November 30, 2007


Happy Birthday, Jacques Barzun (Robert McHenry - November 30th, 2007, Britannica Blog)

At some point I became aware of a tall man of quite different mien. He had not been in the room earlier; as I was to learn, he was always late to these meetings, a fact usually attributed to his insistence on traveling by train rather than airplane.

When I say he was tall I mean not simply that his height as measured in inches exceeded that of others in the room, but that he stood to his full height, whatever it might have been, and quite visibly gave body to the very idea of uprightness. His lean face, with a tall forehead from which his hair was brushed straight back, was rather what I had imagined a good aristocrat’s might be – not stern or severe but reserved; not complacent but composed; not supercilious but observant and tolerant. In all, a figure conveying the strongest sense of austere self-possession.

“Who is that?” I asked my mentor at this affair.

“That’s Jacques,” he said simply.

Ah, Barzun. I knew the name, of course, and had at least some dim sense of why I should know it. One of the Columbia group out of which so much of what Britannica had done and how it had done it had grown. Mortimer Adler was in the room, along with Clifton Fadiman and – a second-generation representative – Charles Van Doren.

I squinted at Barzun’s brown suit, which despite an inexpert eye I suspected was of superior cut. What was that?

“That thin red line on his lapel – at the buttonhole. What is it?”

“That?” he echoed, looking at me with what seemed to be a touch of pity; “That’s the Legion of Honor.”

Whatever bit of crest I had permitted myself for having been invited to this gathering of genuine adults promptly fell and remained prostrate.

-Jacques Barzun at 100 (Jeffrey Hart, New Criterion)
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.

-Barzun Centennial
-Jacques Barzun (Encyclopædia Britannica)
-Jacques Barzun (Wikipedia)
-Barzun 100 (Leo Wong)
-AUDIO: Jacques Barzun (In-Depth, C-SPAN)
-INTERVIEW: The Man Who Knew Too Much: Jacques Barzun, Idea Man (ROGER GATHMAN, 10/13/00, Austin Chronicle)
-Closing time? Jacques Barzun on Western culture (Roger Kimball, The New Criterion)
Age of Reason: In his hundred years, Jacques Barzun has learned a thing or two (Arthur Krystal , 10/22/07, The New Yorker)
-Jacques Barzun (Columbia 250)
-Style in the House of Intellect (Rafe Champion)

Posted by Orrin Judd at November 30, 2007 8:02 AM
Comments for this post are closed.