“Le style est l’homme,” wrote the Comte de Buffon. Applied to Jacques Barzun, Buffon’s statement reveals a man at once elegant but unpretentious, a man both sophisticated and humane.
Born on November 30, 1907 in Créteil, France, Jacques Barzun was early initiated into the life of the mind. His father, Henri Martin Barzun, was a noted literary scholar and member of the Abbaye group, which included such renowned French men of letters as Jules Romains and Georges Duhamel. In the years before the First World War, Barzun attended the Lycée Janson de Sailly in Paris. The shortage of teachers caused by the war compelled administrators to adopt the Lancaster system, in which the older students instructed the younger. Barzun thus received his first experience as a teacher at the age of nine.
Henri Barzun came to the United States on a diplomatic mission in 1917, and his son followed two years later. In 1923, when Barzun had not yet reached his sixteenth birthday, he enrolled in Columbia University. Initially preparing for a career in law and the foreign service, Barzun in time became captivated by the study of history, earning a Ph.D. in 1932. He had joined the faculty at Columbia in 1929, before completing his doctorate, and remained there until his retirement in 1975.
Much of Barzun’s scholarship, including his magisterial From Dawn to Decadence, published in 2000 when he was a mere ninety-three years old, represents an attempt to recover ideas from the past that he considered still of value to the contemporary world. Above all, Barzun issued a consistent defense of the humanist tradition in art and thought. In Classic, Romantic, and Modern (1961) (a revision of Romanticism and the Modern Ego, which had originally appeared in 1943), for example, Barzun vindicated the romantic sensibility. The depiction of the Romantics as sentimental and insipid, he argued, was an unfortunate caricature. Rather, in answer to the numbing rationalism and scientism of the Enlightenment and the unsettled aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars, Romantic writers and artists sought to fashion a new world through the robust application of intellect and imagination to a host of social, political, intellectual, and aesthetic problems.
Romanticism, according to Barzun, “expresses and exalts [man’s] energetic, creative, expansive tendencies by recognizing that, although he is but a feeble creature lost in the universe, he has unpredictable powers that develop under stress of desire and risk.” The destruction of Romanticism in the twentieth century, Barzun lamented, ensured “the elimination not alone of romanticist art and its sequels, but of all high art of the last five centuries.” Anti-intellectual, sensational, and technical, modern art, to say nothing of much modern thought, Barzun contended, embraced an aesthetic of annihilation.
Critics, especially during the 1960s, reproved Barzun’s apparently stubborn and bigoted elitism. “Mandarins like Barzun,” wrote the historian Martin Duberman, “are so certain of the rightness of their own patterns of thought and action and so eager to denounce all deviations by the young from those patterns that they blind themselves (and others) to the serious questions this new generation has raised. . . .” Although he was unrelenting in his critique of student radicals who sought the drama of “revolutionary experience” by replacing the university with a “stimulation palace,” there is little in Barzun’s thought that is rigid or doctrinaire. In From Dawn to Decadence, to cite but a single instance, Barzun offers a poignant condemnation of the inflexibility that had entered Catholic dogma by the middle of the sixteenth century. The vain effort of Catholic churchmen at the Council of Trent to impose uniformity of belief on the faithful has instead “kept making unbelievers, or rather . . . has deprived many of the chance to believe.” More congenial to Barzun was the spirit of Rabelais, Montaigne, and Shakespeare, who extolled tolerance and magnanimity, who recognized the diversity of human cultures and the complexity of human nature, who commended humility, modesty, and self-restraint, and who showed compassion and humor at the folly of mankind.
Modern civilization in the West, Barzun ascertained, has lost its way and its purpose, and has thus fallen into decadence. “The culture,” he wrote, “is old and unraveling.” Bewildered and paralyzed, contemporary men and women believe that they have exhausted all of the possibilities that informed and animated earlier times. The First World War marked an important cultural and personal turning point, bringing to “an end all innocent joys and assumptions.” Even the recollection of an older, more tranquil world and the encounter with the United States, gracious, affable, and open-hearted as it seemed to him when the twentieth century was new, could never thoroughly console Barzun or restore his passion for life.
Yet decadence is not despair, which Barzun repeatedly made clear was useless. Neither an unthinking optimist nor a congenital pessimist, Barzun took the long view that only history can provide, and rejected “the urge to build a wall against the past” in “revulsion from things in the present that seem a curse from our forebears.” In the conclusion of From Dawn to Decadence, he even had the audacity to imagine a new renaissance that might in the distant future emerge from amid the ease, boredom, and superficiality of life when a few brave and restless souls would again be inspired by the past to rediscover what it has meant to be human.
Mark Malvasi teaches history at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Virginia. His most recent book, The Finder and Other Poems, will be published by Cranberry Tree Press in 2013.
“Neither an unthinking optimist nor a congenital pessimist, Barzun took the long view that only history can provide.”