Being a living legend can be a mixed blessing. Gradually the legend takes over from the living dimension, and tributes are paid in a mechanical sort of way, as if merely living an exceptionally long time were an achievement. Jacques Barzun, not far off his 103rd birthday, professor, polymath, educationalist, cultural historian, supreme exponent of the essay, would be horrified at the idea that he had merely achieved a niche as one of the world’s oldest living thinkers. Very early on in life he set himself the aim of fighting the mechanical – not physically smashing machines, which he writes about entertainingly and appreciatively, but countering the prevalence of mechanical thinking.
Barzun’s very early life-story is extraordinary and bears retelling. He grew up before the first world war in an artistic and avant-garde milieu in Paris. The poet Apollinaire and several of the cubist painters were friends and frequent guests of his parents. The war fell on this world, and on young Barzun, with terrible destructive force. High-spirited artistic adventure was replaced by carnage. By the age of 10, Barzun was suffering from the symptoms of depression. He was sent with some books to the seaside to recuperate.
What saved him was Hamlet – a play about another young man thrust into a world of darkness, violence and deceit, and able to use his intellect to battle, with great resourcefulness of mind and spirit, against the surrounding corruption.
Over time Barzun has played many parts. Most nowadays probably know him in his most recent incarnation as a pessimistic cultural critic, and find it easy to pigeon-hole him as an old-fashioned conservative and, in that word he called silly, elitist. But Barzun has never been a reactionary, certainly not in the field of aesthetics. His aesthetic judgments have always been notable for their subtlety, and he has shown particular sympathy for the experimental artists of the early 20th century with whom he grew up.
Neither was the early Barzun a political reactionary. In 1937 he issued the brave and timely book Race: A Study in Modern Superstition; two years later in Of Human Freedom he argued with force and prescience that “the habit of race-thinking has gangrened our minds, played havoc with our culture, and made us ready for the familiar acts of indiscriminate cruelty”. These words did not stop the Nazi executioners or their successors in Rwanda or Bosnia, but they still stand as a warning, not just against genocide but against the cosy assumptions of ethnicity.
If racism is one modern superstition, so too, Barzun argued more controversially, is scientism. Science he defines as “the body of rules, instruments, theorems, observations, and conceptions with the aid of which man manipulates physical nature in order to grasp its workings”. As such it has very little to do with the often contradictory set of myths and beliefs about the power of science to extend life, bring about a utopia of peace and plenty, or to lead mankind to destruction, which Barzun calls scientism.
An equally important confusion leads contemporary policymakers to overvalue what Pascal called the esprit de géometrie above the esprit de finesse. The former deals in the numerical and the quantifiable, while the latter is concerned with the living, changing human world, and can be discussed only using fallible but necessary words.
Barzun has always believed in clarity and directness of expression (one of his works is a style manual called Simple and Direct), but that is not because he is a simplistic thinker. The truth is the opposite; it is just because he knows how hard thinking is, how it “leaves the thinker dizzy as well as doubtful”, how “he does not know what he thinks until he has thought it, or better, written it and riddled it with a persistence akin to obsession”, that Barzun prizes clear expression so highly.
For all his achievements, I believe Barzun will be known to posterity primarily as an essayist in the tradition of Montaigne, that is the tradition of the writer who trusts in the power of the informed mind to assay its own depths and keep the ark of humanity afloat. Barzun is no friend of methods, systems or ideologies (“idea-machine[s], designed to spare the buyer all further thought”). He is illuminating when writing about his enthusiasms, writers, thinkers, artists and musicians, from William James to Berlioz and Varèse, whom he has studied and whose company he has enjoyed for decades.
Barzun may be known for his sartorial style and old-fashioned French politesse, but he is ultimately a moral writer. As he puts it, magnificently and movingly, in the essay “Towards a Fateful Serenity”, “the faith that inspires social duty is the honour of being a man, of being a man of honour”. Honour for Barzun means recognising the immense debt each of us owes to so many others, both dead and living, which can only be discharged by living for those others.
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