Heidegger was a Nazi. Ezra Pound was an anti-Semite. Admired thinkers and artists are some- times ugly people. Usually we can separate the merit of their intellectual contributions from their character flaws. But then, the “state of our souls” or mankind’s “highest aspirations” are not every intellectual’s explicit domain, as they were for the late University of Chicago professor Allan Bloom. Nobody expected Nietzsche or Machiavelli, for example, to be nice guys. But Bloom—having dared to disapprove of us, intoning sagely, “Know thyself,” and having measured our culture and found it wanting in depth and nobility—should have absorbed at least some of his teachings and been a mensch. He wasn’t.
Bloom’s 1987 best-selling indictment of academe, The Closing of the American Mind, was one of those books, like The Bell Curve, that hardly anyone read but about which everyone had a politicized opinion. Conservatives loved it. Liberals hated it. Welcome to the culture wars. Bloom inflamed them, bemoaning a crisis of relativism in American universities. He was out to save the endangered souls of young folk in the style of his mentor Leo Strauss—that is, through the study of classical philosophy, Plato especially. Soon Bloom’s name became shorthand for “cranky conservative”—the guy you were against if you were for rock ‘n’ roll and Derrida.
But now that Bloom has been dead for eight years, and his remains exhumed by his friend Saul Bellow in a roman à clef, Ravelstein, the left and right have resumed their dance of intimacy and begun picking over the corpse. Bloom was gay, and he died of AIDS—or so Bellow’s novel has it. (Bloom’s obituaries listed the cause of death as internal bleeding and liver failure.)
In The New Republic, reconstructed liberal Andrew Sullivan promptly laid claim to Bloom’s legacy: “Perhaps Bloom’s finest achievement was to write about human love from the perspective of homosexual love and have no one notice the seam.”
Meanwhile, Bloom’s quondam colleagues on the right, homophobes that so many of them are, cry foul, accusing Bellow of having “outed” Bloom unfairly. But, to Saul’s son Adam Bellow, there’s more to it: “Bloom might have been concerned that his ideas would have been dismissed as though he were a figure like Roy Cohn.” By which he meant that Tony Kushner et al. could dismiss his ideas as the rantings of a repressed homosexual, and the right would have to, in some measure, disown him as an embarrassment.
So should we all, but not just for these reasons. Bloom was always expounding on Eros. How, then, could he have missed the political significance of acknowledging his all too Greek tastes, as well as the tragic irony of a cerebral love doctor dying from a sexually transmitted disease? His friends say he was simply “private” about being gay and having AIDS, but that’s whitewash. He was a coward. Still, that’s just the beginning.
Bellow’s Bloom is surprisingly loathsome in other ways, too. He’s a pusillanimous gossipmonger and a conscienceless spendthrift. He wears a $20,000 watch. He spends $4500 on a Lanvin blazer only to stain it with espresso within the first hour of wearing it. On his deathbed, he spends hours on the phone ordering an $80,000, fully loaded BMW for his boyfriend. He overnights his soiled neckties to a silk specialist in Paris. These are not larks. In all things material, he’ll settle for nothing less than opulence. Meanwhile, his days are filled with the whispered confidences of friends, which he relishes and promptly reveals, proclaiming: “When I do it, it’s not gossip, it’s social history.”
Adam Bellow, who once studied under Bloom, describes him as “Olympian.” Perhaps he was, in the classroom. But is this how such a person should have lived or faced death in private life? Whatever happened to the golden mean; the examined life; or as Bloom characterized it, our “deeper selves” and “the world beyond [our] superficial experience”?
Bellow’s Bloom is not just a flawed human being or a garden-variety hypocrite, but a self-aggrandizing, arrogant, soulless, dissipated prick who took from Greek philosophy whatever made him feel superior, and left the rest. If Bellow’s portrait is accurate (and insiders say it is), it depicts a truly ugly person—someone you’d expect to find buried in offal in Dante’s hell.
Maybe Bloom was Olympian, after all—the very picture of petty, priapic Zeus. But then, his terrible end was, arguably, just as Greek. To the ancient Athenians, hubris, after all, had its price.