Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1385
SOURCE: “The Pragmatist,” in New Republic, May 9, 1983, pp. 32-4.
[In the following review of A Stroll with William James, Rorty discusses contradictions in James's philosophical positions and Barzun's inability to reconcile such fundamental oppositions.]
Everybody who reads William James's letters falls in love with the man....
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SOURCE: “The Pragmatist,” in New Republic, May 9, 1983, pp. 32-4.
[In the following review of A Stroll with William James, Rorty discusses contradictions in James's philosophical positions and Barzun's inability to reconcile such fundamental oppositions.]
Everybody who reads William James's letters falls in love with the man. He seems the companion nobody ever had: the one who never gets depressed or angry or bored, is always honest and open, always thinks you interesting. Somehow James, in his early thirties, managed to shuck off all his neuroses, all those fantasies that lead the rest of us to distort and manipulate other people for our own self-protection. After frightening bouts of melancholia during his twenties, accompanied by an inability to harness his own energies, suddenly he changes into Whitehead's “adorable genius”—fluent, focused, and indefatigable. Barzun once asked Whitehead what he had meant by that much-quoted phrase. Whitehead replied, “Greatness with simplicity; I mean by greatness the absence of smallness in any respect.” This sort of greatness brought its reward. James seems to have spent the rest of his life, as Barzun says, “among a perfect galaxy of long, unbroken friendships.” Even his marriage was happy; even his children liked him. His letter to his dying father is the one everyone wishes he or she had had, or will have, the charity and the courage to write. The lifelong pleasure he and his brother Henry took in one another (pace Leon Edel) seems little short of a miracle.
Sheer envy of such a life has helped make frequent the sneer, cited by Barzun, that James “was greater as a man than as a philosopher.” Barzun argues [in A Stroll with William James] that he was about as great as a philosopher gets. What Barzun likes best is James's “radical empiricism”—the insistence, which runs from The Principles of Psychology through Varieties of Religious Experience, that experience reveals more than natural science knows. For Barzun, James's great virtue is his resistance to “reductionism”—the claim, common to T.H. Huxley in James's day and to B.F. Skinner in ours, that everything ought to be made as “scientific” as possible. Barzun rightly says that such attempts dehumanize and distort science along with everything else. He places James, very helpfully, against the background of the various movements of the 1890s that spoke for art against science, for “life” against mechanism. He associates James with Nietzsche and Shaw as well as with Bergson and Whitehead. He thinks that much that has happened since James's day has reinforced James's attempt to put science in its place, to resist what Whitehead called “the fallacy of misplaced concreteness.” This is the fallacy of thinking that the vocabulary of the natural sciences is somehow in closer touch with reality than the vocabulary of poetry, mystical theology, or common sense.
The trouble with this defense of James, however, is that it is ambiguous between two philosophical positions, just as James's own writings were ambiguous. The first position says that the whole notion of “being in touch with reality” is silly. Truth is not “correspondence with reality,” it is simply the property of beliefs that work. The virtue of a vocabulary is not its ability to represent reality accurately, but rather its ability to get us what we want. This is the position James called “pragmatism.” The second position—“radical empiricism”—says that some vocabularies are deeper, truer to “experience” than others, and that the vocabulary of the physical sciences is a lot less deep than some others. James said that pragmatism and radical empiricism were independent theses, but he did not see that they point in opposite directions. The reason James's reputation as a philosopher has suffered is not, as Barzun says, the persistence of “the Idealist tradition.” Rather it is that, as the century has worn on, philosophical opposition to scientism has taken the form of opposition to any form of metaphysics—physicalistic, vitalist, idealist, or whatever. The radical empiricist side of James, the line of thought he shared with Bergson and Whitehead, began to look less attractive, because it seemed a futile attempt to beat science at its own game, to find a way of speaking that more accurately represented how things were than did physics. For Heidegger, for example, scientism came to seem merely one variant of the true enemy, which was the metaphysical urge itself. Process philosophy seemed merely scientism turned on its head. From another angle, Wittgenstein challenged the idea that there was anything called “experience” to express—anything that mediated between our vocabularies and the referents of those vocabularies. For the later Wittgenstein, equations and emotional states are equally concrete or equally abstract, and so the concrete-abstract distinction loses its point.
The pragmatist side of James can be quoted in support of this Wittgensteinian view, but the radical empiricist side is full of Bergsonian nostalgia for the rich, whooshy, sensuous flux we bathed in before conceptual thought started to dry us out. If one wants to defend James as a philosopher, one has either to rehabilitate the metaphysical urge—the urge to get in direct contact with something called “reality” or “experience”—or else drop the radical empiricism and stick to the pragmatism. Barzun gives a sympathetic account of James's pragmatism—defending it yet again against the hackneyed charge that it is an apology for American hucksterism—but he does not see how deeply it cuts. He still takes seriously the sort of philosophical problem pragmatism is supposed to dissolve, as when he says that “the mystery remains why concepts and their equations happen to fit observed relations among things.” This remains a mystery only on a correspondence theory of truth.
James wanted to defend his father's right to be a Swedenborgian as on all fours with Huxley's right to be an agnostic, but his treatment of religion is as ambiguous as the rest of his thought. Sometimes, as in certain parts of “The Will to Believe” (an essay that is not really as “simple, straightforward and carefully qualified” as Barzun says it is), he claims that belief in God is a live and forced option. Elsewhere he suggests that belief in God cashes out as the adoption of a certain moral attitude (e.g., willingness to take “moral holidays”). Sometimes, as Barzun says, he seems to sidestep the need for fideism by appealing to “the perfectly natural experience of ‘spirit,’” where “spirit” describes “a quality perceived as other than physical or strictly intellectual.” At other times he eschews appeals to “perceived qualities of experience” and treats the physical-spiritual distinction as a misleadingly metaphysical way of expressing a difference between styles of life. Philosophers who try to teach “The Will to Believe” together with Pragmatism are always asked by their students to resolve these ambiguities, but there is no easy way to do so. When James is disparaged as a philosopher, it is mostly by philosophers who have realized that he can be quoted to excellent effect on both sides of many of the issues he discusses.
There are, however, philosophical virtues other than consistency and argumentative rigor. Neither Nietzsche nor James were strong in either respect, but they were the most original philosophers of their time, and the ones of whom we can still make the most use. Of the two, James was the less obsessive and the more generous, Nietzsche the more powerful and more resentful. Neither could quite make up his mind whether to offer a new metaphysics or to abjure metaphysics, but such waffling does not greatly matter. Between the two of them, they sketched out the possibility of a freer, more romantic, more playful, form of philosophical life—a possibility that our century is still exploring.
Barzun's book is, as its title suggests, an appreciation rather than a biography, a philosophical analysis, or a commentary. Sometimes, when Barzun finds just the right turn of phrase to express James's attitude on a certain issue, it is splendidly illuminating. At other times, when Barzun turns away from James to take pot shots at contemporary intellectual fashions that he despises, it loses focus. But Barzun is the sort of person James liked to stroll with. Of the dozens of books about him that have appeared in the last seventy years, James might have liked this one the best.
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SOURCE: “Home-grown, Full-bodied Philosophy,” in Commonweal, October 7, 1983, pp. 541-2.
[In the following review of A Stroll with William James, Kellogg concludes that Barzun's enthusiasm and erudition inspires renewed respect for James, though Barzun's “wide-ranging” digressions cause his book to lack focus.]
“American philosopher,” like “English wine,” is close to a contradiction in terms. Despite the label, one expects little more than a watered-down import. All the more reason, then, to cherish those few products, like the philosophical writings of William James, that are both home-grown and full-bodied. Unfortunately, James, who died in 1910, is still known largely for his pioneering work in psychology. His philosophical writings, despite their range, subtlety, and concreteness, are little read, even by academics.
This neglect is due in part to the unfortunate label with which he saddled his thought. “Pragmatism” seems to imply in the crudest sense that what works is good and true. As Professor Barzun puts it [in A Stroll with William James] “James and Pragmatism have been branded as typically American, a mind and a doctrine to be expected from a nation of hucksters.”
A deeper reason for the oversight, however, lies precisely in James's virtue of concreteness. He had an artist's love for the jumbled details of life and refused to take refuge in generalities that would “house and hide the chaos.” As a consequence, he left no set of easily digestible doctrines upon which students and scholars alike could feast. In fact, his most persistent theme is the need to resist the tyranny of abstract thought.
Such a refrain may sound curious when intoned by a philosopher. Abstractions, senseless or not, are his stock in trade and, as the saying goes, “It's a poor carpenter who criticizes his tools.” But James's point is simply that, as we move from one level of generality to a higher one, we must ensure that no details crucial to the point at hand are left behind. Abstractions are not eschewed, merely refined and used with care. Hence, James's writings overflow with illustrations and qualifying examples. What he says of The Principles of Psychology could be applied to any of his works: “There is no closed system in this book.” James is open to all that experience has to teach us.
This concreteness makes James a delight to read, but difficult to teach. Hence the neglect. Students read what professors assign. Professors assign what they can summarize and impart in a lecture. James is simply too untidy to be packaged so. (I fear my own experience is indicative. In six years of a steady and eclectic diet of philosophy courses at two universities, nothing by William James was ever assigned reading.)
Jacques Barzun's new book may go some way toward curbing this waste. Through half a century of reading and meditating upon James, his enthusiasm for the nuances and refinements is undiminished. More important, he has the gift of imparting that enthusiasm. Professor Barzun makes one burn to read William James.
The book is aptly titled. There is no hint of the scholar's forced march or the biographer's field trip. We are introduced to James as to an intimate friend of the author's, and the conversation is lively and wide-ranging. Too wide-ranging, perhaps. In keeping with the stroll motif, Barzun loves to wander off, applying Jamesian ideas and insights to contemporary issues. He decries the lack of concreteness in modern discourse and the prevalence of colorless psycho-biographies. He discusses the death penalty, current research on the inheritance of acquired characteristics (a neo-Lamarckian doctrine to which James, Freud, and Nietzsche subscribed), and the deplorable state of our schools.
Professor Barzun has opinions on everything and expresses them regardless of any real or imagined connection with James. Yet the book merits the persistence it requires. Despite the digressions, Barzun manages to convey not only the richness of James's writings on psychology and philosophy, but also their unifying theme: man's creative role in fashioning truth.
James coined the phrase “stream of consciousness” to capture the flowing, variable nature of experience. He was reacting against British empiricism, which taught that the mind is merely a collection of ideas that passively mirror objects. James thought this static conception missed the crucial step wherein the mind imposes order on the flux of creating concepts. Objects are not merely presented to the mind for labeling. We, in effect, “create” the objects by settling upon a particular scheme of concepts. In other words, concepts are not predetermined by experience. Rather, they are creatively imposed on experience as “the mind's act of self-defense against universal drift and decay.”
James's theory of truth is tied to this psychological insight. Truth resides in the creative interplay of autonomous concepts and given experience. Truth is what works in the sense that true propositions constitute a workable ordering of experience. They permit us to cope with the flux.
This neo-Kantian theory of truth informs James's thought on every topic, including ethics, aesthetics, and religion. With it, he continually avoids both the dominant idealism of his day (which treated concepts as themselves objects) and the logical positivism that followed him (treating concepts as strictly reducible to bundles of experiences). He also anticipates Wittgenstein's work on language and T.S. Kuhn's on the philosophy of science by half a century.
Professor Barzun's book is frustrating in many respects. It cries out for judicious trimming and a more orderly presentation. But it still conveys a profound understanding of all aspects of James's thought. And it stakes out, in convincing fashion, James's claim to greatness and originality as an American philosopher.
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SOURCE: “The Exceptional William James,” in New York Review of Books, November 10, 1983, pp. 3-4, 6.
[In the following review of A Stroll with William James, Kazin discusses the development and distinctive qualities of James's philosophical thought.]
William James, dead these seventy-three years, is a living and much-cherished figure to Jacques Barzun, whose sparkling appreciation [in A Stroll with William James] honors his “mentor,” a man and thinker without a describable lapse who “knows better than anyone else the material and spiritual country I am traveling through.” Unlike all other philosophers Barzun likes to “read in,” James's
ideas, his words, his temperament speak to me with intimacy as well as force. Communication is direct; … he “does me good.” I find him visibly and testably right—right in intuition, range of considerations, sequence of reasons, and fully rounded power of expression. He is for me the most inclusive mind I can listen to, the most concrete and the least hampered by trifles.
Barzun does not have to say that his love and homage owe much to one overriding fact. William James is a figure impossible to imagine in contemporary America. With James as his herald and shield, Barzun makes a point of this whenever he comes anywhere near today's “half-educated” citizens, our age that “cries out for all the freedoms,” our “politics, which after all is only hasty management under stress.” He notes with pursed lips that nowadays “all deficiencies from idleness to cheating invite interested care—so much, that none is left to bestow on those who perversely perform and stay out of trouble.”
One can see why Barzun has taken this “stroll” not only with William James but out of the hateful 1960s—and 1970s and 1980s—into the nineteenth-century Cambridge where the stroll begins. The most memorable chapter in his book, stirring in its way as Freud's account of the stroll with James in 1909, when James asked Freud to walk on ahead while he lay on the ground recovering from an angina attack, is Barzun's account of the founding of modernism in the cultural rebellion of the 1890s. James appears here as a modernist with the élan of Barzun's other culture heroes Shaw and Nietzsche. But, Barzun goes on to lament, modernism, so often mistakenly relegated to the 1920s, was (as we can see now) done in by World War I.
Whether or not James was a “modernist,” he is certainly not our contemporary. Years ago I started collecting reminiscences of James by his last surviving Harvard students, old neighbors in Cambridge, auditors at Columbia and Stanford. What most stood out in the memories of these very old people was James's dependable unconventionality, his freshness and love of novelty in all things. Even in 1890 and 1904 he had nothing in common with “the age.” The iconoclastic educator and libertarian Alexander Meiklejohn, a man always in trouble with authority and the established, remembered with astonishment James (in the frock coat of the period) lecturing at Teachers College while perched on the edge of the stage.
Without seeming unworldly, James appeared to family, friends, and even detractors (such as Santayana) wholly removed from the commonplaces of society, the pettiness of academe, the grasping, at another's expense, which James in a famous letter to H.G. Wells called “the bitch goddess.” I shall later argue, in discussing James's subjective and salvational use of religion, that he was indeed unworldly. In any event, as Barzun proudly demonstrates, he was unlike anyone else. A famous philosopher whose academic degree was an MD, a founder of modern laboratory psychology who confessed that the first lecture he heard in psychology was the first lecture he himself gave, a clinician of the “varieties of religious experience” whom ridicule could not swerve from psychic research, a founder of the minuscule, powerless Anti-Imperialist League after the US crushed the Filipino insurrection, a scornful opponent of the “strenuous life” exhorted by his sometime student Theodore Roosevelt, William James was in no way a conventional American, a conventional professor, or even the typical humanitarian liberal in New England who replaced the man of faith.
He was above all—a favorite point with Barzun—not a “pragmatist” in the “practical” style supposed to be an American habit and ideal. Quite apart from being one of the great American writers—even in the formal argument of philosophy—and leaving behind him a body of superlative letters (the inexhaustible vividness of his personality turns these into one of the great autobiographies), James was a naturalist who argued against positivism, a psychologist who called psychology “trivial,” a philosopher whose most famous works were given as popular lectures, a passionate defender of any man's “will to believe” who never for a moment testified to an existent God. What he said of his brother Henry can begin to explain William himself. “He is a native of the James family, and has no other country.”
Although Bernard Shaw is another of Barzun's heroes, it is surprising that he does not cite Shaw's admiration for the genius of Henry James, Sr. With his usual Irish bravado, Shaw proclaimed this son of an Irish Protestant greater than his famous sons. Although only William and Henry matched and enlarged their father's intellectual vitality, even the untalented were aware of the family as exceptional, which may be why the two youngest sons, “Wilky” and “Bob,” and the lone girl, Alice, suffered so much—not least from condescension by William and Henry. When the Civil War came, the father easily sent off his nongenius sons; he was neither sorry nor surprised to hear from William and Henry that they were not fit to fight.
The “James country” was made possible by the private wealth passed on by the first William, the Irish immigrant; the spasmodic schooling in several European countries and America; the elder James's contempt for commerce; the despotic, perhaps unbearable, love that the crippled father, always at home, imposed on children who could escape him only in Europe. The father's intellectual vehemence, oddly mixed with his innocent removal from worldly cares, left its stamp on future generations. Not long before his death just a few years ago, “Billy” James, the philosopher's charming son, rose at a family party to tell the guests: “Alice and I have decided to accept the twentieth century.” (It was like the Jameses for the philosopher to have a sister and a wife named Alice, and to have a son William who married an Alice.)
I am sure that wonderfully clever and sophisticated as William James was, he never quite accepted “modern times” despite his pioneering as a laboratory psychologist and his founding of “pragmatism.” Barzun finds this removal lovable and infinitely valuable, and it is. Barzun's homage is ultimately directed to James's pluralism in every sense, his detestation of system making, of “bigness” in every form. He especially prizes James's ability to indicate the actual movement within his thought, his genius for locating the concrete and the particular. These are literary proficiencies, as well as a “lifelike” inclination, on every philosophical issue, to show ideas becoming truths as a validation of every corner we turn in experience. James's psychology was most unlike the psychologies that dominate our age in its gift of conviction. Our ideas, in his view, are our values, our values our real personality. To the extent that we know our values, we are human; to the extent that we live them, we are free.
This, by current notions, is nonsense, unrealistic, and certainly “elitist.” James recognized that only a few people could possibly share his values in the style, the complete psychic sense, in which he literally embodied them. These few were likely to be the “sick souls,” the intellectual saints, whose personal crises and conversion to the faith they had long resisted he sympathetically reported in The Varieties of Religious Experience. He was so much in tune with the “sick” that he slipped in an account of his own nervous breakdown as reported by a “French correspondent.”
To believe that values—active, unresting, insatiable—are one's personality, that such values, no matter where and how learned, are the genesis of behavior and relationships, is to accept and to endure personality that is antinomian, “religious,” necessarily solitary. Alfred North Whitehead said at Harvard in the 1920s that religion is what we do with our solitariness. If James had lived to hear that, he would have linked “solitariness” positively with the state of being “exceptional” that the Jameses saw as their role, their mission, their fate. Henry James in a remarkable letter near the end of his life said that loneliness was the starting point of all his work and the harbor to which it returned. Alice James, who had a more acute mind than her unfortunate younger brothers, accepted a terrible life racked with illness only when she began her now famous diary. She became happy when she developed cancer; only the proximity of death provided her with occasion for metaphysics:
It is the most supremely interesting moment in life, the only one in fact when living seems life. … It is as simple in one's own person as any fact of nature … and I have a delicious consciousness, ever present, of wide spaces close at hand, and whisperings of release in the air.
William, learning of her terminal illness, wrote her that
… life and death seem singularly close together in all of us—and life a mere farce of frustration in all, so far as the realization of the innermost ideals go to which we are made respectively capable of feeling an affinity and responding. … Father would find in me today a much more receptive listener. …
“Father” explains some of William's propensities, not what the children wearily called “Father's ideas.” The ideas are in fact now unrecoverable. The elder James was preoccupied with tracing his liberation from the omniscient God-tyrant of Calvinism into his personal transaction with Swedenborg's “spiritual worlds” which exist only through us. His throbbing, teeming, overcrowded, altogether personal theology records a private journey that he never completed in a conception of God himself; he was too busy itemizing every step of the way. William Dean Howells said in a review, “Mr. James has written a book called The Secret of Swedenborg and has kept it.”
William, born into a positivist age, trained in medicine, a naturalist on Agassiz's scientific expedition to Brazil, could not have copied “Father's ideas”; like his own to the very end of his life, they were provisional, personal, a way to keep oneself going “in the battle of life.” What his father had, as William was to have it overwhelmingly, was temperament, the energetic sense of his own abysmal want. In Society the Redeemed Form of Man, the elder James described how in England in 1844, lingering at the dinner table, “suddenly, and for no apparent reason, his composure abruptly abandoned him and he found himself face to face with an invisible terror.” He was redeemed by learning from Swedenborg that a person lost to himself can be reborn in his “Divine Natural Humanity.” The incorporation of God in man, Swedenborg explained, is the sole purpose and destiny of creation. James, Sr., was to fuse this with the Fourierist deliverance of man in society. None of these projections is as vivid as the elder James's sense of his suffering, his liberation from other people's God:
… imagine a subject of some petty despotism condemned to die, and with—what more and worse—a sentiment of death pervading all his consciousness, lifted by a sudden miracle into felt harmony with universal man, and filled to the brim with the sentiment of indestructible life instead, and you will have a true picture of my emancipated condition.
William was to credit his recovery from depression to his belief that he could prove the freedom of the will by exercising his freedom. The father attested—cloudily—to the divine partnership, the son to the freedom we actually use. Different idols of the mind, but this ability to transpose absolute depression and intellectual recovery, bondage and freedom in the religious sense, seems almost hereditary.
The gift of “perspectivism,” as Barzun calls it, was William's genius for locating the unexpected in any context. He scintillated in the art of transposition. It explains why his life and career are so fortifying, for his way of thinking is that of a man arguing himself out of one difficulty after another. James said that the “axis of reality” runs through our personal lives and nowhere else. “Our civilization is founded on the shambles, and every individual existence goes out in a lonely spasm of helpless agony. If you protest, my friend, wait till you arrive there yourself!” But terror forces salvation upon us—a salvation found in “accumulated acts of thought,” not maxims, that should win the external unfriendly universe to ourselves. Publicly—James functioned more through popular lectures than any other first-class American intellectual except Emerson—he told his relatively innocent and provincial contemporaries that everything was working out. What runs through his letters is his admission that his own battle had to be won over and over again.
Barzun's James is equable on all occasions, too merely intelligent to have had such a desperate want as James repeatedly acknowledged. Barzun himself is of course too intelligent and informed to ignore James's inner despairs. But I don't think Barzun's condescension to the uprooted, ill-educated, morally abandoned people in our society prepares him to appreciate James's interest in the abnormal and the marginal as clues to all that is hidden and perhaps universal. James the physician was certainly “motivated” to heal himself. His seeking of another's reality makes his letters wonderful in their loving playfulness—and candor. In finding himself over and over again in others, he recalled the extraordinary relationship that his father tried to find with God. William was a primary naturalist of souls, Henry the master novelist of interlocked personalities.
As Barzun admiringly notes, only William James, staring at an octopus in an English aquarium, would have remarked on such “flexible intensity of life in a form so inaccessible to our sympathy.” Only this talent for the unexpected, for seizing upon any moment as an “occasion” of truth, explains his critical need to realize oneself in acts of thought. The real meaning of pragmatism is surely this freedom of the overburdened consciousness to make itself actual. But while pragmatism is not “practical” in the common sense, it does give us a sense of thought as necessarily and perhaps inherently provisional. And since we live in a world more and more closed off from what used to be called the “moral sciences”—the physical sciences alone now suggest the infinity within which we live—I do not see in James what Barzun does: an example we can follow, a guide beyond compare.
James was a phenomenon, not a model; an astonishing exception to everything we know, not—despite a lifetime of teaching—someone whose teaching can still be followed through his writing. It is his charm, his relative purity, his eloquence that win us—not a body of thought that we can turn to as we do to Nietzsche's. James in his last years, struggling with a bad heart, regretted that he had given so much of himself to lectures and articles, felt that he owed himself one big book that would explain and justify his philosophy. It is surprising to see how many of his most famous works, after the one systematic treatise of the great Psychology, are collections of essays and lectures. Even if he had lived to attempt it, I do not think he could have given his philosophy ultimate form, for the whole direction of his thought and its catch-as-catch-can style were against this.
Nietzsche, seemingly a counterpart to James for literary genius and a sense of himself as exceptional, also wrote more and more in personal, spasmodic form. But if the axis of reality runs through personal lives, it wholly occupied Nietzsche. What we get from Nietzsche is a counterphilosophy to Platonic-Christian stasis, a constant rebuttal of the historic illusion that the world stands upon or in any way represents a moral tradition. Nietzsche is a poet-philosopher like the pre-Socratics, one who not only locates the primordial elements as truth but identifies himself with them in the audacity of his style. For all his opposition to system building, his love of apercu comes across to his readers as a quest for truth, because Nietzsche cannot bear to represent to himself anything that is not truth. James is experimental, “personal” in the American way; he is forever asking the world what it can do for him and how it may save him.
Thought was indeed serious to William James just to the extent that it enabled him to save himself. Maybe it did. Nietzsche could not save himself at all. He went crazy in his thought, and in a sense fell victim to his thought: it was so much bigger and more hallowed than himself. His own sense was not the ultimate issue. He did not want to use thought, and he did not expect thought to release him from anything. Truth really existed, although Nietzsche, in this respect just another modern philosopher, could not prove this.
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SOURCE: “Talk Talk,” in New Republic, February 16, 1987, pp. 28-33.
[In the following excerpt, Menand offers unfavorable assessment of A Word or Two Before You Go.]
Jacques Barzun, former dean, provost, and university professor at Columbia, is an authority often cited by [William] Safire when he wants to throw cold water on a usage but needs someone else to look like a pedant for doing it. For where Safire fiddles, Barzun burns. His brief pieces on language, [in A Word or Two Before You Go] written over many years and to meet a variety of occasions, attack, but with the prescriptive and proscriptive fervor missing from the “On Language” columns, the same kind of stock villains that Safire's do—psychiatrists, sociologists, advertising copywriters—along with a few real pigeons: Esperanto, Basic English, and the advocates of phonetic spelling. But Barzun reserves a special fury for the depredations of copy editors.
Barzun's diatribe against copy editors, drawn from a longer screed he published two years ago in the American Scholar, is a piece of work—though it does perform the useful service of exploding the assumption that punctiliousness about language is the token of a civil nature. Like many writers, Barzun has been frustrated at times by having to undo changes made in his copy by editors who missed an allusion, or who followed some rigid requirement of house style beyond the bounds of good sense, or who sought counterproductively to improve clarity with a new word or a different phrasing. The frustrations of editing (which, he can be sure, run in both directions) are part of the business of writing for publication. This is the style of generosity in which Barzun reflects on the situation: “It is a paradox that when language at large is being roughly treated by the heedless, a set of rigid notions and worthless rules are being enforced by the unliterary and ill-educated.” And he accuses copy editors of “error, confusion, arrogance, and coercion, all doing damage to style and intellectual independence.”
“Perhaps nervous fiddling becomes an uncontrollable habit when one earns one's bread by striking, slashing, changing,” Barzun muses. The sentence sums up exactly the social context the piece pretends does not exist. Most copy editors are young and earn perhaps a tenth of the income Barzun earns. Their job is to render uniform and unambiguous material generally written by people who make far less of a fetish of correctness than Barzun does. The task is often difficult, since it is in the nature of even the most careless writers to be wounded when their copy is changed. And it is in the nature of the business of writing that when the editor improves the story, the writer gets the credit. The notion that the people who, without prospect of greater reward, attempt to enhance that credit are really engaged in sabotage smacks of superciliousness. When Barzun writes that “current jargon and vulgarisms … [are] perhaps the copy editor's native tongue,” he is guilty of basing a personal and social judgment on merely literary evidence. When he writes that “many an editor is determined to furnish thoughts out of her own stock to eke out the author's poor supply,” he is guilty of something worse. For it is the only sentence in the entire book in which the feminine pronoun is used when the gender is unspecified.
Barzun does offer a few hints about the social vision that informs his critique of other people's usage:
Two of the causes of decline in all modern European languages have been: the doctrines of linguistic “science” and the example of “experimental” art. They come together on the principle of Anything Goes—not in so many words, usually, but in unmistakable effect.
And elsewhere he attributes the decay of the language to “the poets and novelists of the last hundred years. It was they who taught us to reassign meanings to words—not occasionally but steadily—at the same time as they showed for syntax a disregard all too easy to imitate.” This analysis has the advantage of all reductive generalizations: by explaining everything, it makes more thoughtful discriminations seem supererogatory. Having identified the villain, the author feels free to spend the rest of the time railing at the victims.
The obvious difficulty with Barzun's larger picture is one that often undermines prescriptive talk about talk: If language abuse is simply the outer sign of some profound social disease, why should we waste time curing the symptom? But in fact writers like Barzun do have a reason for naming and rooting out language deviants. It is to identify those members of the group who are not to be trusted in the larger matter of curing the disease. If this is so, then surely we have a right to turn the tables. Should we trust someone who writes, as Barzun does in his final essay, “On the Necessity of a Common Tongue,” that blacks are among the groups in our society who “speak … English unwillingly or with difficulty”? The characterization reveals a sensibility of astonishing impercipience. What does Barzun think American blacks are speaking—African?
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SOURCE: “The Battle of the Books,” in Washington Post Book World, July 16, 1989, p. 5.
[In the following excerpt, Dirda discusses Barzun's disillusionment and contempt for contemporary culture in The Culture We Deserve.]
Books, like marriages, are rewarding in direct proportion to the passion we put into them. A critic like Roland Barthes could get more out of a half-baked Balzac novel than most of us will get out of a lifetime studying Madame Bovary. Better enthrallment to an adventure story than a bored skim through a masterpiece.
Still, for more than a hundred years humanists such as Matthew Arnold, Irving Babbitt, T.S. Eliot and Russell Kirk have called for a focused canon of works as a means of preserving or reestablishing a common culture. Each has spoken eloquently for the traditional, as do Jacques Barzun, Peter Shaw and Robert Proctor now, but all of them betray the desperation of men fighting for a lost cause.
Barzun's The Culture We Deserve is the most dispassionate of these three recent cultural critiques, though his tone betrays a magisterial sadness: He looks out on the world and sees only darkness. Fragmentation, the analytical method, overproduction, specialization and permissiveness have wrecked civilization.
His well-crafted essays—from various periodicals—elaborate these old-fashioned, rather familiar views. The cult of the analytical leads to sterility and narrowness; in its place Barzun exalts Pascal's esprit de finesse, or “intuitive understanding,” which “seizes upon the character of the whole altogether, by inspection.” Modern scholarship's canons and terminology, wryly notes this distinguished historian, “stimulate ingenuity and foster disputation, which together give a pleasant sense of mastery and comradeship, whereas original intuition is solitary and unsure.” Shoptalk has driven out conversation “which is the principle of the good society and the good life.” Ours is a world of know-how rather than cultivation.
According to Barzun, we can even have too much of a good thing: “Great works too often seen or performed, too readily available in bits and pieces, become objects of consumption instead of objects of contemplation.” At the same time, in fiction and history we have turned away from plot and narrative, preferring “states of mind …, strange detail, analytic depth.” And we have consequently lost the true benefits of reading history:
“It exercises the imagination and furnishes it, discloses the nuances of the familiar within the unfamiliar, brings out the heroic in mankind side by side with the vile, tempers absolute partisanship by showing how few monsters of error there have been, and in all these ways induces a relative serenity.”
Barzun needs that serenity. For the most part, he doesn't see any solution to our resulting “decay of public hope”; we will simply have to weather this period of alexandrianism and trust that a renaissance and not a dark age is in the offing.
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SOURCE: “Exeunt the Humanities?” in Sewanee Review, Vol. XCVIII, No. 2, Spring, 1990, pp. xxxviii, xl-xli.
[In the following review, Fuller offers a positive assessment of Barzun's “provocative, challenging, and occasionally startling assertions” in The Culture We Deserve.]
“Right now … one can ask whether all over the world the idea of a university has not been battered beyond hope of recovery for a long time.”
Those blunt words were not written by an outsider hostile to universities, or by an ideological disrupter from within, but by a man of impeccable credentials for appraising what passes currently as higher education. Their author is Jacques Barzun who, in his long association with Columbia University, has worn the titles of Seth Low professor of history, dean of faculties, and provost. He is also an extraordinary fellow at Churchill College, Cambridge.
If you seek a model of the classically educated, broadly cultured man, in this time when there is a dearth of such attributes, you cannot find a better than Professor Barzun, though happily he is not without peers. He was born in France but has lived in the United States since he was thirteen years old. He is now over eighty. His writings have dealt with history, literature, language, music, art, and manners. Of his many books two of the finest are Teacher in America (1945) and The House of Intellect (1959).
To the list now is added The Culture We Deserve, a selection of twelve essays from various periodicals. One was written in 1972, but the others all derive from the 80s. A few have been revised and renamed since their first appearance. Their range over a variety of cultural subjects fully justifies the book's collective title.
Rather than attempt a short summary of the densely packed thoughts in these essays, I will interweave a sampling of Barzun's most provocative, challenging, occasionally startling assertions without always designating the specific essays from which they are culled. Tracking them down will be one of the pleasures for readers of the slender book. The seeming randomness of this method also will demonstrate the unity of theme that underlies the approaches to various aspects of it: they overlap, or interlock, as you prefer.
Mr. Barzun has a gift for terse vivid images. Decrying the vogue for introducing the currently topical into college curricula, he says: “As things stand now, the new is brought on campus and dissected before the body has time to cool.”
Apropos the current vogue for Marxist analysis, in American universities with a boundless appetite for discredited notions, he sums up the spirit “which informs the literature of Marx and his disciples, the spirit of exposure and revelation, the animus of a war against appearances, the search for a reality made up of conspirators and their victims.”
Under the heading “Where is History Now?” he examines the latest quests for a “scientific” history, as initiated in France by the “Annales group” who have turned from narrative history of great events, and of men and women who have influenced them, to statistical scrutiny of, say, the rural economy of a French province at the time of the revolution. The resulting product, still in fashion in many quarters, is what Barzun calls not history but “retrospective sociology.”
“Exeunt the Humanities” reminds us of an almost forgotten aspect of Woodrow Wilson, not as president of the U.S., but as eminent historian and as president of Princeton University. Wilson called it the “business of a college to re-generalize each generation,” to strive for “a general orientation, the creation in the mind of a vision of the field of knowledge … the development of a power of comprehension.”
The most challenging of Barzun's positions on higher education, though he is not entirely alone in holding it, is this assertion: “The very nature of the humanistic purpose excludes the elective system. The humanistically unprepared can have only hearsay opinions—or none at all—about what to elect and what to leave untouched.”
Of criticism, in any field of the arts, Mr. Barzun again is blunt: “Criticism will need an injection of humility—that is, a recognition of its role as ancillary to the arts, needed only occasionally in a temporary capacity. … Pedantry and pretentiousness must be driven out of the republic of letters.”
Shifting attention, finally, to the behavioral rather than the cultural, he is concerned about the decline of respect for basic civil authority. Today “intellectual opinion leans automatically toward the objector, supports local passion against any central authority, and denounces all sanctions.” As a corollary “the odd new idea is that authority exists to ratify the decisions of its declared enemies.”
With such paradoxes in the closing essay (ironically the earliest written) he looks toward the twenty-first century. Barzun, whose mood clearly is grim, makes a valiant effort to see encouraging prospects and paths toward improvement. In spite of that, his tone essentially is prophetic, not in the foretelling, but in the darker diagnostic sense of that term, in the midst of this culture we deserve.
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SOURCE: “Culture in the Eighties,” in Salmagundi, No. 87, Spring, 1990, pp. 360-68.
[In the following positive review of The Culture We Deserve, Sisk examines the philosophical and aesthetic perspective that informs Barzun's critique of intellectual laxity, relativism, and reductionism in contemporary art and thought.]
I began my long acquaintance with the work of Jacques Barzun in the fall of 1945 at West Palm Beach, an idyllic change from a previous assignment in the jungles of British Guiana. In the public library I found Romanticism and the Modern Ego and Darwin, Marx, Wagner. They were exactly what I needed after a four year sabbatical in the Air Force, especially since I expected to return to the classroom and teach Romanticism. In both books I found reasons to update some of my opinions about the Romantics, my reading of Paul Elmer More, Irving Babbitt and T.S. Eliot not having prepared me to see the Romantics as humane pragmatists and having left me ill-equipped to argue against those who wanted to dismiss the Romantics as escapists or inspirers of fascism.
I discovered in time that one of the pedagogically most useful features of Romanticism and the Modern Ego was a seventeen-page section that gave a sampling of the term “romantic” in modern usage. Here was the semantic underbrush through which the author had to work his way if he wanted to make his point that his subject was very much alive. I was happy to see that this section had remained intact when the second and revised edition appeared in 1961 as Classic, Romantic, and Modern. I am happy now to see that Barzun remains a champion of the Romantics in The Culture We Deserve, essays written in the eighties by a man who is himself in his eighties.
Nothing is more characteristic of Barzun than his practice of clearing away the semantic underbrush as a way of getting into a subject. He does this memorably in an exchange with Donald J. Lloyd in The American Scholar (Spring 1951) as he opposes Lloyd's go-with-the-flow approach to usage, which makes much of the analogy between language change and inevitable natural processes. For Barzun the analogy is wrong “because language is an artificial product of social life.” Then (in a remark that can take us back to his treatment of determinism in Darwin, Marx, Wagner) he adds this: we cannot “know what is inevitable until we have tried good and hard to stop it.” But the debate with Lloyd also looks ahead thirty years to “License to Corrupt” in the new book. Here, after opposing the dogma that language is simply a live creature endlessly evolving about which one had best take a laissez faire attitude, Barzun launches into a brilliant seven-page answer to the question, “What is language?” Chief among his adversaries are those linguists “who urge upon the hoi polloi corruption unlimited.” Unable to see that language “is a work of art, a collective work of art, a work of collective art,” the corrupters are not likely to think of language as a rich estate the stewardship of which imposes a moral burden.
As one might expect, The Culture We Deserve opens with Barzun clearing away the common misuses of the word “culture” that make it so easy to apply it to “any chunk of social reality you like or dislike.” Indeed, the book can be seen as an extended definition of “culture” just as the earlier A Stroll with William James can be seen as an extended definition of “pragmatism.” Culture, cultivation of the self, is declining in a time of cultural glut. The causes are self-consciousness, the fragmentations of specialism, and the magical spell of science that lead to a confusion of the pedantic minutiae of “analytic methodism” with that intuitive understanding that Pascal called the esprit de finesse. The impulse of culture is a love that leads to communion of two kinds: “with the living, by the discovery of kindred through conversation, and with the dead, by the intimacy of admiration for greatness.”
“The essence of culture,” Barzun says in his introductory note to the book, “is interpenetration. From any part of it the searching eye will discover connections with another part seemingly remote.” This searching eye (call it the metaphoric imagination) is everywhere at work in the essays that follow. Its opposite is the pedantic impulse that delights in a “miserlike heaping up of factual knowledge.” The danger, he says in “Exeunt the Humanities,” is “our present combination of specialist and halfbaked humanist education” that threatens to leave us a nation of pedants. But a nation of pedants in which the natural passion for unity is not structured by the proper definitions and distinctions will be especially susceptible to grand unifiers like Spengler, Marx, and Toynbee (Isaiah Berlin in his great essay on Tolstoy called them hedgehogs) who practice what Barzun calls, in an essay so titled, “the fallacy of the single cause.”
Those who have been following Barzun over the years are aware of his continuing concern with this passion for unity. In Darwin, Marx, Wagner (1941), for instance, this passion appears as a thirst for an invincible absolute which envisages progress in terms of one final solution. In The House of Intellect (1959) it is “the desire to embrace the whole world in some benevolent imperium of love, science, or art.” In Science: The Glorious Entertainment (1964) “the cause of our pain when we examine the burden of modernity is the imposition of one intellectual purpose upon all experience.” In Clio and the Doctors (1974) this passion is behind the claim “that ‘at last’ history is going to be made whole by the adjunction of the science of mind or the science of society.” Barzun's sympathies, and James's as well, have all along been with romantic diversaterianism and pluralism, with Berlin's foxes rather than the single-valued hedgehogs. Not that foxes automatically escape his searching eye; he makes us aware that many an apparent fox is only a compulsive antinomian in disguise, inspired with the rage for absolute freedom that, in the concluding essay, is one of the marks of our dissolving time.
Indeed, one finds this critical alertness to the fallacy of the single cause everywhere in The Culture We Deserve, so that the reviewer is in a position to make a standard remark about a collection of essays: that inevitably there is a good deal of repetition in it. So there is; in fact, taking Barzun's work as a whole there is a good deal of repetition: significant themes, events, key historical figures and events, and characteristic rhetorical practices keep recurring. In other words, Barzun, like Montaigne or Pascal or Swift, tends to sound like himself wherever you pick him up. He never sounds more like himself than in a brief essay, “The Great Switch,” that appeared in the Summer 1989 issue of Columbia, the Columbia University magazine. In about a thousand words, and beginning as he so often does “with a little history,” he relates the growing appeal of single-issue politics to the jumble we have made of the terms “liberal,” “conservative,” and “socialist.” Here he is repeating his function as refiner of the language of the tribe, at the risk, of course, of offending those who prefer not to see their own single issues so historically relativized.
The problem with the term “repetition” (and the Romantics have had a hand in this) is that it has become thoroughly pejorative, as if repetition were not one of the omnipresent facts of human existence. The indiscriminate fear of repetition is a fear of life since it is a fear of the recurring processes and patterns that make life possible and intelligible. Certainly, in literature and the arts one must distinguish between a repetition that is static (see the recurrences of plot and theme in the Barbara Cartland romances, for instance) and a repetition that is dynamic and always open to revitalizing new contexts (see Shakespeare's romances, for instance). It is the hedgehogs, not the diversatarian foxes, who tend to be the static repeaters.
The fear of repetition has a good deal to do with the definition of the artist and the “glut of art” that is the subject of “A Surfeit of Art” in the new book. Deeply buried in the collective mind, says Barzun, is the nineteenth century's glorification of the artist as hero, seer, and genius. This glorification is enhanced and complicated by our own post World War II myth of the self, believed to be most authentic when it is most original, and most original when producing aesthetic objects the very originality of which is the chief criterion of value. Art thus having become a cult, having replaced religion as a means of personal salvation, the aspiring artist is morally entitled to foundation and government support, as if “the pursuit of happiness” in The Declaration of Independence clearly implied the pursuit of aesthetic self-actualization. To borrow Roger Shattuck's useful term from The Innocent Eye, we are in thrall to the Demon of Originality, a thralldom that has political as well as religious and aesthetic consequences.
Because art generates excitement and the life of the artist appears to be so wonderfully free, “more and more people in each generation decide that they want to be artists.” The resulting glut of art “has made us into gluttons, who gorge and do not digest” and who “find everything wonderful in an absent-minded way.” The merely shocking or odd is “suddenly interesting enough to gain a month's celebrity” and to reinforce a policy that tends “to reward cleverness, not art, and to put one more hurdle in the path of the truly original artist.” As Barzun puts it in “The Paradoxes of Creativity” that appeared subsequently in the Summer 1989 American Scholar, “Nowadays, originality, the cult of the new, and plain shock power have such a hold on our judgement that we pay humble attention to a great deal of nonsense and charlatanism.” It is safe to guess that it was no surprise to him when the National Endowment for the Arts, that current patron of creative originality, began to draw the outraged attention of people like Senator Jesse Helms because of the obscene form of some of the creative originality it was sponsoring. Certainly here was one kind of reductive and protective reaction to the glut of art that might have been predicted. Here too was another consequence of “the conversion of culture into industry,” as he puts it in “Culture High and Dry,” where the point is made that an equally formidable glut has followed the university's emphasis on publish or perish.
These three essays are splendid examples of the extent to which a Barzun essay is grounded on and nourished by historical and quotidian particulars. The searching eye is panoramic in its reach yet always focused on the immediate project. The reader gets the impression that he is seeing only the tip of an iceberg about which vastly more could be said if the occasion of the saying were different. This marshalling of detail must not be confused with that miserlike heaping up of factual knowledge produced by “analytic methodism.” Barzun is on the side of Pascal's esprit de finesse so that the result is a high form of entertainment: not only do you get a lot of interesting information but you get the aesthetic pleasure of seeing it gracefully and wittily controlled. This is at the same time good arguing strategy. Not that it will persuade everyone. In these post-modernist and anti-rhetorical times good writing in whatever genre is often enough suspected of being seductively escapist rather than truth-revealing simply by virtue of being good writing: doomed to being merely self-referential in proportion as it qualifies as literature.
Barzun's position with respect to such skepticism has always been clear. In “Look it Up! Check it Out!” he remarks that “information theory, not interested in message, but in the chances of getting its ‘shape’ across, tries to dominate psychology, linguistics, and anything else in which meaning still lurks untouched by abstraction.” Because he has no confidence in a disjunction of message and shape, the very shape of his essays is both argument for and demonstration of the kind of pragmatic humanism he espouses. That kind of humanism is always inclined to specify the general and the abstract. When in The Modern Researcher (written with Henry F. Graff) the researcher-turned-writer is advised to use plain words and avoid jargon and clichés he gets a still useful list of “forbidden words.” When in Teacher in America Barzun says that the entire faculty must cooperate in improving the decadent condition of student writing, he shows that faculty in eight very detailed pages how to be the demanding and painstaking critics of student papers they must be if they are to have any effect. And when in God's Country and Mine (1954) we read: “Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball, the rules and realities of the game,” we are not surprised when the generalization is supported with four pages of specifics behind which is the searching eye of a very knowledgeable fan.
With this wealth of supporting detail (see it also in the Romantics) goes the effective structuring, easiest to appreciate in the essays. I know of no better place to see these characteristics at work than in “Thoreau the Thorough Impressionist,” published in the Winter 1987 American Scholar but delivered as an address to the Thoreau Society in Concord the previous summer. Given its occasion (the anniversary of Thoreau's birth) it is a rather daring enterprise, beginning as it does by disqualifying “Civil Disobedience” and Walden as responsible and coherent political statements. As a political thinker Thoreau is childlike, solipsistic, prone to verbal trickery and other devices of rabblerousing. Along with his “rather conventional denunciation of the shams and hypocrisies of men in towns and in trades” goes his inability to see that he was free to live as he did “only by the bounty of a large, well-established state.”
Then comes the dramatic reversal, even more effective from having been hinted at early on. Thoreau must not be praised for qualities he does not possess, but should be seen as a poet, “the earliest and greatest of American imagists” for whom inconsistency, diversity and contradiction are the true measure of his poetic experience. If we see him as the Impressionist he is, we can appreciate him for his rare “sense of the immensity of the cosmos, the minuteness of its parts, and the simultaneity of its motions.” Thus we end up not with a classic author debunked but disentangled from a reputation he does not deserve so that he can be properly valued.
In this essay Barzun is being the historical relativist, which is to say that he is “reckoning with time and place” (also the title of one of the essays). As he shows us now in the “The Bugbear of Relativism,” the failure to do this is largely responsible for the equation of relativism “with general looseness, with unanchored judgment and unpredictable behavior” when it should mean “the practice of relating, of linking.” Relating and linking are, of course, what the author has promised in his introductory note, and what he has abundantly delivered. Now it is as necessary to dispose of the pejorative sense of the word as it is elsewhere necessary to dispose of an all too popular image of Thoreau. This is especially necessary since the definition of relativism he rejects can drive one into the arms of those inflexible anti-pluralists who, as the logic of the fallacy of the single cause works its way with them, are all too likely to become committed one-worlders. Against such wistful hedgehogs he quotes one of his favorite pragmatists, Cardinal Newman: “Not to know the relative disposition of things is the state of slaves or children.”
At this point an unwary reader may think that Barzun is about to come down solidly on the state of a creative release from all traditional restrictions, as if he were a latterday countercultural guru disguised as an emeritus college professor with a seductive prose style. Such a reader might be quickly and perhaps profitably disillusioned as he is asked to see the relation between a relaxing or changing of standards and the undesirable moral, social, and political side effects: the cultish irreverence, the incapacity for self-discipline, the subordination of the needs of community to individual conscience. He will be told that “Place and proportion make up the difficult relativism of fitness.” When the sense of place and proportion breaks down the fundamental decencies break down too. When the spirit of “anything goes” affects the arts, the Demon of Originality walks tall in the land and “much spiritless contriving masquerades as innovation.” In the meantime, linguistics in a state of liberation is loathe to recognize a right and wrong in language. Ironically, then, the spirit of “anything goes” multiplies rather than reduces absolutes, since “the partisans of the various liberations seldom adjust their demands relative to the other, conflicting social needs.” Clearly, Barzun's kind of relativist will not hesitate to take a determined stand against facile conceptions of inevitable processes. It is an exhilarating yet sobering essay, one that places on us something like the burden that F. Scott Fitzgerald in his famous “Crack-Up” essay places on his first rate intelligence: the necessity of having to function while entertaining two opposing ideas.
In his introductory note Barzun refers to these eleven essays as chapters, as if whatever their original places and occasions of publication they should now be thought of as thematically interrelated parts of a single structure. This is indeed their effect as they build toward the concluding chapter, “Toward the Twenty-First Century,” and its concern with “the plausible signs that civilization is in decline.” Here he is not competing with hedgehogs like Toynbee, Spengler, or Teilhard in the business of prediction. What we get is a judicious consideration of the futures our culture now makes it possible to contemplate. “Like representative government, like capitalism, like traditional religion,” he writes, “the culture that the West has been painstakingly fashioning since Columbus has ceased to serve and satisfy.” We have come to an epoch, a time of turning, the distinguishing marks of which confront us wherever we look: the contempt for law and order; the antinomian suspicion of all counsels of restraint that undermines the authority of morality and religion; the certainly centrifugal and potentially anarchic cult of originality; the bankruptcy of the very bourgeois values that have funded our utopian expectations; the dissolving effect in the humanities of what Paul Ricoeur has called the hermeneutics of suspicion inherited from Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud and now being exploited exuberantly by the post-structuralists; the pervasive disgust with the project of civilization among artists and intellectuals; the “Samson complex” among the young and not so young that expresses itself in a yearning “to bring down the whole edifice on one's head and the heads of its retarded upholders.”
If in these conditions Barzun is no more willing than William Butler Yeats to specify what rough beast might be slouching toward Bethlehem to be born, he does offer us a pragmatist's consolation. “As long as man exists,” he says, “civilization and all its works exist in germ. … Civilization is not identical with our civilization, and the rebuilding of states and cultures, now or at any time, is integral to our nature and more becoming than longing and lamentation.” And the worst lamenters are those who, having lost faith in one or another inevitable process, are all too likely to be enlisted in the fallacious single cause of the next rough slouching beast that comes their way.
So having come this far with Jacques Barzun, we are in effect back strolling with his beloved William James and with the necessity of the will to believe. With the will to believe goes the tragic sense of life that led James to scorn all utopian blandishments as attempts to flinch away from the “wild element” that is a permanent feature of this world and which our natures are adapted to wrestle with. The will to believe and the tragic sense of life are in Barzun too—here as in earlier work. This is why The Culture We Deserve is such a bracing stroll with a critic we need, and never more than when his searching eye is most unflinching.
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SOURCE: A review of The Culture We Deserve, in Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 66, No. 2, Spring, 1990, p. 64.
[In the following review of The Culture We Deserve, the critic characterizes Barzun's essays “breezy” but “refreshing.”]
Biting the hand that feeds one has become a favorite sport of several American scholars, who collect handsome royalty checks from the very mass marketing industry that they decry in their best sellers. Jacques Barzun, who engaged in the culture battles long before it became fashionable and lucrative, has joined the fray with his own collection of stimulating but ultimately frustrating essays. These pieces from the last decade offer his complaints regarding everything from scholarship (overspecialization and theorizing) to relativism (its abuse) to the humanities (poorly served by academia) to high art (its overabundance) to linguistics and rhetoric (their silly scientism). The parts are greater than the whole, as a compelling, overarching perspective on our current plight only peeks through on occasion. Nonetheless, two of Barzun's recurring themes are the most important: the self-consciousness of modern culture and its calculated self-hatred. Professionalization, overemphasis on method and theory, the cult of the expert, and parochialism have drained criticism of usable substance. Ultimately, he concludes in a compelling final chapter, Western civilization is realizing its own self-destructive impulse. A distrust of judgment or order of any kind causes “the urge to flee the octopus organization and the distant rule of unseen hands, so as to huddle with a few friends and bemoan our lot or demonstrate against it.” Quite rightly, he denies to the self-styled “deconstructionists” and youthful “post-modernists” the claim of being revolutionary. Until they dare to remake the university, rather than participate cynically in its careerist game, they have no real claim to newness. Despite a breezy tone, which tends to speak more to the already-converted than argue effectively, Barzun's essays are a refreshing contribution to the noisy and suspect market in culture-whining.
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SOURCE: A review of The Culture We Deserve, in Journal of Modern Literature, Vol. 17, Nos. 2-3, Fall-Winter, 1990, pp. 211-12.
[In the following review of The Culture We Deserve, Pinsker expresses sympathy for “Barzun's heartfelt, uncompromisingly idealist pronouncements,” though finds little evidence that Barzun's hopes will be realized.]
The dozen essays collected here [in The Culture We Deserve] explore the gap between claim and performance in contemporary culture: art and literature, education and scholarship, philosophy and history. Not surprisingly, Barzun has sobering things to say about our current state of cultural affairs. For Barzun, culture is not “any chunk of social reality you like or dislike” but, rather, what used to be called “cultivation—cultivation of the self.” And it is within that Arnoldian sense of “cultivation” that Barzun finds ample evidence for evasions of thought and for flights from common sense. Thus, “professional historians no longer write for the public but for one another”—and the same charges can be laid at the doorstep of literary critics and philosophers. The effect, of course, is that scholars tend to know more and more about less and less.
Nor is Barzun amused at the concern for “relevance”; and if there are moments when he makes common cause with the relevancy-blasting Allan Bloom, there are others when he seems ready to cast his vote with Jesse Helms.
But as Barzun goes on to argue, his title cuts two ways: if “the culture we deserve” reflects our current overproduction of art and the equally calculated obscurity by too many of our critics, it also suggests that a reaction—indeed, a renaissance—may be within reach:
What is wanted is an open conspiracy of genuine young Turks who will turn their backs on analysis and criticism and reinvent—say—the idea of the university, and show what it can do; who, seeing that bureaucracy is inevitable, will rethink the art of administration and make it work. And when the energies of reconstruction revivify the landscape, the fine arts will spontaneously mirror the change, show a new face, and the public, enheartened, will rejoice in the new life.
Faced with Barzun's heartfelt, uncompromisingly idealistic pronouncements, one does not want to respond by paraphrasing Hemingway's bitterly ironic, “Isn't it pretty to think so?”—but nothing on the horizon suggests that such a cadre of young Turks is at hand.
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SOURCE: “The Plight of Pedagogy,” in Washington Post Book World, April 21, 1991, p. 3.
[In the following review, Yardley offers a positive assessment of Begin Here.]
It is difficult to imagine a more pungent, perceptive or eloquent commentary on contemporary American education than this collection of 15 pieces [Begin Here] by Jacques Barzun. Written over the past four decades, but mostly of fairly recent vintage, these essays and speeches all boil down to the book's opening words: “Forget EDUCATION. Education is a result, a slow growth, and hard to judge. Let us talk rather about Teaching and Learning, a joint activity that can be provided for, though as a nation we have lost the knack of it.” Or, as Barzun puts it many pages later:
“The error began with the replacement of the word pedagogy with the word education. Pedagogy is not a beautiful word, but it sticks to the point of teaching. It denotes the art of leading a child to knowledge, whereas education properly refers to a completed development, or the whole tendency of the mind toward it. A person is taught by a teacher but educates him- or herself, partly by will, partly by assimilating experience. The educator's egotistical urge to blur this distinction is at the root of our present predicament. Thinking that we can ‘give an education,’ we make wild claims and promises and forget to teach what is teachable. Babbling incessantly, we grope toward the remote, ill-defined, unattainable goals that fill our blatant advertising.”
Which is to say that there is little in Begin Here to give comfort to the establishment, the educationists whose behavior Barzun penetratingly characterizes as “exaggeration of goals and results; seeing the student not as an individual but as an example of some psychological generality; taking any indirect means in place of the straight one; and finally: mistaking words for facts, and intentions for hard work.” By contrast with these practitioners of bureaucratic obfuscation and evasion, Barzun is a passionate advocate of the basics: not in the sense of “Back to Basics” sloganeering favored by certain pitchmen for pedagogical fundamentalism, but in the deeper sense of teaching and learning as basic activities we no longer understand.
Begin Here is, like everything else Barzun has written in his very long career, civil and restrained in its language, but for all of that it is—as it should be—an angry book. It grieves and infuriates Barzun that “the once proud and efficient public school system of the United States—especially its unique free high school for all—has turned into a wasteland where violence and vice share the time with ignorance and idleness, besides serving as a background for vested interests, social, political and economic.” It appalls him that “the arts have simply given universal warrant for the offbeat, the unintelligible, the defiant without purpose,” and that “the schools have soaked up this heady brew.” It enrages him that the “main business” of higher education is not “the mental life” but “socialization, entertainment, political activism, and the struggle to get high grades so as to qualify for future employment.”
Yes, Barzun is an old-fashioned man, one to whom much if not indeed most of what now occurs in classrooms from kindergarten to graduate school is merely chic, trendy and self-indulgent. But his are the words not of a political opportunist or newspaper fulminator; he has been a teacher all his adult life, has written about teaching with intimate knowledge and understanding, and therefore has earned the position of dissent he now occupies. He's a man of advanced years with no agendas to pursue or axes to grind; he merely wants us, for our own good, to re-examine what we expect our schools to do and to ask ourselves whether that is indeed their proper purpose.
He writes of “the manifest decline” in our schools as “heartbreakingly sad,” and puts his finger right on the problem: “Instead of trying to develop native intelligence and give it good techniques in the basic arts of man, we professed to make ideal citizens, supertolerant neighbors, agents of world peace and happy family folk, at once sexually adept and flawless drivers of cars.” We expect the schools to impart not knowledge but attitudes, or, as Barzun puts it, “not an idea but a mere notion.” He writes:
“Some years ago, a new school superintendent in the Southwest calculated that by state authority he must find room in the curriculum for about 200 subjects. They included: driver education, sex education, kindness to animals, shopping and local resources, care for endangered species, family living, global understanding, and no sex education. Legislatures are ever ready to add requirements that sound worthy or useful. Few survive in practice, but enough are attempted to make a mockery of the idea of schooling.”
That idea, quite simply, is that schools exist, to quote once more Barzun's felicitous phrase, to teach “the basic arts of man.” Those arts grow ever more difficult and complex as we take each step along the ladder from grammar school to university, but in a proper system of schooling they are always the focus of our efforts—not socialization, not attitudinizing, not entertainment, but learning. The problem is that learning is hard while these various “playthings” are easy, and it is a central argument of Begin Here that for a number of reasons—not the least of them sheer laziness—we have chosen the easy over the difficult, in the process abandoning the most basic obligations of the schools.
“It is a great mistake,” Barzun writes, “to implant the idea that learning can be steadily exciting, or that excitement is a good frame of mind for acquiring knowledge. Developing a genuine interest in a subject comes only after some drudgery, and only when the learner gets to the point of seeing its order and continuity, not its intermittent peaks of excitement.” Thus the grammar schooler must master the basics of arithmetic before being permitted the excitement of calculators and computers; the college student must understand Chaucer and Milton before being granted the fun of Alice Walker and Louis L'Amour.
These assumptions would seem so obvious as to require no elaboration, yet they have been abandoned by American education at all levels, not so much by teachers themselves as by the educationists who shape the policies of the schools. What they have given us is a nation in which 60 million people are to some degree functionally illiterate, in which reading and writing are in steady decline, in which the “bits and pieces” principle of television has become the national fixation. We talk a lot about excellence, but “excellence is for sloganeering exclusively”; in the schools, as in government and most other institutions, our “muddled feelings about brainwork” have led us to hold true intellectual excellence in contempt and to honor both the glib and the inarticulate.
Whether there is any real prospect of changing this is at best problematical, for it is a matter of deep cultural bias that is not susceptible to economic or legislative remedy. But if there's anyone out there who'd like to try, there couldn't be a better primer than Begin Here.
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SOURCE: A review of The Culture We Deserve, in The Humanist, Vol. 51, No. 6, November-December, 1991, pp. 46-7.
[In the following positive review of The Culture We Deserve, Shore clarifies and defends Barzun's pessimistic view of contemporary thought, education, and art.]
A superficial family resemblance exists among a number of the educational documents to appear during the 1980s, among them the U.S. government study A Nation at Risk, Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind, Mortimer Adler's The Paideia Proposal, and E.D. Hirsch's Cultural Literacy. Although each of these works differs significantly in emphasis, all share a mood of urgency—almost despair—toward the knowledge and skills students possess and argue for a rediscovery of some common body of knowledge which can serve as a unifying element for both formal education and society as a whole.
The Culture We Deserve seems at first glance to be a close cousin of these other critiques of American culture and education, but it is, in fact, something quite different from either a Spenglerian forecast of doom or an airtight proposal for sweeping reform. Barzun, a prominent figure in American education for many decades and an emeritus professor of history at Columbia University, offers here a collection of related cultural essays, some of which were written as long ago as 1972. Barzun understands culture not in the sense that social scientists now use the term but in the earlier sense that emphasizes the lasting contributions of a social entity rather than its more ephemeral accomplishments and activities.
Barzun's targets are numerous and at times surprising. In “Where Is History Now?” he faults the Annales school of historians, the product of his native France, because they have abandoned telling a story of consecutive events and replaced it with the microscopic examination of quantitative facts or literary words. Barzun notes that not only are diplomacy, dynastic change, and the other mainstays of pre-Annales historians missing from the new history but so is a wider audience for historical writing. In the nineteenth century, the writing of history was an art form, evaluated on aesthetic as well as other criteria, and educated general readers devoured the historical writings of Macauley, Guizot, and Prescott. Barzun argues that the decline of the relationship between the educated general reader and the trained historian is part of a larger set of transformations that our culture is undergoing—transformations that fragment, isolate, and obscure the significance of individual and collective human experience.
Surprisingly, Barzun also takes aim at reference books (of all things) and publicly supported art. Most of us would consider the appearance of a new reference work as at least a potentially positive development, but Barzun sees in the contemporary cataloguing of facts an unattractive parallel with the Alexandrian lexicographers of late antiquity, who served a senescent culture by recording the meanings of forgotten words. As for publicly supported art, Barzun argues in the essay, “The Insoluble Problem: Supporting Art”:
The religion of art has so many adherents that every unit in society longs to join in artistic expression; school, church and town, businesses, hospitals, and cruise vessels—all want to be art centers.
The result is a glut of art and artists and a revolution of endlessly rising expectations that result in the “overproduction” of art as well as the creation of a star system that saves would-be connoisseurs from the trouble of thinking and deciding what art is of most value. Abundance has not brought satisfaction, Barzun believes, but only the pressure to produce even more.
By the time the reader has absorbed several of Barzun's essays, it becomes clear that the book's title is not merely a sarcastic putdown but an accurate summary of the position presented in each of the chapters. Any society—ours included—gets the culture it deserves. The tendency of the twentieth century toward specialization, on the one hand, and intercommunication, on the other, has produced an overly busy society in which competing ideas and a lack of a sense of unity and direction leave the average citizen unsure what his culture consists of. Barzun's largest and most saturnine piece, “Toward the Twenty-First Century,” suggests that we are facing a change in the culture of the West as momentous as that which occurred at the end of the ancient world. For Barzun, the apparent decline of liberalism, the inability of science to provide comprehensive and comprehensible answers, and the elevation of terrorism to some level of political legitimacy as a means of bringing about change all point to the final breakdown which has been predicted by many writers for most of this century.
But it is here that Barzun parts company most dramatically from Bloom and many of the other Jeremiahs, as well as from an earlier generation of prognosticators. Commentators of the early 1970s—such as Charles Reich (The Greening of America) and Marilyn Ferguson (The Aquarian Conspiracy)—saw big, positive changes ahead for Western culture, while the writers of the 1980s tended toward a decidedly more pessimistic view of the future. Barzun, with a prudence that is both admirable and at times frustrating, refuses to pretend that he knows the answer. He recognizes that prophecies of the end of civilization have been made for centuries, and that, even when such writers as Augustine have been correct in predicting the end of their own eras, they have fared less well in predicting what would come next. Instead, Barzun holds out the possibility of a new civilization emerging from the declining forms of our own, and he reminds us:
Civilization is not identical with our civilization, and the rebuilding of states and cultures, now or at any time, is integral to our nature and more becoming than longing and lamentations.
But if lamentations of the fall of civilization are not appropriate, criticism of specific aspects of our culture are, and Barzun offers critiques that are valid—whether or not one accepts the idea that our culture is reaching a crisis point. Barzun perceives a connection between the plague of illiteracy and the scramble of linguists to focus on the spoken word and reduce the importance of the written word. He is worried about the misplaced egalitarianism that applies the word language to every form of communication, no matter how limited its repertoire or function. He is for the return of the humanities—not as a vehicle for the training of competent members of capitalist society or the production of an elite corps of specialists but as a basis for a common language available to every element of any society.
None of these positions should be dismissed lightly as the reactionary arguments of an antiquarian who was born when Freud and Tolstoy were still alive. Barzun wants our current culture to be less crowded with events, less focused on fragmentary rather than whole experience, and, most significantly, less easy. The American tradition of maximizing options and minimizing effort has, in Barzun's view, blunted the influence of culture on all of us.
The implications of this view for education, however, do not inevitably point toward a Great Books curriculum or even the streamlined “Back to Basics” program found in A Nation at Risk. Barzun's message is more subtle and potentially more powerful. He calls for an end to the nonserious view of culture perpetuated by not only the quantitatively minded and the narrow specialist but by every “educated” expert who has invested too heavily in a particular ideology or an arbitrarily defined discipline. He despises the unrigorous “casualness and hatred of limits” which has masqueraded as broadmindedness in many educational settings. And Barzun sets an extremely high educational ideal for every intelligent member of our society. Although he avoids the word so often overused by educators, Barzun is talking about excellence—or, perhaps more precisely, the Greek concept of arete, a unique state fostered by self-discipline, talent, passion, and (very often) sacrifice. We must care about substance while redesigning theory, he argues. And we must revere those attempts which have succeeded in some ways to bring into view a larger portion of human experience.
Barzun's call to excellence is worth heeding. If enough of those who call themselves our intellectual and creative leaders would strive for the ideals Barzun sets forth, we would be able to say without shame that we have the culture we deserve.
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SOURCE: “From Apollinaire's Knee,” in American Scholar, Vol. 61, No. 1, Winter, 1992, pp. 138, 140-41.
[In the following review, Fowlie offers a favorable evaluation of An Essay on French Verse.]
No one title would be adequate to describe the contents of this small book [An Essay on French Verse]. Its author first carefully explains the rules of French prosody, and then he explores the changes it underwent in each century. The ten-syllable line of La Chanson de Roland in the eleventh century was recast into the twelve-syllable line, the alexandrine, in the thirteenth century. These two major types of lines remain the favorites in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Professor Barzun contrasts the classical alexandrine line with the iambic pentameter used by Shakespeare. The history of France and the political systems have affected the lives of the poets and influenced the development of French poetry from century to century. All of these topics—aesthetics, theory, history, biography, social change—are included in this “essay on French verse,” because the central preoccupation of the critic is language.
France grew into a nation from the ruins of the Roman civilization in Gaul, and at the same time a new language evolved. The language had a simple origin. With few exceptions French comes directly from Latin. The pre-Roman Celts left almost no traces in the new language. There were a few hundred words introduced by the Frankish conquerors. Whereas the English language has a double origin from the Roman occupation and the Saxon invaders, the literature of France, like its language, is homogeneous. The more complex origin of English has enabled English writers to reach effects of diversity and strangeness and richness. Such traits characterize English literature. The genius of French, coming from its sole origin in Latin, is still today characterized by simplicity and clarity.
English critics of French poetry have pointed out in their attacks this simplicity of the French language and the strict rules of versification. They claimed that the rhyming alexandrines and the preference for abstractions turned what should be poetry into oratory. Often they have claimed there is no French poetry before Baudelaire, with the possible exception of Villon, in the fifteenth century. This attack diminished in the twentieth century when Eliot and Pound recognized Mallarmé, Rimbaud, and Laforgue as genuine poets and models for their own writing.
Mr. Barzun discusses the French language (“a vowel language with difficult nasals”), the mute e, and the irrational spelling. Then, with admirable skill, he analyzes the rules of rhythm and rhyme. These three early chapters are justifiably based on the theory that the first major achievement of French verse was the neo-classical theater: the tragedies of Racine and the comedies of Molière.
When Louis XIV took over the government in the seventeenth century, France reached her maturity. The king centralized society around his palace at Versailles, and the theater became a permanent institution in France. The youthfulness and romantic idealism of Corneille's Le Cid (1636) and his tragedies of power were soon replaced by Racine's tragedies of the heart. Racine's alexandrines are both dramatic and harmonious. Mr. Barzun names him “the most obedient of the neo-classicists” and seems to agree with Robert Lowell who, when he translated Phèdre, called Racine “perhaps the greatest of French poets.”
Some of the most brilliant pages in An Essay are on Molière and La Fontaine, the two masters of comedy. Their vocabulary is the richest of their century. Remorseless in his ridicule of Les Femmes savantes, lucidly analytical in Le Misanthrope, Molière paints a world of vain ideals, of cold hearts, and futile consolations. Englishmen usually love Molière and detest Racine. The liberties taken by Molière are also in La Fontaine whose Fables are miniature plays. He was not a naturalist but a poet, and he made of a humble literary genre one of the most finished examples of French classical art.
The eighteenth was a great century for prose (Voltaire, Diderot, Rousseau) but a poor century for poetry. Mr. Barzun devotes few pages to it and passes quickly to the long spell of romanticism, and to its leader, Victor Hugo. From this point on—it is the mid-point of the book—the critic analyzes the theories and art of French poets during one hundred years, from approximately 1830 to 1930. Hugo, with his mastery of every form of verse (except the sonnet) was, according to Jacques Barzun, the liberator of democratic France and the greatest French poet. He did for poetry in France what Wordsworth did for it in England. Both poets brought changes to diction and subject matter. In the succeeding schools of Parnassian, symbolist, and surrealist poetry, there are traces of romanticism. These pages on Hugo and the information in the pages that follow will be valuable for today's students of French poetry. To illustrate Hugo's mastery of French versification, Mr. Barzun appended to An Essay the text and his translation of Hugo's Les Djinns (Evil spirits), taken from Les Orientales.
Musset, who is not favored by critics today, is treated generously by Mr. Barzun, who believes that the fluidity of Musset's lines and their ease and elegance are deceptive. Despair is the prevailing mood of the poems, which the critic sees as continuing the tradition of Marot in the sixteenth century, and even of Molière and La Fontaine in the seventeenth. Vigny, more solemn than Musset, was the stoic who in his strong poem, La Mort du Loup, believes man's duty is silent resignation in a world of evil.
Balzac died in 1850. About that time romanticism as a literary movement came to an end. It is true that Hugo continued to live and produce for more than thirty years longer. The school of romanticism had re-created French poetry. Its spirit was one of progress and change. It was therefore inevitable that the romantic ideal would be the stepping-stone for a first advance. This advance, whether it is called le Parnasse, or le symbolisme, or le surréalisme, is the subject of the last forty pages of the Essay.
For each of these changes or metamorphoses, Mr. Barzun finds admirable formulas and makes useful critical observations. Baudelaire's Les fleurs du mal (1857) was outrageous by nineteenth-century standards, but today he is usually the first French poet the English and Americans read after Villon. His fifty prose poems, without meter or rhyme, describe an urban world. He translated the stories of Poe and called attention to the poetic theories of Poe, which the symbolists Mallarmé and Valéry drew upon. Rimbaud's Illuminations was the new contribution to the new genre of the prose poem, initiated by Aloysius Bertrand and Baudelaire.
Second in importance, after Hugo, is Mallarmé, who taught that a poem does not tell but suggests. Since his death in 1898, Mallarmé has influenced each generation of poets in England and America. His art is very exact and at the same time ambiguous. The precise meaning of a word in a Mallarmé sonnet is often to be found in the root or etymology of the word. Jacques Barzun reveals several examples of this practice, dear to Mallarmé and to his principal disciple, Paul Valéry.
Rimbaud, the most precocious and perhaps the most rebellious French poet, wrote his poems (such as Le Bateau Ivre), his prose poems (Les Illuminations), and Une Saison en enfer (a spiritual autobiography) between the ages of sixteen and twenty. These writings are today considered as an important source of what is called “modernism.”
One of the last-mentioned poets in An Essay is Guillaume Apollinaire who came midway between the two generations of the symbolists and the surrealists. The case of Rimbaud had somewhat fixed the portrait of the youthful poet as a vindictive, sullen, and even persecuted adolescent, hostile to family and state and religion. Apollinaire changed this portrait to that of a young man without family and country (he was born of a Polish mother and an Italian father), and without a sentiment of vindictiveness. His attitude was one of gratitude to France for receiving him (an attitude similar to that of many artists: Picasso, Picabia, Chagall, Giacometti), of constant gratitude to his family of friends.
L'Esprit nouveau, a lecture given by Apollinaire shortly before his death (1918) and published a month later in Le Mercure de France, is the synthesis of his major theories on poetry and the modern spirit in art. A sense of exuberance must preside over the new spirit, as well as a desire to explore everything, regions of the world and regions of the heart, to bring to every experience that critical sense and that common sense which the Frenchman believes he inherits at birth. The artist must never neglect the new popular forms of art—the cinema, for example, of which Apollinaire was a prophet.
Mr. Barzun's book makes it clear that modern poetry owes almost everything to Baudelaire. Mallarmé, as an admirer of Baudelaire, became the most studied symbolist of modern poetry. Rimbaud was the dazzled initiate and rebel. Apollinaire, without possessing the poetic genius of Mallarmé or Rimbaud, was able to bring poetry back from its Mallarmean hermeticism and Rimbaldian violence to tenderness and nostalgia, to the gentleness of the clown.
As a child Jacques Barzun knew Apollinaire. He sat on the poet's knee as Apollinaire talked with him and amused him. It is a delightful autobiographical remembrance that serves as a conclusion to a book written by a man who throughout his very active life as teacher, scholar, and critic has read and studied and loved French poetry.
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SOURCE: “Art of the Difficult,” in American Scholar, Vol. 61, No. 2, Spring, 1992, pp. 312-15.
[In the following review of Begin Here, Pritchard commends Barzun's pedagogic ideals and concurs with his negative critique of contemporary American education, though notes that Barzun's recommendations contain “an element of Old Codgerism.”]
It is almost half a century since Jacques Barzun published his wise and witty Teacher in America (1945). I was, briefly, a graduate student in philosophy at Columbia University when the book was republished eight years later (as one of the first paperback titles in Doubleday-Anchor's memorable venture), and although I had read some of what William James and John Dewey had to say about teaching, Mr. Barzun's book was the first I encountered that took on the subject in a wholly contemporary, wholly pertinent way. From time to time I sat in on Jacques Barzun's course in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century European history, where he lectured with elegance to an attentive audience. My assumption at the time was that small classrooms filled with discussion were preferable to large lecture rooms, but Barzun, along with John Herman Randall of the philosophy department, gave lectures that—though quite different in manner—were equally filled with informative judgments and mischievous critical wit. By contrast, Lionel Trilling seemed unhappy lecturing to students and was most himself in the give and take of classroom argument.
Teacher in America describes the lecture room as
the place where drama may properly become theater. This usually means a fluent speaker, no notes, and no shyness about “effects.” In some teachers a large class filling a sloped-up amphitheater brings out a wonderful power of emphasis, timing, and organization. The speaker projects himself and the subject. The “effects” are not laid on, they are the meaningful stress which constitutes, most literally, the truth of the matter. This meaning—as against fact—is the one thing to be indelibly stamped on the mind, and it is this that the printed book cannot give.
And yet Barzun's fluency and the “meaningful stress” with which he treats a subject come across remarkably in the books he has written. Teacher in America has a vibrancy and confidence that suited the postwar surge in college and university enrollments, with a concomitant ambitiousness about pedagogical possibilities. But no one, including Mr. Barzun, knew just what we were in for.
Begin Here, a collection of writings from the past four decades about school, teaching, curriculum, is subtitled (rather somberly) The Forgotten Conditions of Teaching and Learning. There is a pervading sense, in the essays taken together, of things having gone off the track in disheartening ways—of wrong choices made, wrong roads taken. In one of the essays, “Teacher in 1980 America: What He Found,” we are directed to what “the once proud and efficient public-school system of the United States—especially its unique free high school for all” has turned into: “a wasteland where violence and vice share the time with ignorance and idleness.” School is now the place that turns out functional illiterates numbering in the millions, a place where incompetent students are passed anyway, where any course is as good as any other one, and where “bilingual education” undercuts the teaching of English. Barzun is not concerned to explore the sociological fact of the United States as a multicultured society, members of which no longer inevitably melt down in the melting pot and turn into good democratic citizens who sometimes read books. His sharp eye and sharp tongue are inclined toward a more detached view of things, often ironic or satiric—and, as Wyndham Lewis once reminded us, satire is deliberately “unfair.” These essays (many of them originally lectures) operate in bold, simplified strokes, and their formulations are correspondingly unambiguous. This doesn't mean that Barzun is less than wholly serious in his analysis but that his seriousness is not leavened with sympathetic understanding of the enormous problems of current-day American society. He may know all, but he doesn't forgive all.
If he's critical of bilingual education, he's completely unforgiving about “education” talk generally. The first two words of his book are strong ones: “Forget EDUCATION.” He would have us talk instead about schooling and teaching; “educational nonsense” he defines as “any plan or proposal or critique which plainly disregards the known limits of schooling or teaching.” It follows then that he has little sympathy with the monstrous courses “in” education and with the schools “of” education that have alienated so many prospective teachers by wasting their time, and wasting it in the terms of a vicious and pretentious vocabulary. Barzun characterizes the language in which educationists talk and think as one of “abstraction instead of direct naming; exaggeration of goals and results; seeing the student not as an individual but as an example of some psychological generality; taking any indirect means in place of the straight one.” The substitution of words and intentions for facts and hard work is at the core of the educationist boondoggle.
Teaching, insists Barzun, is not problem solving (as the educationists claim) but rather “a series of difficulties.” To deal with these difficulties is an art, and teaching is an art of difficulty. Recalling us to conditions of teaching and learning frequently forgotten, he reminds us that “it will always be difficult to teach well, to learn accurately; to read, write, and count readily and competently; to acquire a sense of history and develop a taste for literature and the arts—in short, to instruct and start one's education or another's.” He even suggests that, when you think of it, the life of teaching is an “unnatural” life—invading the privacy of another to tell him or her how to think, how to behave. Yet given the ease with which Barzun is quite willing, in this book (as in his previous ones) to tell us how to think and behave, it's hard to credit his claim that teaching is unnatural. Say instead, as one of the most felicitous phrases in a book filled with them says, that it is “a blessing thoroughly disguised.”
One of the most interesting chapters in Begin Here is titled “History is Past and Present Life,” where Mr. Barzun describes in some detail what a curriculum of courses in history might look like from the seventh grade through high school. Since as a historian he believes that his subject is “the best remover of provincialism and egotism,” he sets out to imagine how that removing might be done, beginning at around the age of thirteen or fourteen. As he does with “education,” he scorns and deftly satirizes “research” when applied—and it was applied to the “research” papers my own children were assigned—to seventh and eighth graders: “The word should not even occur, for at that level the thing is non-existent.” Call it what it is, a report on reading, instead of pretending that “Egyptian religion” is first “researched” then “acted out by the whole class.” (Barzun reserves special contempt for such activities when performed by separate groups of students, lounging on the floor: he is all for desks and chairs—no “running about” on separate projects.) His notion of a desirable sequence of history courses is one that, over six years, would survey the bases of Western Civilization in the following order: American History, History of England, Europe Since 1500, Ancient Greece and Rome, The Middle Ages, American History Since 1865. Such “basic” courses would be conducted in an equally basic style, one that emphasizes nothing more or less than the centrality of reading:
Read first and last. History is for reading, and developing a taste for reading history ensures lifelong pleasure. Let some striking portion of Prescott's Conquest of Mexico be assigned to a few students, to be read and turned into a précis, the best summary to be read aloud in class. Other small groups can read and write something on the same subject, or a similar one. Teach the students to be good critics of what they read—which means, to know how to praise as well as to criticize—and not to moralize.
Recalling my junior high and high school experiences in social studies (as it was called), I note that it was the history part that stimulated me; that when we were given a narrative of events—a story, with the implied question, always, “What happens next?”—those events usually became engrossing. Unfortunately all too much time was spent on the social studies aspect: learning the principal products of various cities in New York State (Troy manufactured shirts, I remember), or fussing with questions of voting and politics by putting on our own make-believe election. This sort of learning to be a Good Democratic Citizen was treated by the clever ones among us with little respect (no doubt to our discredit). We should have been reading Prescott instead, or H.G. Wells's Outline of History—or any well-written narrative, however popularized.
Of course such a program as Barzun suggests has a lot less chance of getting put into place today than it had even in the 1940s, since it would immediately be dubbed elitist and hierarchical and thrown out the window. The “forgotten conditions of teaching and learning” these essays engage with so eloquently are not about to be remembered by administrators or educationists, Democrats or Republicans, nor by the Education President (remember him?). A stir of interest and indignation may occur briefly when statistics show we're running well behind the Asians and the Europeans in science subjects (a recent study has us ranking between eighth and thirteenth in achievement levels at various grades), but no one will worry overmuch about how, or even whether, history or literature or music get represented.
Barzun talks a lot about the importance of teaching “rudiments” and how learning them isn't “fun”: “Sight-reading [of musical notation], taking dictation of intervals and rhythm, learning to sing and play in tune … learning to draw in perspective, to copy in various mediums, and use colors in the light of theory is nothing but hard work … some of it learning by rote.” In the factory town where I went to public schools, almost nobody was headed for college; but we learned such things, those rudiments (even though I never could draw in perspective, hard as they tried to teach me), along with diagramming sentences, memorizing poetry, and too much gymnasium work on the tumbling mats and parallel bars. There is doubtless an element of Old Codgerism in the belief that these activities, or most of them, somehow did us good—but I confess to believing it.
In the book's last section (titled “Advanced Work”) Barzun takes up life in the contemporary college and university, pointing out, in his introduction to the section, that college used to be—to the incoming freshman—a “revelation.” Here is a place where you were called “Mr. or Miss in class without irony” (it's now Ted or Susie, and you would be politically correct to use “first year student” rather than “freshman”), where “friendly but not chummy” faculty members taught “certain definite things of agreed importance,” and, above all, where you spent “many hours of reading in real books, written by adults for adults.” Fifty years later there is no comparable step up from high school, since colleges and universities
have been transformed into a motley social organism dedicated to the full life. It does include the mental life, but certainly makes no fetish of it. Rather, intellect weaves in and out of the main business, which is socialization, entertainment, political activism, and the struggle to get high grades so as to qualify for future employment.
The incoming freshmen have already been told that they are mature and entitled to endless options; their last two years of high school have offered courses similar to the ones they encounter as first-year college students, and—as Barzun points out mordantly—“‘research’ holds no mystery: they have been expert at it since the seventh grade.” Instead of a place apart, the college “re-creates the whole of society: unions and strikes, protests, insults, violence, madness, and the agencies needed to cope with these diversions.” Those agencies include “a small army of security guards, a corps of psychiatrists and counselors, facilities for free artistic productions, a supply of contraceptive information and devices, and housing and subsidies for political and ethnic separatism.” In 1949, when I was a freshman, my college's “security guards” consisted of a single slow-moving individual who was called exactly what he was—“Mack the Cop.”
Can it be that in the changed circumstances of today's college or university much good work still gets accomplished by students and teachers just as devoted as ever they were to the life of the mind? I hope that Barzun would say yes, and agree that even though the college is now less a place apart than a re-creation of the larger society, there are still lots of students reading difficult books while managing to ignore counselors, security guards, and even contraceptive information. The sentiment from a Randall Jarrell poem has it that “in those days everything was better.” If we hesitate to make that pronouncement about yesterday's college or secondary school compared with today's, we can at least agree that everything was … well, different. And Barzun's own assumptions about human psychology are so different from the going (and knowing) ones that he can claim, in a delightful commencement address given a couple of years ago to the New England Conservatory of Music, that it's important to find “a Self” … “a solid entity that you can trust, because you have made it yourself and made it well.” This “ordered set of reflections, conclusions, and convictions” should be the aim of teaching, and nothing is more difficult than the process of shaping that Self, making it well. The stimulus and discipline from outside that contributes most to this shaping is—once again—reading: reading “thick” books, books you want and need to reread. These are what provide the conditions for teaching and learning, just in case we forgot.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 882
SOURCE: “Perennial Difficulties,” in Education Digest, Vol. 58, No. 2, November, 1992, pp. 39-40.
[In the following review, Barlow offers a positive assessment of Begin Here.]
I have just spent a few very enjoyable weeks in the company of a remarkable mind; I have been reading Jacques Barzun's Begin Here: The Forgotten Conditions of Teaching and Learning. This is a collection of 15 essays written over a number of years and published in this collection this year by The University of Chicago Press. I have been reading little sections to my car pool, to my departmental colleagues, and to my wife.
I admit freely that one reason I enjoyed Barzun's book so much is that he and I share some of the same prejudices. For example, machine-scored tests.
Barzun says, “I think its use harmful to teaching and learning, both. I know all the arguments in favor of these so-called objective tests. They are easy to grade. Uniformity and unmistakable answers secure fairness. With such tests one can compare performance over time and space and gauge the results of programs and devices.” His chief complaint against machine-scored tests is that they test “nothing but recognition knowledge.”
“The worst feature of this game of choosing the ready-made instead of producing the fresh idea,” he says, “is that it breaks up the unity of what has been learned and isolates the pieces. In going through the 50 or 100 questions nothing follows on anything else. It is the negation of the normal pattern-making of the mind. True testing issues a call for patterns, and this is the virtue of the essay examination.”
Barzun thinks machine-scored tests are useful for quizzes, but not as assessments of what students really know. As he puts it, “Knowing something—really knowing it—means being able to summon it up out of the blue; the facts must be produced in their right relations and with their correct significance. When you know something, you can tell it to somebody else.” Hurrah!
One of the chief virtues of this book is Barzun's ability to spot educational sophistry. “A sure sign of nonsense in the offing is the emergence of new names for well-known things. Under the educationist regime, English became ‘language arts’; the school library, ‘general information resource’; the school period, a ‘module.’” Each of us could add to this brief list of puffed-up educational labels. At the school where I teach, the “learning resource center” is run by the “media specialist.” I don't know about you, but I want my librarian back. …
Some of you will remember all the talk a few years ago about teaching the “affective domain.” While Barzun does not use that term, he discusses the notion. “One great source of nonsense … is trying to teach the virtues verbally. A second is engineering human traits. The aim is to reach certain results head on. For example, it is true that students are hampered if they think poorly of themselves; they need a certain amount of self-esteem. Why not give it to them? Eighty-three percent of teachers in a recent inquiry considered this their ‘top role.’ Two states have added to their education departments a ‘Bureau of Self-Esteem.’ All this as if self-esteem were a definite commodity that one has or hasn't and that can be produced and injected when lacking.
“What a bureau can certainly produce is more bureaucracy, with paperwork and jargon to burden and bewilder teachers still more. Self-esteem comes from work done, from new power over difficulty, which in school means knowing more and more and coping easily with serious tasks. Boredom disappears with progress, with perceived advance toward completion and mastery.”
In the first essay in the book, Barzun gives us the best antidote I have ever read for all of the nonsense that constantly assails our schools. “To rediscover its true purpose is always in order for an institution or any other being, and doing so entails scraping away all pointless accretions. It is always a painful act. …”
“There is unfortunately no method or gimmick that will replace teaching. We have seen the failure of one touted method after another. Teaching will not change; it is a hand-to-hand, face-to-face encounter. There is no help for it—we must teach and we must learn, each for himself and herself, using words and working at the perennial Difficulties.”
I loved some of the things Barzun said at a meeting of the National Art Education Association in 1978. “… Tell yourself what you know about art, about teaching, about people young and old. Trust your common sense, keeping away from the old grooves of educational piety, and you will make some interesting discoveries, reach conclusions you can rely on, because they come out of your whole experience and not your slogans and shoptalk.”
Teachers grouse a good deal when a new fad sweeps over education, but we generally succumb to the political pressures around us and fall in line to wait it out until the current vision is replaced by a revision. We need to take Barzun's advice about sitting down and telling ourselves what we know. And then we need to tell others. Inherent in this is our professional obligation to stand up and make our voices heard when nonsense gets in the way of what we know we should be doing.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8604
SOURCE: “Jacques Barzun's American University,” in Society, Vol. 30, No. 4, May-June, 1993, pp. 71-82.
[In the following essay, London reconsiders the decline of contemporary university education a quarter century after the publication of Barzun's The American University.]
Jacques Barzun's work The American University, published in 1968, still stands as one of the most lucid, informative statements on the subject of the university ever written. With keen insights, he describes the university and its quintessential features, demarcating the ancestral, perhaps more congenial, university from the one that emerged in his day as teacher and administrator in the 1960s. Presciently he walks the reader through the mine fields of sixties “reform,” ever hopeful for the future of an institution to which he has devoted his professional life. But despite his admirable vision and power of analysis, even Barzun did not fully foresee then the extremes that emerged from the noisy radicalism of the 1960s. Even he could not imagine the corrosive influence of an all-embracing orthodoxy on campus.
Nevertheless, The American University is still essential reading for anybody who wishes to understand the essence of Barzun's role and the nuances of university life. The book is a primer on the atavistic yearning of youthful rabble rousers. He displays a wisdom in these pages that can guide college administrators and embolden presidents even today. Most evident is Jacques Barzun's wonder and excitement over the teaching and learning process. To read these pages is to understand why former students, now in their fifties and sixties, still wax lyrical when talking about his classes—for lyrical they were and lyrical his observations remain.
There is in Barzun's treatment of university life a clear demarcation of an era when interests were simpler and gentler than ours, a less fanatical era, when errors in judgment could be corrected without heroic effort. The university in that less complex era was not saddled with affirmative action policy and redressing the wrongs of the past, nor was it entwined with government interests, refashioning the curriculum in order to satisfy politically active groups, settling community concerns, nor was it conceived of as a problem-solving institution of first resort. How prosaic it now seems to describe the university as a purposeful sanctuary from the “real world.”
The university president in that innocent period could, as Barzun notes, “deal off-hand with seventy or seven hundred people and take care of their infrequent wants, easily knowing what had gone before and what he was doing now, to use or not as a precedent the next time.” Now the president, by virtue of his reconstituted role, has become a negotiator who deals with committees, with bargaining agents, and legal counsel. His faculty's demands are limitless and are often put forward discommodiously as “non-negotiable”—a feature first introduced into university life by student radicals. The president's primary role now is to maintain campus equilibrium between competing interests, and his success is often determined by an ability to avoid trouble on his watch. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that there are no Nicholas Murray Butlers on campus today.
While Barzun quite appropriately separates the old from the new, the ironic publication date of 1968 (the year of the student riots at Columbia University) militates against any analysis of the “postmodern” period in university life. This is the era in which the trends Barzun describes became entrenched and a mood of despair and irrationality observed in inchoate form became manifest in curriculum organization and university-wide practices.
While war and depression, government intrusiveness, and advanced technology played their part in changing the face of the university and in introducing “a new mode of administration,” systemic changes in the university occurred as society changed. An inability to cope with the vicissitudes of bureaucratic complexity compelled university officials to alter quotidian affairs from a gemeinschaft of personal contact and understanding to a gesellschaft of contracts and regulation. Mr. Chips was replaced by Perry Mason. The university was caught in the vortex of fundamental social change which it reflected until roughly 1968 and then promoted from 1968 to the present.
This reshaping of the university to accommodate the winds of change is an essential point acknowledged but, due to timing and the rush of events, is only partially explored by Barzun. For most of this century, even going back to the origin of the university at Johns Hopkins and Stanford in the nineteenth century, purpose and goals were well articulated by the founders. Knowledge was an end worth pursuing. The foundations of knowledge were largely unshaken by fashionable trends. And, despite occasional controversies over curriculum and academic freedom, the pace of change was slow.
The reason for the slow pace of change until the sixties was the singularly focused purpose of university life. Teaching and research, learning and study, constituted the faculty-student equation. The utopian effort to refashion society through university reformism was not yet on the horizon. Nor was the university yet in thralldom of adjudication of real and perceived social injustice. Administrators had not yet fallen into a rabbit's hole where symbols were deciphering tools and words were deconstructed like soap bubbles. Not yet had ideas once evaluated on their merit been filtered through the net of race, class, gender, and third-world ideology. Not yet had students’ rights been inserted into the Fourteenth Amendment, loco parentis was not yet abandoned. Not yet did researchers do Washington's bidding in an effort to obtain government subventions for their pet projects. Not yet were large numbers of students persuaded that rational discourse itself was little more than a plot to keep them subordinate.
In the “new age” the possibility of economic mobility through a university education has been converted into the right to a university education as part of equal opportunity. The university has become Plato's paradigm for democracy: available to everyone without the necessity of accepting responsibility or meeting prerequisites. In the nineteenth century, Charles Eliot, a president of Harvard, once said that the reason why Harvard has so much knowledge was that freshmen bring so much in and seniors take so little out. Today most scholarly studies and SAT scores reflect a different reality. Freshmen know very little, yet think they know a lot, and seniors know a lot about very little and do not know whether to take what they know with them or discard it.
There is, indeed, a college for everyone. But few ask if there should be a college for everyone. With standards reduced to the lowest common denominator, universities have vitiated the pursuit of excellence. One obvious manifestation of this trend is undifferentiated grades. In 1976 I gave up using the Dean's List, since it had become little more than a student roster. The pursuit of political objectives in the academy goes on unabated. The byzantine contortions university administrators exhibited in an effort to address the representation of blacks, Hispanics, Native Americans, and other designated minorities has forced colleges and universities to reduce admissions decisions to the very considerations of race they allegedly deplore. Hoisted by the petard of fairness, justice, and equal opportunity, university leaders are obliged to administer by category, arbitrariness, and inequality. Rather than apply a blind standard of need for financial aid, university administrators are forced to consider race in their calculus in order to satisfy political expectations. It is therefore not unusual for a student with wealthy black parents to be given a scholarship that would be denied to a middle-class white student.
The consequence of such decisions is to drive perpetual litigation and to pit group against group. Ironically, the efforts to integrate the campus have led to segregation. With race as a central criterion for all decisions, black students are unjustifiably clannish, demanding, and sometimes permitted to have their own dormitory space and separate eating facilities. At the 1991 Vassar College graduation there was a separate graduation ceremony for black students. Black students wore on their hoods the tri-colors of African liberation (red, green and black) instead of the Vassar colors. These specially decorated hoods were paid out of general student funds.
In order to accommodate the many interests on campus and the various talents and aptitudes of students, the university has created a metaphorical supermarket of courses. There are courses that are hard and courses that are soft; some pander to race and gender and others are bereft of any meaning; some have value and others are translations of “Sesame Street” for immature adolescents. As the university's purpose becomes increasingly ambiguous, catalogues get thicker. Not only is there a college for everyone, now there is a course for everyone. Instead of reading texts that liberate the individual from a narrow, provincial, limited perspective, avatars of a new culture argue for texts that reinforce the study of what is familiar or what passes for politically acceptable.
It is almost a cliché to contend that most college students have not read the great works of Western civilization, or of any civilization for that matter, are science and math illiterates, and cannot construct logical arguments in a debate or written statement. It is hardly surprising that, buffeted by the ethos of total egalitarianism, the indiscriminate supermarket of ideas and a radical agenda, most students graduate from college “trained in incapacity,” to borrow a phrase from Thorstein Veblen. Perplexed by the success of his book The Closing of the American Mind, Allan Bloom once asked me whether I had an explanation for the book's phenomenal sales. Granted that most people do not read Nietzsche (discussion of whose writings takes up the second half of the book), and granted that serious philosophy does not a bestseller make, I suggested that parents, confounded by the psychobabble of their college-educated children and tired of being called bourgeois and philistine, were willing to invest ＄20 to find out why they were wasting ＄25,000 a year. Bloom nodded knowingly.
The proliferation of scholarship with specialties now so arcane that the average person cannot possibly know what is meant by academic terminology has reduced knowledge to a form of mysticism or revealed truth. A faculty member at the New School for Social Research describes himself as a “post-modern semiotics instructor.” After having listened to him lecture, I am convinced he is a witch doctor enamored with obfuscation of language and meaning. Yet, he is not alone. I have observed two kinds of modern instructors. First, there is the Pied Piper, eager for recognition, for whom teaching is synonymous with sermonizing. Then there is the instructor who is eager to get teaching over with in order to spend time doing research. The former is a frustrated preacher; the latter often an opportunist for whom teaching is little more than a means to an end.
As teaching has been downgraded and the curriculum made into a political football, the rhetoric of self-praise employed by academics to describe their craft has risen dramatically. Words like excellent, profound, life-enhancing are pegged into the vernacular of a university life manipulated by advertising techniques. It is as if adolescents were being told “be all you can be in the university.” How, in that case, can parents possibly tell John or Mary “college is not for you”? The college experience has gone from a rite of passage to a right of passage. All the while, the educational experience has been transmogrified into a world rescue experience. Students are now asked to solve problems that even experts cannot control.
At commencement exercises, university presidents, in acts of collective conceit and deceit, tell assembled family members that this class is prepared to fight hunger, nuclear proliferation, homelessness, environmental contamination, disease, despair, urban decay. There is virtually no limit, it is suggested, to what these youngsters can do. Of course, most students neither believe nor act out such exaggerated rhetoric. It would be a refreshing change if these same presidents were saying, “I can assert that these graduates have read classic texts, can write a coherent paper, make logical judgments, understand the essential principles of science, speak a foreign language, and recognize themes in history.” But no, such assertions would be far too commonplace for the by now conventional hyperbole. It is the illusion that counts.
Such illusions have taken universities down a path where every opportunity for a new program is seized. What Barzun calls the “Babel index” is the temptation to do what rewards of money and glory demand. In the face of these blandishments the university is helpless to steer an independent course. It is often defined by the parameters of community involvement and external rewards. The lure of money and recognition is not only a blandishment for the university as a corporate body, it is also an almost irresistible attraction for the professor. Scarcely a full professor in the Western world is without opportunities to consult, advise, and write in return for money. Every presidential candidate travels with his coterie of hired academic hands. The compromise an academic makes with a world external to the university has fundamentally altered the expectations, commitment, and loyalty of the professorate. A flight from teaching that has reached epidemic proportions is in large part a function of divided loyalty.
Behind divided loyalty and obedience to several masters lurks a pervasive ambiguity about good teaching and scholarship. Is good teaching necessarily the art of stimulating students? Does it fit into the Procrustean bed established by those expressing a political or social orthodoxy? Is good teaching related to popularity? Is scholarship measured by the number of articles and the stature of the journals in which they are published? Most importantly, who is to judge? In a setting where celebrity status is in the ascendancy, far too often a superficial evaluation is made while the less obvious contribution of well-crafted lectures, concern for students, and careful grading is overlooked. It is, therefore, hardly surprising that the shared bonds of collegiality have retreated before the attractions of money, released time, and recognition.
Foremost on the faculty agenda is tenure—an institution deeply ensconced in higher education “to make professors independent of thought control.” While tenure offers a charter of freedom for the professor, it is an institutional gamble in which the university bets that “the young genius,” as Barzun puts it, will not “ripen into a dull old man, who has to be supported for years even when insupportable.” The financial vicissitudes in higher education are forcing a careful review of this once sacrosanct institution. But there are other reasons for the reexamination of tenure that Barzun's illuminating analysis of this question could not anticipate.
In the traditional vision, the university perpetuated the idea of Western civilization in two separate but related ways. First, it imparted an intellectual method that rejected the dogmatic, orthodox, and conspiratorial in favor of a broad-minded empiricism and a regard for the world's complexity. Second, it conveyed an underlying appreciation for the values of free societies, most notably a respect for the individual and for the ideals of personal liberty and constitutional democracy which emanated from it. As a result, the university experience had a dual character, in part a process of intellectual training and in part a process of socialization.
This view of the academy, however, is alien to the spirit of what aspires to become the new, activist vision, protected by the same institution of tenure and academic freedom as the traditional version, yet fundamentally at odds with it methodologically and substantively. Armed with totalistic visions and millennial expectations, its partisans have little sympathy for open discourse or analytic procedures that fail to guarantee desired conclusions. As Howard Zinn, erstwhile professor of history at Boston University, once put it, “In a world where justice is maldistributed, there is no such thing as a ‘neutral’ or representative recapitulation of the facts.” In such a view, objective truth is only what the present dictates or the future requires.
The organizing principle of the new scholarship inheres in its purpose rather than in its methods or theories. Its purpose is unremitting attack on cultural as well as political and economic institutions. This is a scholarship which sets out to prove what is already known; in short, the direct antithesis of what scholarship is. Yet, the ally in this systematic campaign to “capture the culture” (to borrow a phrase from Antonio Gramsci) is tenure and academic freedom. The classroom now frequently becomes the setting for ethnic and class antagonism. Until recently the university served as an important means of assimilating the upwardly mobile and integrating future leaders of American society. A significant portion of the professorate now strives to do the reverse, fostering political estrangement and cultural segmentation. Tenure and academic freedom in the febrile minds of would-be revolutionaries have been transformed from institutions that militate against external pressure and manipulation into institutions that promote them.
I disagree, however, with Barzun's assertion that “the loss of intellectual revelation [among students] is partly due to the improvement of the high school and its adoption of much of the contents of general education.” Many colleges, he says, are giving freshmen the sense of repetition of what has already been learned. This claim does not square with my experience. Not only am I convinced that high schools are not improving, based on my assessment of incoming freshmen, but the number in the highest quintile of SAT scores—as one superficial symptom of the secondary school malaise—has been declining ever since 1963. The agitation organized by students during the overheated period from 1967 to 1973 was prompted by rootlessness. The combination of war, the draft, a desire for social experimentation, spiralling divorce rates promoted activism instead of thought, problem solving instead of evidence gathering, doing instead of reflecting. The university as a center of learning was converted into a Paris Commune of sorts.
As I look back to that period, the high-school education students received did not help matters. It was an era of curriculum experimentation that produced a generation that was out of touch with basic cultural cues and unfamiliar with even the rudimentary facts about government and history. When Chester Finn Jr. and Diane Ravitch asked in their book What Do Seventeen Year Olds Know?, their answer, after much testing, was, not very much. Thrust into a college setting, enthralled with a utopian vision, these naive seventeen-year-olds, who do not know that the American Revolution came before the French Revolution, turned into right-thinking revolutionaries. Rather than arriving at opinion through a process of learning, reasoning and concluding, these products of American high schools made judgments parti pris, as if it were in the air they breathe or the coaxial cable that brought them visual images.
Where Jacques Barzun is unquestionably right is in his contention that students are “caught in the mandarin system” that makes a degree indispensable to a professional career. Therefore students are obliged to endure bad teaching and other manifestations of neglect. In a sense not well-understood by student radicals of bygone days and certainly not understood by students today, they are often victimized. Yet, this was not and rarely is the reason for campus agitation. The prototypical student radical of the late sixties has been replaced by a different complacent prototype today, albeit rootlessness is a feature common to both generations. In the past, rootlessness manifested itself as rebellion, now it is manifest as a search for orthodoxy, whether it takes the form of symbols, deconstruction, or obsession with third world authors. Students, as befits their age and idealism, have been in search of facile answers to complex questions, but it is—or should I say was—the responsibility of faculty members to lead them to a path in which the search is for truth rather than for slogans. But truth is elusive.
Barzun brings great insight to the student orientation as it evolved in the sixties and beyond, but perhaps the clearest demonstration of his perspicacity is in his description of university administrations as “above and below.” As an administrator for twenty years, I understand full well that I work for a faculty and that whatever limited influence I possess stems from my artful use of persuasion. I cannot pull rank since rank as an ascribed state does not exist in the increasingly egalitarianized university. I am after all only one member of a team consisting of president, vice presidents, and other deans who in synchronous devotion to a well understood and accepted goal can move the university community along haltingly and who, under normal circumstances, may only debate, consider, review, and disagree.
Today's decanal duties include nourishing a faculty with grant money, foundation support, concessions from the central administration, and a filtered assessment of how government regulations and the latest administrative missives influence its work, what Barzun calls “intelligent facilitation.” A dean is part mountebank, part manager, part executive, part interpreter, part fund raiser, and part alchemist. He must keep his school intact by orchestrating natural antipathies among faculty members, students, and alumni groups, and he must do so with sufficient good cheer so that confidence in his management ability is maintained.
Perhaps the most notable shift in higher education is that a professor who once focused on his students and his pension and did almost everything for himself, is now thrust into a setting where, as a result of specialization, regulations, and diverse and clashing interests, he is obliged to rely on others, most especially his dean. At bottom, a faculty does not want to administer the college, except when it believes the administrative decisions impinge on the prerogatives of teaching and scholarship. As Barzun noted: “It is his [dean's] business to serve them [faculty members], not his likes and dislikes.” [emphasis in the original]
The most glaring moment of recognition, in a book filled with echoes of the past, struck me in the chapter about the budget. A mystical air surrounds this item called the budget. Although prepared with a precision that reifies numbers, it also charts priorities and standards. The budget measures nothing tangible, yet whatever is tangible in the university cannot exist without it. It is a document of compromise, deliberation, and assumptions; it is a distillation of views about the future, yet firmly anchored in the past. Departments, individual faculty members, and other constituents brandish knives to get their “fair” slice of this metaphorical “pie.”
At the center of all bickering and compromises there is an objective reality composed of debits and credits and the fear of a deficit. The word education, however, is rarely mentioned and the budgeting process is informed by a decided tilt toward retention of programs already in place. Rarely does anyone apply “zero budgeting” methods, in which each program director is obliged to make a case for his budget each year. Should such a policy be introduced, the university would probably not be the same again. Whatever animosity exists among faculties would be exacerbated by a stated justification for their existence. Recognition of this likelihood is what greases the budget-resolution wheel. Most constituents would rather have partial rewards than a Hobbesian world of each against all.
Leading the charge for university budget reform are those who wish to change the university to reflect their political principles. These are the neo-libertarians, who, through a prism of dissatisfaction with the status quo, wish to convert the university into their version of utopia. Utopia, for them, is related to curriculum reform, which often includes eagerness to erase the distinction between teacher and student, authority and constituent. That a university cannot directly serve social ends is a point overwhelmed by the flood-tide of political discontent. Even normally sober academics now engage in the hyperbole of some brave new world led by recent college graduates who have the wisdom to solve social problems their elders are unable to remedy. Mercifully, the era of “relevance” has come to an end. But it has been replaced by an age of irrelevance, though not perceived as such, since many academics assert, on the contrary, that they are curing present ills.
It is, of course, customary for university presidents to proclaim that graduates are being prepared to face the demands of modern life. Yet, the meaning of these words “prepare for life” is ambiguous. Recently a colleague tried to address this problem by proposing that students should learn problem-solving techniques as undergraduates. When pressed, he had to admit that problem solving without knowledge was impossible. On another occasion I heard a distinguished scholar refer to the need for student “experience.” Again the claim had a spurious ring to it. If experience is the essence of education, then my grandfather quite obviously deserved a PhD.
Barzun advances the notion of “preposterism” to make the point that since knowledge is valuable, every aspiring college teacher shall produce research. The resultant knowledge explosion has had its fallout in every sector of society. There is more work published to little purpose than ever before. And the more that is published, the less we understand about our nation, our individual roles, our principles, our beliefs, and ourselves. So much of this so-called research is produced at the expense of teaching. Barzun contends that the best liberal arts colleges have “a strong grip on solid subject matter and trust to its broadening, deepening and thickening effect.” If this claim was true once, it is most certainly less true now. Universities compete for scholars judged mainly by reputation. Despite lip service given to teaching, it is much less valued than research, as both the allocation of chairs and salary determination amply demonstrate.
The explosion of research has also trivialized the curriculum through the proliferation of courses which pay obeisance to what is fashionable. One critic of higher education refers to the course guidebook as the “Chinese menu for dilettantes.” What the extensive listing of courses actually represents is the abdication of faculty responsibility. In an atmosphere in which the purpose of higher education has been obscured by a reformist agenda and the curriculum has been turned into a battlefield for departmental scrimmage, the number of courses grows in proportion to designated self-interest and the effort to accommodate “new” disciplines.
The by-product of this change is an undergraduate program often devoid of commitment to teaching and often lacking any coherent purpose. The ambiguity of most college curricula is deeply embedded in the general ambiguity of what a university should be. Barzun notes the two oft-repeated contradictory messages in higher education: this is a public institution capable of participating in the affairs of state—at New York University we say “a private university in the public service”—and this is an elite institution, an ivory tower, if you will, whose majesty should not be compromised by the affairs of state. Retaining the dignity of the university, specifically its devotion to research, is increasingly difficult when the desire to merge and blur all roles and all purposes dominates university life. As more and more demands were imposed on universities—demands universities could not fulfill and would not resist—the rhetoric of higher education changed. Literature describing the institution invariably refers to saving neighborhoods and even saving nations, having world-class athletic programs and world-class laboratories; rarely do these descriptions mention the value of simple exchange between mentor and student that may inspire a thirst for knowledge.
Alfred North Whitehead maintains in Science and the Modern World that the twentieth-century research university is constructed in accordance with the principles of seventeenth-century physics. He argues that the revolutionary physics of our century, with its reconceiving self and world and its integration of fields of study, came too late to be incorporated into a Newtonian structure of mechanical parts separated by function. The “new” university is in fact old at heart. It fractures science and the humanities and reduces truth, goodness, and beauty to mere expressions of subjective judgment. Moral virtue, an essential component of education before the Enlightenment, has been relegated to the archaic as professional and technical study are in the ascendant.
William James's discussion of this “scientific nightmare” did not prevent the evolution of the modern university, nor did the emergence of revolutionary ideas in physics and philosophy. These ideas offered a conception of an integrated world of freedom, responsibility, and moral vitality. But the university was already well on its way to becoming a Cartesian world of departments and bureaucracies. I may be day dreaming, but I am persuaded that many people outside the academy believe that the university has failed to address the common concern for meaning, the humane, and the ethical.
Each university department guards its private domain of expert knowledge with jealousy—a subject matter base underwritten by professional associations. Hence, willy-nilly, the university has become a gatekeeper for professional power and academic identity. In its attempt to assemble the disparate parts into a whole, the university community presupposes an experiential sense of the world, a sense contradicted by the very compartmentalization of knowledge the university promotes. Moreover, as technology is increasingly focused and as professionals are increasingly specialized, judgments about the world that emerge from the study of disciplines are construed solely in technical terms, often imperiling a sense of broadly defined human significance. It is hardly surprising that a new breed of humanities professor has similarly relegated all subject matter to the realm of ideology, on the principle that truth is transitory. Universals are repudiated by this new-age professor, nurtured by an environment that is narrowly specialized. Professionalizing the humanities should be seen as an essential contradiction. It is worth recalling the subtitle of Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind, namely, How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today's Students.
The failure of the modern university is its unwillingness to consider “holistic” thinking, a way of thinking that cuts across disciplinary barriers. To conceive of a mind separate from a body is to misunderstand the interdependence of all the elements within the self. At the same time, an obsessive concern with the self, with the ego's interests, has converted much learning into the pursuit of the I. I have lost patience with colleagues who start every discussion with the words, “How do you feel about … ?” Since the meaning of personal feeling cannot be dissociated from the meaning of the world, the question is ultimately foolish unless clearly related to a reasoned conception of life.
The story is told about a conversation between Ludwig Wittgenstein and Sigmund Freud, in which the would-be master of the mind asserted that through protracted and undirected talk one could ultimately decipher the mystery of the unconscious. Wittgenstein, however, remained unpersuaded. “Sigmund,” he reportedly said, “the reason I believe your assumption is wrong is that talk without limit or purpose ends in futility.” Wittgenstein was not only making a point about psychotherapy, but also about education. Pedagogy demands limits and purpose. We cannot study everything or know anything without some idea of what is to be learned.
With cynicism about higher education on the rise at a rate only slightly slower than the rate of increase in tuition, I believe it is time to consider the end of the university as we have known it. I should hasten to note that I do not welcome this development; my observations are little more than logical extrapolations from my own experiences and from what I have seen happening since Jacques Barzun wrote the American University a quarter of a century ago.
In her book The Case Against College, Caroline Bird counsels that in calculating the costs and benefits of a college education, middle-class parents should not automatically rule in favor of college for their children. Whether a college degree provides the economic rewards that are widely promised relative to the investment is, however, less significant than the fact that the university is a likely casualty in a changing climate of opinion.
The inevitable lockstep of the high-school-to-college odyssey is waning, because the economic conditions, the cost of tuition cost for university studies, and the politicization of the academy militate against the expectation of business as usual. Tuition costs, as everyone knows, have soared beyond the reach of even many well-to-do parents. In the past four years, with inflation hovering around 3.5 percent annually, tuition increases at private colleges have averaged 9 percent. The typical salaried parent sending a child to a private college (let us say someone earning ＄50,000 a year) is in a vise, because it is presumed by admissions officers that the parent is earning enough to pay the tuition tab. But if this parent were to send a son or daughter to, say, Princeton, it would be inviting bankruptcy. After covering tuition, room and board, books, and other expenses totalling more than ＄25,000, the wage earner would, after paying taxes, be driven into the ranks of the poor. College presidents routinely descend on Washington with their lobbyists seeking succor for financial problems; and to an extraordinary degree they have been successful. Aid to higher education—after the so-called cuts of the Reagan-Bush years—is in the ＄12 billion range.
We are now, however, in the era of budget cutting. The halcyon days of guaranteed assistance, minimally at the inflation rate, are over. The once sacred cow of educational spending is now simply another budget item. If government is no longer a savior, neither are continued tuition increases. Raising tuition expense above inflation only exacerbates market conditions, since the pool of potential applicants for admission is reduced. Scarcely a university administrator in the country fails to lament a condition in which universities price themselves out of a middle-class market. Is it any wonder that admissions standards have eased in most colleges and that the search has begun in earnest for the “new” student, a person older than the typical eighteen-year-old freshman?
Demographic characteristics of the nation are affecting college enrollment. The baby boom has become a distant memory and the recent baby “boomlet” will not have a profound effect on the percentage of adolescents in the population. In fact, the over-sixty population group will soon be growing faster than the under-nineteen population. Thus the 1960s are not likely to be repeated. We will not see anytime soon—and probably not again—an American population with one out of three people attending a college or university. If anything, the “birth-dearth”—a decline in the number of children per family—is likely to characterize the population of the United States for some time to come. With the present birth rate of 1.8 children per family, there is little doubt that there will not be enough adolescents by the year 2020 to sustain the present number of colleges and universities, unless a larger than characteristic portion of the nation's high-school graduates are encouraged and subsidized to attend colleges and the number of colleges is reduced.
Both of these changes are already evident. Many colleges have closed their doors and other closings are imminent. Some colleges have joined with others in a confederation of necessity. Some have engaged in a systematic reduction of faculty members and enrolled students. Still others are seeking adult students to replace the diminishing adolescent pool, and yet others dip deeper into the cohort of high-school graduates to secure enrollment.
At Hampshire College, for example, officials argued in 1982 that in order to retain an enrollment of 1200 students they would be obliged to lower admission standards. After an unsatisfactory experiment with marginal students, they switched gears and reduced enrollment from 1200 to 1000—at the same time reducing the faculty by 10 percent. Such decisions to retrench are becoming commonplace. If not retrenchment, then merger. In this vein Barrington College of Rhode Island merged in 1985 with Gordon College of Massachusetts. However, when merger does not seem to be the answer, coeducation sometimes is. Vassar College strengthened its precarious financial situation by becoming a coeducational institution. Even one of the last holdouts, Goucher College, a women's school since its founding in 1885, decided to become coeducational in 1987.
Reinforcing this enrollment trend is the growth of corporate-based alternatives to a college degree, including conferring of degrees by corporations. One no longer has to go to college for a diploma. I.B.M., to give one illustration, now operates the largest “university” in the world from its Armonk facility. Bell and Howell offers a degree program for its present employees and as a lure for potential employees. Corporations can attract some of the brightest graduates with a promise of free tuition, a secure job, and training appropriate to the workplace. While university officials contend that this kind of corporate education is narrowly specialized and often does not include liberal arts courses, these programs must be seen against a backdrop of increasing cynicism about the value of a liberal arts education and toward what is regarded as its often fraudulent character. Despite the claim that the university is a guardian and custodian of culture, an assumption shared by Barzun and others, the conflation of fiscal demands and a reduction in university standards make the corporate BA competitive with the conventional college degree.
Very few academics who have thought about the subject would contend that the manner in which college degrees are presently offered will prevail in the next century. Fiber optic technology and the marriage of computer and television permit a high quality, customized, and inexpensive degree accessible at home to everyone. The capital investment in university buildings and equipment, the investment in tenured faculties, and the cost of recruiting students militate against the continuation of the present university system. If the university has gone through two phases in this century—the time of innocence and dominant leaders and the era of bureaucracy—a third phase, dominated by technology, is looming over the near horizon.
If the legitimacy of higher education were not in question, perhaps the tide of technological change could be slowed. But since the 1960s, in fact since the publication of the American University, the university as the broker of ideas has been converted into the university as the would-be molder of history. In the process, the authority of the institution has suffered in public word and deed. In the decade roughly from 1964 to 1974, the university was at the center of a political maelstrom of anti-Vietnam sentiment and of demands for free speech and participatory democracy.
As the sanctuary for all unpopular opinion, the university was being converted into a hothouse for a succession of fashionable views. Academic freedom became an apparatus for protection from criticism. When opponents disapproved of the propagandizing, the flag of academic freedom was raised along with vague references to McCarthyism.
If the academic responsibility of the past was to nurture youthful minds and provide a context for judgment, however questionable some of the methods may have been, the febrile members of the academic community now see their job as conversion, that is, excoriating “naïveté” and exposing the “corrosive” elements in the nation and in the culture. Not that this effort has been entirely successful. Students today are like students of the past: skeptical of their professors’ views. But despite student skepticism, a conventional wisdom on campus has emerged. Feminism is a given, invariably accepted without question. Affirmative action is part of the academic catechism. Investment in South Africa is verboten. The Strategic Defense Initiative is the wrong policy. Rich people are by definition exploitive. Businessmen are avaricious. These views are not hypotheses that can be subjected to rigorous analysis. They are incantations accepted without even a nod to rational investigation, as “sensitivity training” and its resultant bureaucracy on many campuses would seem to suggest.
Partly as a consequence of this development, there have been a staggering number of federal and state reports about the university in the last ten years, all concluding in one way or another that something is wrong. William Bennett, the former Secretary of Education, writes in To Reclaim a Legacy that the liberal arts have become so “diluted” that college graduates know little of the “culture and civilization of which they are members.”
Knowledge of American history or European civilization is not a prerequisite for graduation from most colleges. Frederick Rudolf, coauthor of Integrity in the College Curriculum, points to “the accelerating decline of the undergraduate degree.” He contends that in “what passes for a college curriculum, almost anything goes.” Even where efforts are made to restore quality to the undergraduate program, they are often subverted by a university pork barrel in which the retention of one course in French, for example, is secured by like consideration for a course in philosophy within the so-called core curriculum.
While administrators invariably claim devotion to high standards, tuition dependency cannot help but affect them adversely. The National Education Association, notably charitable to student opinion, notes in a report on colleges that students are “increasingly reluctant to undertake courses of study in colleges that challenge their academic skills.” This condition, by the way, is not likely to change in a “buyer's market” unless all universities institute the same requirements—a highly implausible scenario. Bennett has pointed out that fewer than half of the nation's colleges demand the study of a foreign language as a degree requirement, compared with 90 percent a scant twenty-five years ago. Rudolf describes higher education as “a supermarket where students are shoppers and professors are merchants.”
As the liberal arts have been faring badly, career programs have grown in stature and importance. They also pay the university's bills. Business and engineering, to cite “hot” fields, often require nothing more than a rudimentary brush with the humanities. At many universities, Master of Liberal Arts programs have been introduced for college graduates without liberal arts training. These ploys are not altogether the fault of universities. Desire to make higher education into an instrument for democratizing placed the university squarely in the middle of an obligation it could not shirk. Many students, lacking adequate preparation for college study, were “dumped” into the academy with the expectation that in four years small miracles could be performed. However, faculty members, trained in a narrow area of specialization and often not equipped with pedagogical skill, were poor operatives for the task of remedial teaching.
The answer to this dilemma was a variety of reforms, including undifferentiated grades (pass/fail), that blurred differences in ability and contaminated the meaning of a degree. Between 1963 and 1992 the share of the student population majoring in traditional arts and science disciplines declined precipitously. Philosophy lost 60 percent of its students, and English 72 percent, while psychology, arguably the softest of the social sciences, gained 56 percent. Journalism is the fastest growing undergraduate program. At New York University it enrolls the highest number of undergraduate students. Of course, part of this general trend away from the arts and sciences can be attributed to the economic recession and to poor instruction, but some portion of the shift is clearly related to a virtual abandonment of the much-touted goal of excellence.
How serious can the university's mission be when “freshman” is eschewed from the language as an offense to first-year female students; when Crispus Attucks, an obscure mulatto who was inadvertently killed in the Boston Massacre, is exalted as an American hero in history courses, and when “peace studies” are introduced as a discipline in order to decry the existence of nuclear weapons? It is the attention given to such issues and the media coverage of campus turmoil that have altered the once rubber-stamp public support for higher education.
The baby boom of the post-war era accelerated public and private spending on colleges and universities to levels grossly out of proportion to any future demographic realities. Higher education was deemed an unqualified good; therefore, the more you have of it, the better it is for the body politic. One cannot travel for more than three miles on the San Diego Freeway without seeing a sign pointing to a community college. That these colleges may be superfluous with the declining pool of adolescents in the nation seems obvious.
What is not so obvious is the continuing misguided faith in education as a anodyne for all that ails us. As evidence from the past three decades illustrates, most of the social reforms imposed on universities in order to relieve perceived social problems had a greater effect on the university than on the social problems themselves. For example, affirmative action policy has had a profound effect on the proliferation of university bureaucrats and on admissions policy, but it has not had any influence on relieving racial tension. Some academics argue, validly I believe, that this policy has exacerbated racial tension.
Many communities with a population over 50,000 considered it a disgrace if the town did not have a community college. After all, if it is good for the big cities, why should it not be good for the towns and the suburbs? Community status got entangled with the presence of a college. The late Nelson Rockefeller once described the state-supported college system as his greatest accomplishment as governor of New York. He neglected to point out, however, the enormous cost of this system to the taxpayers of the state: ＄4.5 billion a year, equal to a ＄17,000 subvention per student. In our own era of austerity, taxpayers have a valid reason to voice their concern about the way in which their money is spent. A taxpayer revolt on aid to higher education—public and private—is not yet manifest, but the context for legislative decisions on education has changed to such an extent that higher education is no longer shielded from disapprobation.
Much of the money on campus is being spent on an activity that is increasingly subject to careful scrutiny research. As is attested by the vast majority of Nobel laureates, most researchers have a university appointment. A symbiosis between the university and basic research has evolved over the past half century. It was in large part fostered by government, since this was a relatively inexpensive way for the state to support universities and simultaneously to support research. It saved an enormous investment in government-sponsored research centers. This convenience for government and benefit for the university has been criticized by some academics as obliging the university to do the government's bidding. Recent controversy over the research for the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) demonstrates the point. If one is truly concerned about securing the autonomy of the curriculum and protecting it against ideological assault, then one should also be concerned about the intrusion of government projects into university life, an intrusion that may jeopardize the independence of researchers.
At this writing, it appears that government is gradually, but perceptibly, disengaging itself from university research programs. At the same time, a host of think tanks have been organized to fill the gaps universities have left in basic research. Scientists are just as likely to do research at Bell Laboratories as they are at a university. It can also be shown that the majority of college and university facilities are not used for serious research. A recent National Science Foundation report, after reviewing faculty contributions, indicates that only about fifty universities constitute serious science-research centers. If the paucity of research at most colleges were recognized, the transition to alternative research facilities and the corresponding budget retrenchment may not seem so formidable.
Professors are in a “declining industry” where salaries have not kept pace with inflation. As a result, many moonlight in order to keep pace. The moonlighting usually takes the form of consulting, which diminishes loyalty to the university and dedication to teaching, particularly the teaching of general undergraduate courses. In report after report on university instruction, whether from the National Endowment for the Humanities or the Carnegie Council on Teaching, reference is made to unsatisfactory college teaching. But where will future teachers come from when the liberal arts have fallen from grace, when serious scholarship is not encouraged and only rarely found, and when salaries cannot compete with those in comparable fields? The college classroom may once have been the arena for vigorous intellectual discourse, but a report of student complacency in the Chronicle of Higher Education indicates that this condition is no longer all pervasive. In most student polls, undergraduates can rarely name one professor who inspired them. Where, for a contemporary generation of students, is the inspiration that students at Columbia enjoyed in the period from 1940 to 1970, when they were taught by Jacques Barzun, Lionel Trilling, and Mark Van Doren?
To an extraordinary degree, college education has become, in the bad sense of the word, personal—too intensely personal, another example of solipsism in our society. William Bennett has pointed out how success in school is frequently unrelated to success outside of school and how academic subjects tend to be “of limited consequence in the real world.” If he is right or even partially right, then the university's legitimacy has ceased to exist. A National Institute of Education report concludes with the plea that “all bachelor's degree recipients should have at least two years of liberal education.” If they are not getting it, what are they getting? Visibly, young people are scrambling to get jobs, which they think requires only training, not education. At a time when colleges are trying to lure students, the wise offer of an education is not likely to find many takers.
In his article “The Case against Credentialism” in the Atlantic Monthly, James Fallows noted, “What is rewarded is excellence in school, which is related to excellence on the job only indirectly and sometimes not at all.” If college work has so little application to employment, why should parents invest thousands of dollars in it? And if the argument for higher education is not utilitarian (which it is only indirectly) then a case must be made for learning as the edification of soul and character. Even the remaining ardent defenders of the university are incapable of making this claim effectively. What we are left with is college as an adolescent rite of passage that provides a remote chance youngsters will discover an area of vocational interest which may prove to have a lasting effect on their lives.
Thirty years ago, the university was put on a pedestal as the place where “the whole man” was developed (it was a time when the word man still had its full, genderless meaning of “human being”). So confident were they about this assertion that, as far as I know, very few of my classmates questioned that claim. The university could be exalted because it stood for something worthy and intelligible. That is no longer true. I could argue that the fate of the university is not related to the future of education; the two are not necessarily synonymous. But reflecting on what I have noted in these pages and Barzun's observations, I am convinced that we are entering a new phase in the evolution of the university. It is already the case that learning and research are being fostered elsewhere, chiefly by business corporations acting in self-defense against ill-prepared college graduates. Once parents are persuaded that this less costly alternative can confer the same advantages as the elite institutions, the university we have recently known will be obsolete.
There is much to be lamented about the passing of the university even in its most recent incarnation. At its best, the university can promote the exchange of ideas and develop an appreciation of our common humanity. It can usher in moments of enlightenment that for young minds can be intoxicating. It can inspire vocations and arouse devotion to public service. There must be dozens of men and women today so inspired by the Barzun-Trilling seminars at Columbia of decades ago that they decided to follow the path of their mentors into teaching. If the university is destined for decline and demise, the present moment is not one for rejoicing.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 573
SOURCE: “PW Talks with Jacques Barzun,” in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 247, No. 4, April 3, 2000, p. 69.
[In the following interview, Barzun discusses his notion of “culture” and “decadence” and the general thesis of From Dawn to Decadence.]
[Golo:] Your book From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life is so wide-ranging, it covers everything from the literary to the culinary. How do you define “Culture”?
[Barzun:] Cultural history cannot be defined, because it really has no limits. “Culture” can be seen as high culture, the arts—generally. But anthropologists have changed all that. … When they went to see primitive peoples, they covered absolutely everything those peoples were doing—from how they cooked to how they worshiped.
In the book, you say that the Bible used to be the common culture of the West, but no longer is. Do we have a common culture today?
It used to be that colleges and universities provided for a certain group of people—not the whole country, but a good many—a common culture. But now that has been attacked. Now everyone has his own little specialty and enjoys it more than exploring outside it and grasping other things. So we really have no common intellectual background. I notice in the press, for example, that many familiar allusions to the Greek gods are steadily misused. Everything is a little diluted, a little off-key, and it's a sign that we haven't got anything like a common culture.
Is your book an attempt to establish one?
It can't done as a program; it has to exist as tradition. You can't say, ‘I'm going to reestablish culture,’ though I think there are some people who are hopeful. … Someone has recently written a volume of several hundred cultural facts that people are supposed to know, I don't think it works that way. You can't just memorize facts—it must enter your mind as part of a story. It must be part of the books you've read, the things your friends refer to casually in conversation.
What do you mean when you say our era is “decadent”?
Decadence is the falling apart of ideas and received tradition. I think it's something that happens inevitably when the leading ideas of a particular era—400 or 500 years—are all worked out. That is true of the arts and literature, and it is true also, not always at the same time, of institutions, And I suggest that all the talk today about reinventing government is an admission that the parliamentary system—that representative government—has gotten into a jam. It's impossible to reform even when people do agree about the reform. Another important institution, the nation-state, is now breaking up into separate units that people can defend against other units. All that is decadence. It's not unusual; it happens over and over again. It can last a long or short time depending on circumstances.
Did your feeling that our era was decadent prompt you to do this 500-year study, or did the study come first and then the assessment of our time?
The latter. After linking a number of studies of separate periods and movements, I decided that if I lived long enough, I would try to make a synthesis, fill in the gaps, and see whether any kind of coherent picture came out of the effort. In studying to do this filling in and organization, I came to the conclusion that I have just discussed with you.
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SOURCE: “Venturing Provocative Judgments,” in New Leader, Vol. LXXXIII, No. 2, May-June, 2000, pp. 42-3.
[In the following review, Meyer offers a positive assessment of From Dawn to Decadence.]
My spontaneous response upon learning of Jacques Barzun's hefty new work was delight and surprise that he is still with us and still scribbling. Born in France in 1907, formerly a professor of history and provost at Columbia University, author of Berlioz and the Romantic Century (1950) and other important books, Barzun is seemingly the sole survivor of that once celebrated constellation on Morningside Heights: Lionel Trilling and Meyer Schapiro, Richard Hofstadter and Margaret Mead, C. Wright Mills and Ivan Morris, among others. At 92, on the evidence of this bravura performance, Barzun remembers more than most of us have learned.
From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life might at quick glance appear to be that soporific thing, a professorial “survey,” an eye-glazing assemblage of names and dates plastered in place with platitudes. But wait. Barzun wakes us up with the first of his 30-odd sketches of the West's geniuses and troublemakers. About Martin Luther, he begins: “When the miner's son from Saxony, Luther, Lhuder, Lutter, or Lotharius as he was variously known, posted his 95 propositions on the door of All Saints’ Church at Wittenberg on October 31, 1517, the last thing he wanted to do was to break up his church, the Catholic (= ‘universal’), and divide his world into warring camps.”
That sentence is typical of the graceful concision the author sustains for 800-plus pages. There follows a summary, seasoned with aphorisms, of the unreformed Church of Rome, its gluttonous monks, its corrupt but art-loving Popes, its practice of ordaining boys of 12 as bishops, their wealthy families having provided early for their future happiness. “The system was rotten,” the author asserts in a passage that helps explain his title. “This had been said over and over, yet the old bulk was immovable. When people accept futility and the absurd as normal, the culture is decadent. The term is not a slur; it is a technical label. A decadent culture offers opportunities chiefly to the satirist, and the turn of the 15C had a good many, one of them a great one: Erasmus.” That introduces us to Luther's counterpoise in the battle of ideas, a tolerant Christian reformer who did not experience faith as a passion. And who lost out.
Impressively, Barzun keeps a complex narrative flowing as it moves from century to century, from the arts and sciences to politics and plumbing, its themes encapsulated in the lives of the famous, the infamous or the scarcely known (e.g. the feminist Christine di Pisan, the medical innovators Paracelsus and Thomas Beddoes, the military engineer Vauban, the financial adventurer John Law, the gifted educator Marsilio Ficino, the English critic James Agate).
The book is also leavened with apt boldface inserts—crisp snippets from songs, speeches and books, many unfamiliar, such as the astute prophecy of the British ambassador to Austria in 1913: “Serbia will someday set Europe by the ears and bring about a universal war on the Continent.” Another strategy is the use of “cross-sections” to suggest how the world looked from Madrid in 1540, Venice in 1650, London in 1715, Weimar in 1790, Paris in 1830, and Chicago in 1895—altogether a nice flourish, with a suitable cadenza: New York around 1995.
But what truly confounds narcolepsy is Barzun's unfashionable willingness to venture provocative judgments. “Taken in all,” he writes, “Venice [in 1650] was the nearest approach ever made to Plato's system of rulers by duty and dedication who govern soberly.” Or:
“It is a notable feature of 20C culture that for the first time in over a thousand years its educated class is not expected to be at least bilingual.”
“Louis XIV was much too clever to have said, ‘The State? I am the State.’”
“A movement in thought or art produces its best work during the uphill fight to oust the enemy, that is previous thought or art. Victory brings on imitation and ultimately Boredom.”
“The great advantage for science of an aimless universe is that it frees the imagination. Since there are no preconceived ‘ends’ that things must ‘reach,’ anything is possible.”
“Kipling is too often regarded as a jingo imperialist. On more than one occasion he was a severe judge of his country … evidently aware of portents of change, of some risen wind that could overturn and destroy. His uttering that perception while the queen was being glorified was apt. The Victorian institutions, and their counterparts outside England, no longer commanded allegiance or respect. The thoughtful knew that a certain view of life must be given up, but not by revolution in the heroic mood—that had bred its own evils. The ethos could be overturned in the literal sense—turned upside down—by ridicule, by doing in all things the exact opposite. Gilbert and Sullivan's topsy-turvydom was to be enacted in social thought and real life.”
Barzun's erudition and enormous range have earned him the right to plunge his oars into the deepest seas. He is old-fashioned in the best sense of that phrase, irradiating From Dawn to Decadence with the scholarship of figures whose names one rarely sees nowadays, like Preserved Smith, Alfred Jay Nock, José Ortega y Gasset, Joseph Wood Krutch, and Sir Norman Angell, a reminder of the untapped riches in forgotten volumes.
In any such Moby Dick of a book there is the risk that the great white whale will take over and run amok. Barzun maintains control, on the whole I think successfully, by defining what he is about and sticking to his design. His focus is on the modern era, which he dates from the Reformation, and the great revolutions that have shaped our minds and behavior—the monarchical, liberal and social, roughly a century apart.
Within each, he traces thematic currents, identified as Emancipation, “the modern theme par excellence”; Individualism, or the irrepressible urge to develop one's talents; Secularism, stemming from classic works that depict the world in a man-centered way; and Primitivism, or the restless quest for a simpler, fairer natural order. These themes mingle and jostle, inspiring visions of Utopia, religious insurrections, demands for social and economic equality, but also contending brands of political extremism, Right and Left.
Mercifully, Barzun is not captive to any historical System. He freely acknowledges what common sense tells us, that history offers a vision and not a transcript of the past, but that good visions “are not merely plausible; they rest on a solid base of facts that nobody disputes”—something common sense also tells us. (Not all “facts,” however, are what they seem. Despite the near-universal belief that Marx was the first to refer to “the dustbin of history,” the coiner of the phrase was the British politician and writer Augustine Birrell.) Barzun is content to describe the contents of our overarching culture, noting with fastidious care the West's endless series of persisting opposites, in religion and art, politics and morals.
And what is the final reckoning? On this Barzun is calmly categorical. Our age is Decadent, though not in the sense of total ruin, or the loss of energy and talent. “On the contrary,” he writes, “it is a very active time, full of deep concerns, but peculiarly restless, for it sees no clear line of advance. The forms of life as of art seem exhausted, the stages of development have been run through. Institutions function painfully. Repetition and frustration are the intolerable result.” Boredom and fatigue are unavoidable, hence the proliferation of religious cults and the impulse of primitivism. The upshot is floating hostility to things as they are: “The hope is that getting rid of what is will by itself generate the new life.”
On the living canvas of experience we have indeed explored the outer limits of extremism: nationalist, militarist, Marxist, capitalist, theocratic and racist. In the West at least, victory has seemingly gone to a flawed system of welfare capitalism that gives us wealth at the expense of fairness, and to a consensual democracy that enthrones focus groups. Yet of human skills, the predictive is perhaps the most fallible; who in 1900 got the 20th century right? Can there be, one wonders, another Luther waiting at the door?
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3283
SOURCE: “The Writing Life: A Talk Between Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. and Jacques Barzun,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, May 21, 2000, pp. 3-4.
[In the following interview, Barzun comments on his definition of “decadence,” as elaborated in From Dawn to Decadence, and his view of current religious, geopolitical, literary, and historical trends that characterize the “boredom” and fragmentation of cultural decline.]
[The following introduction was written by Mark LaFlaur.]
It is difficult now to imagine an age when a weekly newsmagazine would print a cover story on “America and the Intellectual,” illustrated with 13 commissioned photographs by Alfred Eisenstaedt. The magazine was Time, the date was June 11, 1956, and the cover illustration was of a handsome, dignified man of 48 looking toward a lighted lamp of learning, the kind seen on college rings. Although more famous men (alas, they were all men) discussed in the article could have been shown on the cover (J. Robert Oppenheimer, for instance, or Frank Lloyd Wright), it was Jacques Barzun of Columbia University whom the editors chose to lead the piece, subtitled “The Reconciliation.” Education editor Bruce Barton Jr. found in Barzun an affectionate (though not uncritical) relationship between a thinker and his adopted country—indeed, one of Barzun's best-selling books, published in 1954, was titled God's Country and Mine—and, no less important in those days, an intellectual who had never been much interested in communism.
The publication 44 years later of Barzun's From Dawn to Decadence is a remarkable occasion on several counts, among the most noteworthy of which is that, although it is the crowning work of a 92-year-old author with more than 30 titles in print, it has been taking shape in his mind for more than six decades. A cultural history of the last 500 years, a historical era from its birth to its dissolution—published in the closing months of a millennium might strike some as conveniently timed.
From Dawn to Decadence has been long in coming; indeed, this work has passed through probably one of the longest gestations ever, for in the early 1930s Barzun (in his 20s) was already planning a large cultural history of the West, but he didn't begin writing it until 1992. As a Columbia doctoral candidate, he was in Paris for research on his dissertation when an elderly librarian at the Bibliothèque Nationale, a friend of Barzun's father and an accomplished author, advised the young historian that a great survey must be done not at the beginning of one's career but toward the end. The reason is that when a writer is young, his ideas tend to be derivative and half-baked, and his head half-empty, compared to the learning he will have acquired by his later years.
Barzun put off writing the big book until later and looked upon his other books as “preliminary studies, like sketches for a great mural.” The preliminary studies include such highly regarded works as Romanticism and the Modern Ego (1943), his best-selling Teacher in America (1945), The House of Intellect (1959) and The American University (1968). He oversaw the completion of Wilson Follett's “Modern American Usage” (1966), has translated numerous works from the French and has written, edited and collaborated on such varied subjects as romanticism, music, teaching, language, science, race and crime fiction.
Born in the artistic community of L'Abbaye de Créteil near Paris in 1907, Jacques Martin Barzun is the son of Henri Martin Barzun, a writer and diplomat, and Anna-Rose Barzun. He was educated at the Lycée Janson de Suilly, Paris, and taught his first class at the age of 9, when the trench warfare of the Great War was taking all available young men. (“All I remember about it,” he recalls in Teacher in America, “is that it had to do with arithmetic and that the room seemed filled with thousands of very small children in black aprons.”) Before the war, Barzun had enjoyed a happy childhood in the company of some of the greatest artists of the Cubist Decade. Growing up in a “nursery of living culture,” he sat in the studio while Albert Gleizes painted his mother's portrait, played in the garden while his father discussed modern art with Marcel Duchamp, Raymond Duchamp-Villon and Jacques Villon and was bounced on the knee of Guillaume Apollinaire while the poet amused him with stories. “Every Saturday and sometimes oftener,” Barzun writes in The Energies of Art (1956), “the stage [at home] was full: Marinetti acting and shouting, Archipenko making Léger roar with laughter, Delaunay and Ozenfant debating, Paul Fort declaiming his ballads. Varèse or Florent Schmitt surrounded at the piano. … On view at close range were also: Ezra Pound, Cocteau … Kandinsky … Brancusi. …” As he has written elsewhere, growing up in that artistic milieu, it was his early impression that “making works of art by exerting genius was the usual occupation of adults. … The joy of being was the joy of being there; the zest for life was tied to the spectacle of good things being done with confident energy.” This was before August 1914.
After World War I he came to the United States to study at Columbia, which he entered at 15. (His father advised against the European universities, decimated and demoralized by the war.) He studied history at Columbia College and graduated at the head of his class in 1927, half a year before his 20th birthday. He had hoped to enter the French diplomatic service, but the war and his American education derailed him from that calling. He considered the law, but his advisors at Columbia persuaded him that he had a knack for narrative history. Barzun is widely known from teaching at Columbia for nearly five decades (1927 to 1975), where he and Lionel Trilling taught the famous colloquium on great books from the 1930s into the mid-1960s. In the 1950s and ’60s, he served as dean of graduate faculties, then as dean of faculties and provost and as university professor before his retirement in 1975.
We caught up with Jacques Barzun recently at the New York Historical Society, where we found him in a public conversation with Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. The following is an edited transcript of their talk.
[Schlesinger:] From Dawn to Decadence is a remarkable book. Jacques Barzun seems to have read everything, remembered everything, and woven the history of the Western mind and sensibility together in a relatively seamless whole. Barzun is essentially a historian, but a most unusual historian because he is such a master of so many diverse forms of human expression—music, painting, philosophy, politics, war, statecraft, religion, science, morals, manners—and he understands them all, as a historian must, as revelations of the society that produced them.
I think we might begin by asking you what you have in mind by this word “decadence.”
[Barzun:] Decadence means “falling away, falling apart,” and it is something that happens over and over again in history. It may do so in a part of a culture, or in more than half, or pretty much in the whole of a culture at a given time. It comes when the idea of every activity begins to lose its force and its appeal because everything it contains has been worked out, and the more rapid the falling away, the happier the prospect because it levels the ground and enables the newcomers, the youth with bright new ideas, to get started and to establish the next phase of history, to which we give the name of another culture. The very beginning of the history that I undertake to tell in this book was an age of decadence. The 15th century found all sorts of institutions, and particularly the Catholic Church, in a sorry plight. Even the officials of the church said it needed reform from top to bottom. But one of the characteristics of decadence is that although many people see what ought to be done to move on, the institutions are so arthritic that they cannot.
Is decadence irreversible?
Irreversible on the same track, yes. The engine cannot go back. Although very often the next phase—and this is also characteristic of the age of the Protestant Revolution in the 16th century—claims that it is a return. The Protestants wanted to go back to the primitive church, which had no pope and no bishops, no elaborate ritual, just believers huddling together and hoping for grace from on high. That phase is a recurring theme in the 500 years that I treat of, and I give it the name of primitivism: the desire to simplify civilization when it gets too complicated and, being too complicated, has reached a state of stagnation.
You disclaim in the book any cyclical theory of the pretensions of Oswald Spengler or Arnold Toynbee. Yet is there not a cyclical element in your waves of recurrence?
No. I wouldn't call it cyclical because that implies a return to the identical beginning, and the beginnings are all different. If you start looking at civilizations from Egypt through Greece through the Roman empire through the various stages of the medieval, you see that history doesn't repeat except at a level of abstraction. That is to say, the acts of people are all different and all new, but you can say political action is very much the same now as it was in the time of Andrew Jackson, or you can find similarities. Just as you can find similarities in the faces of people you know, but each is individual, and I think each culture is individual.
I well remember Alfred North Whitehead giving his last lecture at Harvard in 1936. His last words of his last lecture were, “Civilizations die of boredom.”
Oh yes, I'm a great believer in boredom. I've seen it and I've felt it. And it comes over a people when certain great important ideas are worked out. For example, I think that the resistance of many young people to European culture, saying that dead white European males and their books and their works ought to be thrown into the wastebasket, that is a rationalization of a feeling of boredom. We've heard it, we've seen it. Isn't there a phrase, “Been there. Done that”? That is historical boredom.
Would you relate the rise of fundamentalism around the world today—Protestant fundamentalism, Islamic fundamentalism, Hindu fundamentalism, Jewish fundamentalism—to the same impulse?
Yes. It reminds me of what was happening in 15th century Europe when the disaffection from the church began to intensify. There were all sorts of groups forming little cults. New schools were open to teach what was felt to be the true faith and so on. People look for something to believe in, and not only believe in the religious sense but believe in the institutional sense. Feeling that one belongs to a going concern and not to a dead old corporation that is static in routines. That is the situation of decay, decadence, demand for the new and the necessary destruction before the new can really arise.
On this question of fundamentalism, there is a kind of urgent fanatic quality about it. Is this fanaticism a necessary accompaniment of boredom or an escape from boredom?
No. I don't think that fanaticism arises from boredom, but it arises from despair. Despair about the particular concerns or the particular situation that a group feels is a threat or a failure to perform the right things that this new urge demands.
But people in this state of exhaustion of old forms, old ideas, old institutions are searching for something new, and they find it perhaps in a kind of revelation.
Yes, and they have a sense—perhaps not put into words, but they feel it strongly—that the old cohesive forces have given way. For example, the great creation of the Western world in the last 500 years has been the nation-state. And the nation everywhere is falling apart. It's extraordinary to think, for example, that England, which isn't so big that it can afford to come into pieces again, has given Scotland and Wales parliaments. We take it for granted because we read it in the paper and hear it on television, but that's an extraordinary fact. In France, after years of very tight nationhood and national feeling, the government is now subsidizing the revival of local dialects, of which there turn out to be many more than anyone thought.
Isn't this partly a consequence of globalization? The nation-state as you say is fading away. Daniel Bell once said that the nation-state is too big for the small problems and too small for the big problems. So it's no longer the institutional unit of adaptation. At the same time, nationalism remains the most potent of political emotions.
The desire to be a nation often is accompanied by no notion of what it entails. For example, all these little states which dot the South Pacific are dependent on the old big powers, which used to own them. They can't defend themselves, their economy needs continual injections. The Comoros Islands off the east coast of Africa are a wonderful example. The total area is nearly 840 square miles, and there are four islands, and for the last 15 years, at least one of them—the smallest, Ahjouan Island—has fought the federal government of those four, and now it has achieved its independence. And the neighboring nations from Africa, and to the east also, celebrated that as a great feat of liberation.
Globalization is upon us in the sense that the new technologies, the electronic and cybernetic technologies, elude national sovereignty. Cyberspace is beyond the control of individual states. Nations no longer have the power to decide their own economic destiny. But the people are plunged into this vast anonymous sea which they don't like, they don't fully comprehend, they can't control, and they feel a great need for belonging. This need for belonging results in a return to smaller units of some kind, whether defined religiously or ethnically. So in a certain sense, the more the world integrates, the more it disintegrates.
Yes. Everywhere, everybody wants to belong to a small cozy group for protection which has a language of its own, traditions, religion, cookery, everything. “We ourselves alone”—Sinn Fein—is the phrase that describes that. And it is going forward in this country to a far greater extent than anyone realizes. It doesn't mean that national government will fall apart and leave only a checkerboard of small regions, but it does show the mood and the tendency, and it is heightened, I think, by the fact that the modern world of technology makes the individual feel oppressed, badgered, unhappy, and it's perfectly natural then to try to form a little family circle. And the family circle means the ethnic group, large or small.
You say in your book that the novel was the characteristic genre of the 19th century. What was the characteristic genre of the 20th century?
The novel suited the 19th century peculiarly well because the 19th century was aware of something it called “Progress.” Science and industry seemed to prove the reality of progress, and progress was a historical fact. The 19th century was the century of history; people lapped up history the way they did novels. And the novel is a fictional history. It adopts all the tricks of narrative history—description of incidents, psychology of movers and shakers—and very often among the early masterpieces of the novel, the setting is actual. It happens here, there or the other place. And by the end of the century the novel has gone to such a pitch of historicity that the author is attacked if he misrepresents a particular detail, whether it's important or not.
J.B. Priestley told me once that he would receive insulting letters if he had a character wandering about London and taking the wrong street from one place to another. That's an extreme example of the feeling that the 19th century created about the novel form. It is also a very democratic form in two ways. First, it's about ordinary people, every kind of person. Unlike the tragedy in verse, which is about princes and kings and warriors, it's about you and me. In another way, the novel is democratic in being an incitement to envy on the one hand—you read about so-and-so and you wish you were situated the way they are, lucky as they are—and also it's very snobbish. If you think back to any of the novels that you have enjoyed, care to reread, and look at the characters who are badly treated, you find that they have red hair, or a loud voice, or too much chin, or poor table manners—it's pure snobbery that a novel distinguishes the people you are supposed to like from those you don't like.
If I were someone else. I'd probably say the characteristic genre of the 20th century is the film. But I don't think the film is a literary genre, so I can't give the proper answer. It's difficult to say what strictly literary work is characteristic of the 20th century. Perhaps the kind of popular philosophy that is expressed in aphorisms, in sayings, in names and nicknames. For example, the term “highbrow and lowbrow,” that seems to me a characteristic form of thought and expression. You can gather from that that I think the characteristic genres today are very popular indeed in the sense of representing the thought of the people much more than the thought of unusual persons, highly gifted and also highly biased in one way or another. Perhaps we arrive through this fumbling of mine at the possible choice of the comics as the characteristic genre.
You raise one question in your book which has always baffled me, and that is the way in which writers like Dickens could produce such a constant body of work without benefit of typewriters, without benefit of computers, and at the same time conducted extensive correspondence. How do you figure they did that?
I attribute it to the presence of a group of people who have been totally forgotten: servants. It's perfectly true that we have no notion of the extent to which the world up to, say, 1920, to take a year at random, depended on the servant class. And of course they were well or badly treated—mostly badly, I suppose—but they helped the world's work. For example, when Leigh Hunt, an early 19th century English poet, was at his lowest financially and was begging money from Byron and Shelley and other people, he and his wife and two children had two servants. Later on, I read somewhere, the admirals in the British navy were being cut back from an allowance of 20 to 14 servants. Now, in Dickens’ household or George Eliot's, or any other writer's, there would be four or five servants, and they did all sorts of things that now we do for ourselves, which liberated Dickens or Bulwer-Lytton or George Eliot from drudgery to write, to give lectures. Dickens was an amateur actor and he indulged in theatricals. He did a million things that we are prevented from doing because we have to go through the chores we all know.
Your book is a brilliant example of analytical history. What do you make of the current school of younger historians who think everything is a social construct?
They have no sense of history. They are rotten with abstraction, which is a great disease of the modern world and another sign of decadence. When abstraction which of course is indispensable, gets to be to the third or fourth degree, the world recedes, and everything looks as if it had been made by the process of abstraction itself.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2527
SOURCE: “What It All Means: Why Jacques Barzun Is America's Greatest Teacher,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, May 21, 2000, pp. 1-3.
[In the following review of From Dawn to Decadence, McNeill praises Barzun's treatment of Western cultural history from the Reformation to the First World War, but opposes Barzun's disdain for twentieth-century culture and his bleak view of the future.]
“The bulk of the book … is a delight because it presents a strong character full of surprises. He is learned but practical, unmistakably of his time … conservative but unconventional. His genius is in common sense … unusual judgments made by clear-eyed observation and couched in lapidary words.” Jacques Barzun, distinguished historian, critic and academic administrator, uses these words to characterize Boswell's “Life of Johnson.” They also constitute an apt appraisal of Barzun's own, and truly amazing, new book [From Dawn to Decadence].
Like Samuel Johnson, Barzun is impressively learned, conservative and unconventional in many of his judgments, writes with an acute sense of the fuzzy and changeable meanings of words and treats his reader to innumerable lapidary bon mots. On top of that, he offers an admirably coherent and comprehensive portrait of the cultural achievements—“art and thought, manners, morals and religion”—of what we once confidently called “Modern” and more recently and accurately label “Western” civilization.
The deposit of a lifetime, this book is sui generis: likely—I am tempted to say certain—to become a classic. But, as Barzun is at pains to point out, taste changes, reputations rise and fall (even, or especially, Shakespeare's); and, because Barzun is thoroughly out of tune with the “decadence” he sees in European and American cultural accomplishment since 1920, this delightful and monumental book may, I suppose, be cast aside by contemporary arbiters of taste with the same deaf ear he turns to them.
Barzun's history is organized around “four great revolutions—the religious, monarchial, liberal, and social roughly a hundred years apart—whose aims and passions still govern our minds and behavior.” Or, more exactly, “Three spans, each of approximately 125 years, take us, roughly speaking, from Luther to Newton, from Louis XIV to the guillotine, and from Goethe to the New York Armory Show. The fourth and last span deals with the rest of our century. If this periodization had to be justified, it could be said that the first period—1500 to 1600—was dominated by the issue of what to believe in religion; the second—1661 to 1789—by what to do about the status of the individual and the mode of government; the third—1790 to 1920—by what means to achieve social and economic equality. The rest is the mixed consequences of all these efforts. What then marks a new age? The appearance or disappearance of particular embodiments of a given purpose.”
Cultural history, in short, is a matter of human consciousness and desires; and individuals who are able to express perennial human wishes in new ways are the agents of change, the shapers of styles and the molders of culture. Barzun accordingly decorates his pages with numerous, often brilliant, pen portraits and summary judgments of individual writers, musicians, artists, philosophers and the like. Some are surprising choices, being all but unknown—Finlay Peter Dunne or James Agate, for example; while others, like Luther, Voltaire, Goethe and T.S. Eliot, are utterly familiar and expected.
Barzun resorts to other unusual devices. One is to capitalize a dozen or so words that symbolize recurring themes in his history. Thus EMANCIPATION, PRIMITIVISM, INDIVIDUALISM, ANALYSIS and half a dozen other abstract nouns appear in full dress whenever Barzun resorts to them. He thus exploits typography to show how the same (or almost the same?) themes recur in surprisingly different guises across the entire span of the modern era.
A second device is to punctuate chapters treating more or less coherent cultural changes, like “The West Torn Apart” for Luther and the Reformation, “The Reign of Etiquette” for 19th century romanticism with what Barzun calls “Cross Sections.” These are chapter-length miscellanies, only partially held together by sketches of “The View from Madrid Around 1540” or, as the case may be, from some other city at some subsequent time with which each “Cross Section” begins.
Then there are the boldface insets decorating many of his pages. They produce others’ remarks, more or less relevant to the discourse on the rest of the page. Taken together, these insets constitute an extraordinary chrestomathy of unfamiliar quotations. A few samples must suffice:
The public, the public—how many fools does it take to make a public?
—Chamfort (an almost forgotten moralist “who committed suicide in prison to foil the guillotine”).
On John D. Rockefeller. He is a kind of Society f'r th’ Prevention of Cruelty to Money. If he finds a man misusin his money, he takes it away fr'm him and adopts it.
And angry, impudent verse from Ernest Hemingway:
The age demanded that we sing and cut away our tongue. The age demanded that we flow and hammered in the bung. The age demanded that we dance and jammed us into iron pants. And in the end the age was handed the sort of shit the age demanded.
Yet another unusual trait: Every so often Barzun pauses to explain how a particularly contentious word got entangled in its present confusion of meanings, usually concluding that there is nothing to do but use it anyway. Sometimes, however, he coins anew, as “church hierarchy thoroughly humanistified” or uses rare words that drove me to the dictionary, for example, “rugosities” that is, wrinkles or “rutilant,” that is, shining. But as a thoroughly self-conscious literary stylist, “with only a touch of pedantry here and there to show that I understand modern tastes,” Barzun's prose is in fact easy to read and delightfully witty, loaded, as it is, with fresh and surprising judgments and an enormous freight of miscellaneous, unfamiliar information.
Nor are his pithy observations restricted to traditionally defined high culture. Consider, for example, “Three other cultural by-products date from early in railway history. One is the ticket. … The second is artificial time. … A third, more readily acceptable innovation, was the new taste for whiskey … brought into gin-soaked England by the Irish navvies. … [T]heir nickname … is the diminutive of ‘navigator,’ so-called because originally they were recruited to build canals but diverted to the swifter carrier.” This vignette is supplemented further down the track by another aside, explaining that the “science” of phrenology “was facilitated, unexpectedly, by the building of railroads. The land taken for them often included disused cemeteries, and the exhumed skulls went to those most eager to exploit them.”
Overall, I judge that Barzun's exploration of past cultural epochs, each masterly in itself, reaches an apogee with his anatomy of the extraordinary fertility of the 19th century. This is where most of his specialized scholarship concentrated, and this is clearly where he is most thoroughly at home. Nonetheless he is master of all he surveys. In the first era, for example, I found his appraisal of Luther and Rabelais especially afresh, sympathetic and persuasive. In his next section, his organizing concept of a “monarch's revolution” is unfamiliar—yet obvious, once juxtaposed with the time-worn array of other European revolutions; and Barzun's portraits of Louis XIV's court and of such diverse figures as Mme. de Montespan, Cromwell, Fenelon, Rubens, Bayle, Bach, Diderot, Rousseau and others offer much curious information and always present his own, often idiosyncratic, appraisals of their achievements. And, as I said before, when he gets to the Romantic era and its sequels down to 1920, the diapason of his learning and the range of his provocative observations reach a climax worthy of Beethoven himself.
But World War I somehow deafened him. Born in France in 1907 (he tells us how as a child he took refuge from Big Bertha in a Parisian cellar), Barzun came to New York in 1920, studied at Columbia University and remained there as teacher and administrator until retirement. That a man of 92 could complete this massive work is itself a minor miracle, which he attributes to “insomnia and longevity—sheer accidents.” That he finds himself radically out of sympathy with recent cultural changes is not surprising, given his age. Yet, as always, he is self-aware, saying in his preface, “I have not consulted current prejudices. My own are enough to keep me busy as I aim at historical detachment. …”
Yet, though I am only 10 years his junior, my own pattern of experience leads me to quite opposite conclusions about the cultural accomplishments of the Western world since 1920. Barzun sees only decadence: the breakdown of a rich tradition that now must somehow be thrown away for something fresh and new to arise. Decadence is not a pejorative for him but a description of this sad and somehow inexorable condition. For, according to Barzun, all the potentialities of Western culture have now been worked out and pushed to such extremes as to defy further elaboration. Only rejection, mockery, caricature remain. Deconstruction on a vast scale everywhere and in all dimensions of consciousness is the wasteland he sees around him, with only a hope of some eventual renaissance, perhaps 300 years hence, when, after centuries of “deschooling,” he imagines how “[s]ome among the untutored group taught themselves to read, compiled digests, and by adapting great stories and diluting great ideas provided the common people with a culture over and above the televised fare. … This compost of longing, images, and information resembled that which medieval monks, poets and troubadours fashioned out of the Greco-Roman heritage.” And, Barzun implies, yet another civilization, with its own future eras of styles and sensibilities, may thus arise and flourish just as the Western culture he treasures once did. Frankly, such forebodings about a coming Dark Age of deliberate “deschooling” and future renaissance strike me as absurd.
Perhaps the fundamental problem is that Barzun sees only the repudiation of common sense and the dematerialization of physical reality in the amazing flux of modern physics and cosmology. I, on the contrary, think I detect the emergence of a new, compelling and fundamentally historical world view—cosmological, physical, terrestrial, biological and semiotic—that ought to have as many fertile consequences for art, literature, music and all the other manifestations of the human spirit as did the emergence of the Newtonian world machine in the 17th century that Barzun recognizes as a distinctive chapter of the Western past. What I see is not decadence, therefore, but the dawn of a new era, featuring a novel evolutionary vision of physical as well as of cultural realities and building upon a predominantly Western matrix of inherited ideas and sensibilities. This surely is an enormous accomplishment that almost exactly coincides with Barzun's own lifetime and fits neatly into the arbitrary chronological limits of the century immediately behind us.
And ahead? Visions of catastrophe are easy to conjure up, but none resembling Barzun's closing reverie. Two shaping circumstances come to my mind instead. One is the break-up of village communities and the corresponding emancipation (and psychological-social exile) of the world's peasantries. This profoundly alters the lopsided pattern of urban-rural relations that sustained civilizations of every stripe across the last 5,000 years. Its consequences are yet to be experienced but are sure to be profound.
This dimension of the past entirely escapes Barzun's purview because his concerns are wholly and exclusively urban. Yet the modern disruption of village life in Europe was fundamental, with roots going back to the 14th century, and it was only accomplished in most of the Western world (not yet everywhere in Europe, though; consider Albania) after World War II. But the breakup of village communities is now a global tidal wave, engulfing peasants everywhere on the strength of instantaneous communications, mechanized transport and commercialized farming.
A second fundamental factor on the world scene is demographic surge and collapse, unevenly distributed among the Earth's peoples and sure to provoke massive migration and chronic political instability in the near future. For most of the modern age, demographic growth prevailed among civilized societies while radical decay prevailed among all the populations newly brought into contact with the human majority of disease-experienced Eurasians. Now it is urban dwellers everywhere who, by and large, fail to reproduce themselves. How disrupted village communities and restless urban masses (each today numbering about half of humankind) will interact and perhaps collide looms as the principal social, political and cultural question at the start of the new millennium.
As a cultural historian, Barzun completely disregards demography, assuming that biological and cultural reproduction is, so to speak, automatic. Yet in a larger historical frame, demographic increase and decrease most certainly played a fundamental role in cultural as in all other aspects of human history. And more specifically, Europe's general pattern of demographic growth since 1500 and the extraordinary swarming of European peoples between 1750 and 1920 was surely what sustained the efflorescence of European high culture that Barzun so admires.
As for the future of that culture, it seems to me that what is most likely to happen is accelerated intermingling with elements from other cultural traditions. This has been happening throughout Western history, though Barzun pays almost no attention to such phenomena as the vogue for chinoiserie in the 18th century or to the ensuing attraction first to Indian transcendentalism and then, after the “opening” of Japan in 1854, to Japanese styles of art. Similarly, he barely refers to African roots of new styles of French art in the first decade of the last century but does recognize the African heritage behind jazz.
In general, Barzun views the Western tradition as self-contained and impervious—or perhaps merely indifferent—to the outside world. Before 1800, when communications were weak, and after that date, when European power and technology easily dominated everyone else, this was partly—but only partly—true. In time to come, however, neither of these insulating circumstances is likely to prevail. Accordingly, a rich, cosmopolitan mingling will probably ensue, opening who knows what new paths of sensibility and understanding for artists and thinkers of the new millennium who can be expected to explore them as vigorously and as diversely as their European and American predecessors, whom Barzun celebrates so fondly, did in their own more limited universe of discourse.
So not decay but growth is what I see around me: growth so tumultuous that it is impossible to foresee its course; and growth that, as always, destroys or discards what others hold dear. By Barzun's own account, this was what happened time and again within the Western tradition. So more of the same, and on a widening geographical scale, is what I anticipate—with ever-present possibilities of abrupt catastrophe—ecological, nuclear or demographic—lurking in the background. But that, too, is perennial. From the very beginning, increasing human skills and knowledge assured the conservation of catastrophe, making breakdown rarer (thanks to human foresight and concerted efforts at prevention) and more costly whenever foresight and prevention failed. Yet humankind has, so far, always survived and continued to thrive. Not decadence, then, but continued cultural efflorescence is what the future probably holds. Or so I, an observer 10 years younger and wholly rooted on this side of the Atlantic, prefer to believe.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5180
SOURCE: “Decline and Fall?” in New York Review of Books, June 29, 2000, pp. 55-8.
[In the following review of From Dawn to Decadence, Shattuck finds flaws in Barzun's historical periodization and takes issue with his underestimation of developments in twentieth-century art and history.]
“All is true.” In the original edition of Le père Goriot, Balzac left this terse epigraph in English. It is the subtitle or alternate title of Henry VIII, an unfinished play uncertainly attributed to Shakespeare. The epigraph acknowledges Balzac's profound admiration of the Bard. At the same time, it affirms the cumulative and competitive veracity of Balzac's immense fictional universe. But I believe that these three childishly simple words also imply a dilemma.
Artists and writers constantly confront the teeming plenitude of the natural world that surrounds us on all sides, temporal and spatial. Both the novelist and the historian, if they lower their guard for an instant, can feel overwhelmed, obliterated, not so much by nothingness and emptiness as by the superfluity of existing things and creatures and events. A flood of sensations and of material reality can destroy our hold on life and self. “All is true” can be better interpreted as a cry of desperation than as the purr of serene contemplation. Can we hold our ground in the face of the world's sheer profusion?
Balzac, like a great gladiator in his long bathrobe, brooding over a coffee urn, created a proliferating anti-universe called The Human Comedy. A less pugnacious mind—say a historian's—will try to hold on against the profusion of life by finding shapes and patterns in that swarm of events. Stories, both historical and fictional, represent our principal means of staying sane, of weathering the typhoon of consciousness. “All is true” does not so much assent to the undifferentiated existence of everything as recognize the need to simplify, to reduce the world to livable dimensions, to choose out of the plenitude some terrain on which to build our settlement.
It is history that concerns us here, as a source of stories and as an evolving discipline. In an era when the culture is organized to support a great number of scholars producing a wide variety of historical works, what kind of history do we need most? Is the question even pertinent? For we seem to have everything already: a tendentious five-volume history of everybody's private life from antiquity to the present; a corrective multivolume treatment of the bourgeoisie in the nineteenth century; a thousand pages of anecdotes to argue that our modern world was born between 1815 and 1830; a jovial volume to recall how the Irish saved civilization from extinction during “the Dark Ages.” The newest history titles freely mix fact and fiction for jaded palates. Enterprising biographers obtain passkeys that open all archives and brush aside all remnants of privacy. Could we possibly wish for anything more from historians?
Despite its freedoms in the past half-century, history has been squeezed from many directions. In our schools, progressive reforms swept up history and geography into a shapeless container called Social Studies tending constantly toward the contemporary. In higher education, history cannot be made to fit into the Procrustean bed of the tripartite division of disciplines into humanities, sciences, and social sciences. A pack of more recent fields—sociology, cultural studies, interdisciplinary studies, women's studies—trample on traditional history in order to establish their own courses in the undergraduate curriculum. On all levels, from grade school to college programs, the value of the history survey course has been questioned. The textbook containing a lively narrative account of, say, European history or US history has lost ground. Microprobes of local history and seminars on changing gender roles and the survival of racism increasingly crowd out the survey.
In schools, teachers are both inclined and encouraged to teach without a textbook. They believe that photocopied materials allow greater flexibility and circumvent the “cookie-cutter curriculum.” Everyone acknowledges how essential the knowledge of history is to the citizens of a democracy with their responsibility to vote. But considering the shift today toward avoiding any sequential narrative account of history, I wonder just how the coming generations will learn enough history to understand the present and not be overwhelmed by the growing challenge of “All is true.”
The subtitle of Jacques Barzun's new book, From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, 1500 to the Present, informs us that it honors in some fashion the conventions of the survey. Is it then suitable for adoption as the textbook in the few surviving survey courses in Western history? Not easily, because it presupposes a basic knowledge of political and military history. Barzun has written the summa of a practitioner of cultural history who at the age of ninety-two wishes both to assemble the essential elements of his extensive writings and to surpass them in a final statement.
Son of a spirited avant-garde poet who was a rival of Apollinaire in pre-World War I Paris, Jacques Barzun grew up in a household frequented by artists. They were all hatching new movements in a great burst of productivity on all fronts. Some, including Barzun fils, refer to those pre-war years as the Cubist decade. In 1920, at age thirteen, he came to the United States, attended high school, and moved on to Columbia University. After an AB and a Ph.D., he accepted a position in the history department and published a series of distinguished writings. Today, he could be called the dean of American historians and not simply on grounds of seniority.
For over sixty years, Barzun has pursued three interlocking careers. As an influential and successful teacher-scholar at Columbia, he worked closely with his contemporary Lionel Trilling to reinvigorate the teaching of the humanities and to establish an important program of required courses in general education. A similar program flourishes today and attracts a large number of qualified undergraduates seeking an integrated set of courses in several disciplines prior to the specialization of a major. The Festschrift volume From Parnassus (1976), which appeared on Barzun's retirement at sixty-eight, conveys the impression of a lively lecturer and discussion leader who earned the respect of his colleagues and favored undergraduate over graduate teaching.
Endowed with a powerful synthesizing mind and large resources of energy, Barzun undertook a second and parallel career as an administrator. In the office of provost at Columbia, he both attended to the scut work that sustains any institution and wrestled with the postwar surge in graduate education which caused serious financial imbalances. He left the provost's job not long before Columbia's crisis in 1968 when students attempted to close down the campus. He also found time, along with Trilling and Auden, to help start up and run the Readers’ Subscription book club.
This administrative work never seemed to slow Barzun down in his third career as a critic and historian whose writings met high standards for scholarship and at the same time reached a large general readership. Most of his books were published by trade houses rather than university presses. Because he avoided political statements and did not engage in the polemics surrounding Partisan Review, Barzun did not fit the description of a public intellectual. But his voice was listened to when he spoke. Two books, which appeared in close succession fifty years ago, made his reputation. Darwin, Marx, Wagner: Critique of a Heritage (1941) identified these three powerful cult figures as false Romantics who espoused a science of “mechanistic materialism” that separates man from his soul. Romanticism and the Modern Ego (1943; an expanded and widely read new edition retitled Classic, Romantic, and Modern was published by Anchor in 1961) defends the “cultural renovation” of the Romantic era against its many enemies, from Irving Babbitt on:
[Romanticism] treasured fact and respected the individual as a source of fact. Accordingly, its political philosophy was an attempt to reconcile personal freedom with the inescapable need of collective action. Rousseau, Burke, Kant, Hegel, agreeing on the nature of the problem, differed only in lesser particulars. They were not anarchists or imperialists, but theorists of equilibrium in motion.
After this reaffirmation of a scorned tradition, Barzun capped and illustrated his extended argument on Romanticism with a wide-ranging study on music and history, Berlioz and the Romantic Century (1950). There was enough genius and histrionic bluster in Berlioz to make this a popular book. In the Great Conversation of Western culture, I believe that Barzun's vigorous defense of Romanticism helped to ignite a countermovement: it took the shape of a revival of eighteenth-century thought and the emergence of Enlightenment studies in the 1960s and 1970s.
When Barzun retired from teaching in 1975, some of his most productive years were still ahead of him. But several shifts had taken place in his outlook that influenced the direction of his writing. For one thing, his wonderfully informed discussion of music had attracted him to a field distinct from intellectual history and social history: namely, cultural history, with particular emphasis on the arts. In 1954 the European section of the American Historical Association asked Barzun to address their annual meeting. What he chose to say represents the manifesto of a newly pertinent discipline: “Cultural History as a Synthesis.”1
In his eloquent defense of the close association of the arts with history, Barzun hopes to avoid one lurking professional danger. “Since we cannot believe in a Zeitgeist invisibly at work like Ariel on Prospero's Isle, I submit that style … is an answer to a common want.” But period styles soon come to sound little different from a refried Zeitgeist. “Style is the solvent in which incompatibles are meant to merge.” In any case, I believe that in this essay on cultural history Barzun took an important step toward his latest book, which falls into that category.
I detect two further points at which Barzun changed course in a way that contributes to From Dawn to Decadence. The fifteen-page epilogue he wrote in 1960 for Classic, Romantic, and Modern turns its attention to the contemporary scene. He argues that the “annihilation” of art by Action painters and by poets such as Allen Ginsberg, plus the dilution of art into populism, have brought about a “Carthaginian end” for the arts after their new beginning in the early nineteenth century. “The Romantic purpose, in other words, has come by the severest logic to end what it began, destroying in its last effort all the romantic and classical forms that took their rise in the Renaissance.”
This discouragement with the cultural history that was taking place around him did not fade with the passage of time. The editors of the multivolume Columbia History of the World (1972) commissioned Barzun to write the closing essay, entitled “Toward the Twenty-First Century.” The twelve-page commentary he wrote opens with the cautionary tale of the German scholar Schedel, who in 1493 predicted the close of history rather than the new surge of discovery, commerce, learning, and the nation-state that soon opened one of the great eras of history. Self-forewarned yet undismayed, Barzun cites the loss of faith in ideals and traditions that doomed Greece and Rome, considers the political and civil woes that beset the 1960s, and concludes: “What Western civilization is witnessing, in short, is the last phase of the great emancipation promoted in the eighteenth century.”
This short essay presents in outline form the sequence of events and interpretations that will be filled out to eight hundred pages in From Dawn to Decadence. Consciously or not, Barzun has devoted the last decade to a comprehensive history that begins where Gibbon left off—with the fall of Constantinople in 1453 and the end of the extended Roman empire in the East. Barzun constructs a readjusted version of Gibbon's accounting for a decline and fall. The word “emancipation” employed in the above quotation becomes the leitmotif of Barzun's full-length book. Many of his previously published writings contribute to this final opus. It has grown like a fertile delta at the mouth of a long career.
In his “Author's Note” for From Dawn to Decadence, Barzun tells us that he strives for objectivity without giving up reactions of sympathy and antipathy. In the loose entity of the West, he sees a “single” as well as a “mongrel” culture. The last paragraph of the prologue declares, “Our distinctive attitude toward history, our habit of arguing from it, turns events into ideas charged with power.” But even though he prints in small capitals a number of recurrent themes, Barzun is not writing a history of ideas. He devotes his attention alternately to events, to ideas, and to people, an amalgam presented primarily through stories. And the people are true agents, great men and great women who have initiated and pursued events and ideas. His treatment of Christine de Pisan, Mme. de Staël, and Florence Nightingale places them in full perspective as historical actors.
Barzun's basic thesis about the shape of the modern era since 1500 provides the division of the book into four parts following four chronological periods. Part One (1500–1660) deals with the “religious revolution” of the Reformation. Part Two (1660–1789) concerns the rise of monarchy as an institution and the development of the nation-state. Part Three (1789–1920) takes up the political and cultural consequences of the French Revolution. And Part Four (1920–the present) includes the aftershocks of World War I, the Soviet experiment, and the decline of the “demotic” culture of the United States.
In the last four pages, Barzun abruptly changes costume from historian to prophet and writes an imaginary “Prologue” dated 2300 “as our own era reaches an end.” Our end is described not as Apocalypse but as Boredom, in which the culture of the past is rediscovered and treasured. “The parallel with the Middle Ages is plain.” I find this short coda distracting. It neither reinforces nor extends the argument of the book; rather it turns aside into obscure mutterings about a new beginning for culture.
What then does Barzun's net catch for us out of the vast sea of facts to form this volume of cultural history? Let's look at a chapter in Part Three called “Things Ride Mankind,” which deals with the mid-nineteenth century. Following a chapter mostly on British political thought, this one demonstrates that a period often called “Victorian” and associated with a narrow moralism is far better characterized by varieties of materialism: the Crystal Palace exhibits, realism in the novel and in painting, the shock of evolutionary theory, photography's summons to pure appearances, and Marx's dialectical materialism. Into this flea market of topics Barzun introduces enthusiastic semi-asides on his favorite neglected figures of the period, including Walter Bagehot and Oliver Wendell Holmes (père).
In order to hold his vast array of cultural materials together, Barzun relies on a strong sense of periodization, the articulation of chronology into an ordered sequence of periods. The four periods he chooses, which I described above, roughly follow national, military, and political developments. Barzun takes little time to explain that he begins with the Reformation because he believes that the phenomenon we call the Renaissance does not belong primarily to fifteenth-century Italy as the proud humanists proclaimed. “So if any renaissance ever did occur, it was in the 12C, leading to the high medieval civilization of the 13th.” He cites Henry Adams, J.J. Walsh, and J. Huizinga as authorities. This blurring of the Renaissance two centuries backward in time disturbs me less than Barzun's failure to deal with another major thesis about periodization. The strong formulation of it appears in an appendix Ernst Robert Curtius added to the English-language edition of European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages (1953):
A great English historian, G. M. Trevelyan, is of the opinion that the real break in modern history is not the sixteenth century, but the eighteenth. The Industrial Revolution has meant a much more radical change than the Renaissance or the Reformation. Medieval forms of life subsist until about 1750, to put it roughly. When we consider on the other hand that medieval thought and expression become creative only around 1050, we get a period of about seven hundred years which manifests a unity of structure. We need not bother to find a name for this period. But if we try to consider it as a cultural unit, we may get a better understanding of our past.
The middle of the eighteenth century witnessed not only the beginnings of that great economic change which is termed the Industrial Revolution. It saw also the first powerful revolt against cultural tradition, which is marked by Rousseau.
Barzun missed an opportunity to reformulate the case for 1500 as the break, standing for both the Renaissance and the Reformation, as against the juncture affirmed by Curtius. We now fluently call that juncture the Enlightenment.
As is entirely natural and understandable, the problems of periodization in dealing with the recent past are even more challenging than those reaching back several hundred years. How Barzun divides up the twentieth century forms—as we shall see—an integral part of his thesis about decadence.
What audience will this book reach? It does not advance a single strong revisionist thesis to rearrange our understanding of events. It does not just tell the old story over again with new material added. Barzun takes the old story for granted and emphasizes the contribution of the arts and of intellectual currents. Comparison is difficult. Today, historians feel considerable pressure, intellectual and commercial, to abandon the West and Europe as proper subjects of history in favor of the world, the globe. One of the few good history surveys that remains in print is William McNeill's A World History (fourth edition, 1999). Its five hundred pages provide the basic knowledge needed to follow Barzun's cultural history with full comprehension and appreciation. There is always H.G. Wells's The Outline of History (1920), whose 1,200 pages remain highly readable. (A revised and annotated Outline would make a worth-while publishing project.)
Barzun mentions Spengler's The Decline of the West (1918–1922), but the book left little mark on his thinking. Paul Johnson's understanding in The Birth of the Modern (1991) of what makes up the content of cultural history and of the importance of periodization overlaps Barzun's to a considerable degree. But Johnson chooses to concentrate his 1,100 pages on the interval between 1815 and 1830 in order to bring one period to life in its particulars. Barzun's book belongs to no ready category.
My hunch is that historians will not pay much attention to From Dawn to Decadence on the assumption that it contains nothing new. History teachers will see it as too long and unsystematic and old-fashioned for adoption in courses. Serious readers of biography and history, who know what to expect from Barzun, will find here a welcome synthesis of his career and of his major methods and views. He has gone to considerable lengths to tell a story with clear transitions, frequent cross-references, and a strong forward movement. The analogy used earlier of netting a catch of fish does justice to the glistening variety of people and events and works he sets before us. Barzun is rarely dull.
I have two substantial criticisms to make of his ambitiously conceived and unevenly executed book. Both refer to the final two hundred pages. The first concerns the shape and meaning Barzun gives to the twentieth century. The second criticism concerns his treatment of the arts in the same period.
Barzun refers to the period between 1885 and 1905 in France both as the Nineties and as the turn of the century. It was an effervescent moment that combined the voluptuous aesthetics of Decadents and Symbolists with the strong reformist and scientific impulse of Naturalism in the novel. “A Summit of Energies” he calls the chapter on the turn of the century. However, the following chapter, “The Cubist Decade,” reveals that we had not yet reached the summit in the earlier period. The years 1905–1914 changed the “negative” energies of the Nineties into “affirmative” accomplishments and became “the fountainhead in every department of culture.” Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes brought new energies from the East. The 1913 Armory Show carried the excitement to the United States.
Here begins Book Four of Barzun's account. “The Great Illusion” of European alliances, the cult of violence and war, “the Great Switch” from liberalism to the welfare state and communism, and the unspeakable massacres of trench warfare—all these factors and more halted the long forward march of history since 1500. They reveal, Barzun argues, the loss of faith, loss of nerve, and destruction of culture caused by “the Great War.” Parody, the Absurd, popular consumerism, boredom, and irreverence invade all aspects of culture. In the closing pages, Barzun confesses to feeling “some hesitation … about applying the word Decadence to the whole West and the whole era.” Yet he has done so “without tremor.” For Barzun, the great unexplained disaster of the twentieth century, the turning point of modern history to which all other events, cultural included, must be related, is the Great War of 1914–1918.
I believe that the last fifty years have gradually shown us the error of that dark opinion. World War I with all its horror did not interrupt the cultural and political continuities that linked pre-war to postwar in Europe and America. Even the 1917 Soviet takeover in Russia did not immediately appear to threaten the rest of the world. Not until the years between 1929 and 1934 did the great shift occur in a sequence often overlooked. First the stock market crash and the spread of economic hardship throughout the West caused political instability, with Hitler taking power in Germany, and a growing distrust of unbridled capitalism as a functioning economic system. During that crisis of vulnerability among capitalist democracies, the third Communist International shifted policy drastically in May 1934. Moscow changed from a refusal to associate with the non-Communist left to a great welcoming of all sympathizers into front organizations, peace congresses, and anti-fascist manifestations. “The Hand Outstretched” was the motto circulated in all countries to encourage a popular front. Faced by the partial collapse of capitalism, by the impending threat of the Nazis, and by the naive idealism and powerful propaganda that worked in favor of the Soviet Union, the “Red Decade” of the 1930s was a period of crisis and a turning point for the entire Western world more serious than that of World War I.
Barzun holds onto 1914 as the turning point and thus, I believe, misplaces the periodization of cultural history in the twentieth century. He also remains oblivious to the historic importance of the West's multiple responses to the crisis of the Thirties. World War II addressed the most immediate danger of Nazi Germany and Japan. It was followed swiftly by the cold war of atomic terror and attrition that lasted forty years and finally ended in the downfall of the totalitarian Soviet regime. And gradually a set of political initiatives and compromises in Europe and the United States have partly tamed the free market and introduced the modified socialist reforms embodied in the welfare state.
Can one come to a balanced judgment about the “decadence” of the West in the twentieth century without considering World War II, the cold war, and the efforts of democracy and capitalism to meet the challenges that emerged in the Thirties? These were cultural events as well as military and political events. The leadership of Churchill, Roosevelt, De Gaulle, and Marshall, and, yes, in a different style, of Thatcher and Reagan is part of a saga that does not deserve the word “decadence.” Other horrors have occurred and continue to occur. But Barzun's treatment of twentieth-century history leaves the impression that nothing positive, nothing heroic, no major effort to defend civilization has occurred since the Great War abruptly cut off the creative energies of the Cubist decade. For the overall thesis of this book about the trajectory of a five-hundred-year era, and about the last century in particular, I find this omission disabling.
Barzun chose part of a chapter from Part Four—entitled “The Artist Prophet and Jester”—to publish in advance of the book in The American Scholar (Winter 2000). Here Barzun accepts the term “Modernism” to designate the most significant directions in the arts “from the time of this final victory won by the religion of art in the early 1920s.” No two critics ever seem to agree about the dating of Modernism, and the plausible analogy of modern art to a religious movement has appeared several times in earlier chapters without adequate discussion and evidence. Barzun traces Modernism through the standard reference points of Eliot, Joyce, and Proust, and omits mention of the crisis of abstract art that goes back to the Cubist decade. These choppy pages discuss the Dada and Surrealist movements and overlook their close continuity with pre-war escapades by Jarry, Apollinaire, and Duchamp. And both movements put up a sturdy resistance—for as long as they could hold out against the culture—to the very category of art as a description of what they were doing. They called art “an alibi” and “a lamentable expedient.” For Barzun, Modernism has become “at once the mirror of disintegration and an incitement to extending it.” After this inept chapter, Barzun descends, or rises, increasingly into the tones of a jeremiad directed against contemporary culture as a whole. The book ends with the West irretrievably on the skids, its institutions in decline, lacking leadership and self-understanding. It is a very limited view of our time.
Barzun or his copy editor should have repaired a number of solecisms that mar his generally workmanlike prose. For example: “Gluck had declined composing Beaumarchais’ text.” “She also practiced the right to be as sexually free and initiative as men.” “The next instant, emotions varied—appall for some, joy for others.” “… She found later in life a congenial husband, though his latter days darkened hers by becoming ill, alcoholic, and of uncharacteristic bad temper.” Painting sometimes lures Barzun beyond his depth. “Perspective is based on the fact that we have two eyes.” He's thinking of depth perception, not perspective. When he refers later to an exhibition in 1874 of paintings by Manet and others rejected by the annual Salon, he is confusing the Salon des Refusés with the first show of the Société Anonyme (or Impressionists).
Barzun entitles a chapter in Part One “The Eutopians” to suggest that More, Campanella, Bacon, Rabelais, and others were writing not about “no place,” but about “a good place.” Eutopias contributed much to social thought. Then he writes as follows:
Eutopian morals show how mistaken are modern critics who keep complaining that science has made great progress in improving material life but has lagged in doing the same for the ethical. There was no progress to make. Men have known the principles of justice, decency, tolerance, magnanimity from an early date. Acting on them is another matter—nor does it seem easier for us to act on our best scientific conclusions when we deal with bodily matters: an age that has made war on smoking and given up the use of the common towel and the common cup should prohibit shaking hands.
Is this a major pronouncement by a cultural historian? If so, he never investigates the “early date” to which we can trace the origin of our moral principles. And the entire design of From Dawn to Decadence suggests a movement of progress and regress unlike that of science and characteristic of culture—including justice, decency, and the like. Is there “no progress to make” in ethics in order to deal with nuclear weapons and genetics? Barzun can hardly mean it. He is the first to acknowledge cultural and ethical accomplishments. A few pages later in the same chapter, Barzun makes much of Shakespeare's “invention of ‘character'” out of mere types. The sympathy with which Barzun presents the sensibilities and intelligences of Pascal, Hazlitt, and William James recognizes a gradual growth of consciousness, a changing perception both of interior life and of the lives of others. Everything Barzun writes declares that we are still engaged in winning (or losing) our way toward moral principles, whose gradual discovery is in part the creation of that very search. The exploration of the major category of the disinterested in ethics, aesthetics, and science belongs to the era surveyed by this book. Barzun does not mention it. The pirouette at the end of the above paragraph about smoking and handshaking trivializes the significant question raised by the opening sentences of the paragraph and reveals Barzun at his most captious.
Particularly for the reader who is exploring both the highways and the byways of history, From Dawn to Decadence overflows with rewards. It fills its eight hundred pages the way a natural history museum seems always to need more space for its specimens. Barzun has a restless magpie mind that revels in details. He gives us fine portraits of Luther, Emperor Charles V, Cromwell, Diderot, and others. Despite the antibourgeois pronouncements and gestures that emanate from his favorite nineteenth-century figures, Barzun knows and states the importance of a strong middle class to give stability to a vital culture. And he does not hesitate to give free rein to his love of language. An incorrigible philologist, he conjures up revelations from words we use every day. Why do judges sit in “chambers”? How have we all come to have a surname or last name, whereas for centuries one given name was enough for ordinary people? What does “encyclopedia” say about the shape of knowledge? Why is “experimental” an inappropriate term to apply to a work of art? Barzun seeks out such questions and they lead to some of his juiciest asides.
Near the end of Part Three, Barzun decides to write a five-page excursus on the state of history as written today:
When Lord Acton, dean of the profession and editor of the Cambridge Modern History, told his juniors: “Take up a problem not a period,” he was directing them to a social situation in place of a series of events. In France, a group headed by Lucien Febvre had a similar idea: no more events but “collective mentalities.”
Pressed by such tendencies, “narrative gives way to description” and “the historian turns into a sociologist.” Barzun refuses to be browbeaten and brandishes his sarcasm:
Now individuals were deemed unimportant. Neither great men nor medium-size ones had influence; only the crowd had power, and what it affected was not events, which matter little, but the broad conditions of life. This motionless history defied a tradition of 2,500 years.
Well, history too must change—if not progress. Barzun's own history in From Dawn to Decadence relies as much on “social situations” as on narrated events. I believe that his book could have been shorter and stronger if he had stopped his account of culture with the enthusiastic chapter on the Cubist decade without trying to find the underlying shape of the twentieth century. That way, we would read many illuminating views of culture and fewer philippics. Barzun's sense of an ending does not make good history.
It appeared in The Varieties of History: From Voltaire to the Present, edited by Fritz Stern (Meridian, 1956).
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SOURCE: “Look Back in Wonder,” in Washington Post Book World, July 2, 2000, p. 8.
[In the following review, Mallaby offers a positive assessment of From Dawn to Decadence.]
At 92, Jacques Barzun has earned the right to be eccentric. He serves up a book [From Dawn to Decadence] 800 pages long but proudly saves space by writing “16C” instead of “sixteenth century.” He has spent most of his working life in New York, that center of hard-selling self-promotion; but he begins his opus by stating grimly, “I do not expect the reader to be steadily grateful.” His focus on Western civilization is almost gratuitously dismissive of other cultures; at one point he labels Buddhism and Islam “cults,” to be bracketed along with yoga and transcendental meditation. As he says himself, “I have not consulted current prejudices. My own are enough to keep me busy.”
And yet grateful is precisely how this reader felt after taking Barzun's guided tour through the past half-millennium. Barzun is conversational, wise and rich in entertaining detail; he restores color to faded memories of history and paints in the mural where bits were missing. Yes, there is prejudice; but it is too frankly stated to be insidious and too intelligent to be dull. Over a life of research begun in the 1920s, Barzun has been marinating his idiosyncratic sense of history. The result is deliciously exotic.
Barzun passes judgment on obscure figures of the past as though they were his intimates. There is the Archbishop of Mainz, “a gross and greedy young man,” and Pope Leo X, “the esthetic voluptuary.” When he comes to more famous characters, Barzun tosses off unnervingly bold verdicts. Referring to the literary output of Erasmus, he assures us that “Nothing like his sway over the minds of his contemporaries has been seen since; not even Voltaire or Bernard Shaw approached it.” He thinks nothing of quoting St. Augustine and Hemingway in the same paragraph. Describing Luther's antipathy to festivals grafted on to Christianity from pagan origins, Barzun breaks off to tell us that it was in the same spirit that, in 1982, the Truth Tabernacle in South Carolina (125 members) hanged a Santa Claus.
These cross-century comparisons are not just intended to dazzle. Barzun is promoting a particular brand of history, one that emphasizes the similarities across the ages rather than the differences. Other cultural historians, perhaps straining too hard, have claimed to discern the distinctive spirit of an era. Then they have presented this Zeitgeist as the explanation for some grand turn of events: Max Weber and R.H. Tawney each suggested that Protestantism sparked capitalism.
Barzun is generally impatient with such claims. He protests that capitalism predates Protestantism; the Medici banking empire thrived in pre-Reformation Italy, and Catholic abbots lent surplus funds at interest. He adds that Protestantism was sometimes hostile to capitalist instincts; Luther and Calvin both decried materialism. For Barzun, no single spirit dominates an age; rather, common themes coexist and compete across the centuries.
What is the use of cultural history if it cannot explain anything? It provides an enriching canon, and a reminder that things we take to be unique today have their repeated precursors. We may think we live in a confusingly globalized world, but 16th-century French and Spanish kings fought each other on Italian soil with German and Swiss armies. We may presume that the fight against tobacco is a purely modern crusade, but James I of England complained of that “custom loathsome to the eye, hateful to the nose, harmful to the brain, dangerous to the lungs” at the start of the 17th century. We may suppose that fluid sexual relations arrived with the Pill, but in 1534 an Anabaptist sect led by John of Leyden created a commune that, as Barzun puts it, “satisfied one of the recurrent dreams of the occidental mind: community of goods and of women.”
Yet Barzun is not completely free of explanatory ambition. He hopes his book may shed light on “where in the past our present merits and troubles come from”; and it turns out that the troubles most preoccupy him. Toward the end of his book, he fumes against the century through which he has lived, complaining that the Western canon is under attack from people who know nothing of its content; that educated people have ceased to be bilingual; that the welfare state serves to dehumanize; that casual dress is slovenly, as is “the curious use of first names soon after acquaintance.” Most passionately of all, Barzun objects to the forward-looking impulse, the dogma that the new is better than the old. In science, each new gizmo is greeted with breathless enthusiasm. In art, a mind-twisting avant-garde no longer shocks; it is taken for granted.
And how did we come to this? Barzun appears to believe in a version of the “ratchet theorem,” which animates conservative declinists from Robert Bork to Marvin Olasky. This theorem holds that impulses that were constructive in the past have finally advanced too far, producing a kind of decadence. The urge to rebel against stifling standards has advanced freedom; but when refrigerator doors are shown as art, standard-busting has outlived its usefulness. The urge to satirize absurd aspects of life was once healthy; but modern writers declare that life itself is Absurd, and counsel submission to the resulting nihilism. The forward-looking spirit has driven much progress; but a society in which “you're history” has become a choice insult merely celebrates ignorance.
An historian may be forgiven for saying this. But, in one of his endlessly engaging asides, Barzun acknowledges the case for ignorance of the past; the illusion that one is breaking new ground lends energy to human endeavor. If Americans did not suspect that history is bunk, they might be less dynamic than they are. If they had less faith in technology, and were less inclined to expect the best from the future, the wild and creative New Economy bubble might never have been inflated. Perhaps it ought to worry those denizens of dot-com land that Barzun's backward-looking book is on the bestseller list.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 537
SOURCE: “A Turning Point for Moral Decay?” in Insight on the News, Vol. 16, No. 25, July 3, 2000, p. 48.
[In the following review, Fields offers a positive assessment of From Dawn to Decadence.]
When a book criticizing our current culture runs to more than 800 pages, with 798 footnotes, and would break bones if you dropped it on your foot, it's more than a little surprising to find it on the New York Times best-seller list.
In fact, the popularity of such a book may be enough to refute its central thesis—that the last century began a steep and irrevocable decline in what we've honored as Western cultural life for the past 500 years.
From Dawn to Decadence: 1500 to the Present, by Jacques Barzun, nevertheless touches a nerve in the culture wars that could just be one of those “tipping points” to turn things around. Mr. Barzun, 92 years old with a strong sense of history, is so erudite and witty about intellectual life for the past 500 years that you almost believe he lived in each of the centuries he writes about.
In this high-tech teletubby age of short attention spans, the printed word as written by Mr. Barzun revives a love and respect for literature and philosophy that defies the contemporary Philistines of deconstruction. On reading the book, I was reminded of a scene in the science-fiction novel Fahrenheit 451, by Kurt Vonnegut, in which a literate culture has been destroyed. But hidden in a forest, a small group of renegades spends each day memorizing a great book so that the books will be available to the next generation.
We are not that far gone. Not yet. But it's not news that in the second half of the last century the Western canon took a devastating hit. For a cultural critic who bemoans the trivialization and political correctness that pervades contemporary academic life, Jacques Barzun offers the best window of hope I've encountered since the dreary debunking of great ideas got under way.
The popularity of Mr. Barzun's book suggests that there's a large public that craves the discipline of discriminating thought. Despite the dismal education many readers have received at some of our finest colleges, they nevertheless are reading this book. Maybe they've reached the stage to want something better than junk and trash.
A clue for optimism also resides in the author's definition of decadence. All that it means is “falling off.” As Mr. Barzun writes, “It implies in those who live in such a time no loss of energy or talent or moral sense. On the contrary, it is a very active time, full of deep concerns, but peculiarly restless, for it sees no clear lines of advance. The loss it faces is that of Possibility.”
I agree that such an analysis is true for many young men and women trapped in the tyranny of “women's studies,” “gay studies,” “black studies.” They have spent their time and their restless energy actively reading propaganda rather than about great ideas and have wasted opportunities for illuminating intellectual debate. For them, possibility is foreshortened. But Mr. Barzun and a number of conservative critics and scholars offer a loud and serious voice in the culture wars—and that could begin to make a difference.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3370
SOURCE: “A Rich and Tangled Web,” in World and I, Vol. 15, No. 11, November, 2000, p. 235.
[In the following review, Gress offers a positive evaluation of From Dawn to Decadence.]
Seven decades of life, reading, learning, and experience has gone into From Dawn to Decadence, an impressively energetic, exhilarating, and spirited work of a wise man and great scholar, Jacques Barzun. Seven adult decades, that is; Barzun is in his nineties and presents this latest and largest of his works as the fruit of a lifetime. And it is no monument to crusty pedantry or grab bag of unconnected anecdotes. It is a vigorous chronicle full of strong and convincing themes, an account of how the West was made and how it is now unmaking itself.
The modern West was shaped, Barzun argues, by four revolutions and the ideas, themes, and aspirations that inspired them. They are the religious, monarchical, liberal, and social revolutions. Barzun defines revolution precisely, as the “the violent transfer of power and property in the name of an idea.” Each of the four took classic form in one or more Western countries; thus, the religious revolution in Germany in the 1520s, when Martin Luther broke with the Catholic Church; the monarchical revolution in the 1660s in France, when Louis XIV and his minister Colbert centralized power and ritualized kingship; the liberal revolution in France in 1789; and the social revolution in Russia in 1917.
These classic cases then reverberated throughout the West, stimulating social, cultural, political, and technological change in response to the leading ideas of each revolution. Thus, for example, the concept of equality and the idea that government should promote it were not unique to Russia in 1917 but were of growing influence and popularity throughout the West. Russia was the classic and most extreme case of a political movement trying to put them into practice.
Barzun's book explains how these revolutions and associated ideas came about and how their repercussions interacted to produce the modern West, which swears allegiance to all these ideas put together. The five most important of them are emancipation, individualism, primitivism (that is, the notion that original and natural is better than later and artificial), analysis or scientific method, and self-consciousness. All made their first appearance in the era of the religious revolution and the new humanism, the movement that recovered classical civilization and rejected theological tutelage of the individual conscience, scholarship, and social values, customs, and laws. They were then taken up and developed by statesmen, scientists, inventors, scholars, administrators, warriors, and poets until the tangled web that is the modern West gradually emerged.
The book is full of gems. Some are anecdotes about people, others are brilliant capsule explanations of common conundrums. In a few deft strokes, Barzun solves them. For example the distinction between reason and rationalism, which he explains while discussing René Descartes, one of the founding figures of the scientific outlook and the scientific method:
A less obvious cultural influence of the Cartesian philosophy and its method has been to promote faith in Reason. Mankind has always used reasoning—argument went on in cave, tent, or prairie hut—but the Cartesian or scientific reason is of a particular kind. Like geometry, it starts from clear and distinct ideas that are abstract and assumed to be true. Faith in this type of reason is a creed, often passionate, called Rationalism. It differs from the workaday use of our wits by its claim that analytical reasoning is the sole avenue to truth.
This conviction is one that is being questioned today, and not for the first time. Unfortunately, the combatants on both sides keep arguing whether the modern mind is harmed—some say victimized—by “too much reason,” the attackers holding that science and numbers are not the only truth; the defenders retorting that if reason is given up, intellectual anarchy and wild superstition will reign. The latter are right about reason as an activity—reasoning; the former are right about Rationalism, the dominance of a particular form of reason and its encroachment where it does not belong.
We know the religious revolution of the sixteenth century as the Protestant Reformation. By this revolution, the power and property of the Catholic Church in large parts of Europe were transferred to the secular princes. When Barzun says transfer of power, he means it in the full sense, as power over ideas and souls as well as economic and political power.
The reformers, Martin Luther, John Calvin, and their followers, took Christianity out of the institutional church and rested it firmly on the Bible itself, the property of all believers. To them, being Christian meant knowing the Bible. Therefore, everyone should be able to read. Putting a Bible in every home and expecting every Christian to be able to read it gave Protestant Europe and gradually the whole West “a common background of knowledge, a common culture in the high sense of the term.” This culture rested on an intimate knowledge of the Bible and its stories that is now fading, a symptom of the decadence of the West as a whole. Barzun provides a striking illustration of the force of this common culture in its heyday in the early nineteenth century:
When Coleridge was lecturing in London on the great English writers, he happened to mention Dr. Johnson's finding on his way home one night a woman of the streets ill or drunk in a gutter. Johnson carried her on his broad back to his own poor lodging for food and shelter. Coleridge's fashionable audience tittered and murmured, the men sneering, the women shocked. Coleridge paused and said: “I remind you of the parable of the Good Samaritan” and all were hushed. No amount of moralizing could have done the work of rebuke and edification with such speed and finality.
The religious revolution ended in a dying fall. By the end of the sixteenth century, many thinkers and writers of Europe were rejecting the religious enthusiasm of their elders and recommending sober moralism and an attitude of stern detachment from worldly passions. Some were prefiguring the next, monarchical revolution by defending centralized administration; others were laying the foundations of modern science. In Barzun's view, the beginning of modern science and the scientific outlook in the seventeenth century is the last act of the religious revolution. It was a revolution not only in theology and public morality but in epistemology as well, replacing, as another scholar once put it, the knowledge of authority with the authority of knowledge.
EMANCIPATION AND PRIMITIVISM
Barzun has taken trouble to make his ample and generous book user-friendly, something to be grateful for, given its range and scope. The four revolutions launch and help to define three great periods of Western history of about 125–150 years each and one shorter period, the last, in which we live. Its end, though perhaps near, is not yet visible.
The first period runs from the Reformation to the scientific discoveries of the young Isaac Newton in the 1660s, the second from the origins of the Versailles court of Louis XIV, the Sun King, to the beginning of the French Revolution in 1789. The third ends in 1914, when the great European war put an end to the peaceful, progressive, and liberal world of the late nineteenth century and modern art arrived at the heart of the culture, an event encapsulated in a famous exhibition at the New York Armory. The fourth period, finally, is the century of the social revolution, that of equality. The concept has turned out to be both universally accepted—no government, however conservative, proposes to return to the social discrimination and the minimal state of the nineteenth century—and problematic. For what is equality? Is it equality of income and assets, social condition, or that most intangible and characteristic of late Western ideals, self-esteem?
Barzun devotes a section to each of the four epochs. The chapters blend analysis and explanation of the major themes with accounts of figures, some famous, others known mainly to scholars, who in various ways represented, developed, lived, or argued about the ideas of the era. The result is not, as one might fear, an accumulation of anecdotes and fragmented chunks of narrative but a tapestry in which the continuing, underlying themes are ever present but never intrusive or boring.
Two pervasive themes of Western culture are what Barzun calls emancipation and primitivism. Emancipation is the idea of releasing human beings from bondage to institutions or powers seen as unjust or evil. Barzun traces the earliest form of this concept to the religious revolution. Primitivism, often closely linked to emancipation, is the idea of returning to origins and seeing higher value in an earlier, purer, better state of one's culture, religion, or personality. In Lutheranism, the dominant form of reformed Christianity in northern Europe, primitivism meant the idea that true Christianity was that of the apostles or of Jesus Christ himself, a religion without a hierarchical church and in which every man could, and must, be his own priest, where everyone was equal to God and no one needed a mediator—priest or pope—to manage relations with the divine.
Primitivism has cropped up again and again in Western literature and politics. It appears as the cult of natural man and natural human virtue, as in the idea of the noble savage, devised by the French Renaissance writer Michel de Montaigne, who can justly be called the father of modern anthropology. One has only to study the writings of ancient, Indian, or Chinese cultures to see how bizarre the idea of the noble savage is, the idea that people of primitive habits, without cities and literature, are more virtuous than civilized and literate people. Yet it is an idea that is alive and well in America today, as the multiculturalist worship of non-Western cultures on campuses across the land illustrates.
THE WESTERN PERSONALITY
Of all the major Western ideas, perhaps the most crucial, or at least the most fascinating and peculiarly Western, is the idea of self-consciousness. Its roots are in ancient Greece—recall that the Delphic oracle commanded visitors to “know thyself”—and in ancient Israel, in the Bible's teaching on human nature and its call to constant self-examination and self-judgment. It became a dominant theme in the sixteenth century, when Montaigne, who is perhaps the most archetypally Western man of all, took it in a new direction that was to have vast repercussions throughout all later Western thought and action, whether literary, political, religious, or scientific.
Most people who have heard of Montaigne think of him as a skeptic, as someone who undermined the bloody certitudes of the theologians and warriors who were tearing Europe apart in wars of religion that were also wars of plunder, conquest, and aggrandizement. But this is to see only one side of him. Montaigne had many positive ideas and principles, but he arrived at them in a new way, the way of self-consciousness. In doing so, Barzun explains, he made self-consciousness the principle of knowledge and action. What we know, want, and believe comes from inside us, and that inside is neither simple nor unidimensional:
“Montaigne, then, is not ‘a skeptic’ in the sense of a shoulder-shrugging philosopher who looks at the world with tolerant amusement; he is skeptical in the sense of the reader who does not believe without evidence and the scholar who does not take any particular truth as final. This outlook in no way prevents having rooted convictions. To name only one, Montaigne is sure that people ought not to be burnt for their beliefs. …”
So things stood with Montaigne when he began his exploration. Gradually, without any upheaval of feeling such as accompanies sudden conversion, he came to see that to philosophize is to learn how to live. One can only speculate about what brought on the change: it seems reasonable to suppose that the turn came from the increasingly vivid sense of the inmost self and its frequent independence from the intellect. To learn to die is a mental project born of worldly observation; to learn to live is also a project, but it takes in that “depth and variety,” that “weakness” to which Montaigne attributes the temper of his opinions, and indeed of his experience as a whole.
The theme of self-consciousness can never be more manifest than here, and its embodiment in the Essays has a cultural import that has hardly been recognized: Montaigne discovered Character. I mean by this that when he calls Man ondoyant et divers, a phrase so precise that it is difficult to translate—“wavelike and varying” will have to do—he replaced one conception of the individual by another, deeper and richer.
The fate of self-consciousness encapsulates the whole history of the West. In Barzun's view, the four revolutions and their associated ideas erupted in particular times and places and then entered the common stream of the culture. But it is human nature, or at least Western human nature, to pursue all themes and ideas to their extreme, to the point that they risk becoming debilitating rather than fertile. It has been a trait of the most inventive minds of the West, in whatever field of activity, to push ideas to the limit to see what new insight or stimulus they might provide. In men and women of genius, this can lead to further breakthroughs in culture, art, politics, and society. But it can also lead to decadence, and that is the problem of the West today.
In the case of self-consciousness, the critical change happened in the beginning of the Romantic era, around the turn of the eighteenth century. At that time, a group of French thinkers and writers developed a refined form of psychology of the passions and feelings. Unlike the psychology of Montaigne, this version was not guided by a strong positive morality but tended to become an exploration of feelings for their own sake, leading to a sort of emotional wheel-spinning or narcissistic indulgence in emotion rather than to fruitful self-discovery.
Among these French thinkers were the so-called Ideologues and the philosopher and essayist Germaine de Sta'l. These writers
all bear witness through their work to the growing scope of self-consciousness. Goethe, also of their time, was alarmed by its spread and wondered how far it would go and do damage to spontaneity in art and human relations. The conscious mind is not always self-conscious. … The medieval church, requiring confession of sins, made frequent self-survey unavoidable, and from the Reformation onward a new intensity of religious feeling imposed the question “is my soul destined for salvation?” The search for an answer could be excruciating and take years, as Luther and [John] Bunyan told the world. But the effort had a definite range and purpose, whereas secular self-consciousness knows no limits and rarely has a stated goal; it is exploration without end and can become paralyzing.
Which is where we are today, in the age of anxiety and the identity crisis, which has been going on much longer than many think. In recent decades it has become public and accepted to have low self-esteem, to wonder who one is, to waver between defensive apology and arrogant assertion of rights, and to indulge in endless searches for oneself. But, as Barzun notes, “a self is not found but made.” The failure to take that point and act on it is the precise measure of the decadence of the West in an age that, as the New York Times writer Maureen Dowd put it, sets “publicity over achievement, revelation over restraint, honesty over decency, victimhood over personal responsibility, confrontation over civility, psychology over morality.” No one in our time, Barzun says, would understand or repeat the English poet William Wordsworth's cry during the French Revolution, “Oh, what a joy to be alive!”
HISTORY IS NOT FATE
The final chapters are “a sketch of a culture at its close,” something that Barzun notes with the detachment of the sage and with minimal regret. Nor is he forecasting social or political catastrophe; he is no doomsayer but an observer. Decadence, in his view, is the natural condition of a society that has explored its native options and tendencies—the ideas and themes I have mentioned—to and beyond their natural limits. What we have today is a society characterized above all by separatism, which is what happens when sundry groups and people pursue different interests and deny or neglect what they have in common.
Separatism is promoted by the egalitarian or, as Barzun calls it, the demotic temper of the times. Everyone and every group has a right to be different. At the same time, all these groups and people want help to achieve their goals. This promotes a self-nourishing circle of political and social ambitions to make the world ever better, ever safer, and ever more uniform; but these goals can never be met, partly because they are illusory and infantile, and partly because the very dissatisfaction symbolized by the prevailing separatism means that no one is ever content. The exaggerated emphasis on self-consciousness feeds discontent and produces the sickly fear of responsibility and refusal of maturity that also seem characteristic of the demotic age.
Yet history is not fate. Niches of Western culture may and probably will survive, though forgotten by the MTV and Internet people and all those who hold to the Bill Gates thesis: the idea that computers and cyberspace are making everything better and better all the time. Neither is history fate in the sense that all that went before was part of a logical progression to what is now. History is not a single story, nor does it mainly consist of rational progress but of events and passions that sometimes produce results we in hindsight see as forming a logic of development; not so, usually, for the participants. An example: “The century that laid down the fundamentals of science”—the seventeenth—“is the one that got rid of public baths and of the very idea of regular bathing.”
In a final, whimsical chapter posing as a future historian's analysis of what happened to the West after our own time, Barzun guesses that the Gatesian idea of endless, computerized prosperity without culture and history will finally generate an attack of boredom:
The attack was so severe that the over-entertained people, led by a handful of restless men and women from the upper orders, demanded Reform and finally imposed it in the usual way, by repeating one idea. These radicals had begun to study the old neglected literary and photographic texts and maintained that they were the record of a fuller life. … They distinguished styles and the different ages of their emergence—in short, they found a past and used it to create a new present. Fortunately, they were bad imitators … and their twisted view of their sources laid the foundations of our nascent—or perhaps one should say, renascent—culture. It has resurrected enthusiasm in the young and talented, who keep exclaiming what a joy it is to be alive.
Another kind of comfort—bracing and from the age that was already losing the old Western commitment to the whole life—is that of Alfred Tennyson in his poem “Ulysses.” These are the words of a man who, unlike Wordsworth in the 1790s, is not young but who nevertheless cannot stop seeking beyond the sunset. At the end of such a road lies not self-doubt or anxiety but the endless discovery of history, world, self, and life that Montaigne recommended and enjoyed and that Barzun, that latter-day Montaigne, provides for our enrichment:
Come, my friends, ’Tis not too late to seek a newer world. Push off, and sitting well in order smite The sounding furrows, for my purpose holds To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths Of all the western stars, until I die. … Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’ We are not now that strength which in old days Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are; One equal temper of heroic hearts, Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1443
SOURCE: “The End of History?” in First Things, No. 107, November, 2000, pp. 43-4.
[In the following review, Reilly offers a favorable assessment of From Dawn to Decadence.]
From Dawn to Decadence is one of those wonderful books that cannot be categorized. Some reviewers have compared it to The Education of Henry Adams, the great intellectual autobiography that seemed to sum up the last fin-de-siècle. The comparison does no injustice to either work. Jacques Barzun was born in 1907, and so has lived through a not insignificant slice of the period he covers, but even he did not know Descartes personally. And yet in some ways From Dawn to Decadence reads less like a history than it does like a personal memoir of the last half-millennium, with people and topics selected chiefly because the author is interested in them. The effect is delightful, though sometimes a little disorienting. Perhaps the one thing you can say for sure about From Dawn to Decadence is that it provides the most cheerful explanation you are ever likely to get for why Western culture is ending.
Jacques Barzun really needs no introduction. Anyone interested in William James, the great Romantic composers, the role of race in historical writing, or a dozen other subjects has already encountered him somewhere. (A book he coauthored with Henry Graff, The Modern Researcher, sticks in my mind after twenty-five years as a philosophy of historiography disguised as a reference guide.) In From Dawn to Decadence, he manages to touch on just about all his lifelong interests, and without turning the book into a mere anthology.
The format is loosely chronological, with the great era of the post-medieval, “modern” West divided into several lesser ages. The whole text is broken up into digestible chunks of commentary and biography. We get assessments, sometimes quite idiosyncratic ones, of almost all the great names of the modern era, but many of the biographies are of persons the author deems worthy-but-obscure. Some of these subjects really are virtually forgotten, such as the ingenious eighteenth-century polymath, Dr. Georg Lichtenberg. Others are just a bit neglected, such as the senior Oliver Wendell Holmes. (Barzun manages to praise this physician and essayist while barely mentioning his jurist son.) A particularly entertaining feature of the book is the brief, apt quotations set into the margins. Had it not been for From Dawn to Decadence, I would never have known that Thursday was bear-baiting day at the court of Elizabeth I.
From Dawn to Decadence has only a minimal amount of political and military narrative, which is something of a drawback since the author routinely makes unexplained allusions to people and events that may no longer be common knowledge. (Do undergraduates today know what Stanley said to Livingston? I'm afraid to ask.) And then there are the fact-checking lapses inevitable in a work of this scope. These will allow readers to entertain themselves by looking for mistakes. More than one reviewer has noted that modern calculus does not use Newton's notation, as Barzun says, but that of Leibniz. However, this review may be the only place you will read that those long-range shells the Germans fired at Paris (and Barzun) during the First World War did not come from Big Berthas, but from Krupp's Pariskanone.
Parlor games aside, the author corrects errors that are far more important than the ones he makes. He points out, for instance, that, no, M. Jourdain did not speak prose, and that Molière knew this as well as anyone. It is anachronistic, he reminds us, to suppose that Galileo was tried because the Inquisition believed the Copernican model threatened man's place in the universe. Rousseau's works cannot be made to say, he observes with a note of exasperation, that Rousseau was a revolutionary who wished mankind to return to a state of nature. Intellectual superstitions of this sort are probably immortal, but it is a good idea to try to correct them at least once every five hundred years.
While a book as genial as this one can hardly be accused of promoting anything as crudely Germanic as a theory of history, it does present a sketch of the last half-millennium. According to Barzun, the West has been working out a cultural impulse that it received in the Renaissance, an impulse that had become exhausted by the end of the twentieth century. This impulse was not an ideology or an agenda but an expandable list of desires, particular forms of which can be detected throughout all the cultural and political controversies of the great era. The names of these desires are helpfully capitalized wherever they are mentioned, so that Emancipation is graphically shown to play a role in every major controversy from the Reformation to the women's suffrage movement. Another example is Primitivism, the perennial impulse to return to the original text, to the early constitution, to the uncluttered state of the beginning. Other trends of the modern era have been informed by the desires for Abstraction, Reductivism, and Self-consciousness. Ideas like these can hardly be said to have been the motor of Western history, but looking for their various incarnations over the centuries does make it much easier to view the era as a whole.
Barzun laconically informs us that late medieval Europe was a “decadent” society. I myself had thought that Richard Gilman had permanently retired that word with his study Decadence: The Strange Life of an Epithet, but Barzun may persuade readers that “decadence” is neither a moral category nor a bit of implicit vitalism. Rather, Barzun says, the term “decadent” may properly be used of any social situation that is blocked, where people entertain goals for which they will not tolerate the means. Decadent societies tend to become labyrinthine in both their cultures and their styles of government, as people create small accommodations within a larger unsatisfactory context. Decadent periods can be sweet, as Talleyrand remarked of pre-Revolutionary France, but partly because they are obviously ephemeral.
Decadence may end in the explosion of a revolution, by which Barzun means the violent transfer of power and property in the name of an idea. Revolutions are great simplifiers that pave over the labyrinths and open up possibilities that were unimaginable just a few years previously. There have been four of these revolutions during the modern era, each more or less defining an age. There was the religious revolution of the Reformation, which first stated themes that would recur through the rest of the era. There was the monarch's revolution of the seventeenth century, in which the aristocracy was tamed and large, centralized states began to appear. The monarchs, of course, got their comeuppance in the liberal revolution at the end of the eighteenth century. Most recently, every throne, power, and dominion was shaken by the social revolution at the beginning of the twentieth.
Barzun seems to believe that the twentieth century was so traumatized by the First World War that it was never able to fully exploit the positive possibilities in what he calls the “Cubist Decade” that preceded the war's outbreak. Rather, the Age of Modernism (not to be confused with the modern era) largely confined itself to analysis and destruction. Thanks to the First World War, the more distant past became unusable: the sense of living in a completely new age left the past with nothing to say. No restraints remained on the expression of the desires that had characterized the whole modern era. The result was that, by century's end, the chief remaining impulses in Western culture had developed to a theoretical maximum. So ends an age.
This conclusion would be depressing, were it not so reminiscent of similar conclusions in earlier eras. Barzun notes that at the end of the fifteenth century, some people held that the sixth millennium of the world was about to end—and history along with it. As is often the case with this kind of sentiment, the people who shared it were on to something, if the end of history is taken to mean the end of history as they knew it. Barzun ends the book on a note of hopeful speculation. He looks back from a more distant time on our immediate future, which he supposes will be an age when history will wholly disappear from even the minds of the educated. Indeed, so completely will the modern age be forgotten that its rediscovery will have an impact quite as revolutionary as the impact that classical culture had on the late medieval world. The result, Barzun hopes, will be another renaissance, when the young and talented will again exclaim what joy it is to be alive.