Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Jacques Barzun on life

This is Charles Barzun (a University of Virginia law professor) writing to his grandfather, Jacques Barzun, who died last year at age 104:

[F]or all the words spent on your achievements, I still felt as though the tributes had missed something. What they failed to capture was the way in which you used the written word not only to define and distill cultures past and present, but also to reach out, to lift up, and—for lack of a better phrase—to establish a human connection. ...

In 1997 I had taken a job in San Francisco at an Internet media company. For a while I performed well enough as director of product development, but then in the winter of 2002 I wrote to you out of a genuine crisis of identity. The crisis had been partly brought on by the events of 9/11 and partly by my own discovery that I could not have cared less about my job. I had started reading philosophy again for the first time in years and wanted to tell you this: "More than anything," I wrote, "I am trying to find that which is true, permanent, and enduring in myself—to find or create (which is it?) my life philosophy of sorts. So much philosophical inquiry has been devoted to deducing or discerning that which is true, timeless, or eternal in the universe. For me, merely finding the eternal for me, in my lifetime, would be sufficient!"

I will never forget your response. You immediately demonstrated that you knew exactly what I meant. Such a "spiritual search," you reassured me, was not at all unusual for someone my age: "It really had been brewing for some time and the event that triggered your new awareness was certainly of a magnitude to justify the ensuing disarray. You may be assured that it is not damaging or permanent, but fruitful of good things." You then continued:

"When you have worked through it, by further reflection and some decision as to the immediate future it will turn into something like a path marked on a map, to be followed for a good while and possibly for the rest of your life. To put it another way, you will have made a Self, which is indeed a desirable possession. A Self is interesting to oneself and others, it acts as a sort of rudder in all the vicissitudes of life, and it thereby defines what used to be known as a career."

Even now I find it hard to describe the effect your words had on me. Suffice it to say that my life, or, more accurately, the way I lived it, took on a different cast. I became more conscious of what I was doing and why I was doing it. ...

Amazingly, you played such an immense role in my life almost entirely through your letters. They were just words, but they were words written with care and attention and with the thought of a particular individual in mind. It occurs to me that for much of your own lifetime, there was nothing unusual about writing letters on a regular basis. Now, of course, that seems like an antiquated craft. No one writes letters anymore, and that includes me, now that you are gone. ... Then again, everything I write that requires some degree of thought and reflection is a letter to you. So in that sense our conversation continues.