Obituary: Professor Allan Bloom
Monday 12 October 1992
THE LAST TIME I saw Allan Bloom in Chicago, we had stopped by with his closest friend, Saul Bellow. Allan had long been ill with the Guillaume Barre Syndrome and his recovery, a year ago, was thought to be something of a miracle, and I can give no better example of the devotion he inspired among those who knew him well than to say that Bellow had daily brought him soup, kept him company, and encouraged the life-force that was so vital a part of Allan's nature.
On this occasion, one of many, Allan was, as usual, striding about his airy apartment (it then looked out on a leafless and frigid University of Chicago campus) in a highly-coloured kimono and fussing with his espresso machine, which was, together with his extraordinary collection of music (from all times, but especially opera) his pride and joy. When he joined us in his music-room, he began an enthusiastic, detailed, and enormouosly voluble disquisition on his discovery of the video-camera. This instrument, he said, had revolutionised his life, and would revolutionise art.
He proceeded then to give a demonstration of how it had been used at a recent party. Taking all the parts - for this commanding man, tall, broad, vigorous and psychically twice his physical size, was nothing if not histrionic by nature - he reconvened the whole party, the people who liked him and worshipped him, and 'my dear, the people who absolutely hate me but can't miss an occasion to say they're my friends', and so on.
All the while he moved an imaginary camera in his hand, panning slowly while he set the scene of his triumphs, until he reached the one clear wall in this record-packed room. On the wall was a fireplace, a mantelpiece, and over it a handsome portrait of Allan himself, with his fleshy lips and his huge, hooked nose: 'And this,' he said triumphantly, pointing to the portrait, 'is a map of Jerusalem]'
At that point he literally broke down with childish, nervous glee. He delighted others, but above all he was tickled with himself, and with what had happened to him - his fame, all that money, all the things that money had made possible, that kimono, these bibelots, the people who now treated him with such respect.
It had not always been like that. When I first saw him some 20 years before, he had been a rather obscure university professor: never academic, even then outrageous, but by some still not considered sufficiently serieux; a view that persists in some of the obituaries I have read in which he is made to appear, as in the politically correct New York Times, little more than a crank and 'icon' to the conservatives.
He owed this ambiguous and obscure position to the difficulty anyone might have in defining him. He ranged so widely and splendidly through so many fields of learning that the easy tag 'superficial' was loftily applied by specialists, some of whom can, in academe, be exceedingly malicious, not to speak of envious.
Did he, long ago, claim an acquaintance with classical literature that he did not really possess? Did he get this or that wrong? Probably. He was a man of voracious intellectual appetite; at footnotes he failed. His arguments owned him as a Sachertorte owns the lady in a Vienna cafe. He slaked his own appetites and sated those of his students.
Being, in Isaiah Berlin's terms, very much a 'fox', he had read very widely and very well, and had an opinion, unstoppably delivered, on almost any subject under the sun.
True, he could not have known in depth all the many things that so passionately interested him, but he had considered them, applied a discerning mind to them, and above all conveyed them with elegance and excitement to generations of students. To be a teacher rather than a Casaubon scholar was then, and remains now, an unpardonable crime.
As to his qualities a a teacher, I defer to Bellow, who taught a joint class with him for 15 years in the University of Chicago's Committee on Social Thought. Bellow said at the weekend, 'Allan Bloom was a true teacher, by which I mean he believed it to be monstrous that any of us should lose our souls through ignorance; he respected, encouraged and loved people who were willing to make a fight for real order in their lives.'
This exceptional man was also very much a child of his time. Whence he came explains the graininess in the man, the incorrigible streak of intellectual goodness and generosity. He simply grew up that way in another America. His grandparents were Jewish immigrants to Philadelphia, true believers: in family and God. His father worked for Jewish charities; his mother was a social worker; and Indianapolis was their unlikely abode, a conservative land on the marches of America, closer to the great divide of the civil war than most realise.
To Chicago, which was the immigrant capital of the world, he came as a boy, going through its ordinary schools at a time when American schools still had pupils and not students. Robert Hutchins was president of its university, which he made great, and there, taking the entrance exam when he was in his first year of high school, Bloom went into that university under Hutchins's plan to create a new generation of, yes, elite minds, graduating when he was 18, and going on to do his graduate work there.
Were not his teachers remarkable men? A David Greene, a Leo Strauss, a Richard McKeon? He wrote his thesis on Isocrates and moved on, to teach at Yale, and then Cornell, from which he resigned in protest at that university's cowardlly handling of student riots in the Sixties. He did further work in Paris - a city he loved and in which he was spiritually at home despite his deprecation of its many false gods - and Heidelberg.
Not much of a life, you may say. A solitary one, too, save for those he loved and who loved him. An elite education and an elite life: at a time when that state, that of belonging to, and mixing with the best, was still one to which a young man could aspire. A true product of Roosevelt's America - hence, I believe, the resonance of his one 'big' book.
Before he got to that one, he wrote one on Shakespeare, Shakespeare's Politics (1964), and since had collected his contentious and readable essays in Giants and Dwarfs (1990). Another book is on its way, alas, posthumously, but The Closing of the American Mind (1987) is what brought him fame and some fortune.
The irony of this did not escape his reviewers: those who loved his book and those who sprang to denunciation. Had he written merely an obscure book - as no doubt he thought he had - he might have been forgiven. As he had committed the capital crime of success, with a book about the intellectual life which attacked the very public that bought it in such numbers, he had to be made into an apostate. Worse, a 'conservative' - though no label ever fitted a man less well. Deeply influential in the current debate that pits the classical canon against the inroads of multiculturalism, the book, and its enormous success, enraged all the treasonous, pullulating clercs, and it is no exaggeration to say that to many Bloom became a much-hated man.
But in fact that book derived very much from Bloom's passion for honest thought; it reflected very well his own mind, which took pleasure in the highest things. It was a plain book, plainly written, and it struck a rich chord. In it he argued for an elite education, which is a very different thing from an 'elitist' education, and like his master, Leo Strauss, he was put into Coventry.
Bloom's elite was Jefferson's 'natural aristocracy', in which the tyrannical tendencies of one man's ambitions are checked by the ambitions of another and pluralism rests on the idea that what a man does can differentiate him from his fellow man.
Bloom was writing vigorous polemic at a time when America sought to ensure that the intellect could not (and would not be allowed) to rise above gender and race; the mind was to be defined by its melanin and genetic content, and by what lay between our legs; or, in the academe, the canon was to be re-read and re-defined so that it fitted the latest theorem of gender or race. Bloom would have none of it. He loved people who were first-rate with real love. They weren't his meal-ticket but his spiritual food. These were humane people, as Allan Bloom was; and with them Bloom didn't 'socialise'; he taught and he learned. Many profited. Others, mainly dwellers in the bas fonds of 'social studies', or those who seek to politicise culture, resented and envied.
Well, that's their loss; as he is ours.
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