Jacques Barzun

One hundred & four is not a bad age for a human to attain, though it seemed to us that Jacques Barzun was much older. America’s leading public intellectual was, from what we can make out, already quite mature when he came to the U.S. at age thirteen — put into prep school there by his Whitmanesque, Americanophile father. His family’s circle of friends in Paris included Guillaume Apollinaire, Georges Duhamel, Marcel Duchamp, Edgar Varèse, Stefan Zweig, & the little-remembered but remarkable vagrant typographer, Lucien Linard. These were Utopian people, but from the age before Lenin. They were crazy artists, with an outlook on life that simply cannot be translated into any language comprehensible to the present day. For instance, each had strong political views, but of a kind we might classify today as utterly apolitical.

Barzun remained French while becoming entirely American. His mind was logical in the French way, & it was stocked with French things; but he used it for American purposes. He went to Columbia University, & stayed there for the duration of the 20th century, without ever becoming an “academic” in the narrow sense. His field was civilization, & together with Lionel Trilling (his contemporary, now dead for decades) he created a little cell of civilization in this most unlikely place (Columbia University). As recently as half a century ago, there was a significant community in the U.S. which aspired, in a humble, decent, republican way, to acquire & promote high culture. These were the sort of people who launched “great books” programmes, & begged European intellectuals to cross the Atlantic & teach them everything they knew. Barzun found & ministered to them.

His several dozen books are without exception addressed to “the common reader.” They cover an extraordinary range of topics, & each is solid in its learning. Barzun was at home in art & music, as well as literature; in history, & also in the sciences. We have used the “C” word (for, Civilization), & he was among the last men living who understood that it is all one thing. Specialists are always welcome, but the specialist who is not backed up with a broad general knowledge — who has not read widely, not remained alive to arts & sciences at large — is a subversive influence, & in his nature an enemy of civilization whenever he pretends to serve it.

Some years ago we overheard a worthless little professor of “philosophy” in the University of Toronto sneering at the reputation of Jacques Barzun, for his very range. We asked him, sneeringly back, if he knew what the word “university” meant. He made it abundantly clear he did not. He was a “specialist” at war with those “generalists” & “popularizers.” It struck me that even in his own recondite area of specialization (“analytical philosophy”), Barzun could have tutored him, by explaining e.g. the breadth of topics that Wittgenstein was addressing; for the little man had no idea. The whole, very tenured career of this soi-disant professor had consisted of teaching the young & impressionable to sneer at things beyond his or their understanding.

Barzun was “civil” as well as civilized, yet never pusillanimous. A large part of his work consisted of serenely articulated anger, focused chiefly upon the teaching profession. The phenomenon that is glibly called today “political correctness” — a far stronger term is needed to convey the stench of it — has been a feature of North American intellectual life for a long time. It is in fact the contemporary expression of the Puritan theological outlook, that landed with the Mayflower; & it has everything to do with cults of specialization, & with heresies (i.e. deceitful half-truths) both within & beyond the formal perimeter of religion.

The Puritan spirit is iconoclastic; it seeks to cut things down, to smash the beautiful, to rule inconvenient truths out of court; to promote witch hunts. Barzun had unerringly the scent of this enemy, & could be annihilating in response to it; though as a correspondent reminds (see comments) he could also spy positive features in the Puritan heritage, & deal with its exponents quite charitably on their own terms, for he was never a witch hunter himself.

He was a nominal Catholic, not a church-goer, & by his own account at sea in the ecclesiastical life of America. He associated the Church with culture in the modern French manner, without vexing himself on any doctrinal point. He was allergic to the enthusiasm of “converts”; & found American Catholicism too Protestant for his tastes. Paradoxically, he observed that a typically American “high-church Presbyterianism” — with its choirs & processions — was closer to the European “semi-Catholicism” in which he was reared. And this was compounded by his genius for not committing himself, even to the inevitable logical consequences of his own assertions.

The closest we can find to a credal statement from him is, “Nature is conscious of itself, in & through man.” A lot would follow from that, but Barzun wouldn’t follow. His dislike of “converts” extended to ideologues & reductionists of all sorts. His book, Darwin, Marx, Wagner (1941 & revisions) — the continuation of research & arguments begun much earlier — is an inquiry into the nature of modern superstitions. He shows convincingly how capitalist notions of free competition & survival of the fittest were repackaged as a Victorian cosmology, & acquired the power of sorcery; how they were presented as quasi-religious doctrine; how the substitution of Natural Selection for Providence came to be defended with a warmth that never belonged to empirical science. The book brilliantly depicts the personal evolution of Thomas Huxley, that earnest & honest man, haunted by the real possibility that he had championed ideas which compromised the moral order, without yielding secure empirical results, or being able to do so. The book continues through the strange, quaintly Victorian world of Marxian political scientism & Wagnerian romantic egoism. It shows the hollowness beneath the crust on which our post-modernism has strutted; the excavation & discarding, beneath our own feet, of everything that supported us except, “might makes right.”

Barzun was a modern. Perhaps with his death we bury the last living modernist, like the last Great War veteran, or the last recipient of the Victoria Cross. His cultural history of that modern age, Dawn to Decadence (2000), makes a fine textbook we might recommend to serious private schools. Published when he was a nonagenarian, it shows no diminution of his powers, & embodies an erudition that is scintillating. He is a terse writer, but never an obscure one; his books are all accessible to any intelligent, attentive reader. And the quotes with which he decorated the pages of this one are an education in themselves: one well-known author after another saying something one might not expect him to say. Barzun represents the history of five very Western centuries with the freshness almost of an eyewitness; & while there can be no mistake about the moral & intellectual decadence into which we have fallen, he is hopeful throughout, & ends sure that something new must inevitably be stirring in our ashes. He is perhaps most Catholic in allowing God’s will; in that optimism which expects some good to come of evil, without ever commending the evil.