Jacques Barzun at 100

New Criterion, November 2007 | Go to article overview

Jacques Barzun at 100


On November 30, 2007, deo volente, Jacques Barzun, one of the most distinguished figures in the history of Columbia University, will be one hundred years old. An undergraduate at Columbia, class of 1927, Barzun remained at the school until his retirement in 1975, earning a Ph. D. and becoming Seth Low Professor of History, Dean of the Graduate School, Provost, and finally a University Professor. Throughout his life he has written over forty books, some of them of permanent importance, all of them useful, and culminating in From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, 1500 to the Present (2000), his summa as a cultural critic.

How many times in one's life does one get to welcome a masterpiece, which, without a doubt, that amazing work certainly is? Its 800 pages of text move quickly. With seeming ease, its architecture covers 500 years of Western history, which is the large movement of the book, and at the same time fills in the great sweep with a richness of detail that gives concrete life to the vast design. Among the particulars there are constant surprises, as in the detail of a Gothic cathedral. The intellectual clarifications come one after the other.

Here Barzun set out to trace in broad outline the evolution of art, science, religion, philosophy, and social thought during the last 500 years: "I hope to show that during this span the peoples of the West offered the world a set of ideas and institutions not found earlier or elsewhere:' He makes it clear that he celebrates these distinctive achievements. He believes that the West has pursued these characteristic purposes, carried them "to their utmost possibility" and in so doing brought about decline and decadence. Barzun is a "cultural" historian because, in his narrative, intellectual developments are in the foreground, though his cultural tapestry is stitched onto a canvas of political, military, and economic history.

Barzun discerns a brilliant period of creativity around the turn of the twentieth century. Then came the catalyst that accelerated and intensified the tendencies leading to decadence: "The blow that hurled the modern world on its course of self-destruction was the Great War of 1914-1918." A sense of futility and absurdity prevailed. Constructivism became destructivism. There resulted a collapse of manners and authority, anti-heroes and anti-art, the ridicule of anything established, the distortions of language and objects, the indifference to clear meaning, the violence to the human form, the return to primitive elements of sensation. "The root principle is 'Expect nothing.'"

But Jacques Barzun is himself grounds for hope. No period is entirely decadent in which such a man could appear. I was a junior at Columbia College when I first glimpsed him in the early 1950s. He had just published his two-volume Berlioz and the Romantic Century. A friend said merely, "There he is." Indeed. He was tall, blonde, wearing a gray double-breasted tailored suit, and was coming down the steps of Hamilton Hall. Barzun had grown up in Grenoble and Paris, surrounded as a child in an academic family by many of the prominent figures in French modernism, including Apollinaire, Marcel Duchamp, and Marie Laurencin.

Barzun became one of those unusual teachers and writers who is part of a permanent conversation in my mind, and certainly in the widely disparate minds of many others. I did not actually meet Barzun until 1957, when, after almost four years in Naval Intelligence during the Korean War, I returned to Columbia as a graduate student and assistant professor.

At that time Jacques Barzun and Lionel Trilling were teaching their famous graduate seminar on major works in the development of the modern mind. Admission to the Barzun-Trilling seminar, as it was known, entailed an interview with the two professors, which took place in Trilling's Hamilton Hall office. This turned out to be genial, indeed conducted with a tone that suggested that in some sense we were equals, gentlemen and professionals, and serious about goals the three of us shared. …

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