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.