October 26, 2012

Jacques Barzun has died... at the age of 104.

Here's the NYT obit for the grand historian/culture critic. Maybe you read his marvelous "From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life 1500 to the Present," which he published when he was 92. Imagine writing something that ambitious when you're in your 90s and still having more than a decade of life left.

Barzun was born in Paris, in 1907. His father, a diplomat and writer, was — according to the obit — an avant-garde salon, frequented by Jean Cocteau.
Mr. Barzun studied at the Lycée Janson de Sailly, only to find himself, he said, teaching there at the age of 9. After World War I broke out in 1914, many teachers were drafted into the military, and older students were inducted to teach the younger ones.
He contemplated suicide at the age of 11, and, at 13, in a classic alternative to despair, he traveled to the United States. How many individuals still live whose young lives were shaped by World War I? They have been leaving us in smaller and smaller droves over the years, and it's hard to say goodbye to the last few names that we recognize in the newspaper.

My son John has a tribute to Barzun's book about writing, "Simple and Direct," which he read when he was in high school and rereads "now and then."
I still try to follow his guidelines on how to use the words "the" and "a," which turns out to be a surprisingly difficult matter.
Should I have written the classic alternative to despair?

John's post has some quotes he's pulled from his copy of "A Jacques Barzun Reader." Here's one:
In a high civilization the things that satisfy our innumerable desires look as if they were supplied automatically, mechanically, so that nothing is owed to particular persons; goods belong by congenital right to anybody who takes the trouble to be born. This is the infant's normal greed prolonged into adult life and headed for retribution. When sufficiently general, the habit of grabbing, cheating, and evading reciprocity is the best way to degrade a civilization, and perhaps bring about its collapse.
Something is owed to particular persons.

24 comments:

Rusty said...

Can't say as I've ever read him, but the description certainly fits the left as it exists today.


Say. Who's your Arab friend,Ann.

john sager said...

Probably he is most famous - these days? - for The Modern Researcher.

john sager said...

Probably he is most famous - these days? - for The Modern Researcher.

Paco Wové said...

My father took courses from Barzun at Columbia. Said he was a great teacher.

mccullough said...

Funny to think Bill Ayers and others were the douchebags he had to put up with at Columbia in the late 60s. You can see how he might believe western culture was sowing the seeds of its own demise with having students like these. I'm guessing Obama never took a class with him. Pretty cool how he up and moved to Texas when he was in his late 80s.

mesquito said...

"From Dawn to Decadence" was excellent.

I remember reading something from him from the 1950s lamenting the stilted language people were using, instead of plain English, in order to sound "intelligent."

He didn't suggest it, but I developed a theory that a lot of post-War prose and speaking styles were developed by ninnies who found themselves in the military and found that they enjoyed writing memos.

Dante said...

“It is only in the shadows,” he wrote, “when some fresh wave, truly original, truly creative, breaks upon the shore, that there will be a rediscovery of the West.”

Yes, the left thinks of itself as this creative wave. Instead, it is destructive force, tearing down imperfect institutions with dross.

Unfortunately, I do not necessarily agree with Barzun in his optimism. Asia, Africa, and the Americas were stagnant, in stasis for thousands of years.

While Barzun writes that the Middle Ages set up the Renaissance, I'm not so certain it too could not have led to stasis if it weren't for the rediscoveries.

Moose said...

Thanks very much - a wonderful contrast to Lena Dunham...

Bart Hall (Kansas, USA) said...

What a wonderful, remarkable life, well-led by a truly brilliant man. I heard an interview with him after 'Dawn to Decadence' was published -- I've read it three times -- and he recalled how after graduating in history he was asked by a professor what he wished to do with his knowledge.

"Why, write the history of western civilisation" he said. "Do not even attempt such a task before the age of 80" the professor replied. He waited and the result was magnificent.

In the book itself Barzun ends with a question: the decadence is obvious, but it is yet to be revealed whether what will fade away is Western Civilisation itself, or merely the social-democrat welfare state expression thereof. And if it is the latter, then the former may yet have a long and glorious future ahead of it.

How poignant that he should die just a few days before a US election provides a clear initial indication as to which outcome is the more likely.

traditionalguy said...

Barzun is special. He expressed himself without fear or favor.

It is heartwarming to see a man like Barzun being held in honor from those who received him. He certainly made his share of enemies along the way

EDH said...

...the things that satisfy our innumerable desires look as if they were supplied automatically, mechanically, so that nothing is owed to particular persons; goods belong by congenital right to anybody who takes the trouble to be born. This is the infant's normal greed prolonged into adult life and headed for retribution. When sufficiently general, the habit of grabbing, cheating, and evading reciprocity is the best way to degrade a civilization, and perhaps bring about its collapse.

Sounds like he was criticizing "Obama Phone" lady.

TosaGuy said...

I have The Modern Researcher on my bookshelf. I shall read a few pages tonight.

My history professor friends from grad school haven't brought this up. They seem only to recognize twits like Howard Zinn or communists like Eric Hobsbawm. Sad.

Jim said...

The last Barzun quote that you posted seems like the perfect response to, "you didn't build that."

"This is the infant's normal greed prolonged into adult life and headed for retribution."

Obama in a nutshell.

Hassell Anderson said...

We'd be fortunate if mere decadence were the West's worst problem. Given the circumstances in Greece that will soon spread to the rest of Europe and possibly America, Mr. Barzun might wish to rename his book to "From Dawn to Golden Dawn."

t-man said...

From Dawn to Decadence was the book that erased all of my remaining optimism about how the next 100 years might play out.

MadisonMan said...

How many individuals still live whose young lives were shaped by World War I?

My Dad's cousin, who lives in town, turned 100 last month. She, too, had a life shaped by WWI. Her Dad was a doctor and treated many many soldiers. Her stories about the flu pandemic of 1918/1919 are fascinating.

David said...

". . . the infant's normal greed prolonged into adult life and headed for retribution."

That describes a lot more than Barack Obama. It's something that Obama feeds from, but so do a lot of people, without regard to political viewpoint.

Shana said...

"While Barzun writes that the Middle Ages set up the Renaissance, I'm not so certain it too could not have led to stasis if it weren't for the rediscoveries."

The discoveries were all of a piece with the rest of it, though. The Middle Ages gave us St. Brendan, Leif the Lucky, and Marco Polo before Columbus hit the Renaissance jackpot.

ricpic said...

Barzun was one of those hyper-civilized types, Saul Bellow the same, who could never forget the gravy stain on your lapel or your elbows on the table no matter what value you brought to the conversation. It's a slight fault common to the hyper-civilized. On the other hand they do bring the uplift.

Robert Cook said...

"In a high civilization the things that satisfy our innumerable desires look as if they were supplied automatically, mechanically, so that nothing is owed to particular persons; goods belong by congenital right to anybody who takes the trouble to be born. This is the infant's normal greed prolonged into adult life and headed for retribution. When sufficiently general, the habit of grabbing, cheating, and evading reciprocity is the best way to degrade a civilization, and perhaps bring about its collapse."

This is an apt description of our present state of affairs, and those at the top of the food chain, the 1%, are not less guilty than those below, but are more so. They create money out of money--which is to say, out of nothing--and they assume their great good fortune is due to their moral, intellectual, and existential superiority to the majority of their fellow human beings, rather than to facile cleverness and amoral gluttony.

Cato Renasci said...

I have been very much admired Barzun's thought and his writing since I first encountered his work as an undergraduate (Classic, Romantic and Modern and Darwin, Marx, Wagner in a European intellectual history course) in the late 1960s, and have read much of his work over the ensuing decades, culminating with his magnum opus, From Dawn to Decadence. I keep a copy of Simple and Direct literally within reach of my desk, between Fowler's Modern English Usage and Follet's Modern American Usage, hard by my 1965 copy of Strunk & White.

Barzun was one of the greatest cultural critics, historians, and belle-lettristes of the 20th century.

Pettifogger said...

In fairness to myself, I never thought I was an intellectual. But only after hearing Mr. Barzun speak did I realize how completely am I not one.

bgates said...

It's something that Obama feeds from, but so do a lot of people, without regard to political viewpoint.

That sentence goes from true to false in just three clauses. The belief that goods belong to anybody, or to The People, rather than to "particular persons", is a bedrock belief of the left, and it's simply lazy to assert that all people are equally likely to have a leftist belief regardless of political orientation.

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