gentle rereader

. . . rediscovering Jacques Barzun

Archive for the month “February, 2012”

paradoxes, questions & answers

Publication by giving speeches is another way that Jacques Barzun’s influence spread.  There were many occasions when what began as a lecture soon found it’s way into print.  A dinner at the Institute for the Humanities at Salado (Texas) in the fall of 1988 supplies an example.  Barzun’s address, “The Paradoxes of Creativity,” went from spoken words to printed with the American Scholar‘s Summer 1989 issue (pp. 337–351).  Some of the original atmosphere is recovered when audience questions and Barzun’s answers follow his talk as published in Creativity: Paradoxes & Reflections (Chiron, 1991).

The Institute’s dinner/lecture series had a more inviting title: “Creativity, Alive and Well.”  Barzun’s challenge to complacency is reflected by some responses from the audience during the Q&A session: “Must one be a genius in order to create?”; “I was concerned about your comment that this was an end of an era of creators.”; and “Is it not true that the pedestrian and prosaic individuals end up historically defining who is a genius and who is not?”  Barzun’s replies make this publication of the “The Paradoxes of Creativity” preferable to those versions where the text stands alone, though Jacques has better company in Best American Essays 1990.

The examples given to amplify or clarify his points after the talk, like much of Barzun’s thought, can jar listeners or readers into reconsidering reputations and “accepted ideas”:  “I read Shelley, but I haven’t a single friend who thinks that Shelley was a good poet.  The whole Academy of Arts and Letters would sign a document saying he was not a good poet.  My good friend W. H. Auden abominated him.  He said there was no poet he detested more than Shelley, unless it was Racine.  Those are the real opinions, but, of course, in the schools and textbooks and conventional talk, Racine and Shelley are great names.  Somehow that doesn’t seem to me good enough.  I think the only real admiration consists of direct enjoyment.  Look at the way Mahler has come out of the ground after an unconscionable time.  I continue to dislike Mahler, but I am glad that he is out in the open to be shot at, as well as enjoyed.”  Dashing expectations in this way may be an impediment to Barzun’s popularity.  Critical conclusions aside, his ability to articulate his views provides me with direct enjoyment.  

Anyone who ponders “The Paradoxes of Creativity” (in any version) will find Barzun’s familiar – but still wondrous – gift for divining intended meanings.  He reviews the history of “creation” and discerns four layers of value in contemporary usage of “creativity.”  An amateur botanist’s hobby and the shortstop play of Ozzie Smith provide illustrations of attitudes that prompt the broader usage.  The consequences of loosely applying the word are significant:  “It has not only diluted the meaning of creative, but it has also glutted the market with innumerable objects and performances arbitrarily called art, thereby making it even more arduous for true creation to find a public.  Still, more generally, creative foolery has been distorting, denaturing, destroying the fund of culture amassed since the Renaissance.”  

Barzun had already come to the conclusion that he would pronounce a dozen years later in From Dawn to Decadence:

The impulse and the clever deeds [putting a mustache on Mona Lisa] are part of an irresistible historical sweep.  Some of us might prefer to live in a time of construction, which has a different kind of excitement.  Let no one repine, however.  Rebuilding is bound to come, because true creative power is a phoenix, and the forces of destruction are clearing the space for its new flight, none can tell when or where.  Meantime, if we are to recognize the bird when it appears, let us not forget that creation means making something new and making it out of little or nothing.

a musical season

Jacques Barzun’s love of variety guides these posts.  There may be occasion for marching through some titles in chronological order within one category, following and expanding upon Virginia Xanthos’s selected bibliography in From Parnassus (Harper & Row, 1976).  However, a forced march through over 200 education articles, for instance, might lead to desertions.  Besides, variety motivates me, too.  Readers who marvel at a first Barzun book may grow dizzy when looking into his bibliography.  Take heart, Michael Murray’s editorial talents produced a fine sampler with  A Jacques Barzun Reader (HarperCollins, 2002).

Honoring that organ virtuoso who became Barzun’s biographer, I turn to a musical item excluded from the 1976 bibliography.  “Hector Berlioz: The Vocal Style” appears in Music and Recordings, 1955, (Frederic V. Grunfeld, ed., Oxford University Press, 1955).  Barzun’s landmark life-and-times of the misrepresented composer, Berlioz and the Romantic Century, had been stimulating a reconsideration of his works during the previous five years.  One of the busiest periods of Barzun’s career, the bestselling success of God’s Country and Mine prompted a request for a similar appraisal that became Music in American Life (Audiocom, 1955; Harper & Row, 1956; reprinted 1965).  By the following year, Barzun sounded ready to move on to other subjects, as implied by the title of his Energies of Art essay, “Whirligig: Last Words on Berlioz.”

“Hector Berlioz: The Vocal Style” considers the merits and shortcomings of 1955’s recordings of pruned symphonies and miscellaneous collections.  Five new records are evaluated; conductors, musicians, and technology, too, he judges by their fidelity to Berlioz’s intentions.  Barzun seldom misses an opportunity to compare topical matters to lasting qualities, as he does to conclude his assessment of Charles Munch and the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s Damnation of Faust (RCA Victor LM 6114):

A good test of any conductor of Berlioz is the familiar Rákóczy March: if from the start it sounds like a winded warhorse on the run, the conductor has missed his chance: it should begin in calmness and distinction and develop without a break, as it does thematically, into the ordered cataclysm of the close.  So played, it is a tone poem which belongs to the score, instead of a time-out debauch for baton and orchestra.

I didn’t know what I was missing when first hearing Berlioz in that very recording.  Though my “breadth requirement” had been satisfied with a Renaissance Art History class, I followed JB’s lead into the Music Library, sat in a soundproof booth, put on headphones, and experienced the power and expressiveness of dramatic music.  And it could have been even better.  I wish there had been time to take a course like Music Humanities at Columbia, where students that relish the art’s development through the ages have Jacques Barzun to thank.

desktop restored

desktop restored

Hoping the snow remains on the other side of the window.

Valdez has had a bit of snow this winter, as you can see out my window. Believe it or not, I’ve shoveled three feet or more off the top. I hope that what remains on the roof now has room to land without invading the study and burying computers.

Living in Alaska is a lot safer than driving freeways, turnpikes and city streets, but certain dangers are more spectacular. Hiking in bear country, kayaking in chilly waters, and, most recently, driving roads also used by moose are all worth the risk, but also remind me of the Barzun projects that I don’t want to leave unfinished.

There’s nothing especially noteworthy about today’s post; it is simply the first that records a Barzun item scanned: “The Colossus Laid Out” (American Scholar, vol. 53, no. 4, Autumn 1984, pages 546, 548–549).  It’s fitting for me to begin here, however, as Barzun’s review is of Dan H. Laurence’s monumental two-volume bibliography of Bernard Shaw’s works.

I hope that the tags I’ve attached to posts like this one will help Internet search engine users to find subjects that interest them, whether Barzun, Shaw, Dan Laurence, or Marie Belloc Lowndes.  (Finding lasting value in the work of Hillaire Belloc’s sister, Barzun differs with the editor he praises in just about every other way.)  I’ve also added “Translation” to this site’s Categories to distinguish those instances when Barzun offers translation criticism – as he does in “Colossus” – rather than being the translator himself.  When a passage pops out at me, like the one that follows, I’ll quote it:

The fresh details in the Bibliography and the reminder of old ones demonstrate again that the best way to be truly civilized and full of caritas as Shaw was is to have a fair and calm opinion of oneself and to vent one’s disapprovals fiercely, but in the tone and manner of candid conversation.  [p. 458]

Barzun, as usual, has more and better things to say in this review-essay.  It is not the source, however, of the fitting quotation I had in mind when deciding to begin with “Colossus”: “Bibliographers are the unsung heroes of the intellectual life.”  That opening line from Barzun’s preface to A Dictionary of Parisian Music Publishers, 1700–1950 by Cecil Hopkinson (Da Capo Press, 1979) has reinvigorated me when this labor has been most tedious.   I began making a Barzun bibliography because of memory lapses like that one of attribution.  Rereading Barzun is refreshing in many ways.

father and son

Last year an unsuspected bit of Barzuniana flickered into view.  Fairly often in the past it has taken the self-interest of used booksellers to reveal that a piece by Jacques Barzun has been anthologized.  Their willingness to list the contents of a book improves their prospects for a sale, and affords me an opportunity to discover an editor’s reasons for choosing a particular Barzun work.  One of the most satisfying examples came from the introduction to Barzun’s “The Romantic Ethos” (a 30-page slice from Berlioz and the Romantic Century) given by editors Norman F. Cantor and Michael S. Werthman in The Making of the Modern World, 1815–1914.

The latest find came under similar circumstances.  Another used bookseller advertised a title from the Orpheus series of Henri Martin Barzun that listed an essay by his son Jacques.  Since there was no mention of the piece in Virginia Xanthos Faggi’s selected bibliography (From Parnassus, 1976), I asked the seller for confirmation.  The affirmative reply included the title and a promising length of 10 pages.  The contents proved to be even more substantial, with 11 double column pages needed for a three part critical survey of modern poetics.

Henri Barzun’s 34th volume of Orpheus is dedicated “To ANNA ROSA and JACQUES” – his wife and son.  Choric Education: A Record of Labors and Achievements, 1920–1945, was published the same year as his son’s first bestseller, Teacher in America (Little, Brown, 1945).  Jacques Barzun was vested as a full professor that year, too, so omission of his “Transition or Creation? An Essay on Modern Esthetics” from the 1976 bibliography presented a puzzle.  The title alone sounds significant.

The contents reflect Jacques’ panoramic vision and familiar concern with synthesis.  Part I describes “Contemporary Chaos,” finding parallels in other periods of turmoil and launches the question, “Is there, at the present moment, a constructive force strong enough to create order out of chaos?”  Dissatisfied with the scouting of other critics, Jacques searches for visionaries among young English and American poets and closes with expatriate Ezra Pound’s disclosure of a French innovation.

Part II, “Problem and Solution,” resumes with quotations from Pound’s 1913 announcement in Poetry: A Magazine of Verse of a new form which he thinks may be “the true medium for democratic expression, the fitting method of synthesis.”  The innovator Pound spoke of was Henri Martin Barzun, whose creation of “simultaneity” (also called orchestral or polyphonic poetry) would be curtailed by the Great War’s cataclysm.

Part III, “Men and Works,” sees Jacques reviewing early performances of simultanist poetry by French pioneers and American practitioners without losing his critical balance, or opening himself to accusations of gratuitous nepotism.  Reversing the usual order, Jacques concludes his essay with “the founder,” his father.  That arrangement of parts falls beautifully into place – with the puzzle of bibliographic omission solved – by the attribution that follows:

Reprinted from The Columbia Varsity
Part I—February, 1927
Part II—April, 1927
Part III—June, 1927

 

Henri Martin Barzun sketched in the Columbia Varsity

Henri Martin Barzun sketched in the Columbia Varsity

Nineteen-year-old Jacques Barzun, Varsity editor, had honored his father as Columbia University’s June 1st commencement arrived.  Henri Barzun honored his son eighteen years later by seeking permission to reprint the undergraduate essay that elucidates his creation.  Full professor Jacques acquiesced in 1945.  Three decades later he chose not to include it with the only two Varsity essays in his selected bibliography:  “Textbooks and Tediousness” and “Irrelevant Maturity.”

Henri Martin Barzun, 1942

Henri Martin Barzun profile sketch by Clayton Spicer appears in Orpheus XXXIV, Choric Education: A Record of Labors and Achievements, 1920–1945, New Rochelle, NY: French Forum Publications, 1945.

Jacques Barzun drawn by Polly Thayer 1945

Jacques Barzun, drawing by Polly Thayer from dust jacket of Teacher in America, 1945

Barzun’s women

Jacques Barzun’s historical insight – original with him – conveys one of our time’s predicaments: “The one thing that unifies men in a given age is not their individual philosophies but the dominant problem that these philosophies are designed to solve.”°  The revelation may slip by unnoticed if the distracting question arises, What about women?

Readers of From Dawn to Decadence discovered more women than they might have expected in a cultural history that sweeps over five centuries.  That may explain why the Women’s Independent Forum asked to interview Barzun.  His sketches of historical figures are tantalizing, whether of women, men or adolescents.  Their firm lines reveal character, and populate a thematic narrative more ambitious than the mere chronicle of an era.

Cynics reflexively disagree, and may suspect Barzun of placating female readers by salting his bestseller with scores of women.  That would miss his point entirely.  The Woman Question is one of those that unifies our age, with “answers” ranging, for example, in a single decade, from Gloria Steinem’s to Phyllis Schlafly’s.  Barzun discerns it as part of a larger pattern and traces the theme of EMANCIPATION back through the ages, tracking the progress of women as well as the common man (of all genders).  He anticipates possible objections to the historical usage of “man” and addresses them early in From Dawn to Decadence (pp. 82–84); a brief reprise also appears in the interview noted above.

Barzun’s historical account necessarily records misogyny, but the man does justice to women – virtuous and villainous as revealed by events.  The same holds true for his criticism, and not just recently.  Over six decades ago, Barzun was Harper’s chief book critic.  His essay-review in the January 1948 issue focuses on current fiction: “Knee-Deep in Novels, or Death by Mis-Adventure.”  He sees through the stories and spots the authors’ silhouettes as intellectual, moralist, or sociologist, and resumes his search for “The Novel as Life Force Embodied.”  Recusing himself from a full review of The Middle of the Journey by his friend and colleague Lionel Trilling, Barzun finds just two new novels worth remembering.  The first is A Quiet Neighborhood by Anne Goodwin Winslow.

Who?  Readers then were as unlikely to know her name as we are now.  Two collections of her poetry had been published in the 1920s.  Almost two decades later she resurfaced with a new volume of poetry and another of short stories, but A Quiet Neighborhood was her first novel.  Barzun performs the critic’s role of midwife by presenting the qualities of her work to the public, and goes on to scold her publisher.  The book’s jacket copy transforms her setting into a cliché – “serene and gracious Southern life” – which Barzun calls, “language hardly fit to describe a cookbook, quite apart from its critical innaccuracy.  How can a work of art find its proper readers if it is misrepresented on its very wrappings by those most interested in distributing it?”

His admiration for Anne Goodwin Winslow’s work was not a passing fancy.  She published two more novels:  It Was Like This (1949) and The Springs (1950).  When Barzun served as editor of the third issue of Perspectives (Spring 1953), he paid her the compliment of introducing her short story “Mr. Rochester’s Wife” to European readers (along with a Wallace Stevens poem, Eric Bentley’s criticism of Shakespeare theater, and W.H. Auden’s review of Short Novels of Colette).  Robert Lowell also mentions in his April 29, 1957 letter to Elizabeth Bishop (Words in Air, p. 202) that Barzun planned to nominate Anne Goodwin Winslow for membership in the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.

Jacques Barzun’s “Editor’s Commentary” in Perspectives points to many reasons for the contemporary confusion regarding western culture’s direction, including that “the artist has to die before we learn that he was born.”  Anne Goodwin Winslow did not go unnoticed, and when she died in 1959 Barzun remembered her with “On the Death of an American Artist” (The Mid-Century, No. 8, January 1960, pp. 22–23).

Delivering the President’s address on the 75th anniversary of the National Institute of Arts and Letters (then convened with the American Academy of Arts and Letters, now merged), Jacques Barzun joked about the “the criminal chapter of our history” during Prohibition, preparing his audience for the quick transition to their concerns in 1973:

One of our present preoccupations, for example, is to make sure that enough women are elected.  I mean, of course, to represent fairly the artistic scene.  Our past record on this score is deplorable, but it betokens socially induced weakness of will, rather than a positive vice.

Recalling that Henry Adams had argued in 1909 that “Edith Wharton and a dozen more” deserved recognition ahead of inductee Julia Ward Howe, Barzun points to the heart of the matter:  “There is a great deal in our history, despite its mere 75 years, that would illustrate the permanent difficulties, peculiarities, and benefits inherent in the relation of art to society.”  Barzun’s sparkling address at the banquet also drew laughter as he cultivated the Academy’s future, just as he had done in the past.  His nominee in 1955 was poet Phyllis McGinley.

Barzun’s attentions were not limited to those two American women.  English author Dorothy L. Sayers gets higher praise, but that will have to wait for another occasion.  Before publishing this post, however, I should satisfy the curiosity of those who may wonder about his other recommendation in Harper’s.  The young talent Barzun heralded was Saul Bellow, whose next book would be The Adventures of Augie March.

_______________________________________________________

° Romanticism and the Modern Ego (Little, Brown, 1943, p. 21); Classic, Romantic, and Modern (Anchor, 2nd ed., revised, 1961, p. 14), (Univ. of Chicago Phoenix reprint, 1975, p. 14).

My thanks to Mr. Leo Wong for turning up the archived link to the Autumn 2000 Women’s Independent Forum interview of JB.

Post Navigation