Jacques Barzun, 1907-2012


“Full of years.” I
am not sure I know of anyone who better qualified for that Biblical epithet
than Jacques Barzun, who died last week at the magnificent age of 104.  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 than 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 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 30 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 93.

William James and
Hector Berlioz

Not that Barzun was
a late bloomer.  Far from it. His early
best-sellers–books like Darwin, Marx, Freud (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. Barzun was an
ornament on 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 of 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 they 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 want to write or to have written.)  William James (“the most inclusive mind I can
listen to”) was Barzun’s favorite philosopher, 
Hector 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
in recent years 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

Intellect Watches

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 has had stylistic as well as
substantive consequences. Barzun once noted that “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 has been 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
is 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?”

From Dawn to Decadence, Barzun’s overview
of the last five-hundred years of Western cultural history, is a magnificent
summa of his concerns as a thinker and historian. It synthesizes as well as
summarizes a long lifetime’s reflection about the fate of those distinctive
energies that define Western culture: “the great achievements and the sorry
failures of our half millennium.” The first thing to be said about From Dawn to
Decadence (and I draw here on some of my earlier writings about Barzun) is that
reading it is an exhilarating experience. I mention this partly to reassure
those intimidated by the book’s length, partly to mollify those put off by its
admonitory title. At nearly nine-hundred closely printed pages, From Dawn to
Decadence certainly is long, but it is also a rich tapestry of a book–the
product, Barzun remarks, of accidents like “insomnia and longevity,” as well as
of immense scholarship. Despite the book’s intimidating girth, I suspect that
many readers will, like me, come to feel about it the way one feels about
certain long novels. For the first hundred pages or so, a mixture of wariness
and anticipation predominates: will the book really repay the time and effort
it demands? These feelings give way, as one settles into the story, to eager
excitement. Finally, as the end approaches, one finds oneself madly trying to
prolong the experience and delay coming to the final page.

A Work of
Historical Investigation

As for the title:
while it accurately describes the book’s trajectory–from the dawn of the
Renaissance to the decadence of our own time–Barzun was justified in claiming
that “the lively and positive predominate.” From
Dawn to Decadence
is not a work of lamentation but of historical
investigation: I almost said “historical adventure.”  Barzun does not hesitate to pass judgment on
the failures, present as well as past, that he chronicles. He is convinced that
our age, despite its extraordinary technological capabilities, is an
Alexandrian age: a time of cultural sunset, depleted energies, moral confusion.
But the tenor of his discussion is one of inexhaustible curiosity. His message
is sobering but his tone is exuberant. Like the best travel writers, he manages
to combine the authority of first-hand knowledge with the delight of discovery.
Indeed, one of the most remarkable things about this remarkable book is the
sense of freshness that Barzun brings to what inevitably is well-trodden

One of things that
distinguished From Dawn to Decadence
from myriad other cultural histories of the West is its structure. Barzun
clearly expended a great deal of thought on the organization of the book. The
result is an intricate verbal architecture with many interconnecting passages,
points of entry, exhibition hallways, and impressive vistas. There is even a
folly or two. On the most pedestrian level, Barzun divided his story into four
large historical segments. The first segment takes us from Luther’s Protestant revolution
to Newton– from the early sixteenth century to the end of the seventeenth
century. Part two opens with the ascent of Louis XIV and the rise of the nation
state; it ends with the Enlightenment and the French Revolution (fittingly
symbolized by its chief tool of emancipation, the guillotine). Part three,
which opens with a section called “The Work of Mind-and-Heart,” details the
Romantic reaction–that is to say, the Romantic reactions, for they were many
and disparate–to Enlightenment rationalism. Here Barzun takes his story from
the time of Goethe and Wordsworth to the pre-World-War-I period he calls the
Cubist Decade. Part four of From Dawn to
brings the story up to the moment: the titles of the book’s last
two sections indicate the tenor of the assessment: “Embracing the Absurd” and
“Demotic Life and Times.”

The Accidental

As in some of his
other books, in From Dawn to Decadence
Barzun shuttled deftly between religion, philosophy, literature, music,
political intrigue, and the development of scientific rationalism and modern
technology. He is as interested in Petrarch’s role in the rise of humanism as
in the historical accidents that led to Madrid’s becoming a capital city in the
sixteenth century (Charles V hoped that the air of the tiny village, which
newcomers disparaged as “nine months of winter, three of hell,” might be good
for his health). He wove his story partly around a handful of recurrent themes:
primitivism, individualism, emancipation (“the modern theme par excellence”),
self-consciousness, specialization, abstraction, analysis, and scientism (“the
fallacy of believing that the method of science must be used on all forms of
experience and, given time, will settle every issue”). These are the leitmotifs
that–expressed in different registers and with varying degrees of emphasis–have
provided intellectual fuel for the development of modern Western culture.

Barzun employed
several devices to impart texture and complexity to his narrative. He
punctuated his text with parenthetical page references that point the reader to
a later or earlier section of the book where the theme under discussion is
continued or anticipated. He included six “cross sections”–“The View from
Madrid Around 1540,” “The View from Venice Around 1650,” etc.–in which he focuses
not so much on the city in question (London in 1715, Weimar in 1790, Paris in
1830, Chicago in 1895) as the view from the city. These more or less
free-standing essays allowed him to summarize, recap, digress: “to survey
events and ideas of mixed kinds as they might be noted or heard about by an
alert observer at a given time and place.” Barzun also included a kind of
running bibliography.

A Master of

Many of his discussions conclude with a
parenthetical recommendation: “The book to browse in is … ,” “The essay to read
is …” Many of these recommendations have what might be described as a vintage
flavor. They tend to be classics– personal favorites, one suspects–rather than
the latest scholarship. If this procedure occasionally imparts a kind of period
feel to the discussion, it also deepens the book’s humanity. What Barzun
offered was less a trip through the literature than the refraction of history
through a particular, highly cultivated sensibility. Discussing the
vicissitudes of travel in the sixteenth century, for example, he points readers
not to the latest university press production but confidently says that “the
travel book to read is Montaigne’s Diary of 1580-81.” Likewise, when discussing
Bath around 1830, he says that “the description to read is that in chapter XXXV
of Dickens’s Pickwick Papers.”

Barzun was a master
of digression. One sign of his mastery was his knack of making digression serve
the progression of his larger argument. Several times in the course of his
discussion he paused to offer readers a digression on a particular word– on “esprit,”
for example, or “romantic,” or “man.” (Bucking contemporary feminist orthodoxy,
he continued to use “man” to refer to all of humanity–primarily, he tells us,
for four reasons: “etymology, convenience, the unsuspected incompleteness of
‘man and woman,’ and literary tradition.” He has convincing things to say about
all four.) Although plenty interesting in themselves, these linguistic detours
also served his larger purpose. Thus his meditation on esprit (together with
“genius” and “Geist”) occurs in the context of his discussion of Pascal’s
famous distinction between l’esprit de g


One thought on “Jacques Barzun, 1907-2012”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *