U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Allan Bloom, or Figment of Saul Bellow’s Imagination?

Reflections on the Neoconservative Persuasion

I finally got around to reading Saul Bellow’s novel Ravelstein, a memoir-style rendering of his friendship with Allan Bloom, the conservative University of Chicago philosopher who specialized in Plato and Rousseau. I’ve been meaning to read it for some time, since Bloom figures large in my research. Bloom, as you all know, was the author of the 1987 mega-hit, The Closing of the American Mind, which signified the culture wars unlike any other book, a surprising event given that the it’s no easy slog. A book with a 70-page chapter titled “From Socrates’ Apology to Heidegger’s Rektoratsrede” is hardly designed to be a bestseller.

One of the recurring themes I’ve come across during my Bloom research is his larger-than-life-ness. Although he was relatively obscure until Closing made him famous, and rich, Bloom’s students were apparently devoted to him with apostle-like fervor. In other words, building off of recent posts from Ben and L.D., he embodied ideas, much like his mentor Leo Strauss. Or, put another way: like pre-mechanically reproduced art, as Walter Benjamin had it, Bloom emitted aura.

But reading Ravelstein compels me to ask: Is the larger-than-life Bloom familiar to us as Bloom? Or as Ravelstein? Where does the real Bloom end and Bellow’s fictional Bloom begin? Of course, given that Bloom was known to be larger than life well before the publication of Bellow’s paean to Bloom’s eclectic form of genius—Ravelstein was published in 2000, 13 years after Closing, and eight years after Bloom died of AIDS—this might seem like a silly question. But Bellow contributed to Bloom’s lore well before he wrote Ravelstein. Bellow wrote the foreword to Closing, where his first sentence told of how “Professor Bloom has his own way of doing things.” Namely, rather than stoop to engage his contemporaries, “Bloom places himself in a larger community, invoking Socrates, Plato, Machiavelli, Rousseau and Kant…”

I’m far from the first person to playfully suggest that the Bloom known to posterity is, in fact, a figment of Saul Bellow’s imagination. As I learned in reading a fantastically scathing review of Ravelstein written by Christopher Hitchens, Robert Paul Wolff, a professor of philosophy at Amherst, reviewed Closing for Academe, where he prophesized the following:

Aficionados of the modern American novel have learned to look to Philip Roth for complex literary constructions that play wittily with narrative voice and frame. One thinks of such Roth works as My Life as a Man and The Counterlife. Now Saul Bellow has demonstrated that among his other well-recognized literary gifts is an unsuspected bent for daring satire. What Bellow has done, quite simply, is to write an entire coruscatingly funny novel in the form of a pettish, bookish, grumpy, reactionary complaint against the last two decades. The ‘author’ of this tirade, one of Bellow’s most fully-realized literary creations, is a mid-fiftyish Professor at the University of Chicago, to whom Bellow gives the evocative name ‘Bloom’. Bellow appears in the book only as the author of an eight-page ‘Foreword’, in which he introduces us to his principal and only character.

Based on this paragraph alone, Wolff merits a lifetime achievement award for witty book reviewing. So, is the success of Closing predicated on its ideas, or on the aura of a larger-than-life, perhaps even fictional Bloom?

Some ideas in Closing were somewhat original, or at least, were expressed in terms new to most of its popular readership. At its most explicit, it was an angry denunciation of relativism in all its forms: philosophic, moral, cultural—relativism realized in the American university, which Bloom argued had been distorted by a “Nietzscheanized-Heideggerianized Left” that arose from the 1960s.

More implicitly, Closing was a defense of elitism. As Hitchens wrote of Closing in his review of Ravelstein:

This book, which was a late product or blooming of the University of Chicago Committee on Social Thought, argued that the American mind was closed because it had become so goddamned open—a nice deployment of paradox and a vivid attack on the relativism that has become so OK on campus these days. Bloom’s polemic swiftly became a primer for the right-wing Zeitgeist; a bookend for the shelf or index sternly marked ‘all downhill since 1967.’

Anti-relativism was an important element of neoconservatism, and nobody demonstrated this better than Bloom. Again, Hitchens:

Chaos, most especially the chaos identified with pissed-off African Americans, was the whole motif of The Closing of the American Mind. Bloom had taught at Cornell during the campus upheaval of 1968, and never recovered from the moment when black students produced guns to amplify their demands.

Neoconservatism is the flip side of the New Left, especially insofar as the New Left combined radical political positions on race, gender and war with the antinomian, relativist spirit of the counterculture. As such, the neoconservative persuasion should also be historically situated in relation to what Corey Robin controversially labels “the reactionary mind.” Robin considers conservatism “a meditation on—and theoretical rendition of—the felt experience of having power, seeing it threatened, and trying to win it back.” George H. Nash, in his seminal The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America, offers a similar definition of conservatism from a different evaluative perspective. He defines it as “resistance to certain forces perceived to be leftist, revolutionary, and profoundly subversive of what conservatives at the time deemed worth cherishing, defending, and perhaps dying for.”

Many Americans viewed the various movements that arose during the 1960s as “profoundly subversive” of the status quo, as threats to entrenched configurations of power. Neoconservatives like Allan Bloom best articulated this post-1960s conservative reaction, especially insofar as they were able to intuit the connections between political movements like Black Power and antinomian countercultural currents. For Bloom, the relativist culture on display in the academy was brutish and coarse, a pale reflection of the Ancient order of his philosophical imagination, which evinced, as Robin puts it, “the excellence of a world where the better man commands the worse.” Whether representative of Bloom or of Bellow’s fictional imagination, Closing is a great primary source of neoconservatism in the way it articulates such a combination of elitism and excellence.

5 Thoughts on this Post

  1. At least part of Wolff’s joke (if I remember correctly) is that “Bloom” fits so well in a lineup with a number of other Bellow characters, especially Artur Sammler. I know some people have analyzed Mr. Sammler’s Planet (1971) as a sort of early neoconservative jeremiad (Stephen Schryer’s excellent book does, for one), and it certainly is a vivid (if rather surreal) reaction to the student radicalism Bellow claims to have observed. But Sammler was written well before Bellow and Bloom became friends, and I think if one were to make the case that Bellow’s framing of Bloom’s book was significant, his influence would be less the creation of the “Bloom” we know from Ravelstein than the creation of the other “pettish, bookish, grumpy, reactionar[ies]” he wrote before 1987. After all, I don’t think Ravelstein is very grumpy but rather effervescent; it’s Chick who can be the pettish one.

    Anyway, I’m not so sure that Bloom was as obscure before Closing came out as you indicate. His translation of The Republic was a popular one, I believe; a translation of Èmile maybe a little less so; and he edited the English version of Kojève’s introduction to Hegel. The Kojève may not have gained him wide name recognition, but it was reviewed in the New York Review of Books (along with a raft of other books in a two-part article in May and June 1975). Even apart from the connections he made with his devoted students, he had at least some visibility before 1987, and he certainly had established the kind of credentials that made his book seem authoritative.

  2. Granted I haven’t reread the Closing of the American Mind since its publication, damned if I could find a particle of originality in a book that could have been, and indeed was, written in 1870, 1880, 1890, 1900 by a long and mostly unremembered series of cultural conservatives. For example, in his earliest days as a prof and before he became notorious by actually saying something new, Nietzsche delivered a speech to the citizens of Basel that pretty made all of Bloom’s points. Whatever the historical significance of Bloom’s work, philosophically, he was a cypher.

  3. Great post Andrew- The quote from Wolfe’s review is hilarious! I think Mortimer Adler had a similar response as Bloom to the so called relativism of the 60’s, but I think their response was that of a defense of a world view more than a power struggle. I see Adler as more of a proselytizer for the “Great Books” and Bloom as defender of a bygone era. This is an impression not a studied opinion.

  4. Thanks to all three of you for the good comments.

    Andrew: Especially thanks to you for the Stephen Schryer citation. You’re speaking specifically of “Fantasies of the new class: ideologies of professionalism in post-World War II American fiction,” right? I’m going to go pick it up from my library today.

    When I call pre-“Closing” Bloom “relatively obscure,” I place emphasis on “relatively.” Obviously he had enjoyed success in academia, made apparent by some of the evidence you cite, but more specifically by his appointments at Cornell, Yale, and Chicago. By calling him obscure I’m calling almost all academics obscure. But he did not enjoy wide renown by any stretch. In the pre-1987 sources I use in my research–popular, sometimes academic, sometimes political sources–I have never once seen him mentioned of cited.

    Jim: You’re right that “Closing” didn’t offer anything unique philosophically, partly in the sense that there’s nothing “new under the sun,” partly because this was not Bloom’s objective. I write: “Some ideas in Closing were somewhat original, or at least, were expressed in terms new to most of its popular readership.” My qualifier is key here. Presenting a wide readership with a close analysis of Nietzsche, that’s actually sympathetic if divergent, in order to explain higher educational trends since the 1960s, was different.

    Although, as Paul makes clear, not that different, since there had been plenty of critiques of relativism in US social and educational thought, especially since the 1930s. Read Edward Purcell, “Crisis in Democratic Theory,” for the best history of this. Adler is a good example. So, too, is his Chicago colleague Robert Hutchins. The University of Chicago has a long history of such anti-relativism.

  5. Andrew,
    Good point about the emphasis on “relatively” in relatively obscure. I was just over-reading your description.

    I really enjoyed Fantasies of the New Class, and I probably sold Schryer’s argument about Bellow short by saying that he read Sammler as a neoconservative jeremiad. I actually think that Schryer does a great job of teasing out some of the tensions and contradictions in that novel and in the broader milieu of late 60s/early 70s New York intellectuals. I hope you find it useful!

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