“You don’t easily give up a creature like Ravelstein to death.”
I was a student at the University of Chicago in Hyde Park in the South Side of the city, when the book was published in 2000 and created a stirring controversy. Ravelstein’s character was clearly inspired by literary critic Alan Bloom, Bellow’s colleague on the « Committee of Social Thought » at the University. The book revealed Bloom’s homosexuality and AIDS, which had not been public knowledge while he was alive.
Bellow’s novel describes Hyde Park without naming it. But we recognize Lake Michigan’s shore, the parakeets roving freely in the trees and the early snows in the fall. I was recently in Hyde Park to celebrate the memory of another giant of social sciences, the economist Gary Becker. When, together with all his former students in attendance, we went out for a souvenir picture, light snow flakes were falling on this late October morning.
I was transported more than ten years back. Remembering the hours spent in the library, trying to solve the weekly problem sets imposed by Becker for his Price Theory class. The library was probably the ugliest building on a campus known for its neo-gothic charm. It was built next to the site where the first controlled nuclear reaction took place in 1942. The doors were closing at 1am at which time our study group was far from having found a solution to the problem sets. In that group, I was the most at loss. Those were hours marked by failure and doubts.
A few years later, Becker was now my thesis director and patience and perseverance from my end, together with his qualities as a mentor, gave me more promising perspectives.
Ravelstein’s character in Bellow’s brilliant depiction is a towering figure, enjoying the high life in Chicago or in Parisian palaces, surrounded by a court of disciples among which he did not hesitate to suggest romantic matches.
Becker, one of the most prestigious names in social sciences was the opposite. Encouraging, full of attention, he always had time for his students. I remember his invitations to join him for lunch at the Faculty Club » with the speakers of the weekly seminar he was organizing. Or the annual dinner he gave each year for this seminar’s participants. One anecdote from Iván Werning, the teaching assistant who was grading our problem sets, will give an idea of the atmosphere and the person: invited for dinner for the first time by the Beckers, he would let fall the wine bottle he had brought on the house’s front patio. The wine splashed everywhere, including on the Nobel Laureate’s pants. Ashamed, he wanted to disappear. But Gary Becker went in the house to find something to soak the wine and collect the broken glass, while his wife Guity welcomed their guest and made him comfortable.