Jacques Barzun, as illustrated by Jean-Claude Floch
“Let us face a pluralistic world in which there are no universal churches, no single remedy for all diseases, no one way to teach or write or sing, no magic diet, no world poets, and no chosen races, but only the wretched and wonderfully diversified human race.”
“Finding oneself was a misnomer; a self is not found but made.”
Last November, historian and cultural critic Jacques Barzun turned 100. In his time, he’s written 37 books on a wide range of topics (38 is in the works), led a prestigious university and received a warehouse full of accolades. He is one of the world’s last living links to the intellectual life of the Belle Époque and the Roaring ’20s (he began teaching when Calvin Coolidge was in office). The word eminent is usually attached to any description of him, no matter who’s writing. It seems to fit.
He thinks the current time is decadent. Not just any decadence, but the sort that ends eras. But it’s not in the signs the usual staid wielder of that word might see: sex, uppity women, kids on the lawn. No, Barzun’s decadence is the end of motion, it is when scholarship becomes “the pretentious garbled in the unintelligible” and “the feeling of being hemmed in by rules matched that of being hemmed in by people.” Above all Barzun’s decadence is a failure of nerve: an unwillingness to face the future and what it demands of us.
For these observations and others, he has been often dismissed as a relic, a snobbish champion of the dead white male tradition. Even among his admirers, he might well go down in history simply as the guy who said that thing about baseball.
But it’s worth taking a look around, at the constant stream of imitative art, at politicians with heads firmly planted in the same tired sand — and at philosophies that serve mainly as elaborate excuses for doing nothing.
So, when Barzun sees things finally running down, with the grand ideas that have driven our culture since the Renaissance crumbling, it’s time to consider something else: he may be a curmudgeon, he may be old-fashioned, he may even be out of touch. He may also be right.
“Reading history, one finds that there have been periods, say toward the end of the Middle Ages, the late fifteenth century, when everything looked very much as it looks now. And even though we may say their difficulties were lesser, their powers were less too. The interesting question is whether our greater powers and our greater knowledge — and by that I don’t mean our deeper knowledge, I mean our more extensive awareness of what’s going on everywhere at once — are going to be helpful or harmful. The possible harm of knowing too much is that it excludes possibilities that might work. You say: ‘Oh, we can’t do that! Look that the statistics!”
It’s interesting to note that even when the years leading up to his centenary were marked by presidential medals and countless celebrations, very little was said about Barzun’s actual ideas. When he was discussed in most media, it went something like this: the baseball quote got drug out, his contributions were lauded in vague terms, now here’s Tom with the weather.
His masterwork, From Dawn to Decadence, was a bestseller shortly after its release just at the end of the last millennium, but his contentions were quickly forgotten in the cultural conversation. It is the scope of 500 years in just over 800 pages, touching on forgotten figures, unappreciated movements and above all charting the current of ideas from the Renaissance to today.
It should be required reading for everyone seeking to know how in the hell we got where we are. Even though you’ll probably disagree with Barzun on more than one point (I do on plenty), it is always thought-provoking.
Very long story short: we continue to reap the fruits (sweet, bitter and poison) of a whole array of big ideas developed in response to the crumbling of the last era: Individualism, Secularism, Emancipation, Abstraction, Primitivism and so on. While the seeds of these ideas have been around in some form since the opposable thumb, during the last 500 years they really came into their own and sparked the revolutions that changed Western culture (and the rest of the globe) forever.
Ideas matter, and winding through the centuries in increasingly gnarled tendrils, Barzun shows how they touch just about everything. Here is Louis XIV, using etiquette and glitz to turn once-powerful feudal magnates into simpering sycophants. Here is Marx, his thoughts fueled by generations of dreamers yearning for a better world and rationalists trying to make sense of humanity. Here is Mary Cassatt with the Impressionists, proclaiming the freedom of light from realism. Here is the world, rapidly parceled up into nation-states.
Times change. Perhaps it was the effect of two World Wars upon the culture, not least in killing or ruining many of the best minds — that’s where Barzun (six years old when the lights began to go out in Europe), pegs the beginning of the end. Maybe it was bound to happen even if the 20th century had been one of unparalleled peace. Even ideas must have their lifespan: the point at which they can be taken no further without ruin or endless repeat. If they do anything, humans go too far with everything. Abstraction becomes disconnection. Prizes are given to hacks for defacing masterpieces. Emancipation becomes a series of rulebooks, each more contradictory than the last. Primitivism becomes a suicide bomb. Every thought done to death.
Something hard jabbed into my back. I turned around slowly, my hands held high. It was Jacques Barzun, a .38 Beretta resting comfortably in one hand. He was in black tie, looking like he’d just stepped out of a cocktail party.
”Big surprise,” I said, trying to look more relaxed than I was. ”Shoulda figured this one out myself.” ”There are a great many things you should have figured out, Mr. Slade.” ”Yeah? Gimme a for instance.” ”Standards, Mr. Slade. Do you know what standards are?” His menacing smile was perfect – probably practiced it in front of a mirror.
”No culture without norms, Mr. Slade. It’s an elementary principle. History gives us no reason for optimism about the triumph of civilization over barbarity. Where we do not move forward, we regress. To be sure, it begins with slight lapses. Errors of usage – confusing ‘disinterest’ with ‘uninterest,’ using ‘hopefully’ for ‘it is to be hoped.’ And then, with astonishing swiftness, the rot sets in. With our sense of language dulled, who can appreciate the exquisite verbal precision of the very finest literature? We cease to judge, we join the relativist’s party of mindless tolerance, we descend into the torpor of cultural egalitarianism.” ”Sounds ugly,” I said. ”It is.” ”Even so,” I said levelly, ”you wouldn’t shoot me.” ”Wouldn’t I?” He raised an eyebrow.
”You don’t have a silencer,” I pointed out, ”and the sign says to be quiet in the library.”
-Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Canon Confidential
He is also wrong on points, and some of them are important. Barzun is too much of a language authoritarian. While he has a point about sloppy writing and the decay of language (though Orwell said it far better), his insistence on technical propriety sometimes saps his writing of the punch it should have. The meanings and the “proper” usage of our cultural sound nuggets does shift over time, and a little anarchy is healthy for any language. The ones that don’t have it tend to be dead.
For all that he seems an avatar of the most ordered reason, Barzun is prone to fits of passion, especially about the potential or impact of great ideas and artists. This, along with the sheer scope of his knowledge, are probably his best traits. But for someone who proclaims that vulgarity — being close to life’s primal passions — is “not only a source of art but the ultimate one,” he seems to appreciate it the farther removed he is. He thus dismisses some possible signs of life — many alternative cultures among them — not because of a lack of innovation, but simply because they defy the traditional vision of refinement he attaches to culture. In the latter passages of Decadence, descriptions of roving satanic street gangs headed by Nietzschean leaders — or the internet as a passing development — are laughably off the mark. He would do well to remember that many of his idols — Machiavelli, Moliere, Wilde and god forbid Byron — were not exactly kind or delicate in putting knife to the old order — and that powerful new mediums often have crude beginnings.
But much as some of Barzun’s detractors may have a point, there is still this to consider: we are all shaped by the time of our upbringing. If I am still writing into my 90s and past my centenary (in the far future of 2082), I hope to have the intellectual talent to have a single insight on target. Barzun’s lived over one of the most intense periods of change in human history. Bring a few grains of salt, but he still gets more right than wrong.
“These radicals had begun to study the old neglected literary and photographic texts and maintained they were the record of a fuller life. They urged looking around with a fresh eye at the monuments still standing about; they reopened the collections of works or art that had long seemed so uniformly dull that no one went near them. They distinguished styles and the different ages of their emergence – in short they found a past and used it to create a new present.
We have got into the habit of calling too many things revolutions. Given a new device or practice that changes our homely habits, we exclaim “revolutionary!” But revolutions change more than personal habits or a widespread culture. They give culture a new face.”
-From Dawn to Decadence
The future is still unwritten, I believe, on whether out of the current time of tumult we will have a Dark Age or a Renaissance. The beginnings of both look remarkably similar: the old certainties lose their force, fundamentalists become more aggressive, a sense of restlessness pervades everything. Potential apocalypses multiply and for a long time it’s unclear whether the old is being cleared out to make way for the new, or if the final collapse is just gathering speed.
But humans, for all their flaws, do not stand still. Eventually, enough people recognize that things are going wrong that some of them will finally try to fix it. Most of the ideas won’t work, others will be catastrophically stupid. But out of the flurry of solutions some — in all fields — will carry the seed of a better future. There are no guarantees, but are there ever?
In this we are blessed: we have a knowledge of the past and present unrivaled in human history — and it is at our fingertips. Further, the great geniuses of the past did not have some amazing superpowers we’ve somehow lost: the same potential is still there.
Barzun’s right, though not in the way he expects: as the main cultures crumble, fragments of them take things in exciting new directions, the ever-increasing movement of people and ideas providing fertile ground for amazing hybrids. It is ironic that in the succession of alternative cultures (or those who grow out of them) that he looks down on his predictions seem to be coming true. Here are those that realize that the self is made, and who are mining the past to create a new present. It is fortunate there seem to be a multitude, because times this big need more than one answer.
Many times the results are foolish or callow (most experiments fail, after all) but at least someone was finally telling the statistics to go fuck themselves. If there’s a few things today’s rebels and freethinkers could in turn learn from Barzun, it’s that discipline, organization and an understanding of history go a long way towards today’s new ideas not getting stomped flat or dismissed. If there’s one thing that must be learned, it is that every part of civilization ties together, and thus the problem with shutting out the rest of the world is that sooner or later the world comes looking for you.
The best analogy is that of fire. Undirected it will blaze up and spread with terrifying force, only to become trapped in a niche and burn down to ash. Focused, fire can melt — and reshape — anything. I believe a better future’s possible if we have the courage to grasp it. Here’s to tomorrow.