Vale: Jacques Barzun

29 Oct 2012

The wonderful French-born but long-since Americanized scholar Jacques Barzun died last week, October 25, 2012, roughly a month short of what would have been his 105th birthday.

I won’t write him an obituary. Many fine samples of that craft are available. Here is a link to one from The New York Times that gives the basics of his long career in the world of letters and ideas.

What follows is, rather, my own unauthorized summary of his leading ideas, and a reflection.

Barzun was a Romanticist. He thought that the pinnacle of western civilization had been the Romantic era of the early and mid-19th century. The characteristic biology of this great period was that of Lamarck and Goethe, which acknowledged the transformation of species and saw it as a vitalistic, even a spiritual, development; the characteristic social philosophy was that of the French utopian thinkers [Barzun called them “eutopians,” because the mere addition of an “e” changes the literal meaning from “advocates of no place” to “advocates of the good place” without even changing the pronunciation]; the characteristic music was that of Beethoven and, after him, of Berlioz.

But then, in the late 1850s, came a terrible turn. Three events in the world of art and ideas in those years that are often considered separately, that are always taught separately, were in fact intimately connected. Mechanism, scientism in the name of science, took over each of these three fields just described. Barzun wrote a short book called Darwin, Marx, Wagner (1941), in order to express this interconnection. Survival of the fittest became the predominant explanation of the transformation of species, an inevitable and materialistic dialectic was installed at the center of social philosophy, and the making/combining of atomic “motifs” became the key to operatic music under the tutelage of those respective figures.

In recent years, a disproportionate number of Barzun’s admirers have been political conservatives. They admire the fact that he helped establish what is now known as the “core curriculum” in US colleges. They admire his devotion to the canon of Great Books and great musical/artistic achievements. They see the nostalgic elements in his thought as akin to their own. And of course they respond to his unhappiness with Marxism and its rise to prominence.

But … Barzun himself was never a political conservative. I had the honor of corresponding with him for a period in the early 1990s, and I pressed him a bit on social/political philosophy. I learned that his admiration for pre-Marxist socialists like Saint-Simon and Robert Owens was genuine, not simply a foil for his opposition to Marx. Thus, in no narrow literal sense was he a natural ally either for the sort of conservatives who often admired his works or (and this was my situation at the time) for a libertarian working his way toward a Rothbardian anarcho-capitalism.

Still, the amount of time he would take to answer the letters of an unknown like myself was itself astonishing, and in both these letters and his published work he displayed a remarkable energetic and wide-ranging mind, whence one could not help but learn if one was simply open to it.

The worries of this world are behind him now. What remains is his influence, which will surely grow for a long time to come.

For myself, I remember in particular a bit of advice he gave me in 1993. After reviewing something I had recently written, he said, “the strength of your case consists in analysis, not remonstrance or objurgation.” I have since striven to stick to the former, and excise the latter.

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