Monday, March 27, 2006

Chou Wen-chung

From Chou Wen-chung, “Music—What Is Its Future?”:

At the dawn of a new millennium in the year 2000, the son of an old friend of Varèse's published an exhaustive study of the past 500 years of Western cultural life, entitled From Dawn to Decadence. . . . Jacques Barzun, the cultural historian whom I first met through Varèse, was my dean while I was a graduate student at Columbia University, my provost when I started teaching there, and my chairman when I served on the committee evaluating the role of the arts in higher education some thirty years ago. I hold him in high esteem, I value his opinion, and I share with him many of the views expressed in his book.

. . .

Varèse taught us to be rooted in heritage, yet independent in creativity—which can only be achieved through knowledge and discipline. Bartok taught us to learn from legacies beyond our own, but only in the context of their legacies and not ours, and only if those legacies can be transformed into our own.

These quiet voices of wisdom are lost in the din of a frenetic century filled with manifestos and -isms, innovations and inventions, movements and anti-movements, all of which have been re-proclaimed with the prefix of “new.” Not a few are re-advocated by some who have since moved from the so-called non-Western world to the Westernized component of the West. To understand how this kind of frenzy, confusion, and contradiction came about, one would have to read the 800 tightly packed pages of Barzun’s book, in which he depicts the warp and woof of a magnificent tapestry that is, or was, the European Age. We learn of the ever-multiplying number of ideas and institutions sprung from the Western world or borrowed from other lands that not only interact with, but also contradict and nullify each other, eventually leading to the breakdown of order and continuity. . . . The ferment that appeared for over a generation, from the 1950s to the 1970s, is now followed by a period bordering on stagnation, with the rapid rise and fall of trends that are characterized by surface alterations rather than fundamental change. Such pronounced and prolonged upheavals may well signify the breaking down of an established order, in anticipation of the dawn of a new era. . . .

The all-pervasive commercialization of every aspect of the society, including health and the arts, the most personal needs of humanity . . . has led to the inevitable loss of distinction between creative expression and commercial enterprise, between artistic exploration and promotional exploitation.

Today, the Western and Westernized societies appear to have become ever more complex in procedures but simplistic in conception, as we are constantly reminded of on the television screen with its frenetic flipping of images. This duality of complexity of appearance and simplicity in reality results from an accelerating drive for profit-making, a fast-developing technology, and an increasing manipulation of the public. Even in the creative arts, more often than not, profit-making conditions motivation, technology homogenizes the process, and manipulation of consumer tastes assures the acceptability. Creative artists have succumbed to the same mindlessness that underlies television. Creativity has become irrelevant, realization formulaic, and the public brain-washed into acceptance. All-pervasive commercialization is the reincarnation of imperialism, an exact replica of the ruthless expansion of colonialism in the past centuries, except that the victims are now ourselves, and our cultures.

This bleak picture, perhaps worse than that painted by Barzun, is happily only the down side of the scenario. There is a glint of hope on the other side after all: Namely, interactive digital technology and cultural interaction. Almost a century after Varèse began to plead for the innovation of electronic devices for the composer, computer technology does offer possibilities to support the creative mind. A more immediately available advantage is, however, the revolutionary technological capacity for transmission of knowledge and the world-wide sharing of information through the Internet. The Internet, again not by design, can now serve as a bridge for intercultural exchange. This exchange is our real hope for the Global Era.

. . .

[Still] even today, it is . . . taken for granted that Western music is universal, and therefore emulation of the same by other cultures is both natural and expected. This attitude still dominates Western composers, educators, performers, and critics. Worse, this faith in the universality of Western music is widely shared around the world, particularly in East Asia. As I have often observed, Asian composers as a rule are satisfied with emulating the West and reluctant to search for their own roots. On the other hand, they are quick to adopt Asian ideas that have been Westernized by a Cage, Messiaen, or Crumb.

. . .

We have a choice. And we must choose. We can choose to retain our status quo. Of this path, there are two identical precedents in history, one in the West and one in the East, namely the Roman Empire and the Later Han Dynasty, which existed concurrently for centuries. Each continued to expand its territorial possessions and prosper materially. However, each also remained in the shadow of its own glorious past. Both periods eventually ended in chaos that lasted for centuries. Or we—artists, scholars, and educators—can choose to take fate into our own hands and initiate cultural interaction in creativity, research, and education. We can be proactive in stimulating cross-fertilization of cultural legacies. We can foster creativity drawn from diverse roots, not imposed on the conquered by the conqueror, or the consumer by the promoter, but as partners in collaboration.

As I concluded in my speech on the new millennium last year, “then, and only then, will a new era arrive. . . . A new era, not of globalization, but of global partnership.” A new “dawn” of confluence, not decadence, is ours today, if we so choose.


Sunday, March 26, 2006

Quentin Anderson

QA: I had caught from Jacques Barzun early on a sense that William James was a figure of great importance and attractiveness. That happened when I was an undergraduate. I don’t think that I had read any Henry James at the time that I was a graduate student at Harvard.

. . .

QA: Having been a Columbia undergraduate, I was accustomed to the relatively small classes and relatively intimate sort of instruction that Columbia afforded. Since Harvard threw its graduates and its undergraduates together in many courses, the character of the Harvard courses was far more a matter of a teacher at a lectern in a room of 150 people. I did, of course, have the advantage of the tutorial attention of eminences like Matthiessen and Miller. But for the most part, the instruction, as I say, was in very large classes and had nothing of the sort that I’d experienced at Columbia as an undergradate. I had been an undergraduate in the colloquium on important books which was taught jointly by Jacques Barzun and Lionel Trilling. That had been the most exciting of my classroom experiences and remains so. Columbia, after all, had given me a sense of a way of pursuing literature.

DT: Can you describe what that sense was?

QA: One didn’t dream for a moment of seeking to detach literature from its cultural matrix, even to the extent that it seemed detached at Harvard.

DT: “Even” to the extent that it seemed detached at Harvard? Didn’t it seem very detached at Harvard?

QA: I thought so.

—Diana Trilling, “The Shape of a Career: A Conversation with Quentin Anderson, January 1984,” in Donadio, Railton, and Seavy, Emerson and His Legacy: Essays in Honor of Quentin Anderson (Carbondale, Southern Illionois UP, 1986).

The volume includes a piece by Jacques Barzun, “Quentin Anderson, Redux,” in which the following appears:

Henry [James], Sr., kept lecturing and writing in the tone of one offering the world manifest truisms, and the world had not a glimmer of what he saw.


Carl E. Schorske

. . . I enrolled in Columbia’s two-year humanities Colloquium, which allowed one to construct one’s own program. Colloquium was centered in great books seminars conceived in a more classical spirit than usual in the university’s prevailing pragmatist culture. The seminars were team-taught by truly outstanding young faculty members, such as Moses Hadas and Theodoric Westbrook, Lionel Trilling and Jacques Barzun. Watching their play of minds on the texts awoke in me for the first time a sense of the sheer intellectual delight of ideas. . . .

In [my junior year] I enrolled in young Jacques Barzun’s course in 19th-century intellectual history. Barzun simply overwhelmed his few students with the range of the subject and the brilliance of his exploration of it. At work on his biography of Hector Berlioz, Barzun injected much musical material into his course. While I shared with my classmates the exciting experience that this course turned out to be, I drew one rather personal conclusion from it: intellectual history was a field in which my two principal extra-academic interests—music and politics—could be studied not in their usual isolation, but in their relationship under the ordinance of time.—Carl E. Schorske, Thinking with History: Explorations in the Passage to Modernism, 1998, p. 20. On the Web as “A Life of Learning”, Charles Homer Haskins Lecture for 1987, American Council of Learned Societies Occasional Paper No. 1

Fritz Stern

I got into Columbia College in 1943 and wanted to be a doctor like my father, my two grandfathers, and my four great-grandfathers — I had no choice, but I was helped by my remarkable incompetence in chemistry and physics, and by the fact that I had two very different but each very wonderful teachers: Jacques Barzun, the European cultural historian, and Lionel Trilling, the literary scholar. I always like to say that I had Lionel Trilling before he was Lionel Trilling. He was then an assistant professor, not yet the celebrated, great man, but I must say it was an absolutely overwhelming experience to have been in Lionel Trilling’s class on romantic poetry in which I distinguished myself mostly by being silent and overawed. To give up Barzun and Trilling for chemistry was just too much. It wasn’t an easy decision. I hesitated and in fact consulted Barzun, who knew I was thinking of switching. Barzun said, “Marry medicine and keep history as your lifelong mistress.” When I went back to him a second time—I mention that because it’s pedagogically interesting—two or three months later, I said, “I can’t get it out of my system,” and he said “Let me ask a question: What do you want to do?” and I said “I want to teach” and he said, “I know the headmaster of the Lawrenceville School [a private school in New Jersey] very well, would you want to teach there?” I said “Sure. That would be very nice.” And he, “I think you’d make a good historian.” He wanted to make it clear to me that I shouldn’t think that I could go into college-level teaching or anything like that. I believe the test, which to him was intuitive, was to ask, “Would you be satisfied teaching history in high school, albeit a special high school?” And since that seemed perfectly reasonable to me, that was that.—Fritz Stern, “A Conversation with Fritz Stern”, GHI [German Historical Institute] Bulletin.

See also Fritz Stern on Barzun-Trilling.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Carolyn Heilbrun

No picture of him I have seen, whether rendered by a photographer or by an artist, captures either his physical or his inner qualities. Obvious to the mere observer or the frightened student were his aristocratic way of carrying himself, suggesting arrogance, his impeccable clothes, his neat hair, his studious, exact, but never hesitant speech, his formidable intelligence. I have known history students tempted for the first time in their lives to plagiarize a paper because they could not imagine themselves writing anything that would not affront his critical eye, let alone satisfy him. This was the outer Barzun…. As one came somewhat to know the inner Barzun, nothing of the first, terrifying impression was exactly transfigured. Only now one knew that beneath that stiff exterior he was capable of kindness, attention to others, courtesy of a sort only described by the worn phrase “old-fashioned,” and consideration beyond expectation.—Carolyn G. Heilbrun, When Men Were the Only Models We Had: My Teachers Barzun, Fadiman, Trilling, 2002, pp. 116–117.


Andy Rooney

I have a great friend, maybe the smartest man in America, Jacques Barzun. He . . . wrote a book . . . two years ago, From Dawn to Decadence. And I was having dinner with him a couple years ago. And he was 94 at the time. And this gave me such hope. But I worry about it myself, losing it mentally.

And I said to Jacques, I said, are you writing as well as you used to? He says, better than ever. And he is. I mean, it’s—it gave me great confidence.

—Andy Rooney, Interviewed by Larry King, July 28, 2002


Wednesday, March 22, 2006

In Blogs

Sunday, March 19, 2006

At a Picnic with Moses Hadas in 1939

Photo from Rachel Hadas, “The Many Lives of Moses Hadas”, Columbia Magazine, Fall 2001.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

William Safire

Jacques Barzun is cited frequently in William Safire’s New York Times column “On Language”. Here is some of what Mr. Safire writes about Mr. Barzun this Sunday:

Then in came a letter—a real postal letter signed in antediluvian ink, mailed from San Antonio at the cost of an old-fashioned stamp—from Jacques Barzun, the revered emeritus professor from Columbia University who published his masterpiece, From Dawn to Decadence, in 2000, when he was 92.

After saluting my energy in skewering nonce neologisms like deliciousing, my candidate for World's Wisest Living Intellectual wrote: “Isn’t there a sign of split personality or bipolarity of some sort”—everybody’s a shrink—“in your appending a squib about the error of he instead of him in an otherwise normal sentence? For my part, I would let go all the rules requiring whom, him and as for like and so on. They are but survivals in a language that has been stripped of niceties, and I consider deliciousing a far worse offense than between you and I.”

. . . The instruction that comes from my friend and mentor Jacques is welcome because he doesn't merely correct. He teaches with specific examples. Consider this letter that followed a column of mine about “snoopspeak,” the lexicon of sophisticated electronic surveillance that can no longer accurately be called wiretapping. “I regret that you want to discard wiretap,” he wrote. “You lend aid to the fallacious notion that the use of every new gadget for an old purpose must get a new name. Doing that regularly would be distracting, and the quality of the perpetual replacements would be dubious. . . .”

“The fallacy behind perpetual recoinage,” Barzun continued, “is to suppose that words must describe instead of stand for and evoke. For a reasonably stable language, words must continue to cover new details, and they can: we ship goods by truck and plane. We have cash in the bank though it is only a balance and not even written down. The bath room has only a shower stall. The table and bed linen are of cotton thread with some plastic intertwined. A lecture is not necessarily read. I am typing on a computer that uses no type. The man you quote who said record store was ‘outdated but still in use’ didn't stop to think. What are CD's and DVD's if not records?”

—William Safire, “On Language”, New York Times Magazine, March 19, 2006. In the Houston Chronicle.


In Blogs

Friday, March 17, 2006

Jacques Barzun at the Baseball Hall of Fame

Summer 2003, with Tim Wiles, Director of Research
photo courtesy of Mr. Wiles.
Close-up of Barzun.

Barzun gets inside the soul of [baseball] in a way perhaps that no native could, since we are freighted with our collective knowledge of the game, blinded by the normalcy of the game around us.
—Tim Wiles, National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, “Letters in the Dirt,” 54

See also Historian Signs Bat for the Hall of Fame.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Mike Greenberg

photo of Jacques Barzun by Mike Greenberg
Jacques Barzun, August 1997, by Mike Greenberg

See more of Mike Greenberg’s photography at incident light.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Leo Wong


Cleve Gray

Cleve Gray (1918–2004) wrote in 1976:
Jacques came to see my first exhibit in New York City in 1947. He may have read that I had studied in Paris with Jacques Villon and André Lhote; Cubist painting was an important part of his childhood environment and continued to be of great interest to him. In 1956 he dedicated to me, as a representative of artistic continuity, his book, The Energies of Art.

     During the years he served as editor or advisor of many publications. I would occasionally receive a request to write about an aspect of contemporary painting. My first piece for him was on Albert Gleizes (Magazine of Art, 1950); there followed one on Villon (Perspectives USA, 1953); an essay on abstract art (The American Scholar, 1959); and so on.

     Jacques owns several of my paintings and prints, and in 1950 he wrote a fine introduction to my fourth exhibit at the Jacques Seligmann Galleries. When a few years later I was asked to paint his portrait, I was delighted. I did a second, more abstract version, less gentle, perhaps, than the first.

     Fortunately, my wife, Francine du Plessix Gray, is always as eager as I am to talk with Jacques. We never see him frequently enough.

—Cleve Gray, in Weiner, Dora B. and William R. Keylor, eds., From Parnassus: Essays in Honor of Jacques Barzun (Harper & Row, 1976).

Francine du Plessix Gray has written most recently Them : A Memoir of Parents (Penguin, 2005).

. . . our own cherished conservative, Jacques Barzun, . . .
— Francine du Plessix Gray, New York Times Book Review, September 23, 2001

See also From a Letter to Philip Johnson, April 10, 1975.

TIME Cover

TIME magaine cover featuring Jacques Barzun
TIME cover: June 11, 1956

TIME story: Parnasus, Coast to Coast

Friday, March 10, 2006

Pierre Tristam

“If false teaching leads to tyranny and we cannot discover absolute truths,” the great and indestructible Jacques Barzun wrote in Of Human Freedom . . . “what can we teach that is not open to the charge of propaganda? The answer is: the diffusion of ideas is propaganda, whether fascist, communist, or democratic. The democratic hope has always been to raise the standard of gullibility, to sharpen judgment, to confront opposite propagandas.” That democratic hope these days shines as dimly as an overshadowed star in the recesses of Orion. This is an age of beliefs blind, blinding and bleached of the redeeming corollary of beliefs in less fanatical ages: the capacity for good will.
— Pierre Tristam, “Genesis of Gullibility: Beliefs, Superstitions, Lies” in Candide’s Notebooks


Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Shaw in Future?

. . . I shouldn’t be surprised if [Bernard Shaw’s] lasting power [to fill a theater] seemed to decline and the public ceased to support Shaw productions. This is what is happening to classical music. In both cases it is and will be the audience that fails, being mostly ill educated, conditioned to short attention span, with a head full of none but current ideas and what appeals to a childish sense of humor.
— Jacques Barzun, Letter to The Independent Shavian, Volume 3, no. 3, 2005


Monday, March 06, 2006

Mark Halpern

Language & Human Nature, by Mark Halpern (Regent Press, 2006; ISBN: 1-58790-089-0).

Jacques Barzun: “The present book is, to the best of my knowledge, the first thorough discussion of the pros and cons of this debate [between prescriptivists and descriptivists].”

Mark Halpern: “The book contains a preface by Jacques Barzun, so you get a taste of him as well as a bellyful of me . . . .”

Mark Halpern’s site:

See also Mark Halpern.

“History is Story First and Last”

History without events is Hamlet without either the prince or the rest of the cast.
—Jacques Barzun, Letter to Academic Questions, Spring 2005

Jerry Pournelle

Modern education is already approaching a Dark Age. There are a few who remember when the purpose of schools was to teach students, not to provide certificates and credentials; but that old-fashioned notion is nearly forgotten. Today’s schools exist to provide credentials for a price. A few books, like Jacques Barzun’s wonderful Teacher in America (Liberty Press, 1981; ISBN 0913966797), tell the old story, but for the most part the very purpose for which schools and school systems were designed is known to fewer and fewer each year.
—Jerry Pournelle, “Education in America”,, March 14, 2005