Love and Friendship
by Allan Bloom
Simon & Schuster, 590 pages, $25

“Christianity gave Eros poison to drink. He didn’t die, but became vice.” This is one of Nietzsche’s more famous obiter dicta , and Allan Bloom finds the occasion to cite it more than once in this, his last book, finished shortly before his death in 1992. In our post- Nietzschean age of AIDS and rampant venereal disease, the remark now carries with it a certain unintentional irony, but one finishes reading Bloom’s book not entirely sure why erotic relations nowadays are so dreary: Is it because of the relentless reductionism of Freud and Kinsey or because, as Nietzsche held, Eros and Institution will always be at war”and Christianity, with its rigorous stress on monogamy, now symbolizes for modern society the institution of marriage par excellence ? In any event, Bloom on Freud is scathing:

The enduring appeal of Freud, even to sophisticated people like Jacques Derrida, is the license he appears to give for talking endlessly about sex in relation to all things. He brings an unbeatable combination of sex, science, and the promise of being well-adjusted. Of course, reading Freud is the most neurotic experience one could imagine. Hardly a page or a line of Freud could arouse erotic excitement in any normal reader . . . It is all unmasking and showing the miserable effects of sex on our souls. In Freud, sex is the most important thing in our lives, but it is certainly not a beautiful one.

Bloom’s counterweight to this dreary reductionism is the Great Tradition of Western letters from Plato to Tolstoy; and most of the book is devoted to individual chapters on such novelists as Rousseau, Austen, Stendahl, and Tolstoy, with a whole section devoted to the romantic comedies and tragedies of Shakespeare, and a concluding fugue on Plato’s Symposium . While frequently heavy with longeurs , each of the chapters is also filled with brilliant flashes of insight. Particularly stirring are Bloom’s remarks on the friendship of Prince Hal and Falstaff. Bloom says that Hal’s abrupt snub of his old friend upon assuming the throne shows that they had never really been friends at all, for a “friendship [that] can be broken off so brutally proves that it is not a true friendship, which is the most durable of all attachments.” And although Bloom seems too pessimistic about the prospects for a husband and wife becoming the best of friends, he nonetheless has a shrewd eye for the real difference between friendship and erotic attachment.

The friend is similar to the lover in his recognition of his incompleteness and his need for exclusive attachment to another human being in order to attain fulfillment. Friendship, too, is imperious in its demands, but the experience of friendship is gentler, soberer, without frenzy. It, unlike love, is necessarily reciprocal. You can love without being loved in return, but you cannot be the friend of one who is not your friend . . . Friendship, which seems for a variety of reasons to be easier, is actually rarer. Its pleasures are wholly spiritual, and the self-overcomings required for it are not powered by bodily passions.

This is certainly the voice of a man who must have been a remarkable teacher, and this book often displays the flashes of perception that made him so renowned a lecturer. (When he changed jobs from Cornell to Toronto, or from Toronto to Chicago, a vast caravan of graduate students would follow him, medieval-style, to his new position: they were there for him, not for the parchment.) And perhaps good teaching is as rare as a solid friendship. There is a magic to good teaching, as there is to friendship, that depends on a chemistry of grace nowhere near as common as is the erotic chemistry that leads to marriage:

The eros of souls for each other, experienced by two human beings who can share insights into the nature of man and of all other things, is much less palpable, and hence less believable, than the eros of bodies. This disbelief on the part of most men is strongly reinforced by pseudoscientific theories that tell us that this experience is founded on an illusion and is derived from the eros of bodies, bodies transformed by a semi-miraculous faculty invented for the purpose, sublimation.

This attack on Freud’s theory of sublimation is one of the major themes of Bloom’s book, and will no doubt strike some readers as incorrigibly elitist (or as special pleading). But his response would be that this very objection is rooted in the pervasiveness of the reductive temper that we have inherited from Darwin, Marx, and Freud; and it is this temperament that makes us so easily bring human relations down to their least common denominator: the dilemmas of mere coupling for physiological satisfaction. But this simply will not do, as even a cursory glance at art should indicate and as Bloom points out in perhaps the wittiest section of the book:

There is no reason to doubt Freud’s genuine attachment to and pleasure in our artistic heritage. In his essay on Dostoyevsky, Freud exclaims that, before such greatness, psychoanalysis must lay down its arms. But he cannot resist picking them up again almost immediately and using them to round up the usual suspects, in Dostoyevsky’s case, his father . . . Freud’s theory of sublimation is his desperate attempt to preserve the phenomenal richness of psychological life while remaining faithful to his clear and simply scientific reductionist causes. But it does not work. Even from the outset, the higher psychological life has to be made much cruder and less ambiguous than it actually is in order to admit of scientific treatment. And then Freud is unable clearly to distinguish unhealthy repression from healthy sublimation, unless it is by the degree of torment undergone and the social acceptability of the adjustment to it. [In short], he cannot explain what is sublime about sublimation.

But if reductionism is the enemy, and so lethal, what are we to make of the anti-religious polemic of the reductionist trinity of Marx, Freud, and Darwin? And what of Nietzsche, the philosopher who, with the exception of Plato and Rousseau, most influenced Bloom as teacher and thinker? Here one finishes Love and Friendship with the same sense of frustration as one experienced with The Closing of the American Mind : what role, if any, does theism play either in creating the dilemmas so well diagnosed in these two books or in fashioning a therapeutic response to them? Bloom brilliantly describes the toxic nature of our erotic attachments and unsparingly strips bare the reasons for our inability to form lasting friendships, but he is rather vague about where an antidote might be found. He knows the symptoms, but it is far from certain that he can name the poison.

Edward T. Oakes, S.J., teaches in the Religious Studies Program at New York University.

Articles by Edward T. Oakes

Loading...