MY FRIEND, ALLAN BLOOM
12:00 AM, Oct 9, 1995 • By WERNER J. DANNHAUSER
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.