Jacques Barzun died two weeks ago, on October 25, at age 104. I’m only starting to think about it. The New York Times described him as “the distinguished historian, essayist, cultural gadfly and educator who helped establish the modern discipline of cultural history and came to see the West as sliding toward decadence…”
“Mr. Barzun was a man of boundless curiosity, monumental productivity and manifold interests, encompassing both Berlioz and baseball. It was a life of the mind first cultivated more than a century ago in a childhood home outside Paris that became an avant-garde salon.” He published his “most ambitious and encyclopedic work” at 92.
Barzun largely created the field of cultural history, which his biographer Michael Murray describes as “an all-inclusive synthesis: not only kings, battles, laws, and statistics, but also habits, beliefs, influences, and tendencies, in art and literature, manners, morals, science, and religion, and the social setting in which these were found.”
Murray’s comments about Barzun arouse my envy. He writes: “it is hard not to be dazzled by a man who, during a four-week period in 1953, read and reviewed André Malraux’s Voices of Silence and The Letters of Franz Liszt, edited the galley proofs of his book God’s Country and Mine, adapted them into articles for the Atlantic Monthly and Vogue, gave speeches on campus and at a Partisan Review banquet, reworked four lectures for publication, and offered a broadcast on WNYC. All this, mind you, apart from his teaching and dissertation duties.” Ah well, as Barzun himself wrote in The House of Intellect (1959): “The intellectuals’ chief cause of anguish are one another’s works.”
Now here’s the reason I’m going over all this. Like many Americans, I found this year’s elections a dispiriting process. I find the slagging matches between sides depressing, the gloating and the defensive justifications wearying, and the whole reduction of complicated thoughts and reactions into political labels outdated and simplistic. So Frank Wilson of Books Inq sent me this quote from Barzun:
“In short, the market – like the state, like any institution – has its limitations, as severe as the state’s. Consequently, each device must be controlled by intelligence and adapted to circumstance. For my part, I am a liberal, a conservative, and a socialist, each dogma applicable to some necessary activity.
“I imagine, in fact, that the triple label applies to most people. Very few want the fire department a private concern; and again most people are communists within the family circle, at least until the children are grown up.”
Common sense, as Voltaire observed, is not so common.
Postscript on 11/9: What fun! The recipient of the letter quoted above has come forward in the comment section below. Christopher Faille, an author and a contributor to Forbes, has lots more on his website, Jamesian Philosophy Refreshed – more excerpts from their correspondence here, and a consideration of Barzun’s affinities with William James is here. “I’m trying to do some curatorial work, getting my letters from this great man into proper order with a commentary giving context. I believe Columbia University archives are the proper ultimate destination for the material,” he writes. Thanks for the heads-up, Christopher!