By Santiago Ramos
In a negative review of James Frey’s new novel, Bright Shiny Morning, the critic Adam Kirsch begins by summoning Saul Bellow:
“Saul Bellow came up with the term ‘reality instructor’ for the kind of self-important, tough-talking, wised-up guy who devotes his life to wising up other people. The ineffectual intellectual heroes of Bellow’s fiction are constantly having their lapels grabbed, figuratively and literally, by such tutors in toughness—gangsters, operators, money men—who can’t stand the sight of a dreamer, an idealist, someone who just doesn’t get it.”
According to Kirsch, Frey has assembled a gang of “reality instructors” in his novel, but unlike Bellow, he believes them. Kirsch continues:
“But in Bellow’s work, the reality instructors are always shown to be deficient in precisely the sense of reality they brag about. For it is always obvious to the reader that Citrine—and Moses Herzog, and Tommy Wilhelm, and Augie March—see further into reality than their tormentors. Bellow’s narrators recognize that beauty, truth, and goodness are just as real as power and violence; they refuse to succumb to the reductive, brutalized vision which holds that man is always a wolf to man, so you had better bite first when you have the chance. Citrine may lose his car, just as Herzog loses his wife and Wilhelm loses everything, but they all triumph by remaining more sensitive and expressive—that is, more open to reality—than their would-be teachers.”
I think Kirsch is right about Bellow, and probably right about Frey, too. There is a dimension to Bellow, however, that Kirsch leaves unexplored. It’s true that the reality instructors in Bellow’s novels are often “gangsters, operators, money men,” and that Bellow is partly defending dreamers and intellectuals against the charge that they are bourgeois sissy men who survive only by grace of having been born in an affluent society. However, there is another type of “reality instructor” who can also cause problems for Bellovian heroes—the intellectual type.
These intellectual reality instructors aren't "tutors in toughness" but "tutors in ideas," and they tend to hold ideas in such high esteem that they lose sight of concrete human reality. For the Bellovian hero, who is after "the consummation of his heart's ultimate need" (as Bellow puts it in Seize the Day), this is a problem. The answer to our "ultimate need" cannot be found in ideas; if it is to be found at all, it must be found in reality.
Herzog, for example, is as much a satire about academics and intellectuals as it is about philistines and brutes. Even though Herzog is saved from madness in part through his love for Ramona, he’s suspicious of her ideas: “She has read Marcuse, N.O. Brown, all those neo-Freudians. She wants me to believe that the body is a spiritual fact, the instrument of the soul. Ramona is a dear woman, and very touching, but this theorizing is a dangerous temptation. It can only lead to more high-minded mistakes.”
The tough-guy ideology of “street knowledge” is a danger to a free spirit, to be sure; but so are ideas so lofty that they’ve lost sight of the lived human experience from which they’ve sprung. By the end of his novel-length crisis, Herzog loves Ramona, and can look past her ideology—as he must do so to remain free. “But what about this ideology. Doesn’t she have one?” Herzog’s brother asks. “Yes, I think she has some. About sex. She’s pretty fanatical about it. But I don’t mind that.”
Kirsch could also have mentioned Bellow’s ultimate, real-life, reality instructor, the philosopher Allan Bloom, whom Bellow fictionalized in his final novel, the roman-à-clef Ravelstein. Bellow is “Chick” in the book, and Chick feels “like an ant who sets out to cross the Andes” before the intellectual prowess of Ravelstein and his students and colleagues. Along with this respect and awe, there is a genuine affection that permeates every page of the novel—of Chick for Ravelstein, and of Bellow for Bloom. This affection, however, like Herzog’s affection for Ramona, does not always translate into intellectual agreement. Ravelstein can be brash: “Nothing is more bourgeois than the fear of death,” he says at one point. And yet Chick concludes that “You don’t easily give up a creature like Ravelstein to death.”
On the most important question of life, Chick will not follow Ravelstein. Chick writes about Ravelstein’s erotic quest for a “missing half,” and says that “Ravelstein was in real earnest about this quest, driven by longing.” Ravelstein’s book—The Closing of the American Mind, in real life—bore the working title of Souls Without Longing. But Chick’s longing lasts longer than Ravelstein’s. Although, in his final days, he was “full of scripture,” Ravelstein dismisses God and immortality, claiming that “no philosopher can believe in God.” Chick, on the other hand, says: “many people want to be rid of the dead. I, on the contrary, have a way of hanging on to them. My persistent hunch...is that they are not gone for good. Ravelstein himself would have dismissed such notions as childish. Perhaps they are. But I am not arguing a case, I am simply reporting.”
Chick/Bellow even speculates that Ravelstein/Bloom may have, at one point, hinted at agreement: “He had, however, asked me what I imagined death would be like—and when I said that the pictures would stop he reflected seriously on my answer, came to a full stop, and considered what I might mean by this. No one can give up on the pictures.... If Ravelstein the atheist-materialist had implicitly told me that he would see me sooner or later, he meant that he did not accept the grave to be the end. Nobody can and nobody does accept this. We just talk tough.”
So the closest character to Bellow’s own mind in the end disagrees with the ultimate reality-instructor, the philosopher. There must be something in here about the relationship between art and philosophy—the catch being, of course, that it would take a philosopher to parse it.