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