The Closing of the American Mind

ni·hil·ism, n.
(Philos.)-Rejection of all moral or religious values and beliefs.
(Psychiatry) -A delusion, experienced in some mental disorders, that the world or one's mind, body, or self does not exist.


This weekend I am what Allan Bloom called American nihilism: a mood of moodiness, a vague disquiet. Nihilism without the abyss. Please understand that I barely know what I am talking about and that that is part of the condition. I awoke yesterday from a dream about my brother, Neill, being tangled in trapeze lines and dangling at great and dangerous heights and thus sipped my coffee with unease. A few hours later I put my coat on over my pajamas and drove to the CVS Pharmacy where my credit card was declined, indicating to me that my financial situation is, in fact, as pathetic as I secretly knew it was all along.

Back in the living room, I decided I'd stay in my pajamas all day long and poured a vodka and apple cider cocktail, reasoning that it was a brunchable hour (12:30 pm) and that a mimosa or bloody mary would be perfectly acceptable if I were with friends in an outdoor cafe in the East Village. After one satisfying swill, I knew the time had come to start reading The Closing of the American Mind by Allan Bloom.

Jocardo called a few hours later and asked me what I was doing. I told him that I was reading and getting confused by Allan Bloom. My hand was cramping from all the sentences I was underlining and how many times I wrote DAMN in the margins. I wanted to read his book because of the second part of the title: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today's Students.

See, I'm critical of academia yet love taking classes. I'm thinking about the philosophy vs. the practical use of higher education and how bullshitty it can get. But I might want to go to grad school. I've had a funny mix of education - Montessori elementary, classics-based college-prep high school, big 10 university, hippies-in-the-woods college - and now I have Allan Bloom.

Allan Bloom studied at the University of Chicago in the 1940's and writes about how students changed between then and the mid-80's and how U.S. culture contributed to these changes. This book is mobbing my brain with contradictions. Mental fistfights are breaking out. I have been reduced to writing DAMN in the margins. I also write exclamation marks next to sentences I find funny. Ex: Mr. Bloom ranting about how rock music is destroying the ability of youth to have truly passionate relationships with art.

Mick Jagger tarting it up on the stage is all that we brought back from the voyage to the underworld.

Come on, that's funny. Of course, I scour his rants and raves for signs of myself.

Am I nice: friendly and as eager as a pup to please but not particularly noble or moral? Do I have heroes? Do I have any clue why history and philosophy might be handy to understand? Do I think the classics need to be thrown out in order to make room for less racist and less sexist and more multiculturally-inclusive texts? Do I think everything is relative? Are there any absolutes?

My confusion is growing because I'm trying to examine why I believe what I believe AND what I thought I believed but maybe am not sure about after all. It is a greatly unsettling exercise in not being defensive and reintroduces today's theme of nihilism as defined by Allan Bloom: Nihilism as a state of the soul is revealed not so much in the lack of firm beliefs but in a chaos of the instincts or passions.

"How in the hell do you understand books like that?" Jocardo asked.

"I just said that I don't understand most of it," I said.

"But at least you're trying..." he replied.

"I'm broken!" I said. "I'm drinking Bud Light at 3pm in my pajamas!"

I had run out of vodka.

Education in our times must try to
find whatever there is in students
that might yearn for completion,
and to reconstruct the learning that
would enable them autonomously
to seek that completion.

- Allan Bloom (1930 - 1992)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

umm, i couldn't really follow it, maybe because I am sick to my stomach, literally, or philosophy annoys me to the point of nausea...
re the love affair with texas:
word on the block has it that jonny bought a condo for no money down... meaning that you too could own your very home in the land of your dreams....
not that i want you to move there, just anywhere but alone on the couch...

sick in chitown.