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.”
But if such accounts of love cannot do justice to the power and range and complexity of Shakespeare’s account of the subject, then those theories are gravely undermined. We do not, surely, want to insist on settling for an explanation that explains only the easier and less interesting parts of this obsessively interesting subject.
Bloom’s treatment of Rousseau makes a serious and interesting case for that much disliked thinker, for whom love is central to the formation of the personality, and who links love inextricably with idealism. He has shorter chapters on romantic novelists: Stendhal, Jane Austen, Flaubert, Tolstoy. They are followed by an account of five plays of Shakespeare and an excursus on Montaigne. Bloom must have been an exciting teacher, and there are many things in these chapters which would be thrilling in a lecture room. A reader, going at a different pace, is occasionally unconvinced. He argues for the absolute originality of Rousseau. But this seems to me less than just to Richardson, for whom the relation of love between a man and a woman could be all-engrossing and also ennobling and formative, but who receives only four words on page 141. This part of the book does not on the whole really pull its weight. It could have been pruned quite severely with advantage: indeed, the book would have more impact if it were shorter.
I do however warm to one of his central points, the collapse of the eloquence of love. Rousseau is singled out as seeing “the crucial importance of attaching idealism to sexual desire from the outset, making the two separate things into a seamless unity”; and such real love requires an adequate language: “An erotic rhetoric must be invented.” Hence the importance of the great Platonic dialogues on love, the Symposium and the Phaedrus. Discussing their ideas of love, Bloom’s students found it impossible to advance beyond the simple idea, liberal but sunless and flowerless, that “anything you like to do is all right provided everybody consents.” What Bloom wants is an elaborate and deeply felt style and content in erotic talk. Plato’s characters discuss their ideas of love with panache and brilliance, and they relate them—as Bloom’s pupils would not—to a view of life as a whole and one’s experience as part of it. That enriched the experiences themselves.
Nothing so dear to one’s heart as love, with its far-ranging influence on all one’s tastes, can be experienced without opinions about its high significance. To abandon the attempt to articulate those opinions is to decapitate the experiences.
The reductively “scientific” discourse of the experts and gurus of our time, to which on another side Bloom might perhaps have added the grunting inarticulateness of the movie tough guy, once accepted as our standard for the utterance of a lover, seems to leave little room for the full and passionate expression of love. There is a similarity with the apparent truth and adequacy of our detailed depictions of sexual couplings. What to the simple mind seems bound to be “true,” is constantly experienced by the disheartened audience as somehow inadequate or beside the point.
The physical details of the act, reproduced in pictures or words, are not what the sexual act really is for those who participate in it, for their imaginations are engaged with their specific relationships, and mere spectators cannot see this….
As the cool and calculating procedures which replace courtship are in part a lack of courage, as theory de-eroticizes the world, so “pornography…distorts and impoverishes sensuality.” Pleasure, not puritanism, is to be the key.
Bloom was professionally concerned with Plato, and he produced a translation of the Republic.1 The dialogues of Plato he sees as the center of his present book, offering the reader a model version of a world in which eros and intelligence live together in harmony.
Among the participants, there is an atmosphere of perfect equality and a kind of democratic trust in one another. Their speech is both frank and exquisite. There is no aristocratic formalism and no democratic vulgarity. They speak openly about Eros, both taking it seriously and laughing about it…. They are clearly having fun, without any opposition between edifying talk and enjoying oneself. There is nothing of the atmosphere where somebody clinks on his glass at the table and says. “Let’s talk about serious things.” This is an utterly civilized entertainment of men who can drink and make love but who also can both rhyme and reason.
The marriage of love and reasoning as one complex pleasure, more delightful than either can be alone, is Bloom’s ideal, and it is probably fair to say that the erotic dialogues of Plato combine the two more subtly and with more allure than any other works of literature—for those readers who have that taste. But he wants to add another aspect, too; and here I think that Plato offers a much greater difficulty than he realizes.
Bloom says of Jane Austen that she “presents a reasonable picture of what may be an unreasonable hope, that is, the harmonious union of sexual desire with love, marriage, and friendship.” The emphasis on marriage, and on permanence, true enough of the novelist, is not true of Plato. Plato in the Symposium has his characters go through a series of descriptions and praises of love, of various kinds and at various levels. The high point of the work is the great speech which Socrates puts into the mouth of a woman, Diotima. She tells of the soul’s ascent up the ladder of perception, thought, and emotion. At first we fall in love with a beautiful person. The influence of this love enables us to bring to birth the things with which we are pregnant: for Diotima’s tale, the only long speech which Plato allows a woman, with fabulous deftness removes all necessity for women to exist. Men are pregnant, men give birth, their offspring can be higher than the mere results of intercourse between the two sexes: children are the issue of (mere) physical pregnancy, while spiritual pregnancy can issue in poetry, mathematical discoveries, codes of laws.
It is a striking feature of all this that poetry, science, and morality are not seen as in conflict with each other, as we tend to see them—the more science, the less poetry; the more art, the less morality—but as growing without conflict from the same root, and made to grow by the same impulse. It is a classic statement of the world not as One Damn Thing After Another but as a radiant unity, there to be perceived by the favored soul.
As the refined lover makes progress, he sees that the beauty of one body is much like that of another; and he becomes a lover of all physical beauty, looking down on the exclusive love of one individual as something paltry. Then he passes to mental beauty, the beauty of the soul of a beloved person: then the beauty of moral laws, the sciences, and knowledge in all its different forms, until the vision of “that great open sea of beauty,” physical/moral/intellectual, enables him to utter the noblest discourse and the highest thoughts. For the choicest spirits there remains a further reward: a moment of vision, sudden and overwhelming, the timeless and unchanging essence of Beauty that is the source of all the instances and types which he has enjoyed. In the memory of that vision he should live.
Now, all this is undoubtedly extremely strange. Ordinary Greeks found the idea of pregnancy and procreation without women as bizarre as we do, and most people then had no more idea than they have now that love is a ladder by means of which we may hope to pass beyond the beloved and ascend from rung to rung amid the higher mathematics, poetical moralizing, and the beatific vision. Plato’s idea has always made a strong appeal to some people: it was a set text in the Florentine Academy of Ficino and Pico della Mirandola, and Shelley translated it into English. It can hardly be doubted that it reflects the thought of the celibate Plato, sublimating pederastic impulses into philosophy and metaphysics, rather than Socrates, husband and father.
Once we shut our eyes to Plato’s dazzling rhetoric, here at its most urgent and most gorgeous, we are left with some hard questions. If I say to a woman, or (more Platonically) to a boy, “Loving you has enabled me to advance beyond you, and now I am into the arts and sciences, and thus, by scanning beauty’s wide horizon, I have been saved from a slavish and illiberal devotion to the individual loveliness of a single person,”2 the response of my beloved is likely to be that I don’t know the meaning of love, which is precisely the opposite of that. Love of another person, in its usual acceptance, is an end in itself: it is not a high-minded means to self-improvement, nor a stage in a journey—even an upward one—which has further stages and a goal.
Bloom is very reluctant to accept that this sort of response has any significance. He wants both to retain Plato’s glittering but rather inhuman vision, but also to cling on to human love in its more familiar and indeed romantic form. “The longing for wholeness is the essence of philosophy,” he says, whereas “today…educators do not even know that wholeness is the real goal”; and that wholeness he finds powerfully expressed in another of the speeches in the Symposium, the one made by the comic poet Aristophanes. It was a daring stroke on Plato’s part to create a speech worthy of the master of comedy, and he carried it off so brilliantly that the result seems almost more Aristophanic than Aristophanes himself. Many people imagine it actually is by Aristophanes; for some of them it is the only thing they think they know about him.
Aristophanes tells how mankind originally were twice as big as they are now, spherical in shape, with four arms, four legs, two faces, rounded sides and back, and two sets of sexual organs, on the outside. They could bowl along at top speed on arms and legs like cartwheels. The two sets of sexual organs meant that there could be three sexes: all male, all female, and hermaphrodite. Such was their uppityness toward the gods that Zeus lost patience and had them all sliced in half; their faces were turned inward toward the cut, to remind them of their punishment; the flesh was gathered together and knotted at the navel; and the bisected creatures were turned loose with two arms, two legs, and one set of privates apiece. Result: each half yearned for its lost half, sought it, embraced it, and wished only to die once reunited. In the end Zeus turned their sexual parts round to the front and let them couple, as they do now. Those who had originally been hermaphrodite naturally became heterosexual, the others formed the two types of homosexual; and all are aware of the loss of original wholeness and seek nothing so passionately as to re-create it by sexual congress with the image of their lost other half.
I have no doubt that Plato meant this delightful fantasy as a way of disposing of the ordinary sexual feelings of non-Platonic (in his terms “non-philosophical”) people. It is incompatible with the revelation of Diotima, and it must be meant to be inferior to it. Even Plato could not entirely deny, in a whole dialogue on love, the existence of this sort of feeling; so he turned it into a burlesque tour de force. For Aristophanes’ halved persons, love is an end—the end—in itself; for Diotima and for Plato it is a means to other things of greater importance, the fuel that gets the mental and spiritual rocket off the ground. As for Aristophanes’ idea that, in Hollywood terms, there’s somebody made for you, Plato has no serious truck with it. A lovable person is, in the end, only an instance of the lovable—of a beauty in which the physical and the personal ultimately are fairly trivial.
Bloom, however, wants to have it both ways. He calls Aristophanes’ speech “the truest and most satisfying account of Eros that we find in the Symposium“; it describes what people in love actually feel. In fact, “Aristophanes’ discourse is a permanent text that satisfies us in our experience of love. This is more than can be said of Socrates’ speech,” i.e., the speech Socrates gives to Diotima. Many of us would agree; but if that is so, then the glacial splendors of Diotima’s ladder must, I fear, be renounced—whether as absurd in themselves, or simply as not what we actually want. Man, says Bloom, is both a passionate and a rational being:
The difficulty is best shown to us by the fact that none of us would want to give up either Aristophanes’ or Socrates’ account of love.
Love, for humans, involves eternity:
The experience of longing for eternity, as when one holds one’s beautiful beloved in one’s arms, is constitutive of Eros as opposed to sex.
The superiority of Socrates, the most erotic of philosophers, who is expert on love and yet resisted the utmost temptation by the beautiful Alcibiades, the most desirable young man of his time, rests upon a full acceptance of his own sexual and physical nature, followed by transcendence; not, as in the Judaeo-Christian tradition, on a moral opposition between body and soul. Socrates was a husband and father, he was strongly attracted to glamorous young men; the philosopher still feels the desires of the flesh; perhaps he will sometimes yield to them.
The desire to teach was what attracted Socrates to promising young men, a desire so strong that beauty of the mind was more important than that of the body. Bloom writes of this desire with great intensity, and the reader can see both the attraction and also the risks in this sort of teacher-pupil relationship—Socrates himself was charged, after all, with corruption of the young.
The picture Diotima gives us is of a wise and prudent man erotically attracted to a boy and carrying on conversations with him as a kind of intellectual seduction bringing forth from the boy responses and responsiveness that please the man. It is really very difficult to imagine a serious man perpetually involved with a dumb blonde with whom he can never hope to have any reciprocity of conversation. There is obviously a tension between the attraction to the body and the attraction to the soul, and it is difficult, in the case of a teacher and a student, to believe that it is possible to alternate between sex and conversation. Still, the whole relationship is suffused with a kind of intensity and doubt more characteristic of love than of friendship.
Bloom has thought through this erotic aspect of teaching with great empathy. Of the young men whom Socrates fascinated he says:
In the prime of their youth they met someone who seemed to be an erotic aggressor and was also slightly repulsive to them, but whose speech excited them and gave them a fulfillment that was charged by their erotic longing, the great sense of excitement of youth along with its awareness of incompleteness. A youth with a good nature is an exciting thing to observe, pure potentiality longing for wonderful actuality…. When such a person meets a Socrates…it is as though he discovered love…. No young person who has had such an encounter can find it easy to take his ordinary human love affairs all that seriously anymore.
Socrates reached a state, Bloom writes, in which “his quest could proceed by pure thought. But his arrival at this position came by way of full involvement with other bodies and souls.” And Bloom shows that he really accepts Diotima’s view of the ruthlessness of love: for him, Socrates is selfish, but “his selfishness is a sublime selfishness…sexual desire has moved toward the most comprehensive erotic sympathies. The very being of such a soul is beneficent for his disappointed lovers.”
“The most comprehensive erotic sympathies”: that evasive phrase, not at all in the bold manner of Plato, leaves us contemplating with some wryness this extraordinary vision. There have been such teachers; there have been other teachers for whom any such description would, I fear, be all too hopefully euphemistic, as every year a fresh lot of attractive freshmen arrive, and some sophomore finds himself “disappointed.”
Bloom has for most of the book been speaking of love as a permanent union, a commitment for life, the idea of love which Romeo expresses for Juliet, and Rousseau’s young man for his Sophie, and Antony and Cleopatra for each other; the idea which Aristophanes expresses, and which Hollywood used to try to depict, and which most of us think of, more or less guiltily, as what love “really” should be like. That is the ideal which is to replace mechanical or selfish conceptions. But at the end it turns out that, for Bloom, the radically different conception of Diotima justifies the philosophical lover in moving on from beloved to beloved, improving them and being improved by them. The reader feels that only special pleading has filled the gap, enabling a career of high-minded “erotic aggression” to possess, at every step, the quality of permanence—the one thing it cannot possess, as Diotima makes cruelly clear. Such passages as those just quoted are remarkable pieces of writing, psychologically (rather than philosophically) of great interest, and rather moving to read. The young men who met “someone who was…slightly repulsive to them,” but who was able to give them more, in an erotic relationship, than “ordinary human love affairs”—they leave the reader with food for rather ironical thought.
It must be said that for a professed Platonist Bloom makes surprising mistakes. Among others: it is startling to read that Aeschylus and Sophocles were “of course both dead at the time of the action of the dialogue”: Sophocles lived for another ten years. “It is,” he writes, “among homosexual women that Aristophanes finds prostitutes”: what the text says is that from the wholly female original double people came those women who love other women. “Agathon” (the host at the party) “has been exiled. The people are fickle.” Agathon died away from Athens, as Aeschylus and Euripides did, but there is no evidence that he was sentenced to exile—here at least the people are innocent.
The speech of Phaedrus, an early and comparatively unsophisticated contribution to the Symposium, is interpreted on the assumption that he is very young and speaks from the point of view of a beloved boy, not a man: in fact it seems that he was thirty-five or so, and the interpretation is off the mark. In several places Bloom reads into the dialogue indecencies which are not there; he believes Socrates refers to an erection of his own (“a unique admission among philosophers”) but the Greek says, “I felt a flame.” More bizarrely, he writes that Diotima “describes the attraction to the beautiful…and repulsion from the ugly…by allusions to the movement of the phallus….” Not so; the language is not only chaste but also carefully chosen so as to be capable of application to both sexes. Plato does not admit coarseness. I end this short list, which suggests that Bloom was not above criticism as a Hellenist, with the observation that I cannot persuade myself that because Aristotle says in the Poetics that the province of comedy is “the harmless ugly,”
he may very well have meant to say that comedy’s opposite, tragedy, is the harmful beautiful.
October 7, 1993