"Does Céline mean that this makes him authentic?"
"It means that writers are supposed to make you laugh and cry. That's what mankind is looking for. The situation of this Robinson is a replay of the drama of the Middle Ages in which the most vicious, abandoned criminals turn again to the Blessed Virgin. But there's no disagreement here. I want you to do me as you did Keynes, but on a bigger scale. And also you were too kind to him. I don't want that. Be as hard on me as you like. You aren't the darling doll you seem to be, and by describing me maybe you'll emancipate yourself."
"From what, exactly?"
"Whatever it is that controls you - some sword of Damocles hanging over you."
"No," I said. "It's the sword of Dimwitoclese."
The conversation, if it had taken place in a restaurant, would have made the other diners think that we were telling sexy jokes, having a rollicking time. "Dimwitoclese" was Ravelstein's kind of gag, and he laughed like Picasso's wounded horse in Guernica, rearing back.
Ravelstein's legacy to me was a subject - he thought he was giving me a subject, perhaps the best one I ever had, perhaps the only really important one. But what such a legacy signified was that he would die before me. If I were to predecease him he would certainly not write a memoir of me. Anything beyond a single page to be read at a memorial service would have been unthinkable. Yet we were close friends, none closer. What we were laughing about was death, and of course death does sharpen the comic sense. But the fact that we laughed together didn't mean that we were laughing for the same reasons. That Ravelstein's most serious ideas, put into his book, should have made him a millionaire certainly was funny. It took the genius of capitalism to make a valuable commodity out of thoughts, opinions, teachings. Bear in mind that Ravelstein was a teacher. He was not one of those conservatives who idolize the free market. He had views of his own on political and moral matters. But I am not interested in presenting his ideas. More than anything else, just now, I want to avoid them. I want to be brief, here. He was an educator. Put together in a book his ideas made him absurdly rich. He was spending the dollars almost as fast as they came in. Just now he was considering a new $5 million book contract. He could also command big fees on the lecture circuit. And he was a learned man after all. Nobody disputed that. You have to be learned to capture modernity in its full complexity and to assess its human cost. On social occasions he might be freaky, but on the platform you could see how well grounded his arguments were. It became only too clear what he was talking about. The public saw a higher education as a right. The White House affirmed it. Students were like "the mackerel-crowded seas." Thirty thousand dollars was the average annual college tuition. But what were students learning? The universities were permissive, lax. The Puritanism of an earlier time was gone. Relativism held that what was right in San Domingo was wrong in Pago Pago and that moral standards were therefore anything but absolute.
Now Ravelstein was no enemy of pleasure or opposed to love. On the contrary he saw love as possibly the highest blessing of mankind. A human soul devoid of longing was a soul deformed, deprived of its highest good, sick unto death. We were offered a biological model that dismissed the soul and stressed the importance of orgiastic relief from tension (biostatics and biodynamics). I don't intend to explain here the erotic teachings of Aristophanes and Socrates or of the Bible. For that you must go to Ravelstein himself. For him Jerusalem and Athens were the twin sources of civilization. Jerusalem and Athens are not my dish. I wish you well with them. But I was too old to become Ravelstein's disciple. All I need to say now is that he was taken very seriously even in the White House and on Downing Street. He was Mrs. Thatcher's weekend guest at Chequers. Nor did the President neglect him. Reagan invited him to dinner, and Ravelstein spent a fortune on formal attire, cummerbund, diamond studs, patent leather shoes. A columnist on the Daily News said that to Ravelstein money was something you threw from the rear platform of speeding trains. Ravelstein with shouts of laughter showed me the clipping. Through it all he was deeply amused. And of course I didn't have the same reasons for amusement. The vast hydraulic forces of the country had not picked me up, as they had him.
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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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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