Friday, October 26, 2012

Jacques Barzun (1907-2012)

The New York Times reports:

Jacques Barzun, the distinguished historian, essayist, cultural gadfly and educator who helped establish the modern discipline of cultural history and came to see the West as sliding toward decadence, died Thursday night in San Antonio, where he lived. He was 104.

Mr. Barzun was a man of boundless curiosity, monumental productivity and manifold interests, encompassing both Berlioz and baseball. It was a life of the mind first cultivated more than a century ago in a childhood home outside Paris that became an avant-garde salon. . . .

He wrote dozens of books across many decades, demonstrating that old age did not necessarily mean intellectual decline. He published his most ambitious and encyclopedic book at the age of 92 (and credited his productivity in part to chronic insomnia). That work, “From Dawn to Decadence,” is an 877-page survey of 500 years of Western culture in which he argued that Western civilization itself had entered a period of decline.

Mr. Barzun was both of the academy and the public square, a man of letters and — he was proud to say — of the people. In books and in the classroom he championed Romantic literature, 19th-century music and the Western literary canon. He helped design the influential “great books” curriculum at Columbia, where he was one of its most admired figures for half a century, serving as provost, dean of faculty and university professor.

As an educator Mr. Barzun was an important critic of American universities, arguing in 1968 that their curriculums had become an undisciplined “bazaar” of miscellaneous studies.
I first read his book on writing, Simple and Direct, during high school, and I still reread it now and then. I still try to follow his guidelines on how to use the words "the" and "a," which turns out to be a surprisingly difficult matter.

Here are a few passages I've picked out from my copy of A Jacques Barzun Reader:
Removing ignorance in school is as painful as removing tonsils and calls for a rarer skill. Besides, the teacher should not use an anesthetic or be one. (593) (undated)

The purpose I gradually fashioned took the form of a resolve to fight the mechanical. . . . Where, then is this enemy? Not where the machine gives relief from drudgery but where human judgment abdicates. Any ossified institution — almost every bureaucracy, public or private — manifests the mechanical. So does race-thinking — a verdict passed mechanically at a color-coded signal. Ideology is likewise an idea-machine, designed to spare the buyer all further thought. (5) (from 1990)

Our love of order impels us to make theories, systems, sets of principles. We need them both for comfort and for action. A society, however pluralist, needs some beliefs in common and will not trust them unless they are labeled truths. It is there that our efforts betray us. Sooner or later, experience jabs us with an event, a feeling, or a perception that shatters the truth-value of the great inferred idea. . . [T]he breakup of old truths is painful, often bloody, but it does not condemn the search for truth and its recurrent bafflement, which are part of man's fate. It should only strenghten tolerance and make us lessen our pretensions. (18-19) (from 2000)

In a high civilization the things that satisfy our innumerable desires look as if they were supplied automatically, mechanically, so that nothing is owed to particular persons; goods belong by congenital right to anybody who takes the trouble to be born. This is the infant's normal greed prolonged into adult life and headed for retribution. When sufficiently general, the habit of grabbing, cheating, and evading reciprocity is the best way to degrade a civilization, and perhaps bring about its collapse. (9-10) (from 1990)

In presence of the highest art, you have to believe it to see it. (594) (undated)

[T]he abstract and the general (as Blake pointed out) are the death of art. It is because art embodies particulars that it deserves to be called a creation; that is why systems and absolutes falsify it under guise of giving us an explanation; and that is why also a lifelong student of art like John Jay Chapman said very soberly that "we cannot hope to know what it is." (592) (from 1947)