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, May 8, 2012

Flowers Bloom (7a)—Shakespeare's Politics

[a] Blooming politician RF
I am supposed to give a series of lectures this week on Allan Bloom, the obscure University of Chicago professor who wrote a blockbuster bestseller on education precisely twenty-five years ago. At this time in 1987, The Closing of the American Mind was climbing the New York Times bestseller list. I am going to try a new approach. Instead of posting what I have written (I do a lot of that here on Round and Square already), I am going to post some of what I have been reading in preparation for the lectures. Consider this week's posts—which will appear under various topics on Round and Square, ranging from "Beginnings" and "Flowers Bloom" to "Displays of Authenticity" and "Endings"—as lecture preparation. 

And, just for the record, regular readers probably already know that I will post the actual lectures not long after they have been given. This week's posts focus on the preparation process, and tackling Allan Bloom's arguments should get your blood pumping. He liked being an irritant, and today's reading (from 1964) already has a few of Bloom's notorious rough edges. A few.
Shakespeare   Republic1   Republic2   Emile   Emile1   Emile2   Emile3   Emile 4   Emile5
 ***  ***
If you have read Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind, you will see the germ of Bloom's argument here, stated twenty-three years before it caught the imagination of the American public. People who knew Bloom back in his own graduate school days at the (then new) Committee on Social Thought have told me that he was making similar points back in the mid-1950s. I can attest—having studied and, more importantly, argued with him in the late-1980s—that he stayed with the message to the end of his days. 
[b] UC look-alike RF
The lack of preparation on the part of America's youth is only part of his argument. Just as important for Bloom was the waning of a shared intellectual culture—one that Bloom thought of as quintessentially Western. Although this definitely was a matter of contention for him, it is necessary to add that language richness deepened over the ages also plays into his position. Another point that requires emphasis is Bloom's frustration with—and contempt for—disciplinary boundaries. Shakespeare is bigger than the English department, Bloom states. Much bigger.

Shakespeare is ours—all of ours.

If you read the last few lines carefully, you should have noticed that it is not easy to caricature Allan Bloom. To be sure, the right has claimed him and much of the left has eschewed him. As I state at some length in the introduction to the Round and Square series "Flowers Bloom," almost everyone has gotten Allan Bloom wrong. He reveled in it, and spent a good deal of rhetorical energy annoying his adversaries. Even in this early work—written about a decade after he received his Ph.D.—we can see the gamesmanship, to be sure, but also the seriousness of purpose for which he was known by colleagues and students for the rest of his career.

Take a look at the first few pages of Shakespeare's Politics. We'll move on to Bloom's translations of Plato and Rousseau later this week.

Political Philosophy and Poetry
Allan Bloom and Harry Jaffa (1964)
The most striking fact about contemporary university students is that there is no longer any canon of books which forms their taste and their imagination. In general, they do not look at all to books when they meet problems in live or try to think about their goals; there are no literary models for their conceptions of virtue and vice. This state of affairs itself reflects the deeper fact of the decay of the common understanding of—and agreement on—first principles that is characteristic of our times. The role once played by the Bible and Shakespeare in the education of the English-speaking peoples is now largely played by popular journalism or the works of ephemeral authors. This does not mean that the classic authors are no longer read; they are perhaps read more and in greater variety than every before. But they do not move; they do not seem to speak to the situation of the modern young; they are not a part of the furniture of the student's mind, once he is out of the academic atmosphere. This results in a decided lowering of tone in their reflections on life and its goals; today's students are technically well-equipped, but Philistine.

[c] 2B...or not RF
The civilizing and unifying function of the people's books, which was carried out in Greece by Homer, Italy by Dante, France by Racine and Molière, and Germany by Goethe, seems to be dying a rapid death. The young have no ground from which to begin their understanding of the world and themselves, and they have no common education which forms the core of their communication with their fellows. A Marlborough could once say that he had formed his understanding of English history from Shakespeare alone; such a reliance on a poet today is almost inconceivable. The constant return to and reliance on a single great book or author has disappeared, and the result is not only a vulgarization of the tone of life but an atomization of society, for a civilized people is held together by its common understanding of what is virtuous and vicious, noble and base.

Shakespeare could still be the source of such an education and provide the necessary lessons concerning human virtue and the proper aspirations of a noble life. He is respected in our tradition, and he is of our language. But the mere possession of his works is not enough; they must be properly read and interpreted. One could never re-establish the Mosaic could one use Shakespeare as a text in moral and political education on the basis of his plays as they are read by the New Critics.

There has been a change in the understanding of the nature of poetry since the rise of the Romantic movement, and it is now considered a defiling of art's sacred temple to see the poem as a mirror of nature or to interpret it as actually teaching something. Poets are believed not to have had intentions, and their epics and dramas are said to be sui generis, not to be judged by the standards of civil society or of religion. To the extent that Shakespeare's plays are understood to be merely literary productions, they have no relevance to the important problems that agitate the lives of acting men.

[d] Lady McB RF
But when Shakespeare is read naïvely, because he shows most vividly and comprehensively the fate of tyrants, the character of good rulers, the relations of friends, and the duties of citizens, he can move the souls of his readers, and they recognize that they understand life better because they have read them; he hence becomes a constant guide and companion. He is turned to as the Bible was once turned to; one sees the world, enriched and embellished, through his eyes. It is this perspective that has been lost; and only when Shakespeare is taught as though he said something can he regain the influence over his generation which is so needed—needed for the sake of giving us some thoughtful views on the most important questions. The proper functions of criticism are, therefore, to recover Shakespeare's teaching and to be the agent of his ever-continuing education of the Anglo-Saxon world.

These essays are intended as first steps in the enterprise of making Shakespeare again the theme of philosophic reflection and a recognized source for the serious study of moral and political problems. The task is double difficult, for, not only must the subtle plays, difficult in themselves, be interpreted, but the authentic intellectual atmosphere in which they were written must be recovered. We no longer look at man, the state, or poetry as they were once looked at; and, without some clarity about the way Shakespeare saw them, all the careful study of the text will be of little avail. We would only see the things we set out to find or which are within the range of our vision. The texts and their meaning are of course the only important things; the origins of Shakespeare's thought or its relation to its time are of relatively minor interest compared to the permanent significance of his meaning. It is this meaning that we must try to discover, but we must do so with full consciousness that it is no longer immediately accessible to us, owing to the passage of time and, more particularly, the vogue of new doctrines which have made our perspective other than that which Shakespeare counted on in his audience.

[e] Shakespeare's people RF
The authors of these essays are professors of political philosophy, which means that they are outside the field of Shakespearean criticism, given the current division of the academic disciplines. We respect the competence of our colleagues in the literature departments are are aware of the contributions of recent scholarship. But we contend that Shakespeare is not the preserve of any single department in the modern university. He wrote before the university was divided as it is today, and the knowledge he presupposes cuts across these partly accidental lines. He presents us man generally, and it is not to be assumed that a department of literature possesses any privileged position for grasping his representations comprehensively. Consider a work like Rousseau's Nouvelle Héloïse—does it belong primarily to a philosophy department, a literature department, or a language department? Surely to all and to none; perhaps most of all to the educated amateur. We suggest that this case is the same with Shakespeare...[1]
[1] Allan Bloom and Harry Jaffa, Shakespeare's Politics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), 1-4.

Bloom, Allan and Harry Jaffa. Shakespeare's Politics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986.
[f] Night twelve RF

No comments:

Post a Comment