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Le destin de Jacques Barzun (né en 1907 à Créteil, de Henri Marin Barzun) est une sorte de miracle et une indication nostalgique de ce qui aurait pu être et de ce qui n’est pas, — nous le savons aujourd’hui de science sûre. Barzun est l’auteur d’un From Dawn to Decadence, — 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, un chef d’œuvre de 900 pages sur l’histoire de la culture, des idées, des sentiments et des idéologies de la civilisation occidentale moderne, née à la Renaissance.
La vie de Barzun est, si l’on veut bien la considérer symboliquement, un résumé translatéral de son étude de la décadence de l’Occident moderne, — et alors, le titre est-il encore justifié (Frow Dawn to Decadence)? Barzun est né dans la banlieue de Paris au début du XXè siècle, dans un milieu artiste où l’on croisait Cocteau, Léger, Apollinaire, Marie Laurencin, et d’autres attirés par Paris, comme Ezra Pound ; Barzun a fait sa splendide carrière au cœur de la plus haute culture qu’ait espéré fonder l’Amérique, au Columbia College, comme l’un des créateurs d’une discipline d’enseignement également de la plus haute culture (“Humanities ”, ou ”Literature Humanities”) ; Barzun critique, théoricien de l’art, auteur, connaisseur exceptionnel des arts et lettres occidentales, chargé d’ans et d’honneurs académiques… Barzun, illustration exceptionnelle de ce que peut “produire” un système arrangé et voulu par l’Homme, pour faire progresser les hommes ? (On parle du système américaniste, indeed.) Si l’on veut, l’“American Social Fabric” devenant l’“American High Culture Fabric”.
Le problème est en ceci : Barzun, chargé d’ans et d’honneurs, parfaitement intégré dans le système, et qui offre avec son chef d’œuvre une vision exceptionnellement noire, d’un noir d’encre, du destin de notre civilisation, — destin qui, depuis trois siècles est le destin de la modernité alors que l’on sait aujourd’hui que la modernité c’est d’abord l’américanisme. Dans la légende d’une photo de l’article publié ci-dessous, légende qui ne figure naturellement pas dans le texte, l’auteur de l’article, — ou bien est-ce la rédaction ? — a écrit ce petit texte qui dit tout, — l’ambiguïté de la réussite américaniste de Barzun, son pessimisme et, espére-t-on, l’ultime optimisme du chaos rédempteur qui pourrait nous faire renaître … Le problème est de savoir si cette renaissance , si renaissance il y a, ne devrait pas se faire au prix de ce qui a, en vérité, achevé la “liquidation de 500 ans de civilisation”, et qui pourrait être bien la modernité et l’américanisme. Voici le texte de cette légende : « Although he mourns “the liquidation of 500 years of civilization”, Barzun believes that chaos, in art or life, brings with it the possibility of redemption »
Barzun est évidemment un conservateur, au sens riche et de haute culture du mot. Sa critique de la modernité est constante, incisive, puissante. Pour autant, sauvegarde-t-il ce qu’on pourrait nommer “la tradition de la modernité”? Pour ce qui concerne le débat qu’on survole ici, cette “tradition de la modernité” serait l’américanisme des origines, qui aurait été perverti par une modernité décadente, et qui conduirait à la rédemption si on en retrouvait la fécondité originelle. C’est pourtant Barzun qui expédie la mythique “Révolution” américaniste, dans son Dawn to Decadence, de cette façon :
« If anything, the aim of the american War of Independance was reactionary : “back to the good old days!” Taxpayers, assemblymen, traders, and householders wanted a return to the conditions before the latter-day English policies. The appeal was to the immemorial rights of Englishmen: sel governments through represetatives and taxation granted by local assemblies, not set arbitrarily by the king. No new Idea entailing a shift in forms of power — the marks of revolutions — was proclaimed. The 28 offenses that King George was accused of had long been familiar in England. The language of the Declaration is that of a protest against abuses of power, not of proposals for recasting the government on new principles. »
Des gens moins connus et moins honorés que Barzun ont été mis à l’index pour moins que cela, dans le genre d’une mise en cause sacrilège d’une des icônes de l’américanisme, la vertu originelle de la “Révolution”. C’est l’honneur de cet homme d’avoir ainsi prospéré magnifiquement au cœur du système pour en donner, en quelques lignes, — avec d’autres certes, ce n’est qu’un exemple, — la condamnation la plus complète. Barzun est, en quelque sorte, l’exemple de ce qu’aurait pu être, de ce qu’aurait dû être l’American Dream : non pas la sordide mesure de la fortune qu’on peut faire, en général en fraudant habilement, en corrompant dans les règles, en escroquant avec mesure, en mentant comme par système ; mais l’espérance de l’homme élevé au rang de la grande connaissance du monde. Et puis, cela débouche sur Dawn to Decadence, qui est l’exacte condamnation de tout ce que le vrai American Dream nous propose, et c’en est fait de cet idéal de l’American Dream qui est le contraire de notre réalité.
Lisez le texte ci-dessous, avec à l’esprit les réserves suggérées et en savourant sans frein la description d’une admirable et haute réussite, dans les bornes du conformisme américaniste sans pourtant renoncer à sa liberté de l’esprit. Le texte ci-dessous est paru dans le Columbia College Today, organe du Columbia College, janvier 2006. Barzun (promotion 1927) et l’auteur de l’article (Thomas Vinciguerra, promotion 1985) sont ainsi présentés:
« Jacques Barzun ’27. For most of a century, Jacques Barzun ’27 has embodied Columbia. Despite his modesty and reserve, Barzun’s brilliance as College student, teacher, historian, educator, cultural critic and University administrator has illuminated much of Columbia’s 20th-century history. As a longtime New Yorker, from youth to vigorous old age, he has been very much the urban and urbane intellectual, and beyond that a scholar of national importance. In 2003, he was awarded the National Medal of Freedom. »
« Thomas Vinciguerra ’85 has been a chronicler of Columbia as a former managing editor of Columbia College Today and now as the curator of the unique Columbia tradition represented by the Philolexian Society, to which Barzun was a youthful contributor. He is deputy editor of the news magazine The Week and editor of Conversations with Elie Wiesel (Schocken, Random House, 2001), written with Richard D. Heffner ’46. »
Précisons encore que cet article est fait d’un extrait d’un livre à paraître : « …from the forthcoming book Living Legacies at Columbia, edited by Wm. Theodore de Bary ’41, Jerry Kisslinger ’79 and Tom Mathewson, to be available from Columbia University Press. »
By Thomas Vinciguerra, Columbia College Today, January 2006
On a rain-swept afternoon in November 1996, Jacques Barzun ’27 returned to the Columbia campus to say goodbye. He had first set foot on Morningside Heights as a freshman in 1923. Now, almost three-quarters of a century later, the legendary historian and University icon was decamping with his wife, Marguerite, to her home city of San Antonio. It was a singular occasion, almost as if Alma Mater herself were preparing to abandon her throne.
The farewell reception that greeted Barzun in the Faculty Room of Low Memorial Library was graced by colleagues, former students and myriad well-wishers. Some effusions were heartfelt. “You’ve been our inspiration and our role model,” said University Professor Emeritus Fritz Stern ’46. Other remarks were more jocose. “I wonder if Texas is ready for him,” said Kenneth Jackson, the holder of Barzun’s namesake chair in history. “I wonder if it’s big enough for him.”
For his part, Barzun responded with well-wrought self-deprecation. “I’m grateful that so many of you came on such a wretched day to hear so many comments made with such poetic license, and such disregard of the truth,” he said. Then, as the laughter died, he offered quiet reassurance. Nothing as trivial as mere physical distance from New York, Barzun promised, would stifle him or sever his connection with alma mater. “We are not,” he declared, “going into exile.”
Three years later, at 92, Barzun kept his word by publishing From Dawn to Decadence: 1500 to the Present, 500 Years of Cultural Life. Rarely in recent years has a scholarly volume resonated so broadly with a receptive public, reaching No. 5 on The New York Times best-seller list. Newsweek called it Barzun’s “masterwork” and predicted, “From Dawn to Decadence will go down in history as one of the great one-man shows of Western letters.” In The New Criterion, Roger Kimball called it “an exhilarating experience,” allaying the fears of those who might be intimidated by its nearly 900 pages: “As the end approaches, one finds oneself madly trying to prolong the experience and delay coming to the final page.”
It was only appropriate that in the twilight of his broad-ranging career, the former Seth Low Professor of History and University Professor had chosen to survey nothing less than half a millennium of Western civilization. For Barzun has been one of the last century’s premier chroniclers and critics of our modern world — a pioneering cultural historian whose broader métier is, as he once characterized it, deeply humanistic:
« The use of history is for the person. History is formative. Its spectacle of continuity in chaos, of attainment in the heart of disorder, of purpose in the world is what nothing else provides: science denies it, art only invents it. Reading history remakes the mind by feeding primitive pleasure in story, exercising thought and feeling, satisfying curiosity, and promoting the serenity of contemplation. It is a spiritual transformation. »
Barzun’s scholarly passions are vast and varied. He has given us sweeping overviews of entire eras and movements, keen appreciations of figures as diverse as Hazlitt and Shaw, penetrating ruminations on the beauties and difficulties of the English language and classic reflections on baseball and detective literature. As Arthur Krystal put it in The New Yorker, “Barzun is someone to whom experts turn for help in their fields.” Such is the sheer scope of his oeuvre that when, in 1956, Time devoted a major story to the intellectual in American life, it was Barzun’s visage that graced the magazine’s famous red-bordered cover. The Austin Chronicle felt similarly. In a profile coinciding with the release of From Dawn to Decadence, the newspaper’s headline read simply, “The Man Who Knew Too Much.”
The son of noted literary scholar Henri Martin Barzun, he was born in 1907 and grew up in Créteil, a suburb of Paris, where the household seemed custom-made for the life of the mind. “It was a seedbed of modernism,” he recalled. “I was surrounded by the young poets, painters, musicians and sculptors who made Cubism, concrete poetry, atonality and the rest. Varèse, Apollinaire, Ezra Pound, Léger, Gleizes, Severini, Villon, Duchamp, Duchamp-Villon, Marie Laurencin, Cocteau and many others were to me household names in the literal sense — names of familiar figures around the house.”
Barzun got his first taste of teaching at the Lycée Janson de Sailly when he was only 9. With instructors being siphoned off by World War I, the school applied the Lancaster system, whereby older students taught the younger ones. Outside of the classroom, Barzun ranged through the family library. One of his favorite subjects was the American West. When, following the war, he joined his father on what came to be a permanent diplomatic mission to the United States, he fully expected to “come here and see Indians galloping across the plains.”
It was not Indians but urban bustle that greeted him in New York. Barzun’s arrival at Columbia coincided with the economic boom of the 1920s and the University-building boom under Columbia’s towering president, Nicholas Murray Butler (Class of 1882). In the company of such future colleagues as Meyer Schapiro ’24, Lionel Trilling ’25, William York Tindall ’25 and Dwight Miner ’26, Barzun quickly made his mark on the vibrant campus. He was president of the Philolexian Society, drama critic of Spectator and author of the 1928 Varsity Show Zuleika, or the Sultan Insulted. Even then, his celebrated penchant for elegance was in evidence. Robert Schnitzer ’27, his compatriot in Philo and the Varsity Show, recalls him typing out his theater reviews for Spec while still dressed in black tie and opera gloves.
Academically, Columbia was in the throes of a golden age. John Dewey, John Erskine (Class of 1900), Mark Van Doren, Irwin Edman ’16 and Mortimer Adler ’23 were some of Barzun’s classroom influences. Perhaps the most important was historian Carlton J.H. Hayes (Class of 1904), who specialized in the study of nationalism. After graduating from the College as valedictorian, Barzun became Hayes’ research assistant and helped him revise his widely used two-volume textbook The Political and Social History of Modern Europe. For the second edition in 1934, the “Social History” of the title was replaced by “Cultural History,” and Barzun had entered upon his academic specialty.
But what, precisely, was this new and novel discipline? Edward Rothstein explained in The New York Times: “Cultural history creates a web of interrelationships. Understanding the past does not just mean, say, tracing a philosophical idea through time, but seeing how that idea is woven into a cultural fabric. And cultural history, as Mr. Barzun thinks of it, traces the evolution of that fabric through time. It creates a coherent view of the past and its relationship to the present. By showing continuities and transformations in a tradition, it makes sense of the idea of a civilization.”
As it happened, Barzun’s early attempts to make sense of civilization coincided with its near-destruction during the calamitous 1930s. His Ph.D. thesis, published as The French Race: Theories of Its Origins and Their Social and Political Implications Prior to the Revolution (1932), countered the notion, fiercely held by the old French nobility, that they were a special ethnic strain, the heirs to Germans who had conquered the Gauls and Romans. Instead, Barzun found that his countrymen had no particular claim to purity; they were — in his tart phrase — “a hopeless mixture of not only Romans, but Iberians, Syrians [and] Phoenicians.”
Five years later, with Race: A Study in Modern Superstition (1937), he broadened his purview to survey notions of the title subject during the 150 years since the Revolution. What he found was disturbing. “The race question,” he wrote, “appears a much bigger affair than a trumped-up excuse for local persecution. It becomes rather a mode of thought endemic in Western civilization. It defaces every type of mental activity — history, art, politics, science and social reform.” Thus, in Race and in subsequent works such as Of Human Freedom (1939), Barzun found himself grappling with philosophies that were then reaching their dark, perverted nadir in Nazi Germany. In Darwin, Marx, Wagner: Critique of a Heritage (1941), he further explored the “machine thinking” and pseudoscientific doctrines of the 19th century that helped undergird the fascist, communist and totalitarian movements of the 20th.
It was with Romanticism and the Modern Ego (1943) that Barzun found his most deeply held subject. The romantics, he argued, were not merely sentimental escapists who had turned their backs on 18th-century classicism. Rather, they were idealists and individualists, struggling to create a new world in the aftermath of Napoleon. He returned to the theme in his two-volume Berlioz and the Romantic Century (1950). More than a biography of the composer, it addressed timeless questions of aesthetics. In The Atlantic Monthly, Charles J. Rolo hailed Barzun’s “monumental scholarship” and declared that the study bore “the pervasive imprint of a deeply civilized mind.”
Barzun’s friend and student, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Carl Schorske ’36, echoes that opinion. “It brings into play the special nature of Jacques’ own character,” he observed. “His is a profoundly classical and cool temperament, and yet he has a deep affinity for the romantics. Theirs are views that he doesn’t necessarily agree with, but he applies his analytic cool to illustrate them splendidly.”
This concern with duality has informed Barzun’s other great fascination, William James. “Romanticism,” Barzun has written, “implies not only risk, effort, energy; it implies also creation, diversity and individual genius. This is why America is the land of romanticism par excellence, and why her greatest philosopher, William James, asserted the doctrine in its fullness against all absolute, classical limits.” James’ philosophy of pragmatism deeply influenced Barzun’s entire way of perceiving and interpreting the world around him. A Stroll With William James (1983) is Barzun’s tribute to his mentor — “a record of an intellectual debt.”
The Barzun canon hardly ends there. Pleasures of Music (1951), Music in American Life (1956), The Energies of Art (1956), Classic, Romantic, and Modern (1961), Science: The Glorious Entertainment (1964) and Clio and the Doctors (1974) are just a few of the more than 40 books he has written, edited or translated. Beyond his scholarly paper trail, however, Barzun has uniquely shaped Columbia as an institution. Nowhere is his academic imprint stamped more clearly than on the College’s general education curriculum.
Barzun was one of the minds behind “Humanities A,” now famously known as “Literature Humanities.” In 1937, when Lit Hum was launched, undergraduates already were being exposed to classics of Western literature and philosophy through “Contemporary Civilization” and the “General Honors” course. (The latter offering later became the “Colloquium,” which Barzun originally helped sponsor.) With Lit Hum, Barzun carried these “great books” efforts even further. He did more than help devise the course goals and syllabus; he won over graduate faculty who were loath to squander their time and expertise on mere undergrads.
Barzun’s powers of persuasion proved especially helpful when “Art Humanities” and “Music Humanities” were added to the College curriculum in 1938. Professor of Music Douglas Moore had argued, “We don’t want freshmen wiping their feet on Bach.” Barzun replied, “Doug, freshmen have been wiping their feet on Shakespeare for untold numbers of years.” Moore immediately withdrew his objection.
In time, of course, Columbia’s approach to general education would become a model for universities around the nation. In 1946, Barzun and Professor of English Harrison Ross Steeves (Class of 1903) reviewed the fledgling enterprise in A College Program in Action. Their evaluation remains as forceful a defense of the Core Curriculum as any ever written:
« The course rests on a series of related assumptions. First, that a college granting the Bachelor of Arts degree should not merely pave the way for professional training, but should try to produce educated men. Second, that if educated men are those who possess an inner life of sufficient richness to understand the slings and arrows of fortune, they must have learned to feed their souls upon good books, pictures, and music. Third, that the memorizing of labels, catchwords, and secondhand judgments about art and books is not educative in any real sense. And lastly, that to know and be at home with books a man must at some time or other read them for the first time. »
When, in 1994, to celebrate the 75th anniversary of Contemporary Civilization, the College Alumni Association awarded the Alexander Hamilton Medal to the tenured teachers of the Core, it was Barzun who accepted on their behalf.
And yet Barzun’s proudest contribution to the curriculum may have been his famed graduate seminar with Trilling. Conducted from 1946–72 and formally titled “Historical Bases of English Literature,” the course was an intellectual immersion at the hands of two of the University’s foremost humanists. Late Professor Emeritus of English Carolyn Heilbrun was among those who never forgot the Barzun-Trilling experience. Of a certain paper she had submitted, she later wrote:
« They discussed it as though my opinions and ideas mattered. Even more astonishing, they each annotated each paper, making comments in the margin, as no other paper I wrote in graduate school was ever marked, perhaps ever read. The respect they showed for us was invigorating, and full of the promise of what an academic life might afford. »
For Heilbrun, it was a rare oasis in an academic environment that she had found distinctly misogynistic.
The course eventually became as renowned as its teachers. “We began to get letters and questions from all over the place because word got around that it was a good preparation for candidates for the Ph.D.,” Barzun recalled modestly. Fred Friendly, later the director of the Journalism School’s Media and Society Seminars, even wanted to air the joint offering as an interactive course on CBS television.
Barzun’s other great curricular achievement was the seminar “Methods of research and writing in history.” Though it was required only of first-year graduate history students, it formed the basis of The Modern Researcher, now generally acknowledged as one of the indispensable guides for all writers of nonfiction. Written with Professor Emeritus of History Henry F. Graff, it recently entered its sixth edition.
Barzun has long been a member of Columbia’s pantheon of great teachers. He was, however, also a formidable, even overwhelming, figure to many of his charges. “I have known history students for the first time in their lives,” wrote Heilbrun, “to plagiarize a paper because they could not imagine themselves writing anything that would not affront his critical eye, let alone satisfy him.”
It’s not that Barzun cannot brook anything less than perfection. But he is wholly, even ruthlessly, exacting:
« I once had occasion to tell a group of graduate students that any of them would be lucky to achieve the fifth or sixth rank among historians. The remark was prompted by their dissatisfaction with all they knew: Gibbon was a bore, Macaulay a stuffed shirt, Hegel and Michelet were fools, Carlyle and Buckle frauds — this from students who could not write 10 pages of readable and properly documented narrative. Pointing out that even second- and third-rate men, such as Milman, Bancroft, or Grote, were the superiors of these students’ own instructors, who were by definition superior to the students themselves, was a sobering thought quite foreign to their experience. »
Eventually, his persona became almost legendary. Allen Ginsberg ’48 quipped that Barzun’s true forte was not history, but “politeness.” In the 1960s, when Columbia’s tiny Monarchist Union called for the return of the University to the British crown, it insisted that Barzun be appointed royal governor “since he’s the last aristocrat left.”
Eminent psychologist Kenneth Clarke, later a great admirer, was cowed by their first encounter. “Jacques Barzun, the person, fitted all too perfectly with Jacques Barzun, the name and the writer,” he wrote. “He looked like his name. He personified prestige, authority, and self-confidence. The severity of his standards and his unapologetic insistence upon excellence in academic pursuits dominated all aspects of his person.”
But Barzun’s many friends know that this Olympian demeanor is but the outward mark of the man. “He is a man of truly great kindness,” recalled noted conductor Richard Franko Goldman ’30 in The American Scholar, “going out of his way to advise, encourage and support a variety of people, and doing favors endlessly … Conversation with Jacques Barzun is indeed one of the delights of life. For it, one needs all of one’s resources, and one must stay honest. Jacques is an expert at puncturing pretension, and he never commits the misdemeanor of quoting himself. The fresh, free flow of ideas, comments, opinions, paradoxes, witticisms and questions brings cheer to the soul and encourages response.”
These qualities of spirit and mind characterize Barzun’s prose as well. “The style is rich and complex,” continued Goldman, “but it is always lucid and precise … Barzun is never ponderous in the style of scholarly journals; his tone never appears ‘earnest’; it is light, fast-moving and as serious as Mozart, who also appreciated comedy.” A fine example is this delightful reflection on our modern, materialistic times from God’s Country and Mine (1954):
« Many of us affect a tone of irony about gadgets, as if we lived always in realms above and dealt with trifles only during rare descents from sublime thoughts. The truth is that more and more of the important things in life turn on pinpoints. Our frustrations begin in trivialities — a telephone out of order, a car that will not start, a claim check whose number has been misread. The thing in cellophane that cannot be got at — plain to the sight but sealed like an egg — is the modern version of the torture of Tantalus. Catastrophes we will deal with like heroes, but the bottle top that defies us saps our morale, like the tiny arrows of the Lilliputians that maddened Gulliver and set his strength at naught. »
When Barzun described Diderot’s prose as “rapid, trenchant, sinewy,” he knew whereof he wrote.
For many years, Barzun was literary adviser to Charles Scribner’s Sons, and he has published several essential guides to writing, notably On Writing, Editing, and Publishing (1971), Simple & Direct (1975), and A Word or Two Before You Go… (1986), as well as revised editions of Follett’s Modern American Usage (1966, 1974). In an age when impenetrable academic jargonizing has become all too common, Barzun remains a purveyor and advocate of clear expression. Strunk, White, Fowler & Co. would undoubtedly have approved of this passage from Simple and Direct:
« The writer, consciously or not, writes for someone. He begins by being his own audience, in the sense of having to act toward himself like a demanding reader. His perpetual question is: Do these words, does this paragraph, does the entire piece, suit my present purpose? The purpose at large is always the same: it is to be understood aright. Reader and writer have both wasted their time if mental darkness is the only result of their separate efforts. »
From 1957 to 1967, at the request of University President Grayson Kirk, Barzun served as Columbia’s dean of faculties and provost. “It was clear,” he recently recalled, “that in the previous dozen years, certain deans and heads of departments had become quasi-independent powers.” As Barzun saw it, his job was “to recapture the University from past neglect and the several ‘warlords.’” Among many other things, that meant centralizing the budget process, redirecting many school-oriented donations to the University and establishing uniform rules for such matters as sabbaticals and promotions. To smooth over bruised egos, Barzun held a series of dinner meetings with members of the relevant departments. “Academic persons en masse think and act like any group of employees or protesters on the street,” he noted wryly. “They believe in wild rumors and attribute sinister motives. But when talked to individually or in small groups, they are as reasonable as one could wish.”
As with his scholarship, Barzun cast a wide administrative net. His innovations are too many to enumerate, but among the best were establishing the University’s Office of Art Properties and The Columbia Forum, an all too short-lived journal of academic and intellectual topics by members of the University community. What he called his “most revolutionary deed,” however, was redesigning Columbia’s academic robes, recasting them in their present familiar slate-gray, complete with twin Columbia crowns at chest level. The old black bombazine, he explained, “made our two-hour outdoor commencement under a hot sun an annual ordeal.”
Barzun’s experience in Low Library cemented his authority as a surveyor of the American educational landscape. In books like Teacher in America (1945), The American University: How It Runs, Where It Is Going (1968), and Begin Here: The Forgotten Conditions of Teaching and Learning (1991), he has inveighed against lapsed standards, the inflation of pedagogic goals and rhetoric, innovation to no end and, in his memorable phrase, “the educational nonsense.” For millions of parents who wonder why Johnny still can’t read, Barzun has many answers, most of which can be traced to the abandonment of first principles. “Schools are not intended to moralize a wicked world,” he has written, “but to impart knowledge and develop intelligence, with only two social aims in mind: prepare to take on one’s share in the world’s work and, perhaps in addition, lend a hand in improving society, after schooling is done. Anything else is the nonsense we have been living with.”
The nonsense, Barzun has found, flourishes not only at the primary and secondary levels, but in education’s upper echelons. While defending the idea of the modern university as “a great engine of public service,” he is ever mindful of its postwar tendency to lose sight of its main goal — scholarship — amid the encroachment of bureaucracy from within and government from without. Barzun has long cautioned against commodified learning, equating advanced degrees with credentials, and regarding the university as just another business. “The best colleges today,” he said in 1963, “are being invaded, not to say dispossessed, by the advance agents of the professions, by men who want to seize upon the young recruit … and train him in a ‘tangible skill.’ ”
But Barzun is not content to simply curse the darkness. He is a tireless supporter of the liberal arts and of the notion that the pursuit of truth may literally set one free. His defense of the study of Western culture — at a time when frivolity and what he calls “the gangrene of specialism” threaten to consume college classrooms — is unapologetic, vigorous and affirmative, as he wrote in “Of What Use the Classics Today?” in 1987:
« The need for a body of common knowledge and common reference does not disappear when a society is pluralistic. On the contrary, it grows more necessary, so that people of different origins and occupation may quickly find familiar ground and as we say, speak a common language. It not only saves time and embarrassment, but it also ensures a kind of mutual confidence and goodwill. One is not addressing an alien, as blank as a stone wall, but a responsive creature whose mind is filled with the same images, memories, and vocabulary as oneself. Otherwise, with the unstoppable march of specialization, the individual mind is doomed to solitude and the individual heart to drying up. »
Yet even as he has argued for a shared cultural heritage, Barzun has been aware of the forces conspiring against it. In The House of Intellect (1959), he regrets the erosion of “concentration, continuity, articulate precision, and self-awareness” — all conditions necessary for intellectual life to flourish. The result, he notes acerbically, is “the rapid lowering of the logical pulse.” The Use and Abuse of Art (1974) and The Culture We Deserve (1989) remain particularly pungent assessments of artistic, aesthetic and moral degradation.
Indeed, the very title of From Dawn to Decadence makes clear Barzun’s take on the present state of culture in general. “What we are witnessing in all the arts and in all that the arts refer to,” he writes, “is the liquidation of 500 years of civilization — the entire modern age dating from the Renaissance.” As his biographer Michael Murray put it, “He sees as tokens of decay the decline of manners and of conversation; the neglect by institutions of their original purpose or their inability to continue to fulfill it; the turning of debate into a classifying of motives rather than a meeting of arguments; and the all-encompassing shift from the democratic to the demotic.”
Barzun’s critics are quick to insist that things aren’t nearly as bad as he would have us believe — that naysayers have been heralding the decline of the West ever since Oswald Spengler. Some have also written him off as a conservative ideologue or oversimplified his beliefs — claiming, for instance, that he thinks that the decline of jackets and ties as everyday wear necessarily portends the onset of a new Dark Ages.
These detractors might want to consider that Barzun himself believes that chaos, be it in life or art, brings with it the possibility of redemption. “In the past,” he told the Independent Women’s Forum in 2000, “decadence of this sort has come to an end often because of a sudden twist in the course of events. The 15th century decadence was reversed, you might say, by the discovery of America, which opened up all sorts of possibilities and turned peoples’ minds away from what they felt were hopeless ways of life.” Barzun refuses to guess what might supplant the current decadence (“I’m an historian, not a prophet”), but he has an abiding faith in humanity’s talent for muddling through: “I have always been — I think any student of history almost inevitably is — a cheerful pessimist.”
Today, as he nears his century mark, Jacques Barzun resides quietly in San Antonio, where he visits the local theater and orchestra, keeps in touch with friends and colleagues and stays busy working on what he mysteriously calls “a very short book about aspects of contemporary culture.” A chevalier of the Legion of Honor and the recipient of the Gold Medal for Criticism of the American Academy of Arts and Letters — of which he was twice president — he continues to accrue accolades. In 2003, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. “Few academics of the last century,” said President George W. Bush at the White House ceremony, “have equaled his output and his influence.”
No doubt Barzun would be embarrassed to have this essay conclude merely with a catalogue of his laurels. These remarks, from a 2002 interview with The American Educator, might stand as a more appropriate coda. In the present context of a nation in conflict with itself and indeed with much of the globe, they reflect the enduring value of Clio in a way that only one of that Muse’s masters can express:
« The student who reads history will unconsciously develop what is the highest value of history: judgment in world affairs. This is a permanent good, not because history repeats — we can never exactly match past and present situations — but because the “tendency of things” shows an amazing uniformity within any given civilization. The great historian Jacob Burckhardt said of historical knowledge, it is not “to make us more clever the next time, but wiser for all time.”
» Plus, a person endowed with the knowledge of history reacts a good deal more serenely and temperately to the things that he encounters both in his own life and in the life of the country in which he lives. Besides which, history is a story — full of color and dramatic events and persons, of triumphs and dreadful actions, which must be known in order to form a true notion of humankind. »
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