Although he was a frequent subject of reviews, reconsiderations, and other commen-tary in The New Criterion, the celebrated writer and scholar Jacques Barzun, who died in October at 104, contributed only one essay to our pages. It was a review of Hector Berlioz’s opera Les Troyens at the Metropolitan Opera. That was in 1984, our second season, and Barzun had already been a grand old man of American letters for some years.
Born in France in 1907, Barzun had been a presence on the American intellectual and academic scene since the 1950s. From his perch at Columbia University, where he collaborated with the critic Lionel Trilling on a humanities course that deeply influenced a generation of students, Barzun (like Trilling) was part of the intellectual conscience of his age. He was a public intellectual before that role had been hollowed out by celebrity and the demotic faddishness of the 1960s. His scholarly work in subjects like French poetry consistently won plaudits. Writing in these pages in 1991 about Barzun’s Essay on French Verse, the poet William Jay Smith noted that although “there have been other treatises on French versification for the English reader . . . none has been so thorough, so well reasoned, so free of academic jargon, and so available as this one.” “It is amazing,” Smith went on, “that Professor Barzun, now in his eighties, should have produced so youthful and vigorous a book, an objective study that is at the same time so personal a document.”
That sense of amazement regularly greeted Barzun’s work in the last decades of his life. He was the author of more than thirty books, and his magnum opus, From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Cultural Life, 1500 to the Present, wasn’t published until 2000, when Barzun was ninety-three.
Not that Barzun was a late bloomer. Far from it. His early best-sellers—books like Darwin, Marx, Wagner (1941), Teacher in America (1945), and The House of Intellect (1959)—were part of an intellectual conversation that bridged the gap between academic and general culture in a way that fewer and fewer writers seem to manage. Barzun was an ornament to the faculty of Columbia University, a scholar and pedagogue of rare authority, but he was also a man who spoke, if not to the masses, exactly, then at least to a public—back then, it was a large public—of citizens who cared about the shape and direction of American culture. In 1956, when Time magazine ran a piece about the role of intellectuals in American cultural life, it was the French-born Jacques Barzun whom the editors chose for their cover.
Barzun was an academic expert who spoke the language of everyday life. He wrote beautifully, always with a premium on clarity and understated elegance, and turned out several books on the craft of writing and editing. (Young people who think they want to be writers, he wisely observed in one of these books, should ponder carefully the question of whether they really want to write or whether they merely want to have written: it is an important, if often unheeded, distinction.) William James (“the most inclusive mind I can listen to”) was Barzun’s favorite philosopher, Berlioz his favorite composer. He helped introduce America audiences to the robust work of the English essayist Walter Bagehot through his introduction to Bagehot’s late masterpiece Physics and Politics. Above all, perhaps, Barzun was a bellwether in what have come to be called “the culture wars.” Already in The House of Intellect, Barzun anatomized that species of intellectual antinomianism, then in its infancy, which substituted terms like “transgressive” and “challenging” for mastery. It was, Barzun wrote, little more than “directionless quibble.”
Although deeply immersed in intellectual matters himself, Barzun seems never to have succumbed to the intellectual’s chief occupational temptation of mistaking abstractions for the realities they adumbrate. This resistance had stylistic as well as substantive consequences. Barzun once noted, “Intellect watches particularly over language because language is so far the only device for keeping ideas clear and emotions memorable.” Accordingly, his own success in these salutary endeavors was due partly to responsible prose: clear, unpretentious, always favoring the homely concrete word over the fancy bit of fashionable jargon. His success has also been due to his ability to grasp what was really at stake in the intellectual and artistic currents he charted. In Barzun’s hands, intellectual history was less an academic than an existential pursuit; reading him, you understand that curiosity about the past is at the same time a species of self-interrogation. The questions with which intellectual history confronts us can be parsed as elements of that large, perennial question, “How should I live my life?”
It would be difficult to overstate the continued pertinence of Barzun’s work to our own time. Barzun showed how the symptoms of decadence can be understood as resulting from the hypertrophy of those very traits that defined the West: primitivism, emancipation, self-consciousness, individualism, and so on. What appear as motors for cultural development can, when pursued ruthlessly and without regard to other virtues, degenerate into engines of decadence and decline. Towards the end of From Dawn to Decadence, Barzun showed how decadence had triumphed in various facets of modern life. There is, first of all, the spiritual paralysis that results from willing contradictory things. These days, Barzun observed, “any doctrine or program that claims the merit of going against common sense has presumption in its favor.” Western nations spend billions on public schooling for all, urged along by the
public cry for Excellence. At the same time the society pounces on any show of superiority as elitism. The same nations deplore violence and sexual promiscuity among the young, but pornography and violence in films and books, shops and clubs, on television and the Internet, and in the lyrics of pop music cannot be suppressed, in the interests of “the free market of ideas.”
The confusion generated by such contradictions attends every aspect of cultural endeavor. In the arts, it leads to the rise of anti-art, embodied by the nihilistic pranks of Marcel Duchamp. When the composer Pierre Boulez said that he was bent on “destroying everything,” he merely gave voice to a current of feeling that has animated a great deal of “advanced” art since Rimbaud articulated the doctrine of the “dérèglement de tous les sens” in the nineteenth century.
The transformation of art into anti-art could not have succeeded on its own. It required the collusion of institutions that certify artistic achievement as well as the audience whose interest ultimately sustains it. Barzun was right that “When people accept futility and the absurd as normal, the culture is decadent.” But futility and absurdity only seem normal to a damaged sensibility. That damage has been wrought by a progressive loss of resistance to humbug. One then becomes susceptible to all manner of cultural viruses. This lowered resistance has affected critics, teachers, and connoisseurs; it has led to a situation in which scholarship is “the pretentious garbed in the unintelligible.” It has also affected the public at large, whose healthy rejection of absurdity one used to be able to count on. No more. As Barzun observed, “One notable death that occurred in the Great War has gone unsung, indeed unrecorded: the death of the philistine.”
By 1920, any that survived had been miraculously transformed, not into esthetes
but into trimmers and cowards. To this new breed anything offered as art merited automatic respect and grave scrutiny. If a new work or style was not easy to like, if it was painful to behold, revolting, even, it was nonetheless “interesting.” Half a century later unless the reviewer finds it “unsettling,” “disturbing,” “cruel,” “perverse,” it is written off as “academic,” not merely uninteresting but contemptible.
The stolid bourgeois used to aid culture by resisting it; by the late twentieth century, he had been transformed into a “docile consumer” for whom the avant-garde achieves “the status of a holy synod.”
Of course, it is not only in the realm of culture that confusion reigns. The realms of social relations and politics are equally beset. One result is what Barzun refers to as the “Great Switch,” “the reversal of Liberalism into its opposite.” If Liberalism originally “triumphed on the principle that the best government is that which governs least,” today “for all the western nations political wisdom has recast the ideal of liberty into liberality.” The universalization and extension of the welfare state has nurtured a culture of entitlement. What began in an access of largesse ends in an explosion of regulation and hectoring scrutiny. Motives that had once encouraged unity and social comity—emancipation, self-consciousness—now act as centrifugal forces: forces of decadence. By the late twentieth century, Barzun noted, “the ideal of Pluralism had disintegrated and Separatism took its place.” Here at the dawn of the twenty-first century, we see that impulse toward retribalization all around us, from college campuses to the disgruntled parliaments of Europe.
Although the picture Barzun painted in From Dawn to Decadence is one of cultural desolation, he nevertheless managed to end on a note of cautious optimism. Even if present trends continue and society becomes more routinized and culturally sterile, human ingenuity can surely be counted upon to precipitate a rebellion against the spread of bureaucratized futility. Sooner or later, some few intrepid souls will turn with new curiosity to the neglected past and use it “to create a new present,” discovering along the way “what a joy it is to be alive.” The forces of decadence that Barzun describes are formidably potent. But decadence is no more inevitable than progress. Myopia is perennial, despair a temptation to be resisted. One never knows what reparations await the touch of fresh energies. Eugène Delacroix put it well: “Those very ones who believe that everything has been said and done, will greet you as new and yet will close the door behind you. And then they will say again that everything has been done and said.” Besides, as Barzun’s friend Jeffrey Hart noted in these pages in an essay celebrating Barzun’s one-hundredth birthday, the very presence of Jacques Barzun among us is “grounds for hope.” “No period,” as Hart noted, “is entirely decadent in which such a man could appear.” RIP.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 31 Number 4, on page 1
Copyright © 2021 The New Criterion | www.newcriterion.com