandable—a policy that amounts to state-sponsored child abuse is a terrible injustice—but it is also self-defeating.
The logic that led to Nielsen’s ordeal is the same logic that has convinced some on the radical left to endorse the outing of otherwise anonymous U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers in public fora. Activists on Tuesday night trolled through the online professional network LinkedIn to identify ICE officers, track where they live, and direct the most aggrieved of protesters to make their lives miserable. Online administrators had the presence of mind to suspend these users and scrub the web of their work, but those who want that information know where to get it. And this may not be a harmless activity. A popular activist Twitter account promoting the defunct leftist protest movement “Occupy Wall Street” posted an infographic on Tuesday glamorizing the murder of ICE agents for its more than 200,000 followers. Anyone of sound mind would ignore these incitements to radicalism, but it only takes one.
Those who are attracted to these tactics justify them as a necessarily extreme response to extremism. That might be explicable if the same tactics were not used to make Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai’s life miserable when the left became convinced that a two-year-old supervisory regulation allowing Internet service providers to privilege content providers was a blow to the foundations of the republic.
In January, when the FCC approved a plan to phase out “Net Neutrality” regulations, the left determined that the only reasonable response was unreasonableness. HBO’s John Oliver mobilized his viewers to bombard the FCC’s website with comments. Some of those commenting took it upon themselves to threaten the murder of the chairman’s family. “Resistance” groups began putting literature up around Pai’s neighborhood accusing him of criminal abuses. They held vigils in his driveway, held up signs invoking his children by name, bombarded his house with pizza deliveries he never ordered, and phoned in bomb threats that cleared out the FCC’s offices. They “come up to our front windows and take photographs of the inside of the house,” Pai told the Wall Street Journal last May. “My kids are 5 and 3. It’s not pleasant.”
It seems as if conflating the conduct of public and private life holds greater and greater appeal for a certain segment of the left. The attention it generates ensures that it will become a regular feature of protest movements in the Trump era. What’s more, the targets of this tactic suggest that the left will make no distinction between irritants that offend liberal sensibilities and those things that are truly obscene. That’s a slippery slope, and traveling down it sap the left of the sympathy it needs from the general public. In making Trump appointees and their families the targets of personal harassment, Trump’s opponents are discrediting themselves more than they are shaming anyone in the White House.
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A dangerous idea makes a comeback.
The word “ethics” appears prominently in the biographies of the authors who co-wrote a recent Washington Post op-ed lamenting the “taboo” associated with “talking about overpopulation.” Frances Kissling is the president of the Center for Health, Ethics, and Social Policy. Peter Singer is a professor of bioethics at Princeton University. Only Jotham Musinguzi, the “director general of Uganda’s National Population Council,” doesn’t mention “ethics” in the bio. That’s good because the Malthusian views promulgated in the piece are anything but ethical.
Inauspiciously, the authors begin by applying a coat of gloss over Paul Ehrlich’s 1968 book The Population Bomb, which they note had a “major impact” on public policy but that “spurred a backlash” rendering the discussion of its thesis “radioactive.” Indeed, that’s only just. Ehrlich’s claims were dead wrong.
Ehrlich claimed that the Earth had a finite “carrying capacity,” and its limits were about to be tested. He claimed that mass starvation was imminent; hundreds of millions would die. Neither the first nor the third world would be spared; the average American lifespan would decline to just 42 by 1980. Ehrlich continued to make apocalyptic predictions after his book became a sensation. “Most of the people who are going to die in the greatest cataclysm in the history of man have already been born,” he wrote in 1969. A year later: “The death rate will increase until at least 100-200 million people per year will be starving to death during the next ten years.” Between 1980 and 1989, most of the Earth’s population, including over one-third of all Americans, would die or be murdered what he grimly dubbed “the Great Die-Off.” As recently as this year, Ehrlich—who still teaches at Stanford University—said that civilizational collapse remains a likely prospect and the chief shortcoming of his most famous book was that it failed to invoke the modern progressive Trinity: feminism, anti-racism, and inequality.
Our WaPo ethicists don’t tackle any of this. Indeed, they favorably observe that Ehrlich’s warnings render family planning in the developed world a necessity to stave off the unfortunate circumstances that would force wealthy nations to withhold food aid from the developing world to induce “necessary and justifiable” chaos and starvation. Seriously.
Because population control is not a problem in the developed world, where birthrates are declining below even replacement rates, population controllers tend to fixate on sexual habits in the developing world. The authors of this op-ed are no exception. They draw an almost always fallacious straight-line projection to conclude that—in the unlikely event that nothing changes between today and 2100—a population crisis should afflict a variety of Sub-Saharan African nations. To avert this crisis, they advocate promoting and supporting proper sexual hygiene, to which almost no one would object. But their authors’ core agenda isn’t the distribution of prophylactics. They seek to de-stigmatize abortion in the equatorial world, which is controversial for reasons that have nothing to do with faith. After all, it was The Population Bomb and its progenitors that lent renewed legitimacy to old arguments that inevitably result in targeting black and brown populations with sterilization and eugenics.
The title of Ehrlich’s book was lifted from a 1954 pamphlet issued by Gen. William Draper’s Population Crisis Committee, and it arguably inaugurated the overpopulation fad toward which pop intellectuals were drawn in the 20th Century. The effects this mania had on public policy were terrible. In the United States, population control hysteria led, in part, to the sterilization of “up to one-quarter” of the Native American women of childbearing age by 1977, according to Angela Franks’ 2005 book, Margaret Sanger’s Eugenic Legacy. “The large number of sterilizations began in earnest in 1966, when Medicaid came into existence and funded the operation for low-income people.” Thousands of Native American women in the early to mid-1970s were sterilized after signing consent forms that failed to comply with regulations.
With the assistance of the U.S. government and the International Planned Parenthood Federation, the Puerto Rican government operated a program of voluntary female sterilization for decades, but it was “voluntary” in the most perverse sense. Pressure from employers and public incentives united to “liberate” women from the drudgery of childbearing, leaving many women without much of a choice in the matter. A 1965 survey of Puerto Rican women found that one-third of women in prime child-bearing years admitted to undergoing sterilization.
America’s minority populations were, however, a secondary concern to population controllers. It was, as ever, the so-called underdeveloped world that preoccupies the technocrats. Toward supposedly enlightened ends, the World Bank, working in quiet concert with the U.S. government, helped to advance Washington’s unstated goal of keeping population levels in the developing world down. “In some cases, strong direction has involved incentives such as payment to acceptors for sterilization, or disincentives such as giving low priorities in the allocation of housing or schooling to those with larger families,” a triumphant 1974 National Security Council memorandum read. As part of this campaign, American philanthropic institutions working with USAID reportedly distributed unsafe and untested contraceptive devices in the developing world. “USAID has been able to put some distance between itself and many of the more objectionable elements of its population agenda,” Population Research Institute’s James A. Miller wrote in a 1996 exposé.
For decades, a pseudoscientific religion that justified coercion and eugenics to achieve “optimal” population ratios quietly guided the development of Western public policy. In a comprehensive 2012 essay in The New Atlantis, Robert Zubrin demonstrated conclusively that 20th Century population control programs were “dictatorial,” “dishonest,” “coercive,” “medically irresponsible and negligent,” “cruel, callous, and abusive of human dignity and human rights,” and, perhaps most of all, “racist.” It was, in fact, their “neocolonial” aspects that led to a left-wing revolt against population controllers in the 1970s. But the left will never be able to entirely divorce itself from the logic that led to population control because they are Malthusians at heart. From peak Earth to peak oil, the left is possessed of a boundless pessimism. Theirs is an ideology that is founded upon the belief that life is a zero-sum game; all commodities are finite and can only be distributed fairly by enlightened elites. They will always underestimate humanity’s capacity to engineer itself out of a jam.
So, yes, overpopulation is a “taboo” subject because it has justified one of the most grotesque campaigns of industrialized human rights abuses the world has ever seen. In making a veiled argument in favor of abortion, our ethicists have inadvertently made their opponents’ case for them: reproductive controls targeting women in the developing world inevitably legitimize condescension, imperialism, and dehumanization. “The conversation about ethics, population and reproduction needs to shift from the perspective of white donor countries,” the authors conclude. And yet, as was ever the case, the “perspective of white donor countries” seems always to be the place from which dangerous ideas about the undesirable procreative habits of women in the equatorial world spring. Fifty years after the publication of a book that helped to legitimize the sterilization of millions in the developing world, that kind of noxious chauvinism remains a prominent feature of the population control movement.
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The nature of the dilemma can be stated in a three-word sentence. I am lonely.
–Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik
In 2015, I was invited to a conference held at a Catholic University in Spain, celebrating the first Spanish translation of The Lonely Man of Faith, the seminal philosophical essay of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik (my great uncle), reverently referred to by many Orthodox Jews as “the Rav.” Published 50 years earlier, the essay contrasts two biblical accounts of the creation of man and teases out two personas, known as Adam the First and Adam the Second. In the first chapter of Genesis, humanity is created in the image of God and instructed by the Almighty to “fill the world and subdue it.” Adam the First, Rabbi Soloveitchik suggests, is majestic; through his God-like creative capacities he seeks scientific breakthroughs, to cure disease, to build cities and countries, to advance the health and comfort of mankind.
But then there is Adam the Second, who in Genesis 2 is created from the dust of the earth and remains in the sanctity of the garden of Eden, “to work and protect it.” This represents the religious aspect of man, man who is ever aware of his finitude, who finds fulfillment not in majestic achievement but in an intimate relationship with a personal God.
These two accounts are given, Rabbi Soloveitchik argued, because both are accurate; both Adam I and Adam II are divinely desired aspects of the human experience. One who is devoted to religious endeavors is reminded that “he is also wanted and needed in another community, the cosmic-majestic,” and when one works on behalf of civilization, the Bible does not let him forget “that he is a covenantal being who will never find self-fulfillment outside of the covenant.” The man of faith is not fully of the world, but neither can he reject the world. To join the two parts of the self may not be fully achievable, but it must nevertheless be our goal.
In his letter of invitation to the conference, the president of the Spanish university reflected on how Rabbi Soloveitchik’s writings spoke to his own vocation. As a leader of a Christian school, he said he grappled constantly with the challenge of being an hombre de fe in a Europe that, once the cradle of Christendom, was now suddenly secular:
As Adam the First understandably and correctly busies himself with the temporal concerns of this world, we encourage our students to not lose sight, within their own hearts, of Adam the Second, the thirsting Adam that longs for a redemption that our technological advances cannot quench. We hope that our students, who come to our university seeking degree titles that will translate into jobs, will leave it also with awakened minds and hearts that fully recognize the deep aspirations that lie within their youthful spirits, and which The Lonely Man of Faith so eloquently describes.
The letter reflected a fascinating phenomenon. As Orthodox Jews mark this year the 25th anniversary of Rabbi Soloveitchik’s passing, more and more of his works are being studied, savored, appreciated, and applied to people’s own lives—by Christians. As interesting as this is, it should not be surprising. The Lonely Man of Faith actually originated, in part, in a talk to Catholic seminarians, and today it is Christians who are particularly shocked by the rapidity with which a culture that was once Christian has turned on them, so that now people of faith are quite lonely in the world at large. In his essay, Rabbi Soloveitchik notes that though the tension between Adam I and Adam II is always a source of angst, “the contemporary man of faith is, due to his peculiar position in secular society, lonely in a special way,” as our age is “technically minded, self-centered, and self-loving, almost in a sickly narcissistic fashion, scoring honor upon honor, piling up victory upon victory, reaching for the distant galaxies, and seeing in the here-and-now sensible world the only manifestation of being.”
Now that the world of Adam I seems wholly divorced from that of Adam II, people of faith seek guidance in the art of bridging the two; and if, 70 years ago, Reinhold Niebhur was a theologian who spoke for a culture where Christianity was the norm, Rabbi Soloveitchik is a philosopher for Jews and Christians who are outsiders. The Catholic philosopher R.J. Snell, in a Christian reflection inspired by the Rav’s writings, wrote that “like Joseph B. Soloveitchik in The Lonely Man of Faith, I am lonely,” and he tells us why:
In science, my faith is judged obscurantist; in ethics, mere animus; in practicality, irrelevant; in love, archaic. In the square, I am silenced; at school, mocked; in business, fined; at entertainment, derided; in the home, patronized; at work, muffled. My leaders are disrespected; my founder blasphemed by the new culture, new religion, and new philosophy which…suffers from an aversion to the fullness of questions, insisting that questions are meaningful only when limited to a scope much narrower than my catholic range of wonder.
Yet Rabbi Soloveitchik’s thesis remains that even when society rejects us, we cannot give up on society, but we also cannot amputate our religious identity from our very selves. Adam I and Adam II must be bridged. This will not be easy, but a theme throughout Rabbi Soloveitchik’s writings is that all too often religion is seen as a blissful escape from life’s crises, while in truth the opposite is the case. In the words of Reuven Ziegler, Rabbi Soloveitchik insisted that “religion does not offer an escape from reality, but rather provides the ultimate encounter with reality.” Traditional Jews and Christians in the West face cultural challenges to their faith—disdain, scorn, and even hate—but if the challenge is faced with fortitude, sophistication, and honor, it will be a religious endeavor worthy of being remembered.
And as both traditional Jews and Christians face this challenge, it will often be as compatriots, in a fellowship that we may not have foreseen 50 years ago. After attending the conference, I was emailed by another member of the administration, the rector of the university. He thanked me “for the pleasure of sharing that deep friendship which is a sign of the community inspired by the principles of the second Adam,” and added, “[I] really enjoyed the time we passed together and the reading of the book of Rabbi Soloveitchik,” which was, he reflected, “so stimulating for a better understanding of my own life and my faith.” To be a person of faith is indeed to be lonely in this world. But more and more, lonely men and women of several faiths may be brought together by The Lonely Man of Faith.
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His observations scandalized professional Washingtonians, and that made me feel the warm glow of intellectual kinship. Rhodes, according to the author of the profile, had “a healthy contempt for the American foreign-policy establishment, including editors and reporters at the New York Times, the Washington Post, the New Yorker, and elsewhere.” Rhodes called this establishment the Blob, and among its stalwarts he named Hillary Clinton and Robert Gates. Even better, Rhodes turned his attention to the Washington press corps, which he described as easily manipulated—by him. “The average reporter we talk to is 27 years old,” Rhodes said. “And their only reporting experience consists of being around political campaigns. That’s a sea change. They literally know nothing.”
Reading this one Sunday morning with the Times scattered on the floor around me, I could barely stifle a cry: Ben! My Man! What’s not to like?Rhodes’s description of the working press in Washington, particularly those bright young things who flutter around partisan politics and the White House, is perfectly accurate. And anyone who has tried to catch 40 winks at a Brookings Institution foreign-policy panel or taken up a machete to hack through the tangled prose of Foreign Affairs will think the “Blob” is not only an accurate tag but maybe too kind.
I kept struggling to nurse a sympathy for Rhodes through the release this January of The Final Year, an HBO documentary that shadowed the deputy national-security adviser through his last months thinking up American foreign policy. The film showed him to be even glibber and more self-aggrandizing than the Times had let on; a bully, too. Nevertheless, his colleagues, such as UN Ambassador Samantha Power and his proximate boss, Susan Rice, were happy to help in the aggrandizing. Not only was Rhodes brilliant, said Rice, he had achieved a “mind meld” with Obama, as if he were a Vulcan beamed in to do a job on Captain Kirk. (Bad casting: Obama’s the one with the funny ears.)In the movie, Rhodes wears a perpetual scowl. This is perhaps a sign of stress—in his new book, he says he got nervous before his first meeting with Obama in 2007 and stayed nervous for 10 years—or he might worry that if he smiled his forehead would split open and all those brains would spill out, his and Obama’s.
The World As It Is confirms that I was right to cling to my sympathy, for Rhodes comes off, despite himself, as a woebegone character. He’s unappealing for all the familiar reasons, but as a powerful White House aide, he’s also feckless and overwhelmed, deploying his famous arrogance and bullying tactics as little floaties to keep his head above water. Sentence for sentence, he’s not much of a writer, which is to be expected from an author with an MFA in creative writing. Altogether, though, he draws a compelling picture of an entire swath of his class and generation. They are the twenty- and thirtysomethings who manned the Obama administration and expect soon to be our ruling class—well-to-do and mostly white, energetic and ambitious and entitled, with fancy degrees that left them with many poses and attitudes but little knowledge of the country that popped the silver spoon in their mouths.
His artlessness is touching, almost. He and his bride, Rhodes writes, are too busy with their careers to spare time for a honeymoon, so they throw one hell of a wedding bash. (“At the end of the night, Samantha Power was carried dramatically out of the wedding party by her husband.”) Ben grabs the mike from the DJ and belts a George Michael song. With all his peers in attendance, he sees it as the end of something but also the beginning:
It felt like the period on a stretch of time when we all hadn’t quite been promoted to positions of higher responsibility—before people took over departments of government, joined the cabinet, had kids, got divorced, succeeded in (or failed out of) government, or went off to make money.
Went off to make money. This is an apt description of one of the many options awaiting Rhodes and his friends, but it sounds like a phrase from another era—you think of old WASPs from Brown and Harriman setting up their sons on Wall Street after they got back from the war. It’s only with a jolt that you realize an entire set of cultural assumptions and behavior—in particular, the unquestioning sense of their own indispensability—has been transplanted from that long-gone generation of fogeys to the best’n’brightest of the 21st century.
Not all the assumptions and behavior, of course. George Marshall did not sing glam rock at his own wedding, for example. And Rhodes indulges in, and readily confesses to, unhealthy doses of self-pity. One year into the White House, he laments that the president has taken him to Hawaii for the holidays. “I walked through groups of people on the beach,” he writes, “away from friends and family for the first time in my life.” Dean Acheson may have felt humiliated that his terrible inaugural seats embarrassed him in front of his out-of-town family, but unlike Rhodes, he kept it to himself. After the Times profile, Ben wrestles with questions of identity: “You live your life knowing that the story out there about who you are is different from the person you think you are, and want to be.” (Don’t waste too much time on it.)
Rhodes’s oversharing is common to his generation and class, as are the self-absorption and self-regard it’s a token of. In the self-regard, if not the emotional incontinence, he resembled the president he served. Obama here is the Obama we’ve been hearing about for a decade now: even-tempered and frosty as dry ice, with a confidence in his own wisdom and destiny, packaged in high-flown statements that are either gnomic or banal. They do succeed in stoking the admiration of his easily impressed followers. He summarizes his theory of speechmaking to Rhodes, who’s wowed: “We are telling a story about who we are.” Rhodes twice repeats a favorite saying that his leader apparently once heard from Carl Sagan on TV—“There are more stars in the sky than grains of sand on the earth”—though nobody but Obama knows what it applies to. The president reflects on leadership. “The American people are idealists,” Obama tells Rhodes, “but their leaders have to be realistic and hard-headed.” Why, back at the University of Chicago, that there’s what they call a paradox.
Hard-headedness is not the quality that most distinguished the foreign policy Ben Rhodes helped shape. His book appears just as the signal attainments of Obama’s administration are being dismantled, with great clumsiness but also, as these things go, almost certain finality. This only adds to the poignancy. Rhodes continues to see the Trump ascendency as an aberration and not as the national upchuck it was, the revulsion a large part of the country felt toward the administration—to the class—he typifies. The World As It Is is a good book, an insider account of those who would be kings (and queens). I put it aside with admiration, and also with a paraphrase from Rhodes himself: They literally learned nothing.