November 14, 2007


Age of Reason: In his hundred years, Jacques Barzun has learned a thing or two. (Arthur Krystal, October 22, 2007, The New Yorker)

Next month, Barzun, the eminent historian and cultural critic, will turn one hundred. His idea of celebrating his centenary is to put the finishing touches on his thirty-eighth book (not counting translations). Among his areas of expertise are French and German literature, music, education, ghost stories, detective fiction, language, and etymology. Barzun has examined Poe as proofreader, Abraham Lincoln as stylist, Diderot as satirist, and Liszt as reader; he has burnished the reputations of Thomas Beddoes, James Agate, and John Jay Chapman; and he has written so many reviews and essays that his official biographer is loath to put a number on them. There’s nothing hasty or haphazard about these evaluations. Barzun’s breadth of erudition has been a byword among friends and colleagues for six decades. Yet, in spite of his degrees and awards (he was made a Chevalier de l’Ordre National de la Légion d’Honneur and has received the Presidential Medal of Freedom), Barzun regards himself in many respects as an “amateur” (the Latin root, amator, means “lover”), someone who takes genuine pleasure in what he learns about. More than any other historian of the past four generations, Barzun has stood for the seemingly contradictory ideas of scholarly rigor and unaffected enthusiasm.

One of those enthusiasms produced what may be his most frequently quoted sentence: “Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball.” The line, extracted from his book “God’s Country and Mine,” is inscribed on a plaque at the Baseball Hall of Fame and routinely trotted out by news anchors and NPR commentators. Sometimes, Barzun worries that after his books go out of print only those fourteen words will be remembered. Or so he said one evening not long ago, when I was visiting him in San Antonio. We had finished dinner and were sitting in the living room. When he saw me looking at a portrait of his mother by Albert Gleizes, Barzun remarked that it was the third Cubist portrait ever done. “Not the third Cubist picture,” he cautioned, “the third Cubist portrait.” He thinks the first may have been Picasso’s “Woman Seated in an Armchair,” and the second Gleizes’s “Portrait of Jacques Nayral.” Barzun’s taste and attitudes were formed at the beginning of the modernist movement—he played in Duchamp’s studio and attended the orchestral opening of Stravinsky’s “Le Sacre du Printemps”—and he has yet to come around to the cultural aftermath.

Barzun’s declinist views about Western civilization are no secret. One reason that “From Dawn to Decadence,” an eight-hundred-page history of Western civilization from 1500 to the present, which he published at the age of ninety-two, was such an improbable best-seller (“the damnedest story you’ll ever read,” David Gates called it in Newsweek) was its contention that Western civilization is winding down, that “the forms of art as of life seem exhausted.” But, when Barzun insists that he sees “the end of the high creative energies at work since the Renaissance,” his tone is less that of someone appalled by what’s happening than of someone simply recording the ocean currents.

Barzun began to appreciate the transience of civilization almost as soon as he learned what the word meant. Born outside Paris in 1907, he was six years old when the First World War broke out. Early on, he had a sense that, in Paul Valéry’s harsh aperçu, “a civilization has the same fragility as a life.” The war shattered the world that he knew and, as he later wrote, “visibly destroyed that nursery of living culture.” This isn’t entirely a figure of speech. On Saturdays before the war, his parents’ living room had been a raucous salon where many of Europe’s leading avant-garde artists and writers gathered: Varèse played the piano, Ozenfant and Delaunay debated, Cocteau told lies, and Apollinaire declaimed. Brancusi often stopped by, as did Léger, Kandinsky, Jules Romains, Duchamp, and Pound.

In 1914, when the shells began to fall, the visits gradually ceased; soon came the names of the dead. His parents tried to conceal the losses, but the boy became depressed and, as he learned later, began hinting at suicide. At the age of ten, his parents bundled him off to the seashore at Dinard, where he immersed himself in Shakespeare and James Fenimore Cooper.

It’s tempting to relate Barzun’s skepticism about recent cultural developments (he’s inclined to regard the provocations of later artists, from John Cage to Damien Hirst, as leaves from a tree that was planted before the First World War) to the intensity of his childhood milieu and its abrupt disappearance. Barzun readily acknowledges that the accident of birth is “bound to have irreversible consequences,” but he rejects the idea that his character or sense of the world derives from any loss that he might have suffered as a child. In fact, when I broached the possibility that his precise way of formulating ideas and strict attention to empirical evidence are distinctive qualities of the civilization that he saw disintegrate before his eyes, his response was gently quizzical. “Why must you find trauma where there is none?” he asked. “I grew up a child of a bourgeois family, with emancipated parents who surrounded themselves with people who talked about ideas. My views were formed by my parents, by the lycée, and by my reading. How else should I be?”

At least Mr. Barzun is a social critic, so that line is a fitting one to endure. Imagine being John Updike, who probably thinks himself a novelist, but whose only writing that will be read a hundred years from now is, Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu:
Understand that we were a crowd of rational people. We knew that a home run cannot be produced at will; the right pitch must be perfectly met and luck must ride with the ball. Three innings before, we had seen a brave effort fail. The air was soggy, the season was exhausted. Nevertheless, there will always lurk, around the corner in a pocket of our knowledge of the odds, an indefensible hope, and this was one of the times, which you now and then find in sports, when a density of expectation hangs in the air and plucks an event out of the future.

Fisher, after his unsettling wait, was low with the first pitch. He put the second one over, and Williams swung mightily and missed. The crowd grunted, seeing that classic swing, so long and smooth and quick, exposed. Fisher threw the third time, Williams swung again, and there it was. The ball climbed on a diagonal line into the vast volume of air over center field. From my angle, behind third base, the ball seemed less an object in flight than the tip of a towering, motionless construct, like the Eiffel Tower or the Tappan Zee Bridge. It was in the books while it was still in the sky. Brandt ran back to the deepest corner of the outfield grass, the ball descended beyond his reach and struck in the crotch where the bullpen met the wall, bounced chunkily, and vanished.

Like a feather caught in a vortex, Williams ran around the square of bases at the center of our beseeching screaming. He ran as he always ran out home runs - hurriedly, unsmiling, head down, as if our praise were a storm of rain to get out of. He didn't tip his cap. Though we thumped, wept, and chanted ''We want Ted'' for minutes after he hid in the dugout, he did not come back. Our noise for some seconds passed beyond excitement into a kind of immense open anguish, a wailing, a cry to be saved. But immortality is nontransferable. The papers said that the other players, and even the umpires on the field, begged him to come out and acknowledge us in some way, but he refused. Gods do not answer letters.

Posted by Orrin Judd at November 14, 2007 8:41 PM

You should have at least included a link to your your review:
BTW, I find it strange that there is no review of "From Dawn to Decadence".
A much better book than Krystal would have you believe.

Posted by: Mike at November 14, 2007 10:42 PM

D to D is a great book, a liberal education in itself, even if one doesn't agree necessaryly with the many many judgments B makes in it.

I think perhaps the greatest indictment of our era -- perhaps the era since the Great War, but certainly the period from WWII -- is that we no longer produce men of Barzun's erudition and indeed calibre.

Posted by: Jim in Chicago at November 14, 2007 11:13 PM


It isn't that we don't produce them, it is that we ignore them.

Posted by: Bruno at November 14, 2007 11:17 PM

I dunno Bruno, I think we just don't produce them. For one, our system(s) of education aren't tailored to produce them, they're tailored to churn out, at the top, competent individuals in any number of professional fields, but no more than that.

Posted by: Jim in Chicago at November 14, 2007 11:34 PM

I read D to D in college and it must have been the first 800-page long book of history I'd ever read. At that time my grandmother was in her early 90s and I remember being astonished by the thought that the guy who wrote this outstanding book was as old as she was.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at November 15, 2007 12:46 AM

Shakespeare and James Fenimore Cooper helped him get over WWI-induced depression. !

Lately I've been reading alot about WWI, which I didn't really hear much about in high school and college. It's astonishing the extreme violence that war did the West. It's not a new observation, but it won't be a surprise if, in another hundred years, it is remembered as the central event of the 20th Century & everything after (including Iraq) just a eddy in its wake.

Just finished a newish translation of Ernst Junger's "Storm Of Steel" (Michael Hoffman the translator). I had never heard about it until it was mentioned in the comments over at "The Belmont Club". Pretty amazing stuff. A just-the-facts account of a soldier in the trenches all the way through the war, with little discussion of why he's there.

Posted by: Twn at November 15, 2007 10:22 AM