kurt's nightmare

Generally, I post once a week. Topics are randomly selected and depend mostly upon whether it's baseball season or not. Other topics will include sex, politics, old girlfriends, music, and whatever else pops into my little brain. If you'd like to read, or ignore, my blog about China: http://meidabizi.blogspot.com/

Location: Dayton, OH, Heard & McDonald Islands

I'm an Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Dayton. I represent no one but myself, and barely do that. I'm here mostly by accident.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

The Honorable Allan Bloom

In spite of all her objections to various things I've said, or been alleged to have said or implied, our friend and fellow llama devotée Ms. Cokesbury suggested I say some things about my dealings with Allan Bloom, famous for his book The Closing of the American Mind. So today's entry is about that. This may also satisfy another reader (who also never leaves comments), an old high school friend we can call "Frodo," who has all sorts of half-baked ideas about the deeper meanings of these entries.

At least he knows good barbecue.

Anyway, an entry that fails to meet my exacting once a week schedule. I'll be in Detroit next Tuesday, so this will have to do. Have a nice Thanksgiving.

When I was a graduate student at the University of Chicago, I was only certain about a couple of things: Chicago was a hell of a lot colder than Dallas, and I was ignorant and approaching stupid. The philosophy department was a scary place, so while most of my classes were taken there, I looked around for other things, including the Committee on Social Thought, the Committee on Ideas and Methods, and even took a couple of courses in Greek, thinking I might try a degree in Classics. (The whole scam I attempted, to transfer to UT Austin for a year to do lots of Greek, and then come back to Chicago for the PhD, is a whole 'nother story.) In any case, this landed me in Bloom's class on "Literature and Political Philosophy." To be perfectly honest, at this point in my intellectual career I was at least as interested in sex, baseball, drinking beer, and playing basketball, as I was in understanding either the new theory of reference or Aristotle's theory of the mind. But I really like Jonathan Swift, and Bloom was reading Gulliver's Travels, so I signed up. (The cool thing at Chicago was that it was easy to take all sorts of classes outside of one's degree, which is how I ended up in a course on Kant's Critique of Judgement taught by the incandescently brilliant Charles Wegener, and in a couple of courses of Paul Ricoeur's on narratology, and even one on Greek taught by James Redfield.)

I thought this was a class that would be full of insight; I'd sort of heard about Bloom, and the reading list was great. I even attended regularly.

Here's how it would go. Bloom would walk in, sputter and stutter and say some stuff that wasn't either terribly articulate or coherent, and which seemed to have very little to do with the text or its issues, regardless of how broadly one wishes to construe the word "interpret." There were cynics like me, who thought this was kind of a waste of time, and then there were the Bloom acolytes, who just ate this shit up with a spoon. They were convinced they were in the presence of genius, and somehow thought it might rub off on them (cognitive osmosis, as it were.)

I talked to one of these "geniuses" later, who found out I was taking a course on Rawls' A Theory of Justice with Christine Korsgaard (who is cool, by the way). His entire comment, full of erudition and wisdom, was to dismiss this text as "a big green book, not worth reading or even wondering about." This guy is probably pulling down 6 figures telling Richard Mellon Scaife that he is just huge.

Anyway, so this doesn't go on too long, I'd just about had it with this poseur, who didn't seem to understand his own lectures, and didn't seem to have much to say in any case. Then one day, just as I was about ready to drop the course, Bloom pointed out that "no interesting political literature is being published in the Western Hemisphere today." (This would have been around 1982.) While I'm pretty timid in such settings, this little bit of ludicrous foolishness forced me to raise my hand and ask about Borges and Neruda (and one--if one weren't big Al--could immediately name 500 authors in the Western Hemisphere writing interesting political (black, Hispanic, feminist, Asian-American, magical realism, queer, etc. etc.) literature). Bloom--the great intellect, the mind with an unquenchable thirst for wisdom, etc.--said he'd never read Neruda, and that the very point of Borges was to be apolitical. Now one can argue about the latter, even though later I learned that this was simply a classic Straussian bit of logical legerdemain (and is wholly question begging, anyway); the former was something he should have been embarrassed to admit in public. That was when I realized I was wasting my time listening to this overrated pompous ass, and took off for good. He also had informed us that we weren't going to have time to get to the Swift text anyway.

I took one more course with him, in a weird sort of way. He and Saul Bellow were teaching a very secret course on Proust's A La Recherche du Temps Perdu, only for those who were let in on the secret (a friend in the Divinity School hipped me to it). There were about eight of us in there, and Bellow would read a passage--en Français, sans doute--and then Bloom would comment. Bellow seemed to spend most of his time making fun of what Bloom said, which I (again) found to be mere sound, signifying nothing. This went on for a few weeks; then one day after class I was talking to one of the more erudite members of the class, who told me the only reason he was there was to see if they were going to discuss the passage where Marcel discovers his mentor Baron de Charlus enjoying a bit of the ol' S & M, being tied up to a bed and beaten by a servant.

I thought that while this might be a sufficient reason for that guy, it wasn't for me. So I never went back to that class.

Anyway, this is going on far too long for something that no one reads. Suffice it to say that I was never impressed by Bloom's intellect (and found Bellow's Ravelstein almost unreadable; while I have my issues with Bellow, that particular one was unique with this text), I thought his translation of Émile was okay (especially given the competition), but all his notes were in the Pléiade edition, and his edition made it seem to me that he was passing them off as his own.

Ryle has a nice review of Bloom's translation of The Republic in The New York Review of Books. You have to pay $3.00 for it, but here's a link to Bloom's response, and if you want to go the original, this will also work:


You don't have to be a particularly good reader to see Bloom's typical strategy in this piece; a couple of droll witticisms (that are mostly beside the point), a few ad hominem attacks on Gilbert Ryle, and a couple of remarks of substance that are really quite minor but which clearly offended the saintly Professor Bloom, who seems almost to soil himself at the possibility that his humble offering to the Temple of Wisdom may itself not be perfect. If I were to respond following Bloom's strategy, I might say something a bit smarmy and small-minded, such as
Perhaps Professor Bloom is offended by the possiblity that everyone knows Ryle's characterization of Cartesian res cogitans as the "ghost in the machine," and is simply envious of the fact that when no one remembers Bloom, they will remember Ryle. To draw a distinction--something always near and dear to the analytic philosopher's heart--perhaps Bloom should recognize the salient difference between being smart and affecting the trappings (club tie, nervous tic, polyglot but jejune erudition) of being smart. In a philosophical pissing match between Bloom and Ryle, Ryle wins before Bloom gets unzipped.

But it is the intellectual support he provided to some folks I find pretty obnoxious that is both politically unappetizing and somewhat peculiar, given Bloom's sexual orientation and his political supporters' views of what Mr. Smithers calls his "alternate lifestyle." In short, many of those on the right seem to hate queers, and Bloom was a queer; so why is he offering them cover? And if you've gotten this far, you deserve to know this little story: I used to work at the faculty club at the University of Chicago--lots of stories there--and one of my best friends (a gay deadhead lawyer now in Los Angeles) also worked there, on the 11 p.m. to 8 a.m. shift. One night Bloom came in with a young (and my friend said young) man, and they proceeded upstairs. Shortly thereafter, the young man came sprinting down the stairs, hair ruffled, shirt unbuttoned, and seeming to be in a general disarray physically and psychologically. Bloom came puffing down a bit later, also in a hurry, and headed out the doors, evidently after him. Neither was seen the rest of the night. Perhaps the young man objected to Bloom's views on Machievelli's Discorsi?

If you want to read something about how politics makes strange bedfellows, as well as a bit of an overview of Bellow's Doktorvater Leo Strauss, try this:


If you can track down Robert Paul Wolff's review of The Closing of the American Mind (published in Academe, and republished in some anthologies), that is also highly recommended. I couldn't find a link to it.

In short, there is a reason an old girlfriend of mine referred to him as "Swamp Thing."


Blogger Bazarov said...

Wow...there were a lot of big words in that one. I'm still thinking about the one on Bush and the Peter Principle. I'm inclined to say no, he is not an example of that principle in action. I've been trying to think of a way to keep the response short and concise though. I seem to be much better at going off on seemingly random tangents and then sorta tying it up at the end, but not really.
I've only had one really bad experience with a professor. A head of the Sociology Department (who made sure to bring this up atleast once a lecture). He said some of the most unbelievably stupid things. I gave him two weeks to see if he was going somewhere with it...he wasn't. So I started challenging him. He lost every confrontation and would admit he shouldn't have said what he had just said. Then the next class he would go on saying the same stupid things over and over again. I knew they were stupid things to say, but i'd look at my fellow peers sucking that shit up. One asshole I can deal with, but not a dozen. So i figured i oughta set him straight before he created more little idiots to run around his memes for him. I gave up after two weeks and ended up getting a C- in his course. Seemed like a nice guy who should've been a party organizer or professional host for various gatherings. Great story teller, just not a thinker. He is the only professor i learned nothing from. It did provide some confidence for me though. Here was a Ph.D I could walk all over at will. I still can't help but think, "Asshole!" every time i see him. No hard feelings, like i said, he was a nice guy. I just know he's filling the next generation's heads full of shit. I guess if they buy into it though it's their fault and not his, huh?
Here's a question. How do these people convince other academic institutions to give them Ph.Ds? And how do they get jobs as heads of their respective departments?

12:05 PM  
Blogger kmosser said...

"One asshole I can deal with, but not a dozen."

Life has many lessons in store for us. This is one.

8:37 AM  
Blogger Akrasia said...

Interesting post. While an undergraduate at the University of Toronto, I was exposed to some of Bloom's proteges (namly, Pangle and Orwin, who were the big 'Straussians' outside of Bloom at the time, and taught in the U of T political science department). There was a clique of graduate students that hovered about them, attempting to glean bits of their mentors' 'esoteric' wisdom. At least Pangle and Orwin didn't demand erotic services in return (as far as I know).

I met Bloom briefly while visiting Chicago in 1992 (I was considering going there for graduate school). My main memory of the incident was amazement at how ugly he was. How superficial on my part, but hey, I was only 21.

Fortunately, I ended up going to Oxford at that time instead (to eventually be followed by the University of Michigan for the PhD), and so evaded the 'Straussian' clique altogether. Give me analytical philosophy (and that 'nobody' Rawls with his entirely 'unimportant' books) any day over that nonesense.


8:28 AM  
Blogger jraunick said...

Perhaps you could discuss Walmart and Hillary Clinton. Walmart and South Park. Bill Maher would be a nice subject too. He reminds me of you. And speaking of gay, 'tulips aren't tulips anymore, they're gay onions...' or so said Maher. I've not seen much television but have a friend who likes to make me watch things like South Park which I've seen twice, and Bill Maher more I suppose. This is on the weekend when the boys are with their Dad and I can be convinced to stay in after work as oppossed to dancing. So talk about Dancing too. I read the article from the Globe. I was amused to see 'Straussian contingent working intelligence for the Pentagon'. Or any intelligence and the Pentagon in the same sentence. Of course, lots of things amuse me and I'm sure I would be amused at what Sharon would have to say if he read the article. I'm quite sure 'they, Straussians and any like or unlike, are all republicrats smoking marlboro reds, driving a Hybrid, imagining themselves intellectually above the rest. All Politicians. Everyone. It all comes down to who shtups who. When. Where. How. Right?

10:44 PM  
Blogger kmosser said...

Interesting way of phrasing things:

"Bill Maher would be a nice subject too. He reminds me of you. And speaking of gay . . . "

In any case, I need to say some more about this war, which is fundamental to our political, economic, social, and virtually all situations U.S..

10:02 AM  
Blogger jraunick said...

I was thinking of Bill Maher. He is very intelligent. So are you. I was thinking he was witty. So are you. I was thinking of the last time I saw the show and he had the joke about 'the tulips'. It was hilarious. Usually, since I've found you bloggggg, I laugh entirely too much. Especially the post on old friends and people searching on the web. I'm sorry if my wording was out of order. I jumped to the 'speaking of gay' after Bill because I was considering Bloom, and tulips, and the globe article. All jumbled I suppose. So, if the war is 'the discussion' then what should we do to stop supporting the war and those who profit off our blood? What is a good plan of action that will help end the 'war against terrorism?' I think we can watch, listen, and learn from what the 'politicians' are doing or not doing, but what are WE as citizens doing to stop the FORCES that drive this war? And really, Walmart, is just one monopoly that WE allow to run the economy and our lives. Exxon Mobile. Kmart. Sports Inc. NBC ABC CNN. Nike. Disney. McDonalds. Chipotle. Time Warner. GE. WE are part of the problem. The propagation. The existence of those who control this country and the U.S. political scene. Who owns who? If we did not vote them in office then are we at least not supporting the companies that their friends and they own? The political of U.S. you must discuss so tell us about the economic of U.S. and how it rules the world. Pax-Americana. Capitalism doesn't exist without Democracy right? and vice versa?

2:00 AM  
Blogger kmosser said...

"Walmart, is just one monopoly that WE allow to run the economy and our lives. Exxon Mobile. Kmart. Sports Inc. NBC ABC CNN. Nike. Disney. McDonalds. Chipotle. Time Warner. GE."

Did you know that McDonalds owns 90% of Chipotle?

Eventually WalMart will own everything, so I guess they win.

My family has made a firm decision never to buy at WalMart. It's the least we can do, which is usually about all we're up to, anyway.

11:05 AM  
Anonymous Frodo said...

Hello from middle earth, well kansas.
www.kansasmorons.com The cartoons links of course.

I too am a hopeless romantic pining
for the bayous, of a time and place from my youth that exist vividly in my mind and in the past never to return and yet I still return back down to a city that doesn't exist.

Adieux New Orleans.

One thing good about being from south central Louisiana the swamps will never change. "People come people go nothing ever changes at the Grand Hotel" Garbo.

2:32 PM  
Blogger kmosser said...

And all of us who know about Louisiana know why coonasses make better lovers.

4:54 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

well...you guys were all pretty convincing...I'll just add a couple of points, just to make things a little clearer. I've studied greek for about five years in italy in high school, and kept studying it for majoring in philosophy. Now, I'm not competent as far as the philosophical points are concrened, but his translation is superb, and the canons he follows are absolutely correct. All my professors, although recalcitrant because of his being a straussian, shared this view. frankly, I don't mind about his political affiliation (neither should any thinking being). anyway, thanks for sharing your college experiences.

7:49 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

John Rawls appeals to the prejudices of our times. The moral and intellectual ease with which someone can accept his philosophy should be off-putting to all real thinkers. He does nothing more than assuage our guilty conscience. I very much doubt the seriousness of anyone who finds his philosophy stimulating.

Disagree with Bloom all you'd like, and supply the apparently requisite ad-hominems, but at least he confronts Nietzsche and Heidegger, the essential task for a modern thinker which Rawls neglects.

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Blogger breathnach said...

While an undergrad at Boston College (early 80s) I took several courses on Xenophon and Aristotle given by one of the notable Straussians in the POLI SCI dept. He was a student and close friend of Bloom (receiving an acknowledgment in Closing of the AM Mind). I'm sympathetic to Straussians, I liked this professor, but Bloom gave me the runs. One day I needed to pick up a law school recommendation from this professor. I knocked on his door and stepped in. I was surprised to be eyeball to eyeball with bulbous headed Bloom- leaning over manuscripts in a conspiratorial manner as he consulted with my professor. I asked for the recommendation, office hours were in session,my professor kindly fetched the letter, wished me luck and was very congenial. Bloom on the other hand was oozing bile and giving dirty looks. Apparently I was not erotically pleasing and quite an annoyance to his deep thinking and secret writing.

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