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Updated Up To 18/01/2017
Volume 14, issue 1 (January 2016) : 127-140
Saul Bellow on the Soul
Character and the Spirit of Culture in Humboldt’s Gift and Ravelstein
Willis Salomon
Rubric A: Episodes in the History of Ideas
Rubric B: American Novel



Saul Bellow’s fiction is decidedly philosophic, particularly as he celebrates depth of personhood in his characters while denigrating superficiality. The discursive action of this focus on personal depth involves the idea of soul, which, for Bellow, resonates in individual characters in his fiction as well as in the “character” of culture, usually viewed in historical decline, one of his preoccupations. This essay examines this dual understanding of soul — as a function of individual character and as the “character” of culture — in two of Bellow’s novels: Humboldt’s Gift (1975) and Ravelstein (2000). Both are concerned with the tension between the grandeur of art and ideas and the depredations of rising commercial culture in America. In Humboldt’s Gift, Bellow offers an initial view of the messy genius of a great intellectual, while in Ravelstein the persona of a great intellectual is fully developed and even more explicitly presented in terms of the relation between such “greatness of soul” and cultural and intellectual decline in late-capitalism. In both novels, an aesthetic of great personhood works through characterization, with “greatness” revealing itself metonymically as aestheticized relational energy and in the genius for seeing revealed essences. In the characters of Von Humboldt Fleisher and Abe Ravelstein, characters based on two of Saul Bellow’s teachers and intellectual heroes, Delmore Schwartz and Allan Bloom, Bellow explores a type of intellectual heroism, the loss of which, he believes, has severe, even catastrophic, cultural consequences.

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