Jun 2, 1997, Vol. 2, No. 37 • By PIA CATTON
CULTURAL CRITICS PRONOUNCE, almost daily, that America is going to hell in a handbasket. But no one has done so as memorably, or as successfully, as Allan Bloom did in 1987 with The Closing of the American Mind. Bloom told America that her professors and parents had been so corrupted that the young were being left to wallow in unexamined relativism and soft nihilism. And Americans -- more than a million of them -- made the book the unlikeliest bestseller of the decade, considering that learned disquisitions by University of Chicago professors, even when they are witty and graceful, don't ordinarily make a sensation at Barnes and Noble.
To mark the tenth anniversary of the book's publication, Bloom's friends and colleagues convened last week at the University of Chicago for three days of discussions of it and its author, who died almost five years ago. The conference divided into ideological camps similar to the ones that greeted the book on its release. Professors in Bloom's camp celebrated The Closing of the American Mind and analyzed its arguments with both great sobriety (Frank Kermode's panel was titled "Is There a Case for Teaching Literature?") and rollicking wit (Paul Cantor led "Baz Luhrmann's Romeo and Juliet: Generation X goes to Shakespeare"). Antagonists (Ira Katznelson, with "The Left and the Liberal University") found Bloom an elitist hopelessly out of step in a pluralist society.
As interesting, though, were the students at Bloom's beloved Chicago, whose manners and morals (or their lack) had been the subject of his book. Now, a decade later, the story seemed to be the same. Maybe worse. At a panel on " The Character of Generation X," one young woman emerged from a pack of students in dirty T-shirts and sneakers to rebuke the panel: "I don't sense despair in my peers," she said. "I have hope. Finding out what works and what doesn't is exciting." In other words, there are no lessons to be had from the past, and everything is up for grabs. The students at the conference generally showed a cheerful willingness to discount excellence when it would be too threatening, courage when it would be too demanding, and honor when it would produce inequality -- just as Bloom warned.
It was, of course, Bloom's attack on rock music and popular culture that helped make The Closing of the American Mind a sensation: "Young people know that rock has the beat of sexual intercourse." And yet the panel dedicated to the subject stirred few passions. Martha Bayles, literary editor of the Wilson Quarterly, challenged what she called Bloom's "blanket condemnation of rhythm." The University of Virginia's Cantor stepped in for the opposite side. "There is a certain hostility to high culture by popular culture. I am going to repay that today." And indeed he did. Spurred by one of his students, who said, "I loved Romeo and Juliet; I just don't know why it had to end so sadly," Cantor denounced the recent film version of Romeo and Juliet and its music. "What the student had experienced was a cleverly packaged refashioning of the old play, a sort of MTV version, in which pounding music and rapid-fire visual images in effect deconstruct and displace the poet's text -- in short Romeo and Juliet reduced to a series of slickly produced music videos, fleshed out around the bare bones of Shakespeare's plot."
The panel's last speaker, Stanley Crouch, dismissed the microphone, stood up, and gave an audience-winning ramble through popular culture. "What we have now is an audio safari. A hundred years ago, if you wanted anything this dangerous, you had to get inoculations, guns, and guides. Now all you need is $ 12.50 at Tower Records." His depiction of MTV and its reception among young people was accurate and amusing, and forceful enough to still the students.
But at the discussion on "Feminism and Identity in the Academy," the students raised the temperature. Emory University professor Elizabeth Fox- Genovese put the charge vehemently: "Feminism represents the most radical assault on everything Bloom cherished." She acknowledged that feminism had allowed great strides by women, but that did not keep one female student from challenging Fox-Genovese with the now-cliched response: "But I wouldn't be here if it weren't for feminism." Another graduate student bedecked in grunge- wear and little-girl barrettes afforded an example of feminism's decline into identity politics. "People will first encounter me as a woman, and I have some experience width this since I'm in graduate school here. It's the first thing people notice. Sexuality will be read back onto us." Fox-Genovese retorted, "If identity is the most important thing to you, then you probably don't belong in politics."