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Intellectual seriousness, intellectual passion – they make strange bedfellows. Eve Sedgwick, the mother of queer theory, would seem as frigidly distant as it’s possible to be from the author of The Closing of the American Mind; but she was in fact Allan Bloom’s fervent undergraduate student at Cornell in the late ‘sixties, and she pays an odd homage to his passion and seriousness in her best-known book, The Epistemology of the Closet.

In particular, Sedgwick found inspiring, and based her own academic career upon, the open vulnerability Bloom displayed inside and outside the classroom. She believed in “revealing oneself, however esoterically.” She argued that interpretation means, among other things, “undergoing the perverse danger of setting in motion all the contradictory forces” of a subjectivity.

Saul Bellow saw this brew of paradox, this all too human oddness (the word “odd” recurs constantly in Ravelstein, and is indeed the novel’s first word) and he made Bloom the final member of his long series of flamboyantly human intellectual heroes, actual and fictive: Isaac Rosenfeld, Victor Wulpy, Delmore Schwartz, Moses Herzog. As James Wood writes, “while Bellow insists on our free agency as intelligences and souls, he gestures at the same time toward the physical imprisonment of our bodies.”

Delmore Schwartz inspired Bellow’s Von Humboldt Fleisher, a character who all his life, Bellow writes in that novel, “struggles with the heavy weight of selfhood.” Schwartz’s poem, The Heavy Bear Who Goes With Me, describes the poet’s ridiculous physicality, always at odds with his aesthetic and intellectual spirit. Here are some lines from that poem:

Crazy factotum, dishevelling all,
… Trembles and shows the darkness beneath.

… Trembles to think that his quivering meat
Must finally wince to nothing at all.
… A stupid clown of the spirit’s motive,
Perplexes and affronts with his own darkness,
The secret life of belly and bone …

Bloom’s muscular, visceral prose – and I will be arguing that the initial best-sellerdom and continued cultural importance of Closing derives more from its powerful style, its riveting mode of address, than anything else – that prose manages to haul this beast of heavy self and unwieldy body into the world of abstractions. Indeed, far from wrestling it out of his writing, Bloom – like other first-rate essayists – George Orwell, Christopher Hitchens, Gore Vidal – lets his darkness-visible trembling do its thing, lets the power of his full humanity out on the page.

Bloom’s prose, I think, excited readers with an odd, tentative, achieved, balance, a balance whose suffering into being (I’m taking this last phrase from William Arrowsmith) we can actually see, or if you prefer, intuit, inside his sentences. In Giants and Dwarfs, Bloom wrote that in reading any polemical book, “the most important experience is … the recognition of seriousness.” Readers instantly recognized that Bloom was serious, that he wrote from a personally-evolved, humanly vulnerable, depth and conviction. The author of a book about Isaac Rosenfeld writes that he wanted to “say something essential about one singularly self-aware life spent in intimacy with books.” That is what The Closing of the American Mind does.

Here’s the full quotation from Arrowsmith, keeping in mind that the ultimate point of Bloom’s book was a defense of the humanities:

[The] enabling principle [of the humanities is] the principle of personal influence and personal example. [Professors should be] visible embodiments of the realized humanity of our aspirations, intelligence, skill, scholarship… [The] humanities are largely Dionysiac or Titanic; they cannot be wholly grasped by the intellect; they must be suffered, felt, seen. This inexpressible turmoil of our animal emotional life is an experience of other chaos matched by our own chaos. We see the form and order not as pure and abstract but as something emerged from chaos, something which has suffered into being. The humanities are always caught up in the actual chaos of living, and they also emerge from that chaos. If they touch us at all, they touch us totally, for they speak to what we are too.

In his preface to Closing, Bellow calls Herzog a comic novel which follows an intellectual trying to “make sense of life” and becoming “clearly aware of the preposterousness of such an effort.” Yet if he meant the novel “to show how little strength ‘higher education’ had to offer a troubled man,” he also wrote it to affirm within Moses Herzog “some primal point of balance… an open channel to the soul,” an independent consciousness “immune to the noise of history and the distractions of our immediate surroundings.” The soul, Bellow goes on to say, is importantly and everlastingly up against bad ideas, which seek to kill it.

And here is the entryway into the university, for this location, with its persistent, undistracted inquiry into basic questions, allowed him to shed “superfluities so that my mental body could recover its ability to breathe… protecting the root simplicities of being.” It is from this point in his preface that Bellow ushers us into Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind.

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When I talk about Bloom’s distinctive, lucid, and exciting prose – the sort of prose that might generate a best-seller – I have in mind passages like this one:

The third island of the university is the almost submerged old Atlantis, the humanities. In it there is no semblance of order, no serious account of what should and should not belong, or of what its disciplines are trying to accomplish or how. It is somehow the repair of man or of humanity, the place to go to find ourselves now that everyone else has given up. But where to look in this heap or jumble? It is difficult enough for those who already know what to look for to get any satisfaction here. For students it requires a powerful instinct and a lot of luck. The analogies tumble uncontrollably from my pen. The humanities are like the great old Paris Flea Market where, amidst masses of junk, people with a good eye found castaway treasures that made them rich. Or they are like a refugee camp where all the geniuses driven out of their jobs and countries by unfriendly regimes are idling, either unemployed or performing menial tasks. The other two divisions of the university have no use for the past, are forwardlooking and not inclined toward ancestor worship.

Before I talk about why this is great prose, look at another, much more recent academic writer attempting to say exactly the same thing Bloom is saying. This is from Andrew Delbanco’s just-released book, College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be (A version of the following remarks about Delbanco’s and Bloom’s prose has already appeared in a review of Delbanco’s book I wrote for Inside Higher Education):

Over the past half century or so, this expansion of freedom has been the most obvious change in college life – not just sexual freedom, but what might be called freedom of demeanor and deportment, freedom of choice as fields and courses have vastly multiplied, and, perhaps most important, freedom of judgment as the role of the college as arbiter of values has all but disappeared. Relatively few colleges require any particular course for graduation, and the course catalogue is likely to be somewhere between an encyclopedia and the proverbial Chinese menu – from which students choose a little of this and a little of that, unless they are majoring in one of the “hard” sciences, in which case their range of choice is much narrower.

Notice how, just on the level of style, Delbanco’s writing is markedly weak. And it’s weak because Delbanco isn’t serious; his heart’s not in it. He hasn’t been there while formulating this point of view, and his bland evasive language reflects his disengagement. It also conveys the fact that his focus is on what his audience might think of what he’s saying rather than on the content of his beliefs. He lacks the intellectual autonomy Bloom highlights as a supreme value in Closing. Let me be more precise.

Instead of staying with his main point about the humanities until the end of his paragraph, Delbanco tacks on an afterthought about the sciences: “unless they are majoring in one of the ‘hard’ sciences, in which case their range of choice is much narrower.” This vague meander weakens his point about the humanities; but we might also ask why he puts the word “hard” in quotation marks. I think the answer must be that on the off chance one reader out there thinks the humanities are hard and the sciences soft, Delbanco doesn’t want to stir anything up.

The Chinese menu (a reference instantly made hokey by the word proverbial) is a dull, overused image. And note the many wimpy qualifiers throughout this short paragraph: or so, might be called, perhaps, all but, relatively, likely to be. This is not argumentation; it’s dithering.

Bloom’s is a famous passage, and rightly so. It has straightforwardness, humor, a relaxed, modern, American idiom, and spectacular images (the Paris Flea Market, the refugee camp) which aren’t just plopped down there like chop suey but get elaborated, extended, so that the point can be vividly and precisely made.

Bloom knows what all good writers know: End on your strongest word. He does that in every sentence in this paragraph. There’s assonance everywhere here (third/university/submerged), which delights the inner ear, gives the sentence rhythm, and in its verbal playfulness enacts one of the delights of reading lots of books and encountering lots of kinds of language.

There is exact rhyme: jumble and tumble.

A word like “repair” (the repair of man or of humanity) has a delicacy and a hint of obsolescence to it that prepares us for the flea market.

Even the sly use of “or” in this passage ironically enacts the vague maybe this/a little of that of the humanities curriculum. Great poets like Wallace Stevens know that a poem made up of “or” phrases beautifully conveys a sort of languid confusion, a gentle intellectual disarray; a landscape of mental possibilities among which one has trouble choosing:

We live in an old chaos of the sun,
Or old dependency of day and night,
Or island solitude, unsponsored, free,
Of that wide water, inescapable.

The humanities in America are a flea market. Or a refugee camp. Or a repair shop…

Bloom’s strong, original, stylish prose represents the successful infusion of his liberally educated sensibility into every phrase of his writing. His book becomes an exemplar – beyond any overt instances of argumentation within it – of the playful, and at the same time deadly serious voice of an inspiringly educated person.

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But what of those arguments? I’m not of course suggesting that Bloom’s book’s success – and, I believe, its likely endurance as an important culture document – is all about style and not at all about content. I would note, however, that plenty of books similar to Bloom’s in significant ways – Philip Rieff’s Fellow Teachers, George Steiner’s Death of Tragedy – have gone mostly unread — in part, it seems to me, because of their impossible prose styles. And on the other hand, Christopher Lasch’s Culture of Narcissism, written with the same powerful lucid straightforwardness as Closing, was also a best-seller. All of the books I’ve mentioned have a strong anti-modern streak, a fundamental complaint about the flatness and superficiality and materialism of American culture, and a complaint that Americans substitute psychotherapy and solutions-seeking for ongoing spiritual struggle. These days our culture critics’ books complain not about psychotherapy but about dependence upon pills, but the same essential critique abides. It preceded Bloom’s Closing, and it will continue to appear.

What I’ve been suggesting is that Bloom’s book took off not because he railed against rock music and relativism; but because he modeled in his prose a powerfully attractive alternative to those things. Bloom’s book’s contribution is not primarily on the level of political theory – abstractions about how best to live a communal life. Its contribution lies in its modeling, through the intensity, originality, seriousness, and playfulness of its prose, an alluringly achieved self.

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7 Responses to “UD’s Remarks at the Harvard Conference on The Closing of the American Mind 25 Years Later.”

  1. Jonathan Dresner Says:

    I admit that I haven’t read Bloom, but my first impression of that excerpt is not the powerful style, but the tendentious wrongness of the assertions in the service of no apparent argument. In this regard, Delbanco may be less exciting, but also more likely to have his point read and understood by people who are not already converts, instead of abandoned with disgust.

    In other words, I think you were right the first time: it’s all about the style.

  2. Margaret Soltan Says:

    Jonathan: Where are the mistakes in Bloom’s assertions in this paragraph?

    As to his work being abandoned and Delbanco’s not: Bloom’s the one who sold a million copies. Delbanco – not so much.

  3. Rita Says:

    This was such a great talk! I was surprised and pleased that several of the panelists honed in on the university as a place where the allure and pull of individual professors and scholars draws students in. Even Keohane came up with a version of this when she mentioned the charisma of the humanities.

  4. Margaret Soltan Says:

    Rita: Thanks so much! Your talk was also hot stuff, and I believe more of your laugh lines landed.

  5. Caelius Spinator Says:

    “I think the answer must be that on the off chance one reader out there thinks the humanities are hard and the sciences soft, Delbanco doesn’t want to stir anything up.”

    I think you’ve made an error here. Delbanco uses “hard sciences” to refer to the natural sciences and mathematics as opposed to more humane sciences such as anthropology or economics. I think you interpret the signification of usage correctly. This is yet another example of his usage dodging controversy.

    At the University of Chicago, my “hard science” friends used to refer to folks like you and Rita not as soft but as “fuzzies.”

  6. Jack/OH Says:

    Never read Bloom. I read the title to mean an Olympian tilling the fields of cultural pessimism. Well, I thought, I don’t need much persuading. I already felt crappy enough at the time “Closing” was published, and a decade later thought vaguely of emigrating from the States for personal reasons (i. e., career) and to escape the godawful political garbage here. Maybe I missed something by not reading him.

  7. University Diaries » At the Harvard conference UD recently … Says:

    […] attended, and among university observers generally, there’s a good deal of comment about the American […]

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