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 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.
That passage gives an idea of the kind of personal involvement with which this remarkable book is written. Bloom gives an elaborate exposition of Plato’s Symposium, describing and endorsing its doctrines of love—Plato is the ultimate master, his Socrates “the most erotic of philosophers, period.” Bloom explains:
Plato tries to show in the Symposium that philosophy is the most complete and revealing form of Eros. On that basis he is capable of working down to the activities and hopes of persons who will never be philosophers or perhaps even know that there is such a thing as philosophy. But if one says that the fundamental erotic activity is the gross coupling of two individuals, you can explain the philosophic vision only as some kind of miraculous covering up of what one really wanted, rather than a cosmic solicitation. Try honestly to see whether one can say anything interesting or revealing about Socrates, Shakespeare, or Nietzsche in the psychoanalytic mode, and then you will see why we still need Plato.
Bloom was a teacher, and his book very clearly emerges from his teaching. It reflects its author’s concern about the state of American universities, about which he expresses a passionate anxiety which at times reads rather oddly:
[In] the atmosphere of indignation and recrimination prevalent today…I face the fact that I shall lose much of my audience by taking Rousseau seriously…. I could not, however, in good conscience prescribe such a course to a young professor who does not yet have tenure.
By this cri de coeur he seems to mean both that a modern and advanced approach to any great thinker of the past is now expected to be one of deconstruction and unmasking, rather than agreement and reverence; and also that in his view Rousseau is still a good and healthy influence from whom we have much to learn, even though his views are not all “politically correct” by the standards of the 1990s. There is a shrillness about Bloom’s expression of this view of the modern university, a view which most readers, even sympathetic ones, will find exaggerated.
He is also fiercely concerned about the welfare of students. He sees them as crippled in their emotional growth and in their sexual attitudes by an academic culture that denies the truth and value of great literature and imposes a vocabulary, pinched and mean, in which noble emotion cannot be expressed. In consequence, the emotional lives of young Americans are coarsened and impoverished, while—in another eloquent if faintly paranoid passage—
a great wall surrounded by a moat full of snapping crocodiles protects us from the corruptions of eternity.
It is a central argument of this long and emotional book that the valuefree investigations of sexual behavior by Kinsey, and what he sees as the shallow and inadequate theories of Freud, have ruinously impoverished the language in which love is talked about, and disastrously distorted the thing itself. In human beings, as opposed to animals, what is central is not the quest for physical satisfaction but the role of the imagination. “Ours is a language that reduces the longing for an other to the need for individual, private satisfaction and safety…. The sexual talk of our times is about how to get greater bodily satisfaction (although decreasingly so) or increasingly how to protect ourselves from one another.” The vocabulary and the thoughts of twentieth-century sexual theory thus miss the defining quality of the human:
Animals have sex and human beings have eros, and no accurate science is possible without making this distinction.
Bloom does not explicitly face the question: What sort of contemporary language would be adequate and possible? It is clear that it will talk of love, not of “relationships”; that it will incline to a poetical rather than a scientific mode of discourse; and that it will be concerned with beauty. It will endeavor—and this is the great achievement, for Bloom, of Rousseau—to attach the idea of desire from its very beginnings to idealism, not to selfish pleasure or to merely animal impulses and comparisons. It will take as central the highest, most specifically human manifestations of love, instead of regarding them as mere instances of sublimation or eccentricity; it will reject any suggestion that the phenomenon of love is in reality a pretty low and self-regarding business.
His idea evidently is that exposure to the masterpieces—to Plato, Rousseau, Shakespeare, Tolstoy—will form the minds of his young readers, and that it will also elevate and ennoble their style. No longer content with reductive or mechanical language and conceptions, his young lovers, their tastes and ideals formed by the erotic masterpieces, will be able and eager to discuss the idea of love and their own responses to it in a style no less splendid than that of Romeo or the participants in Plato’s Symposium.
The imagination is vitally and centrally involved, and the imagination desires the beautiful. “Of one thing we can be certain: there is a natural perception of and longing for the beautiful that is simply irreducible and cannot be derived from lower motives.” One sees here the influence of Plato, and Bloom comes from the school of Leo Strauss, whose work he quotes in several places. But in the end Bloom will not go all the way with Plato, whose idea of love, as developed in works like the Symposium, became more and more cut off from passionate attachment to and physical enjoyment of a particular human being.
Along with the role of the imagination, and the “love of the beautiful [which] may be the last and finest sacrifice to radical egalitarianism,” Bloom asserts that truly human love requires a kind of courage which we nowadays find too demanding. On the subject of courtship (“Courtship is out of fashion today”), the casual and unserious way in which such things are now tackled in the West is a terrible comedown:
Our current behavior, although it appears to be sensible, could also be explained as timidity and the fear of running erotic risk. The imagination, as experienced in sexual fantasy, no longer informs the views of lovers, and thus their day-to-day cohabitation becomes routine….
The success of a modern theoretical point of view removes imagination from the realm of eros. It is another chapter in the history of modern timidity: love is made undangerous, and those who do the deed think that they are intellectually honest or authentic.
That is an interesting idea. We are in the habit of smiling with disdain at the sexual hang-ups of our ancestors, which contrast so flatteringly with our own enlightened and courageous attitudes. The magazines one reads while waiting for the barber contain detailed articles about oral sex and the point in a “relationship” (“One has to have a tin ear to describe one’s great love as a relationship,” snarls Bloom) at which it is not premature to raise the topic of sado-masochistic practices. But does that really need more courage than the preparedness to risk real hurt in pursuit of higher rewards by allowing love to become the most important imaginative experience one has? Stendhal maintained that the Don Juan type missed out on the intensity of erotic life, which is bound up with passionate love of a woman for whom love is a matter of honor, of life and death.
In a rather vague sense, at least, Bloom must be right to stress the importance of the vocabulary and style in which erotic matters are discussed. Not only misogynistic or violent language degrades our notions of love: so does the idea, derived by many contemporaries from what they vaguely think Foucault argued, that all relations of men and women—all relations, indeed—are questions of power and exploitation. There must also be some validity in his argument that much contemporary theorizing starts from an assumption, which is only an assumption, that the heights and subtleties of the Shakespearean or Tolstoyan descriptions of love are essentially not the point, in any general account of the subject. As “sex” becomes more insistently omnipresent, it sadly makes sense for Bloom to speak of “the deeroticization of the world [which] began in our materialistic science.”