The Closing of the American Mind, by Allan Bloom

coverIn 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.

Quick thoughts on books that I haven’t read in a long time

  • gone_windI’ve only read Gone With The Wind once, when I was in 9th grade, but it made a huge impression on me. I still remember its strangely hopeful ending. There was something so perfect about Scarlett deciding to go back to Tara and regroup. It was exactly the right note on which to end the book. That was also the book that taught me that heroes don’t need to be sympathetic; they just need to be interesting. Scarlett was unintelligent, selfish, and cruel, but there was something riveting about her: she demonstrated how far you can get in life on sheer ruthlessness.
  • I was thinking the other day about Voltaire’s Candide. It’s a famous book, but not as widely-read as it should be. I think this one book that’s seriously suffered from being labeled ‘literature.’ Whenever you hear about it, it’s described as some deep philosophical tract on the education of the youth. But that’s not it at all. It’s a super-fun romp. It’s way more Arabian Nights than Bhagavad Gita. And it’s also weirdly bawdy and horrifying. People die in monstrous ways and if they don’t die, they degenerate and become haggard shells of themselves. It’s definitely worth an afternoon of anyone’s time.
  • One year, I spent so much time reading Saul Bellow and I’ve retained very little of it. It’s all blended together and left me only a mental picture of a slovenly but handsome man of letters who wanders around making caustic judgments on the people around him. Anyone who’s going to read him should just start with Ravelstein and then maybe not go any further. It’s not only one of his shortest books, but it also feels like his kindest and his least self-absorbed.
  • I wish George Orwell had written more nonfiction books. I enjoyed Homage To Catalonia, Road To Wigan Pier, Down and Out In Paris And London, and Fifty Essays much more than I enjoyed any of his novels (and I enjoyed his novels quite a lot). No one explains stuff quite as gently and kindly as he doess
  • On Wednesday, I saw The Silver Linings Playbook, which has a scene where the main character reads the end of A Farewell To Arms and then gets angry and throws it out the window. I loved A Farewell To Arms and I think its last line (one of the most famous last lines in literature) is an exactly perfect one. That line should not have been anything else. It’s deeply affecting and it, obviously, added something to the toolkit of modern literature. But that last line is also very upsetting, because it feels cheap. You have a character who’s cool and collected and slightly shell-shocked and then, at the very climax of the book, you pull away from him and refuse to pierce that dignity. It feels like the book can’t bear to ever allow its protagonist to ever seem less than utterly manly. And I don’t think that books should be solicitous of their characters in precisely that way.
  • John Steinbeck is so weird. I still find it hard to believe that the author of Grapes of Wrath could’ve also written Tortilla Flat and Cannery Row. They’re all about impoverished people, but Grapes is so righteously angry in a way that the other two simply are not. Tortilla and Cannery almost kind of glorify a life of poverty and portray poor people (or at least certain subsets of poor people) as being more genuine and more authentically in touch with life. But Grapes says exactly the opposite: it’s about how poverty destroys families and shreds human dignity. Ever since I read Tortilla Flat, I’ve never been able to get excited about Steinbeck in the same way. It’s a good and interesting book, but it’s also repulsive and cold-hearted one and, honestly, more than a bit racist. I still haven’t read East of Eden. Every description of it makes it sound rather unappetizing to me (a retelling of Adam and Eve using a ranching family in 1930s and 1940s Salinas, California), but I really do need to get around to that someday.
  • Other strangely-unappealing books that I’m constantly picking up and putting down and which I plan on getting around to sometime in the next forty years:
    • Crime And Punishment
    • For Whom The Bell Tolls
    • Ulysses
    • Gravity’s Rainbow
    • As I Lay Dying and Light in August
    • Middlesex
    • Song of Solomon and Beloved
    • A Passage To India
    • Mrs. Dalloway
    • Lord of the Flies
    • Invisible Man
    • Where I’m Calling From