What ever happened to good old eroticism?

July 18, 1993|By D. Keith Mano | D. Keith Mano,Los Angeles Times

LOVE AND FRIENDSHIP

Allan Bloom

Simon & Schuster

551 pages, $25

Eroticism in the '90s is passionless and approximate. So says Allan Bloom in "Love and Friendship." The most vulgar four-letter word has become an overused comma. Worse yet, contemporary sexual "interfacing" cannot empower art. ("Did Romeo and Juliet have a relationship?" Bloom asks.) Adultery, for Jane Austen, held terrific human resonance. Adultery today is . . . oh, self-expression. Political correctness and the dull relativism implicit in it have produced "an unwillingness to think about one's experience and its relationship to the whole of life and the moral order."

Bloom explains: "This book is an attempt to recover the power, the danger and the beauty of eros under the tutelage of its proper teachers and knowers, the poetic writers." But he will propose a more radical conceit: the "improbable assertion" that thinking, in itself, is erotic.

As you might expect from someone who wrote "The Closing of the American Mind" -- that provocative, long-shot best seller about cowardice, ineptitude and special-interest flackery in academia -- Bloom doesn't much admire our modern permissive and democratic eroticism. This is just behavior (as in animal behavior), not emotion and yearning structured by some great ++ tradition, cultural or artistic. "Liberal society," he laments, "guarantees the right to privacy, even when nobody wants to keep anything private."

Bloom, who died last year, does his thinking on eroticism in "Love and Friendship" through the second-hand discipline of literary criticism -- never an exact tool. Now and again this academic perspective (and all the elitist prejudice that it can entail) leads Bloom to make unnatural and even melodramatic demands on human love. For instance: "Eros requires speech, and beautiful speech, to communicate to its partner." Bloom must have been a difficult date.

Yet, for all his vehemence and tough-mindedness, Bloom is polite, rather shy and even disingenuous: "I present no theory, nor do I have one, although my observations cannot help but call into question other theories." Bloom is distancing himself, I think; because, at base, "Love and Friendship" masks great pain and a kind of intellectual brokenheartedness.

To help us imagine elegant, high-spirited eroticism, Bloom will adduce Jean-Jacques Rousseau. "The miracle of sex according to Rousseau is that although it is purely material, it becomes in civilized man utterly dependent on imagination, which is purely immaterial. Imagination most palpably moves the flesh." Eroticism is about storytelling. The Romantic Movement, Rousseau's legitimate child, elevated eros to a potent mix of tension -- moral, emotional and literary. Men and women in love knew the animal urge, but they had to refine it with long self-denial. Eros, through sublimation, became art and thought. "How to perform this delicate operation of uniting desire and sublime imagination," Bloom offers, "is demonstrated in Books IV and V of Rousseau's 'Emile.' "

Emile was taught love. I italicize that verb because teaching, in Bloom's subtext, can be seen as the quintessential and best erotic enterprise. Serious teaching, that is: what one might call philosophic intercourse. "Rousseau presents the movement from sensibility or sensuality to abstract thought as a kind of miracle," Bloom continues. "It would seem that he attributes this movement to the miraculous seminal power that puberty provides."

True eroticism for Rousseau requires a long novitiate. The fictional Emile is instructed by his wise tutor, the real Jean-Jacques. Emile remains a virgin until 24 (self-abuse is not an acceptable surrogate activity). Sophie, his wife, has been pre-selected. Soon after consummation, bride and groom separate for years at Jean-Jacques' sage insistence. Now this is a love worth writing fiction or philosophy about. "When . . . the loss of belief in the dignity of sublimation overcame Rousseau's influence, love was no longer the theme of the novel, and it is difficult to discern what has replaced it."

Up until this point Bloom and his idiosyncratic thesis have been reasonably engaging. They engage again when Bloom subjects the "Symposium" to close analysis. Between Rousseau and Plato, however, there is a lot of impertinent literary criticism -- Bloom on Austen, Stendhal, Tolstoy, Flaubert, much Shakespeare and Montaigne.

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