Political Philosophy and the Human Soul:
Essays in Memory of Allan Bloom

320 pages,
ISBN: 0847680592

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Bloom, Mozart, and Joy
by Robert Fulford

In one of Allan Bloom's personal fantasies he thought of himself embodying the solo part in Mozart's horn concertos. Those four famous pieces, currently so popular that they are available on CD by thirty different soloists, may not be the greatest works of Bloom's favourite composer, but something in them nested in his soul. As he listened, he liked to imagine himself emulating the personality of the horn in Mozart's scores: "bluff, gruff, forthright, faintly comic, yet capable of beguiling sonorities."
Encountering that quotation, in Werner Dannhauser's beautiful reminiscence of Bloom, was one of many surprising pleasures I discovered in Political Philosophy and the Human Soul: Essays in Memory of Allan Bloom. I quickened to it, briefly identifying with Bloom as he identified with the protagonist in the concertos. Those pieces have been playing in the foreground or background of my own life for decades, never growing tiresome for a moment. They register with me as an inexhaustible adventure, a guided tour of the Mozartian universe: we follow the horn through an infinitely engaging landscape, at once disciplined and surprising, and each time we arrive inevitably at a place that is always familiar but always remarkable. They offer the voice of an individualist triumphantly exhibiting himself in a society of loving colleagues-surely an apt parallel to Bloom. Now, listening to them again, I realize they will always remind me of one of the great teachers of our time and one of the remarkable figures produced by philosophy in the second half of this century.

In German festschrift literally means "festival writings", and when the form works properly it encompasses an element of the festive-even when, as in this case, the tribute appears posthumously, delivered not to the distinguished professor himself but to his friends, admirers, and intellectual heirs. A good festschrift follows the design of a Ferris wheel: each of the articles is a gondola soaring to the sky, containing ideas connected by its spoke to the axle, the scholar whose excellence inspired the whole enterprise.
This festschrift is well designed, and like most good designs reflects love and ambition. The authors are Bloomians (though he never wanted such a class to exist), and collectively they indicate the breadth of his vision. He taught his students and his readers that we will find the truth in art as often as in philosophy, and probably in more nuanced form. So Richard S. Ruderman writes on love and friendship in the Odyssey, Carnes Lord on allegory in Machiavelli's remarkable play, Mandragola, Henry Higuera on Don Quixote, and Waller R. Newell on Eros and revolution in Flaubert's Sentimental Education. As Newell explains, Flaubert, Stendhal, and Balzac provide an indispensable understanding of the dark side of the liberalism that is one of the festschrift's major subjects: "Through reading them, we see how the craving to transcend liberalism altogether, whether through revolution, or a flight into nihilism, or a combination of the two, began to take shape."
Elsewhere, the authors lead us down Bloom-carved paths through Plato and de Tocqueville-and, of course, toward Bloom's great master, Leo Strauss. Nasser Behnegar's article on "The Liberal Politics of Leo Strauss" quotes a sentence from An Introduction to Political Philosophy: "Liberal democracy, in contradistinction to communism and fascism, derives powerful support from...the pre-modern thought of our Western tradition"-a central point that Bloom took from Strauss, elaborated on, and emphasized for his students and readers. Bloom was eager to point us back to the classical authors who insisted that there was truth to be found and that the good life involved searching for it. He prescribed the "old books", as he sometimes called them, as an antidote to the long line of German philosophers whose relativism and nihilism have shaped modern Western culture at its deepest levels. And these books could offer us something else, he believed, something practical: release from the oppression of current politics, with its authoritarian phrasing ("the personal is political") and its power to cage us in categories. Bloom, of course, did not escape labelling. Like Strauss, he was classed as a conservative, even a reactionary-his New York Times obit applied the word "conservative" to him twice in the first three paragraphs, and a bit further on upped the ante to "an almost reactionary conservative". In other words, he did not absorb and regurgitate every fleeting fad of academic politics and postmodern theorizing. The Closing of the American Mind argues for a radical transformation of the university, hardly the notion of a conservative mind-but "conservative" remains the epithet of choice for those who are uncomfortable when their most cherished pieties are called into question.
The articles written in tribute to Bloom are given a human frame by Dannhauser's highly personal reminiscence. A close friend who taught with him at Cornell and knew him through his University of Toronto years in the 1970s and his last thirteen years at the University of Chicago, Dannhauser delicately approaches what must have been the most disturbing event in Bloom's professional life, his break with Strauss. It occurred around 1960, when Bloom expected to become Strauss's personal assistant for a year and did not. Whatever happened between them was so serious that Bloom fell into something like a depression-an almost incredible thought to those of us who met him toward the end of his life. He lost weight, and for a while even lost interest in his work. He left Chicago for a year and studied in Europe. Much later, Bloom hinted to Dannhauser that "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 great neediness." Dannhauser summarizes that event: "Allan Bloom got too close to the sun and was seared by it." The relationship was slowly repaired, and by the end of Strauss's life they again were close. When Strauss died, in 1973, Bloom said he felt the world was suddenly smaller and emptier-a feeling similar to what many experienced when Bloom himself died in 1992.

In a Chicago hotel suite one afternoon in 1987, Allan Bloom was chortling, in precisely the sense Lewis Carroll must have meant when he invented that word: i.e., chuckling and snorting at the same time. We were waiting to do television programs for TVOntario-the last two of six half-hour interviews that made Bloom a star of the Realities series in the 1980s. He was talking about the sales of The Closing of the American Mind, the great sensation of American publishing that season. "Some of my colleagues have informed me," he reported, "that anyone who has a book on the best-seller list must be a charlatan. Not surprisingly, they also believe that the reverse is true." His publisher had given him an 800 number which he could call each Thursday morning to learn where his book would appear on the New York Times best-seller list eleven days later. Bloom, chortling, said that of course such things would never really interest a person of his elevated passions-but he was calling the number anyway. He gave us his latest ranking, higher than the week before.
I enjoyed watching Bloom enjoy his much-deserved success, and admired him for it. Intellectuals who find themselves popular usually feel called upon to pretend that it means nothing to them, or that it bothers them. Bloom loved it: in my experience his only equal, in this regard, was Isaac Bashevis Singer. Yet at the same time he richly enjoyed the spectacle of himself loving it. He knew how funny he was as a celebrity-philosopher, and he laughed at that idea as much as anyone else did (he liked to say that he got into philosophy for the money). In Bloom, self-consciousness was itself a source of pleasure; certainly it did nothing to inhibit him or dim his pleasure in the life around him and the life in him.
On this occasion he brought, as usual, gossip. It concerned himself and his ancient enemy, Edward Shils, another towering figure at the University of Chicago. Bloom informed us: "Apparently Shils told someone, `I understand Allan Bloom has written his autobiography and called it The Closing of the American Mind'-which I thought, thought, thought was not bad, not bad, not bad, not bad, not bad at all." Those last eighteen words were delivered in his unique conversational style, a combination of stutter and Gatling gun, the most charming speech defect (if that was what it was) I have ever encountered.
Bloom was a slow reader and a slow writer but a fast talker. Sometimes, listening to him, I thought of an old radio sketch by Bob Elliott and Ray Goulding about The Fast Talkers Association of America, imagining Bloom as its resident sage. In his youth, apparently, this conversational manner was already evident. As Dannhauser says, "The words tumbled out of him so fast they often bumped into each other; he would shift from loudness to whispering to sputtering without advance warning. What is more, his words generated gestures that almost amounted to a language unto themselves."
His hands danced through the air as he talked, fingers and cigarette tracing graceful arabesques, following some bizarre choreography lodged in his muscles: in our TV interviews, the hands often played a starring role. Students and friends liked to mimic him, but the mimicry was loving since the performance-eccentric, emphatic, wonderfully strange-was so much a part of him, like his vanity. As Dannhauser says, he was vain, but he mocked his own vanity in a way that made him all the more lovable.
All this was done with joy. Evident joy-a very different thing from happiness, which I regard as either elusive or non-existent-was the most obvious signature of Bloom's character. It made him both exceptional and memorable. In a gloomy world, dedicated above all to taking itself seriously and to making a dour "sensitivity" into a supreme value, his eager expressions of pleasure set him apart. This attracted some of his admirers as much as his ability to find the core of an issue.
Aside from clogging the veins of our intellectual culture with relativism (Bloom complained that students, arriving in university, were relativists before they knew what the word meant), the great German thinkers have imposed on us a kind of mandatory solemnity. As a society we are dedicated curators of our own gloom, connoisseurs of spiritual malaise-there are those who obviously believe that not to be prone to depression is a sign of superficiality. Nothing in my own experience of life has dismayed me so persistently as the realization that many people professionally committed to the humanities and philosophy are morose, slow-witted, incurious, inattentive, and dead to life's most vivid experiences. In contemplating such people I often wonder why I keep insisting that these activities (which we lump under "culture") are valuable and important-how can that be true when so many of those who are exposed to them apparently benefit not at all? In this context, Bloom renewed one's faith in the life of the mind.
That sense of joy (it's echoed by many contributors to Political Philosophy and the Human Soul) was crucial to his life as a teacher. Teaching can destroy the soul and frequently does. Often it comes down to a matter (as the Welsh writer Gwyn Thomas, played by Anthony Hopkins, puts it in a British TV film) of spending your life saying things you are not interested in to students who are not interested in hearing them. Perhaps it's no surprise that the teaching profession is littered with human wreckage; perhaps the remarkable fact is that it contains individuals who are whole, healthy, strong, and capable of good teaching. Bloom was a great teacher, beyond question, and anyone who spent a few hours with him knows why. He had the gift of enthusiasm, the ability to keep a topic alive by energy and communicable joy. Was this crucial quality psychological, chemical, a matter of choice, an act of will? I have no idea. Whatever its source, this aspect of his personality linked him with Mozart.
I wonder if Bloom knew the origin of the four horn concertos that spoke so directly to him. He might have been pleased to understand that they were composed as an act of friendship, which was one of the enduring themes of Bloom's life and thought; it also appears often in Political Philosophy and the Human Soul. Mozart wrote those pieces in the 1780s for his Viennese friend Ignaz Leutgeb, a horn player whose day-job was cheesemonger. Bloom would also have been delighted to know that Mozart saw them as in some sense comic-saw himself as comic, in fact, somewhat in the way Bloom did. The manuscripts carry jibes at his cheesemonger friend: "W. A. Mozart has taken pity on Leutgeb, ass, ox, and fool, at Vienna 27 March 1783." At another point: "Go it, Signor Asino." And at another, as if recognizing that there are those who sometimes find Mozart's elaborate variations tiresome: "Thank God here's the end."
In 1787, the year after he dashed off the last of the concertos, Mozart wrote to his father: "Young as I am, I never go to bed without thinking that possibly I may not be alive on the morrow; yet not one of the many persons who know me can say that I am morose or melancholy. For this happy disposition I thank my Creator daily, and wish with all my heart that it were shared by all my fellows." Certainly it was shared by his distinguished fan, Allan Bloom.

Robert Fulford, a columnist in the Globe & Mail, is the author most recently of Accidental City: The Transformation of Toronto (Macfarlane, Walter and Ross).


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