Jacques Barzun, intellectual historian, legendary Columbia professor, mentor, essayist, man of letters, has passed away at the age of 104. Perhaps in an effort to point to his great versatility, the NY Times obit calls him a "cultural gadfly," which seems to me tonally wrong. No gadfly, he did not sting and fly away, in the manner of a satirist; his knowledge was as deep as his range was wide, and he brought the resources of an encyclopedic mind to the least of his endeavors.
No one else could have written -- and published at the age of 93 -- a magisterial cultural history of Europe, with a driving thesis embedded in the very title of the book: "From Dawn to Decadence: 1500 to the Present." As a professor he crossed disciplinary boundaries with enviable ease -- if he taught you Romanticisim you were exposed to history, music, philosophy, art, and literature; you put in time with Berlioz, Rousseau, Delacroix, Shelley, Coleridge, Goethe, Carlyle, Stendhal, and the world historical individual personified in the emperor of France -- and you understood the ways the 19th century deviated from the classical and swerved into the modern.
For many years Barzun and Lionel Trilling team-taught Columbia's senior "great books" seminar, which met one night a week and was arguably the crowning glory of a Columbia education. Trilling and Barzun were different in temperament and taste. As writers and scholars they used totally different strategies, rhetorical and methodological, to attack a subject. Yet they were able to air their intellectual disagreements with civility founded on fondness as well as respect. They complemented each other beautifully in dialogue and had a shared penchant for off-the-cuff wordplay. One evening Malthus's dire predictions of runaway population growth were under discussion. Trilling ventured, "honi soit qui Malthus pense." To which Barzun replied without missing a beat, "honi soit qui mal thus puns." Students lucky enough to have taken the Colloqium on Important Books, as it was called, still spoke about it, with ardor and awe, thirty or forty years later.
When, working as Trilling's research assistant, I decided to make the prose poem the center of my doctoral thesis, Trilling suggested I meet with Barzun and he arranged the interview. Not only was Barzun encouraging; he pointed me in so many fruitful directions -- from Macpherson's "Ossian" to Leigh Hunt to the prosopopoeia as a rhetorical device -- that I walked away in that state of intellectual agitation that bodes well for a critical undertaking even as it vastly complicates it.
I turned again to Professor Barzun when, a decade later, I set out to write a book on murder mysteries. At Cambrdge University, I had written my master's essay on detective novels. Now, in 1985, I wrote a Newsweek cover story on the subject and landed a book contract. Long a fan of Jacques' great "Catalogue of Crime," done collaboratively with Wendell Taylor, and containing thousands of annotated entries on detective novels and stories, I wrote to him, and met with him for a luxuriant hour of conversation in his midtown office. The single-space, two-page letter he sent me touched on Voltaire's "Zadig," the relation of detection to science, the development of the Surete in France, the reason for the genre's highbrow appeal, among other things. Barzun said that criminal anguish was something that could be done well by Dostoyevsky but was usually fatal in lesser hands. The first-person murder mysery, he smiled, "must be a foresight saga." It was quite a session. "The Perfect Murder: A Study in Detection" owes much to Professor Barzun.
Though Barzun in "Meditations on the Literature of Spying" (1965) reveals that he has little affection for Cold War developments in the espionage genre, he makes a number of observations that I find suggestive, impressive, and useful. For example, he connects the success of the genre at the time of his writing -- the time of James Bond on one hand and The Spy Who Came in from the Cold on the other -- to "the multiform attack on privacy" that causes vast amounts of anxiety in the populace. Barzun goes further:
Psychoanalysis has taught even the common man that he is in some ways an impostor; he has spied on himself and discovered reasons for distrust and disgust: in all honesty he cannot turn in a good report. Nor do his surroundings help to restore his confidence. The world is more and more an artifact, everywhere facsimiles supplant the real thing -- the raucous radio voice, the weird TV screen. Just to find his bearing he must fashion a computer simulation of his case. So mimicry, pretending, hiding, which are part of the child's first nature and used to be sloughed off as true individuality developed, now stay with us as second nature, and indeed as the only escape from the bad self and the bad world.
This is brilliantly put and one has to rub one's eyes a little recalling that the essay, so predictive of intellectual conversation to come, appeared back in the Spring 1965 issue of The American Scholar. While Barzun broadcasts his irritation with the espionage genre, at least he pays it the compliment of calling it, in his title, "the literature of spying," which is no mean thing in his book. -- DL