Ambassador for the Past: Allan Bloom and His Book, 25 Years Later
by Robert Fulford

(Queen's Quarterly, Fall, 2012)

Whenever it enters my mind, as it often does, the name of Allan Bloom evokes, first of all, a memory of laughter. He liked to laugh, and he enjoyed laughing at himself as much as at his intellectual enemies. There was one occasion I particularly cherish, a few hours we spent together in a hotel room in Chicago a quarter of a century ago. With the Identities crew from TVOntario I was there to interview him for the third or fourth time. The experience of working with him was always enriching, because he had so much to say and said it with articulate, good-humoured passion. On this particular day there was something exciting and new to talk about: his life and his reputation were radically changing.

He had written an ambitious and audacious book, The Closing of the American Mind, dealing with the place of the humanities, and especially philosophy, in American universities (it was recently reissued in a 25th anniversary edition). Unfortunately it was saddled with a clunky subtitle, How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today's Students, but for some reason that did nothing to inhibit its sales.

Given the theme, Simon & Schuster started with modest expectations when they published it in February 1987. They brought out a first edition of 10,000 copies and probably would have been happy enough if they had sold just that many. But in the spring they were shocked to see sales reaching 25,000 a week.

Partly by accident, Bloom had hit on a subject many Americans, and educated people elsewhere, were worrying about: the purpose, or lack of it, in university education. Soon his book was a publishing phenomenon, on the way to selling a million copies in its various editions, more than any other book of its time by a philosopher. When this process began he was known only within the universities, and even among academics was not particularly celebrated beyond small clusters of students and colleagues. To his surprise the book would make him rich and famous and an enemy of those whose ideas he passionately opposed. It opened a new period in his life -- a sadly brief period since he would die from an AIDS-related illness within five years.

That morning in Chicago he entered laughing. As soon as we said hello he began telling us that the New York Times had an 800 number that writers could call to determine their book's place among the bestsellers ten days before the list became generally public. He explained, in a tone that did not want to be believed, that he was of course above such grubby concerns, but someone at the publishing house had called on his behalf and learned he was in fact moving two notches up the list the following week.

Money was pouring in. It was like a folk tale or a newspaper feature on a lottery winner. To Bloom it sounded like a joke: "Man renounces all worldly desires, devotes himself to philosophy, gets rich." Later he had another line, "I'm in political philosophy because that's where the big bucks are." I've never seen anyone enjoy success so much, or anyone so amused by the spectacle of his own reactions to it. In the eyes of a philosopher, success was meaningless. In the eyes of a human being it was at once both satisfying and ridiculous.

I never knew him well, but in our several meetings I came to understand why so many of his students loved him, competed for his attention and called him, decades later, the great teacher of their lives -- sometimes, in fact, the great event of their lives or even the great event of their era.

When he made a point his dark eyes flashed; his hands gestured like errant wings, and his words expressed urgency without ever slipping into bombast.

He always had a coterie of followers, people who studied with him and followed him from lecture to lecture, then sometimes drank coffee with him later. It was clear to me that they felt more alive in his presence than otherwise. It was as if every moment in his life carried vital importance or serious enjoyment.

This intensity somehow flowed toward everyone who spent time around him. There were many people who weren't sure what he did, or why he did it, but felt nevertheless that they were in the presence of someone significant. Bloom wanted to be loved and respected. Thinking back after he was gone, I began to guess that in some sense his manner must have been self-consciously cultivated. He must have worked on it, the way a writer will work on style until he finds the tone that is uniquely his own. Nothing so fine as Bloom's way of speaking comes into existence by accident. He once expressed his view of his own style through his favourite composer. He told a friend that he wanted to be like one of the solo voices in Mozart's French horn concertos: bluff, gruff, forthright, faintly comic, yet capable of beguiling sonorities.

A friend of mine, who studied with him as an undergraduate during his years at the University of Toronto in the 1970s, remembers being surprised when she first heard someone say his book had made him famous. "I always thought he was famous," she says. "He had the manner of someone famous." He was, among other things, probably the best-dressed philosophy professor in North America. He seemed always to have a Cuban cigar. And of course everyone listened when he spoke, as they will do when someone is famous.

Clifford Orwin of the University of Toronto studied with Bloom at Cornell in the 1960s; they were colleagues at Toronto in the 1970s. In 1993 Orwin wrote a memoir of Bloom for The American Scholar and included this beautiful tribute:

He had the gift of making us feel that study was something exalted, one of the rarest human privileges, for the opportunity of which we should never cease to be thankful.... Through knowing him it suddenly became credible that a life devoted to studying a couple of dozen mostly old books was one of surpassing nobility and joyfulness; in him we actually saw this life before us, and, however fleetingly, joined in it.

Many admiring reviews greeted The Closing of the American Mind, but in time the negative reviews grew more numerous and far more emphatic. In the eyes of many people in his profession, Bloom had done something terrible. Reviewers saw him as an authoritarian menace. David Rieff called him "vengeful, reactionary, anti-democratic," the author of a book that "decent people would be ashamed of having written." Martha Nussbaum in the New York Review of Books gave a ruling as if from on high: Bloom could not even be called a philosopher, much less a good one. Many agreed that he was an elitist, and this was itself a bad thing to be. Louis Menand, in his review for the New Republic, gave one possible reason for the book's success: "It gratifies our wish to think ill of our culture (a wish that is a permanent feature of modernity) without thinking ill of ourselves."

Early in 1988 I was working at University College in the University of Toronto. A philosophy professor, whom I'd never seen before, approached me one day to ask why in the world I would interview "a man like" Allan Bloom on television. I said I had found his book enlightening and asked if he didn't think there was something to be said for it. He replied that he hadn't read it but knew it was bad. It turned out that he hadn't seen the TV interview, either. He preferred instead to be guided by what was in the air. Another philosophy professor told me Bloom was a fascist; apparently he had proven this by criticizing feminism.

There was worse to come. On September 25, 1988, the New York Times reported on a humanities conference, jointly held by Duke University and the University of North Carolina, at which Bloom's work had been enthusiastically derided and laughed at by speaker after speaker. Richard Bernstein, the reporter, wrote that the scene recalled the daily "Two Minutes Hate" in George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, when citizens rose together to hurl invective at the Great Enemy of the state. Bloom's real sin, it developed, was his lack of enthusiasm for egalitarian liberalism as it affected the life of the university. A student of Leo Strauss, he had absorbed the belief that philosophers naturally view political systems with suspicion. Now he saw the American ethos of the late twentieth century swamping the standard university curriculum and depriving students of the life-enhancing wisdom that he, and many generations before him, had taken for granted. Like everyone else, he could see that with each day the place of the humanities in the universities grew slightly less significant. Just as the humanities had taken over much of the space given to religion in earlier versions of the university, they were being forced to surrender their own position to several competitors, all of them steadily increasing in power and prestige: the sciences, the professions, the social sciences, and the business schools.

Bloom, naturally, found this disquieting. But his feelings were mixed. He realized that part of the trouble was self-inflicted. The study of literature had fallen under the sway of politicized theory that made it worse than useless to most students. And philosophy had given itself over to a relativism that undermined the search for truth, philosophy's central function. He wasn't at all sure that the humanities, as they existed in the last few decades of his life, deserved a vigorous defence.

The word "closing" in his title expressed his view that education was now delivering the opposite of what it promised. Universities had dedicated themselves "to the new educational dawn called openness, a dawn whose rosy fingers are currently wrapped tightly around the throat of the curriculum in most universities." This openness was in fact a mindless relativism: "Openness used to be the virtue that permitted us to seek the good by using reason. It now means accepting everything and denying reason's power." A "nonelitist" curriculum in the humanities meant that the classic texts were to be studied as expressions of "the unconscious class, gender or race prejudices of their authors." The humanities could now liberate us from the prejudices of people such as Shakespeare and Milton. Humanists, rather than learning from the old books, would dedicate themselves to battling against Eurocentrism. Students would be taught to unlearn the value of these books before they learned what the books could teach.

My title is a quote from Orwin's article; he saw that Bloom, as an ambassador for the past, made a point of introducing his students to history, including recent history. In talking to Bloom I gathered that he wanted most of all to teach students how they could intellectually free themselves from the tyranny of the present. He wanted them to know they didn't have to think the way everyone around them was thinking. The young can easily become provincial in regard to time; they believe the moment they inhabit is the most important one -- in the 1960s they often sensed that it was somehow endowed with more wisdom than any earlier time. He wanted students to be comfortable also in the older world, the one he inhabited, where Plato and Rousseau talked to each other as Michelangelo looked on. He saw university closing off this possibility, in the name of egalitarianism.

Accused of Eurocentrism and a perverse regard for the works of dead white men, Bloom quoted what W.E.B. DuBois said in 1903 in his book, The Souls of Black Folk:

I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not. Across the color line I move arm in arm with Balzac and Dumas.... From out of the caves of evening that swing between the strong-limbed earth and the tracery of the stars, I summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what soul I will, and they come all graciously with no scorn or condescension.

It was Saul Bellow (also foolishly accused, from time to time, of elitism) who listened to his friend Bloom talk for many years and then urged him to write The Closing of the American Mind, for which Bellow then provided an enthusiastic foreword. And in 2000, eight years after Bloom's death, it was Bellow who built a suitable monument to him by recreating him as Abe Ravelstein and placing him at the centre of Ravelstein, his last work of fiction.

That book not only sets down a great writer's account of Bloom in everything from his conversation to his clothes and the shape of his head ("that bald, cranial watchtower") but also places him perfectly in the midst of a now distant moment in intellectual history, the moment that led directly to our own. Perhaps that's what seems most important to me about Bloom's book today. He didn't live to see the unfolding of the full craziness of political correctness, but he saw it coming and understood its causes and the harm it could do to us. And his readers were at least prepared to understand it when it arrived and poisoned the air of freedom.

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