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Thursday, March 11, 2021


The Chronicle of Higher Education plays no role in the life of the various academic disciplines but it features a classified ads section that lists administrative positions in colleges and universities and it is therefore much read by those aspiring to rise in the Academy. In 1987 the Chronicle asked me to review a new book by a University of Chicago professor named Allan Bloom. What follows was my attempt to come to terms with a really awful book. The readership of the Chronicle being what it is, a good many people failed to note the ironic tone of the review and I heard through the grapevine that a number of them actually called the University of Chicago to find out whether Bloom was real.




Aficionados of the modern American novel have learned to look to Philip Roth for complex literary constructions that play wittily with narrative voice and frame. One thinks of such Roth works as My Life as a Man and The Counter Life, Now Saul Bellow has demonstrated that among his other well-recognized literary gifts is an unsuspected bent for daring satire. What Bellow has done, quite simply, is to write an entire corruscatingly funny novel in the form of a pettish, bookish, grumpy, reactionary complaint against the last two decades. The "author" of this tirade, one of Bellow's most fully realized literary creations, is a mid- fiftyish professor at the University of Chicago, to whom Bellow gives the evocative name, "Bloom." Bellow appears in the book only as the author of an eight-page "Foreword," in which he introduces us to his principal and only character. The book is published under the name "Allan Bloom," and, as part of the fun, is even copyrighted in "Bloom's" name. Nevertheless, Bellow is unwilling entirely to risk the possibility that readers will misconstrue his novel as a serious piece of nonfiction by a real professor, and so, in the midst of his preface, he devotes more than a page to a flat- footed explanation of his earlier novel, Herzog, in which, he tells us straight out, he was deliberately trying to satirize pedantry. This bit of hand waving and flag raising by Bellow detracts from the ironic consistency of the novel, but he may perhaps be forgiven, for so compellingly believable is this new academic pedant, "Bloom," that without Bellow's warnings, The Closing of the American Mind might have been taken as a genuine piece of academic prose.


The novel is, for all its surface accessibility, a subtly constructed palimpsest concealing what old Hyde Park hands will recognize as a devastating in-house attack by Bellow on his own stamping ground, the Committee on Social Thought. ("Bloom" is described on the jacket as a professor in the Committee on Social Thought.) The real target, indeed, is a former member of that committee, the late Leo Strauss, a brilliant, learned, utterly mad historian of political thought who spawned, nurtured, reared, and sent out into the world several generations of disciples dedicated to his paranoid theories of textual interpretation. (Strauss, whose hermeneutics placed special emphasis on concealment, absence, and misdirection, appears only once in the book, in an aside. Bellow leaves it to the cognoscenti to recognize the true significance of the allusion.)


As conceived by Bellow, "Bloom" is the quintessential product of the distinctive educational theories that flourished at the college of the University of Chicago during and after the heyday of Robert Maynard Hutchins. The key to those theories was the particular mid-western, upwardly mobile first-generation version of the Great Conversation that came to be known, in its promotional publishing version, as The Great Books.


According to this pedagogical conception, Western civilization is a two-millennia-old conversation among a brilliant galaxy of great minds, permanently encapsulated in a recognized sequence of great texts, with Aristotle's plan for the organization of human knowledge as the architectonic armature. Plato, Aristotle, Aeschylus,  Thucydides, St. Augustine, St. Thomas, al Farabi, Maimonides, Erasmus, Cervantes, Bacon, Shakespeare, Descartes, Hobbes, Locke, Spinoza, Leibniz, Newton, on and on they come, reflecting on the relationship between man and the universe, chatting with one another, kibitzing their predecessors, a rich, endless, moveable feast of ideas and intellectual passions. The list, by now, has grown enormously long, but- and this is the secret of its mesmerizing attraction to the eager young students who were drawn to Chicago- it is finite. However much work it may be to plow through the great books, once one has completed the task, one is educated! One can now join the Great Conversation, perhaps not as an active participant, but certainly as a thoughtful listener. And this is true, regardless of one's family background, upbringing, lack of private schooling, or inappropriate dress. Unlike the Ivy League, where the wrong social class marked one permanently as inferior, Chicago offered a "career open to talents."


The virtue of a Chicago education was a certain intoxication with ideas, especially philosophical ideas, that sets off graduates of the Hutchins era from everyone else in the American intellectual scene. When I taught there briefly, in the early 1960s, I was enchanted to find professors of music reading books on Kant, and biologists seriously debating the undergraduate curriculum in Aristotelian terms. The vice of that same system is a mad, hermetic conviction that larger world events are actually caused or shaped by the obscurest sub-quibbles of the Great Conversation. By a fallacy of misplaced concreteness, of the sort that the young Marx so brilliantly burlesqued in The Holy Family, Chicago types are prone to suppose that it is the ideas that are real, and the people in this world who are mere epiphenomena. Bellow captures this distorted mentality perfectly in "Bloom," who, as we shall see, traces the cultural ills of the past twenty years implausibly, but with a wacky interior logic, to the twisted theories of two German philosophers.


The novel (which is to say, Bellow's "Foreword") begins with what turns out to be a bitingly ironic observation. "Professor Bloom has his own way of doing things." And indeed he does! Once "Bloom" has begun his interminable complaint against modernity- for which, read everything that has taken place since "Bloom" was a young student in the 1940s at the University of Chicago- we are treated to a hilarious discourse of the sort that only a throwback to the Hutchins era could produce.


"Bloom's" diatribe opens with some animadversions upon the culture of the young. After a few glancing blows at feminism, he quite unpredictably launches upon an extended complaint about the music that the young so favor. Bellow's image of a middle-aged professor trying to sound knowledgeable about hard rock is a miniature comic masterpiece.


Now "Bloom" arrives at his real message. The deeper cause of the desperate inadequacies of our contemporary culture, it seems, is the baleful effect upon us of Friedrich Nietzsche and Martin Heidegger! Inasmuch as only a handful of American intellectuals can spell these gentlemen's names, let alone summarize their doctrines, "Bloom's" thesis has a certain manifest implausibility. But, as Bellow well knows, true Straussians spurn the obvious, looking always in silences, ellipses, and guarded allusions for the true filiations that connect one thinker with another, or a philosophical tradition with the cultural and political world.


"Bloom's" expository style, so skillfully manipulated by Bellow, makes it extraordinarily difficult to tell what he is actually saying. Its most striking surface characteristic is an obsessive name- dropping that turns every page into a roll call of the Great Conversation. Consult the book at random (my copy falls open to pages 292-93), and one finds, within a brief compass, mention of Christopher Marlowe, Machiavelli (a Straussian buzzword, this), Bacon, Descartes, Hobbes, Leibniz, Locke, Montesquieu, Voltaire, Jacques Maritain, T.S. Eliot, Rousseau, Newton, Socrates, Moses, Cyrus, Theseus,  Romulus, Swift, and Aristophanes.


But despite the talismanic invocation of these and many other great names, there is precious little real argumentation in "Bloom's" "book." Indeed, despite his academic style of exposition, "Bloom" rarely enunciates a thesis that he is prepared to stand behind. All is irony, allusion, exposition, and under- cutting reserve. Eventually, one realizes that Bellow is deliberately, and with great skill, conjuring for us a portrait of a man of Ideas, if not of ideas, whose endless ruminations on moral and intellectual virtue conceal a fundamental absence of either.


The turning-point in "Bloom's" monologue comes late in the novel, in a chapter entitled "The Sixties." Suddenly, the mist disperses, the allusions evaporate, and we discover what is really eating away at "Bloom's" innards. It seems that, in the course of his distinguished academic career, "Bloom" taught at Cornell University during the late sixties. Two decades later, "Bloom" is so dyspeptic about the events there that he can scarcely contain himself. "Servility, vanity and lack of conviction," "pompous," "a mixture of cowardice and moralism" are among the phrases with which he characterizes his colleagues of that time. For "Bloom," at Cornell, Columbia, and elsewhere, the rebellious students were blood brothers to the Brown Shirts who supported nazism. "Whether it be Nuremberg or Woodstock, the principle is the same."


Stepping back a bit from the fretwork of the novel, we may ask ourselves what Bellow's purpose is in committing an entire book to the exhibition of "Allan Bloom." Clearly, simple good- hearted fun must have played some motivating role, as well, we may suppose, as a desire to set the record right concerning the Committee on Social Thought. But as the final portion of the book makes manifest, Bellow has a deeper aim, one that is intensely earnest and, in the fullest and most ancient sense, moral. The central message of the Greek philosophers whom "Bloom" so likes to cite is that ultimately morality is a matter of character. Plato's brilliantly rendered portraits not only of Socrates but also of Gorgias, Callicles, Thrasymachus, and the others is intended to show us how virtue is grounded in character, and right action in virtue. Merely to know what can be found in books, or indeed on clay tablets, is no guarantee of virtue. As Aristotle remarks in a celebrated ironic aside, one cannot teach ethics to young men who are not well brought up. "Bloom," as Bellow shows us across three hundred tedious pages, is as intimate with the Great Conversation as any Chicago undergraduate could ever hope to become. And yet, at the one critical moment in his life, when he confronts inescapably the intersection between political reality and his beloved Great Books, "Bloom's" vision clouds, his capacity for intellectual sympathy deserts him, and he cries "the Nazis are coming" as he shrinks from America's most authentically democratic moment of recent times.


In the end, Bellow is telling us, the Great Conversation is not enough. One needs compassion, a sense of justice, and moral vision. Without these, the Great Books are merely dead words in dead languages. I strongly recommend The Closing of the American Mind to anyone who desires a fiction of the mind that takes seriously the old question of the role of reason in the formation of virtuous character.





Anonymous said...

This is fantastic. I can only that someday, after diligent practice, I will be able to write something with as much humor and good judgement as this.

David Zimmerman said...

As readers of this blog no doubt know, Saul Bellow did write an actual novel about Allan Bloom called "Ravelstein."

Having lost my taste for Bellow shortly after reading the grotesquely racist scene on the bus in the dyspeptic "Mr Sammler's Planet," I could never bring myself actually to read "Ravelstein," but I did want to get its existence on the record here.

As a work of satire, I bet that it is nowhere near as good as Prof Wolff's rendering of "Saul Bellow's The Closing of the American Mind".... no mean satire in itself.


DDA said...

The AAUP has nothing to do with the Chronicle.

Howie said...

Do you recall how Bellow and Bloom reacted? Or did they in their ignorance ignore you?

L.F. Cooper said...

In a different era than the late 1980s, it is questionable whether a book by a grumpy Straussian would have become a bestseller. One likely reason The Closing of the American Mind did become a bestseller is that it was an intervention in the "culture wars" of the era (for some context, see e.g. Andrew Hartman's A War for the Soul of America).

It's possible that Bloom's book was more bought than read, as is sometimes or often the case with bestsellers. I do distinctly recall, however, seeing a middle-aged guy reading it (years ago) on the beach, of all places. Well, I guess anything can be beach reading if you're in the right mood...

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Thank you DDA. I have revised the post to correct it.

s. wallerstein said...

I bought The Closing of the American Mind, in Spanish, in a remaindered books place.

I expected it to be hard-hitting, contrarian and to elegantly put down those elements of political correctness, which I secretly detest, but I am afraid to admit.

I found it boring and I don't believe I got farther than page 20.

David Zimmerman said...

Muy bueno.

Ridiculousicculus said...

I remember reading this as an undergraduate about 10 years or so ago. I had recently attended a lecture by on Bloom and Kojeve given by Bob Meister, and I couldn't understand how Bloom could be an imaginary person. I remember asking Professor Meister about it at office hours and he was both amused and baffled at the idea that an undergraduate would stumble across such old CHE article.

David said...


GJ said...

Chomsky on Bloom's book (with much less irony):

"It's mind-bogglingly stupid. I read it once in the supermarket while my...I hate to say it, while my wife was shopping I stood there and read the damn thing; it takes about fifteen minutes to read. I mean, 'read'—you know, sort of turn the pages to see if there's anything there that isn't totally stupid. But what that book is basically saying is that education ought to be set up like some sort of variant of the Marine Corps, in which you just march the students through a canon of 'great thoughts' that are picked out for everybody. So some group of people will say, 'Here are the great thoughts, the great thoughts of Western civilization are in this corpus; you guys sit there and learn them, read them and learn them, and be able to repeat them. That’s the kind of model Bloom is calling for. Well, anybody who's ever thought about education or been involved in it, or even gone to school, knows that the effect of that is that students will end up knowing and understanding virtually nothing" (from Understanding Power).

Howie said...

Dear GJ

I think philosophy was a religion for them and they being Jewish the great philosophers were great Rabbis and they wanted wisdom and they wanted answers in life.
If I had to pick sides on the spur of the moment I'd side with Professor Wolff, but there are deep issues involved and if they are a novel maybe not a great American Novel but not a pure satire you might want to understand the POV of Bloom and Bellow-
similar arguments can be made regarding Harold Bloom, the other Bloom and his canon

John Rapko said...

I loved Bellow's novel as much as you did; but I must say that, in calling his character 'Bloom', Bellow made the allusion to Joyce's Ulysses, and then with it the many further ironies, a bit too pat and obvious.

tom llewellyn said...

Loved this review! We should be careful of those who want us to follow Plato and Aristotle on ethical matters. They both thought that only the aristocracy could be virtuous.

Achim Kriechel (A.K.) said...

Shame on you, to make such sneering remarks about the noble, eternal, inimitable "Philosophia Perennis". What would we be without their holy books and the chorus of old white men who, like fixed stars in the sky, guide our little ship through the deep night?

Nick Pappas said...

I remember when this review came out. I was about to join a reading group that was scheduled to discuss Bloom's "Closing." A colleague sent this review around saying (bless their soul) "I feel terrible ... I didn't understand the book at all!" I read the review and enjoyed the hell out of it, thinking: This is the treatment Bloom deserves. God love Chomsky for his comment, also hilarious, but Chomsky is less diagnostic, and (as he can be sometimes) idealistic. I hate to say this, but a lot of people do think that education ought to consist in dogmatic instruction.

Dave Powell said...

Outstanding parody of Voltaire! Great to remind us that the attitude of the French intelligencia in the run up to the Revolution, with their contempt toward the beliefs of the commoners, and that attempts to reconcile those beliefs with the intellectual tradition should be met with disdain, created fertile ground for the totalitarianisms that made the Ancienne Regime seem mild and liberal. Very timely to bring it up now that the Right has fully embraced the hint that dialogue is futile, that the University has no place for them, and that the very idea of republican government is impossible with an establishment that treats them only with contempt. I only wish that Bloom's clarion call had met with as much understanding in the academy as you show in your satire. We might not be faced with a Republican party embracing fascism and rolling toward electoral victory.

L. F. Cooper said...

@ GJ

Insofar as the Chomsky quote is intended to be a criticism/critique not so much of Bloom in particular as of the "great books" approach in general, I doubt that it's a fair representation of the latter. Contrary to what Chomsky suggests, most advocates of putting students through some version or other of a putative canon don't want the students to end up as robots simply regurgitating what they've read.

Samuel Chase said...

David Zimmerman,

In the “grotesquely racist scene on the bus” which you are referring to in Mr. Sammler’s Planet, and throughout the book, Bellow is trying to make a point about the assumption that people who have experienced racism are thereby able to empathize with the oppression of others – that the assumption is not always accurate. Sammler, who is a Holocaust survivor, and therefore one would think could empathize with the persecution of African-Americans, does not. Ethnic groups sometimes focus on the suffering of their own ethnic group, to the exclusion of others, thinking their suffering has been worse. Bellow was not endorsing Sammler’s attitude, but criticizing it. Similar examples occurred during some of the BLM protests in Los Angeles, where some synagogue were defaced with swastikas by people protesting against racism towards Blacks.

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