Critical Words: Reviews from the Archives

A nice blast from the past courtesy of Robert Paul Wolff’s blog, The Philosopher’s Stone.

Here is, as he puts it, “a bauble from his files” in the form of a hilarious and apt review of Alan Bloom’s “Closing of the American Mind” one of many late 80s petulant squibs from cranky humanities types bemoaning–as I vaguely recall–things like the fact that his undergraduates listened to Tracy Chapman and read Kate Chopin (presumably, instead of reading Chapman’s Homer and listening to Poland’s Chopin).

The beginning of the review from http://robertpaulwolff.blogspot.com/2014/03/yet-another-bauble-from-my-files.html

Aficionados of the modern American novel have learned to look to Philip Roth for complex literary constructions that play wittily with narrative voice and frame. One thinks of such Roth works as My Life as a Man and The Counter Life, Now Saul Bellow has demonstrated that among his other well-recognized literary gifts is an unsuspected bent for daring satire. What Bellow has done, quite simply, is to write an entire coruscating funny novel in the form of a pettish, bookish, grumpy, reactionary complaint against the last two decades. The “author” of this tirade, one of Bellow’s most fully realized literary creations, is a mid-fiftyish professor at the University of Chicago, to whom Bellow gives the evocative name, “Bloom.”…

Bellow's novel about Bloom.
Bellow’s novel about Bloom.

And of course, Bellow, perhaps inspired by Wolff?, did go on to write a novel about Bloom, who turned out to be–and I say this in the nicest way possible, someday hoping to be be one myself–an effete homosexual.

The whole review is worth a read, and Brian Leiter, whose great blog tipped me off to Wolff’s piece, points out that the Nietzsche scholarship in “The Closing of the American Mind” is inept. So is the argument about foreign language study, not enough of it for Bloom and the cause of many ills–missing the point that this is a long-running battle in higher ed, not something that the 60s foisted on us. Whether to teach languages, which languages to teach, and to what end is a continuing friction point in the curriculum. Nineteenth century academics were as outraged as Bloom that “modern” languages like French and German, and contemporary texts in those languages, were replacing Latin and Greek as core curriculum. That battle has more to do with what languages we offer now that those baleful hippies and feminists of the 60s that so vex B.

But Bloom was an appealing scold for the time: he was an intellectual whom anti-intellectuals could love. And in a somewhat paradoxical way  his popularity came from the reassurance that it turned out you didn’t have to feel guilty for blowing off your reading in college (particularly that Nietzsche course!) nor should you regret it if you missed out on college. Not a problem because all those things people were teaching, listening to and doing in college were the WRONG things, and bad, so very, very bad. Whereas, reading his book was doing “the right thing” and best of all was having a high-minded argument about it after a quick skim, and in between filling out your MBA applications.

 

Image from the 1820 edition of "The American first class book, or, Exercises in reading and recitation: selected principally from modern authors of Great Britain and America, and designed for the use of the highest class in public and private schools." From the 19th Century Schoolbook Collection at the University of Pittsburgh.
Image from the 1820 edition of “The American first class book, or, Exercises in reading and recitation: selected principally from modern authors of Great Britain and America, and designed for the use of the highest class in public and private schools.” From the 19th Century Schoolbook Collection at the University of Pittsburgh.
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