Saturday, December 01, 2007

Jacques Barzun Turns 100 - And his influence on American intellectual life is very much alive

Jacques Barzun Turns 100
And his influence on American intellectual life is very much alive
December 1, 2007; Page W14

You may not have heard of Jacques Barzun for a long time, or perhaps not at all. Yet both the man and his influence in American intellectual life are very much alive as he begins his second century. Born in France on Nov. 30, 1907, taken to the U.S. when barely a teenager, he soon became linked with Columbia University as a student, then a teacher, and finally a dean. Over eight decades, Mr. Barzun wrote more than 30 books and edited dozens more, while never neglecting his professorial duties. He continued to produce perfectly turned-out essays as an octogenarian and then, at age 93, published what some consider his magnum opus, "From Dawn to Decadence," a magisterial summing up of Western cultural life for the past half-millennium. Mr. Barzun seems to have made great chunks of time his servant and his delight.

Some timeposts help evoke what Mr. Barzun's triple-digit age means: Young Jacques was taught to tell time by Guillaime Apollinaire, a few years before the poet's death in the flu outbreak of 1919. When the poet Allan Ginsberg entered Columbia in 1943, Mr. Barzun had already been teaching there for 15 years. And by the time of the 1968 student riots at Columbia, Mr. Barzun was close to retirement.

This peer of the realm of midcentury Manhattan intellectuals has not merely outlived his contemporaries but begun to outlive many of the next generation.

Born in Paris, his first years were passed during the final years of Europe's apogee, the period preceding World War I. Mr. Barzun's father was an official and also a writer, and little Jacques grew up as the enfant adorée in a salon frequented by many of France's golden youth who were decimated in the coming conflict. After the war, Barzun père decided to send his fils to an Anglophone country -- either Britain or the U.S. Legend has it that America won due to Jacques's love of James Fenimore Cooper's "Leatherstocking Tales" and hopes of encountering an Indian here. After a few years of prep school, Mr. Barzun arrived at Columbia in 1923.

The Great War and its impact loom large in Mr. Barzun's life, for intellectual as well as personal reasons. As he charted it in "From Dawn to Decadence," the war was the cultural shift point in Western history: "It turned the creative energies from their course, first toward frivolity, and then in the channel of self-destruction."

But at the college Mr. Barzun entered, the war had a more positive curricular consequence: It was in 1920 that Columbia introduced Contemporary Civilization -- the course that was to be the nucleus of the college's core curriculum and the eventual inspiration for a host of programs that provide some measure of coherence amid the proliferation of today's "cafeteria-style" offerings. "The declared purpose of the course," Mr. Barzun wrote in 2000, "was to equip the student with a sum of knowledge enabling him to understand what had led Europe to the war . . . and to the present civilization transformed by that worldwide event."

From his perch on Morningside Heights -- he joined the Columbia faculty soon after graduation -- Mr. Barzun launched into a teaching and writing career marked by unceasing curiosity and a love of intellectual exchange, even in the grimly political 1930s. Gladly did he learn, and gladly teach, and his infectious intellectualism was a boon to students and teachers alike. In the 1930s, he began to teach Literary Humanities, the younger sister to CC, sometimes teamed up with Lionel Trilling. He published books on Berlioz, on naval history, and an influential volume called "The Teacher in America." His Columbia career advanced, as a professor, dean and provost.

Yet Mr. Barzun always sought to be a teacher in the widest possible sense, and his books were directed as much to those outside the walls of academia. Perhaps the most charming example of this was Mr. Barzun's participation in the Reader's Subscription series, which was founded "to create an audience for books that the other clubs considered too far above the public taste." The editors were Mr. Barzun, Mr. Trilling and the poet W.H. Auden; they chose the books and decided which of them would write each introduction.

Among the volumes provided to the circle of readers was Joyce's "Finnegan's Wake," and Flaubert's "Bouvard and Pecuchet." Even with a midstream change of ownership and fulfillment problems that seem the bane of any mail-order business, the enterprise lasted more than a decade.

In his memoir of this time, Mr. Barzun quotes Matthew Arnold: "The men of culture are the true apostles of equality. They have a passion . . . for carrying from one end of society to the other the best ideas of their time." Then Mr. Barzun adds: "It is clear in retrospect that not we alone but the mid-century as a whole, particularly in the United States, made a many-sided effort to carry out the Arnoldian mandate. The hope of a collective enjoyment of the best in thought and art was still strong."

I quote at length for a reason: Mr. Barzun and his midcentury Manhattan posse (and yes, most of them were white European men) did not champion culture as if it were a club only for themselves, but as one whose password for entry was "the more the merrier." In his writings and his actions, Mr. Barzun did much to welcome new members.

When I arrived at Columbia in 1974, Mr. Barzun was no longer teaching freshmen. Instead, I could join a tour offered during freshmen orientation that showed us the sacred spots of the '68 events. Columbia soon was caught up in debates about changing, even eliminating, the core. By then, Mr. Barzun had retired. And yet, in his characteristically quiet fashion, his influence was pervasive, especially among a cadre of teachers, many on the left politically, who had absorbed Mr. Barzun's belief in culture as "collective enjoyment." So, while protesters at Stanford mau-maued the administration there into dropping "Western civ," the Columbia core was closely studied but never abolished. (Though it was updated judiciously.) I like to think that a great teacher, inspiring more than a generation of his students to think, had given a lasting dose of intellectual openness to the university he had devoted himself to for so long.

In reviewing "From Dawn to Decadence," and taking note of Mr. Barzun's cultural pessimism, Jeffrey Hart commented that "no period could be entirely decadent in which such a book could appear." Well, no century is entirely decadent in which a thinker, writer and teacher such as Jacques Barzun could appear -- and flourish.

Mr. Kiechel is an editor at Reader's Digest and a New York-based writer

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