A Defense (Sort of) of Allan Bloom Against the Calumnies of Tyler Cowen
This comes 12 years too late, but I still think it’s worth correcting the record. In his otherwise wonderfully readable and acute book, In Praise of Commercial Culture, Tyler Cowen (now, of course, a famous blogger and columnist) suggests that Allan Bloom, in his jeremiad The Closing of the American Mind, lifted his critique of American culture from a now largely forgotten Austrian critic named Max Nordau, who 100 years earlier had denounced fin de siecle 19th century culture in his book, Degenerations (or Entartung).
This is a very serious put down of Bloom. First, it challenges Bloom’s integrity as a scholar, as it means that Bloom never gave credit where credit was due. Second, part of Bloom’s charm was that he write like an an Olympian philosopher surveying the passing scene with contempt. That he derived from his ideas not from the Great Books but from some obscure scribbler would unmask his persona as a mere pretension. Finally, it puts Bloom’s cultural pessimism in context. If Bloom borrowed from an earlier critic, it would allow Bloom’s opponents (such as Cowen himself) to say: Yeah, yeah, we’ve heard all this before, and everything turned out okay.
Well, I finally got my hands on a copy of Degenerations and I think I can say definitively: There is no way that Max Nordau influenced Allan Bloom. To be sure, there are some superficial similarities between the two: Both wrote caustic critiques of contemporary culture and both name Nietzsche as a principal villain. But the similarities pretty much end there. Given the number of insatiable scribblers in every generation, it is not surprising that there exist two books that share these features. The similarities can easily be explained as coincidence.
In fact, I doubt that Bloom read Nordau at all. Cowen’s case is premised on the assumption that Bloom was exceptionally erudite, and therefore must have encountered Nordau at some point. Maybe. But Bloom was not erudite in the way that, say, Jacques Barzun, is erudite. On the contrary, Straussians like Bloom have an artificially narrow reading list. They draw a sharp distinction between the great philosophers and all other writers, none of whom merits serious attention. Thus, while Bloom probably had heard of Nordau, he could not have thought of him as a someone worth studying.
Further, Nordau himself clearly rejects the distinction between great philosophers and everyone else (or would reject it, if he had heard of it). Nietzsche, for example, ranks for Straussians as a great philosopher. Nordau, by contrast, does not treat Nietzsche as even a worthy adversary. On the contrary, Nordau dismisses Nietzsche as deranged and childish — not a philosopher at all.
Nordau can dismiss Nietzsche because he approaches philosophers in a spirit utterly unlike Bloom’s. That is to say, Nordau patiently quotes Nietzsche, summarizes his ideas and then sets out to refute them. Of the Genealogy of Morals, for example, Nordau writes that (i) there is no evidence that there is existed any race of beings like the “blond beast” of Nietzsche’s imagination (on the contrary, primitive human beings appear to have been relatively communal and sociable), (ii) contrary to Nietzsche, the “blond beast” could never actually conquer anyone, since amoralists would be easily defeated by any more cooperative race, and (iii) Nietzsche is not so original anyway, as his egotism and irrationalism have precedents among several other 19th century writers (Ibsen, Schopenhauer, Wilde, and others). Nordau also notes the many contradictions in Nietzsche’s texts, exposes the more gnomic passages in Zarathustra as in fact rather trivial, and refuses to accept that Nietzsche’s aphoristic style as evidence of some superior mind. All in all, Nordau’s critique of Nietzsche is a model of precision and clarity.
Bloom, by contrast, does not do philosophy at all, if philosophy means constructing and assessing competing arguments. Rather, as a Straussian, he starts with the assumption that the truth is already found in the words of the great philosophers, and that uncovering the truth requires not logical argument but exegesis. It is impossible to imagine Bloom doing anything so vulgar as to subject to the great Nietzsche to critical evaluation. I realize that Bloom held himself out as the very quintessence of a philosopher. However, being a philosopher, for Bloom, does not mean actually doing philosophy. Instead, it means resigning oneself (or being suspected of having resigned oneself) to some kind of cold nihilism that ordinary people can’t handle. Or something like that.
(Incidentally, my favorite example of Straussian aversion to philosophy is the”West Coast” Straussian vindication of the Lockean social contract. There is nobody alive who actually believes in the possibility of a Lockean social contract, in the sense of every citizen manifesting some kind of genuine consent to the government. But for the West Coast Straussian, the philosophical problems of Lockeanism are irrelevant. The philosophical pedigree is all that counts.)
The differences between Nordau and Bloom go far beyond method. Bloom’s critique is moralistic: All that relativism and rock ‘n roll music, Bloom warns, is corrupting the youth and flattening their souls. Nordau’s critique of 19th century culture, by contrast, is not moral but intellectual. (To be sure, he finds that the irrationalism and mysticism of Rosetti, Nietzsche, Wagner and others breed libertinism, but that also happens to be true.) Nordau was born a 19th century Hapsburg subject, but he belongs intellectually to the Scottish Enlightenment. (Indeed, he has warm words for the British empirical and skeptical tradition.) He is appalled by the retreat of intellectuals from reason and science, and describes their embrace of ecstatic irrationalism as “degenerate” and mentally insane. Unfortunately, to our ears, anybody who condemns “degenerate” modern thinking sounds like a Nazi. But Nordau, a leading early Zionist, of course knew nothing of Naziism. Moreover, the irrationalist and romantic tendencies of Naziism were precisely what Nordau opposed.
Cowen’s implicit criticism of Bloom — that we’ve heard all this before so we have nothing to worry — actually backfires. Whatever the merits of Bloom’s Closing, Nordau’s Degenerations is fundamentally correct. Wilde’s Aestheticism, the Cult of Wagner, Ibsen’s egomania, Nietzsche’s amoralism — all of these things really are, as Nordau alleged, kinda crazy. Intellectuals who keep their heads on their shoulders don’t get swept up in such movements. Furthermore, far from being risibly anachronistic, Nordau’s critique is also quite prophetic. Though causes of Naziism are complex, one can easily see the 19th century flight from reason as a necessary condition of the horrors that followed. (If anyone stole from Max Nordau, it was probably Julien Benda, author of the similarly themed Treason of the Clerks.)
Ironically, Nordau seems a lot closer ideologically to Cowen — himself a liberal and a man of the Enlightenment — than to Bloom. One can well imagine Nordau, if were alive today, excoriating Bloom as just another ridiculous enemy of reason. In any case, I highly recommend Degenerations. Intellectually, it is an heroic effort.