Ping-Pong with Mortimer Adler
Michael Murray’s splendid new biography of Jacques Barzun recounts an unexpected instance of frivolity in a Columbia University psychology course taught by young Mortimer Adler. Although working on a Ph.D. in psychology, the inexperienced instructor (a philosopher by predilection) had trouble filling class hours with appropriate content. Teenaged Jacques one day proposed that the class step down the hall to finish the hour by playing ping-pong. Adler acquiesced, and the lark turned into a frequent amusement.
Their rallies became more purposeful during the decades ahead. By the time Adler moved on to the University of Chicago in 1930, Barzun was himself a Columbia graduate student and instructor. Ten years later, Adler published How to Read a Book and Barzun drew attention to it with a critique in the Saturday Review, “Read, Do Not Run” (March 9, 1940, p. 6). While praising Adler’s effort to make the riches of literature more accessible to the public – which turned the manual into a bestseller – Barzun finds the author inconsistent:
Curiously enough, what Dr. Adler rejects as a possibility for the living, namely, “two or more sides to a question,” he accepts for the great dead of the European tradition, since he asks us to read with sympathy a grand list of great books from Homer to William James—a list that expounds at least half a dozen irreconcilable views of the world.
Adler’s capitalized “Great Books” would stir up trouble later, but his original goal was to include more people in what Jacques’ former teacher Mark Van Doren called the “great conversation.” Barzun was a colleague in 1940, and in his sixth year of team teaching with Lionel Trilling a Columbia honors seminar with the more accurate, less contentious, even modest title of “Colloquium on Important Books.”
Three years later Adler conceived the idea of compiling Great Books of the Western World. The 54-book set debuted in 1952 and also merited a Barzun review, this time in The Atlantic Monthly (December 1952, pp. 79–80, 82, 84). He gives highest praise to the unifying Syntopicon, the first two volumes that cross-reference the rest of the collection, calling that pair “miraculous” and “a stupendous achievement.” The Aristotelian Adler’s classification system permits readers to quickly find what the assembled authors have to say on a particular topic. Those come from 102 “Great Ideas” (also parsed into thousands of subdivisions) which bring the authors to grips with each other. The contents were another matter.
Barzun concludes – after presenting varied, ample and humorous evidence – that “the great books here gathered with so much love and care and public spirit betray a high-minded axe-grinding in the direction of intellectualism.” The future author of The House of Intellect did indeed write those words, but only after regretting that the first edition of Great Books missed the opportunity to “unite a great variety of intellectual interests by choosing from the recent times not only Freud but Shaw.” Barzun considers the collection unbalanced in a rationalistic direction: “Shouldn’t we have had … Balzac and Henry James—instead of Hippocrates on Hemorrhoids and Archimedes on Spheroids?”
Barzun recalls Pascal’s distinction between “the spirit of geometry and the esprit de finesse” before offering these closing words on the first edition of Great Books: “The search for geometrical propositions is admirable, but it would be disastrous if the unchecked desire for a canon of truth were to give us neither Montaigne’s humanist, ‘ondoyant and divers,’ nor Emerson’s American Scholar or ‘man thinking,’ but some sort of joyless, dehydrated western man in canonicals.”
Lesser men might have become sworn enemies after such a review. Yet Adler would call Barzun a lifelong friend, with good reason. Instead of abandoning Great Books of the Western World, Barzun worked to improve the second set (1990). Editor-in-Chief Mortimer Adler later recognized the new edition’s Board of Editors – “especially Jacques Barzun” – who “made many recommendations of authors and works to be included or eliminated.” Which works those were might be quickly determined by someone with access to the University of Chicago’s Mortimer J. Adler Papers (try boxes 26, 46, and 128). But why let the mere likelihood of those letters’ existence spoil the fun of speculation?
Barzun almost certainly championed Balzac’s Cousin Bette, most likely for its portrayal of an artist’s life – and the conditions of making great art – woven into the story of unlovely Bette’s loss of him followed by vengeful machinations against her extended family. Barzun’s pairing of the great French novelist with Henry James in the 1952 review hints that he would campaign later for William’s younger brother. And I feel sure that Barzun pushed for Alfred North Whitehead’s Science and the Modern World. Barzun’s reply to a National Book Award Foundation query about books that have influenced his work names Whitehead’s Science with four others, including Berlioz’s Memoirs and Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi.
Certainty, that elusive prize, does attach to at least one Barzun service to the second edition of Great Books of the Western World. His 1952 review criticizes the first edition’s “conspicuous absence of any concern with the fine arts. Except for misleading references among the ancients, one would not know that the west had seen the tremendous development of music and initiated the art of discussing it.” Volume 34 now offers an imaginative work from the encyclopedic mind of Denis Diderot, Rameau’s Nephew, as translated by Jacques Barzun. The title character’s uncle, Jean-Phillipe Rameau, was a leading Baroque composer whose treatment of harmony broke new ground. The uproar it produced at first was forgotten as his innovations were gradually adopted and became part of the musical tradition. Diderot’s characters take on music, genius, convention, criticism and many other topics in a satirical conversation of less than fifty pages – a joy to discover in the more easily read single column layout.
Barzun and Adler’s back-and-forth lasted for over half a century. Not until the United States sent Forrest Gump to compete in China would table tennis have such import as when Jacques and Mort played Great Books ping-pong.