CHICAGO -- Allan Bloom, who has written a best-selling book called "The Closing of the American Mind," may be the last American man to smoke a cigarette with elegance.

In a style that vanished with ocean liners and photographs of writers in European cafe's, Bloom, at 56, grasps his cigarette halfway up, lifts it from his mouth and releases a hearty and complicated cloud of smoke. Such pleasure! Such extravagance! Such flouting of latter-day aerobic taboos! It recalls a day when smoking cigarettes gave us a certain claim on life, a lost era when we valued grace over efficiency, sophistication over longevity.

Here in his apartment next to the University of Chicago, he arranges himself along his black leather couch, a pose in which his legs seem to be crossed at least three or four times. There's a gargoyle voluptuousness to him -- his double-breasted Parisian suit, his magnificent ears where the light shows through and illuminates veins, the shine of his bald head, teeth that he bares now and then for emphasis, and an elaborate nose leaking smoke like a dozing dragon.

"Those people are depriving us of our rights, and I hate to be intimidated by moralism," Bloom says, speaking of the tobacco puritans who shake their actuarial statistics in our faces. He says this in a midwestern smoker's baritone, a drawl that reminds you of Jack Benny, smug and puzzled. "There was a time when, ahhh, people, you know, used to find something beauuutiful in smoke, people used to love faaactories, the sky full of smoke, it represented energy, prosperity ..."

He savors the curlicues of perversity here, the rejection of progressive American orthodoxy. This is pure Bloom. He smokes. He never exercises. He disdains rock music, feminism and black nationalism. He believes that the '60s were "an unmitigated disaster." He has nothing but contempt for the bedrock philosophic premise of the brightest undergraduates of the last quarter century: "Everything is relative." Now he has written a book that is at the top of best-seller lists in both America and France and has won the Prix de Gene`ve.

"I seem to have touched a nerve," he says.

The book is subtitled "How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today's Students," but it attacks the liberal pieties of a whole generation of educated Americans. He says we have closed our minds to 2,500 years of hard-minded thinking about truth and absolutes and replaced it with an unthinking tolerance founded on the "openness" of social science, relativism and our feelings. This book is making him famous. Only a few months ago he was known best among neoconservatives such as Nathan Glazer and Irving Kristol, and among students at Cornell, Yale, the University of Toronto, Tel Aviv University, the University of Paris and the University of Chicago, where he is a professor on the Committee on Social Thought.

Now he's a celebrity who gets interviewed by Howard Cosell, appears on CBS' "The Morning Program," or sits on his couch and talks while a photographer's strobe blitzes away, lighting up patches of smoke and the intellectual funk of his apartment: a samovar, walls stacked with compact discs of classical music and hung with 18th-century paintings. The windows tremble in a hot wind blowing across the campus.

"It is a source of stupefaction that this would happen. I never considered myself a writer. I'm a teacher. In a way I feel kind of ... kind of guilty for all the people who are writers who hope to be on the best-seller list someday, who live for that and don't get it and it came to me as a kind of free gift, like God coming to Abraham and announcing, 'I've chosen you!' "

And he laughs and laughs. And smokes. And talks like this, strings of half-sentences: "There's this continuous need on my part to say, you know, when I'm talking, this kind of, to say let's go back, get it right, and that's a mistake, it's, I think, you know, a kind of anxiety ..."

His book is yet another torpedo fired at the dry-rotted hull of the good ship Liberalism, but that isn't enough to explain its popularity. There have been plenty of celebrated torpedoes in the last 10 years -- Thomas Sowell's "Ethnic America," George Gilder's "Wealth and Poverty," Charles Murray's "Losing Ground," Christopher Lasch's "The Culture of Narcissism" -- but none has sold like this one. It is also yet another jeremiad against the shallowness of the American intellect, in a tradition that goes back to Henry Adams, Henry James, H.L. Mencken, Dwight MacDonald and so on, a native art form founded on self-flagellating comparisons to Europe. "The longing for Europe has been all but extinguished in the young," Bloom complains. But working in this tradition doesn't explain the success of the book either.

Bloom rubs his fingers together, sifting for the right word. He says: "I think people are sick and tired of the way they're talking and, ahhh, and this offers them a chance to look for common-sense language to describe themselves. This sort of I-feel-good-about-myself or I-feel-comfortable-with-such-and-such ... The people who talk like that, those are the characters, the crazies, you know ... it give me the willies."

Educated Americans, being language prudes, can go into beady-eyed ecstasy at the way Bloom casts a whole list of modern vocabulary into the outer darkness. The Bloomian twist is that these are the very words that our university elite have taken for granted for decades, in their striving to become committed, concerned, value-loving personalities creating life styles of self-fulfilment and authenticity. Committed ... values ... personalities ... Bloom loathes these words, loathes their social-science namby-pambyness, is horrified by our ignorance of their German pedigrees reaching back to Nietzsche and Max Weber, and inveighs against the way they blur moral distinctions.

For example, he writes that "when President Ronald Reagan called the Soviet Union 'the evil empire,' right-thinking persons joined in an angry chorus of protest against such provocative rhetoric. At other times Mr. Reagan has said that the United States and the Soviet Union 'have different values' (italics added), an assertion that those same persons greet at worst with silence and frequently with approval. I believe he thought he was saying the same thing in both instances, and the different reaction to his different words introduces us to the most important and most astonishing phenomenon of our time, all the more astonishing in being almost unnoticed: there is now an entirely new language of good and evil, originating in an attempt to get 'beyond good and evil' and preventing us from talking with any conviction about good and evil anymore. ... The new language is that of value relativism and it constitutes a change in our view of things moral and political as great as the one that took place when Christianity replaced Greek and Roman paganism."

Strong words, big thoughts. He writes the way he smokes, one thought after another, implications and nuances fuming into the air, a sensual crankiness. The University of Chicago has tended to attract bristly types like Bloom. It has a hermetic, lonely atmosphere, medieval buildings rising from the prairie in an attempt to reconcile the American experiment and the history of western culture. The campus is surrounded by slums. It is a very serious place that takes itself very seriously, "the Harvard of the Midwest." The wind howls through the Gothic arches.

"The pseudo-Gothic was much ridiculed," Bloom writes in his book, "and nobody builds like that anymore. It is not authentic, not an expression of what we are, so it was said. To me it was and remains an expression of what we are. ... Those despised millionaires who set up a university in the midst of a city that seems devoted only to the American goals paid tribute to what they had neglected ... For me the promise of these buildings was fully kept. From the moment I became a student there, it seemed plausible to spend all my time thinking about what I am ..."

Unlike other universities pumping out doctors, lawyers and engineers, Chicago offered a haven of pure thought to Bloom.

But he wasn't fleeing the Babbitts and the booboisie. "I don't mean to sound like those people who say, ahhh, the worst thing in the world is American vulgarity," Bloom says. "I don't think people really have such a right to pity themselves. I grew up in Indianapolis; I'm a real midwesterner. My parents were both social workers; my mother had one of the first Jewish scholarships to Bryn Mawr.

"I was bright, you know, I was essentially as I am now, unfortunately -- as you see me, talking ... had inchoate longings ... there were no great monuments, no mountains, no ocean, I was being fed on very flat fare ... But as I've gotten older, I've very little sympathy for the Sinclair Lewis point of view -- how narrow, how impoverished such worlds were. They were, but essentially they left me free. It's like, Saul Bellow says Chicago is a nice town -- by the time any idea gets here, it's worn so thin you can see right through it." On the other hand, Bloom believes in the ivory tower, in its moral and social worth. "I would take as my model, to the extent that I have a model, Socrates, you know, who couldn't, who could just as well be in Chicago, who was ugly, poor, without family."

At Cornell during the armed black-power upheavals of the late 1960s, he rejoiced when some of his students descended into the chaos and handed out an excerpt from Plato's "Republic."

"They really looked down from the classroom on the frantic activity outside, thinking they were privileged, hardly a one tempted to join the crowd," he writes. "They had learned from this old book what was going on and had gained real distance on it, had had an experience of liberation. Socrates' magic still worked."

Bloom had just turned 16 when he arrived at the university in 1946. He ended up a member of the coterie around a German political philosopher named Leo Strauss, who died in 1973, a man whom Bloom has described as living "a life in which the only real events were thoughts."

Strauss argued against relativism and for the idea of "natural right" -- morals grounded in nature and the order of the universe. His students have fanned out through academia and government: Walter Berns at Georgetown University, Robert Goldwin at the American Enterprise Institute, Harvey Mansfield at Harvard, Harry Jaffa at Claremont McKenna College. A recent article in the Heritage Foundation's Policy Review listed a number of Straussians in the Reagan administration -- Gary McDowell at the Justice Department, William Kristol at Education -- and repeated the frequent observation that Strauss influenced columnist George Will.

Bloom got his doctorate under Strauss in 1955, with a dissertation on a Greek philosopher named Isocrates. He taught in Chicago's adult education department for a number of years before he got visiting professorships at Yale and Cornell, then tenure at Cornell. It was at Cornell that things began to go wrong. As late as 1965 Bloom was writing that students were "extremely grateful for anything they learn. A look at this special group tends to favor a hopeful prognosis for the country's moral and intellectual health."

Then came the attack of the "culture leeches," which led him to fear that "spiritual entropy or an evaporation of the soul's boiling blood is taking place ... The delicate fabric of the civilization into which the successive generations are woven has unraveled ..."

The culture leeches at Cornell were the rifle-toting black nationalists and the radicals of the sort who "appeared on the covers of the national news magazines. How irresistible it all was, an elite shortcut to political influence ... Students substituted conspicuous compassion for their parents' conspicuous consumption. They specialized in being the advocates of all those in America and the Third World who did not challenge their sense of superiority and who, they imagined, would accept their leadership. None of the exquisite thrills of egalitarian vanity were alien to them ... It will not be so easy to recover the knowledge of philosophy, history and literature that was trashed. That was never a native plant. We were dependent on Europe for it."

Offices were occupied, teachers were terrorized and ousted, and Bloom, comparing the student radicals to Nazis, resigned. He taught at the University of Toronto for nine years before he returned to Chicago.

"I sit here in splendid isolation," he says. He has an older sister who lives in Chicago. He has never married. His building, called The Cloisters, has housed 11 or 12 Nobel Prize winners, Bloom isn't sure how many. Saul Bellow, who wrote the foreword to Bloom's book, lives in the building next door.

Bloom has not mellowed.

The word "feminism" prompts a wince of impatience. "Feminism in its extreme form condemns everything from the Bible to the erection, as you know -- the history of mankind is rape, rape, rape, and it lacks nuance." Rock music, he writes, is "hymns to the joys of onanism or the killing of parents ... a muddy stream where only monsters can swim." It was supposed to take us back to "the true source, the unconscious ... And what have we found? Not creative devils, but show business glitz. Mick Jagger tarting it up on the stage is all that we brought back from the voyage to the underworld."

He loves attacking rock; it churns him up to a dark froth of chuckling. He says: "The way I knew I was right about something was the kids got angry, that's very important, you touch that anger. They all say, 'Yeah, but there's one group, Duran Duran, or Santana, which is different.' I had this hilarious thing three weeks ago, I was in Jerusalem and I was staying at this hotel. I had to give a lecture in two hours and I was unprepared and suddenly I heard rock music just shaking the room and I couldn't study and so I called next door and asked could they turn down the hi-fi, and they said that's not a hi-fi, Santana is playing here tonight, right outside my room, and they went on for eight hours, blasting out, and I said this is hell -- you know, they bring to everybody his appropriate punishment. I was going to have dinner with Teddy Kollek {mayor of Jerusalem} that night and we had to leave the restaurant because it was so loud we couldn't hear, and I was being pursued in Jerusalem by what I'd attacked in the U.S. Isn't that, doesn't that seem like a parable of some kind?"

It's not that rock, relativism or any other bit of decadence has led to an endless orgy -- quite the opposite. This is where Bloom peels away from the squadron of hard-shell American fun-busters who keep us under surveillance. The problem, Bloom says, is not too much desire but too little. This theme runs throughout the book. The humanities are "impotent," and students are in a state of "detumescence." As for sex itself, "passionlessness is the most striking effect, or revelation, of the sexual revolution." It seems that "the lion roaring behind the door of the closet turned out, when that door was opened, to be a little, domesticated cat."

He rubs his fingers, he laughs, he smokes and he talks about a world "in which, ahhh, there is no erotic imagination, no erotic longing. You know, the original title for the book was 'Souls Without Longing.' And, ahhh, the, I, impotence has never been, something, you know, see, if they were trying and not making it ... it's that the world is full of some kind of erotic magic, and it has lost that. Nietzsche has a wonderful description of how the world looks when you're passionately in love and then when you're cooled off, the different richness of things. Eroticism is what fills the world with life.

"You see, so much of the inspiration of this book came from Rousseau -- whatever he teaches, whether it's compassion or God or politics, somehow it uses that energy as the fuel ... This powerful tension, this literal lust for knowledge was what a teacher could see in the eyes of those who flattered him by giving such evidence of their need for him. His own satisfaction was promised by having something with which to feed their hunger, an overflow to bestow on their emptiness. His joy was in hearing the ecstatic 'Oh, yes!' as he dished up Shakespeare and Hegel to minister to their need ... The itch for what appeared to be only sexual intercourse was the material manifestation of the Delphic oracle's command, which is but a reminder of the most fundamental human desire, to 'know thyself.' "

And you there, taking notes in the back row -- did the earth move for you too?

"When I first read Hobbes I was 16 or 17. He says that nothing is naturally right or wrong. I liked that because it would give me all kinds of justifications. As I got older I realized that I would prefer Plato with all of his restrictions, because he's truly erotic, you know. I mean, you could say the three authors who most influenced me are Plato, Rousseau and Nietzsche, all highly erotic authors, erotic in the sense that eros is the most interesting phenomenon of man, both body and soul."

This is what we have lost with all our liberation, Bloom says. We're trapped in a wasteland of relativism where everything is permitted but nothing is true, the hellishness of a wasteland being not frustration but the absence of desire. This is what the old can never forgive in the young: a failure to have fun. And that's what this book is about: souls without longing.

Bloom is not one of them. He is a man of conspicuous appetite -- as a friend says, "Ascetic? You should see Allan Bloom in a Chinese restaurant." Smoking away in his French suit, here in the ivory tower, he says, "I bless a society that tolerates and supports an eternal childhood for some, a childhood whose playfulness can in turn be a blessing to society."

Ashe concludes in his book: "The real community of man ... is the community of those who seek the truth, of the potential knowers, that is, in principle, of all men to the extent they desire to know. But in fact, this includes only a few, the true friends, as Plato was to Aristotle at the very moment they were disagreeing about the nature of the good."

The few, the true ... Doesn't Bloom have that already? Isn't that what the University of Chicago is all about? Don't students take his courses because he's Bloom, and not because they're looking for a credit in Plato or politics or Shakespeare? And now, isn't his book a No. 1 best seller, hinting at more than a few true friends both here and in Europe?

"I do think there is a very great threat to having such friends in the future," he says.

Then it's time for lunch at the faculty club. He ambles intently down the hot, bright, windy sidewalks of the campus, smoking cigarettes, talking. He sees a friend, a fellow professor. He waves. He calls to him, in his smoker's roar. He says: "I'm number one!"