MY FRIEND, ALLAN BLOOM
12:00 AM, Oct 9, 1995 • By WERNER J. DANNHAUSER
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.
He was thought by some to be quarrelsome and he could certainly be testy, but if one were to study the list of his terminated friendships, a brief list, one would discover that Allan hardly ever did the terminating. Some turned on him most rancorously, but the normal end of a friendship came with the death of a friend, and finally with the death of Allan Bloom. Our blossoming friendship soon extended beyond our play to the work we did as instructors for the university's Basic Program of Liberal Education for Adults, with its St. John's list of great books. Its faculty was composed mostly of graduate students like me and recent Ph.D.s like Allan, its students bored and unhappy housewives, retirees, businessmen who did not wish to act like tired businessmen, and oddballs of both sexes and all ages -- embodiments of ordinary human unhappiness.
Classes were held in the evenings and mornings. Twice a week he would call me early to announce his departure by taxi, and minutes later we'd be sharing a cab from the South Side to the Loop for an expensive breakfast before we began to teach. We earned less than $ 6,000 for a full load of teaching and thus illustrated Balzac's dictum that students can afford only luxuries. Another gift of Allan's announced itself: He was a genius at living beyond his means, even when in later years, as the author of a bestseller, that became more diffcult. During the Basic Program years of the late 50s, he was both a dear friend and an expensive one.
Allan Bloom was one of the great teachers of our time, but he was not the best teacher at the Basic Program. That honor probably belongs to Jason Aronson, our mutual friend. He was spectacular and he could influence students deeply, as is illustrated by the case of the lawyer who under his influence made plans to retire in order to devote himself to the study of Plutarch. But adults are part-time students and finished people; Allan needed to hold sway over the young. And he wanted to be like Leo Strauss, just as many of us did.
Strauss, philosopher and teacher, was the center of our intellectual and even our moral universe. A good deal of the time, the University of Chicago was, for us his students (he called us his puppies), Leo Strauss perched at one end of a log with us in rapt attention at the other. We could play hard because he kept us working hard at acquiring what is now in danger of becoming an anachronism, a liberal education.
Leo Strauss was like a sun around which we thought ourselves privileged to orbit, but unlike Allan Bloom, I was never among his closest students. Strauss bred Straussians and I became a Straussian; I still am one. But for reasons that do me little credit, I remained much more distant from the great man than did Allan.
Paradoxically, that meant that Allan's years of study were less peaceful and more tempestuous than mine. To pursue the above metaphor, Allan Bloom got too close to the sun and was seared by it. He was all set to become Strauss's personal assistant for a year, but the break between them was so serious that Allan left Chicago for a year to study in Europe.
That was around 1960. He could not talk about the details of their quarrel - - to this day I do not know the details -- but he was deeply wounded. He lost weight and temporarily lost interest in his work. It hurt to look at his manifest hurt. Later, much later, he would hint that Leo Strauss forced him to come to terms with the fact that he, Allan, could be hard to take, forced him to stare at his own neediness.
According to Nietzsche, everything personal is merely comic. Neither Allan nor I was at all sure that this was true, but we liked to brood and joke about this cryptic utterance. In any event, the break with Strauss did not (to borrow from Nietzsche again) kill Bloom but made him stronger. Slowly but surely they patched it up, and at the time of Strauss's death in 1973 Allan was very close to him again.
I heard about Strauss's death quite accidentally, minutes before Allan called me in Ithaca to tell me about it. How did he feel about it? He didn't know yet, he said; all he knew was that the world was suddenly smaller, emptier. We gathered in Annapolis the Saturday night before the funeral. A group of us did not let our sadness interfere with a lavish seafood dinner. Allan was the most nervous member of our little party. He kept jumping up to watch TV at the bar. He had an excuse; it was the night of Nixon's Saturday night massacre.
From teaching, I must turn to music, which Allan loved, differing in this respect from Strauss. Allan had a good voice, and on the most surprising occasions could belt out numbers ranging from "Bye-Bye Blackbird" and "All Through the Night" to arias from the opera Martha. The thinkers he loved most loved music. He delved deeply into the discussions of musical education in Plato's Republic, applying them brilliantly and with breathtaking, childlike directness to his dissection of rock in The Closing of the American Mind.
He loved Bach, Handel, and Haydn, and he had a weakness for Rossini and Tchaikovsky, but he loved Mozart most. Music meant a lot to him, and he appreciated it in a most personal way. He "sold" Mozart to me, a late convert to the love of classical music, by assuring me that Mozart had written a lot of "Moon River" music, and once, after we had listened to Mozart's horn concertos, he confessed that he wanted to be like a French horn in those compositions: bluff, gruff, forthright, faintly comic, yet capable of beguiling sonorities.
He was fascinated by the fact that Jean-Jacques Rousseau actually composed music, and at the drop of a hat he played that music on his stereo for willing (or at least consenting) listeners. The stereo on which he played Rousseau was, of course, state of the art and the Rousseau CD part of the biggest collection of CDs any of us had ever seen -- a collection especially huge when compared to his surprisingly small collection of books. The lofty passion for music combined in him with the less lofty passion for acquiring goods, but for those of us who sat in his plush living room listening to gorgeous music it was well worth his money.
Allah's love of Rousseau was almost as old as his love of Plato, and in point of fact he published a translation of Rousseau (Politics and the Arts) before he published a translation of Plato's Republic. The two philosophers were intimately entangled in the thought of Allan Bloom, whose version of Emile understands that book as in large part a critique of the Republic. His final book, Love and Friendship, begins with Rousseau and ends with Plato, with the two titans sandwiching Shakespeare in the middle.
One is glib but not totally off the mark if one understands Allan as a lover of poetic philosophers. That's obviously incomplete, as one can see if one remembers the enthusiasm with which he taught Aristotle and Xenophon, who are most difficult to characterize as "poetic." Both Plato and Rousseau spoke directly to Allah's soul. His first intense foray into Plato was by way of an analysis of "the little-read Ion" -- compared by Jason Aronson to the " little red Riding Hood" -- which he saw as a study of inauthentic actors who prepare a face to meet the faces that they meet.
His fascination with actors and acting also is evident in his reading of Rousseau's Letter to D'llembert, as well as the tug between pleasure and duty one finds all over Rousseau. Above all, however, Allan took most personally Rousseau's exemplary analysis of amour propre, vanity, as an indispensable clue to what to some extent made him tick because it made all modern men tick. Yes, Allan was vain, but he redeemed himself by the ruthless mockery of his own vanity, and often that vanity took the mild form discussed by Nietzsche of needing to know he was appreciated, admired, loved.
Rousseau also served Allan as a safeguard against an overalliance with conservatism. (Allan had many right-wing views but was not really a conservative and refused to call himself one.) In conservative circles, which run their own risk of becoming politically correct in their own fashion, it is often customary to pit Rousseau against Burke to the detriment of the forblind to the merits of Burke, and even appreciated the latter's characterization of Rousseau as the "insane Socrates of the French National Assembly," but Burke tends to stand for prudence, and prudence is a close relative of moderation, and neither his close friends nor bitter enemies would ever call Allan Bloom moderate.
If I were in a reductionist mood -- heaven forbid -- I would now add that Allan Bloom loved Rousseau because Rousseau reminded him of Paris, and vice versa.
Allan was a Francophile. He loved French literature deeply, displaying an elective affinity to Balzac, Stendhal, and Flaubert that he could not quite summon up for English, German, or Russian masterpieces of the same period. Proust was his favorite novelist of our century and C61ine may have been second. Since he read slowly, he was not much of a casual reader, but if he did indulge himself it was likely to be a Simenon mystery. He was even fond of Zola's Germinal, which he thought of as "the Communist Manifesto set to music." He loved to talk French, one of the languages in which he was fluent.
Paris gave a local habitation and a name to his love of things French. No other city rivaled it in his heart. The kid from Indianapolis was a city slicker who liked to quote Marx and Engels on "the idiocy of rural life" and he had good things to say about Chicago, Toronto, New York, Florence, Rome, and Tokyo, but his heart belonged to Paris. I cavorted with him in most of the cities I have mentioned but most deeply imprinted on my memory are images of Allan in Paris.
Shopping for pastries, walking along the Seine, browsing in the book stores ("the French are a nation of readers"), barhopping at night (there was a joint called "de la Methode" on the Rue Descartes and there may still be), unabashedly ordering Coca-Colas in fancy places, smoking up a storm everywhere and rejoicing in the freedom from growing American censoriousness about cigarettes -- the memories crowd each other.
He encouraged his students to spend time in Paris. Though he distrusted the word "culture," that's what he wanted them to acquire and he knew one could not get it simply by going to museums or attending concerts. One had to reside in a place, luxuriating in it, so that it set the stage for one's daily agenda, shaping the rhythms of one's day. Paris was ideal for that. Allan's headquarters in Paris were the Hotel Crystal, partly because it was just around the corner from the Cafe Flore, his favorite spot. (He disdained to patronize the Deux Magots, across a small street and possibly more renowned.) There he held forth on topics great and small; there he could be found breakfasting on a croissant while reading the Herald Tribune or late at night sipping a cognac. At his table one would find distinguished writers, young students, a member of Parliament, old friends like Pierre Hassner, or young friends like my daughters, Fanya and Anna.
Allan Bloom is dead three years nowtime flies even when you're not having fun -- and a lot of us continue to frequent the Cafe Flore when in Paris, talking of things small and great, but always the talk turns to him, and every joke told is diminished because it is not followed by his laughter.
Allan begins a lovely essay on The Merchant of Venice as follows: " Venice is a beautiful city..." It exemplifies the intimate connection he had with Shakespeare that began even before he wrote Shakespeare's Politics (with Harry V. Jaffa). That intimate connection was clearly in evidence in his last book, Love and Friendship, when he wrote, "The result of this latest reading of Shakespeare for me is the renewed conviction that there is nothing I think or feel, whether high or low, that he has not thought of or felt, as well as expressed, better than I have."
In other words, he held Shakespeare in awe, and not the least remarkable teaching this remarkable teacher bequeathed to his students is that awe is a necessary condition for learning from the great works of a great mind. He learned with a childlike directness that always amazed me. Pondering the life and times of Shylock, he attained a deeper understanding of the Jew in the Gentile world, and he actually put his thoughts about "The Moor of Venice" to work in grappling with the intricacies of race relations.
That, to be sure, was not the deepest thing he learned from Othello, which led him to probe his feelings of jealousy ever more deeply. Neither of us was, alas, a stranger to jealousy, so this particular text was one of the ways our specific talk led us to deeper regions.
When we were in Cornell together, my wife, Shoshana, Allan, and I resolved to have a small reading group devoted to Shakespeare's plays (wherever Allan lived, "small reading groups" sprouted around him). That was not to be, but we did talk a good deal about Shakespeare. Allan's directness of relations to the latter always astonished us. He had very little interest in the immense secondary literature on the subject. He was intrigued by the comments of a Goethe or a Nietzsche or a Lessing on Shakespeare, though he usually disagreed with them, but he did not care much for, say, the analyses of care much for, say, the analyses of an A.C. Bradley or even a Coleridge, preferring to take his Shakespeare without mediation.
Remembering Allan's abiding love of Shakespeare, I remember also my wife's abiding love for Allan. And the mysteries of memory bring me back to our times together at Cornell. Shoshana and Allan had not always hit it off. Both were feisty, both had tempers that could flare and tongues that could lash, but the sparks that flew between them soon enough turned to love.
She admired the electricity of his mind and he admired the electricity of her soul, and they both had an enormous need to talk. When Shoshana and I had a serious quarrel in 1967, it was Allan who told me I was a fool; when we married later that year, it was Allan who signed the orthodox Jewish wedding document; when Shoshana died in 1973, it was Allan who gave the eulogy.
In 1968, we spent a year together in Ithaca. The early Cornell days still shine in my memory, golden days of dinners with Allan and Walter and Irene Berns, poker games with Shoshana, Allan, Walter.
It did not last long, but after that we saw each other whenever we could, frequently in Toronto. When Allan went to Israel to teach in Tel Aviv, we gave him the Soncino Bible. I hoped to make him more pious, and Shoshana hoped he would turn his exegetical genius to the text she, raised in an Orthodox Israeli home, knew best.
When Shoshana and I went to Israel in 1972, she to study Hebrew literature at the Hebrew University, I to recuperate from my first heart attack, we heard almost at once from Walter Berns that Allan had suffered a heart attack as well. Shoshana was as upset as I ever saw her and wrote him a beautiful letter, quoting an ancient prayer dear to her since childhood, and recited at services on the eve of Yore Kippur:
After Shoshana died, Allan always carried a photograph of her in his wallet.
The academic year 1968-69 moved all too soon from hope to despair; Cornell University came apart at the seams after black students seized Willard Straight Hall, the student union, and the SDS came to their assistance. The sordid story finds its most searing analysis in The Closing of the American Mind. Walter Berns resigned in protest; Allan took a year off and then went to Toronto. Walter, Allan Sindler, chairman of the government department, and Allan Bloom were the heroes of a year that featured far more knaves and fools.
The year hurt Allan very much. None of us who knew him well ever saw him more angry and more frenzied. He knew all the foibles of the academic life; he even partook of some of them, but he loved higher education most purely, loved helping the souls of the young stretch upward. Hence he was cut to the quick by those who proudly proclaimed that teaching was primarily a power relationship. Over the years, he hit back hard.
I was at Cornell when The Closing of the American Mind appeared and became the nation's number one bestseller. I delighted in delighting Allan with stories of its reception in Ithaca, and especially its reception in the government department, where petty men spent hours picking nits among its pages and vain men denounced Allan in impotent rages at departmental meetings.
Success did not spoil him. His vices, too obvious to occupy me here, may have become more prominent, but it took a certain pettiness of soul not to enjoy his simple joy at savoring his triumphs, his well-earned victories. To put it simply, he loved being a celebrity, and he enjoyed it with an infectious boyishness. The good one-liners proliferated: "I'm in political philosophy because that's where the big bucks are" and "they used to ask me, if I was so smart, why wasn't I rich? Now I can say that I am rich."
And then sickness felled him. He fought back from paralysis to write Love and Friendship. Almost speechless with love and admiration, I visited him after lecturing on Gershom Scholem in Toronto and read him a sentence from Walter Benjamin's last letter to Scholem: "Every line we succeed in publishing today -- no matter how uncertain the future to which we entrust it -- is a victory wrenched from the powers of darkness." He liked that.
Nurtured by the love and friendship of close friends like Nathan Tarcov, Saul Bellow, Michael Wu, he improved temporarily and finished the first draft of his last book, but when I saw him next he was in a coma and dying. He came to one day and actually spoke a bit. That was the Eve of Yom Kippur. Nathan, Saul, and I met at Kol Nidre service and wondered whether he could recover yet again. He couldn't, dying on Yom Kippur Day.
Shoshana once told me she was reminded of Allan when she read, in Goethe's Elective Affinities, the line that against a genius we have but one defense, to love him. She loved him, and so did many of us, and it wasn't just defensive, though
CORRECTION-DATE: October 16, 1995
Due to an error by the printer, two lines were dropped from last week's memoir, "My Friend, Allan Bloom," by Werner J. Dannhauser. The paragraph at the end of page 45 should have read as follows:
"Rousseau also served Allan as a safeguard against an overalliance with conservatism. (Allan had many right-wing views but was not really a conservative and refused to call himself one.) In conservative circles, which run their own risk of becoming politically correct in their own fashion, it is often customary to pit Rousseau against Burke to the detriment of the former. Allan was by no means blind to the merits of Burke, and even appreciated the latter's characterization of Rousseau as the "insane Socrates of the French National Assembly," but Burke tends to stand for prudence, and prudence is a close relative of moderation, and neither his close friends nor bitter enemies would ever call Allan Bloom moderate."
The article's concluding paragraph on page 47 should have read as follows:
"Shoshana once told me she was reminded of Allan when she read, in Goethe's $ IElective Affinities, the line that against a genius we have but one defense, to love him. She loved him, and so did many of us, and it wasn't just defensive, though he was a genius."
Werner J. Dannhatser is visiting prossor of political science at Michigan State University. This article is an abridgment of an essay in Political Philosophy and the Human Soul: Essays in Memory of Allan Bloom (Rou,man&Littlefield Publishers, Inc.