Posts Tagged ‘Jacques Barzun’

More on bad sex: “Eros calls for something better.”

Sunday, December 16th, 2012
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John Adams over at The Gentle Rereader offered such an elegant coda to our recent post on the Literary Review‘s bad sex award (we wrote about it here and here) that we couldn’t leave it alone in the comments section, where he had put it for us.  Here it is:

Barzun’s big thoughts on bad sex in books

Prize-giving as ridicule doesn’t seem to be having the intended effect. Even badly written sex sells. Eros calls for something better. As ever, Jacques Barzun looks deeper into a question, in this case of sex scenes in books. In Venus at Large: Sexuality and the Limits of Literature he concludes:

“Since sexuality is of our very being, sex cannot be called illegitimate, immoral, or uninteresting. But it is terribly limited; and its appeal being unfailing, it is – or it ends by being – a cheap device. When, moreover, sex is present to make up for deprivations in the culture of a whole age, it becomes a burden to literature. As Shaw said in praising the purity of Poe, ‘Literature is not a keyhole for people with starved affections to peep through at the banquet of the body.’ One is permitted to think that the glut of sex in our prose and verse fictions will remain as the special mark of our work, the brand of the times on our genius; and one may perhaps imagine further that sooner or later a Cervantes will come, who in a comic saga of sex will bury our standardized bedroom adventures like so many tales of chivalry.”

Before reaching that conclusion, though, he surveys a broad array of literary sex examples before distinguishing those from sexuality:

“Sex – that is to say the particulars of the act – is an inescapably trite and insignificant event for literature. … Sexuality is on the contrary the very atmosphere in which all literature breathes and lives. But sexuality can be made palpable in thousands of ways, ancient, modern, and still to be discovered. There is surely more to the sexual instinct and its derivatives than the rapid mechanical transaction we have been given as its sum and summit. There are tendernesses and hesitancies, sensations and fantasies that are not of the readily nameable sort, and the language for them does not as yet exist. It is the business of art to create it.”

(Excerpted in A Jacques Barzun Reader, Michael Murray, ed., HarperCollins, 2002, pages 175–186; full essay in Encounter magazine, March 1966, pages 24–30.)

Thank you John and Jacques.  We couldn’t have put it better ourselves.  In fact, we didn’t.

 

Jacques Barzun: “I am a liberal, a conservative, and a socialist”

Thursday, November 8th, 2012
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He avoided the political fray. (Photo: Harper Collins)

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.

Christopher

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!

 

“I was as surprised as I was pleased”: Rampersad receives National Humanities Medal

Thursday, March 3rd, 2011
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“I was as surprised as I was pleased,” said Arnold Rampersad, who received the National Humanities Medal yesterday.  He didn’t stay in Washington long — he headed back to his native Trinidad, where he’ll be till mid-month.  I had emailed him on another matter, and my message crossed with the happy announcement he had received one of the highest awards a scholar in America can get.

Rampersad was cited for his work as a biographer and literary critic. His award-winning books have profiled W.E.B. Du Bois, Langston Hughes, Jackie Robinson, and Ralph Ellison. He has also edited critical editions of the works of Richard Wright and Langston Hughes.

“Growing up as a schoolboy in Trinidad, I received an education in literature that some people might dismiss as ‘colonial,’” he recalls. “It nevertheless served me well in dealing with the complexities of American biography.”

According to the NEH’s online profile:

Ralph Ellison [2007] was published in an era when, according to Rampersad, “the life of the African-American writer has changed dramatically. In part through holding positions at programs in creative writing and departments of English at universities, the black writer has gained a solid presence on the literary scene that has replaced the fugitive nature of expression and publication forced on blacks over the centuries, especially in the slave narratives but continuing into the twentieth century. That presence does not guarantee fine writing but it has led, in my opinion, to an assurance that bodes well for the future. Black literature was described a long time ago as a ‘literature of necessity’ rather than one of leisure. That element of necessity still exists but it does not dominate as it once did. Black American literature as a cultural phenomenon has reached a level of stability and maturity that the circumstances of American life once routinely denied it.”

He joins authors Wendell E. Berry, Joyce Carol Oates, and Philip Roth; historians Bernard Bailyn and Gordon S. Wood; literary scholars Daniel Aaron, Roberto González Echevarría, and Arnold Rampersad; cultural historian Jacques Barzun; and legal historian and higher education policy expert Stanley Nider Katz.

The National Medal of Arts was awarded the same day, to former U.S. Poet Laureate Donald Hall [yayyyyyy! -- ED.] actress Meryl Streep, musicians Sonny Rollins, Quincy Jones, James Taylor and Van Cliburn, painter Mark di Suvero, theater champion Robert Brustein and an organization, Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival.

“One of the people that we honor today, Joyce Carol Oates, has said, ‘Ours is the nation, so rare in human history, of self-determination; a theoretical experiment in newness, exploration, discovery.’ That’s what we do,” President Obama said before presenting the medals.

He also said that works of art, literature and history speak to the human condition and “affirm our desire for something more and something better.”

“Time and again, the tools of change, and of progress, of revolution, of ferment — they’re not just pickaxes and hammers and screens and software, but they’ve also been brushes and pens and cameras and guitars.”

The whole shebang below: