The Closing of the American Mind, by Allan Bloom. (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987)
Here is a book which compels the question whether we should be glad of its existence. My answer is that we should be thrice glad, glad once that it was written, and glad that, having been produced, it found such favor with the public. The bulk of this review will address itself to the reservations which prompt the question in the first instance. Of the two reasons for rejoicing in its success—it is at the date of this writing in first place on the best-seller list—one is somewhat sly and the other quite straightforward. First, Mr. Bloom’s book is the jeremiad of liberal education; but a Jeremiah eagerly heard, a prophet honored in his own land, is a prophet more than half refuted. As for the plain pleasure, it is simply that the book will do some concrete good.
Some good, evidenced in small incremental improvements: the ear of a foundation here, a modest program there. Mr. Bloom himself has no illusions about a great systemic reprise of liberal education.(380) An indication of the practical impossibility that the requisite cohesion should ever come back, is in the concurrent success of E. D. Hirsch’s book, Cultural Literacy, in which is advocated a return to what used to be called “general information” (now defined descriptively as acquaintance with a list of some 3800 terms), while the one solution Mr. Bloom finally offers—to be sure, with many cautionary contortions namely the reading of Great Books (344), is disavowed in Hirsch’s preface. In truth, the thought of our whole vast establishment suddenly converted to liberal learning is somehow appalling, like the image of a continent-sized wheel of fine, ripe cheese. The factor of scale seems to me serious and of the essence. Communities of liberal learning require small size and spontaneous beginnings; the unanimity which ensouls and maintains them becomes oppressive and mechanical when hugely magnified and centrally mandated.
In fact, it is strange to me that Mr. Bloom fixed on the universities as the possible loci for the learning whose loss he mourns, when surely our three thousand or so small colleges are its more likely home. The glory of the modern university has properly been not in contemplative reflection and aporetic conversation but in cumulative research and brilliant breakthroughs. And I will pit my experience in a score of more or less obscure little schools against his among a thousand university students: In these places student souls are still capable of grand longings, books are read with receptive naiveté, and religion is not debased to the frisson of ”the sacred.” Small places are our internal educational frontier, and the spirit lives in the sticks.
With respect to the effective influence the book might exert (as opposed to the passing waves it superimposes on the roiled ocean of opinion), there is something to be regretted in Mr. Bloom’s policy of presenting himself as a voice crying in a wilderness; for in fact the wilderness has quite a few cultivated clearings. He speaks namelessly of his teachers and not at all of the institutional foci of resistance to the rot he exposes. His likely motives are most reasonable: not to be set aside because of sectarian associations, and, by suppressing the names of his allies and predecessors, to win the right of keeping the targets of his contempt anonymous. Consequently, this irate tract manages to preserve a certain American civility. Nonetheless, the price is that general readers will have to discover for themselves the addresses of the contemporary sources and places where effective resistance is carried on, such as St. John’s College itself.*
One word more on the reception of the book. Quite a few people are obscurely enraged by it and express that aversion—just as Mr. Bloom indeed predicts—by means of certain schematic terms, such as racism, elitism, and nostalgia-mongering, that are currently used to impute as sin unpopular though perfectly defensible opinions. It should not be considered a sin for Mr. Bloom to observe regretfully the more than occasional self-segregation of black students in the universities.
Again, if one really wished to show him wrong, one would not angrily call him an elitist—silly term—but, by refraining, prove that democracies can indeed contain even their contraries. On “Firing Line” in May of this year, Mr. Bloom respectfully, but skeptically, characterized the views of Midge Decter (who is, incidentally, one of his predecessors in worrying about America’s young) as “serious populism.” For my part, I subscribe to this sort of populism, which precisely disavows the entity called “the People” because of the conviction that people one by one have in them, besides sound sense, the roots of reflection; thus they occupy places in a continuum with the deepest philosophers and are capable of participating to some degree in a common liberal education.
This proposition is what Mr. Bloom evidently disbelieves. He thinks that philosophy, the highest pursuit, is not for everybody. I think he is wrong, democratic or undemocratic aside. (I do not want to concede either to him or to his opponents that his own opinions are truly any more incompatible with strong democratic sentiments than many other things one needs to believe along with one’s civic creed. There is an argument which in its amplitude would have brought even Mr. Bloom into the democratic fold had he cared to use it: pluralism.)
To begin with, his view of aristocracy has a stylized, unreal air. He seems to think that the honor-seeking aristocratic type, the magnanimous lover of the beautiful and the useless, is dominant in real-life aristocracies, just as he must think the vain, sycophantic, utilitarian, democratic type is pervasive in democracies. (250) From what I read and hear, “the beautiful” for aristocrats has usually meant—and still means—mostly horseflesh, and if Mr. Bloom were not first run through by his aristocrat’s sword for impugning his stud as useless, he would soon find himself dying of boredom from the nobleman’s conversation. To be sure, Squire Western is more lovable than the aesthetic snob Mr. Bloom unwittingly delineates. These aristocrats, who, Mr. Bloom himself is careful to state, are far from being philosophers, are said by him to be likely to admire philosophers for their uselessness. (250) To my knowledge they used to require them to work for their places at the bottom of the table as pedagogues and secretaries. But the main point is that a careless opposition has confused the issue here. The non-utilitarian is not the useless but it is that which is beyond both the useful and the useless, and in particular it is what makes all usefulness possible. Talk of the uselessness of philosophy obscures its universal needfulness.
As for the actual citizens of a democracy, Mr. Bloom writes as though in this country no businessman had ever written sophisticated yet beautiful poetry or had ever composed advanced yet lovingly American music, no backwoodsman had ever achieved incomparable yet popular grandeur, no sailor had ever told an enormous moral myth which was also an account of the whaling industry. Mr. Bloom draws from his anti-populist views one simple rule for the university: It should not concern itself with providing its students with the democratic experiences they cannot escape in democratic society, but it must provide those they cannot have there.(256) It should be a safe-house for aristocracy. This injunction seems to politicize and turn into paradox a true pedagogical precept; namely, that colleges and universities should provide no “life experiences” at all but should attend to book-learning and the other theoretical pursuits which are their proper business. Whatever is done in an American school cannot help but come out as a democratic experience, not least the free and direct discussion of Great Books. For it involves the democratic presumption that a cat may look at a king. Europeans tend to find this typically American and somewhat comical.
I have heard the charge of nostalgia-mongering with respect to what seems to me Mr. Bloom’s very restrained rehabilitation of the fifties. To be sure, I don’t quite believe his claim that these were the great days of the American universities. As I recall it, they were the very years when professors anticipated Mr. Bloom in bemoaning the apathy and lack of public commitment on the part of their students, the years whose prosperous philistinism retarded my Americanization by a decade. But his praise of the fifties is in any case only the prelude to the damning of the sixties, the anathema of the book, which Mr. Bloom hates with verve enough to energize every chapter. This autobiographical impulse is patent to everyone. Not that one would blame him. What happened at Cornell, what the faculty seems to have permitted itself by way of moral indeterminacy, might well inflict a trauma never to be forgotten. The only saving grace of the episode, which so blessedly distinguishes it from the case of the German universities under the Nazis, is that the people of this democracy never made common cause with the professors.
This is the moment to say a word about Mr. Bloom’s writing. As The Closing is, of necessity, something of a magpie book intellectually, so in style it has a sort of mongrel eloquence: literately turned phrases suddenly develop colloquial cadences, the prose is inspissated with metaphor, and the exposition is torrential. It aroused in me a sense of sympathetic recognition. This is a style formed under the pressure of the most pervasive sort of anxiety there is. For most human misfortunes, from physical pain to miscarried love, there is local relief and the prospect of recovery, but the fear for the spirit of one’s country is an incessant taint upon the enjoyment of life. Mr. Bloom’s country is the America of the Universities, and the anxious patriotism which steals the serenity from his style does his sentiments honor.
To pass from the circumstantial to the substantive: Is this a good book?
People regularly refer to it as brilliant. So it is, but brilliance belongs to the demi-monde of intellectual virtues. It would be silly to regret the flamboyance which is winning it its audience; at the same time, it would be wrong not to register, for the record, certain substantial doubts.
Let me begin this way: I would not recommend the book to students, not because it will offend their sensibilities—it can do them nothing but good to be forced to defend themselves articulately—but because it is a book not only of generational pulse-taking but also of intellectual history. I would not wish our students to get their intellectual history from this book (I shall shortly argue that it is a little too coarse-grained even of its kind)—or indeed from any book. To my mind, the notion that the intellect might have a history, that thought might develop a direction over the generations, should come to students as a late and suspect insight, long after each individual work of thought has been given its a-historical due.
The Closing of the American Mind is, I am implying, a historicist enterprise or, more fairly, next cousin to it. Since historicism, the notion that the temporal place of a text determines its significance more than does the author’s conscious intention and that history through its movements is a real agent, is Mr. Bloom’s bête noir, this is no small charge. But there is no getting around the fact that the book continually places and positions great names evaluatively from the outside in—of internal philosophical substance it contains very little. Similarly it persistently sums the spirit of the times and seeks its genealogy in intellectual movements. For example, he says that the university as we know it is the product of the Enlightenment (250), a typical historicist summation in which the tree vanishes into the forest. Indeed, some of his judgments are simply distance effects (as are most historicist conclusions), which dissolve under a close inspection. A crucial example is the claim that nowadays “all the students are egalitarian meritocrats.”(90) If that were true, and a group held a belief without exception, one would indeed be driven, willy-nilly to the thought of a domination by a supra-individual spirit, that is, a congenital psychic infection by history. In fact, it is probably false. In my experience there are always some students who are acutely if reticently proud of the advantages accruing from the right sex, religion, and social status, while those who do believe that “each individual should be allowed to develop his special and unequal talents” without reference to those factors might, I put it to Mr. Bloom, not just generationally believe it but also individually think it; it is certainly what I think.
The title itself is revealing. It is, to be sure, not Mr. Bloom’s choice. He wanted the euphonious and accurate title “Souls Without Longing” (the French title is “L ‘Ame desannee”). But he condoned “The Closing of the American Mind.” The “Closing” part is fine: one of the most convincing chapters is the early one in which he shows how openness corrupted, which becomes the lazily tolerant path of least resistance, forecloses passionate doubting, and how the springboard of learning is vigorous prejudice. But “the American Mind” is debased Hegelianism, and a scandal. Americans do, happily, still have certain areas of consensus; nonetheless, they have more than one mind among them.
It is utterly clear to me that Mr. Bloom does not mean what his words say, but it is odd that he is willing himself to supply the example of that soul-slackening disconnection of thought from utterance that he so spiritedly attacks. In fact this permissiveness exacts its price at the end, when he makes the judgment without which the book would be pointless: “Philosophy is still possible” (307), even, presumably, in America. His philosophy of history (and the project of the book really requires one) is simply too diffuse to support this optimism after all the gloom: he has obscured the only basis upon which the possible can, according to Aristotle, ever become actual, namely prior actuality. In short, “still” is the stumbling block here.
Perhaps what is missing rather than a philosophy of intellectual history is its antithesis, a theory of opinion-holding, particularly an explanation of how and with what effect people say non-thoughts and become attached to terms of low thought-content. I hold to the axiom, which must seem culpably cheerful to Mr. Bloom, that shallow opinions are mostly shallowly rooted. Therefore I cannot share his passionate sadness at the deficient eras, the spiritual detumescence (136), of the American student soul. Though somewhat masked by the gormless language of the “sensitive, caring and non-possessive relationship,” lustful, hurtful, exclusive love goes gloriously on.
But whether it does or no, there is something not quite consistent in this mourning over the de-compression of the soul. Mr. Bloom describes with wicked verve the fatal invasion of the limpid American mind by the dark knowledge of the German refugees. He must know what a crucial role adolescent intensity played in shaping both these Europeans and their persecutors. I think that when Americans trivialize the continental depth (157) they so eagerly absorb, they are often very sensibly—and not altogether unwittingly—counteracting their own intellectual prurience. And so, when the young cluelessly acclimatize Heideggerian Gelassenheit as “staying loose” (or so Mr. Bloom pretends to believe), it may not be such a tragedy: at least from staying loose there is a possible road to reason.
My doubts so far have really concerned the nature of generalization as practiced in this book, but my final set of complaints concerns its quality. The text seems to be stuffed with truth that is not the whole truth and not nothing but the truth. Of course it is very hard to hit all the small nails squarely on the head with so large a mallet, yet there are fine and there are coarse ways of epitomizing spheres of thought and trends of opinion. Mr. Bloom’s often anonymous and torrential mode of presentation makes it hard to tell whether the trouble is with his accuracy or his perspective. Moreover, he sometimes seems to present an anonymous modern opinion as though it had but to come in contact with the air to self-destruct, while his great moderns, Rousseau and Nietzsche, seem somehow to merit awed admiration for setting us on the road we are condemned for following. Mr. Bloom’s relation especially to Rousseau is the mystery of mysteries to me. One of the excellences of his exposition is the continual pointing to Rousseau not just as the uncannily accurate analyst, but as the brilliantly effective originator of the corruption-prone side of modernity. (The book neglects to its detriment the complementary side, the reverence-producing splendor of modern science and mathematics). But then why is Mr. Bloom not on record as being at least as repelled as he is fascinated by this “inverse Socrates?”(298)
For Socrates is the pervasive hero of the book—Socrates the anomalous man, that is, not Socrates the conductor of fairly comprehensible conversations, or the contemplator of communicable truth. This curtailed Socrates comes before the American public brusquely defining the task of philosophy as learning how to die; from this picture it takes but a few steps to reach the conclusion that there is an incomposable quarrel between the philosophers and most of mankind.(277-8) Mr. Bloom manages to turn Socratic philosophizing into an utter arcanum simply through by-passing its substance. I think that when Socrates is brought on the scene he should appear as practicing the life he thought worth living.
Indeed, the fact that actual philosophy is kept at one remove in this book, that it is a tract on the love of the love of wisdom, is responsible for a certain skewing in the analysis of contemporary ills. Let me give one of many examples I could cite.
That “the self is the modern substitute for the soul” (173) is an indispensable insight in the analysis of modernity. But in the section devoted to it, Mr. Bloom simply suppresses reference to “subjectivity,” the philosophical term through which are to be reached the deep and not ignoble motives for the substitution: to be utterly unfooled, to confront nature as its knower, to be freely good. Consequently, contemporary talk of the self and its discovery is deprived of the respectable strain that, it seems to me, still somehow resonates in the most debased chatter. Our “three-hundred-year-long identity crisis” is, for all its latter day indignities, the unavoidable working out of a brave and compelling choice: We are essentially neither ensouled instantiations of an eternal species, nor creatures whose souls are made by God, but ungrounded spontaneous individual subjects. The function of philosophy should be not to shame us for it, but to re-dignify our dilemmas.
I want to end with the chapter on music, a chapter that is close to Mr. Bloom’s heart, and that he mistakenly thinks is unregarded. In fact, young readers turn to it first and rage at it, thereby confirming his observation that rock is their love. It is, to be sure, in a book that insists that the best is for the few, somewhat inconsistent to discount the lovers of classical music because they are fewer than one in ten, but the main point, so truly observed, is that the adherence to rock is universal. (I have never heard anyone young speak against it.) I do not quite believe that rock “has one appeal only, a barbaric appeal, to sexual desire.”(73) I am a sporadic watcher of MTV and know that what the visualizations pick up in the music is its weirdness, whininess, bizarrerie, meanness, and scariness—in sum, a whole vocabulary of extra-sexual excruciation, which is often ironically and even wittily exploited. The appeal is not so hard to understand; it is its universality and depth that remains a mystery.
For Mr. Bloom’s explanation does not quite reach the love aroused by this, or any, music. For him, following, as he claims, Plato and Nietzsche, music is the “barbarous expression of the soul,” the soul’s primitive, pre-rational speech, pure passion. I take it as read that he knows his Republic, but where in it did he find this theory? His own translation corrects the impression given by earlier versions that the musical modes express the passions.(Rep. 398 e 1) According to Socrates, they rather shape them. Moreover, the music must follow the words, which it couldn’t do if it had no close relation to reason. (Indeed it was Socrates’ Pythagorean friends who propagated the great tradition or music as qualitative mathematics.) Some musical modes are more soul-relaxing than others, but these latter, the bracing ones, are the most potent instruments that the community possesses for forming the soul into grace amenable to reason. It follows that there is nothing truly primitive or pre-rational even about the most orgiastic music, and that when a sect succumbs to Wagner, or a generation to rock, the explanation cannot start from raw passion, but must begin with corrupt reason. Mr. Bloom has succumbed to the prime error of those dark Germans, which is to think that the soul of a rational animal somewhere harbors a nature-preserve of pure primitive passions.
To conclude. The Closing of the American Mind is not only an opportune summation of decades of critique, but it is also among the early lappings of a turning tide. For the tide is turning, though not to float a happy and harmonious new liberal learning, but to ground us in a sad new abstinence. It has very suddenly come home to us that the world is full of dangers just where we sought our pleasures: spending, sex, substances, sound, even sunshine. We will be drawn in upon ourselves, we will have to take new thought, and in these straits liberal literacy, the attentive reading of good books, may eventually play a modest role as something of a saving grace.
Because of Mr. Bloom, this thought may come a little sooner to a somewhat larger number of people. Moreover, since it comes embedded in a critique of our current condition that is wholly passionate and largely true, there will be a more immediate effect: Some readers of the Closing of the American Mind are bound to experience a re-opening of their minds to the all-but-foreclosed understandings behind our present. That will be its success beyond celebrity.
*Some of these fellow-fighters in the battle against the soul-unstaying piffle-terms, those relaxants of shape and significance, which are the real, or at least the most interesting, butt of the book, such as creativity, self, culture, life-style, and communication, are hearteningly easy to find. For example, there are Judith Martin’s vastly popular ”Miss Manners” books, which, under the guise of pronouncing on etiquette, often ironicize our linguistic mores; thus Miss Manners bids us to “make a special effort to learn to stop communicating with one another, so that we can have some conversation.” Here is no inconsiderable ally!
Books by Eva Brann may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. This essay was written in July 1987, appeared in The St. John’s Review (Volume 38, number one, 1988) and is republished here by permission of the author. Miss Brann welcomes questions/comments via mail: Dr. Eva Brann, St. John’s College, 60 College Avenue, Annapolis, MD, 21401-1655 (she does not use computers).