The Blog


12:00 AM, Oct 9, 1995 • By WERNER J. DANNHAUSER
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I met Allan Bloom at the University of Chicago in 1956, in a class on Plato's Republic. Allan already had his Ph.D. from the university's Committee on Social Thought, but he kept right on coming to classes while teaching adult education courses downtown in the university's Basic Program of Liberal Education for Adults. He was very much at home in the place, for, as he wrote three decades later in The Closing of the American Mind, " When I was fifteen years old I saw the University of Chicago for the first time and somehow sensed that I had discovered my life." It was surely more of a home to him than the Indianapolis of his birth.

A home is not a house, and the young man I observed in class that day did not appear to be quite housebroken. He looked gawky and disheveled; the natty dresser of later years was still a bit of a slob. What one noticed most about him, however, was not his attire, nor even the mobile look of somebody who thought with his whole face, but his sheer volubility. The words tumbled out of him so fast they often bumped into each other; he would shift from loudness to whispering to sputtering without warning. What is more, his words generated gestures that almost amounted to a language unto themselves.

He was a strange sight, easy to mimic, and in later years some of his best students could easily be induced to do their riotous imitations of him, but he was not ridiculous, because what he said compelled admiration. In that class he made it evident that he already knew the Republic, which he was later to translate, as few would ever be privileged to know it. He treated it like a mansion in which he was delighted to wander. When he spoke of Plato he struck one as somebody trying to become Plato, just as later he turned Shakespearean when writing of Shakespeare. Once, in later years, I accused him of having become Rousseauian. This was when he was wrestling with the Emile, and he took it as a compliment.

Even our first talk, the first of countless talks I had with him (to me he was the Michael Jordan of talking), violated the rules of serious discourse among Committee students. Neither Plato nor Nietzsche, his love and mine, was mentioned. He divined almost at once that I choked up when one normally " talked philosophy," unless it grew gradually out of the conversation at hand. So he asked about what it felt like to live as a Jew in Berlin and what it would be like to become infatuated with somebody who turned out to be a Nazi.

Allan's lust for friendship led him to engage in activities for which he was not especially well suited. Thus he played poker once a week though he was a bad player and had no poker face at all. He seemed to drink (moderately) not because he especially loved to drink, but because he loved the fellowship that drinking facilitates. The thing he seemed to need most was good company; the ceremonies of parting made him nervous and he was reluctant to hang up the phone.

Once I read in Colette that for Cheri the telephone was "a weapon in daily use" and told Allan of the phrase; he liked it. For him the telephone was an instrument to express and overcome his nervousness. His line was usually not busy because he was a pioneer employer of "call waiting," but as often as not he was already on the phone when one called him and he would have to call back. And when one visited him the constant ringing of the phone was a major annoyance, but not to him.

Allan would call at all hours, though not usually in the morning. He demanded, deserved, and took a long time for his conversations, except when he used one as a research assistant and was tracking down a quotation or a source. He was annoyed when I was busy with somebody else and infuriated when I refused to convey information in coded form -- I was not all that good at deceiving the people in the room with me.

Our best talks might last for over an hour and had a classical form. We began by debriefing each other on major events in our lives, went on to a major topic or two, and concluded with a barrage of politics, gossip, jokes. In politics he was more often than not to the right of me (except in matters concerning Israel) and accused me of harboring sentimental socialist sympathies. We both were major4eague gossips, specializing in wild speculations and confidences of the "swear never to tell anybody else" type. He loved Jewish and dirty jokes best, deploring my weakness for verbal play. (May I join you? Am I coming apart?)

It was much harder to end a talk with him than to begin one, for reasons to which I have already alluded. Sometimes he treated "goodbye" as a rejection.