The Magazine

Romantic at Heart

Bloom's critique of unreason, and what it owes to Santayana.

Dec 17, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 14 • By JAMES SEATON
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The 20th anniversary of the publication of The Closing of the American Mind is a good time to ask whether Allan Bloom's bestseller was a book of its moment, or a work of permanent significance.

A 2007 rereading suggests that both the emotional power that made it a bestseller and its intellectual limitations derive from an aspect of the book neglected by both proponents and attackers: its unacknowledged but intense romanticism. This romanticism charges Closing with emotional authenticity, but also leads to an overrating of the esoteric wisdom and sheer intensity Bloom associates with true philosophers, and an underestimation of the common sense and practical wisdom of ordinary Americans.

Bloom's romanticism becomes clear if one compares The Closing of the American Mind to another famous analysis of American culture and society: George Santayana's Character and Opinion in the United States.

There are a number of striking parallels between Bloom's 1987 work and Santayana's 1920 analysis of American culture. Both stressed the impact of German philosophy. Bloom found "the master lyricists" Nietzsche and Heidegger at the source of some of the most pervasive aspects of American culture, while Santayana believed that the American genteel tradition was enabled by the academic prestige of German philosophical idealism.

Both Bloom and Santayana turned to their own universities to discern wider cultural patterns. Bloom found that intellectual trends at the University of Chicago, where he was a student and finally a professor, both influenced and reflected broader currents in American culture, while Santayana took Harvard, where he was both a student and a professor, as exemplifying the academic environment that allowed the genteel tradition to flourish. Both judged the American scene from the viewpoint of what each took to be the essential philosophical perspective: that of those whom Bloom called the "knowers" and Santayana the "true philosophers."

One important difference between the two analyses lies in their attitudes and judgments about those aspects of American culture remote from theoretical or philosophical discourse. Asserting in Closing that "an experience of profound contempt is necessary in order to grasp our situation," Allan Bloom is indeed contemptuous of many aspects of the life of ordinary Americans. His own relatives seem unable to talk without lapsing into trivialities: "When they [my relatives] talk about heaven and earth, the relations between men and women, parents and children, the human condition, I hear nothing but clichés, superficialities, the material of satire."

It isn't that people have hidden depths they are simply unable to express; the superficiality goes deep down. According to Bloom, "the dreariness of the family's spiritual landscape passes belief," and the college students trying to escape from the family's "dreariness" by way of casual sex are no better. He does not object to student sexual activity because it is irresponsible or immoral but because it is insufficiently passionate: "The eroticism of our students is lame." Bloom is disappointed that his students are not willing to risk everything for the sake of love: "Their lack of passion, of hope, of despair, of a sense of the twinship of love and death, is incomprehensible to me." He laments that "sexual passion no longer includes the illusion of eternity."

Bloom wanted people to live intense, serious lives. He was not so much disturbed that American culture seemed ultimately nihilistic--he speculates in Closing that "nihilism is a dangerous but a necessary and a possibly salutary stage in human history" --but because Americans didn't seem to take nihilism seriously. "American nihilism," he declared, was "nihilism without the abyss." Americans in general are "easygoing" rather than "serious," and therefore arouse Bloom's contempt. He praises Nietzsche for replacing "easygoing or self-satisfied atheism with agonized atheism," but Americans haven't gotten the message. In the United States, acceptance of Nietzsche's thesis on "the radical subjectivity of all belief about good and evil" did not lead to agonizing reappraisal of the meaning of life, but instead "served the easygoing quest for comfortable self-preservation."