To give sufficient praise to Jacques Barzun would require a trip through Roget’s Thesaurus, so let me set off my views from Roget’s by praising him for a lack: in Jacques Barzun one notices a complete absence of mendacity. That observation might initially sound like damning with faint praise, since honesty should always be merely the sine qua non of all intellectual endeavor of whatever stripe. Such, unfortunately, is not usually the case nowadays, which is why Barzun is so conspicuous among today’s famous intellectuals. My favorite theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar speaks of how difficult honesty can be in the spiritual life by pointing to the struggles St. Thérèse of Lisieux had to fight in order to attain to the truth:
Thérèse of the Child Jesus seems like a person whom we can see summoning all her energies in order to wrestle against something whose form is only dimly outlined and whose hostility we scarcely perceive. Not until the last years, when she herself came to realize that she had conquered in the fight, does the face of the enemy become visible to us, and perhaps also to her: it is the great lie. Lying in all the forms it can assume within Christendom, the veneer of truth overlaying deep deception, genuine spiritual poverty mingling with contemptible weakness, pious trash beside real art, sanctity and bigotry, all inextricably bound together. It was Thérèse’s destiny to have to thread her way through all this.
In other words, far from being a mere propaedeutic to the intellectual life, the pursuit of truth is actually hard work, a real battle, something won only at the end, and at great cost. Barzun, too, has had to thread his way through pious trash to reach real art, and his most famous book From Dawn to Decadence shows both how hard the task was and how rewarding success in achieving his goal could be for his readers.
I will never forget the first time I read his book The Use and Abuse of Art, with these lines we can all recognize:
Nowadays anything put up for seeing or hearing is only meant to be taken in causally. If it holds your eye and focuses your wits for even a minute, it justifies itself and there’s an end of it. I will return to this notion of the Interesting which has replaced the Beautiful, the Profound, and the Moving. What I am bringing up for scrutiny, that if modern man’s most sophisticated relation to art is to be casual and humorous, is to resemble the attitude of the vacationer at the fair grounds, then the conception of Art as an all-important institution, as a supreme activity of man, is quite destroyed. One cannot have it both ways — art as a sense-tickler and a joke is not the same art that geniuses and critics have asked us to cherish and support. Nor is it the same art that revolutionists call for in aid of the Revolution.
What I so admire about this passage — a virtue on display throughout Barzun’s writings — is not only its accuracy but also its serene analytical power. In other words, while genuinely deploring the decadent and distracting, Barzun never gets cranky, another feature rarely found among intellectuals today. We live, culturally speaking, in a time of loss, great loss; but Spenglerian poses of despair will do little, and perhaps nothing, to stem the tide.Barzun’s title The Use and Abuse of Art of course recalls Nietzsche essay “The Use and Abuse of History” in Untimely Meditations; and I presume the allusion cannot be accidental. For Nietzsche, too, knew of the loss that Western culture would soon face in the twentieth century. As he said in Human, All Too Human:
The Beyond in art. — With profound sorrow one admits to oneself that, in their highest flights, the artists of all ages have raised to heavenly transfiguration precisely those conceptions which we now recognize as false. . . . If belief in such heavenly truth declines in general, then that species of art can never flourish again which — like the Divine Comedy, the paintings of Raphael, the frescoes of Michelangelo, the Gothic cathedrals — presupposes not only a cosmic but a metaphysical significance in the objects of art. A moving tale will one day be told how there once existed such an art, such an artist’s faith.
Jacques Barzun is the seer given to us by the gods to tell that tale, and how moving has been his telling of it.
Edward T. Oakes, S.J. teaches theology at the University of St. Mary of the Lake in Mundelein, Illinois and is the author of Pattern of Redemption: The Theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar.