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Mr. Bloom
by Robin Roger

Allan Bloom had major accomplishments as a scholar, writer, translator, and social commentator, and he influenced other thinkers. But these concrete achievements are, to my way of thinking, less powerful than his skill as a teacher. This particular talent is perhaps the most likely to fade into obscurity, as it is recorded only in the minds of the students who had the opportunity to learn from him. Describing Bloom teach is something like describing Pavlova dance. Nothing will quite reproduce the power of the experience, but we are compelled to try to capture some of it. And just as the dancer cannot be removed from the dance, a teacher cannot be described without reference to a student. I learned many things from many professors at the University of Toronto, but Allan Bloom changed me in fundamental ways.
But first a word about nomenclature. Allan Bloom's students called him "Mr. Bloom". Not Dr. Bloom. Not Professor Bloom. Not Allan. He had a keen eye for pomposity, and did not like the formal designations, and yet he did not feel that calling him by his first name was appropriate. "Mr. Bloom" became a term of affection, and he once told me of a student who ultimately graduated and became a colleague of his in a department where he had to call him "Allan" publicly, but continued to call him "Mr. Bloom" privately.
The first major impact Mr. Bloom had on me was that he made me laugh. This is what drew me to take his course in the first place. During my first year, I had a class that met in the lecture hall in which he taught Politics 101, just afterwards. I used to stand outside the lecture hall listening to uproarious laughter and wonder just what was going on in there. I decided that no matter what he was teaching, I would take his course.
Well, the minute he entered the lecture hall at the first class next year, I knew I was in for a treat. He was rather dapper in those days: he wore expensive suits and a gold ring, and carried gold cigar accessories, along with his cigar. That, and the fact that he was mostly bald, gave him a solidly grown-up quality and an air of authority. This was particularly striking in the context of the university, where, at the time, everybody dressed shabbily, including the professors. This was supposed to be a political statement. For the women, it was a feminist protest against objectification, as if making ourselves drab made us free. I myself favoured oversized men's overalls and work-boots, no make-up and braids. For the men, it was solidarity with the working class they were in university to avoid becoming part of. If a Mao jacket was thrown on top, it was solidarity with the People's Republic of China. So Mr. Bloom's natty appearance made him positively glamorous. His cigar was an effective prop, which added to his show-biz persona, as did his habit of quoting shtick from various stand-up comedians. Bloom could quote King Lear and the 2000-Year-Old Man in one hour and make them both seem equally pertinent. He also interjected his own memories, which were extremely funny. One day, when explaining that Rousseau's "back-to-nature" thinking ultimately resulted in the boy scout movement, he recalled that when he was a boy scout he had taken one of his badge tests during Passover, thus becoming the first boy in the history of the movement to rub two sticks together in the forest in order to fry matzah.
He entered the lecture hall with a far-away, almost worried look in his eyes, as he was gathering his thoughts. He began speaking softly and slowly, and then smoothly picked up his pace. Soon he would begin to act things out, because he had a natural, almost unconscious dramatic flair. If he spoke about human dignity, he would draw himself up, and hold his head high, feigning a haughty, noble look. If he mentioned the base and the ignoble, his voice would fall and linger with a scratching sound on the syllables of his words. The spectrum of human emotions and conditions played across his expressive face. Soon he would be waving his arms, or even hopping on one leg, as he drove a point home.
If he made a comment that was consciously ironic, he would agree with himself, with a short, ballistic "yeah", as if to acknowledge that he had just made a joke and recognized it as such. So, for example, when discussing the question of how men can be devoted to women but still retain an independent spirit, he might say, "In other words, it's easy to love 'em and leave 'em, but it's not so easy to leave 'em and love 'em-yeah!"
Often he was stalled by a very pronounced irregular stammer. He would be speaking smoothly, all of us listening intently, and suddenly he would get stuck in the middle of a word, as if a vowel had clogged up his vocal chords. When this happened, it felt rather as it does when you're watching a great TV show, and suddenly a notice comes on the screen saying they are having broadcasting difficulties, and you should not adjust your set. You still have the temptation to fiddle with the dials! I had to restrain myself from yelling out the troublesome word because I was so eager to hear what he had to say.
Listening to Allan Bloom's lectures was something like setting out for a leisurely stroll and suddenly finding yourself at the top of a double Ferris wheel. The fact that it was unexpected made it all the more exhilarating. The tingling uplift came from the way he could examine a premise from virtually every angle, making each approach seem valid, so that just when you began to accept one premise as correct, you were suddenly shown the correctness of the opposing argument. First he might make a stirring argument in favour of patriotism; then he would expose the limits of nationalism. First he would describe the comforts of piety; then he would reveal the impoverishment of blind faith. Your head would be whirling within a few moments of the beginning of his lecture. Usually he brought the Ferris wheel back down and let you out at the bottom before the class ended, but you definitely felt like you'd gone in a circle, and you left with a strong memory of the high at the top.
Not only did Mr. Bloom make me laugh, he made me see that sometimes you cannot learn without laughing. Plato and Machiavelli aren't exactly wild and crazy guys, but Swift could not have made his point without being funny. If we take ourselves too seriously in the course of studying, we will never learn anything. We have to recognize our own limitations-that we know nothing-in order to begin learning, and sometimes humour, directed at ourselves and our condition, is the best way. Furthermore, laughter disarms indignation, which is the most serious obstacle to thought, and one to which young adults are particularly prone, as they arrive at university with dearly held, but untested world-views. Mr. Bloom sometimes teased us into learning, and if it were not for his wit, I might not have begun the process of reassessment that led me to new worlds of thought.
But through laughter he did, in fact, lead me to thought. He often interrupted his lecture to take challenges from the floor, or to invite reactions from students. As there were some two hundred students in the class, many were unwilling to respond. But in those days, I carried a gauntlet full of all the typical liberationist bromides of the times, and I often found myself in a debate with him. A typical exchange might go like this:
Bloom: "Now, Socrates proposes that men and women should exercise naked together in the gymnasium; isn't that really a very shocking idea?"
Me: "Not really. The human body is nothing to be ashamed of."
Bloom (in a Woody Allen style): "I'm not ashamed of the human body-just my own-yeah!"
Me: "The point is, we are raised to be ashamed of the human body. But at the Campus Co-op Daycare Centre, the children play naked!"
Bloom: "Well! I had no idea there were such opportunities for vice in Toronto."
Me: "That depends on where your proclivities lie!"
Bloom: "Is this the voice of experience talking?"

This bantering taught me how to think on my feet, but more importantly, when the banter was over, he would go on to explain why my attitude was neither right, nor wrong, but incomplete and limited. In the example above, he would have explained that it's true we are raised to be ashamed of our bodies, in a certain way, but what Plato wants us to consider is, what happens in the relations between the sexes when shame is eliminated? What happens to our erotic drives, and how does it affect our society? What happens to our souls and our desires? Shame, modesty, propriety, and nudity are not simple questions. In the course of debating with Bloom, I began to realize that most questions were not so simple, and that many of my convictions were plodding, blunt instruments, good for bludgeoning the identified enemy, but not much else. Mr. Bloom introduced me to what I call nuanced thought. This was a profound change for the better in my life. For I discovered that when your mind is opened to nuance, it's really profoundly satisfying just to think about things. You can take any idea that is generally accepted, and by reflecting on it, discover its limitations. Issues that appear to be open-and-shut cases-abortion, say, or capital punishment-have many more aspects than they would if you simply take the fashionable attitude of the day. Now the fashionable attitude in my day at the University of Toronto was radical egalitarianism, but any unexamined set of beliefs constitutes an ideology and prevents thought. By reading Plato with Mr. Bloom I learned that the unexamined life is not worth living-and the opposite: that the examined life is rich and exciting. You achieve a measure of nuance, in part by rigorous thought, serious reflection, careful studying of texts, and so on, but also by letting your mind open up freely, letting it play with ideas. Mr. Bloom was an intellectual playmate, and I had as much fun with him as I have ever had with anyone.
Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that learning with Bloom was a pleasure. For integrated with all this fun was challenging, serious reading and interpreting of texts. The level of thought was so rigorous that when I look back at my notes I am surprised that we enjoyed ourselves so much while working so hard. But Bloom expected his students to read the texts faithfully and painstakingly, and he had a powerful impact on my taste in reading and my attitude toward fidelity to the author's words.
His reading list, which spanned from Plato to Nietzsche, shows that he wanted us to cultivate a taste for books of the past. Of course, he wasn't the only professor teaching such books, but he was certainly the most serious advocate of the Great Books that I ever met, and it really was possible to earn a B.A. without reading anything written before World War II. In my first year, for example, I took a course called Women-Oppression and Liberation, in which I wasted my time reading an anthology that contained an essay I'd written when I was in high school. At eighteen, I was seeking wisdom by reading what I'd written at seventeen. No wonder I thought I already knew everything.
Mr. Bloom insisted that I read Plato, Machiavelli, Swift, and Rousseau, to name a few, and consider what they thought, not what I believed. He also rigorously avoided telling us what he thought about contemporary issues, and whenever I asked him a direct question, he would respond, "You'll have to think about that." The purpose of reading was not to come to a quick conclusion, but to discover more and more aspects of the problem. This could be done by consulting the great books of the past-not as intellectual history-but as a continuing dialogue between great minds of all age. And we were welcome to join in that dialogue as long as we struggled with books written in less accessible idioms. In this way, reading became a conditioner of my intellect and a tonic for my soul. Not only did Bloom show me a treasure trove, he proved that writers of diverse backgrounds and periods were really my boon companions. And he spared me from a rigidification of thought about politically correct literature. This was in its earlier stages in the seventies, but even then, if you were a feminist, you read Virginia Woolf and George Eliot, but you skipped Jane Austen and you certainly had no truck with Melville. Books of the past were selected to support prejudices of the present. Bloom gave me the key to a richer and more diverse library.
When I decided not to go to graduate school, I worried that Mr. Bloom's impact on my life might come to an end, and went to talk to him about it. He consoled me by pointing out that his goal as a teacher was not only to produce more professors but to teach young adults things that would influence them in other pursuits. To influence how they look at things, how they react to the world around them. He said, "What I've taught you will even influence the way you raise your children." This hardly helped at the time, but he turned out to be right
Parenting these days is mired in ideology; children are its constant target. Bloom provided me with a method for evaluating all the attitudes of the day as they arise, be it environmentalism, which preys on little children mercilessly, and holds that a mother should be judged not by how she tends her children but by how she composts; or the kind of feminism that wants little girls to grow up to be as strong as men, but doesn't want little boys to do so-or any of the other mindless simplicities that sweep the public. I must remain eternally grateful for the intellectual freedom with which Mr. Bloom endowed me. The man the New York Times called a conservative was a true liberator.
There is a school of thought that holds that a great teacher is like a window: totally transparent. There is a lot to be said for this attitude, and in the final analysis, Mr. Bloom wanted his students to confront the texts directly, without his mediation. But the teacher's first task is to get the student to look through the right window. And if your students are trapped inside a cave, then that is no small task. Mr. Bloom used his passion, wit, charm, and commitment to direct our attention to the Great Books, and the timeless questions they raise.
So to this day I cannot think of the Republic, or Gulliver's Travels, or Madame Bovary, or Democracy in America, without thinking of Mr. Bloom. When I picture the opening scene of the Republic, in my mind's eye, I see Socrates and Bloom side by side. I see Socrates in a toga with a flowing white beard. I see Bloom in a suede trenchcoat with a jaunty beret, and of course a cigar. I see they are equally delighted to be in each other's company. And I have a sense of well-being that I am permitted to trail behind them. This may seem like the work of a feverish imagination, but it's what's inside our heads that gets us through a great deal of life, and that gives it meaning. Turgenev once said of Dostoevsky, "As long as this man is alive, I am not alone in the world." That is how I felt about Allan Bloom.


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