by Saul Bellow
Viking, 233 pp., $24.95
Saul Bellow and Allan Bloom were friends. They taught together at the University of Chicago, and Bellow wrote the foreword to Bloom’s phenomenal best seller, The Closing of the American Mind, which came out in 1987. In spite of its popularity, The Closing of the American Mind was a quirky book. Many writers tried to imitate its success as a diatribe against American higher education, but very few tried to repeat its argument. For in many ways the book was a kind of personal fantasy—a contrarian reading of a handful of old philosophy texts offered as the explanation for the “relativism” of today’s professors and the soullessness of today’s youth, a condition whose supreme expression, in Bloom’s view, was rock music: “a muddy stream where only monsters can swim.”
Just why The Closing of the American Mind caught fire will always be a bit of a mystery—it must have come as a surprise to readers who got that far to learn that much of what was wrong with American culture could be traced to certain theoretical deformations in the later work of Martin Heidegger—but the book’s success may have had something to do with the sense people had that they were encountering, in Bloom, an authentic character. Bloom didn’t seem a man engaged in ordinary department politics. He clearly believed this stuff, and he was not a writer who took many hostages. When he said that American democracy had lost its soul, he meant it, and could spend all day telling you why. He professed to be defending thought from political exploitation, and, to his credit, he was true to the claim. He declined to take part in the culture wars his book precipitated.
Robert Paul Wolff wrote a famous review of The Closing of the American Mind in which he explained that “Allan Bloom” was really the fictional creation of Saul Bellow, in the tradition of Moses Herzog, and that his “book” was a satirical send-up of Chicago-style Great-Books pedantry—a “coruscatingly funny novel in the form of a pettish, bookish, grumpy, reactionary complaint against the last two decades.” The conceit seemed a telling one, and it stuck. For a person who works up an erudite, all-purpose, single-variable, and essentially fantastic theory for why the world is going to hell is, indeed, exactly the kind of person Bellow has spent his career imagining.
Bellow himself is not a theorist. He is a novelist who is fascinated by theorists. The premise of his work (I think) is that the world is always going to hell, since each of us, over our lifetimes, is forced to suffer the gradual extinction of the world we were thrown into by birth, whatever world that was. Sensations fade, friendships break apart, people we love leave us or die, and nothing ever completely replaces them. Existence is, ineluctably, a terrible thing. Bellow has a special disaffection for the modern world, because the organized obliteration …