Allan Bloom on American Nihilism and Its Degrading Vocabulary

 
 

What would have happened if literature professors had continued to love literature, admire Shakespeare, and teach others to do the same? Perhaps if they had emulated Allan Bloom’s attention to words—if they’d taught writing and written well themselves—our colleges would not now be so enraged.

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When I invited Professor Allan Bloom to Dartmouth in 1973, I got to see the fire in the smoke. As he spoke, each one of the hundred students felt he was speaking to him, firing his soul to study. Also afire was the cigar he left in my daughter’s frilly bed, which nearly burned our home down.

The same fire animates the book he published fourteen years later, The Closing of the America Mind. Through it, Bloom still kindles us to study beautiful and lofty things, to open our foggy minds to their light, and to change our low, disordered lives.

Bloom’s writing reflects his ardent way of speaking. His ebullient conversations were always rich in allusion, spicy with anecdotes, and salted with insults. His mind was ever on the move, expanding to the horizon or zeroing in on details, with his hawk eyes watching his interlocutor to monitor the effect of his words. In Closing, Bloom is not addressing scholars (hence the lack of footnotes). Rather, he is speaking as if to his friends—friends like Saul Bellow, who urged him to “put it in a book.” We lucky citizens, parents, and fellow teachers get to listen.

I can hear him now.

Nihilism, American Style 

The book is divided into three parts. Part One, “Students,” describes the typical slack-souled American college student so discerningly that parents bought the book to understand their own children. Part Three, “The University,” describes what Bloom saw close-up at Cornell, with its threatening students and cowering faculty.

Part Two of Bloom’s Closing, entitled “Nihilism, American Style,” explores the philosophical roots of both the dissipation of longing in the students and the enfeebling of reason in faculty members. Bloom argues that Max Weber and Sigmund Freud’s reduction and dilution of the deep, daring, and risky thoughts of Nietzsche led to the slack nihilism now enjoyed by Americans. If you think of yourself as a “self” or “ego” rather than a soul, if you speak of “commitment” rather than choice, and if you speak of “values,” then you need Bloom’s help. He will lead you in two directions. First, there is the way of philosophy—joyous but steep, lonely, and probably tragic. Second, there is the civic way to home and country—a long road, at most contented, but probably comic.

Part Two of Closing is the most difficult section because it is the deepest. While in Parts One and Three Bloom is talking of persons we may know, in Part Two he is talking about persons we better not claim to know: the brilliant Nietzsche and the dark Heidegger. They are above us. We must learn from them and not degrade their thought.

According to Bloom, if you are a worthy thinker such as Max Weber, and yet a lesser man than the great-souled Nietzsche, you will inevitably convey something diluted when you try to capture and express Nietzsche’s thought. The only guard against it is to keep saying to your readers, your students, and yourself, as Bloom does, “look higher than me.” Readers of Bloom’s account will then want to study Nietzsche and dwell with every thinker and poet Nietzsche lives with, and especially Socrates.

No other part of the book requires as much study as Part Two. After reading Part One, you should talk to your own children; after reading Part Three, if you are a professor, you should use your tenure to reform the university, but after reading Part Two, you should philosophize, or not, or if young, spend college discovering the great spirits to spend your “ungainful” hours after college with. And if you do that, you will not only come to know yourself better, you will also contribute to the common good of our republic.

The Civic Good of Choosing Your Words

In addition to the philosophic way, there are worthy civic ways of life, roads to home and to country requiring quite as much effort and yet promising good results sooner (for philosophy never ends). But the civic life too is harmed by the degradation of thought, particularly by means of our vocabulary.

In Part Two, Bloom examines the words that have closed our American minds, hindered us from knowing ourselves, and made it hard to deliberate, thus contributing to our many cultural and political blunders and disasters. Bloom devotes major attention to such words as “self” (not soul), “creativity,” “culture,” and the mother of them all, “values.” “These words are there where thoughts should be,” says Bloom disparagingly. But he actually thinks about them, tracing them back to German thinkers, critically exposing their deficiencies, and finally suggesting better words.

Along the way he exposes the emptiness of “the sacred,” “secularization,” “charisma,” and all of Freud’s simultaneously pretentious and murky psychology. Bloom fixes on cloudy words and phrases, such as “relate” (which avoids specifying in what way things or people are related: by love, hate, pity?) and “failure to communicate” (rather than failure to understand). And there are all the inferior or downright evasive substitutions: “intellectual honesty” for love of truth; the pairs “authentic” and “inauthentic,” “profound” and “superficial,” or “creative” and “uncreative” as replacements for true and false; “commitment” (a thing of the will), which excuses one from practicing the cardinal or theological virtues; unchosen “identity” or “personality” instead of character, which is built by repeated human choice; and “positing” instead of claiming, contending, arguing, maintaining, or holding (as in “hold these truths to be self-evident”).

All these slippery innovations support the shallow preference of a “lifestyle” instead of the consequential choice of a way of life. As Bloom puts it, “There is a whole arsenal of terms for talking about nothing—caring, self-fulfillment, expanding consciousness, and so on indefinitely. Nothing determinate, nothing that has a referent.” All these evasive substitutions stem from holding that man is a value-creating self and not a good-discovering soul.

"Never Shall I Utter These Words"

Toward the end of Part Two, Bloom asks whether, if we Americans were forbidden to use all these words, we would be speechless. Alternatively, if we were deprived of the word “lifestyle,” would we say “living exactly as I please”? If stripped of “my ideology,” would we say “my prejudices”? If unable to say “my values,” would we, now naked and a touch ashamed, try to give reasons for our views and our choices, begin to know ourselves, and live seriously?

A couple of years ago, I was very pleased when the whole class studying Part Two took the pledge I offered, and solemnly swore, with a smile: “I shall never utter these words, but ever seek better ones, so help me God.”

What words might we seek? While Bloom’s exposure of the new words often includes better words, Americans can find plenty elsewhere as well. There remains the mighty fortress of the King James Bible, for instance, and the boundless treasury of Shakespeare.

In Shakespeare, you won’t find such words as lifestyle, ideology, or even entertainment in its shallow modern sense. The word “creative” does not appear, only creature, creation, and creator, for creativity was only recognized in “great nature” and nature’s God. The later philosophic sludge of “concept,” “objective” and “subjective,” and “fact” vs. “value” are not there to stymie our search for truth. Instead of “values,” you will find the exposure of their danger when the amorous Troilus defends the abduction of Helen: “What’s aught but as ’tis valued?” and is refuted by Hector: “value dwells not in particular will; / It holds his estimate and dignity / As well wherein ’tis precious of itself . . . ’Tis mad idolatry / To make the service greater than the god.”

The seven most common adjectives in Shakespeare are “good,” “great,” “fair,” “sweet,” “true,” “poor,” and “noble.” The use of “good” (2985 times) exceeds all others. When teaching Shakespeare, I challenge students to spend a week using such words, and no words not in Shakespeare. They get extra credit if they get some winsome Shakespearean word, like “romage,” into the Daily Dartmouth. How many knaves would be recognized and some restrained if we used the word as often as Shakespeare did? (247 times, to be exact.) Perhaps we would not have to suffer so many fools if we used “fool” too.

The glory of our English tongue is not in our mundane philosophers or turgid social scientists but in our poets, led by Shakespeare, and our statesmen. Why not spend a week, a month, using only the vocabulary of the Founders? Or spend a lifetime, like Lincoln did. He combined this language with that of Shakespeare, and—most notably in his two greatest addresses, which now adorn the walls of his Memorial—he added the Bible.

While the great are to be emulated, the good should be consulted as well. A rare guide to good writing, written by a good writer, is Jacques Barzun’s Simple and Direct. For the exact word, there is James Fernald’s Synonyms, Antonyms, and Prepositions. For examples of what not to do, study how Roger Scruton (Fools, Frauds, and Firebrands) scrutinizes passages in which celebrity nihilists Deleuze, Foucault, and Derrida drown reason in mystifying jargon.

Around 1970, Paul DeMan seduced Yale to “theory.” If instead literature professors had continued to love literature, admire Shakespeare, and teach others to do the same, perhaps our colleges would not now be so enraged. If they had only emulated Allan Bloom’s attention to words—if they’d taught writing and written well themselves—all American academe might still be the peaceful home of the American mind.

Michael Platt has taught Shakespeare and Nietzsche at Dartmouth, Heidelberg, and the University of Dallas. Contact him at drmichaelplatt1942@gmail.com.

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