A Jacques Barzun Reader
Edited by Michael Murray
After Murrays introductory survey of Barzuns career at Columbia and of the subjects anthologized, the volume begins with a recent credo of spirited pessimism. Barzun found confirmed in William James what contemplation had revealed: teach not how to live my way, but how to live less in hope than in acceptance. The section after this pragmatic credo collects passages on history and science as two ways of knowing. Besides the joys of great history as literature, Barzun commends the reading of history to bring perspective on the present and detachment from it; to learn that the future will hold something, but not much. He argues that attention in history to particulars and individuals provides a weapon against two enemies of intellect, the abstract and the mechanical. He searches the past for figures generally neglected but worthy of emulation.
|Jacques Barzun at Columbia and Beyond: A Bio in Brief|
Barzuns procedures are essentially Socratic. Of every writer or group representing a position, of every tendentious believer, he asks: Are there not sides of this question that you have examined inadequately or not at all? He reminds others who follow, as he does, music, painting, architecture, and theater that art cannot be our sole redemption; life itself includes redemption. He rebuts Faulkners address on receiving the Nobel Prize. It is old women, not Grecian urns, that have in their time borne Keatses and Faulkners.
Attention to teaching and learning permeates almost every section of the anthology. Like other critics of current society, Barzun deplores the decrease in civility that has accompanied the decline and apparently eminent fall of almost everything treasured by humanists. He brings up to date, in two pieces distributed recently by the Hudson Institute advocating reform in education from bottom to top, subjects well represented in the Barzun Reader.
The section On Language and Style is a must. Barzuns style, as taught and as practiced, while utilizing the energies of art emphasizes clarity. He employs suitable words in clear, direct, supple, declarative sentences, lucid in transitions, brilliantly colloquial. In a paragraph on words as more than signalers, he pauses: What a fuss over a word! Yes, but let me say it again. The anthology includes a tribute to Lionel Trilling, with whom Barzun taught a senior colloquium and then a graduate seminar as a team for 43 years. Trilling achieved precision by caution, progressive refinement of distinctions, qualifying phrases within qualifying clauses, as if each word were thinking its way toward the next. Barzun seems almost always to have thought through, in exactly the words he uses, from a premise to a conclusion either final or, with no less clarity, tentative.
Every subject permits quiet humor and almost silent irony. During the ascendancy of scientific scholarship, Barzun wrote in 1958, the critic was demoted as a man with ideas, an excrescence comparable to the prehensile tail which man as fully evolved scholar had lost. The style incorporates parody, as on the philanthropic view of education: Patronize your local library, enjoy a museum seminar in your home, see what the zoo can do for you. You owe it to yourself to have an intellectual lifelearn Russian in your spare time, read the 101 classics during the next 1,001 nights, or at least take up playing the recorder and paint on Sundays.
Murrays anthology displays what Barzun calls Hazlitt, a good reader, one who not merely knows more than the careless or unguided but enjoys more.
Woodring is Woodberry Professor Emeritus of Literature at Columbia.
Photo: University ArchivesColumbiana Library, Columbia University