The Mind Behind 'The Closing Of The American Mind'

January 06, 1991|By JEFFREY M. LANDAW

Giants and Dwarfs: Essays 1960-1990.

Allan Bloom.

Simon & Schuster.

395 pages. $22.95. A few years ago, a Baltimore columnist with no sociopolitical ax to grind and views far removed from Allan Bloom's remarked that when Americans of a certain age and class first meet one another, they always wind up talking about popular music and old television shows because that's the only common culture they're sure of having. Enough other people had noticed that fact, and found it shameful or even dangerous, to explain why Mr. Bloom's "The Closing of the American Mind" became one of the surprise best-sellers of 1987: A large public was waiting for it.

The most Mr. Bloom can hope for with "Giants and Dwarfs" probably will be critical success. The contents -- essays on Shakespeare, Swift and Rousseau; two minor Platonic dialogues; reply to a fellow scholar about Aristophanes' quarrel with Socrates; a detailed attack on "A Theory of Justice," the work of political philosophy that John Rawls published to much acclaim in 1971 -- don't look like a battle cry, as "Closing" did. But the themes are those of "Closing," and they at least help pose the question of whether Mr. Bloom is right about what ails American civilization, and what might cure it.

Mr. Bloom is a follower of Leo Strauss, the late classicist philosopher whose last teaching post was at St. John's College in Annapolis. As such, he believes in "a single, objective standard of the good valid for all men," graspable by unaided, but intensively trained, human reason. He also believes that this standard, and the questions arising from it, were grasped in "the classical and biblical morality which stood behind and made possible all states and regimes as we have known or can imagine them." Liberal democracy, the best form of government available to modern man, derives its legitimacy from the truths -- Mr. Bloom never would say "values" -- of the Western tradition.

These views have got Mr. Bloom and his fellow Straussians labeled elitist, ethnocentric and racist -- whatever those words mean when, as the British writer John Wain says, we apply the term "elitist" to any art that can't be immediately mastered by any casual passerby off the street. But Mr. Bloom and his comrades make a powerful defense:

The ideas of tolerance, pluralism and equality -- of individuals as well as cultures -- that Mr. Bloom's critics advocate make sense only in the Western tradition those critics condemn. We found out where our cultural pluralism stopped, as Mr. Bloom writes, when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini ordered Salman Rushdie killed for writing "The Satanic Verses." We're finding it out again as we argue over defending unemancipated feudal monarchies in the Arabian desert.

People who take Mr. Bloom at his enemies' valuation might start with the essay "On Christian and Jew: 'The Merchant of Venice.' " He argues that Shakespeare means to show Shylock, like Othello, as a tragic victim of false hopes raised by the Venetian regime. Othello tries to assimilate and fails; Shylock refuses to try and is poisoned by returning the hatred that results. Venice, which officially practiced toleration because it was good for business, "did not fulfill for them its promise of being a society in which men could live as men, not as whites and blacks, Christians and Jews, Venetians and foreigners."

That's a surprising reading of a play so often thought of as a nastily conventional period piece -- Christian love and mercy vs.

Jewish legalism and stubbornness -- that somehow breaks into humanist poetry with the "Hath not a Jew eyes?" speech. But surprising readings are the key to the Straussian method, and the great question is whether those readings are, as Mr. Bloom admits they appear to outsiders, close and subtle to the point of perversity.

Mr. Bloom gives those outsiders plenty of ammunition. As he uses Strauss' methods, Tocqueville, a 19th century liberal admired by many modern conservatives, and Rousseau, the arch-revolutionary, become soul mates. Perhaps more astonishing because the work is more familiar to English-speaking readers, Swift, the Tory clergyman, becomes an unbelieving classical republican who includes Thomas Aquinas among the despised Moderns in "The Battle of the Books" and creates the Struldbrugs, the loathsome and pitiful immortals in "Gulliver's Travels," as an allegory against church control of land and political influence.

Not only do the Straussians read their texts closely and perhaps eccentrically, they refuse any guidance from the criticism that has grown up around those texts. For Mr. Bloom, critics are too blinded by their own "abstractions" to be of any use, and "historicism" -- the idea that philosophies must be seen in, and judged by, the light of their origins -- is the source of an infinite variety of evils, down to the ethnic and cultural separatism that would imprison people for life in their own roots.

I haven't even mentioned Mr. Bloom's indifference to the physical and social sciences; his definition of history as purely the acts of statesmen and heroes; or the awkward fact that the Eastern European revolutions he rightly celebrates were influenced partly by the American rock music he spent a whole chapter of "Closing" denouncing. So readers who want to argue with him have plenty of grounds for doing so. But to engage Mr. Bloom on any level above that of the temper tantrum -- of which "Closing" provoked plenty -- would require knowledge comparable to his own of his texts, and of the assumptions behind the values and virtues we naively think of as expressions of self-evident truths. Just trying for such knowledge would be a kind of victory for Mr. Bloom and his camp, but it would be a larger victory for American political and cultural discourse.

Mr. Landaw is a makeup editor with The Sun.

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