Guest post by Rivka Maizlish, University of Wisconsin-Madison
One of the things I most appreciated about the U.S. Intellectual History Conference’s annual return to the CUNY Graduate Center was my faithful pilgrimage up the thirty blocks from the conference to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where I would sit before Jacques-Louis David’s The Death of Socrates, and listen. People rarely walk by this painting in silence. Young students attempt to impress their parents by rehearsing lessons from history class about Socrates and Plato. Older visitors recall their education, uncovering buried memories of the Phaedo or the Apology and the philosopher’s final words. Gazing at Socrates’ hand over the cup, people often ask a companion, “remind me again why he was put to death?” It’s always a “remind me,” as if the story was already within them, but lately lost somehow (in Plato’s dialogue, the Meno, Socrates suggests that all learning is remembering). A few people stop at the painting just long enough to murmur “the unexamined life is not worth living,” while cantankerous philosophy students pass by shaking their heads, declaiming to their friends that Socrates need not have died, if only he hadn’t been such a jerk to the jury that sentenced him.
Sometimes, sitting in front of the painting, I overheard a question and offered an answer, starting a conversation about democracy or the soul. It seemed fitting to end an inspiring day at a conference about ideas in America by descending into the agora (or ascending the steps of the Met) to observe Americans confronted with philosophy– at least in the form of David’s painting, the story it tells, and the figure of Socrates. The dozens of visitors who stop and consider this painting experience a rare, if brief, interaction with the meaning of philosophy.
I made my first pilgrimage to visit Socrates after a conference panel discussion about Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind left me frustrated. Amid snickers and one whispered, “he was gay!” panel attendees mocked Bloom’s description of his excitement when his college girlfriend explained that the University of Chicago clock-tower was a phallic symbol. This admittedly silly line is followed by a more serious declaration. “It was hard to tell whether the meaning of it all was that I was about to lose my virginity or penetrate the mysteries of being,” confesses Bloom. “An admirable confusion,” he adds. (1) The discrepancy between these two lines from Bloom’s infamous best-seller— the goofy business about the clock-tower phallus on the one hand, and the embrace of a salutary confusion between sex and education on the other— illustrates the mistake historians have made in considering Bloom and the meaning of Closing. Jumping at the easy opportunity to ridicule this book, they have neglected its more compelling themes.
Sure, much of Closing is absurd at best. Exhibit A: “Women,” Bloom asserts, “have no basis for claiming that men should share their desire for children or assume responsibility for them.” (2) This is one of the least sexist statements in Bloom’s published works; his words about rape in Love and Friendship would have the RNC clamoring for his resignation, were he a Republican candidate. And let’s not forget my favorite line in Closing: “Richard Nixon, with his unerring instinct for the high moral ground . . .” (3) Part of me still thinks this must be a joke. But all this is the Culture Wars Bloom, the only Bloom present when the conference panel attendees discussed and ridiculed Closing. Behind this Bloom is the Bloom that asks “Are we lovers anymore?” and then boldly declares, “this is my way of putting the educational question of our times.” (4) Without impugning the value of studying Closing in connection with the contest to direct American values in an anti-foundationalist world that became known as the “Culture Wars,” I submit that this book inhabits several other contexts, and that historians have much to gain—both personally and professionally—from considering Bloom beyond the Culture Wars.
My first encounter with Closing, in the middle of the last year of my undergraduate studies, was liberating. Naive and privileged, I had come to college convinced that I could change the world, and spent most of my time telling myself it would happen if I just kept doing useful things like knocking on doors, registering voters, and reminding my classmates how much money the U.S. government had spent in Iraq. Closing showed me that if I could follow Socrates’ exhortation to “know thyself,” and encourage my peers to do the same by building intellectual community based on friendship and pursuit of truth (even unto its innermost parts), I would be doing more good than could ever come from my political work. Furthermore, Closing suggested that I had my whole life to conform to some external notion of justice. College education was about creatively challenging conventional ideas of the good, the just, the virtuous. And one did not have to do this alone. Past thinkers, from Homer to Nietzsche, could help my friends and me explore different ideas and re-imagine what was possible (“So this has existed once, at least—and is therefore a possibility, this way of life, this way of looking at the human scene,” wrote Nietzsche). (5) As a freshman I had been assigned Plato’s Republic in an introduction to political theory course. I never opened it. I think I figured that something so old couldn’t possible be of any use to me. Three years later, I was home for winter vacation when I finished Closing. The first thing I did after putting the book down was frantically search my parents’ house for anything by Plato. Bloom wrote so lovingly about reading the ancient philosopher, I wanted to experience the pleasure myself. I found a copy of the Apology and have been hooked on Plato ever since.
This, then, is the value of Closing. It can be read as a Culture War document. But Bloom intended it to be nothing less than a gateway drug to philosophy, literature and the examined life (plus a way to finance his Emma Bovary-esque spending habits). An appreciation of the book on this level can lead intellectual historians to do much more with it than they have by simply placing it in the context of the Culture Wars. Carrying Caroline Winterer’s work into the second half of the twentieth-century, historians could examine Bloom’s rhapsodic endorsement of Plato in terms of the reception and use of the Classics in America. One could fit Bloom into the postwar literary turn that Michael Kimmage describes, and examine him as one of several intellectuals, such as Vladimir Nabokov, Lionel Trilling, Edmund Wilson, and Peter Viereck, who found meaning in poetry and philosophy, as opposed to politics. Bloom also belongs in the anti-historicist tradition of his teacher, Leo Strauss. Writing that education is about satisfying erotic longing for completeness, Bloom complains in Closing that “the university does not see itself as ministering to such needs and does not believe the mummies on display in its museum can speak to the visitors or, horrors, go home to live with them.” (6) Here is the Bloom whose main concern is the tyranny of the living over the dead, and who belongs in an intellectual tradition that transcends the Culture Wars and the “Great Books” debates.
In American Nietzsche, Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen has demonstrated how historians could examine Bloom in new contexts. Placing him in an American intellectual tradition that far transcends the Culture Wars, she reveals Bloom “enacting an American way of knowing Nietzsche, or an Emersonian way of thinking.” (7) Indeed, in the tradition of Emerson, Closing contains fascinating thoughts on the fate of philosophy in America. “Contrary to the popular prejudice that America is the nation of unintellectual and anti-intellectual people, where ideas are at best means to ends,” Bloom argues, “America is actually nothing but a great stage on which theories have been played as tragedy and comedy.” “This is a regime,” he continues, “founded by philosophers and their students. All the recalcitrant matter of the historical is gave way here before the practical and philosophical ought to be, as the raw natural givens of this wild continent meekly submitted to the yoke of theoretical science.” (8) Bloom, therefore, is valuable to U.S. intellectual historians for his understanding of the relationship between ideas, intellectuals, and democratic society in America, as well as his views on the role of educational institutions, such as the university, and cultural institutions, such as music and the family, in negotiating this relationship. “This is the American moment in world history,” Bloom concludes his book, “the one for which we shall forever be judged. Just as in politics the responsibility for the fate of freedom in the world has devolved upon our regime, so the fate of philosophy in the word has devolved upon our universities, and the two are related as they have never been before.” (9)
Historians can, and should, criticize Closing. We can, and should, oppose Bloom’s sexist conviction that women are bound by nature, while the purpose of education, for men, is to overcome nature. We can scrutinize his arguments in favor of a core curriculum founded upon the Western cannon. And, of course, we can bristle at his critique of pop music (I write this while listening to Exile on Main Street). But historians should not dismiss this book; nor should they reduce it to a Culture War document. In a recent article, David C. Engerman argues that historians should broaden the intellectual context of the Cold War, in order to understand certain figures as intellectuals in the Cold War, instead of “Cold War intellectuals,” whose work is reducible to reigning U.S. geopolitical concerns. Similarly, Closing may be a key document in the Culture Wars, but it is so much more than a “Culture War book.” We remain under the shadow of the Culture Wars until we can broaden Bloom’s intellectual context and tap the full potential of this remarkable book.
After my first read of Closing, I sought out one of my professors, who had been a student of Bloom, to ask what the man was like, explaining that I was deeply moved by his best-seller. I will never forget my professor’s response: “Hmm, so it still works,” he said simply, suggesting that Bloom’s ability to inspire undergraduates to pursue the examined life— or at least to read literature and philosophy—survives him. When I left the U.S. Intellectual History Conference panel, where attendees went to court about Bloom’s wisdom, and connected with visitors at the Met over the life and death of Socrates, I continued Bloom’s true legacy. The Closing of the American Mind did not make me stop listening to the Stones, but it has inspired me to read Plato, Rousseau, Tolstoy, Stendhal, Flaubert, and Shakespeare, to connect with friends and strangers in pursuit of new ideas, and to think creatively about justice, virtue, the good life, and, indeed, about how historians conceive of intellectual context.