"I'm not too surprised at Lloyd George," Ravelstein said. "He was a contentious little fucker. He visited Hitler in the thirties and came away with a high opinion of him. Hitler was a dream of political leaders. Whatever he wanted done was done, and quickly. No muss, no fuss. Very different from parliamentary government." It was enjoyable to hear Ravelstein on what he called Great Politics. He speculated often on Roosevelt and Churchill. He had a great respect for de Gaulle. >From time to time he got carried away. Today, for instance, he spoke of Lloyd George's "pungency."
"Pungency is good," I said.
"In the matter of language the Brits had it all over us. Especially when their strength began to bleed away and language became one of their important resources."
"Like Hamlet's whore who must unpack her heart with words."
Ravelstein, with his bald powerful head, was at ease with large statements, big issues, and famous men, with decades, eras, centuries. He was, however, just as familiar with entertainers like Mel Brooks as with the classics and could go from Thucydides' huge tragedy to Moses as played by Brooks. "He comes down from Mount Sinai with the commandments. God had handed down twenty but ten fall from Mel Brooks's arms when he sees the children of Israel rioting around the Golden Calf." Ravelstein loved these Catskill entertainments; he had a natural gift for them.
He was very pleased with my Keynes sketch. He remembered that Churchill had called Keynes a man of clairvoyant intelligence-Abe loved Churchill. As an economist, Milton Friedman had it over most others, but Friedman was a free-market fanatic and had no use for culture, whereas Keynes had a cultivated intelligence. He was, however, wrong about the Versailles Treaty and deficient in politics, a subject of which Ravelstein had a very special understanding.
Abe's "people" in Washington kept his telephone line so busy that I said he must be masterminding a shadow government. He accepted this, smiling as though the oddity were not his but mine. He said, "All these students I've trained in the last thirty years still turn to me, and in a way the telephone makes possible an ongoing seminar in which the policy questions they deal with in day-to-day Washington are aligned with the Plato they studied two or three decades ago, or Locke, or Rousseau, or even Nietzsche."
It was very pleasant to win Ravelstein's approval, and his students kept coming back to him - men now in their forties, some of whom had figured significantly in running the Gulf War, spoke to him by the hour. "These special relationships are important to me-top priority." It was as natural that Ravelstein should need to know what went on in Downing Street or the Kremlin as it had been for Virginia Woolf to read Keynes's private report on German reparations. Possibly Ravelstein's views or opinions sometimes worked their way into policy decisions, but that wasn't what mattered. What mattered was that he should remain in charge somehow of the ongoing political education of his old boys. In Paris too he had a following. People who had taken his courses at the École des Hautes Études, just back from a mission to Moscow, also rang him up.
There were sexual friendships and intimate confidences as well. Beside the wide black leather sofa back home where he took the calls was an electronic panel of which he made expert use. I couldn't have operated it. I had no high-tech skills. But Ravelstein, though his hands were unsteady, controlled his instruments like a Prospero.
In any case he didn't have to worry now about the telephone bills.
But we are still atop the Hotel Crillon.
"You have good instincts, Chick," he said. "Too bad you didn't have more nihilism in your makeup. You should have been more like Céline with his nihilistic comedy, or farce. The scorned woman saying to her boyfriend, Robinson, 'Why can't you say "I love you"? What's so special about you? You get a hard-on like anybody else. Quoi! Tu ne bandes pas?' A hard-on to her is the same as love. But Robinson the nihilist is high-principled about one thing only, not to lie about the very, very few things that really matter. He'll try any kind of obscenity but he draws the line at last, and this tramp woman, deeply insulted, shoots him dead because he won't say 'I love you.'"
Reprinted from Ravelstein by Saul Bellow by permission of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright 2000, Saul Bellow. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission
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