One of the last of the generation of critics that included Edmund Wilson, Irving Howe, and Lionel Trilling, Jacques Barzun, who died yesterday at the age of 104, developed a historically informed critical approach that, without descending into polemic, didn’t shy from defining or diagnosing Western culture. For Barzun, “the historian can only show, not prove; persuade, not convince.” To do that required both sureness of judgment as well as respect for the unpredictability and vagaries of history.
Like only a few others—his longtime Columbia colleague Trilling, for example, or the late Philip Rieff—Barzun inspired respect both as a critic beyond the academy and as a scholar within it. Though he came to be viewed as a conservative, in that he defended a series of values that were superior to others, and (more important) could be distinguished from them, Barzun evaded neat description. He certainly avoided the vilification poured upon others, such as Allan Bloom, when offering his critiques of popular culture and modern education, which he criticized for credential inflation and failure to maintain its proper object, the removal of ignorance, in favor of networking and “life skills.”
For example, Barzun helped invent the area of study now known as cultural history, which has been derided (often rightly) by conservatives as a hotbed of leftist agitprop, poor scholarship, and political correctness. This was a world away from Barzun’s view, which stressed the importance for the historian to use cultural materials to identify the “makers of culture” from the mass of humanity, a focus that has now largely been reversed in contemporary academia.
Given the struggles the West now faces before a resurgent Islam, it may be worth returning again to Barzun’s work. It was not that long ago when certain elites saw the West to be backward, if not hopelessly oppressive. Barzun did not share this opinion, though he was not shy about his assessment of the weaknesses of Western culture. In the magisterial From Dawn to Decadence, published in 2000, Barzun opens his study of the last half-millennium survey of Western culture as follows:
All that is meant by Decadence is “falling off.” It implies in those who live in such a time no loss of energy or talent or moral sense. On the contrary, it is a very active time, full of deep concerns, but peculiarly restless, for it sees no clear lines of advance. The loss it faces is that of Possibility. The forms of art as of life seem exhausted; the stages of development have been run through. Institutions function painfully. Repetition and frustration are the intolerable result. Boredom and fatigue are great historical forces.
This sketch, of course, is a generalization. Ages are hardly so neat, as Barzun recognized, and what appears to be stagnation in one era may appear to be something else to another. Religious belief, in particular, was not afflicted by boredom; indeed, “fundamentalisms are vocal everywhere; religious issues and personalities occupy the media as never before.” Islam “is again fighting the West, and where it conquers it is much more intolerable than it was in the sixteenth century.”
In light of these contradictions, Barzun explored what it may mean to live at the close of a cultural epoch and what may be worth fighting for. The result was a nuanced and innovative look at Western culture. Contra the left, Barzun did not believe that all cultures are equal, and contra the right, a culture of Birkenstocks may still better than one of burqas. What is needed is an understanding of what it means when a society adopts, say, athletes and pop stars as role models and how we can distinguish those models of legitimacy and authority from those of other times and places. Further, Barzun’s analysis can help tell us whether, in the face of our new threat, decadence can be halted.
From Dawn to Decadence capped a remarkable career in academic and public life that spanned seven decades. The subjects Barzun chose to write about comprise an unmatched resource of cultural reflection and analysis, and their subjects remain touchstones of our contemporary obsessions. It seems Barzun had astute comments about almost everything. Race? Race: A Study in Superstition (1936), in which he wrote that the “race question” “defaces every type of mental activity.” The role of science? Science: The Glorious Entertainment. Evolution? Darwin, Marx, Wagner: Critique of a Heritage (1958). America and its role in the world? God’s Country and Mine (1959). All told, Barzun has some three dozen books edited, translated, or written by him to his credit, in addition to hundreds of essays and reviews on everything from neglected American critics such as John Jay Chapman to the delights of detective fiction, and from Berlioz to baseball.
Barzun’s biography reads like a classic American immigrant success story. His parental household was affluent and artistic, friendly with the artistic classes of Paris but traumatized by visions of the First World War. He arrived from France in 1920, and matriculated at Columbia at fifteen. He was to spend the next five decades there, eventually becoming provost in 1958, a post he held through the mid-1960s. While there, Barzun taught a famous seminar with Trilling on the great books. After retiring from Columbia in 1975, Barzun became an adviser to Charles Scribner and Sons. After his retirement, he lived in San Antonio, all the while writing and publishing polished, crafted articles and books detailing the life of a culture.
Reading through Barzun’s work today is fruitful on any number of issues, but, seen as a whole, three consistent themes emerge. The first is the role of the critic. Barzun wrote much of his best work during a time when public intellectuals had not yet morphed into full-time talking heads. Journals like Partisan Review explored issues that even correcting for nostalgia now seem remarkably serious and that are carried on today in fewer places. Most critics are increasingly unable to escape from the preoccupations of the postmodern ivory tower, with its endless theorizing and pretensions to “subversion.”
The rest of the critics are stuck in the pop culture whirlwind, reluctant to criticize too harshly and who often confuse simple description with analysis; the puff reviews in Vanity Fair, where advertising masquerades as critique, are a classic example of the genre. Indeed, the critic Sven Birkerts complained recently that criticism has been threatened by blogging, which turns everyone into a critic and destroys what he describes as the “architecture” of criticism, where some elite critics wrote what they thought about ideas and literature, and the rest of us read about it.
Birkerts has it half-right; what has been lost is the hierarchy of criticism, where some cultural products can be assessed and judged according to common standards of value. This loss, however, is no fault of bloggers; instead, it is the result of a half-century of higher education that has eliminated all such critical distinctions.
Barzun—whom Time featured on its cover in 1956—was from a different era. For him, a critic had a serious role to play; he rejected the method of the New Critics, for example, because simply interpreting a work from the inside was not the work of a critic. If a work of art or literature required explication, “then something has to be brought from the outside, even if only the beholder’s experience of life and residue of education.” Other than in the most skilled hands, the New Critics’ method becomes a sort of postmodernism avant la lettre, where “everyone could preach and contemn, no one could argue or refute, for symbols were ambiguous and elusive and each vaunted method was at bottom arbitrary.”
Barzun applied this method to science and its role in shaping public life and public opinion, which forms a second major theme. Indeed, he named science, or, rather, a misunderstanding about the nature of scientific inquiry, as one of the enemies of Intellect. The prestige of scientists carried over into nonscientific fields, disrupting the authority of those disciplines and investing the public with a false credulity over its claims. In Science, Barzun subjects the claims of science to rigorous analysis not as claims about physical reality but on the claims made then (and made now) that science somehow can address nonscientific problems.
Barzun was not pining for a prescientific past, which he called the “Fallacy of Utopian Addition.” Those subjected to the fallacy “enjoy the lost blessings they discern in the past with the advantages we now enjoy and take for granted.” Science does not exist in a vacuum, set apart by its methods in a separate culture, the famous “two cultures” theory advanced at the time by C.P. Snow and others. Culture was one, not two, and science could not be “a way of life,” Barzun wrote, “any more than art of war or maritime law. Nothing is quite good enough to be made a way of life, and all attempts fail.”
These themes converge in Barzun’s writings on his adopted country. America was filled with intelligence but lacked respect for intellect; open to new ideas but therefore vulnerable to “scientific” quackery; manic about making money yet unsure of the culture that could result. There are some false notes; his essay on New York, in God’s Country, is an uncharacteristically cranky reflection on crowds and dirt, though acknowledging in passing the city’s “spectacle of grandeur.”
Other points are much stronger. His essays on advertising, for example, offer a critique of its shallow stoking of desire that could have been written yesterday, while not without some glimpse of appreciation for the verve of good advertising prose. Never a simple cheerleader, Barzun nevertheless warmed to the nation’s ideals and tried to incorporate them into his larger reflections on culture.
In a celebrated essay on “Lincoln the Literary Artist,” Barzun credits Lincoln with a “style that is unique in English prose and doubly astonishing in the history of American literature.” Lincoln was an original. Lincoln’s precision and empathy were his alone, but his “workaday style is the American style par excellence.”
That American style was defined by the large expanse of country that softened the edges of the Old World, giving everyone a place to settle. Moreover, Barzun writes, our mad dash of industrialization forced everyone to get along, so that “in Europe a thousand years of war, pogroms and massacres settle nothing. Here two generations of common schooling, intermarriage, ward politics, and labor unions create social peace.” This process has been messy, and with some serious failings, but nonetheless it represented a new type of social order – unplanned, but ultimately wildly successful.
Despite the legion of admirers, there are no Barzunian schools, and certainly no one with the erudition and longevity to claim a place as his successor. I had hoped that Barzun would be with us another century, long enough to write a sequel to From Decadence to Dawn, reversing the sequence in the title as the tradition of the critic and historian is rediscovered. Though that hope has been frustrated, his work stands as the best illustration of the culture that he explicated so artfully.
Gerald J. Russello is editor of The University Bookman. This article adapts his essay “Barzun at 100.”
Become a fan of First Things on Facebook, subscribe to First Things via RSS, and follow First Things on Twitter.