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    Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball.
        -Jacques Barzun (God's Country and Mine)

At this point, that quote is so old that I just sort of assumed Barzun must be dead by now.  But I heard an interview with him the other day on NPR about his new book, From Dawn to Decadence - 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, 1500 to Present, which sounds like it will be excellent, and then, serendipitously, I stumbled upon this fairly recent book of his essays.  As the title of his newer effort might lead you to assume, these essays reflect a profound concern about the direction in which modern culture is headed.  Tackling topics which range from government patronage of the arts to the writing of history to the teaching of Humanities, the book is unified by the theme of decline in the West, but it ends on an upbeat note as he assumes that the seeds of the next great Civilization must even now have been sown in the root of our culture.

Having taught at Columbia for over 60 years, Barzun is particularly interested in the complete hash that we have made of the academy.  In Where is History Now?, he offers a devastating critique of the way modern Historians have come to focus almost entirely on not merely social history, but the social history of marginal groups, to the exclusion of great persons, big events and sweeping trends.  He traces the beginnings of this problem to the Annales group in France, influenced by Durkheim and others:

    It was soon found that many kinds of documents existed, so far untouched and worth
    exploiting--county archives, private contracts, children's books, records of matriculation at colleges
    and universities, the police blotter in big cities, gravestones in cemeteries--a whole world of
    commonplace papers and relics to be organized into meanings.  Such documents told nothing
    important individually; they had to be classified and counted.  Theirs was a mass meaning, and it
    brought one nearer to the life of the people; it satisfied democratic feelings.

One result of this search for arcania is that the history books that are produced are unreadable catalogues of stuff:

    History is not a piece of crockery dredged up from the Titanic; it is, first, the shipwreck, then a
    piece of writing.  What is more, it is a piece of writing meant to be read, not merely entered on
    shelves and in bibliographies.  By these criteria, modern man must be classed as a stranger to
    history; he is not eager for it nor bothered by the lack of it.  The treasure hunt for artifacts seems to
    him a sufficient acknowledgment of the past.

The other main result is that these historians end up specializing so completely in one discrete topic, even within the already unuseful field of social studies, that they lack any broader perspective.

He broaches this topic again in Exeunt the Humanities, wherein he particularly decries the tendency towards overspecialization:

    The danger is that we shall become a nation of pedants.  I use the word literally and democratically
    to refer to the millions of people who are moved by a certain kind of passion in their pastimes as
    well as in their vocations.  In both parts of their lives this passion comes out in shoptalk.  I have in
    mind both the bird watchers and nature lovers: the young people who collect records and follow the
    lives of pop singers and movie stars; I mean the sort of knowledge possessed by "buffs" and "fans"
    of all species--the baseball addicts and opera goers, the devotees of railroad trains and the collectors
    of objects, from first editions to netsuke.

    They are pedants not just because they know and recite an enormous quantity of facts--if a school
    required them to learn as much they would scream against tyranny.  It is not the extent of their
    information that appalls; it is the absence of any reflection upon it, any sense of relation between it
    and them and the world.  Nothing is brought in from outside for contrast or comparison; no
    perspective is gained from the top of their monstrous factual pile; no generalities emerge to lighten
    the sameness of their endeavor.

If you wish to see an illustration of Barzun's basic point, stop by a newsstand some time and try to find yourself a good general interest magazine.  They no longer exist; there are of course many more types of magazines than ever before, but they are so specialized, tabloidized or politicized that you're unlikely to find more than one or two stories in each one that are actually worth reading for anyone other than a fanatic.

In one of the best essays in the collection he takes on the Bugbear of Relativism.  Moral relativism is one of the hackneyed phrases that we conservatives toss around to account for the wide variety of ills we discern in modern society.  Barzun deftly sketches a brief theory of the history of moral behavior, which posits that this problem is natural and cyclical:

    It is a commonplace that periods of strictness are followed by periods of looseness.  But what is it
    that tells us in retrospect which is strict and which loose?  Surely the change observed is not in
    morals, that is, in deep feelings rooted in conscience, which are by definition hidden.  The change
    is in mores--conventions, attitudes, manners, speech, and the arts; in a word, what the people are
    happy or willing to allow in public.

    I suggest further that this change precedes the swing of the moral pendulum.  This is not to say that
    the change is one of surface only, a shift of fashion among the visible upper classes.  The public
    gradually accepts change under the pressure of social need or cultural aims, then comes the loosening
    or tightening of behavior in the lives of untold others beyond the fashion-makers.  Untold is the
    word to bear in mind.  For throughout every change the good habits of millions remain constant--or
    societies would fall apart; the bad habits likewise--or the police could be disbanded and the censors

The insight here, the divergence between morals and mores, and the fact that the great majority of people continue to adhere to moral precepts regardless of the current mores, is especially compelling.  And the metaphor of the pendulum, implying as it does that the swing back must surely be coming, gives one great reason for hope.

These are just a couple of the issues that Barzun raises in this consistently interesting collection.  His writing is wise and witty and not at all pessimistic.  Even as he surveys the wreckage of our culture in the final essay, Toward the Twenty-First Century, though he provides one of the clearest definitions of the general concern that animates conservatives:

    The very notion of change, of which the twentieth century makes such a weapon in the advocacy of
    every scheme, implies the notion of loss; for in society as in individual life many desirable things are
    incompatible--to say nothing of the fact that the heedlessness or violence with which change takes
    place brings about the incidental destruction of other useful attitudes and institutions.

he also ends on the hopeful note that:

    ...a last consolation for us--as long as man exists, civilization and all its works exist in germ.
    Civilization is not identical with our civilization, and the rebuilding of states and cultures, now or at
    any time, is integral to our nature and more becoming than longing and lamentations.

This kind of faith in mankind and an overall generosity of spirit serve the author well, tempering his often scathing indictment of modern culture with an optimism for the future which is all too unusual in conservative critics.  I look forward to reading his new book.


Grade: (A)


See also:

Jacques Barzun Links:

    -WIKIPEDIA: Jacques Barzun
    -OBIT: Jacques Barzun, 1907–2012 (University Bookman, Nov 5, 2012)
    -TRIBUTE: Jacques Barzun—and Others: The eminent scholar was among the last representatives of a grand literary tradition (Michael Dirda, November 2, 2012, American Scholar)
    -ESSAY: Jacques Barzun, Historian for All Time (M. D. AESCHLIMAN, May 30, 2021, National Review)
    -ESSAY: No Place to Teach: Jacques Barzun’s Teacher in America illustrates the triumphs of good teaching and the failures of poor instruction. (Lee Trepanier, 4/02/21, Law & Liberty)
    -ESSAY: BYRON AND THE BYRONIC (Jacques Barzun, August 1953, Atlantic Monthly)
    -REVIEW: of George Boas. Studies in Intellectual History (Jacques Barzun, American Historical Review)
    -PROFILE: Jacques Barzun and Friend: What did a distinguished historian, and possibly a great man, see in an unkempt young would-be writer? (Arthur Krystal, March 23, 2021, American Scholar)
    -ESSAY: Jacques Barzun and Hector Berlioz (Stephen M. Klugewicz, February 27th, 2019, Imaginative Conservative)

Book-related and General Links:
-ESSAY: A LITTLE MATTER OF SENSE (Jacques Barzun, NY Times Book Review)
    -Jacques Barzun (
    -EXCERPTS: From the Barzun File
    -Excerpt from: God's  Country and Mine  By Jacques Barzun
    -ESSAY: Jacques Barzun Foreword to The Elephants Teach
    -ESSAY: About Books And Authors (Edwin McDowell, NY Times)
    -PROFILE : Jacques Barzun : New tome on Western culture continues 92-year-old scholar's
prodigious output (Jerome Weeks, 10/29/2000, The Dallas Morning News)
    -ARTICLE: Despite His Move to San Antonio, Barzun Keeps Ties to Columbia (Fred Knubel, Columbia University Record)
    -ESSAY: Should English be the Law?  Language is tearing apart countries around the world, and the proponents of "Official English" may be ready to add America to the list. (Robert D. King, The Atlantic)
    -REVIEW : of From Dawn to Decadence by Jacques Barzun (John J. Reilly, First Things)
    -REVIEW: of From Dawn to Decadence 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, 1500 to the Present. By Jacques Barzun (William R. Everdell, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: Closing time? Jacques Barzun  on Western culture  (Roger Kimball, New Criterion)
    -REVIEW : of From Dawn to Decadence by Jacques Barzun (Lisa Jardine, Independent uk)
    -REVIEW: of A WORD OR TWO BEFORE YOU GO. . . . By Jacques Barzun (John Gross, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of BEGIN HERE The Forgotten Conditions of Teaching and Learning. By Jacques Barzun (David Alexander, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of A STROLL WITH WILLIAM JAMES, By Jacques Barzun (Robert Coles, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: Alfred Kazin: The Exceptional William James, NY Review of Books
       A Stroll with William James by Jacques Barzun
    -REVIEW: Virgil Thomson: Berlioz, Boulez, and Piaf, NY Review of Books
       The Memoirs of Hector Berlioz translated by David Cairns
       Baudelaire-Berlioz Adam International Review
       Berlioz and the Romantic Century by Jacques Barzun
       Berlioz and the Romantic Imagination
       Pelléas et Mélisande drame lyrique en 5 actes de Maurice Maeterlinck et Claude Debussy
       Piaf by Simone Berteaut
    -REVIEW: Henry David Aiken: The Science of Jacques Barzun, NY Review of Books
       Science: The Glorious Entertainment by Jacques Barzun
    -REVIEW: Decline and fall: Jacques Barzun's new history of Western Culture is magisterial, but too soft on Nazi collaborators and too hard on the 20th century (Charles Taylor , Salon)
    -REVIEW : of From Dawn to Decadence by Jacques Barzun (Lisa Jardine, Independent uk)
    -REVIEW : of From Dawn to Decadence  by Jacques Barzun (Eugene Goodheart, Partisan Review)
   -BOOK LIST: Fifty Best Books of the Century  Jacques Barzun, Teacher in America (1945) (Intercollegiate Studies Institute)