I have never actually read any of the novels of the late Saul Bellow -- there goes my cultural credibility -- so I have nothing in particular to add to the chorus of commentary and appreciation on his passing this week. By the sort of free association to which the reading of weblogs often leads, however, my thoughts have gone a-wandering from Bellow himself to other, related topics.
In the second of his two notes on Bellow, George Hunka touched on a central Bellovian theme:
[I]t occurred to me how much of his best work reflected the value of friendship, particularly in the world of the arts. In Humboldt’s Gift, the close affection that the young poet and critic Charlie Citrine and the older poet and critic Von Humboldt Fleischer share constantly provides meaning to their lives, even as they spend their lives in search of meaning, and one of the most profound jokes of the book is how this friendship provides comfort and support even after the death of one of its subjects; Ravelstein describes this friendship as a central means of common sympathy and affection between and within generations.
Human expression and communication was a central theme of Bellow’s work, as it’s a central aspect of all our lives. This is especially important to artists, I suppose, because we all struggle with the same issues, and against a feeling of loneliness; mass culture today sometimes seems to value superficial, easy, trite expression at the expense of that which tries for something just a little more difficult but with far greater reward than the glib cheerfulness of entertainment.
Ravelstein, Bellow's final novel, is in large part a fictionalized account of Bellow's close friendship with Allan Bloom of the University of Chicago, best known/most infamous as the author of The Closing of the American Mind, for which Bellow provided the Foreword. I have read The Closing twice -- there is much in it that is worthwhile, if you ignore the shrill "these kids today and their crazy rock and roll" segments -- but I contend that Bloom's best book was his last: the apparently out-of-print (but readily available used) Love & Friendship.
On his weblog, Gideon Strauss took the occasion yesterday to mention Bloom in connection with Saul Bellow's son, Adam Bellow, now a self-described "right-wing controversialist and hell-raiser." Gideon's remark that "Mr. Bloom's most famous book [i.e., The Closing] is not to be taken at face value" sent me Googling through his site for more, and led me to discover that, back in the summer of 2003, Gideon had included Love and Friendship in position #4 on his "short list of things to read that I would recommend to any college student." (You'll need to scroll down to August 26 to find the reference.) That post provides a good, succinct statement of the book's virtues:
Bloom was a student of Leo Strauss and a homosexual (see "Bloom, Bellow, and the Ravelstein Controversy" at Straussian.org), and I do not agree with him on much. But he brings a seriousness and intensity to reading, and a seriousness and intensity to love, that is very different from the dullness, sullenness, blandness, and apathy in which much of college culture is awash. Bloom raises questions about love that must be considered, and there is hardly a better time for considering love than the college years. Listing this book is cheating, though, because reading it well would require reading the books Bloom discusses, which include Rousseau's Emile, Stendhal's The Red and the Black, Austen's Pride and Prejudice, Flaubert's Madame Bovary, Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, and several of Shakespeare's plays.
(Emphasis added; original links omitted.) That summary leaves out my own pick for the best part of Bloom's book: his long, serious and intense reading through Plato's Symposium. To round out this post, and to give you a flavor of what I consider to be a near-indispensable book, here is a passage from Bloom's Epilogue. Share it with a friend or lover:
Whatever their selective rank, and it has to be thought through at some time by every serious human being, both love and friendship are splendid things, peaks of humanity, plausible candidates for election as the highest end of life. The capacity for love or friendship always indicates a superior and generous nature, and when we see them in life or art, they always engage our sympathies. They are witness to an expansive being that can in the pursuit of his own happiness encompass the happiness of another. In such a person the perennial tension between the pleasant and the noble seems to disappear. The lover or friend does what he most passionately wants to do and in doing so benefits the friend or the beloved.
For this reason love and friendship not only attract everyone but they flatter us by making us think well of ourselves. . . . Hunger and mere sexual desire are similar in directing us to immediate apparent goods; but they remain purely animal and constitute no morality in relation to their objects, while love and friendship are unthinkable without the will to benefit their objects. . . . Hunger and sex, even when they involve using other human beings, do not induce concern for them. Thus to be a friend or a lover, one must have somehow transcended the neediest of needinesses, the most self-regarding passions. The wonder is that this is done effortlessly in the case of the lover and the friend. It follows from the nature of the thing.