October 25, 2012

Historian Jacques Barzun, age 104, RIP

Franco-American historian Jacques Barzun has died in San Antonio at 104. He could recall the sound of the Big Bertha cannon shelling Paris, and met as a child many of the cultural luminaries of the pre-Great War age.

In his 2000 bestseller From Dawn to Decadence: 1500 to the Present, published when he was 92, Barzun suddenly stopped on p. 654-656 to briefly discuss what he's learned from a lifetime of learning:
"... history cannot be a science; it is the very opposite, in that its interest resides in the particulars."

Still, he goes on to list a dozen "generalities" to show "how scanning the last five centuries in the West impresses on the mind certain types of order." Here are five of them (I'll leave it to you to fill in examples):
- An age (a shorter span within an era) is unified by one or two pressing needs, not by the proposed remedies, which are many and thus divide. 
- A movement in thought or art produces its best work during the uphill fight to oust the enemy; that is, the previous thought or art. Victory brings on imitation and ultimately Boredom. 
- "An Age of --" (fill in: Reason, Faith, Science, Absolutism, Democracy, Anxiety, Communication) is always a misnomer because insufficient, except perhaps "An Age of Troubles," which fits every age in varying degrees. 
- The historian does not isolate causes, which defy sorting out even in the natural world; he describes conditions that he judges relevant, adding occasionally an estimate of their relevant strength. 
- The potent writings that helped to reshape minds and institutions in the West have done so through a formula or two, not always consistent with the text. Partisans and scholars start to read the book with care after it has done its work.

32 comments:

Ed said...

This guy had a really good life, and he left the rest of us a number of books filled with, basically, bullshit.

Auntie Analogue said...

Following more than fifty years of counterculture and cultural Marxist infestation the academy - specifically its Humanities - is nowadays bereft of the sound minds and civil culture which had once produced more than one luminary of Barzun's extraordinary wattage. The West that Barzun admired is not only sunk into the 'Amusing Ourselves To Death' juvenile decadence he recognized, but is also dissolving under globalism, insensible uncontrolled immigration, rejection of the Classical canon and its replacement with cultural Marxist gobbledygook, willful incapacity to recognize and deal straightforwardly with lethal threats, and suicidal self-loathing, so that I can't share his expressed hope that the West can, or will, revitalize itself and regain the integrity requisite for continued preeminence.

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed some of his older (middle period?) books such as "The American University" and "A Stroll With William James" which were well-written and humorous if a bit effetely academic. Because he was re-appearing in William Safire's language column frequently I bought From Dawn To Decadence several years ago, which I haven't read. Honestly I tend to confuse it with some generic Western Civ textbook whenever I see it on my shelf.

dearieme said...

"An Age of Transition": a handy fit for almost all historical writing.

Anonymous said...

Vale, Professor. Barzun's work was frequently like a breath of fresh sanity.

His anthology, "The Jacques Barzun Reader", is like an entire college liberal-arts education in a single volume. Quite a guy.

I also seem to recall him once saying that when he was a child, he had a grandmother (or perhaps a great-grandmother) who had lived during the Napoleonic Wars in France and told him of those days. So until a day or two ago, we had a man living among us who had a direct link of live memory to the time of Napoleon. Kind of amazing to think about.

drug resistant TB said...

Interesting that Barzun dies in the middle of the latest World Series, because if he is remembered at all, it will be for his now antiquated saying, "Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball...."

Pro football has become not merely our national pastime but our civil religion, its calendar our liturgical calendar, to crib shamelessly from Thomas Fleming.

I doubt that the World Series (which really should be renamed The US Baseball Championship) attracts viewers outside the participating teams markets, but I tried watching. The show was gruesome. Apparently baseball itself is considered too boring, so instead of focusing on the players' at-bats, they carried on meaningless chatter with other players in the dugout. During the entire bottom of the 4th inning, the announcers chatted with Sergio Romo (nice guy, by the way, opposed the boycott of Arizona). Occasionally a decorative blonde spiced up the proceedings. In other words, baseball wasn't the point.

RIP baseball, and Barzun.

Rob said...

He was a race denier. He wrote Race: A Study in Modern Superstition in 1937 and reaffirmed this view in Dawn to Decadence in 2000.

Paul Mendez said...

The historian does not isolate causes, which defy sorting out even in the natural world; he describes conditions that he judges relevant, adding occasionally an estimate of their relevant strength.

If you read editorials, letters, diaries and other original material before any major historical event, you're struck by how many people DON'T see what's about to happen. It's only after the fact that events like the American Revolution, Civil War, World Wars & 2, fall of the Soviet Union seem inevitable.

Anonymous said...

I hate to admit but I hadn't heard of Jacques Barzun until this post by Mr.Sailer. His work sounds interesting. Do you recommend him Steve?

Anonymous said...

Reading of his death made me very sad.

candid_observer said...

Perhaps Barzun "denied" races, but he offered a perspective rarely found today in academe (from the NY Times obit):

"[Barzun] later argued that the “peoples of the West” had “offered the world a set of ideas and institutions not found earlier or elsewhere.” "

Barzun was generally a champion of the Western Canon.

Anonymous said...

I learned about Professor Barzun when he argued for ROTC's return to Columbia University last year:
http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704132204576190482383897922.html

Jason said...

Anonymous, From Dawn to Decadence is really worthy your time, although - as Rob indicated above - he was not up to speed concerning the research in IQ, genes, sociobiology, and so on. Also, if any of you know of a high school or college student who is trying to master the craft of the research essay, you can do no better than to buy her or him Barzun's (and Henry Graf's) The Modern Researcher.

Jason said...

Just as an aside, Barzun's death at 104 made me think of something that the great historian John Lukacs once mentioned, that historians seem to age well. I suppose there is something to that - the diplomat/scholar George Kennan lived to 103 or so, and the Marxist Eric Hobsbawm died recently at 95. I guess because there are always interesting books to read for the historian and he or she usually continues to have an interest in the contemporary situation, some psychosomatic factor contributes to lucidity and longevity.

Pat Shuff said...

Everybody keeps calling for Excellence— excellence not just in schooling, throughout society. But as soon as somebody or something stands out as Excellent, the other shout goes up: "Elitism!" And whatever produced that thing, whoever praises that result, is promptly put down. "Standing out" is undemocratic.

The Forgotten Conditions of Teaching and Learning (1991)

"How a revolution erupts from a commonplace event--tidal wave from a ripple--is cause for endless astonishment...

First a piece of news about something said or done travels quickly, more so than usual, because it is uniquely apt; it fits a half-conscious mood or caps a situation... The fact and the challenger's name generate rumor, exaggeration, misunderstanding, falsehood. People ask each other what is true and what it means. The atmosphere becomes electric, the sense of time changes, grows rapid, a vague future seems nearer...

As further news spreads, various types of people become aroused for or against the thing now upsetting everybody's daily life. But what is that thing? Concretely: ardent youths full of hope as they catch the drift of the idea, rowdies looking for fun, and characters with a grudge. Cranks and tolerated lunatics come out of houses, criminals out of hideouts, and all assert themselves...

Such is, roughly, how revolutions "feel." The gains and the deeds of blood vary in detail from one time to the next, but the motives are the usual mix: hope, ambition, greed, fear, lust, envy, hatred of order and of art, fanatic fervor, heroic devotion, and love of destruction."

--Jacques Barzun, From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life 1500 to the Present

I was sorry when the lengthy Dawn to Decadence ended, desiring another thousand pages of retrieving and highlighting the forgotten and obscured.

harkin said...

BY coincidence I'm reading From Dawn To Decadence right now, I'm about 150 pages in and it is magnificent (ifa bit flowery at times).

One passage really stuck out for me regarding the 1600s but equally applicable today:

[paraphrasing] It's not ignorance that's the prime obstacle to thought/ideas, it's consensus.

Anonymous said...

It was not the gun called "Big Bertha" that shelled Paris in 1918, it was the gun called - well - the PARIS gun!

Check it out on Wikipedia

Anonymous said...

'Catalogue of Crime' finds the lost secret of the pellucid and is incredibly useful. Too bad science fiction is stuck with John Clute's whiny whiny whiny bad taste and bad prose.

Barzun's dad was an experimental poet. Wonder if he left issue? If I'd been a dean at his college, I'd have lined up some coeds to get a pup off him.

Anonymous said...

A formula or two.

Which is why Bob Whitaker's Mantra is so short. It's some filler in between one line in the beginning and one line in the end. Everyone here has probably already it: Africa for the Africans, Asia for the Asians, White countries for everybody; anti-racist is a code word for anti-White.

I've been reading old racist texts from the '80s, before I was born. What's infuriating is that people back then knew that Whites were being singled out for genocide through mass immigration and forced integration.

Of course Barzun had to say that race doesn't exist, anyone who didn't say race doesn't exist has been blacklisted for the past 80 years. But no more: young Whites are putting the puzzle together.

Dutch Boy said...

"Since in every European country between 1870 and 1914 there was a war party demanding armaments, an individualist party demanding ruthless competition, an imperialist party demanding a free hand over backward peoples, a socialist party demanding the conquest of power and a racialist party demanding internal purges against aliens — all of them, when appeals to greed and glory failed, invoked Spencer and Darwin, which was to say science incarnate."
- Jaques Barzun

Anonymous said...

I found the book very difficult to read.. maybe i was too yougn.. but ONE sentence made it worth reading:

"Pop psychology is the superstition of the modern masses"

Anonymous said...

The index of his "Dawn to Decadence" has numerous pages listed for Aristotle and Ortega y Gasset. That's a good sign in a book of this sort.

irishfan97 said...

I always Revolt of the Masses was a lot of words just to say "why can't proles stop crowding me when I go to the movies."

Anonymous said...

irishfan97 said...

I always Revolt of the Masses was a lot of words just to say "why can't proles stop crowding me when I go to the movies."


I guess you didn't get past the first few pages. Revolt of the Masses starts off by noticing the overflowing crowds but quickly moves on to other things. The core of the book is about the "mass man", the "little Mr. Satisfied" types who practically hug themselves for having all the right received opinions and being so much smarter than those with unconventional or more complex views. Apparently the book was widely discussed before WW2 and into the Fifties but it had little use for professors trying to flatter and woo the Pepsi Generation.

CJ said...

Huge Barzun fan here. Barzun wasn't perfect, but he was very good indeed. I have a copy of From Dawn to Decadence and refer to it regularly; when I read about an historical philosopher/writer/intellectual, I check to see if Barzun had anything to say about him. You can learn more from that one book than most people do from four-year liberal arts university educations. It doesn't hurt that a lot of his obsessions are the same as mine, to wit, trying to understand where western society went wrong.

I'm going to quote part of somebody else's synopsis of Dawn to Decadence just to give a clearer idea of what's in there:

Barzun guides the reader through conflicting views of history, highlighting the existence of particular themes in the last five hundred years of Western cultural life. Some of these include SELF-CONSCIOUSNESS (he uses the capitalisation himself), a "mental state" of individuality without limits; ANALYSIS, or "the breaking of wholes into parts," a fundamental process of science but new to art; SPECIALISM, with its threefold appearance in intellectual, scientific and educational circles; EMANCIPATION, "indeed the immediate appeal of all revolutions"; PRIMITIVISM, the desire for a break from the demands of urban life and technology and a return to simpler modes of living; and INDIVIDUALISM, an effect of emancipation and cause of self-consciousness. Unlike historians with an agenda, Barzun does not force his account to conform to these themes, as a statistician might skew data to support a hypothetical trend. Instead he notes their reappearance and discusses its relation to precedents.

He is convinced that our age, despite its extraordinary technological capabilities, is an Alexandrian age: a time of cultural sunset, depleted energies and moral confusion. His summary of what he calls "our present decadence" shows that he does not regard decadence as a neutral historical fact but as a cultural, moral, and political disaster of the first order.

As one would expect, the sources of decadence are many and varied. Mr. Barzun shows how, from one perspective, the symptoms of decadence can be understood as resulting from the hypertrophy of those very traits that defined the West: primitivism, emancipation, self-consciousness, individualism, and so on. What appear as motors for cultural development can, when pursued ruthlessly and without regard to other virtues, degenerate into engines of decadence and decline. Mr. Barzun devotes the last sections of his book to showing how decadence has triumphed in various facets of modern life. There is, first of all, the spiritual paralysis that results from willing contradictory things. These days, Mr. Barzun observes, "any doctrine or program that claims the merit of going against common sense has presumption in its favor."

Barzun spent much of his career at Columbia. These days that university is itself so decadent that a modern Barzun would never get a job there.

Silver said...

Of course Barzun had to say that race doesn't exist, anyone who didn't say race doesn't exist has been blacklisted for the past 80 years. But no more: young Whites are putting the puzzle together.

That last point is important and a line touching on it would be a real improvement to "the mantra," something about rising white identity/rejection of genocide being obvious and inevitable.

irishfan97 said...

Well yea he goes on to say other things. He was writing a book not an Esquire piece. But typically people give their game away early. Maybe Gassett could have stood being a little more satisfied seeing as how he and his fellow liberals had won every battle they fought after WW1. Then maybe they wouldn't have messed with the Church and Franco could have stayed in the Canary Islands.

Compared to true visionaries like de Maistre and Donoso Cortes the wanna be partician liberals like Gassett just come across as sore winners.

irishfan97 said...

That response was jerkish. I can see how you could infer from my previous post that I had only read the first couple of pages since that is were he harps on over-crowding the most.

Revolt does make the important point that massman doesn't understand the energy that goes into maintaining civilization fixated as they are on creation and novelty.

Anonymous said...

irishfan97 said...
... Maybe Gassett could have stood being a little more satisfied seeing as how he and his fellow liberals had won every battle they fought after WW1. Then maybe they wouldn't have messed with the Church and Franco could have stayed in the Canary Islands.

Compared to true visionaries like de Maistre and Donoso Cortes the wanna be patrician liberals like Gassett just come across as sore winners.


This is the sort of trouble that comes from the American habit of using "liberal" to mean everyone from Pol Pot to George McGovern to the cast members of "Glee".

Anonymous said...

I assure you Gassett was equally complicit in this characteristically American vice. He was a self identified liberal. Maybe if all three of your droll examples weren't from the seventies or after you might understand this.

Irishfan

Anonymous said...

Irishfan said...

I assure you Gassett was equally complicit in this characteristically American vice. He was a self identified liberal.


He was a liberal in the same way Edmund Burke or Charles de Gaulle were liberals: he was in favour of parliamentary and republican rule rather than absolute monarchy, violent anarchism or communism. An English Tory of his generation would have been about as liberal.

Maybe if all three of your droll examples weren't from the seventies or after you might understand this.

Maybe. You should be glad I didn't make a Star Wars reference to make my point. Such are the times in which we live, dude.

Leo Wong said...

"Probably the most discussed of all of the big guns of the Great War is the infamous Paris Gun. Also known as Lange Max (Long Max), Big Bertha (not to be confused with the 42cm Krupp howitzer given the same nick name) and William’s Gun; this gun was strategic, rather than tactical in nature, in that it was a terror weapon meant to demoralize the citizens of Paris. This forerunner to the Iraqi supergun could fire a shell 70 miles in about 170 seconds reaching a maximum altitude of 24 miles - quite a feat of German engineering for 1918. On the down side, the payload was only 15 pounds of explosive, accuracy was non-existent (you could hit Paris but not a specific target in Paris), and the whole gun would have to be rebored after 65 firings." Big Guns of the Great War http://www.worldwar1.com/pharc005.htm