Jacques Barzun, who died yesterday in San Antonio at 104, had an intellect that was recognized as widely as it ranged. Yet evident as his erudition was, as powerful his judgment, it was never apparent just what he believed. He had surveyed the world, but where did he stand? Did his criticism reflect a creed? Richard John Neuhaus posed the question directly on the occasion of the publication of Barzun’s From Dawn to Decadence:
That Professor Barzun is learned, cosmopolitan, amusing, and wise there is no doubt, but I kept wondering what he really believes. In all his masterful displaying of the ideas, philosophies, and artistic representations of reality that have captured minds and souls over these five hundred years, where does Jacques Barzun stand? What are the core convictions that anchor and direct his way of trying to make sense of the world of which we are part?
The closest thing Neuhaus could find to a creed in the work’s many pages was Barzun’s declaration that, “Nature is conscious of itself in and through man. And what man has made of the world, intellectually and materially, is his mission—chosen by him, it is true, but so universal that it is tantamount to fated, obligatory.”
Neuhaus lamented Barzun’s “reticence” but said that from this and similar statements “there would seem to be no doubt” that Barzun’s project is in response “to an obligation not entirely of its own creation.” While not wanting to over-read his work in a different direction, I would say there would seem to be some doubt as to how theological Barzun’s idea of nature was.
Indeed, what Neuhaus generously mistook for reticence turned out to be a lack of interest. In a 2000 interview with Women’s Quarterly, the great critic displayed about as much indifference to the existence of God as is humanly possible; he had neither the commitment of a true believer nor the paradoxical loyalty of the atheist who kicks against the pricks:
I was reared in what might be called a semi-Catholic, French fashion—that is a good Catholic, but not intense, like a convert, or the way that many Catholics are today, because the Church is attacked. In my time, the Church was just there and people took it in stride. I am not a practicing Catholic now, particularly because of the conditions of the Church, both its fragmentation and its extreme conservatism and other considerations. American Catholicism is a very different thing from French Catholicism or, indeed, European, and I would not fit into any parish or organization. I’m perfectly willing to go to a Protestant church, and I find that some of them, which are called Presbyterian, have very high-church ways of being Presbyterian. So that the whole religious question today is almost incapable of being described by the old labels. When I find a choir, the minister coming down the aisle in a procession with the choir behind him in a Presbyterian church, I’m a little amazed. But that is exactly what I’ve encountered here in San Antonio, which is so largely Catholic.
I would suspect that Neuhaus’ hopes for Barzun’s sprang not just from a general Christian desire for the salvation of all. It is unsettling that a man could read so widely and reach so many conclusions amenable to the orthodox believer as did Barzun, while somehow missing that consuming, primary question of our creation and calling. That such a staunch defender of Western culture could have so little interest in the cult that lies at its center suggests that the cult itself is dispensable. Any assessment of Barzun’s achievement and shortcomings will have to take account of the fact that he remained at a comfortable remove from these first things.
If Barzun could dispense with God and steer such a sure course around the various madnesses of his time, do any of us need the divine? We might ask in turn how sure the course really was, but as to the first question, I know what answer Neuhaus—a man who lived every day in the hope of the resurrection—would have offered. Mine, on the occasion of Barzun’s passing, is the same.