Posted by Mark Judge and Emily Esfahani Smith
Cross-posted from the Daily Caller and Acculturated.com.
Mark Judge: How Bloom Killed Conservatism
Almost 25 years ago, a catastrophe befell American conservatism. University of Chicago professor Allan Bloom wrote about rock and roll.
His words came in the book “The Closing of the America Mind,” which was published in 1987 and became a bestseller and cultural touchstone. Most of “The Closing of the American Mind” is brilliant, a careful and poetically delightful assessment of the takeover of academia and American culture by Marxism and nihilism. Its upcoming 25th anniversary should get it a new round of attention.
Sadly, Bloom included rock and roll in his critique. In doing so, he 1) embraced Marxism, 2) failed to recognize one of the 20th century’s great art forms, 3) banished conservatives to a cultural wilderness from which they have yet to emerge, and 4) made it seem like the right doesn’t care about the soul.
By far my favorite passage in “Closing” is the following. It’s a bit long, and I spent a couple days trying to figure out where to trim it. But that’s like trying to chip a few inches off of Michelangelo’s “David.” I also have found that reading this passage can be a therapeutic, yogic exercise. You just say it out loud while standing at attention and facing Graceland:
Young people know that rock has the beat of sexual intercourse. That is why Ravel’s Bolero is the one piece of classical music that is commonly known and liked by them.
In alliance with some real art and a lot of pseudo-art, an enormous industry cultivates the taste for the orgiastic state of feeling connected with sex, providing a constant flood of fresh material for voracious appetites. Never was there an art form directed so exclusively to children.
Ministering to and according with the arousing and cathartic music, the lyrics celebrate puppy love as well as polymorphous attractions, and fortify them against traditional ridicule and shame. The words implicitly and explicitly describe bodily acts that satisfy sexual desire and treat them as its only natural and routine culmination for children who do not yet have the slightest imagination of love, marriage or family. This has a much more powerful effect than does pornography on youngsters, who have no need to watch others do grossly what they can so easily do themselves. Voyeurism is for old perverts; active sexual relations are for the young. All they need is encouragement.
The inevitable corollary of such sexual interest is rebellion against the parental authority that represses it. Selfishness thus becomes indignation and then transforms itself into morality. The sexual revolution must overthrow all the forces of domination, the enemies of nature and happiness. From love comes hate, masquerading as social reform. A worldview is balanced on the sexual fulcrum. What were once unconscious or half-conscious childish resentments become the new Scripture. And then comes the longing for the classless, prejudice-free, conflict-less, universal society that necessarily results from liberated consciousness — “We Are the World,” a pubescent version of Alle Menschen werden Brueder, the fulfillment of which has been inhibited by the political equivalents of Mom and Dad. These are the three great lyrical themes: sex, hate and a smarmy, hypocritical version of brotherly love. Such polluted sources issue in a muddy stream where only monsters can swim. A glance at the videos that project images on the wall of Plato’s cave since MTV took it over suffices to prove this. Hitler’s image recurs frequently enough in exciting contexts to give one pause. Nothing noble, sublime, profound, delicate, tasteful or even decent can find a place in such tableaux. There is room only for the intense, changing, crude and immediate, which Tocqueville warned us would be the character of democratic art, combined with a pervasiveness, importance and content beyond Tocqueville’s wildest imagination.
Picture a thirteen-year-old boy sitting in the living room of his family home doing his math assignment while wearing his Walkman headphones or watching MTV. He enjoys the liberties hard won over centuries by the alliance of philosophic genius and political heroism, consecrated by the blood of martyrs; he is provided with comfort and leisure by the most productive economy ever known to mankind; science has penetrated the secrets of nature in order to provide him with the marvelous, lifelike electronic sound and image reproduction he is enjoying. And in what does progress culminate? A pubescent child whose body throbs with orgasmic rhythms; whose feelings are made articulate in hymns to the joys of onanism or the killing of parents; whose ambition is to win fame and wealth in imitating the drag-queen who makes the music. In short, life is made into a nonstop, commercially prepackaged masturbational fantasy.
Ole! Virtually every word of it is wrong, but it was the part of “The Closing of the American Mind” that got the most attention. Robert Asahina, Bloom’s editor at Simon and Schuster, shrewdly convinced Bloom to put the music chapter up front in the book, where it would get the most attention. The book became a sensation and something of holy writ for conservatives.
I was a young liberal working in a record store when “American Mind” came out, and I am now a conservative. But over that entire period of time one truth has not changed: The Beatles are not a masturbational fantasy. Neither are the Rolling Stones, or the Who, or Beyonce, or Radiohead or the Beach Boys, or the Morning Benders or Arcade Fire or the Twilight Sad.
In the last 50 years, rock and roll has become an art form in which you can sing about anything at any tempo and with any amount of passion you want. It seems to reinvent itself constantly, and some of it is indeed timeless. I submit that the song “One” by U2 will still be heard — and considered a masterpiece — in 500 years. Perry Como will not.
The most complete counter-argument to Bloom came in 1998. It was a lecture, reprinted in the Public Interest, by scholar Martha Bayles. Bayles knew Bloom and her critique is written with affection. It is a complex argument that involves Plato, Nietzsche, Rousseau, Romanticism and the nature of music, but for our purposes Bayles makes four salient points.
Number one: Bloom’s argument about music is based in a Marxist rejection of popular art forms. Bayles uses jazz great Coleman Hawkins’s “Body and Soul” as her example. When the song came out in 1939, it was considered junk by both left and right. “On the right, popular jazz was considered a violation of traditional musical standards committed for the basest of motives, profit, by members of two groups, blacks and Jews, who were socially if not racially inferior. On the left, such music was seen either as the shameless commercialization of a once-authentic folk music or, in the highbrow anti-Stalinist opinion of Partisan Review, as kitsch: cheap, disposable, and derivative of genuine art, which it threatened to cannibalize.” Bayles notes that time has been kinder to Coleman Hawkins than to the politicos of the 1930s: “Today, Hawkins’s recording of ‘Body and Soul’ is a classic. After being kept on jukeboxes for 20 years by the listening public, it is now studied and esteemed as both beautiful in its own right and a harbinger of the maturity of America’s only original art form.” Neoconservatives hate to hear it, Bayles wrote, but this rejection of pop music on the right has its roots in Marx.
The second point Bayles makes is that Allan Bloom simply misrepresented rhythm. “The beat of sexual intercourse”? Perhaps true in some cases, but the diversity of beats that have always been part of the blues, jazz, rock and roll, and pop represents different moods and situations, from melancholy to spiritual urges to simple emotions like longing and happiness. “She Loves You” is more spiritual ecstasy that masturbation. “Under My Thumb,” by Bloom’s hated Rolling Stones, is tender confidence. The Who’s Pete Townshend has used various styles, from hard rock to pop to acoustic folk. And it goes on today: Radiohead’s masterpiece “Kid A” is a work of terrible beauty which has been covered by reggae, classical and jazz musicians. As Bayles noted, African-Americans traditionally have used rhythm in their music, the music that led to rock and roll, in all kinds of celebrations and rituals, from work to lovemaking to worship. I should note here that Bayles agrees with Bloom about modern popular music. She believes that in the 1960s a “perverse modernism” made its way from the British art schools that produced Mick Jagger to the African-American blues tradition, thus culling some of the nihilism that Bloom renounces. I disagree with Bayles on this; if “Gimme Shelter” or “Ruby Tuesday” are “perverse modernism,” then so is Picasso. Today, between electronic dance music, folk, hip-hop, soul and pop, you can find virtually any beat addressing any human condition.
Where Bayles is on more solid ground is the idiom shift — and the soul and its relation to music. Citing music critic Henry Pleasants, she claims that over history the center of musical genius and innovation has been found in different parts of the world: in the Renaissance it was the Netherlands; during the Baroque era, Italy; the classical period found its home in Austria-Bohemia. And so on. Pleasants and Bayles argue that in the 20th century the center of musical genius was in black America. Just because it was popular music did not make it inferior to classical; Duke Ellington was just genius in a different form. With the Beatles, that epicenter of musical fecundity shifted again. Today popular music has a staggering array of styles, and much of it is brilliant.
And lastly, there is the soul. Bloom and Bayles both spend a lot of time examining Plato’s thoughts about music expressing the “barbarous or non-rational” parts of the soul. But to Plato, music was also at the center of education — it was useful in treating people how to channel the passions. The more beautiful the music, the better. In rejecting rock and roll, Bloom — and the conservatives who embrace him — reject modern music and its relation to the soul of modern man.
So, to sum up: because of Allan Bloom, for the past 25 years conservatives, at least in terms of music, have looked like Marxists who could not recognize great art and cared little about popular expressions about the state of the human soul. But hey — we’re for lower taxes.
Honestly, would Plato find “Sgt. Pepper’s” barbarous?
Emily Esfahani Smith: The Corrosive Effects of Rock and Pop Culture
Over at The Weekly Standard, the brilliant Andrew Ferguson assesses the legacy of Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind now that it’s a quarter century old.
As well as anyone then or now, he understood that the intellectual fashion of materialism-of explaining all life, human or animal, mental or otherwise, by means of physical processes alone-had led inescapably to a doctrinaire relativism that would prove to be a universal corrosive.
The crisis was–is–a crisis of confidence in the principle that serves as the premise of liberal education: that reason, informed by learning and experience, can arrive at truth, and that one truth may be truer than another. This loss of faith had consequences and causes far beyond higher ed. Bloom was a believer in intellectual trickle-down theory, and it is the comprehensiveness of his thesis that may have attracted readers to him and his book. The coarsening of public manners, the decline in academic achievement, the general dumbing down of America–even Jerry Springer–had a long pedigree that Bloom was at pains to describe for a general reader.
“The crisis of liberal education,” he wrote, “is a reflection of a crisis at the peaks of learning, an incoherence and incompatibility among the first principles with which we interpret the world, an intellectual crisis of the greatest magnitude, which constitutes the crisis of our civilization.”
He asked readers to consider contemporary students as he encountered them. They arrived ill-equipped to explore the large questions the humanities pose, and few saw the need to bother with them in any case. Instead, he said, they were cheerful, unconcerned, dutiful, and prosaic, their eyes on the prize of that cushy job. They were “nice.” You can almost see him shudder as he writes the word. “They are united only in their relativism,” he wrote. “The relativity of truth is not a theoretical insight but a moral postulate.”
I’ve been reading the book, and while there are many points that leap off the page and demand attention, the ones that particularly resonated with me were his insights about popular culture. Whereas once, reason led students to the discovery of truth, now, the popular culture imposes its truths on its young and impressionable consumers.
Here is Bloom on the pervasiveness of pop culture’s most prominent medium, rock music:
Though students do not have books, they most emphatically do have music . . . It is their passion; nothing else excites them as it does; they cannot take seriously anything alient to music. When they are in school and with their families, they are longing to plug themselves back into their music.
(That point is particularly prescient as Bloom was writing before iPods, smart phones, and other portable electronic devices became such powerful parts of the identity and image of young and old alike.)
There is the stereo in the home, in the car; there are concerts; there are music videos, with special channels exclusively devoted to them, on the air nonstop; there are the Walkmans so that no place-not public transportation, not the library-prevents students from communing with the Muse, even while studying.
And here, on the content of rock:
Rock music has one appeal only, a barbaric appeal, to sexual desire-not to love, not eros, but sexual desire undeveloped and untutored. It acknowledges the first emanations of children’s emerging sensuality and addresses them seriously, eliciting them and legitimating them, not as little sprouts that must be carefully tended in order to grow into gorgeous flowers, but as the real thing. Rock gives children, on a silver platter, with all the public authority of the entertainment industry, everything their parents always used to them they had to wait for until they grew up and would understand later.
To Bloom, “Music is the medium of the human soul in its most ecstatic condition of wonder and terror.” The point of education is “the taming of domestication of the soul’s raw passion-not suppressing or exciting them, which would deprive the soul of its energy-but forming and informing them as art.” Pop culture, to Bloom, works against education’s goal of taming the soul, giving students a cheap shot of bliss at the expense of longer, lasting happiness:
Rock provides premature ecstasy and, in this respect, is like the drugs with which it is allied. It artificially induces exaltation naturally attached to the completion of the greatest endeavors-victory in just war, consummated love, artistic creation, religion devotion and discovery of truth. Without effort, without talent, without virtue, without exercise of the faculties, anyone and everyone is accorded the equal right to the enjoyment of their fruits. In my experience, students who have had a serious fling with drugs-and gotten over it-find it difficult to have enthusiasms of great expectations. It is as though the color has been drained out of their lives and they see everything in black and white. The pleasure they experienced in the beginning was so intense that they no longer look for it at the end, or as the end. They may function perfectly well, but dryly, routinely. Their energy has been sapped, and they do not expect their life’s activity to produce anything but a living, whereas liberal education is supposed to encourage the belief that the good life is the pleasant life and that the best life is the most pleasant life. I suspect that the rock addiction, particularly in the absence of strong counter-attractions, has an effect similar to that of drugs. The student will get over this music, or at least the exclusive passion for it. But they will do so in the same way Freud says that men accept the reality principle-as something harsh, grim and essentially unattractive, a mere necessity. . . As long as they have the Walkman on, they cannot hear what the great tradition has to say. And, after its prolonged use, when they take it off, they find they are deaf.
As a young person who loves rock/pop music-i.e., the kind of person Bloom is talking about-I agree that the affect rock music has on the young, emotionally, is generally speaking as he describes it. Rock music appeals to our rawest passions and emotions and creates a world for us that indulges those passions and emotions-like love, sex, heartbreak, anguish, angst, anger, anxiety, loss-often before we have even experienced them first hand. Not only does this create warped expectations for us when we finally do have those experiences, but it makes those experiences seem duller to us when they happen. In a way, rock music demands so much of our emotions and psychological wherewithal that it can bankrupt us of them, so that we don’t have them when we actually need them. It takes the living out of life.
That said, I do think there are certain exceptions, like this song that I highlighted yesterday or these ones I wrote about in February, which harness our emotions in a more sophisticated and meaningful way than, say, the pop-rock stars that Bloom took aim at in his book, like Mick Jagger, Boy George, and Michael Jackson (today’s equivalents being Lady Gaga, Rihanna, and Kanye).
Along those lines, while Bloom praises classical music for appealing to the “refinements” and “spiritual satisfaction” of its listeners-he delights in introducing his students to Mozart-I wonder what his assessment of lyric-less jazz music would have been, like Miles Davis’ Flamenco Sketches, which (to me) is closer in line to classical music than to rock.
The Closing of the American Mind, by Allan Bloom. (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987)
Here is a book which compels the question whether we should be glad of its existence. My answer is that we should be thrice glad, glad once that it was written, and glad that, having been produced, it found such favor with the public. The bulk of this review will address itself to the reservations which prompt the question in the first instance. Of the two reasons for rejoicing in its success—it is at the date of this writing in first place on the best-seller list—one is somewhat sly and the other quite straightforward. First, Mr. Bloom’s book is the jeremiad of liberal education; but a Jeremiah eagerly heard, a prophet honored in his own land, is a prophet more than half refuted. As for the plain pleasure, it is simply that the book will do some concrete good.
Some good, evidenced in small incremental improvements: the ear of a foundation here, a modest program there. Mr. Bloom himself has no illusions about a great systemic reprise of liberal education.(380) An indication of the practical impossibility that the requisite cohesion should ever come back, is in the concurrent success of E. D. Hirsch’s book, Cultural Literacy, in which is advocated a return to what used to be called “general information” (now defined descriptively as acquaintance with a list of some 3800 terms), while the one solution Mr. Bloom finally offers—to be sure, with many cautionary contortions namely the reading of Great Books (344), is disavowed in Hirsch’s preface. In truth, the thought of our whole vast establishment suddenly converted to liberal learning is somehow appalling, like the image of a continent-sized wheel of fine, ripe cheese. The factor of scale seems to me serious and of the essence. Communities of liberal learning require small size and spontaneous beginnings; the unanimity which ensouls and maintains them becomes oppressive and mechanical when hugely magnified and centrally mandated.
In fact, it is strange to me that Mr. Bloom fixed on the universities as the possible loci for the learning whose loss he mourns, when surely our three thousand or so small colleges are its more likely home. The glory of the modern university has properly been not in contemplative reflection and aporetic conversation but in cumulative research and brilliant breakthroughs. And I will pit my experience in a score of more or less obscure little schools against his among a thousand university students: In these places student souls are still capable of grand longings, books are read with receptive naiveté, and religion is not debased to the frisson of ”the sacred.” Small places are our internal educational frontier, and the spirit lives in the sticks.
With respect to the effective influence the book might exert (as opposed to the passing waves it superimposes on the roiled ocean of opinion), there is something to be regretted in Mr. Bloom’s policy of presenting himself as a voice crying in a wilderness; for in fact the wilderness has quite a few cultivated clearings. He speaks namelessly of his teachers and not at all of the institutional foci of resistance to the rot he exposes. His likely motives are most reasonable: not to be set aside because of sectarian associations, and, by suppressing the names of his allies and predecessors, to win the right of keeping the targets of his contempt anonymous. Consequently, this irate tract manages to preserve a certain American civility. Nonetheless, the price is that general readers will have to discover for themselves the addresses of the contemporary sources and places where effective resistance is carried on, such as St. John’s College itself.*
One word more on the reception of the book. Quite a few people are obscurely enraged by it and express that aversion—just as Mr. Bloom indeed predicts—by means of certain schematic terms, such as racism, elitism, and nostalgia-mongering, that are currently used to impute as sin unpopular though perfectly defensible opinions. It should not be considered a sin for Mr. Bloom to observe regretfully the more than occasional self-segregation of black students in the universities.
Again, if one really wished to show him wrong, one would not angrily call him an elitist—silly term—but, by refraining, prove that democracies can indeed contain even their contraries. On “Firing Line” in May of this year, Mr. Bloom respectfully, but skeptically, characterized the views of Midge Decter (who is, incidentally, one of his predecessors in worrying about America’s young) as “serious populism.” For my part, I subscribe to this sort of populism, which precisely disavows the entity called “the People” because of the conviction that people one by one have in them, besides sound sense, the roots of reflection; thus they occupy places in a continuum with the deepest philosophers and are capable of participating to some degree in a common liberal education.
This proposition is what Mr. Bloom evidently disbelieves. He thinks that philosophy, the highest pursuit, is not for everybody. I think he is wrong, democratic or undemocratic aside. (I do not want to concede either to him or to his opponents that his own opinions are truly any more incompatible with strong democratic sentiments than many other things one needs to believe along with one’s civic creed. There is an argument which in its amplitude would have brought even Mr. Bloom into the democratic fold had he cared to use it: pluralism.)
To begin with, his view of aristocracy has a stylized, unreal air. He seems to think that the honor-seeking aristocratic type, the magnanimous lover of the beautiful and the useless, is dominant in real-life aristocracies, just as he must think the vain, sycophantic, utilitarian, democratic type is pervasive in democracies. (250) From what I read and hear, “the beautiful” for aristocrats has usually meant—and still means—mostly horseflesh, and if Mr. Bloom were not first run through by his aristocrat’s sword for impugning his stud as useless, he would soon find himself dying of boredom from the nobleman’s conversation. To be sure, Squire Western is more lovable than the aesthetic snob Mr. Bloom unwittingly delineates. These aristocrats, who, Mr. Bloom himself is careful to state, are far from being philosophers, are said by him to be likely to admire philosophers for their uselessness. (250) To my knowledge they used to require them to work for their places at the bottom of the table as pedagogues and secretaries. But the main point is that a careless opposition has confused the issue here. The non-utilitarian is not the useless but it is that which is beyond both the useful and the useless, and in particular it is what makes all usefulness possible. Talk of the uselessness of philosophy obscures its universal needfulness.
As for the actual citizens of a democracy, Mr. Bloom writes as though in this country no businessman had ever written sophisticated yet beautiful poetry or had ever composed advanced yet lovingly American music, no backwoodsman had ever achieved incomparable yet popular grandeur, no sailor had ever told an enormous moral myth which was also an account of the whaling industry. Mr. Bloom draws from his anti-populist views one simple rule for the university: It should not concern itself with providing its students with the democratic experiences they cannot escape in democratic society, but it must provide those they cannot have there.(256) It should be a safe-house for aristocracy. This injunction seems to politicize and turn into paradox a true pedagogical precept; namely, that colleges and universities should provide no “life experiences” at all but should attend to book-learning and the other theoretical pursuits which are their proper business. Whatever is done in an American school cannot help but come out as a democratic experience, not least the free and direct discussion of Great Books. For it involves the democratic presumption that a cat may look at a king. Europeans tend to find this typically American and somewhat comical.
I have heard the charge of nostalgia-mongering with respect to what seems to me Mr. Bloom’s very restrained rehabilitation of the fifties. To be sure, I don’t quite believe his claim that these were the great days of the American universities. As I recall it, they were the very years when professors anticipated Mr. Bloom in bemoaning the apathy and lack of public commitment on the part of their students, the years whose prosperous philistinism retarded my Americanization by a decade. But his praise of the fifties is in any case only the prelude to the damning of the sixties, the anathema of the book, which Mr. Bloom hates with verve enough to energize every chapter. This autobiographical impulse is patent to everyone. Not that one would blame him. What happened at Cornell, what the faculty seems to have permitted itself by way of moral indeterminacy, might well inflict a trauma never to be forgotten. The only saving grace of the episode, which so blessedly distinguishes it from the case of the German universities under the Nazis, is that the people of this democracy never made common cause with the professors.
This is the moment to say a word about Mr. Bloom’s writing. As The Closing is, of necessity, something of a magpie book intellectually, so in style it has a sort of mongrel eloquence: literately turned phrases suddenly develop colloquial cadences, the prose is inspissated with metaphor, and the exposition is torrential. It aroused in me a sense of sympathetic recognition. This is a style formed under the pressure of the most pervasive sort of anxiety there is. For most human misfortunes, from physical pain to miscarried love, there is local relief and the prospect of recovery, but the fear for the spirit of one’s country is an incessant taint upon the enjoyment of life. Mr. Bloom’s country is the America of the Universities, and the anxious patriotism which steals the serenity from his style does his sentiments honor.
To pass from the circumstantial to the substantive: Is this a good book?
People regularly refer to it as brilliant. So it is, but brilliance belongs to the demi-monde of intellectual virtues. It would be silly to regret the flamboyance which is winning it its audience; at the same time, it would be wrong not to register, for the record, certain substantial doubts.
Let me begin this way: I would not recommend the book to students, not because it will offend their sensibilities—it can do them nothing but good to be forced to defend themselves articulately—but because it is a book not only of generational pulse-taking but also of intellectual history. I would not wish our students to get their intellectual history from this book (I shall shortly argue that it is a little too coarse-grained even of its kind)—or indeed from any book. To my mind, the notion that the intellect might have a history, that thought might develop a direction over the generations, should come to students as a late and suspect insight, long after each individual work of thought has been given its a-historical due.
The Closing of the American Mind is, I am implying, a historicist enterprise or, more fairly, next cousin to it. Since historicism, the notion that the temporal place of a text determines its significance more than does the author’s conscious intention and that history through its movements is a real agent, is Mr. Bloom’s bête noir, this is no small charge. But there is no getting around the fact that the book continually places and positions great names evaluatively from the outside in—of internal philosophical substance it contains very little. Similarly it persistently sums the spirit of the times and seeks its genealogy in intellectual movements. For example, he says that the university as we know it is the product of the Enlightenment (250), a typical historicist summation in which the tree vanishes into the forest. Indeed, some of his judgments are simply distance effects (as are most historicist conclusions), which dissolve under a close inspection. A crucial example is the claim that nowadays “all the students are egalitarian meritocrats.”(90) If that were true, and a group held a belief without exception, one would indeed be driven, willy-nilly to the thought of a domination by a supra-individual spirit, that is, a congenital psychic infection by history. In fact, it is probably false. In my experience there are always some students who are acutely if reticently proud of the advantages accruing from the right sex, religion, and social status, while those who do believe that “each individual should be allowed to develop his special and unequal talents” without reference to those factors might, I put it to Mr. Bloom, not just generationally believe it but also individually think it; it is certainly what I think.
The title itself is revealing. It is, to be sure, not Mr. Bloom’s choice. He wanted the euphonious and accurate title “Souls Without Longing” (the French title is “L ‘Ame desannee”). But he condoned “The Closing of the American Mind.” The “Closing” part is fine: one of the most convincing chapters is the early one in which he shows how openness corrupted, which becomes the lazily tolerant path of least resistance, forecloses passionate doubting, and how the springboard of learning is vigorous prejudice. But “the American Mind” is debased Hegelianism, and a scandal. Americans do, happily, still have certain areas of consensus; nonetheless, they have more than one mind among them.
It is utterly clear to me that Mr. Bloom does not mean what his words say, but it is odd that he is willing himself to supply the example of that soul-slackening disconnection of thought from utterance that he so spiritedly attacks. In fact this permissiveness exacts its price at the end, when he makes the judgment without which the book would be pointless: “Philosophy is still possible” (307), even, presumably, in America. His philosophy of history (and the project of the book really requires one) is simply too diffuse to support this optimism after all the gloom: he has obscured the only basis upon which the possible can, according to Aristotle, ever become actual, namely prior actuality. In short, “still” is the stumbling block here.
Perhaps what is missing rather than a philosophy of intellectual history is its antithesis, a theory of opinion-holding, particularly an explanation of how and with what effect people say non-thoughts and become attached to terms of low thought-content. I hold to the axiom, which must seem culpably cheerful to Mr. Bloom, that shallow opinions are mostly shallowly rooted. Therefore I cannot share his passionate sadness at the deficient eras, the spiritual detumescence (136), of the American student soul. Though somewhat masked by the gormless language of the “sensitive, caring and non-possessive relationship,” lustful, hurtful, exclusive love goes gloriously on.
But whether it does or no, there is something not quite consistent in this mourning over the de-compression of the soul. Mr. Bloom describes with wicked verve the fatal invasion of the limpid American mind by the dark knowledge of the German refugees. He must know what a crucial role adolescent intensity played in shaping both these Europeans and their persecutors. I think that when Americans trivialize the continental depth (157) they so eagerly absorb, they are often very sensibly—and not altogether unwittingly—counteracting their own intellectual prurience. And so, when the young cluelessly acclimatize Heideggerian Gelassenheit as “staying loose” (or so Mr. Bloom pretends to believe), it may not be such a tragedy: at least from staying loose there is a possible road to reason.
My doubts so far have really concerned the nature of generalization as practiced in this book, but my final set of complaints concerns its quality. The text seems to be stuffed with truth that is not the whole truth and not nothing but the truth. Of course it is very hard to hit all the small nails squarely on the head with so large a mallet, yet there are fine and there are coarse ways of epitomizing spheres of thought and trends of opinion. Mr. Bloom’s often anonymous and torrential mode of presentation makes it hard to tell whether the trouble is with his accuracy or his perspective. Moreover, he sometimes seems to present an anonymous modern opinion as though it had but to come in contact with the air to self-destruct, while his great moderns, Rousseau and Nietzsche, seem somehow to merit awed admiration for setting us on the road we are condemned for following. Mr. Bloom’s relation especially to Rousseau is the mystery of mysteries to me. One of the excellences of his exposition is the continual pointing to Rousseau not just as the uncannily accurate analyst, but as the brilliantly effective originator of the corruption-prone side of modernity. (The book neglects to its detriment the complementary side, the reverence-producing splendor of modern science and mathematics). But then why is Mr. Bloom not on record as being at least as repelled as he is fascinated by this “inverse Socrates?”(298)
For Socrates is the pervasive hero of the book—Socrates the anomalous man, that is, not Socrates the conductor of fairly comprehensible conversations, or the contemplator of communicable truth. This curtailed Socrates comes before the American public brusquely defining the task of philosophy as learning how to die; from this picture it takes but a few steps to reach the conclusion that there is an incomposable quarrel between the philosophers and most of mankind.(277-8) Mr. Bloom manages to turn Socratic philosophizing into an utter arcanum simply through by-passing its substance. I think that when Socrates is brought on the scene he should appear as practicing the life he thought worth living.
Indeed, the fact that actual philosophy is kept at one remove in this book, that it is a tract on the love of the love of wisdom, is responsible for a certain skewing in the analysis of contemporary ills. Let me give one of many examples I could cite.
That “the self is the modern substitute for the soul” (173) is an indispensable insight in the analysis of modernity. But in the section devoted to it, Mr. Bloom simply suppresses reference to “subjectivity,” the philosophical term through which are to be reached the deep and not ignoble motives for the substitution: to be utterly unfooled, to confront nature as its knower, to be freely good. Consequently, contemporary talk of the self and its discovery is deprived of the respectable strain that, it seems to me, still somehow resonates in the most debased chatter. Our “three-hundred-year-long identity crisis” is, for all its latter day indignities, the unavoidable working out of a brave and compelling choice: We are essentially neither ensouled instantiations of an eternal species, nor creatures whose souls are made by God, but ungrounded spontaneous individual subjects. The function of philosophy should be not to shame us for it, but to re-dignify our dilemmas.
I want to end with the chapter on music, a chapter that is close to Mr. Bloom’s heart, and that he mistakenly thinks is unregarded. In fact, young readers turn to it first and rage at it, thereby confirming his observation that rock is their love. It is, to be sure, in a book that insists that the best is for the few, somewhat inconsistent to discount the lovers of classical music because they are fewer than one in ten, but the main point, so truly observed, is that the adherence to rock is universal. (I have never heard anyone young speak against it.) I do not quite believe that rock “has one appeal only, a barbaric appeal, to sexual desire.”(73) I am a sporadic watcher of MTV and know that what the visualizations pick up in the music is its weirdness, whininess, bizarrerie, meanness, and scariness—in sum, a whole vocabulary of extra-sexual excruciation, which is often ironically and even wittily exploited. The appeal is not so hard to understand; it is its universality and depth that remains a mystery.
For Mr. Bloom’s explanation does not quite reach the love aroused by this, or any, music. For him, following, as he claims, Plato and Nietzsche, music is the “barbarous expression of the soul,” the soul’s primitive, pre-rational speech, pure passion. I take it as read that he knows his Republic, but where in it did he find this theory? His own translation corrects the impression given by earlier versions that the musical modes express the passions.(Rep. 398 e 1) According to Socrates, they rather shape them. Moreover, the music must follow the words, which it couldn’t do if it had no close relation to reason. (Indeed it was Socrates’ Pythagorean friends who propagated the great tradition or music as qualitative mathematics.) Some musical modes are more soul-relaxing than others, but these latter, the bracing ones, are the most potent instruments that the community possesses for forming the soul into grace amenable to reason. It follows that there is nothing truly primitive or pre-rational even about the most orgiastic music, and that when a sect succumbs to Wagner, or a generation to rock, the explanation cannot start from raw passion, but must begin with corrupt reason. Mr. Bloom has succumbed to the prime error of those dark Germans, which is to think that the soul of a rational animal somewhere harbors a nature-preserve of pure primitive passions.
To conclude. The Closing of the American Mind is not only an opportune summation of decades of critique, but it is also among the early lappings of a turning tide. For the tide is turning, though not to float a happy and harmonious new liberal learning, but to ground us in a sad new abstinence. It has very suddenly come home to us that the world is full of dangers just where we sought our pleasures: spending, sex, substances, sound, even sunshine. We will be drawn in upon ourselves, we will have to take new thought, and in these straits liberal literacy, the attentive reading of good books, may eventually play a modest role as something of a saving grace.
Because of Mr. Bloom, this thought may come a little sooner to a somewhat larger number of people. Moreover, since it comes embedded in a critique of our current condition that is wholly passionate and largely true, there will be a more immediate effect: Some readers of the Closing of the American Mind are bound to experience a re-opening of their minds to the all-but-foreclosed understandings behind our present. That will be its success beyond celebrity.
*Some of these fellow-fighters in the battle against the soul-unstaying piffle-terms, those relaxants of shape and significance, which are the real, or at least the most interesting, butt of the book, such as creativity, self, culture, life-style, and communication, are hearteningly easy to find. For example, there are Judith Martin’s vastly popular ”Miss Manners” books, which, under the guise of pronouncing on etiquette, often ironicize our linguistic mores; thus Miss Manners bids us to “make a special effort to learn to stop communicating with one another, so that we can have some conversation.” Here is no inconsiderable ally!
Books by Eva Brann may be found in The Imaginative ConservativeBookstore. This essay was written in July 1987, appeared in The St. John’s Review (Volume 38, No. 1, 1988) and is republished here by permission of the author. Miss Brann welcomes questions/comments via mail: Dr. Eva Brann, St. John’s College, 60 College Avenue, Annapolis, MD, 21401-1655 (she does not use computers).
Published: Dec 22, 2015
Eva Brann is a Senior Contributor to The Imaginative Conservative, a distinguished and long-serving tutor at St. John's College, and the 2005 National Humanities Medal recipient. Dr. Brann's works include: Paradoxes of Education in a Republic, The Past-Present: Selected Writings of Eva Brann, What, Then, Is Time?, The World of the Imagination: Sum and Substance, Homeric Moments, Feeling Our Feelings, The Logos of Heraclitus, Un-Willing: An Inquiry into the Rise of Will’s Power and an Attempt to Undo It, The Music of the Republic: Essays on Socrates' Conversations and Plato's Writings, and Then & Now: The World's Center and the Soul's Demesne. Dr. Brann has also published translations of Plato’s Sophist and Phaedo.
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