Review of A Jacques Barzun Reader

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 10/5/06


  Jacques Barzun is sort of the social sciences’ equivalent of Harold Bloom, albeit less personally and intellectually noxious. He is, however, the quintessential living ‘Dead White Male’ scholar whose knowledge about his subject matter is very broad- he can write seemingly convincingly on opera, politics, baseball, Paris in the 1830s, and Raymond Chandler, but whose depth of wisdom about any one thing is paper-thin. His 2000 opus called From Dawn To Decadence was an ill wrought stereotypical ‘old man’s lament’, which unwittingly did more to show how wholly out of touch the man- born in 1907, was with modern life than bolster his argument that society was, of course, ‘in decline’. Of course, all of the arts nowadays- literature (poetry and prose), criticism, painting, music, film, television, theater, are in a collective slump. Call it the bane of PC. But, history shows it is just a matter of time before a rebound occurs. Culture is cyclical by nature, not an arrow in ascent nor a boulder in declension.

  In 2002 HarperCollins released an omnibus of a few dozen of what they considered the best of Barzun’s decades of essays, called A Jacques Barzun Reader, to cash in on the unexpected bestseller status the earlier book achieved. This was also done because, despite initially favorable reviews, many mainstream critics started rightfully taking Barzun to task for the reasons mentioned above. The over 600 page book has a few good moments of insight and prescience, but the truth is, the book only further strengthens the case that Barzun may know alot of historical facts, but has not a clue of how to put them in coherent and logical orders. In short, he doesn’t know much, and doesn’t know how to express it well. His whole academic and literary career is a testament to the power of connections and networking- the very ills he ironically, yet cluelessly, laments as aiding culture’s descent.

  In essay after essay he proves this point, and shows he knows little of much, especially art. In Toward A Fateful Serenity he argues:


  Faulkner….said that one of Keats’ odes ‘was worth any number of old women.’ Such literary conceit is also bad logic. Life is good because it is the source and container of everything we value. It is old women, not Grecian urns, that have in their time borne Keatses and Faulkners.

  It’s amazing that a scholar could literally be so dense as to a) not see Faulkner was speaking metaphorically and b) not see Faulkner was speaking as an artist. No one disputes women give birth, not urns- Duh! But it is urns and other things of beauty that make life more than just autonomic acts like breathing and defecation.

  In Science And Scientism he writes:


  ….the aim of a critic, beyond that of saying what he thinks, is to make two thoughts grow where only one grew before.

  At least this time Barzun is partly right. But a critic’s task is that of an unbiased evaluator, not a translator of the art. Translation may play a small part, in special circumstances, but it is the how of an art’s success that is the critic’s focus, not the why. To see art as an active verb not a static noun has bedeviled far greater critics than the too often lazy Barzun. Of course, Barzun has never really understood the very nature of criticism, for in Criticism: An Art Or Craft, he argues that it was only with Oscar Wilde that critics claimed themselves as artists. Yet, every bit of writing manifestly contains some art- for the act of putting words together is intrinsically artistic, for it is meant to persuade, not be a mere bill of lading nor a dry business letter. One may argue that criticism, as a didactic tool, may, more often than not, not be a creative art, per se, and Barzun does correctly argue that criticism is nothing without art to criticize, but that is again utterly missing the point, for derivation is not the opposite of the thing it is derived from, and it’s also viewing art again merely as a noun, rather than a verb, for great criticism- think Twain or Mencken, is necessarily artistic, lest it could not persuade. That Barzun’s own dry and formulaic writing is bereft of such art speaks volumes for this flaying of his ideas, and the position he takes when he writes:


  If the critic finds in his own work the compression and suggestiveness of the poet, then he is blind to both sense and style.

  One can counter that Barzun is correct when comparing like quantities- a bad poet and bad critic, or even a great poet and great critic. But, does one get far more delight and music from the ideas of a Twain at his critical best than can be had from the so-called poetry that is published today? Of course. To not see this manifest fact is to wantonly appropriate fallacies and wield them as a club for whatever reasons one illogically holds such fallacies to the breast.

  Yet despite such obtuseness. Barzun can stumble upon some insight, such as when he writes in Rhetoric- What It Is, Why Needed:


  The mind tends to run along the groove of one’s intention and overlooks the actual expression.


  Right on, but this is manifestly the one dart tossed in the dark that scores a bull’s-eye for, as shown, Barzun expressions far too often fail his intentions, which are usually not too well thought out in the first place. Plus the average essay is about two or three times as long as needed, and weighted down with many trite observations and dull prose. Such ills afflict the many overly long and trite pieces on writers such as Samuel Butler, Lionel Trilling, Jonathan Swift, William Hazlitt, Lord Byron, and George Bernard Shaw.

  The best essay in the book is from 2000, called The Word ‘Man’, where Barzun starts off brilliantly and logically defending the specific (as in species) use of the word against PC revisionists who prefer desexualized terms like councilperson to councilman. Barzun argues the point as well as anyone could. Then the essay implodes midway, as the old man tries to be a ‘hepster’, and parody the argument with an ill-advised bolster that claims teenagers are far more oppressed than women, and thus should be considered in such ontological and cultural revisionism. It does not work, and trashes the earlier brilliance of the piece, which is, in microcosm, all that is wrong with Barzun as a thinker and a writer- he simply does not have a clue when he is ‘on’ nor ‘off’. Similarly, the essay How The Romantics Invented Shakespeare while historically correct, and skewering many of the points asserted by Shakespeare apologists like Harold Bloom and Helen Vendler, still goes on far too long, and gives no real insight into the push to canonize the Bard, only how it occurred. A similar problem of vacuity and over-length plagues The Permanence Of Oscar Wilde, which also bogs down in length and obscurantism. The opposite problem plagues his essay Lincoln The Literary Artist, which proffers the 16th President as a writer of stature, and fails. Yes, the Gettysburg Address and a handful of other speeches are well written, and contain ‘art’, but are not in and of themselves art. There is any irony in that Barzun fails in his understanding of art’s nature from both perspectives.

  Yet, in a sense, these rhetorical and intellectual lapses are all that can be expected from books like this, where old men look back at their lives and inevitably see ‘the good old days’ through the golden haze of senescence. Thus, even such ills as Nazism, Jim Crow, Vietnam, and religious intolerance, do not seem quite as nasty as they really were, and thus render most of his writings pointless, as he is lacking in insight, and out of touch, no matter how earnest in his preachments. His rigid bloviations make one want to bitchslap some sense into the man, but then, most old men are predictable in their opinions, and such books are only read for the wisdom that falls through the crannies of their egos, not for any grand wordplay. Unfortunately, Barzun lacks both- critical wisdom and the beauty of artistic craft. And, since art is far more grounded on beauty than truth, because beauty is more objective, enduring, and always pleasures, whereas truth is often subjective, facile, and more often pains, his often generic writing too often matches his failure as an objective historian, and that fact no amount of rhetoric can deny.


[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Hackwriters website.]


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