My Stroll with Jacques Barzun

I did not take a class from Jacques Barzun, nor did I ever meet him. However, I have studied his works and the works that he wrote about, and both have affected my work as a teacher and occasional essayist.

I first encountered Barzun almost thirty years ago as I prowled through the open stacks at the Brooklyn Public Library in search of some diverting, but substantive, summer reading. My eyes fell on The Energies of Art. That title intrigued me, so I flipped through a few pages to sample the writing of this (to me) unknown writer. In his introductory essay, “The Critic’s Task Today,” he wrote: “Chaos in the world and art is in truth Criticism’s opportunity to shine. For chaos has causes; confusion has clues; history is not an impenetrable riddle, and if one can for a moment rise above the anxious fret of the personal, one will discover at least some namable sources of public dismay.”

Then: “Who are we in the stream of time and Western thought? Supplying an answer to this question is the critic’s task today, and the best excuse for his existence. For my part, I am willing to be judged by this test for venturing to use up paper and print on ‘mere’ criticism.”

I was surprised by the clarity of Barzun’s writing — surprised because the last few critical works I had read were jumbled mixtures of puns and quotations pompously declaring themselves deconstructions of texts. So I flipped to the last essay of the book, “William James and the Clue to Art,” and found this:

A . . . way . . . of showing the relevance of James’s psychology to art is to sample its abundant evidence for the view that the mind is the original artist, who hardens into a geometrician only by special effort or dull routine. James’s radical new view itself resembles an artistic revolution in that, displacing from the foreground as ready-made all ideas and objects, it restores primacy to sensation and will. Objects are always clear, hard, unyielding things that remain ever themselves as they recur, whereas will and sensation fluctuate. The Jamesian mind is thus the innovator’s — bathed in sensation, individual, free, and confident of its power to shape the congenial material of its own perceptions.

In The Book of J, Harold Bloom wrote, “As we read any literary work, we necessarily create a fiction or metaphor of its author.” In my fiction Jacques Barzun is my teacher, with whom I stroll through the Grove of Academe. He points out fads posing as breakthroughs and clichés disguised as tenets; he teaches me that the giving and the taking of meaning is not automatic; and he professes the virtue of clarity. Then he ushers me to the gate between the grove and agora and pushes me into the marketplace where, jostled by rivals and torn by critics, I empirically test what I have learned.

Winded and sweaty, I return to the grove with the test results, and Barzun reminds me that the grove is as arduous as the agora, and that enlivened minds keep the gate between them open. He also introduces me to other teachers who can cool me off. Teachers such as Walter Bagehot, Samuel Butler, and William James, who all remind me of Bunyan’s great warning against “Knowledge not attended with doing.” And Lionel Trilling, with whom Barzun taught a colloquium of great books of the modern period at Columbia University. Their method — what Barzun calls a “methodless method” — defied classification. Trilling and Barzun dubbed it “cultural criticism,” which Barzun describes in his essay, “The Imagination of the Real” (Art, Politics, and Will: Essays in Honor of Lionel Trilling, Basic Books, 1977):

“[The method] arose from a lively sense of the force of circumstances, balanced by an equally strong sense of the free life that ideas lead when hatched. It seemed clear to us that in order to know what books and works of art, philosophies and movements of opinion intend, one must learn their antecedents and concomitants of whatever kind; and to know how ideas thrive and change, one must trace their consequences. . . . The effort was a work of the sturdiest imagination — the imagination which springs from fact and is hedged in by possibility, the literal imagination, the imagination of the real.”

Those last five words hang over the gate as I return to the agora again, ready to converse with my fellow citizens.

About conversation and its concomitant, meditation, Barzun writes in “Culture High and Dry” (The Culture We Deserve, Wesleyan University Press, 1989):

Culture in whatever form — art, thought, history, religion — is for meditation and conversation. Both are necessary sequels to the experience. Cultivation does not come automatically after exposure to the good things as health follows a dose of the right drug. If it did, orchestra players would be the most cultured people musically and copy editors the finest judges of literature. Nor does “reading up” on art suffice unless it spurs meditation and conversation. Both are actions of the mind along the path of finesse. No one can imagine a systematic conversation. As for true meditation, it excludes nothing; its virtue is to comprehend — in both senses: to understand and to take in the fullest view. Both are actions of the mind-and-heart, and therefore charged with the strongest feelings. Indeed both interior monologue and spoken dialogue aim at discerning which feelings and to what degree of each belong to an idea or an image. That is how culture reshapes the personality: it develops the self by offering the vicarious experience and thought; it puts experience in order.

Culture is not a diversion for the idle or the passive, though many believe it to be. William James alerts us to this tendency in his essay, “The Social Value of the College Bred” (1908):

We of colleges must eradicate a curious notion which numbers of good people have about such ancient seats of learning as Harvard. To many ignorant outsiders, that name suggests little more than a kind of sterilized conceit and incapacity for being pleased. . . . In Edith Wyatt’s exquisite book of Chicago sketches called “Every One his Own Way” there is a couple who stand for culture in the sense of exclusiveness, Richard Elliot and his feminine counterpart — feeble caricatures of mankind, unable to know any good thing when they see it, incapable of enjoyment unless a printed label gives them leave. Possibly this type of culture may exist near Cambridge and Boston, there may be specimens there, for priggishness is just like painter’s colic or any other trade disease. . . . Real culture lives by sympathies and admirations — under all misleading wrappings it pounces unerringly on the human core.

We get the words culture and cultivated from Latin: to till, to plow a field. Preparing a plot of land for a crop is no more sweaty an activity than cultivating one’s mind. As tools for cultivation, James’s “sympathies and admirations” go well with Barzun’s “meditation and conversation,” and together they open the gate of our imagination of the real, so we can put our experience in order.

As a teacher, now retired, of remedial writing and English as a second language, I worked with students whose native languages have no verb “to be,” whose adjectives followed nouns, and whose interrogatives were distinguishable from their declaratives only by a sentence’s last syllable.

By appealing to my students’ imaginations of the real, I showed them the meaning behind sounds that reversed expected word order and altered the way they looked at the world. I showed them how to move from the grove of translation dictionaries to the agora of conversation so that they could, in English, negotiate contracts, discuss poetry and politics, and otherwise put their experience in order. This work required of both teacher and student “knowledge attended by doing.”

Daily, I encountered cultures — history, religion, art, thought — different from mine. Because the giving and taking of meaning is not automatic, it was imperative for me to walk about the students’ groves — Murasaki and Mishima, Kott and Szymborska, Goethe and Grass, Borges and Márquez — if I expected them to join me in my agora — Shakespeare and Blake, Dickinson and Ginsberg, Hurston and Williams, Barzun and James.

It was a delicate task requiring tact and vigor. Occasionally I got hot and winded, but my students left the classroom speaking more English than they did when they arrived.

The grove, the agora, and the gate are real. Even in my retired state, my stroll with Barzun and his colleagues continues. Daily, I work to keep my experience in order by reading, meditating, and conversing. As I seek the antecedents, concomitants, and consequences in the apparent chaos of the world and art, I sometimes find a namable source of public dismay.

Long a resident of New York City, David Dannenbaum recently moved to Austin, Texas

The Jacques Barzun Centennial