The Noisy Dark

2023 11 21

This was my style essay that I wrote for the course Bellow and Company at Tufts University taught by Professor Janis Bellow. I based it on the book Ravelstein by Saul Bellow. At the end I include a discussion question I asked the class.

I get the feeling when reading Bellow that I am seated alongside him. That he is recounting his story to me with an occasional invitation to participate. More specifically, I feel that Bellow tries to convey just what it felt to be his character in those moments. To ask of ourselves how we would have been in a similar situation. In the passage I have selected, Bellow takes us to a conversation between Chick and Ravelstein as Ravelstein nears death. To help place ourselves there, Bellow takes a tacking course: a series of short statements each ending with a turn to a new focus all in the direction of bringing our minds into that moment of conversation. These tacks can be characterized: an embedded quote helps to put our minds in the state of conversation. A physical evaluation of Chick brings our person among them. A question Chick poses to himself, but seemingly directs it to the reader as well. Characteristic Bellow musings that take a literary bend, and leads us to end in a contemplative state as Bellow continues the narrative after the passage. Throughout the passage are drops of linguistic tell-tales that help us also recognize that we are in the company of Bellow.

The small explicit quotation, “to keep you company”, in this passage is a synecdoche; we are given sufficient context of the conversation, but it takes only a four-word quote to help us feel the meaning of it. The inclusion of “was the way I put it” also conveys the quality that this is a remembered topic being brought up in conversation. Why should Bellow do this? Another writer may have placed the entire conversation for us to parse and find the essence for ourselves, but that is not Bellow’s goal here. He wants us to understand this essential point in conversation in order to analyze it further as it was the heart of the matter; whether or not there is an afterlife, and will you be followed by any of your friends?

Before Bellow takes us into the discussion, we get a physical characterization of Chick through the discerning eyes of Ravelstein. While not as long of a description as we see in other writing of bellow, I find the repeated descriptions separated by a string of commas to be a hallmark of Bellovian writing. In this repetition there is a consistent style: “my color, my wrinkles, my looks”. The my __ pattern repeated in this way has a snappy rhythm, but its presentation here is melancholy. The descriptions are lacking, but their sparsity helps us feel the heaviness of the sentence’s conclusion; that Chick is the most likely to die next. Each description feels like Ravelstein is taking a close look at Chick before zooming out and letting his entire physical person come into focus, leading to Ravelstein’s morbid conclusion. Bellow is quick to take your focus away from this heavy sentiment. He calls it just what Ravelstein does; it is just his nature to tell it like it is. Bellow writes “fast-freezing fluid” to describe this clarity. What does that mean? That Ravelstein is so cold in his assessments (“he wouldn’t spare you”) or that his ideas are quick to crystallize into something meaningful. Either interpretation seems plausible. The phrasing itself is also a roller coaster of contradiction. “Fast” and “fluid” both convey a similar sentiment of easy movement, but they are connected by a dip to “freezing” that speaks to their opposite. It makes sense that fluid’s can freeze, but usually we think of frozen being applied to a solid and not fluid state. This alliterative phrasing of uncertain meaning is, to me, a calling card of Bellow’s writing.

The question Chick asks, “did he mean that I would be the first of his friends to join him in the afterlife?” allows us to return to the subject of death. Bellow comments, as an aside to us as the reader sitting with Bellow, that “this was what the tone of our exchange suggested”. It is a callback to the included quotation at the beginning of the passage and serves to tell us that, yes, we are talking about death and the possibility of an afterlife. The implicit has been made explicit, finally, halfway through the passage.

Bellow then brings Plato to our minds through the context of him acting as Ravelstein’s guide in matters of the afterlife. Literary references are not a unique characteristic of Bellow’s writing, but their presence is nevertheless suggestive of Bellow. We are brought to see Ravelstein as a champion sumo wrestler in defense of Plato’s ideas. I want to linger on the last sentence that culminates this thought: “One bump of his powerful belly and I’d be out of the brilliant ring and back again in the noisy dark.” I had the feeling picking this passage that I could just as well have picked this sentence to stand out as Bellovian when taken on its own. There are a few reasons for this, first we have the loose alliteration of “bump… belly… brilliant… back”. I get the impression reading this that I am being bounced around by all the “buh” sounds until I too am cast out of the ring. Second, and similar to “fast-freezing fluid”, is that the wording of “noisy dark”, which takes an adjective and applies it in a way that seems unusual and contradictory (isn’t the dark quiet?). Third, and tying the first two together, is that this sentence conveys an idea common in the works of Bellow that we exist in a universe much larger more incomprehensible than anything we could ever hope to resolve. Any understanding of the world that we may come to can be challenged. Faced against someone with convictions held as strongly as Ravelstein makes it hard not to feel like your grasp on this aspect of reality was tenuous at best. That you are just as lost in the noisy dark as you were before you tried to make any sense of it. I believe that Bellow highlights this through Chick as it is a topic of interest to him. The idea of a reality instructor has been common in his works, and passages like this can serve as a reminder for us to watch out. We may relinquish some control over our lives to them should we challenge where our convictions our more weakly held than theirs. Alternatively, it also serves to ask the complement question: when ought we to step into the ring and subject our ideas to combat and risk getting cast out into the noisy dark?

Question: What does it take for each of us to not be bounced out of the ring and to stay out of the noisy dark? In other words, how can we come to our own understandings of reality that can stand the test of conversation with those whose views differ?