All over the world, people are celebrating the Centennial of Jacques Barzun. I want to be part of that celebration by thanking him for the books and essays he has written over his lifetime.
I have never met Jacques Barzun, nor have I ever been to Columbia University. At UCLA I majored in Mathematics, and outside of school I was an artist. I didn’t study Art or the Humanities, and I didn’t come into contact with Prof. Barzun’s books until I had been out in the world for a while, dealing with the ambiguities and difficulties of adult existence. I’ve always read a lot, about mathematics, science, history, and the biographies of historic figures, and when I read Jacques Barzun’s Classic, Romantic, and Modern, I knew enough to recognize that I had something special in my hands.
There are moments in life when you come into contact with something, and many seemingly disparate items in your vast, jumbled collection of learned and experienced facts and insights suddenly coalesce into a connected whole. If you’re lucky you find this sudden expansion of understanding, not with an ephemeral trigger, but in a book, an object you can carry with you throughout life. That book becomes a treasured museum to which you can return again and again to enjoy the exhibits and to add to them. Moreover, when you reread a great book, you discover new ideas that you recognize because of things you’ve encountered since the last time you visited its ever-patient text. You’re even luckier if the author has written other books that are capable of engendering those same epiphanies of wonder and clarity.
Classic, Romantic, Modern was superb. For one thing, it was exciting to read. I had my first “Barzun Event” early in the book, when I read the section about what unifies an Historic Age. In discussing how it is that ideological enemies could nonetheless be described as exemplifying the Romantic Age, Prof. Barzun wrote: “Clearly, the one thing that unifies men in a given age is not their individual philosophies but the dominant problem that these philosophies are designed to solve.” It exploded in my head. How obvious! — now that it was pointed out. An Historic Age is not defined by the ideas that rapidly become common currency at the time, but rather by the body of questions that have arisen at that stage in a culture — questions that have become crucial, that demand answers. It was a beautiful explanation, and with interesting modifications it fit a lot of territory even beyond the subject of historic ages.
The rest of the book was just as exhilarating. I learned so much! I came into contact with new names to look into and other books I could read about the topics discussed. There were layers of information and patterns of connection that I had never before imagined. I was hooked. I went to the library and took out the three Barzun books that were there at the moment. I read Darwin, Marx, Wagner, The Use and Abuse of Art, and Science: the Glorious Entertainment. I wish I could describe the delighted anticipation I felt as I opened each book to read it for the first time, or of the happiness with which I wrote a list of the titles to the other books by Prof. Barzun.
I’ve bought the books over time, savoring each one. Usually, when I read a book I own, I write my thoughts in the margins. I immediately found that it is impossible to annotate one of Barzun’s books with the ideas he engenders or the issues to look into, because the margins would then be even busier than the text. There is not a page that would go unmarked, so as I read I have to write in notebooks that have grown in number over the years.
Western Civilization is facing great challenges, internally and from without. If we are to escape the powers of darkness that threaten us, it will be in part because of knowledge gained from books such as those written by Prof. Barzun. This is not a facile statement. It is preeminently the words in books that have enjoined the battles that will decide the eventual outcome of this fierce world war. As never before, the Battle of the Books is all around us, and some major weapons on all sides have titles and publication dates. I believe that Jacques Barzun is a weapon of the highest caliber.
I also believe that it will come to pass that he was prescient when he wrote in the 2002 edition of The House of Intellect, that, “It is part of [the cultural critic’s] duty at any time to remind the world of the valuable things that are at risk. Even if the warning evokes no alteration in the present, it can happen that such a reminder . . . stands out as a marker a later age will use for the return voyage.”
Nothing could be more topical or more timeless than the life work of Jacques Barzun.
Minta Marie Morze writes the blog A Few Shiny Pebbles.