Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Fritz Stern on Barzun-Trilling

At Columbia I started on a premedical program, true to my German forebears, but from the very beginning I was captivated by Columbia’s required courses in history and literature, still then Eurocentric to the core. We were studying the history and classics of the very civilization that was being threatened by a Germany that spiritually repudiated all that the West stood for, though Germans had materially mastered the West’s scientific and technological advances. I had the inestimable good fortune of finding and then fastening onto two great teachers and master stylists: Jacques Barzun, the product of a classical French education, and Lionel Trilling, more knowing of European literature than anyone I had met before (or perhaps since). It was [Stern’s Columbia friend Allen] Ginsberg who gave me the tip to take Trilling’s course on English Romanticism; at the time, Trilling was not yet the famous figure he was to become, and in fact was overshadowed by others in a great department. The experience of that and other Trilling courses was humbling and life-transforming. Barzun and Trilling taught us not only the assigned subjects but writing as well, making close, devastating, often ironic comments on our efforts. My premed interests faded, for I lacked the aptitude and passion for the natural sciences and felt the immediate enticements of history and literature.

In April 1944, when I was in my third term (wartime Columbia was on a relentless three-term-per-year schedule), I had to decide on a major — and for a while I floundered. One way I framed my dilemma at the time was like this: my interest in becoming a physician was genuine, but was I ready to give up Trilling, with whom I was discovering the stupendous questions of the great books and the complexities of the European past, for organic chemistry? Fascination with literature, which I suppose was reinforced by my passionate concern for the unfolding world crisis, made me wish to turn to a study of history, with the eventual prospect of teaching. I had several conversations with Barzun about this. At first he urged me to stay with medicine and keep history as a lifelong mistress, but at our second meeting, when I confessed my continuing wish to major in history, he asked further as to what I really intended to do. To teach, I replied. Would I, then, want to teach at the Lawrenceville School, he inquired; he had friends there. When I said yes, he said something distinctly encouraging. I have always admired the subtle test he gave me: is your interest genuine, or do you have delusions of a university career? [Einstein’s advice to the young man was: “That’s simple: medicine is a science, and history is not. Hence medicine.”]

. . .

Those years [1945–49] when there was no Germany coincided with my still more intense study of European history. In my senior year at college, I had taken a colloquium that Barzun and Trilling taught together: we met every Wednesday night, discussed an assigned book, and we dozen or so students — including such intimidating fellow students as Joseph Kraft and Byron Dobell — had to write three essays per term, memorably and separately edited by Barzun and Trilling according to the unassailable tenet that style and substance were inseparable. The syllabus began with William Blake, Rousseau, and Faust, and ended with Freud: Here were the great masterpieces of modern European thought, taught by two men who were very different yet brilliantly well attuned to each other, both of them convinced that great literature illuminated the moral life. It was hard to read Burke, Tocqueville, Dostoevsky, and Nietzsche and not understand the need to rethink some of the simplistic verities of democratic optimists such as John Dewey. Reading The Brothers Karamazov and the parable of the Grand Inquisitor had, I believe, an immediate, unsettling effect on me: it deepened my brooding about totalitarianism. “There are three powers, three powers alone, able to conquer and to hold captive for ever the conscience of these impotent rebels for their happiness — those forces were miracles, mystery and authority.” Dostoevsky and Nietzsche taught me to better understand the complexities and fragility of democracy — and the place of the irrational in politics. For Barzun and Trilling, literature and history were so obviously inseparable as to make explication, let alone theory, a supererogatory extravagance. I hope I have heeded their lesson.

— Fritz Stern, Five Germanys I Have Known, New York, 2006, 163–164, 190–191.

Barzun on Stern:

Fritz Stern . . . first attracted notice by a masterly work on the friend and financier of Bismarck’s schemes, Bleichroeder, and went on to take part in Germany’s current self-questioning about its national history and character. His strongly buttressed yet temperate views brought him an invitation to address the Reichstag, which he did to general satisfaction. It was the same historico-political sense that later made him a capable Provost of the University and for several months a resident adviser in Bonn to a new American ambassador. His subsequent studies were in the history of Einstein’s career. . . . Fritz Stern showed . . . resistance to the lures of the big world, particularly that of tramping about in the corridors of power.

— Jacques Barzun, Reminiscences of the Columbia History Department, 1923-1975

See also:

Fritz Stern

Kirsch on Stern

Fritz Stern, Five Germanies I Have Known (16th Uhlenbeck Lecture), 1998