03 December 2011

Jacques Barzun

A belated happy birthday to Jacques Barzun. He came into this world on November 30, 1907, so on Wednesday of this week he reached the distinguished age of 104.

I was honored to attend his centennial celebrations four years ago, and was never before or since in a room with such distinguished company.

Rafe Champion has written a fitting brief celebration of Barzun's work, here.

I enjoyed especially Champion's quoting from an interview Barzun gave to a reporter from the Austin Chronicle.  The reporter remarked that Barzun had been in close working academic relationships with a lot of Marxists during the 1930s, but had never shown any enthusiasm for Marxism himself, nor had he ever taken up arms against it, identifying himself as an anti-Marxist.  The exchange runs thus:

Barzun: I had no Marxist colouring, such as they had ... I stood aloof, although not hostile, and I take it they weren’t hostile to me. They deplored my blindness.
AC: You started writing about Romanticism when that was not very popular. It’s funny, you were aloof from Marxism, but also from the reaction to it, which was influenced so much by T.S. Eliot.
Barzun: Yes, I was always against the current. Eliot of course got it from Babbitt, who got it from the French eminences of anti-Romanticism. What I read about Romanticism didn’t agree with what was said about it. Everything in the books was contrary to fact and legitimate conclusions of fact. Including all sorts of fabrications, simply lies that had gotten into the critical stream and were reproduced over and over again without being checked.
AC: You seem temperamentally more comfortable being at the limit of the Zeitgeist than being in the center of things.
Barzun: Well, I would call that the historian’s detachment.

  My own sense of Barzun's politics is that he has a fondness for various pre-Marxist sorts of socialism (what Marxists call the "utopian" sorts) and that he blames Marxism and its materialistic emphasis for having cut short that promising line of thought. Likewise with contemporary biology. He identifies with pre-Darwinian notions of evolution and, here too, sees Darwinian notions as too mechanistic and a threat to more vital conceptions of life.

Anyway, if I'm right to think of Barzun as a sort of Proudhonist politically, it explains how he has admirers of both right and left.  When his writings touch on politics, there is the air of an emigrant's nostalgia that appeals to the right, but the Proudhonist idealism comes through and appeals more to the left.

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Knowledge is warranted belief -- it is the body of belief that we build up because, while living in this world, we've developed good reasons for believing it. What we know, then, is what works -- and it is, necessarily, what has worked for us, each of us individually, as a first approximation. For my other blog, on the struggles for control in the corporate suites, see www.proxypartisans.blogspot.com.