A Friendship in Letters

As I write this, my friend Jacques approaches the legendary age of 100. But as he, with his long perspective and range of reference, would remind us, it is legendary largely because of the human race’s historically recent decision to adopt the denary system of numeration. Had we chosen, perhaps more wisely, the duodecimal system, Jacques’ age would be written as 84 – the same number, but not as striking to the eye. We are thus partly culture-bound in making so much of a centennial birthday — something I think Jacques would regard as worth noting in passing, but not brooding over, much less deploring; a culture can inform your life, indeed make it possible for you to have a human life at all, only at the price of binding you in some ways. And this is a bargain that Jacques accepts gladly for himself, and would have us accept for ourselves — it is the bargain that makes us human.

I dare to attribute to Jacques thoughts that, so far as I know, he has not expressed explicitly in any of his writings, because we have been friends, and friends of a certain kind, for twelve years. The special nature of that friendship can be inferred from the fact that we have never met, and never shall — it is a purely epistolary friendship. When in 1995 I first wrote to him, he was not of legendary years, only legendary in personal accomplishments and stature. I had read almost everything he had written, and particularly his writings on language usage, editing, and historical scholarship, and thought that an essay I had just written might interest him. I sent it to him; reviewing our correspondence of that early date, it’s evident from my elation on receiving one that I hadn’t expected a reply. But he not only replied, he did so promptly and at length — two full typed pages — with useful advice on how to improve the essay and where I might get it published, and going on to open related issues on which he hoped we would agree.

That he would have much to contribute to a discussion about those subjects we were both concerned with I took for granted; what I had not expected was the enthusiasm he displayed in doing so, his readiness to treat as a peer someone he’d never met or heard of, the sheer joy he took in putting forth his ideas for consideration and measuring them against those of a congenial soul. We agreed on fundamental principles, but of course differed sometimes on their application and on details, and when we did he urged his own views vigorously, but never, even in the subtlest way, claimed the authority of age or eminence; appeal was never made to anything but reason and grace. He considered opposing views not just fairly but generously, and was especially happy to acknowledge a good point made by a friendly adversary — that’s how one learned things! This man who had been accustomed to conversing with the likes of Lionel Trilling and W. H. Auden, whose books on half a dozen subjects were modern classics, and who had reached the pinnacle of the academic world, took such pleasure in the exploration and expression of ideas that the difference in our ages, accomplishments, and honors was never the slightest consideration with him, and he made me feel as free in speaking to him as if we had been boyhood friends. The only responsibilities one felt in writing to him were to be factually accurate, fair in dealing with other views (especially those one found obnoxious), and lovingly respectful of the English language.

Our correspondence is now closed; Jacques no longer has the bodily strength for it. There were several times during the last few years when his spinal stenosis temporarily kept him from writing, and on each such occasion, when his pain had subsided to the point where he could just manage to type a brief note, he would apologize to me for his failure to answer my letters promptly. I begged him not to trouble himself with replying when his symptoms were at all severe, but he would not be excused from holding up his end of our long conversation by mere physical pain, and I would greet each letter from him with joy as usual, but also with a wince at the pain evident in the handwritten address on the envelope. Our conversation is at an end, but not our friendship; that will endure at least as long as we do. I have had the unexpected and unearned gift of years of joyful exchanges with one of the brightest spirits of our time, and will always be grateful for it. As for Jacques, I have heard him called a great man, but that is not the mot juste – he is something finer and rarer than that: a fully civilized man.

Note by Leo Wong: Mark Halpern has written Binding Time: Six Studies in Programming Technology and Milieu (1990) and Language & Human Nature (2006). His Web site is called Mr. Halpern is the one true initiator of The Jacques Barzun Centennial.

The Jacques Barzun Centennial