On Allan Bloom’s Love & Friendship

Once upon a time there was a school of literary commentators called “Chicago critics.” While the New Critics analyzed lyric poems, the Chicago critics tended to examine the design of classic novels and plays, the effects of which they attempted to account for exhaustively. At best, they did a remarkable job of illuminating the ways in which structure conveys meaning; at worst, they dwindled into monotonous paraphrase.

Which brings us to the late Allan Bloom’s serious and substantial new book, Love & Friendship (Simon & Schuster). It consists mostly of meticulous Chicago critic-style readings of four 19th century novelists, Stendhal, Jane Austen, Flaubert and Tolstoy; five Shakespeare plays; and Plato’s Socratic dialogue Phaedrus. Reading Bloom’s Love & Friendship, one often imagines one is listening to a university lecture, and indeed the book that keeps coming to mind is Vladimir Nabokov’s Lectures on Literature.

Yet it may be misleading to introduce Bloom’s valedictory effort in this manner. For Bloom, who died last year after a long career at the University of Chicago, produced something more here than a miscellany of critical readings. In fact, like his controversial 1987 best-seller, The Closing of the American Mind, Love & Friendship is an ambitious and passionate work of social criticism.

In his 1987 book, Bloom argued cogently that the campus revolutions of the 1960s had brought about catastrophic changes in American higher education. If the best students had once acquired a deep regard for Western culture and had learned to draw fine intellectual and moral distinctions, their counterparts today are bequeathed a slack intellectual and moral relativism and emerge from college with “impoverished souls.”

What The Closing of the American Mind was to the contemporary intellect, Love & Friendship seeks to be to the contemporary heart. Bloom argues that in America today, life’s most powerful, perilous and profoundly meaningful element has been turned into an innocuous mechanical activity. Though we live in a sex-saturated society, we have lost the capacity for rich imaginative experience that transforms sex into eros and gives human relations depth and consequence.

If Love & Friendship has a hero, it is Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the French Enlightenment philosopher who regarded love and romance with the utmost seriousness, placed them at the center of the human cosmos and, as Bloom demonstrates, strongly influenced the novelists examined here.

Where do those literary works come in? Most of them, from Romeo and Juliet to Pride and Prejudice, center on intense romantic attachments. Scrutinizing these works, Bloom probes their authors’ views on love, companionship and the contingencies of human connectedness — views in comparison to which today’s popular notions about relationships cannot but seem awfully shallow

For Bloom is right, of course, about the superficial role that sex plays in our society.  High schools distribute condoms; corner newsstands display pornography. Whether or not one approves of such practices, one can hardly deny that they encourage young people to regard sex not as a majestic aid in forging significant human bonds but as little more than a primitive appetite.

Bloom finds all of this troubling, and one shares his disquietude. Yet he is mistaken to assume that the increased sexual awareness of young people and the erosion of the rituals of courtship necessarily mean that young people are more callous about feelings, fellowship and romance. Certainly it’s excessive to argue that the common man once experienced love on a vastly more profound level than he does now and that passionate commitment has disappeared. Even a reader who strongly shares Bloom’s alarm about the cheapening of sex may find it illogical to try to draw lessons about that process from a comparison of the inner life of the average American today with that of Anna Karenina or Mark Antony.

While readers may share Bloom’s fervent concern, moreover, that young people today don’t respect high culture as their predecessors did and that they are more likely to view education not as a disinterested quest for truth but as career preparation, they may wish that Bloom would acknowledge that in some ways the current younger generation represents a marked improvement over previous ones.

He finds fault, for example, with the tolerant spirit of many college-age kids. By routinely condoning sexual interests different from their own, Bloom argues, young people refuse to make judgments, to discriminate and to reflect properly on their own sexual tastes. But it could be argued that young people nowadays, on the whole, are better than earlier generations at understanding the distinction between judging other people’s sexual natures, which they don’t presume to do, and intelligently evaluating the degree to which people act responsibly upon those natures.

This is a distinction to which Bloom seems blind. Though he habitually dismisses other contemporary thinkers as simplistic, he can himself be simplistic about some things.

About other matters, furthermore, he can be dismayingly unobjective. When he confronts homosexuality in his section on Plato, Bloom, who is almost reverential toward heterosexual love, suddenly seems less the probing philosopher and more the stern rabbi. Having described heterosexual attraction as the cement that can seal a noble intellectual and spiritual bond, he contends in this section that homosexual attraction negates the nobility of such a bond. Oddly enough, the subject of “Greek love” also provokes the occasional flippant, sardonic line (for instance, “there oughta be a law”) that recalls tough-guy characters in the novels of Bloom’s longtime teaching colleague, writer Saul Bellow.

Make no mistake: Bloom was a brilliant man. Yet while his pronouncements on literature seem well-nigh unassailable, many of his generalizations about life and love today sound terribly dubious, if not downright naive or intolerant.

By book’s end, the reader has the impression that the author, a lifelong bachelor who cherished his credentials as a member of the intellectual elite, was so much a creature of the insular academy that he mistook trendy professorial views and social prescriptions for ordinary Americans’ guiding assumptions and ways of life.

By no means, however, does this failing mitigate the ardor of Bloom’s book, the penetration of many of its insights and the elegance of its prose. There can be no doubt that Love & Friendship will have many readers and will provoke more than a few impassioned discussions. It deserves those readers — and American culture desperately needs those discussions.

INSIGHT, July 19, 1993