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Allan Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind is a very strange book. In part an extended reflection on pop culture and in part a critical history of philosophy, it is also in part a personal memoir. Thirty years ago – when, as a favor to Nobel-Prize winner Saul Bellow, Simon and Schuster published his friend’s book – no one, least of all Bloom himself, expected it to attract much attention. But that it did – and more. For it became a phenomenon. In fact, for nearly a year, it was the talk of the land, and it sold like hotcakes. Bloom, who had always lived beyond his means, soon found it almost impossible to do so.
I doubt that a high proportion of those who purchased Bloom’s bestseller managed to get through or even much into its second part. This section of Bloom’s tome – entitled “Nihilism – American Style” – is brilliant, and the writing is quite lively. But to even begin to understand the argument, one must be a Kulturmensch with at least a passing familiarity with writers such as Plato, Aristotle, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Nietzsche, and Heidegger; and those who got bogged down in the early pages of part two are not likely to have gone on to part three: “The University.” It was the book’s first part, entitled “Students,” that electrified the American public.
Philosophy may have been too abstruse a subject for most of those who purchased the book. But nearly all of them had children or grandchildren; and, thanks to the proverbial “generation gap,” their offspring were for them a puzzle and a source of considerable anxiety. The chapters that Bloom devoted to the character of American college students before the late 1960s, to the role that an encounter with classic literary and philosophical works often then played in the intellectual and moral development of the ablest of these, to the impact that rock music came to have on the next generation of students, and to the larger significance of the sexual revolution – these were for older Americans a real eye-opener. For the first time, they had more than an inkling of what they had on their hands.
The book’s early reviews were almost without exception enthusiastic, and overnight its author became a celebrity – so much so that he was summoned to appear on Oprah. Bloom, who was graced (if that is the word) with a superfluity of vanity, reveled in the fame and fortune that the book’s success had conferred on him. Within academe, even among some of those who thought more or less as he did, his achievement stirred envy. In America – as opposed to, say, France – no professor of political philosophy had ever been so bathed in adulation.
Soon, however, there was a counter-blast as the literary left in the academy stepped in aggressively to make sure that all right-thinking people understood that Bloom’s critique of rock music and the sexual revolution was reactionary and that the same (or worse) could be said concerning his defense of the notion that a modicum of wisdom might be attained through the careful reading of old books. Some even intimated that his analysis was monstrous and that to look to past thinking in search of moral and political guidance was to court sexism, racism, and inequality. Had they looked in the mirror, the most vociferous of his critics might have recognized that their conduct served only to reinforce his larger claim, suggesting that, at least within the academy, a rigid, anti-intellectual orthodoxy was setting in and that American minds really were to an ever increasing degree closed.
There were other, less scholarly sorts who reacted instinctively against what Bloom had to say. In the years immediately following the book’s appearance, I ran a seminar program for freshmen at a small university in the Southwest. For a time, figuring that the book would engage these entering students and stir discussion, I had all those teaching in the program start off the fall semester by assigning to the incoming freshman the first part of Bloom’s book. These chapters had on our students an effect no less electrifying than they had had on their parents and grandparents. These youngsters had grown up on rock music. We were in Oklahoma where the sexual revolution had not yet fully penetrated the high schools, but for these students it beckoned, and now that they were in college many of them were eager to harvest its fruits. Almost to a man my male students hated the book. The attack on rock music threatened something dear to their hearts. The young women did not chime in. They fell silent. They were not prepared to defend Bloom against the furious onslaught launched by their male colleagues, but they seemed to sense that rock and roll was a threat to their well-being, and they were less quick to think the sexual revolution a liberation.
My guess is that, if someone were to resurrect the book (which remains in print) and use it now as I did then, today’s male freshmen would respond in a similar fashion. Among the young women, I suspect, the most vocal would be those who found Bloom’s discussion of relationships an offense. For, while he emphatically denies that there is any great literature that countenances racial prejudice, he suggests – correctly, in my opinion – that almost every great literary work articulates an argument concerning the sexual differentiation of humankind that “progressive” young women would find offensive. We have not yet reached the time when works like Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, and Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina are consigned to a book-burning in the quad. But, to judge by events that have taken place on our campuses over the last two years, that time will come. On the part of professors who teach history, literature, theater, film studies, philosophy, sociology, and political science, self-censorship is already the norm.
On this subject, there is great more to be said — and, with that in mind, a number of scholars (myself included), spurred on by my colleague Nathan Schlueter, have addressed Bloom’s book in a retrospective symposium just posted on the website Public Discourse. If this subject interest you, you should start with Professor Schlueter’s introduction and then read the posts by Peter Augustine Lawler, Michael Platt, and myself — which deal, respectively, with Parts One, Two, and Three of Bloom’s book. My own contribution regarding “The University” is as much a memoir as an analysis. I was in a seminar on Plato’s Republic that Bloom taught at Cornell University in 1968-69 — the year that the armed building seizure that looms large in Bloom’s book took place.
It is, however, Professor Lawler’s contribution that deserves particular attention. It is the last of the many fine things which that gentleman wrote in the course of his career. He died earlier this week at the age of 65.