The Permanent Questions
Love and Friendship.
by Allan Bloom.
Simon & Schuster. 590 pp. $25.00.
In an age of declaimers and debunkers, pontificators and pundits, the late Allan Bloom was a teacher. For over three decades, Bloom attracted and inspired students at the universities of Cornell, Toronto, and Chicago, where he taught the great books and the permanent questions considered in those books. It is fitting that in Love and Friendship, completed shortly before his death in October 1992, Bloom writes above all as a teacher, an “honest broker for greater persons and writers than I.”
It is fitting, too, that in his last book Bloom should address the fundamental human phenomena of love and friendship, as well as such cognate issues as marriage, religion, and the nature of men and women. Bloom’s students came to him with certain presuppositions about these topics, presuppositions that in his view often made education difficult. That is why in the mid-1980’s Bloom interrupted his life of teaching in order to write The Closing of the American Mind. Political correctness, with its theoretical underpinning of an easygoing relativism oddly mixed with an intolerant radicalism, had to be taken on, according to Bloom, not so much for political reasons as for the sake of real education. In this sense Love and Friendship might be said to complete the intention of The Closing of the American Mind; having first shattered our complacency, Bloom now gives us a taste of learning.
Thus, after a fine polemical introduction, Bloom more or less leaves today’s culture wars behind in order to study some of the greatest writers on love and friendship: Rousseau, Stendhal, Austen, Flaubert, Tolstoy, Shakespeare, and Plato. In turning to these writers, Bloom not only means to help liberate us from current orthodoxies and their prescriptions for what we should feel and think; he also means to explicate, at considerable length and with great care, what his chosen writers have to teach. That is perhaps more than we are likely to be able to learn. Bloom’s own relation to these writers—a mixture of kinship, affection, wonder, and humility—is captured in his characteristic comment about Shakespeare:
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 or felt, as well as expressed, better than I have. This is a personal affront because one likes to think that one possesses a uniqueness and special worth that no one else can grasp. This is also a collective affront to the prejudice that our age really knows important things especially in matters sexual that give it a special superiority over all other ages.
I will not try to do justice to the quality or subtlety of Bloom’s interpretations in Love and Friendship. His readings are at once careful and bold, his accounts at once passionate and analytical. Anyone who cares about the thinkers he discusses, or indeed about love and friendship, will benefit from this very impressive book. And since, as Bloom says, “understanding love and friendship in their manifold experiences is the key to self-knowledge,” his book may even help its readers along in the human quest for self-knowledge.
This quest has been made particularly difficult in our time by the forces that conspire to close minds and impoverish souls, and that have led to what Bloom calls a “fall of eros.” In Love and Friendship Bloom traces this fall back to the beginnings of modern natural science and the political theory of liberal individualism. In the first half of the book, he focuses on the ultimately self-defeating effort of the past two centuries to reverse that fall.
Bloom explains how the Romantic rebellion against bourgeois society was launched by Rousseau, who sought to construct, or to reconstruct, a longing for love in the soul of modern man, and to find higher goals for his imagination than the pursuit of material self-interest. But Rousseau could locate no solid ground for this longing, and no solid basis for those goals. As is suggested by the 19th-century novels which Bloom next proceeds to discuss, the “romantic project” could not overcome the relentless demystification of modernity. Romanticism succeeded only in devaluing bourgeois individualism; in the end, it could not prevent, and it even contributed to, today’s “deeroticization of the world.”
How, then, can we ascend from today’s “dreary scene” of easy sex, interspersed with harsh attempts to suppress “sexism,” to a world of human love and friendship? Bloom looks to Shakespeare for instruction. Shakespeare is central to Bloom’s project because he is still reasonably accessible to us, and because the serious and imaginative study of Shakespeare can teach us so much about human possibilities and limitations. Not only does Shakespeare present us with all the varieties of love and friendship, he shows us that beneath these varieties there exists a natural human perception of and longing for the beautiful. In particular, the study of Shakespeare can help lead us to “something of a premodern view of man’s relations with his fellows,” and thus provide “serious, and perhaps more satisfactory, alternatives to our characteristic ways of looking at things.”
Finally, Bloom’s Shakespeare leads back to the truly premodern figure of Plato, and from there to a brilliant comparison of the radically opposed teachings of Socrates and Nietzsche. If, for Socrates, love and friendship are central to an understanding of the human soul and its quest for completion, for Nietzsche the essential human condition is solitude, and the will to power is more fundamental than the will to love. Bloom pays tribute to the extraordinary “psychological riches” contained in Nietzsche’s thought; but he inclines toward Socrates as giving a truer account of our nature.
If Socrates is right, Bloom concludes, then today’s “fall of eros” need not be permanent. Human nature remains open to love, and to the quest for self-knowledge. What is needed is an education that will free us from the perverse and politically-correct interpretations of human nature that surround us, such as radical feminism’s attempt to obliterate the difference between the sexes, and its disdain for the very ideas of maleness and femaleness. Through such an effort of liberation from the liberationists of our day we might yet recover an understanding of our natures, an understanding now “buried under successive layers of ideological ash.”
Love and Friendship stands as a rebuke to the ever-increasing volume of such “ideological ash,” and also as a means of rescue. Moreover, in reading it, one can begin to see how and why Allan Bloom was so powerful a presence in the classroom. He wrote this book, he explains,
while recovering from a serious illness, and strangely this activity turned that period into one of the most wondrous times of my life. . . . When I went to bed at night I looked forward to getting up in the morning and resuming this living relationship to the books, and I was lifted above my petty concerns by them.
As he did in his lifetime to his students, Bloom manages to convey “this living relationship to the books” to us, his posthumous readers, and thus lifts us, however imperfectly, above the often suffocatingly petty concerns of the age. That is what great teachers do, and what true friends are for.