Sunday, March 18, 2007

No Grand Old Men in the House of Intellect

To admire is an expression of freedom that is denied by envious equality, and admiration depends on fame. But the apparatus of public opinion, responding exclusively to what it considers news, can no longer sustain fame. What it gives instead is publicity. Newcomers and others receive notice, according to formula, as news merely, and sometimes in such an overdose that it destroys the beneficiary. He is driven from his emotional base or from his proper work and ends as a burnt-out talent or a suicide. If he survives as a talent, he still has to forego the attribute of wonder, or fame. The result is that the House of Intellect numbers few great figures and virtually no grand old men. Past achievments do not secure anyone a place, and this not because of the multitude of new achievements, but because to consider a reputation established would be to confer status, privilege. A master in his old age must therefore continue to ‘be news’ or go without public attention. Picasso by poltical murals, Frank Lloyd Wright by lectures on public affairs, can hold their places in the public mind. But Mencken, who was retired and stricken, received on his last birthday exactly thirty messages of congratulation. Comes the obituary — the ultimate news — and the account is closed. Next!

— Jacques Barzun, The House of Intellect, 1959, 43–44

See also A Further Fall of the House of Intellect?