The Spectator

Saul Bellow and the Bad Fish

A new way of explaining the genius of Ravelstein.

Warning: This column is likely to offend two groups of potentially dangerous devotees—cat lovers and Saul Bellow fans.

I’ve developed a conjecture that is likely to infuriate both. One that involves the deadly ciguatera toxin and the insidious toxoplasmosis parasite.

I’m writing this in Chicago, where I’ve begun a writer-in-residence fellowship at the University of Chicago. They’ve put me up in a Lake Shore Drive property colorfully called the Flamingo Apartments. It’s across the street from the place where Saul Bellow lived with his third wife (out of five), and local legend has it that back in the ‘20s Al Capone rusticated up here by the lake. Could be real-estate lore, but I like it.

Anyway, preparing for the fellowship, I was rereading Ravelstein, the Bellow novel based on the late Allan Bloom and the kind of intellectual and cultural life he embodied at the University of Chicago, where Bellow and Bloom taught a celebrated seminar together. It was Bellow who helped make Bloom’s pessimistic polemic, The Closing of the American Mind, a best-selling sensation.

Ravelstein is not only my favorite Bellow novel, it’s the only one I really love. It’s a rapturous celebration of the life of the mind, as well as a meditation on the glory of sensual life and on the tenebrous permeable boundary we all eventually pass over, the one between life and death. And as I was reading it, with Passover approaching, I found myself asking myself one of the traditional Passover questions about Ravelstein: Why is this novel different from all other Bellow novels?

My problem with the pre-Ravelstein Bellow is that he all too often strains too hard to yoke together two somewhat contradictory aspects of his being and style. There’s the street-wise Windy City wiseguy and then—as if to show off that the wiseguy has Wisdom—there are the undigested chunks of arcane, not entirely impressive, philosophic thought and speculation. Just to make sure you know his novels have intellectual heft. That the world and the flesh in his prose are both figured and transfigured.

“Bellow has two hobbies,” the novelist and Chicagoan Richard Stern is quoted as saying in James Atlas’ biography: “Philosophy and fucking.”

Not that there’s anything wrong with these as hobbies, but the philosophical and the sensual in Bellow never fused in a convincing or satisfying way for me. They were rather like alternating voices from schizoid embodied personae.

I know he wants you to see the connection between his marital-problem-plagued Herzog and the world historical views of Hegel, but to me it’s always been a heavy-handed juxtaposition rather than a novelistic fusion. But then there’s Ravelstein, a novel Bellow wrote in his 80s, which I found—from the moment I read the first long New Yorker excerpt—absolutely, irresistibly seductive, both sensually and intellectually, one in which the sublimity and pathos of life and art are not joined to each other with heavy welds but transformed into a beautiful, seamless, unravelable fabric. I think a lot of people have bypassed or underrated Ravelstein because there’s been too much bio-criticism about it. Believe me, I don’t care that much about Allan Bloom OR whether the novel is a faithful account of his sex life. Just read it. Read it as if you didn’t know who Allan Bloom was.

Recently Sam Tanenhaus made an argument in the Times Book Review that Bellow’s work as a whole is “beyond criticism” because like Whitman it contains multitudes, it’s “a vision of the human universe as apprehended by a being of higher intelligence” and the “many defects—the longueurs and digressions, the lectures on anthroposophy and religion” don’t really matter when Bellow is considered as collective whole.

There’s truth to that, but it doesn’t preclude arguing that some Bellow is better than other Bellow and that in Ravelstein he achieved something that his previous novels had been striving a bit too grimly and sedulously for: that feeling of warp and woof, body and soul woven together into a single shimmering cloth.

Perhaps it’s no accident that the opening scenes of Ravelstein focus in finely wrought detail on the sensual beauty of fabrics: the sheets at the Hotel Crillon in Paris, the ties at Sulka, and the tour de force episode that might be called “Ravelstein buys a sport coat”—at Lanvin.

You know the story of Ravelstein, right? It opens in the penthouse of the Crillon, where Ravelstein (the Bloom character) has flown Chick (the Bellow character) over to celebrate his best-sellerdom and to make a request: that Chick write a memoir of Ravelstein’s life. The novel consists of Chick’s memories of Ravelstein (who, we learn, is dying) and concludes with a dramatic episode that convinces Chick to carry out the biographical request.

This summation, of course, does not do justice to the novel’s uncharacteristically ravishing sensual prose. Bellow is mesmerizing when describing the supreme material products—the gorgeous efflorescences—of civilization to be found in civilization’s supreme peak in Paris. The Paris scenes recall to me a remark by Harvard’s Elaine Scarry in The Body in Pain, a grimly titled tome I found surprisingly full of acute contrarian observations. At one point she says that materialism—in the sense of the creation of beautifully fabricated material objects, not lust for lucre—is not the antithesis but the glory of consciousness, its inner beauty and complexity made manifest in the outer world.

Here’s a description of the $4,500 sport coat Ravelstein buys:

The gorgeous jacket at Lanvin was beautiful flannel, silky as well as substantial. The color … golden with rich lights among the folds. “You see such jackets advertised in Vanity Fair, and the other fashion slicks,” Chick observes, “and they’re usually modeled by unshaven toughs with the look of rough trade … who have nothing—but nothing—to do, other than being seen in all the glory of their dirty narcissism. You don’t even think of such a garment on an unwieldy intelligent man … It’s actually a pleasant thing to see.”

“Silky” and “substantial,” “rich lights among the folds,” “the glory of their dirty narcissism.” It’s almost as if Bellow was describing the heightened level of his prose in Ravelstein: Silky and substantial; the rich light of philosophical insight gleaming from within the folds of flesh. In Ravelstein we have the sensuality and intelligence, the “philosophy and fucking” unified at last.

Now let us consider my conjecture about what makes Ravelstein different in this way. A conjecture that occurred to me on the plane to Chicago as I was reading the last quarter of the book, the part that deals with Chick’s horrifying experience of ciguatera (or cigua) toxin poisoning in the Caribbean. It is apparently based on a life-threatening experience Bellow himself underwent while on a Caribbean vacation with his wife: eating a tropical fish loaded with the toxin.

It is in this last quarter of the book that I believe Bellow makes a quantum leap to a realm he hadn’t reached before. In this section, which Bellow’s biographer James Atlas unaccountably dismisses as a “digression,” Chick consumes a red snapper that is laced with the rare, devastating toxin, which is produced by a species of algae, is sometimes found in reef-feeding fish, and can’t be neutralized by cooking, even boiling. Eat the wrong fish and you’re out of luck.

Cigua is a nerve toxin that ravages the brain as well as the neurological system, and it sends Chick into a state of near death. (He even has one of those near-death visions of his dead father and brothers.) Eventually after being rushed to a Boston hospital, he experiences a cardiac failure and, under the influence of the cigua toxin’s deranging but delirious effects (and the hospital drugs), experiences wild dreams and hallucinations about life and death that are unlike anything else in Bellow: “Often it seemed to me that I was just underneath Kenmore Square in Boston,” he writes. “The oddness of these hallucinatory surroundings was in a way liberating. I wonder sometimes whether at the threshold of death I may not have been able to entertain myself lightheartedly like any normal person, enjoying these preposterous delusions—fictions which didn’t have to be invented.”

Fictions that did not have to be invented! Bellow reveling, raveling in a singular, cigualike delusional state.

It’s Bellow communicating his communion, his dreamlike dialogue with death not long before the real thing …

When Chick recovers from the cigua toxin experience, he is changed, his entire neurological capacity has undergone a transformation. The episode convinces him to do the memoir on Ravelstein. And—this is my conjecture—it’s also possible to speculate that the psychotropic effects of the nerve toxin on Bellow’s brain heightened his capacity to synthesize sensuality and philosophy in his prose. That, along with the deranging neurological damage, it gave him a gift.

The book that emerges—to my mind—evidences a sea change (or perhaps we should say a seafood-induced change). The cigua toxin didn’t kill him; it made him, or made his work stronger, more vibrant and luminous, shimmering like Ravelstein’s golden sport coat or like the Caribbean waters that harbored the toxic seafood. There’s a line in the next-to-last paragraph of Ravelstein that seems to be Bellow’s acknowledgment of the transformation of his prose, the synthesis of the intellectual and sensual he achieved after the cigua episode: “He lost himself in sublime music, a music in which ideas are dissolved, reflecting these ideas in the form of feeling. He carries them down into the street with him …” Music in which ideas are dissolved: the new Bellovian prose music.

And what does all of this have to do with cat lovers? Well, I’ve been fascinated by recent research into the sociobiological effects of toxoplasmosis parasites. Not just on cats, their chief hosts, but on human populations. Toxoplasmosis parasites seem to have developed a symbiotic relationship with the cats they inhabit. It turns out that the parasite is transmitted to rats when they eat cat feces (apologies to the squeamish). The parasite then migrates to the rat brain, where it has the effect of making rats more friendly to cats, or at least less likely to regard cats as predators. Which makes it easier for the cats to prey upon and consume them. Could there be a similarity in the human–cat relationship? The toxoplasmosis parasite can be passed to human beings, usually through the medium of cat feces in the handling of cat boxes, cat litter, etc.

On an individual level this exposure may have profound life-changing effects. We all know terminally fanatic cat lovers. I have an ex-girlfriend who never liked cats in her life, indeed virtually despised them, but adopted one during a period of emotional stress and underwent what I can only call something akin to a radical religious conversion. A total personality change, which manifested itself as an almost utter inability to talk about anything but the super extraordinary adorability of her cat. I would get calls from her for no other purpose than to describe to me various different “adorable” positions the cat would assume while sleeping. It was almost shocking. Particularly since when it comes to adorability, her cat has nothing on my cat (or so the parasite tells me). But seriously, I underwent a milder version of such a conversion after half a lifetime of being a dog person.

But forget about us; according to recent research, the cat parasite may have the capacity to change entire societies as well. According to an Aug. 2, 2006, report in the Proceedings of the Royal Society, Biology, when there are high toxoplasmosis levels within a population, “mass personality modification could result in cultural change.” The parasite may have changed human history as well as personality.

Along with what I’d call the cigua effect, the toxoplasmosis parasite raises questions about how much of our art and culture are the product of infection or disease of one sort or another. Important questions about the autonomy of art and personality which I don’t pretend to have answers for but which might perhaps suggest a greater humility about our capacity for unfettered—or uninfected—free will. Perhaps some parasite or poison is responsible for my thoughts on Bellow and Ravelstein. And perhaps for your thoughts on my thoughts. It certainly seems to me that a number of American novelists could benefit from a cruise to the Western Caribbean of the sort Bellow took, and as many sumptuous seafood meals (red snapper and barracuda especially recommended) as necessary to raise the level of their art through a slightly less-than-lethal dose of cigua.

After all, doesn’t the Rolling Stones song suggest that it’s the cigua, not the song?