The Barzun Touch

On the day we learned Lionel Trilling had died, in 1975, I was the very young editor of the alumni magazine Columbia College Today, and we were right on deadline. Obviously, we wanted to include a piece worthy of such a distinguished Columbia figure, but we needed it overnight. “I’ll call Jacques,” offered our formidable and almost-as-young college dean, Peter Pouncey. It seemed like a moon shot to me. But when I arrived at Hamilton Hall the next morning, I found a brown inter-office envelope bearing a beautifully crafted essay on Trilling, at precisely the specified length, initialed JB.

It was the first of many instances of Professor Barzun’s loyalty and just-right helpfulness I would experience over the years. He encouraged our project of making the magazine more than just a house organ; he contributed essays and talks for publication; he kindly and patiently shot down every one of my ill-considered editorial suggestions. Through all, he projected a degree of consideration and decency that glows warmly as I continue to learn from him — most recently by reading From Dawn to Decadence. I’m halfway there, strolling a few enlightening pages a day. It is a fine thing to be taught by Jacques Barzun.

In his work I am struck, not just by his erudition and elegant prose, but by his acknowledgement of fluidity, chance and human agency in culture and history. It is a liberating conception, giving weight to both daring leaps of individual genius and the smaller gestures and habits that form the tissue of society. He gives respect to our innermost selves, too. Speaking of Descartes and the split between rationalism on one side and impulse and intuition on the other, Barzun refuses to take sides: “The more science proves its worth, the harder it is for ‘nature’ or ‘the heart’ to feel free. Reason should guide — all moralists agree — but, as others point out, mind is not separate from heart. The astute Chinese have a character for heart-and-mind. They perceived that the urge to reason is itself a drive from the heart, which explains why rationalists are often fanatics.”

There is a keen sense of proportion, a dancer’s grace, in Barzun’s thought and action. Some have mistaken this for aristocratic haughtiness. I see it as poise. I had a piano teacher long ago who would occasionally lean hard on my forearms as I played for her. The point was for me to develop a finer touch — a Barzun touch, you might say — by balancing downward force with upward lift, so the hands could float comfortably above the keyboard.

One day in the late ’80s, Professor Barzun was invited to a luncheon gathering the editors of the various alumni publications on campus, from Columbia College, the law school, the medical school and so forth. My colleagues were thrilled to have such an eminent authority on writing, editing and publishing in our midst, and they peppered him with questions about gender-neutral pronouns, serial commas and other inside-baseball stuff. I then sought his perspective — as former university provost, dean of faculties and alumnus-of-more-than-one-division — on a suggestion then current in the university’s councils, namely, that the various Columbia periodicals be somehow organized to “speak with one voice.” He shook his head. “I don’t believe it’s possible for an individual to speak with one voice, let alone a university,” he said. “What we should aim for is a polyphonic effect.”

At that moment, I detected a trace of a grin — not a smirk, but the twinkle-in-the-eye of a man who knows he has found the mot juste.

Cent’ anni, Jacques!

Jamie Katz, editor-at-large, Smithsonian Magazine

The Jacques Barzun Centennial