December 3, 2011


A Work in Progress: The great Jacquez Barzun turned 105 yesterday: a review of Jacques Barzun: Portrait of a Mind By Michael Murray (Gerald J. Russello, 12.1.11, American Spectator)

Through their forty-year collaboration, [Jacques Barzun and Lionel Trilling] sought linkages among objects, ideas, and movements as a way of making sense of politics, literature, and history. This intellectual stance is now called "cultural studies," and has something of a radical air about it, thanks to several decades where it was used as an all-purpose term for a variety of anti-intellectual and political ideologies. Barzun and Trilling were not radicals, at least not in a contemporary sense. Unlike many current practitioners of the genre, they were unafraid to apply judgment, to discriminate among various cultural objects and determine the worth among them, and how they fit together. And they were united that culture and art break ideological boundaries and cannot be restricted to rigid formula. Barzun, therefore, was no New Critic; he understood that cultural objects occur within a culture, and that although they may have lasting value, that value derives in part from its connections with other objects. And it is the job of a critic to explain those connections.

As Michael Murray shows in this, the first full-length biography of Barzun, that capacity to judge has been central in all of Barzun's writing. Murray, a bibliographer and editor of a Barzun reader as well as biographies of Albert Schweitzer and Marcel Dupré, highlights Barzun's "fine discrimination among ideas," evident, for example, in his bestselling From Dawn to Decadence. That book did not display the gloom of many conservative diatribes, nor did it celebrate the fragmentation of Western culture and embrace of the "other," as many liberals fantasized. Rather, Barzun made a nuanced but ultimately compelling case for the contemporary Western culture as a period of decline leading to relative quiescence. However, this need not be a permanent circumstance, but need last only as long as it takes new ideas to germinate. Decadence "implies in those who live in such a time no loss of energy or talent or moral sense. On the contrary, it is a very active time, full of deep concerns, but peculiarly restless, for it sees no clear lines of advance. The loss it faces is that of Possibility."

Posted by at December 3, 2011 7:39 AM

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