From Round to Square (and back)

For The Emperor's Teacher, scroll down (↓) to "Topics." It's the management book that will rock the world (and break the vase, as you will see). Click or paste the following link for a recent profile of the project:

A new post appears every day at 12:05* (CDT). There's more, though. Take a look at the right-hand side of the page for over four years of material (2,000 posts and growing) from Seinfeld and country music to every single day of the Chinese lunar calendar...translated. Look here ↓ and explore a little. It will take you all the way down the page...from round to square (and back again).
*Occasionally I will leave a long post up for thirty-six hours, and post a shorter entry at noon the next day.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Flowers Bloom (6)—Settling In

Click here for the introduction to the Round and Square series "Flowers Bloom."
[a] Reading  RF
During the summer, I will be posting segments of a memoir project I have begun that discusses teaching, learning, scholarship, reading...and the venerable, odd University of Chicago professor Allan Bloom, whose bestseller The Closing of the American Mind rocked American education almost twenty-five years ago. I have already written a little bit about Bloom on this blog, and had promised to start posting more pieces starting in June. Read the introduction to the series if you want the full context, but the individual posts are meant to be read on their own (with hints throughout of the larger context).

This is one post in a six-part series. Click below for the other posts:
Floral 1         Floral 2          Floral 3          Floral 4          Floral 5          Floral 6

Flowers Bloom—A Teaching Memoir
By the autumn of 1988—a year later—a great deal had happened. Allan Bloom’s incendiary book had sold millions of copies. This was unheard of for an obscure professor of political philosophy, and Bloom himself reveled in every moment of the attention. He appeared on every television show that would have him—smoking ceaselessly throughout, and appearing irritated if ashtrays were unavailable. He was asked to give the commencement address at Harvard University that spring, and began with the memorable lines—which echo the trap-settings of Closing, and into which almost every commentator fell again—“My fellow elitists…
[b] Tower view  RF
He also watched his portfolio grow…and grow…and grow. He was not the least bit shy about speaking of this, and it was a topic of conversation in almost every class or chat I was a part of. He referred often to the reviews of Closing, and referred regularly in interviews to the fact that he was going to make the most of his “six weeks of fame.” He smoked tirelessly, and enjoyed himself thoroughly. My favorite reference to the enormity of the change for a college professor who, as though by thunderbolt, became a multimillionaire, comes from his friend’s faux biography—Saul Bellow’s Ravelstein. 

          Anyway, he never opened the telephone bills…Those were paid by Legg 
          Mason, the vast investment firm in the East that managed his money. [He 
          said], “I don’t like electronic printouts, I’m certainly not about to study them. 
          Don’t bring anything up, don’t hand me a statement unless the principal 
          falls below ten million.[1] 

Allan Bloom was easy to caricature. I remember asking a classmate in May 1988 if he thought any of our professors might be joining us in running the "Hyde Park 5K." He replied, "Allan Bloom would have to find a place to set down his drink first." So it went, and Bloom loved it all...even in just sensing that people might be talking about him.

In the meantime, I had been busy with the mundane work required of people who wished to develop some expertise in anthropology, history, and Chinese literature. I took seminars in anthropological theory, classical Chinese, and Chinese historiography. Allan Bloom was accruing capital, even as he slept, but he kept on teaching. All of us who worked with him heard about his legendary tastes, if not the income pie charts. I sat in on his seminar—jointly taught with Saul Bellow—on Samuel Butler’s minor classic The Way of All Flesh. It seemed a fitting title for a course taught by a professor who woke up to wealth and fame on a spring morning about a year before.

The long summer of 1988 passed (mine was taken up by intensive study of Japanese), and we came ‘round again in October to the opening event for the year—the Committee on Social Thought sherry hour. I remembered distinctly the sherry hour of a year earlier, and was fairly content that I had made some progress toward my goals. My reading list had taken shape, and I had already written a few essays, even as I continued to develop my skills in classical Chinese. I had even come to know Allan Bloom fairly well, although I knew that I never wanted to be “his student.” No, I would carve my own path, much as I liked the guy. He was a real kick, and filled with a firehose of ideas all of the time. Never-ending. Spraying. I loved it.

I wouldn’t be “his student,” but I would talk with him, and the last year had provided many such opportunities. It could not have worked better if it had been a plan. My pride (and possibly academic specialty) had separated us in a formal sense, but that was precisely what allowed me to engage Allan Bloom in ways that were far more interesting to me than ever could have been possible had he been reading, say, drafts of my doctoral dissertation. I was able to have a few fairly lively give-and-take sessions with him over the course of the year, and watch the fireworks that were Bloom/Bellow in class (the bestseller meets the Nobel Prize). Not a bad first year.

[c] Names  RF
As I reflected on these matters, I settled in with my glass of sherry—like a good anthropologist, I was serious about eating and drinking what the natives ate and drank, odd though it seemed. I began to talk with a gaggle of students and professors who seemed energized by being back together with colleagues after a long summer—any lingering resentments covered by a fine mist of alcohol and social cohesion. It was at this point that—if I were “in the field,” in Taiwan or elsewhere, I would have had my notebook—I witnessed one of the oddest cases of name-dropping as cultural practice that I have ever seen. I also realize that I am name-dropping as I tell it. Such is culture and (it happened twenty-three years ago) history. 

So…the group contained about fifteen professors and students. It was formal; the professors talked and the students listened (and drank). Edward Levi, former president of the University of Chicago and U.S. Attorney General, began by saying that he had spent a few days in the early summer chatting with both the mayor and the governor about some of the retail locations on Hyde Park Boulevard, and that he felt that the University had a chance of integrating more effectively into the wider southside community. We were all interested in this topic, because we knew that the University of Chicago was an island (and not in the best sense) in a racially divided city. We were impressed.

From there, the conversation took on a social power of its own. I still hope, someday, to create a theory of name-dropping around what I heard that day. We sipped our sherry as Saul Bellow picked up the thread. He spoke of various discussions with agents and a summer spent working on a wide range of manuscripts. Coming from him, this spoke volumes. Bellow was not a struggling writer trying to find work. He was the quintessential man of letters, and even such mundane talk left me with goosebumps. That was not enough for Bellow, though. He concluded his part of the conversation by noting, pointedly, that “When I was speaking in July with [Secretary of State] George Schultz, I mentioned to him that…” I couldn’t remember the details of the advice or remonstrance, so stunned was I that Bellow had taken Levi’s mayor/governor and “raised him.” The cards were on the table, and only one player was left.

Edward Shils, the distinguished—if by that time somewhat aged—sociological theorist, cleared his throat. He began slowly, describing various discussions he had been having over the paperback version of his book Tradition. I thought to myself that here was a professor who had come to understand marketing, even in the obscure world of academic publishing. With a title like Tradition, he was sure to appear on everyone’s reading list for decades and decades. People would assign it without having even read it. The title did all of the heavy lifting. Brilliant. As before, we were already impressed.

The game of academic one-upmanship was not over, though. I could only think of chiefly contests that consumed enormous amounts of tribal energy as I watched this spectacle. Here before me were three “big chiefs” of the University of Chicago. At least within the academic world…everyone knew them. They were the powers of this little island called the Committee on Social Thought—some with influence that went far beyond its ivy-covered shores. Who would ever think that there would need to be competition?

I immediately learned otherwise, even if I had thought to doubt the power of competitive discourse—with the mayor and governor giving way to the secretary of state in just a few minutes. Edward Shils gave a brief cough, took a little sip from his drink, and said, “In July, during my audience with the pope…”
***  ***
I had not seen Allan Bloom walk into the room. What followed would set the tone for the rest of my time with him, and at the Committee on Social Thought. True to course, he moved quickly, jerkily, with his drink spilling a little behind him. He was focused though, and anyone who ever came to know him fairly well observed these motions with a kind of odd affection. I am not the first to point out that Professor Bloom was anything but graceful. Saul Bellow, again, says it pointedly and well.

          He was a curious man to watch at the table. His feeding habits need getting 
          used to. Mrs. Glyph, the wife of the founder of the department, told him once 
          that he must never again expect her to ask him to dinner. She was in her own 
          right a very rich lady, big on high culture and an entertainer of visiting 
          celebrities. She had had R.H. Tawney at her dinner table, and Bertrand Russell, 
          and some big-shot French Thomist whose name escapes me (Maritain?), and 
          lots of literati, especially the French. Abe Ravelstein [Allan Bloom], then a 
          junior faculty member, was invited to a luncheon to honor T.S. Eliot. Marla 
          Glyph said to [Allan Bloom] as he was leaving, “You drank from your Coke 
          bottle, and T.S. Eliot was watching—with horror.”

          [Bloom] told this on himself. And on the late Mrs. Glyph…And somehow I 
          can’t believe that drinking from a Coke bottle was the whole story. (And what, 
          to begin with, was a Coke bottle doing on the table!). Faculty wives knew that 
          when [Bloom] came to dinner they would face a big cleaning job afterward—
          the spilling, splashing, crumbling, the nastiness of this napkin after he had 
          used it, the pieces of cooked meat scattered under the table, the wind sprayed 
          out when he laughed at a wisecrack; the courses rejected after one bite and 
          pawed to the floor. An experienced hostess would have spread newspapers 
          under his chair. He wouldn’t have minded. He didn’t pay much attention to 
          such things.[2] 
[d] Bloom  PD

I came to like those odd motions, and spillage was just part of the conversation with Allan Bloom. He spilled ideas just as readily as he did coffee, beef, and gin—dozens for every one that a more mundane academic could muster. It was messy…and fruitful.

“Robert, Robert”…he said with focused determination as he charged a liquid trail across the carpeted room. “The Closing of the American Mind is going to be translated…into Chinese!” 

I knew that I had found a place, at least on the margins of Bloom’s consciousness and on the Committee on Social Thought. I finished my drink and went home to work on my Fundamentals Exam readings. 

This is one post in a six-part series. Click below for the other posts:
Floral 1         Floral 2          Floral 3          Floral 4          Floral 5          Floral 6

No comments:

Post a Comment