Love and Friendship
No style of writing is more seductive than that which combines argument with myth, detailed exposition with stories, and images that make the same points in an imaginative form. Plato was a supreme master of that heady combination; Freud also excelled in it. Nowadays we see ambitious examples, for instance in the work of many feminists, who combine chapters of argumentation with such “mythical” assertions as that there was a time, once upon a time, when we all worshiped the Great Goddess; or that there are really no differences between men and women except their respective roles in procreation, all else being the effect of society and capable of being the effect of society and capable of being changed. Plato, of course, believed that too, making a case for it in the fifth book of the Republic.
The late Allan Bloom, author of The Closing of the American Mind, left a posthumous book on love. It is about the language of love, the idealism of eros, and the power of great literature to deliver us from servitude to reductive and destructive theories of the emotions. Written with passion and aimed at central dogmas of our time, more central in North America than anywhere else, it blames Sigmund Freud and the authors of the Kinsey Report for first degrading the vocabulary and the idea of love, and then feminism, egalitarianism, and “a veritable thought police” for keeping our speech, thoughts, and desires “radically impoverished.” “Any good novelist can teach us more that is true about the meaning of our desires than can any of these amateurish scientists,” and the great writers can increase our sexual pleasure by showing us how to speak of our loves. The supreme masters turn out to be Rousseau, Shakespeare, and Plato.
Sexual desire, the source for him of so much misery as well as of the most sublime moments, played such a role in Rousseau’s consciousness and in his observations of the men and women of his time that he could hardly help imagining an education that would take sex seriously and overcome the essential conflict between desire and duty. This would be an education for happiness.
As for Shakespeare, he “seems to be the mirror of nature and to present human beings just as they are”; study of his plays can help us to “articulate something of a premodern view of man’s relations with his fellows, to provide serious, and perhaps more satisfactory, alternatives to our characteristic ways of looking at things.”
He never speaks with the clinical sterility of our scientists, nor with the impoverished ugliness of our popular arts…. 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 …