October 29, 2012

Jacques Barzun, 1907-2012

By Roger Kimball


"Full of years." I am not sure I know of anyone who better qualified for that Biblical epithet than Jacques Barzun, who died last week at the magnificent age of 104.  Born in France in 1907, Barzun had been a presence on the American intellectual and academic scene since the 1950s. From his perch at Columbia University, where he collaborated with the critic Lionel Trilling on a humanities course than deeply influenced a generation of students, Barzun (like Trilling) was part of the intellectual conscience of his age.  He was a public intellectual before that role had been hollowed out by celebrity and the demotic faddishness of the 1960s. His scholarly work in subjects like French poetry consistently won plaudits. Writing in 1991 about Barzun's Essay on French Verse, the poet William Jay Smith noted that  although "there have been other treatises on French versification for the English reader,"  "none has been so thorough, so well reasoned, so free of academic jargon, and so available as this one."  "It is amazing," Smith went on, "that Professor Barzun, now in his eighties, should have produced so youthful and vigorous a book, an objective study that is at the same time so personal a document." That sense of amazement regularly greeted Barzun's work in the last decades of his life.  He was the author of more than 30 books, and his magnum opus, From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Cultural Life, 1500 to the Present, wasn't published until 2000, when Barzun was 93.

William James and Hector Berlioz

Not that Barzun was a late bloomer.  Far from it. His early best-sellers--books like Darwin, Marx, Freud (1941), Teacher in America (1945), and The House of Intellect (1959)--were part of an intellectual conversation that bridged the gap between academic and general culture. Barzun was an ornament on the faculty of Columbia University, a scholar and pedagogue of rare authority, but he was also a man who spoke, if not to the masses, exactly, then at least to a public--back then, it was a large public--of citizens who cared about the shape of and direction of American culture. In 1956, when Time magazine ran a piece about the role of intellectuals in American cultural life, it was the French-born Jacques Barzun they chose for their cover.

Barzun was an academic expert who spoke the language of everyday life. He wrote beautifully, always with a premium on clarity and understated elegance, and turned out several books on the craft of writing and editing. (Young people who think they want to be writers, he wisely observed in one of these books, should ponder carefully the question of whether they want to write or to have written.)  William James ("the most inclusive mind I can listen to") was Barzun's favorite philosopher,  Hector Berlioz his favorite composer. He helped introduce America audiences to the robust work of the English essayist Walter Bagehot through his introduction to Bagehot's late masterpiece Physics and Politics. Above all, perhaps, Barzun was a  bellwether in what in recent years have come to be called the culture wars. Already in The House of Intellect, Barzun anatomized that species of intellectual antinomianism, then in its infancy, which substituted terms like "transgressive" and "challenging" for mastery. It was, Barzun wrote, little more than "directionless quibble."

Intellect Watches Language

Although deeply immersed in intellectual matters himself, Barzun seems never to have succumbed to the intellectual's chief occupational temptation of mistaking abstractions for the realities they adumbrate. This resistance has had stylistic as well as substantive consequences. Barzun once noted that "Intellect watches particularly over language because language is so far the only device for keeping ideas clear and emotions memorable." Accordingly, his own success in these salutary endeavors has been due partly to responsible prose: clear, unpretentious, always favoring the homely concrete word over the fancy bit of fashionable jargon. His success has also been due to his ability to grasp what was really at stake in the intellectual and artistic currents he charted. In  Barzun's hands, intellectual history is less an academic than an existential pursuit; reading him, you understand that curiosity about the past is at the same time a species of self-interrogation. The questions with which intellectual history confronts us can be parsed as elements of that large, perennial question, "How should I live my life?"

From Dawn to Decadence, Barzun's overview of the last five-hundred years of Western cultural history, is a magnificent summa of his concerns as a thinker and historian. It synthesizes as well as summarizes a long lifetime's reflection about the fate of those distinctive energies that define Western culture: "the great achievements and the sorry failures of our half millennium." The first thing to be said about From Dawn to Decadence (and I draw here on some of my earlier writings about Barzun) is that reading it is an exhilarating experience. I mention this partly to reassure those intimidated by the book's length, partly to mollify those put off by its admonitory title. At nearly nine-hundred closely printed pages, From Dawn to Decadence certainly is long, but it is also a rich tapestry of a book--the product, Barzun remarks, of accidents like "insomnia and longevity," as well as of immense scholarship. Despite the book's intimidating girth, I suspect that many readers will, like me, come to feel about it the way one feels about certain long novels. For the first hundred pages or so, a mixture of wariness and anticipation predominates: will the book really repay the time and effort it demands? These feelings give way, as one settles into the story, to eager excitement. Finally, as the end approaches, one finds oneself madly trying to prolong the experience and delay coming to the final page. 

A Work of Historical Investigation

As for the title: while it accurately describes the book's trajectory--from the dawn of the Renaissance to the decadence of our own time--Barzun was justified in claiming that "the lively and positive predominate." From Dawn to Decadence is not a work of lamentation but of historical investigation: I almost said "historical adventure."  Barzun does not hesitate to pass judgment on the failures, present as well as past, that he chronicles. He is convinced that our age, despite its extraordinary technological capabilities, is an Alexandrian age: a time of cultural sunset, depleted energies, moral confusion. But the tenor of his discussion is one of inexhaustible curiosity. His message is sobering but his tone is exuberant. Like the best travel writers, he manages to combine the authority of first-hand knowledge with the delight of discovery. Indeed, one of the most remarkable things about this remarkable book is the sense of freshness that Barzun brings to what inevitably is well-trodden ground.

One of things that distinguished From Dawn to Decadence from myriad other cultural histories of the West is its structure. Barzun clearly expended a great deal of thought on the organization of the book. The result is an intricate verbal architecture with many interconnecting passages, points of entry, exhibition hallways, and impressive vistas. There is even a folly or two. On the most pedestrian level, Barzun divided his story into four large historical segments. The first segment takes us from Luther's Protestant revolution to Newton-- from the early sixteenth century to the end of the seventeenth century. Part two opens with the ascent of Louis XIV and the rise of the nation state; it ends with the Enlightenment and the French Revolution (fittingly symbolized by its chief tool of emancipation, the guillotine). Part three, which opens with a section called "The Work of Mind-and-Heart," details the Romantic reaction--that is to say, the Romantic reactions, for they were many and disparate--to Enlightenment rationalism. Here Barzun takes his story from the time of Goethe and Wordsworth to the pre-World-War-I period he calls the Cubist Decade. Part four of From Dawn to Decadence brings the story up to the moment: the titles of the book's last two sections indicate the tenor of the assessment: "Embracing the Absurd" and "Demotic Life and Times."

The Accidental Capital--Madrid

As in some of his other books, in From Dawn to Decadence Barzun shuttled deftly between religion, philosophy, literature, music, political intrigue, and the development of scientific rationalism and modern technology. He is as interested in Petrarch's role in the rise of humanism as in the historical accidents that led to Madrid's becoming a capital city in the sixteenth century (Charles V hoped that the air of the tiny village, which newcomers disparaged as "nine months of winter, three of hell," might be good for his health). He wove his story partly around a handful of recurrent themes: primitivism, individualism, emancipation ("the modern theme par excellence"), self-consciousness, specialization, abstraction, analysis, and scientism ("the fallacy of believing that the method of science must be used on all forms of experience and, given time, will settle every issue"). These are the leitmotifs that--expressed in different registers and with varying degrees of emphasis--have provided intellectual fuel for the development of modern Western culture.

Barzun employed several devices to impart texture and complexity to his narrative. He punctuated his text with parenthetical page references that point the reader to a later or earlier section of the book where the theme under discussion is continued or anticipated. He included six "cross sections"--"The View from Madrid Around 1540," "The View from Venice Around 1650," etc.--in which he focuses not so much on the city in question (London in 1715, Weimar in 1790, Paris in 1830, Chicago in 1895) as the view from the city. These more or less free-standing essays allowed him to summarize, recap, digress: "to survey events and ideas of mixed kinds as they might be noted or heard about by an alert observer at a given time and place." Barzun also included a kind of running bibliography.

A Master of Digression

Many of his discussions conclude with a parenthetical recommendation: "The book to browse in is ... ," "The essay to read is ..." Many of these recommendations have what might be described as a vintage flavor. They tend to be classics-- personal favorites, one suspects--rather than the latest scholarship. If this procedure occasionally imparts a kind of period feel to the discussion, it also deepens the book's humanity. What Barzun offered was less a trip through the literature than the refraction of history through a particular, highly cultivated sensibility. Discussing the vicissitudes of travel in the sixteenth century, for example, he points readers not to the latest university press production but confidently says that "the travel book to read is Montaigne's Diary of 1580-81." Likewise, when discussing Bath around 1830, he says that "the description to read is that in chapter XXXV of Dickens's Pickwick Papers."

Barzun was a master of digression. One sign of his mastery was his knack of making digression serve the progression of his larger argument. Several times in the course of his discussion he paused to offer readers a digression on a particular word-- on "esprit," for example, or "romantic," or "man." (Bucking contemporary feminist orthodoxy, he continued to use "man" to refer to all of humanity--primarily, he tells us, for four reasons: "etymology, convenience, the unsuspected incompleteness of 'man and woman,' and literary tradition." He has convincing things to say about all four.) Although plenty interesting in themselves, these linguistic detours also served his larger purpose. Thus his meditation on esprit (together with "genius" and "Geist") occurs in the context of his discussion of Pascal's famous distinction between l'esprit de géométrie and l'esprit de finesse--two tendencies of temperament that, together, rule the world --and his "digression on a word" turns out to be the most economical way to set forth ideas he will return to repeatedly.


An Eye for Amusing Quotations

From Dawn to Decadence also offers readers a veritable commonplace book with a running series of what Barzun called "add-ins," brief quotations from disparate sources in bold type and set apart from the text. Like the chorus in a Greek play, these quotations reflect on the main action; some are drawn from the authors being discussed, others form an ironical commentary. Discussing the classical sources of Renaissance humanism, he included this "add-in" from Dean Briggs of Harvard College circa 1900: "The new degree of Bachelor of Science does not guarantee that the holder knows any science. It does guarantee that he does not know any Latin." Some of Barzun's quotations are merely amusing: Tycoon: "I need a man who can say 'No' when I talk nonsense. Are you that man?" Applicant for job: "No." Others are knowingly ironical: "We cannot be wrong, because we have studied the past and we are famous for discovering the future when it has taken place" (Disraeli, 1851). Still others are painful home truths: "Democratic civilization is the first in history to blame itself because another power is trying to destroy it" (Jean-François Revel, 1970). And yet others are gems from the cabinet of world-weary cynicism: "Art is what you can get away with" (Andy Warhol, 1987).

Throughout his career, Barzun was at pains to show that history is the product of individual initiative aided or stymied by chance. "Above all," he observed, in From Dawn to Decadence, it is "concrete and particular, not general and abstract." Reinforcing this conviction, he included scores of "pen-portraits" of people who helped make history: Luther and Leonardo, Rabelais and Rubens, Giordano Bruno, Oliver Cromwell, Shakespeare (twice), Bach and Mozart, Rousseau and Burke and Samuel Butler. Women are also well represented in Barzun's gallery. Isabella of Castile, Catherine de Medici, Margaret of Parma, Elizabeth I, Marguerite of Navarre, Christina of Sweden (the "wondrous Christina"), and Florence Nightingale are some of the women he discusses. He quotes a marvelous conversation from Frances Trollope's Domestic Manners of the Americans (1832). Talking about Byron and other poets with a city notable in Cincinnati, Mrs. Trollope asked: "And Shakespeare, sir?" "Shakespeare, madam, is obscene, and thank God we are sufficiently advanced to have found it out."


Ready to Rehabilitate Reputations

Not all of Barzun's personages occupy the first rank of fame. He gives as much space to the Renaissance philosopher and historian of science Joseph Glanvill (author of The Vanity of Dogmatizing) as to many better known figures, and he includes a number of personal favorites: the playwright Beaumarchais (author of The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro), and even the mystery novelist (and, it should be added, translator of Dante) Dorothy L. Sayers. Barzun is everywhere ready to rehabilitate a reputation unjustly diminished or to challenge received wisdom that unfairly pigeonholes its victim. About Beaumarchais, for example, he reminds us that, in addition to his literary achievement, he did as much as Lafayette to aid the cause of the American revolution by surreptitiously channeling money from the French government to the fledgling American army. He begins his discussion of Jonathan Swift by noting that "first one must clear the air of the conventional catchwords, namely that he was a misanthropist and a misogynist obsessed with scatology, and moreover a bigoted politician who never got over his failure to be made a bishop and died mad." In fact, Barzun maintained, Swift deserves to be called "a philanthropist of the most practical kind," namely, one whose efforts were directed toward particular individuals, not that unreachable abstraction "the masses." 

Barzun commanded a genius for appreciation. He began his discussion of the English critic William Hazlitt by quoting Robert Louis Stevenson: "We are all clever fellows, but we cannot write like Hazlitt." Hazlitt's sentences, Barzun observed, "feel hot from the forge." They communicate the drama of ideas being worked out "live." "In whatever his mind lights on, Hazlitt finds the deep source of the matter and traces its implications and ramifications; ... it is not analysis, it is judgment encompassing its object, leaving it whole and illuminated." He witheringly observes that this sort of criticism is out of favor today because "it follows no system, lacks a jargon, and affords pleasure when read."


From Sydney Smith to John D. Rockefeller

With Barzun, we encounter the pleasure of an historian who does justice to literary pleasure. About the early nineteenth-century wit and clergyman Sydney Smith, Barzun writes that "Smith's discourse was conversational, often humorous; it dramatized ideas by describing situations and it could be eloquent at the right pitch and the right places. Here was a pamphleteer propounding what is just, humane, and tolerant without himself ignoring these virtues by writing like a fanatic." Smith was an important reformer; he was also invaluable at the dinner table. When someone complained about the way Macaulay tended to monopolize the conversation, Smith agreed but noted that "he has occasional flashes of silence that make it quite delightful." Reviewing some travels in South America, Smith describes the sloth hanging beneath a branch: "he passes his life in suspense, like a young clergyman distantly related to a bishop." Many readers will also be grateful to know about the American satirist Finley Peter Dunne (1867- 1936), creator of Mr. Dooley who once described John D. Rockefeller as a kind of "Society f'r th' Prevention of Croolty to Money. If he finds a man misusing his money, he takes it away fr'm him and adopts it."


The West: an Endless Series of Opposites

From Dawn to Decadence triumphed marvelously in its two main purposes. One was to exhibit the sheer richness of that cultural explosion we summarize in two words as "the West." The picture of the West promulgated by its enemies--"a solid block having but one meaning"--cannot survive scrutiny. It was central to Barzun's task to show that the West has in fact been "an endless series of opposites--in religion, politics, art, morals, manners." Moreover, to denounce Western culture "does not free the self from what it hates, any more than ignoring the past shuts off its influence." 

Even the terrorist who drives a car filled with dynamite toward a building in some hated nation is part of what he would destroy: his weapon is the work of Alfred Nobel and the inventors of the internal combustion engine. His very cause has been argued for him by such proponents of national self-determination as President Wilson and such rationalizers of violence as Georges Sorel and Bakunin, the Russian anarchist.

If From Dawn to Decadence was partly a celebration of the West, it was also an elegy for its passing. Barzun's second large purpose is to delineate the evolution of that decadence his title announces. Early on he tells us that the word "decadence" is "not a slur; it is a technical label." But that is not entirely candid. For one thing, being a slur is not incompatible with being a technical term. For another, Barzun's summary of what he calls "our present decadence" shows that he does not regard decadence as a neutral historical fact but as a cultural, moral, and political disaster of the first order.


Spiraling into Decline 

As one would expect, the sources of decadence are many and varied. Barzun showed how, from one perspective, the symptoms of decadence can be understood as resulting from the hypertrophy of those very traits that defined the West: primitivism, emancipation, self-consciousness, individualism, and so on. What appear as motors for cultural development can, when pursued ruthlessly and without regard to other virtues, degenerate into engines of decadence and decline. Barzun devotes the last sections of his book to showing how decadence has triumphed in various facets of modern life. There is, first of all, the spiritual paralysis that results from willing contradictory things. These days, Barzun observed, "any doctrine or program that claims the merit of going against common sense has presumption in its favor."

Western nations spend billions on public schooling for all, urged along by the public cry for Excellence. At the same time the society pounces on any show of superiority as elitism. The same nations deplore violence and sexual promiscuity among the young, but pornography and violence in films and books, shops and clubs, on television and the Internet, and in the lyrics of pop music cannot be suppressed, in the interests of "the free market of ideas."

The confusion generated by such contradictions attends every aspect of cultural endeavor. In the arts, it leads to the rise of anti-art, embodied on one side by the nihilistic pranks of Marcel Duchamp, on another by Picasso, who devoted his immense talent to creating an art that raged against and competed with nature. When the composer Pierre Boulez said that he was bent on "destroying everything," he merely gave voice to a current of feeling that has animated a great deal of "advanced" art since Rimbaud articulated the doctrine of the "dérèglement de tous les sens" in the nineteenth century.


The Sour Anti-Art of Today

The transformation of art into anti-art could not have succeeded on its own. It required the collusion of institutions that certify artistic achievement as well as the audience whose interest ultimately sustains it. Barzun was right that "When people accept futility and the absurd as normal, the culture is decadent." But futility and absurdity only seem normal to a damaged sensibility. That damage has been wrought by a progressive loss of resistance to humbug. One then becomes susceptible to all manner of cultural viruses. This lowered resistance has affected critics, teachers, and connoisseurs; it has led to a situation in which scholarship is "the pretentious garbed in the unintelligible." It has also affected the public at large, whose healthy rejection of absurdity one used to be able to count on. No more. As Barzun observed, "One notable death that occurred in the Great War has gone unsung, indeed unrecorded: the death of the philistine."

By 1920, any that survived had been miraculously transformed, not into esthetes but into trimmers and cowards. To this new breed anything offered as art merited automatic respect and grave scrutiny. If a new work or style was not easy to like, if it was painful to behold, revolting, even, it was none the less "interesting." Half a century later unless the reviewer finds it "unsettling," "disturbing," "cruel," "perverse," it is written off as "academic," not merely uninteresting but contemptible. The stolid bourgeois used to aid culture by resisting it; by the late twentieth century, he had been transformed into a "docile consumer" for whom the avant-garde achieves "the status of a holy synod."

Of course, it is not only in the realm of culture that confusion reigns. The realms of social relations and politics are equally beset. One result is what Barzun refers to as the "Great Switch," "the reversal of Liberalism into its opposite." If Liberalism originally "triumphed on the principle that the best government is that which governs least," today "for all the western nations political wisdom has recast the ideal of liberty into liberality." The universalization and extension of the welfare state has nurtured a culture of entitlement. What began in an access of largess ends in an explosion of regulation and hectoring scrutiny. Motives that had once encouraged unity and social comity--emancipation, self-consciousness-- now act as centrifugal forces: forces of decadence. By the late twentieth century, Barzun noted, "the ideal of Pluralism had disintegrated and Separatism took its place." Here at the dawn of the twenty-first century, we see that impulse toward retribalization all around us, from college campuses to the disgruntled parliaments of Europe.


A Closing Note of Cautious Optimism 

Although the picture Barzun painted in From Dawn to Decadence is one of cultural desolation, he nevertheless managed to end on a note of cautious optimism. Even if present trends continue and society becomes more routinized and culturally sterile, human ingenuity can surely be counted upon to precipitate a rebellion against the spread of bureaucratized futility. Sooner or later, some few intrepid souls will turn with new curiosity to the neglected past and use it "to create a new present," discovering along the way "what a joy it is to be alive." The forces of decadence that Barzun describes are formidably potent. But decadence is no more inevitable than progress. Myopia is perennial, despair a temptation to be resisted. One never knows what reparations await the touch of fresh energies. Eugène Delacroix put it well: "Those very ones who believe that everything has been said and done, will greet you as new and yet will close the door behind you. And then they will say again that everything has been done and said." Besides, as Barzun's friend Jeffrey Hart noted in an essay celebrating Barzun's one-hundredth birthday, the very presence of Jacques Barzun among is "grounds for hope."  "No period," as Hart noted, "is entirely decadent in which such a man could appear."


Roger Kimball, a noted cultural critic, is editor and publisher of The New Criterion and publisher and president of Encounter Books.

Comments (1)

Nicolas Martin:

How sad that we lost Bazun and Thomas Szasz in the same year: two of the great minds of their times.

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