I was writing a comment to my post on activist rhetoric, and I tried to articulate my issues a little bit more clearly. For me, the disquieting thing about activism is that it turns all of life into a series of power relations. And there’s something about that which is very powerful and very true. Yes, our position in society is, in some ways, imposed on us. And yes, it plays a large part in determining where we will live, what we will do, who we will love, the art we will consume, and the ideologies that we will believe. And that may or may not be terrible. But regardless of how you feel about the system in which we live, we still need to live in it.
I feel like there’s a vacuousness at the center of our intellectual life regarding the basic question: “How should I live my life?”
All around me, I see people delving into our culture and our society and asking, “How should I live my life?”
And our top intellectual figures answer: “The world is fucked up.”
Well…alright. But that doesn’t really do anything for me, here, right now. At most, it adds another ethical wrinkle and turns the question into: “How should I live my life in such a manner that I don’t fuck up the world even more?”
So people listen to this conversation and they crawl over to the only solution that’s being freely offered to them. They say to themselves, “Since the world is so fucked up, I should spend my life trying to unfuck it.”
But there’s something about that which seems very sterile. If your purpose in life is to unfuck the world, then where’s the room for art? For contemplation? For love? Obviously, you’ll still indulge in these things, but they’ll become guilty pleasures. And, further, you’ll constantly be called upon to assess them and try to see if they’re part of the problem. You see this in online discussion of books. There’s so little room left for analyzing a book in terms of its beauty. We barely know how to do that. But we have a huge vocabulary for talking about the ways in which a work is “problematic.” I’m not saying that people don’t still think about beauty. I think they do. And I think they care very deeply about it. What I’m saying is that our discourse doesn’t teach us how to talk about beauty (except with regards to its social justice dimensions [i.e. something is beautiful if it portrays, in an honest way, the life of underprivileged people]).
Wait, this is just Allan Bloom’s argument in The Closing Of The American Mind.
In terms of preserving you for posterity, how could any intellectual be more fantastically lucky than to be the subject of a very loving, and very readable novel that also happens to be the apex of a Nobel Prize winner’s output?
I have never read a better Saul Bellow novel than his last, Ravelstein, which basically details the life of philosopher Allan Bloom, who was one of Bellow’s fellow professors at University of Chicago. It’s fantastic, you should read this. The Bloom-character in that novel is an amazing study in contrasts. He’s this very passionate, very gay, and very conservative thinker who’s suddenly become one of the most famous men in America (because of this book).
After reading Ravelstein (four years ago), I decided to read this book. About a year ago, I acquired a copy. Last Sunday, I decided to give away every single book that I wasn’t absolutely sure I was going to read. I figured that if the time ever did come to read The Closing of the American Mind, then I could come by another copy. The very next day, I realized that it was time to read this book, so I bought a copy off Amazon and read it in two days! I basically spent all of Monday reading it.
I was blown away. I’ve never read a polemic that was so concise and forceful and deeply-felt and still-relevant. The closest would probably be The Feminine Mystique. But, despite that book’s many virtues, it’s not particularly well-argued: Friedan’s book is one whose argument you’re either drawn to or not.
Whereas I think that Bloom makes a pretty sound case for its believes. To wit, he thinks that American students (and, by extension, American adults) have lost the ability to live with and within ideas.
He lays the blame at the door of relativism. According to him, almost every student comes to college believing in some form of relativism: the idea that truth is unknowable and that one person’s truth is as good as another person’s. Now, you’re probably tut-tutting me and being like, “Nuh uh, dude. Americans believe in stuff.” But that’s because I’m not Bloom. Go and read the book. He lays it out pretty solidly.
Personally, I am a relativist. I do not believe in absolute morality or in right and wrong on any level, whether it’s the notion that some books are better than others or that some ways of life are better than others. But that does lay me open to some problems. Like, if you’re a relativist, then how do you make decisions?
I mean, that’s not even the problem. The problem is…I do make decisions. I make decisions every day. I decided that one way of life was better (for me) to live than another. I decide that some books are better. I try and impose my decisions on others (by telling them what books are better). Something happens within me all the time, but I am completely inequipped with an intellectual framework for understanding or even thinking about the decisions that I am making.
And that’s what the book is about. Bloom doesn’t quite say that there is such a thing as some stuff being better or more moral than other stuff, but he makes a very impassioned case that relativism is a much better ending point than it is a starting point…that people should at least be exposed to the old truths before they learn that they are lies.
The last third is also a pretty brutal takedown of university education. Something that I wholly agreed with, particularly this part:
The colleges do not have enough to teach their students, not enough to justify keeping them four years, probably not even three years. If the focus is careers, there is hardly one specialty, outside the hardest of the hard natural sciences, which requires more than two years of preparatory training prior to graduate studies. The rest is just wasted time, or a period of ripening until the students are old enough for graduate studies. For many graduate careers, even less is really necessary.
Which is very true. As a place to pass the time and have fun, college is great. As a place to learn things, you’re better off with a library card. College is a place that lacks any kind of mission. It has no idea what it is supposed to be teaching you. People in the humanities say that their subjects teach you how to think. But they’re rarely able to be more specific than that. In what way does analyzing a text teach you how to think? And does it matter what you analyze? Or what the result of your analysis is? Sometimes it seems like the humanities are telling you, “We will teach you how to bullshit convincingly.”
Which is fine, I guess, but it’s of no real use to either you or the world. Unless you learn how extract some kind of truth from the world, then what you’re doing is not thinking. But much of the humanities starts from the assumption that there is no truth to be gotten: there’s merely some sort of free-flowing line of association. Analysis is an activity in and of itself. Outputs are evaluated, if at all, merely on the basis of elegance: not on the basis of truthfulness or utility.
Personally, I learned much more in high school than I did in college, because my high school concentrated on giving me a lot of knowledge. And I’ve learned much more from my own reading since I graduated college, because I am able to hold myself to much higher standards than my university ever did (not that I would’ve welcomed a firmer hand from my university–I just would’ve liked it to be a bit less snooty about what it was really giving us).
P.S. I feel that I haven’t done justice to or accurately described the content of the book. Most of it (maybe 1/2) is a very detailed discussion of the intellectual forebears (primarily Nietzsche and Weber) whose thought led us to this impasse, which additional discussion of others (Descarte, Plato, Locke) who offer us some kind of alternative.