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Jacques Barzun at 100
by Jeffrey Hart
On the centenary of the celebrated historian.
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On November 30, 2007, deo volente, Jacques Barzun, one of the most distinguished figures in the history of Columbia University, will be one hundred years old. An undergraduate at Columbia, class of 1927, Barzun remained at the school until his retirement in 1975, earning a Ph. D. and becoming Seth Low Professor of History, Dean of the Graduate School, Provost, and finally a University Professor. Throughout his life he has written over forty books, some of them of permanent importance, all of them useful, and culminating in From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, 1500 to the Present (2000), his summa as a cultural critic.
How many times in one’s life does one get to welcome a masterpiece, which, without a doubt, that amazing work certainly is? Its 800 pages of text move quickly. With seeming ease, its architecture covers 500 years of Western history, which is the large movement of the book, and at the same time fills in the great sweep with a richness of detail that gives concrete life to the vast design. Among the particulars there are constant surprises, as in the detail of a Gothic cathedral. The intellectual clarifications come one after the other.
Here Barzun set out to trace in broad outline the evolution of art, science, religion, philosophy, and social thought during the last 500 years: “I hope to show that during this span the peoples of the West offered the world a set of ideas and institutions not found earlier or elsewhere.” He makes it clear that he celebrates these distinctive achievements. He believes that the West has pursued these characteristic purposes, carried them “to their utmost possibility,” and in so doing brought about decline and decadence. Barzun is a “cultural” historian because, in his narrative, intellectual developments are in the foreground, though his cultural tapestry is stitched onto a canvas of political, military, and economic history.
Barzun discerns a brilliant period of creativity around the turn of the twentieth century. Then came the catalyst that accelerated and intensified the tendencies leading to decadence: “The blow that hurled the modern world on its course of self-destruction was the Great War of 1914–1918.” A sense of futility and absurdity prevailed. Constructivism became destructivism. There resulted a collapse of manners and authority, anti-heroes and anti-art, the ridicule of anything established, the distortions of language and objects, the indifference to clear meaning, the violence to the human form, the return to primitive elements of sensation. “The root principle is ‘Expect nothing.’”
But Jacques Barzun is himself grounds for hope. No period is entirely decadent in which such a man could appear. I was a junior at Columbia College when I first glimpsed him in the early 1950s. He had just published his two-volume Berlioz and the Romantic Century. A friend said merely, “There he is.” Indeed. He was tall, blonde, wearing a gray double-breasted tailored suit, and was coming down the steps of Hamilton Hall. Barzun had grown up in Grenoble and Paris, surrounded as a child in an academic family by many of the prominent figures in French modernism, including Apollinaire, Marcel Duchamp, and Marie Laurencin.
Barzun became one of those unusual teachers and writers who is part of a permanent conversation in my mind, and certainly in the widely disparate minds of many others. I did not actually meet Barzun until 1957, when, after almost four years in Naval Intelligence during the Korean War, I returned to Columbia as a graduate student and assistant professor.
At that time Jacques Barzun and Lionel Trilling were teaching their famous graduate seminar on major works in the development of the modern mind. Admission to the Barzun-Trilling seminar, as it was known, entailed an interview with the two professors, which took place in Trilling’s Hamilton Hall office. This turned out to be genial, indeed conducted with a tone that suggested that in some sense we were equals, gentlemen and professionals, and serious about goals the three of us shared.
In that first interview I gained a distinct sense that what they wanted were seminar participants who not only would teach but had it in mind to write in a serious way, and to the extent possible be engaged in focused and shaping activity: No Waste Landers; no Bartleby the Scriveners; no William Steig figures curled up in protective boxes of sensibility.
The course met once a week in the evening. Each week, the two-hour session began with the consideration of an essay written by a member of the class. Clean copies had been put on reserve for the class to read. At the seminar the author received his own work back with written comments by Trilling and Barzun. Then the group discussed the essay. The pretensions of my first essay were annihilated, especially by Barzun. One result was that, as I rose from the dead, he was able to praise my second effort as publishable. There can be no doubt that other students found the intense criticism of Barzun and Trilling invaluable to their writing.
After spending at least half an hour on such essays, we moved on to the discussion of a major work. These included Mill on Bentham and Coleridge with an introductory essay by F. R. Leavis, Hegel’s Philosophy of History, Nietzsche’s Will to Power, Chesterton’s Victorian Age in Literature, Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy, Bagehot’s English Constitution, Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents, essays by John Jay Chapman, whom Barzun very much admired, and, because a subject of wide interest at the time, David Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd.
Barzun and Trilling provided a useful contrast, Barzun clarifying, usually trying to cut to the indispensable core of a major thinker’s work, explicating, achieving an understanding, Trilling often pushing back at the text, viewing it as a locus of problematical energy. He was engaged to the point of feeling challenged and required to respond. He often said in one way or another, “It’s complicated, very complicated.” Certainly, it would be too much to say that Barzun and Trilling were Settembrini and Naptha up there in that sanitarium on their magic mountain, or Cassirer and Heidegger in their internationally famous 1929 debate at Davos in the Alps, but the paradigms do have relevance; Barzun, though romantic in his sympathy for particular energies of art, was also in his analytical approach what could be called a rationalist, or, as Sidney Hook once remarked, as possessing “luminous common sense.” His clarifications of Trilling’s complexities sometimes were essential.
But Barzun and Trilling often did agree, as, for example, in the discussion of The Will to Power. They disabused the class of the notion that Nietzsche had something to do with Nazis or storm troopers. Nietzsche’s Ubermensch, said Barzun, is Beethoven. And Nietzsche loathed anti-Semitism, considering it a symptom of the weakness of German culture. Nietzsche often preferred French culture. When he said (sorrowfully) that the commanding authority of the Christian God is dead, he responded by urging the free spirit to exert a noble imagination through self-invention. Nietzsche said that “art represents the highest task and the truly metaphysical activity of this life.” The Nietzschean poet William Butler Yeats took as an epigraph: “In dreams begin responsibility.” Both Barzun and Trilling stressed the strenuous character of that “responsibility.”
It was important to me that both Barzun and Trilling were men of the world, in the academy but not entirely of the academy. Their attire was anything but casual. They looked as if they had just come from the Quai d’Orsay. They constantly seemed to be involved outside the academy in one or another activity, sometimes away at a conference or at some meeting abroad. At this time the Cold War was intense. Barzun once remarked that we fire historians, novelists, and magazines at them, and they fire back at us with ballet companies.
Perhaps curiously, given the fact that this was a seminar about the foundations of the modern mind, both Barzun and Trilling expressed an undercurrent of serious resistance to modern art, Barzun to Rimbaud, for example, in his “déréglement de tous les sens,” to Symbolism generally, and especially to T. S. Eliot, whose poetry he understood as a rejection of life and vitality. This, despite the fact that The Waste Land, that banner of modernism, is about the agonizing return to life from spiritual death, its famous opening a symbolist resurrection: “April is the cruelest month, breeding/ Lilacs out of the dead land …” The Waste Land expresses desolation, but also the ways out of desolation, and in the startling activity of its verse constitutes a remarkably energetic struggle against it, and perhaps a successful struggle.
In The Waste Land, Eliot began with fragmentation and sought a metaphysical principle organizing the chaos. In his great essay “Kandinsky and Abstraction,” Hilton Kramer discussed analogous developments in modern painting. By contrast, in From Dawn to Decadence, Barzun added Ulysses to the slippery slope of decadence.
Trilling approached the problem of modernism from a different direction. As he made clear in his later essay “On the Teaching of Modern Literature” (1961), although “no literature of the past surpassed the literature of our own time in power and magnificence,” nevertheless the very power of modern literature, its spiritual exigency, entails perils, specifically the rejection of the ordinariness of civilization as we actually live it.
Today, re-reading From Dawn to Decadence along with Trilling’s Sincerity and Authenticity (1971) and Beyond Culture (1965), one understands that their exigent defense of civilization, even of “ordinariness,” responds with special urgency to the dangers they felt from the 1960s counter-culture, a product of the numerically inflated cohort of “baby boomer” young both here and in Europe, having its own music, its own dress, its own marijuana sacrament, and its rejection, often violent, of the “System.” Sometimes 1968 felt like 1848 in Europe. In 1968 I was in California working for Ronald Reagan, and most of the young men out there looked like Charlie Manson. You could get high just walking down Telegraph Avenue outside the Berkeley campus. Mario Savio there and Mark Rudd at Columbia were repulsive to be sure, but they and their followers, I think, assumed civilizational importance for Barzun and Trilling, becoming descendents of Rameau’s nephew and as such culturally momentous. But with the once youthful cohort grown older, it has all become mostly a bad dream now, not an Untergangen of the West.
One exchange I had with Barzun in our seminar remains central to my thought about Edmund Burke, and about politics generally. Burke was the founder of modern political thought, and I would call him an analytical realist. In the seminar, we had come to Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France. The other students, or most of them, were hostile, sympathizing with the humanitarian goals of the French Revolution. But Barzun wanted more than such “opinion,” mere opinion, as it were. What was distinctive about Burke? What is the core of his thought?
I offered, “Burke understands that if you tried to use reason to tie your shoes every morning you would never get out of the house.” That is, Burke understood the very large role habit plays in human activity. Barzun nodded agreement, but added the social dimension, saying, “Burke wanted his morning newspaper delivered on time.” When you thought about it, this small detail in life was a complex operation and could not be re-invented every day.
Whereas I had seen the central role of habit in the activities of an individual, Barzun added the fact that complex social processes and social institutions are the habits of society. That is why Burke viewed as worse than dangerous radical attacks on social institutions and celebrated the actual liberties of Englishmen as against the abstract and ideal rights of the rights-of-man celebrated by the revolutionary republican philosophes in France. I had read Arnold’s “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time” in Trilling’s undergraduate course on the Victorians. I should have added immediately that Arnold enormously admired the intellect behind the famous passage in “Thoughts on French Affairs” (1791) where Burke recognizes that because the problems in France had become intractable, the Revolution had been inevitable. Motion in society had the complexity and power of social institutions themselves. Arnold called this passage, as coming from Burke who had feared and fought the ideas of the philosophes, one of the finest things in the history of intellect:
If a great change is to be made in human affairs, the minds of men will be fitted to it; the general opinions and feeling will be drawn that way … and then they who persist in opposing this mighty current in human affairs will appear rather to resist the decrees of Providence itself, than the mere designs of men. They will not be resolute and firm, but perverse and obstinate.
I sometimes wonder why I failed to bring that up, even quoting it, and in doing so hit a home run in the Barzun-Trilling seminar. It has had continuing relevance as we contemplate the consequences of more recent revolutions, the long gestating drive for women’s equality, now visible throughout our society, the civil rights revolution, and the biomedical revolution.
Jacques Barzun was so eminent a figure that it is surprising to me that he remained so accessible and encouraging to much younger men. Then and now, when I think of Barzun, I recall the Oxford clerihew about the great classicist and polymath Benjamin Jowett:
My name is Jowett
Yet, as I say, Barzun made his students feel that what they wanted to achieve was possible, and was an enabler. Lionel Trilling’s high standards, in contrast, could be discouraging. Barzun was an educator in the literal sense of the word: educere, “to lead out.” For that generations of students are indebted to him.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 26 November 2007, on page 93
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