Jacques Barzun, the legendary Columbia professor, teamed with Lionel Trilling to teach the college's famous "colloqiuim on important books" that met on Wednesday evenings. It was an honors seminar, limited to a dozen seniors, and the competition to get into the course was fierce. They taught the course together for twenty years.
What everyone recalls about Jacques Barzun is his fabulous erudition and his wit. Able to generalize usefully about the classic, the romantic, and the modern, to move gracefully from, say, Berlioz to Wagner to Rousseau to Nietzsche befoire doubling back to an argument on Turgenev, he is an inveterate punster, famously quick with a quip. If you use the word facsimile, he may retort that there are indeed many "fake similes" in the world.
Barzun's encyclopedic knowledge of detective and spy fiction surprises some. He was among the first to give serious critical attention to genres that were considered guilty pleasures to the precise extent that they enjoyed an authentic popularity.
Here, from "Meditations on the Literature of Spying," is Barzun's take on the generic spy of the 1960s, the era of tuxedo-clad Sean Connery as James Bond and the counter-trend of Richard Burton seedy in a raincoat in John Le Carre's Berlin on the other. I think these sentences may give you a sense of the intellectual excitement that a session with the maestro would generate.
<<< The spy is imperturbable not by temperament or by philosophy, but from expertise. He is the competent man. Whether the need of the moment is to play bridge like Culbertson, speak a Finnish dialect like a native, ski to safety over precipices or disable a funicular, he comforts us with his powers no less than with the pedantry of the subject. He makes mistakes, of course, to keep us in countenance, but they are errors of inattention, suich as killing the wrong man. We respond to this agreeable image of our scientific world, where knowledge commands power, where facts are uniformly interesting, and where fatalities appear more and more as oversights, professional faux pas. These results constitute the romance of the age; why should they not be translated into stories -- spy stories especially, since what we know as science comes from ferreting and spying, and since we care so much for truth that we are willing to drug and torture for it? >>>