October 27, 2012


Jacques Barzun Dies at 104 (D. G. Myers, 10.26.2012, Commentary)

Jacques Barzun, the great cultural historian whose writing career spanned more than six decades, has died in San Antonio at the age of 104. A gifted scholar with a clear bracing style that appealed to ordinary educated readers, Barzun published formative books in an astonishingly wide variety of fields, including the humbug of race (Race: A Study in Modern Superstition, 1937), intellectual history (Darwin, Marx, Wagner, 1941), classical music (Berlioz and the Romantic Century, 1950), practical rhetoric (Simple and Direct, 1975), and cultural criticism or what he bemoaned as the "conversion of culture into industry" (The Culture We Deserve, 1989). [...]

Born in 1907 in a Parisian suburb, Barzun came to America for good at 13 and graduated from Columbia University seven years later. He stayed on in New York until he was 89, when he transplanted himself to the Republic of Texas. Although he is being described in the obituaries as a "public intellectual," he was not that. In a word, he was a humanist -- a historian, a teacher, a man of culture, a university man (who was saddened to see the loss of the university as a seat of learning), and an American envoy of the once-proud tradition of "French clarity." There will never be anyone like him again.

Barzun on intellect (D. G. Myers, 10.26.2012)

Jacques Barzun: An Appreciation : He wrote in a flawless and magisterial manner on subjects from Darwin to Marx, Wagner, Berlioz, English prose, detective fiction and intellectual life. (JOSEPH EPSTEIN, 10/26/12, WSJ)

No intellectual reputation seemed quite so strong, so impeccable, so splendid as Jacques Barzun's. He wrote in a flawless and magisterial manner on a vast array of subjects: Darwin, Marx, Wagner, Berlioz, William James, French verse, English prose composition, university teaching, detective fiction, the state of intellectual life, and finally, published when he was 93, his magnum opus, "From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, 1500 to the Present." None of this writing seemed motivated by his desire to advance his career; all of it derived from genuine intellectual passion.

Although Jacques Barzun's professional life was lived almost entirely at Columbia University--where he was himself a student from undergraduate days through acquiring his Ph.D., and where he later served as provost and university professor--he never seemed entirely, or even chiefly, an academic. There was nothing academic about his prose, his person, his point of view. He and Lionel Trilling, with whom he taught the great-books course at Columbia, always seemed para-academics. Theirs was the metropolitan spirit, urban and urbane, suave and sophisticated in the best senses of those words. Jacques was for many years a literary adviser to the firm of Charles Scribner's Sons. W. H. Auden was his friend. His first wife was a Lowell. He was very much in and of the world.

I cannot claim to have been a close friend of Jacques Barzun, though he would occasionally send me a note about something I had written. His approval meant a great deal to me. He lived to 104, and his death scarcely comes as a surprise. Chiefly it is a reminder that a great model of the life of the mind has departed the planet. Not many such models left, if any.

Excerpt from: God's Country and Mine (Jacques Barzun)

People who care less for gentility manage things better. They don't bother to leave the arid city but spend their surplus there on pastimes they can enjoy without feeling cramped. They follow boxing and wrestling, burlesque and vaudeville (when available), professional football and hockey. Above all, they thrill in unison with their fellow man the country over by watching baseball. The gods decree a heavyweight match only once in a while and a national election only every four years, but there is a World Series with every revolution of the earth around the sun. And in between, what varied pleasure long drawn out!

Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball, the rules and realities of the game - and do it by watching first some high school or small-town teams. The big league games are too fast for the beginner and the newspapers don't help. To read them with profit you have to know a language that comes easy only after philosophy has taught you to judge practice. Here is scholarship that takes effort on the part of the outsider, but it is so bred into the native that it never becomes a dreary round of technicalities. The wonderful purging of the passions that we all experienced in the fall of 51, the despair groaned out over the fate of the Dodgers, from whom the league pennant was snatched at the last minute, give us some idea of what Greek tragedy was like. Baseball is Greek in being national, heroic, and broken up in the rivalries of city-states. How sad that Europe knows nothing like it! Its Olympics generate anger, not unity, and its interstate politics follow no rules that a people can grasp. At least Americans understand baseball, the true realm of clear ideas.

That baseball fitly expresses the powers of the nation's mind and body is a merit separate from the glory of being the most active, agile, varied, articulate, and brainy of all group games. It is of and for our century. Tennis belongs to the individualistic past - a hero, or at most a pair of friends or lovers, against the world. The idea of baseball is a team, an outfit, a section, a gang, a union, a cell, a commando squad - in short, a twentieth-century setup of opposite numbers.

Baseball takes its mystic nine and scatters them wide. A kind of individualism thereby returns, but it is limited - eternal vigilance is the price of victory. Just because they're far apart, the outfield can't dream or play she-loves-me-not with daisies. The infield is like a steel net held in the hands of the catcher. He is the psychologist and historian for the staff - or else his signals will give the opposition hits. The value of his headpiece is shown by the ironmongery worn to protect it. The pitcher, on the other hand, is the wayward man of genius, whom others will direct. They will expect nothing from him but virtuosity. He is surrounded no doubt by mere talent, unless one excepts that transplanted acrobat, the shortstop. What a brilliant invention is his role despite its exposure to ludicrous lapses! One man to each base, and then the free lance, the trouble shooter, the movable feast for the eyes, whose motion animates the whole foreground.

The rules keep pace with this imaginative creation so rich in allusions to real life. How excellent, for instance, that a foul tip muffed by the catcher gives the batter another chance. It is the recognition of Chance that knows no argument. But on the other hand, how wise and just that the third strike must not be dropped. This points to the fact that near the end of any struggle life asks for more than is needful in order to clinch success. A victory has to be won, not snatched. We find also our American innocence in calling "World Series" the annual games between the winners in each big league. The world doesn't know or care and couldn't compete if it wanted to, but since it's us children having fun, why, the world is our stage. I said baseball was Greek. Is there not a poetic symbol in the new meaning - our meaning - of "Ruth hits Homer"?

Once the crack of the bat has sent the ball skimmiting left of second between the infielder's legs, six men converge or distend their defense to keep the runner from advancing along the prescribed path. The ball is not the center of interest as in those vulgar predatory games like football, basketball, and polo. Man running is the force to be contained. His getting to first or second base starts a capitalization dreadful to think of: every hit pushes him on. Bases full and a homer make four runs, while the defenders, helpless without the magic power of the ball lying over the fence, cry out their anguish and dig up the sod with their spikes.

But fate is controlled by the rules. Opportunity swings from one side to the other because innings alternate quickly, keep up spirit in the players, interest in the beholders. So does the profusion of different acts to be performed - pitching, throwing, catching, batting, running, stealing, sliding, signaling. Blows are similarly varied. Flies, Texas Leaguers, grounders, baseline fouls - praise God the human neck is a universal joint! And there is no set pace. Under the hot sun, the minutes creep as a deliberate pitcher tries his feints and curves for three strikes called, or conversely walks a threatening batter. But the batter is not invariably a tailor's dummy. In a hundredth of a second there may be a hissing rocket down right field, a cloud of dust over first base - the bleachers all a-yell - a double play, and the other side up to bat.

Accuracy and speed, the practiced eye and hefty arm, the mind to take in and readjust to the unexpected, the possession of more than one talent and the willingness to work in harness without special orders - these are the American virtues that shine in baseball. There has never been a good player who was dumb. Beef and bulk and mere endurance count for little, judgment and daring for much. Baseball is among group games played with a ball what fencing is to games of combat. But being spread out, baseball has something sociable and friendly about it that I especially love. It is graphic and choreographic. The ball is not shuttling in a confined space, as in tennis. Nor does baseball go to the other extreme of solitary whanging and counting stopped on the brink of pointlessness, like golf. Baseball is a kind of collective chess with arms and legs in full play under sunlight.

How adaptable, too! Three kids in a back yard are enough to create the same quality of drama. All of us in our tennis days have pounded balls with a racket against a wall, for practice. But that is nothing compared with batting in an empty lot, or catching at twilight, with a fella who'll let you use his mitt when your palms get too raw. Every part of baseball equipment is inherently attractive and of a most enchanting functionalism. A man cannot have too much leather about him; and a catcher's mitt is just the right amount for one hand. It's too bad the chest protector and shinpads are so hot and at a distance so like corrugated cardboard. Otherwise, the team is elegance itself in its striped knee breeches and loose shirts, colored stockings and peaked caps. Except for brief moments of sliding, you can see them all in one eyeful, unlike the muddy hecatombs of football. To watch a football game is to be in prolonged neurotic doubt as to what you're seeing. It's more like an emergency happening at a distance than a game. I don't wonder the spectators take to drink. Who has ever seen a baseball fan drinking within the meaning of the act? He wants all his senses sharp and clear, his eyesight above all. He gulps down soda pop, which is a harmless way of replenishing his energy by the ingestion of sugar diluted in water and colored pink.

Happy the man in the bleachers.

Posted by at October 27, 2012 8:21 AM

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