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392 pages, Paperback
First published December 1, 1987
Openness used to be the virtue permitted us to seek the good by using reason. It now means accepting everything and denying reason's power. The unrestrained and thoughtless pursuit of openness, without recognizing the inherent political, social, and cultural problem of openness as the goal of nature, has rendered openness meaningless.
Equality for us seems to culminate in the unwillingness and incapacity to make claims of superiority, particularly in the domains in which such claims have always been made—art, religion, and philosophy. When Weber found that he could not choose between certain high opposites—reason vs. revelation, Buddha vs. Jesus—he did not conclude that all things are equally good, that the distinction between high and low disappears. As a matter of fact he intended to revitalize the consideration of these great alternatives in showing the gravity and danger involved in choosing among them; they were to be heightened in contrast to the trivial considerations of modern life that threatened to overgrow and render indistinguishable the profound problems the confrontation with which makes the bow of the soul taut. The serious intellectual life was for him the battleground of the great decisions, all of which are spiritual or “value” choices. One can no longer present this or that particular view of the educated or civilized man as authoritative; therefore one must say that education consists in knowing, really knowing, the small number of such views in their integrity. [Italics mine]
found reasons for the existence of their family and the fulfillment of their duty in serious writings, and they interpreted their special sufferings with respect to a great and ennobling past... When [graduates from modern universities] talk about heaven and earth, the relations between men and women, parents and children, the human condition, I hear nothing by cliches, superficialities, the material of satire. I am not saying anything so trite as that life is fuller when people have myths to live by. I mean rather that a life based on the Book is closer to the truth, that it provides the material for deeper research in and access to the real nature of things. Without the great revelations, epics, and philosophies as part of our natural vision, there is nothing to see out there, and eventually little left inside. The Bible is not the only means to furnish a mind, but without a book of similar gravity, read with the gravity of the potential believer, it will remain unfurnished.
The effort to read books as their writers intended them to be read has been made into a crime, ever since the “intentional fallacy” was instituted. There are endless debates about methods -- among Freudian criticism, Marxist criticism, New Criticism, Structuralism and Deconstructionism, and many others, all of which have in common the premise that what Plato or Dante had to say about reality is unimportant. These schools of criticism make the writers plants in a garden planned by a modern scholar, while their own garden-planning vocation is denied them. The writers ought to plant, or even bury, the scholar.
If openness means to "go with the flow," it is necessarily an accomodation to the present. That present is so closed to doubt about so many things impeding the progress of its principles that unqualified openness to it would mean forgetting the despised alternatives to it, knowledge of which makes us aware of what is doubtful in it. True openness means closedness to all the charms that make us comfortable with the present.(p.42, my emphasis)This quite miraculously turns what most objective bystanders would call Bloom's closed-minded conservatism into "openness." It's a rather neat trick, and even convincing unless you stop to think about it. Then you just think, "Wait a minute, that's not right at all." A more flagrant passage occurs toward the end of the book:
In a democracy (the university) risks less by opposing the emergent, the changing and the ephemeral than by embracing them, because the society is already open to them, without monitoring what it accepts or sufficiently respecting the old. There the university risks less by having intransigently high standards than by trying to be too inclusive, because the society tends to blur standards in the name of equality. It also risks less by concentrating on the heroic than by looking to the commonplace, because the society levels. (p.253)Let me paraphrase since his lingo is a little difficult to follow: A truly open university must oppose everything progressive while upholding tradition and should only concern itself with the most brilliant students while ignoring mediocrity. (He is also claiming that universities are somehow behind the curve on what society accepts, which is ridiculous in its own right.) This is a very convenient position for a conservative elitist to take -- it amazingly reinforces with iron-clad logic every reactionary idea he stands for.
The fact that in Germany the politics were of the Right and in the United States of the Left should not mislead us. In both places the universities gave way under the pressure of mass movements, and did so in large measure because they thought those movements possessed a moral truth superior to any the university could provide. Commitment was understood to be profounder than science, passion than reason, history than nature, the young than the old. In fact, as I have argued, the thought was really the same. The New Left in America was a Nietzscheanized-Heideggerianized Left. The unthinking hatred of "bourgeois society" was exactly the same in both places.If there can be no ethical boundary to an oppressed party's fight for its rights, including open political violence, if there can be no equivocation about a universal ethic of resistance when particular rights are infringed, as one faction of American left-liberalism claimed in the 1960s and now claims again, then Bloom's avowed admiration for Lincoln, King, and the inherent anti-racism of the Constitutional order ("Black slavery was an aberration that had to be extinguished, not a permanent feature of our national life"), coupled with his abhorrence for Black Power, will come across as little more than a white (Jewish) man's privileged evasion. Yet Bloom is most aggrieved not by identity politics as such but by the relativism that in his view subtends it, and this emphasis may deserve our attention in a period of public epistemological crisis. Bloom moreover traces the influence of relativism on American life to a series of antecedents that the contemporary liberal will want to take seriously, including early-20th-century Confederate apologists for whom slavery and Jim Crow were just one more expression of pluralist American culture, and thinkers like Nietzsche and Heidegger and their later popularizers, for whom there is no truth and no good but only humanly-constructed values.
Socratic dialectic takes place in speech and, although drawn forward by the search for synthesis, always culminates in doubt. Socrates' last word was that he knew nothing.Socrates, that is, ends in the same place Nietzsche starts, because Socratic skepticism and Nietzschean perspectivism, not Platonic-Enlightenment rationalism or Christian revelation, are actually true. By burying this concession where the reader won't be looking for it, Bloom effectively intimates that the public should not know it, that the Socratic thinker should instead feed the pious populace the Enlightenment line in public to keep the scholars afloat on state and private subsidies, while in the university the philosophers and their best pupils disport themselves among the values.
The hard truth is that what may be acceptable in elite culture may not be acceptable in mass culture, that tastes which pose only innocuous ethical issues as the property of a minority become corrupting when they become more established.In other words, and anticipating Bloom, Nietzsche was of course right about everything, including aesthetics, but he's too dangerous a toy for the people to play with—better just give the children Jesus and John Locke. In our own time, the infamous Steve Bannon never misses an opportunity to rail against neoconservatism from the populist right. Yet on his extremely popular (albeit in some quarters proscribed) podcast, he delivers the Allan Bloom thesis with a comically frank incoherence, as he laments the disappearance of our Judeo-Christian and Enlightenment heritage in one breath, and then in another utters one of his catch-phrase Nietzschean slogans: "This isn't a quest for truth, it's a contest for power!"—as if this were an assertion with which the natural philosopher Thomas Jefferson or the sincerely Christian John Adams would have agreed. Bloom's is, again, not an uncommon argument, only a dishonest one.
A significant number of students used to arrive at the university physically and spiritually virginal, expecting to lose their innocence there. Their lust was mixed into everything they thought and did. They were painfully aware that they wanted something but were not quite sure exactly what it was, what form it would take and what it all meant. The range of satisfactions intimated by their desire moved from prostitutes to Plato, and back, from the criminal to the sublime. Above all they looked for instruction. Practically everything they read in the humanities and social sciences might be a source of learning about their pain, and a path to its healing. This powerful tension, this literal lust for knowledge, was what a teacher could see in the eyes of those who flattered him by giving such evidence of their need for him. His own satisfaction was promised by having something with which to feed their hunger, an overflow to bestow on their emptiness. His joy was in hearing the ecstatic "Oh, yes!" as he dished up Shakespeare and Hegel to minister to their need. Pimp and midwife really described him well. The itch for what appeared to be only sexual intercourse was the material manifestation of the Delphic oracle's command, which is but a reminder of the most fundamental human desire, to "know thyself."Philosophy is intellectual reproduction, conducted with queer contempt for the public's investment in heteronormative breeding as it takes place without reproductive bodies. The philosopher transacts and witnesses the virgin student's coupling with the classic to bring forth the infant thinker. This Platonic love affair of the mind is the queer tradition Bloom seeks to preserve from the incursion, armed or otherwise, into the university idyll of the straight and the normal, who are, whether they are left-wing protesters or go-getter business students, too busy with their own interests to think. At such erotic intellection he only hints in the book, since stating it outright would have barred him from conservative adulation in the Moral Majority 1980s. How this subliminal argument would affect The Closing of the American Mind’s reception today by the liberal cognoscenti, who might well be attracted to its attack on moral relativism in an era when they enjoin everyone to choose the "right side of history"—which means the transhistorical truth if it means anything—is in this moment of maximal ideological chaos anybody's guess.