gentle rereader

. . . rediscovering Jacques Barzun

Archive for the category “Criticism”

Found: “The Advantages of Inconsistency”

The Ford Foundation invited Jacques Barzun to give an after-dinner talk to their Foundations Group in 1961.  Two years earlier Columbia’s provost and dean of faculties had warned in The House of Intellect that philanthropy was one of three unsuspected threats to Intellect, “the capitalized and communal form of live intelligence.” President Grayson Kirk had fielded complaints from university trustees who worried that their friends on the foundation boards might decline to fund Columbia projects. Regarding foundations Barzun had written, “It is an excess of goodwill, of fraternal love, of deep feeling for human life and its reflection in art, that is causing the neglect of mind.” When he addressed the Foundations Group some might have expected fence mending. Instead, Barzun gave advice, beginning with this analogy:

First page or a talk to the Ford Foundations Group, 28 September 1961. Jacques Barzun Papers, Box 142, Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Columbia University in the City of New York.

First page of a talk to the Ford Foundations Group, 28 September 1961. Jacques Barzun Papers, Box 142, Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Columbia University in the City of New York.

A pleasant meal: our success and ease in carrying food from plate to mouth due to expert control of the forearm, due in turn to opposite and simultaneous action of flexor and extensor muscles. We control the movement for extending one set while contracting the other.

Yet we live in a mental world where most people want action taken in one direction only – by the pull of one set of ideas. They try hard never to do the opposite of what they ‘believe in,’ be it positive or negative. And it is very true that in many realms consistency is a difficult and desirable goal. In the demonstrations of mathematics, science, and philosophy as well as in the production of plays or the erection of buildings, the happy result springs from unity achieved over diversity.

But note that in plays and buildings, the various artists and artisans introduce into their plans a good many contrasting elements, a series of subtle opposites to the main idea. This is required to avoid dullness and indifference in the beholder, and the reason seems to be that these creations must somehow correspond to life, and life proceeds like our muscles by oppositions.

The applicability of this notion to your work is not something I am competent to pursue in detail. I know that I do not know all the difficulties from inside.  I know they exist and I know how I feel when I hear some ‘outsider’ to my worries telling me ‘Why don’t you do this?’ I see at once that it’s impossible and I dismiss his suggestion. But I also notice, from time to time, that the suggestion works like a little seed in an ungrateful soil, like a nasty germ in a healthy organism, and I come down with the disease of seeing things differently and I recover by carrying out the suggestion – not as it was made by that ignoramus but in accordance with the facts which I know better than he.

“What I can see from outside is something which in foundation work strives for consistency too hard. The cause lies in 2 things – specialization and the sense of equity. Specialization is to some extent inevitable – no man and no organization can undertake everything. But there is a point where specialization becomes – what shall I say? – asceticism not of the flesh but of the imagination. Policy is then invoked like a legal precedent narrowly interpreted and this is supposed to give equity. There have been among foundations such policies for or against publishing, for or against building, for small grants, for large grants; against overhead always; for matching and not matching, for support at home or abroad, each consistently adhered to. It seems to me there would be immense advantages to deliberate inconsistency.

I think I appreciate the fact that policy protects, but I believe that if foundations properly assume their role of patrons, then they ought not to think of themselves as institutions in need of protection from the public.  They should know more than the public and act on it. It may strike you as a paradox, but a foundation ought to act as much as possible like a person – ondoyant & divers – a free person, of course, which means one who freely and consciously uses his money as an instrument of power guided by judgment.

Power these days is a bad word, which well-meaning people wish had no reality corresponding to it. But power exists nevertheless and is only another form of ability and money exerts power even when no thought of exercising power is in the user’s mind. There should be such a thought: Let us accept the possession of power and recognize that one of its virtues is precisely the scope it gives to judgment and independence. And just as independence does not mean arbitrariness, so judgment does not mean outward consistency. The best judgment often looks inconsistent, as I started out by saying. It is an old Greek tale that a traveler was given hospitality by some remote peasants, who noticed with horror that the man blew on his hands to keep them warm and again on his soup to make it cool. Being great readers of Euclid and lovers of consistency, the peasants killed their guest, because his inconsistency frightened them.  The poor victim, as we know, had a perfectly sensible idea. Life is not geometry. The living have to blow hot and cold, whether they like it or not; whether they are misjudged for it or not. The art of life is to do this with a mind, guided by a lively conscience.  With those guides one should not ask for guarantees. Life is a risk, and the people will talk whatever you do. Let them talk – as you have so graciously allowed me to do.

Did the little seed that he planted that evening grow into something fruitful? Or was the response to the applause line merely polite and his message quickly forgotten? Barzun could be disappointed by the lack of apparent action following even well received speeches. Still he prepared others to keep faith while waiting: “In the artistic or intellectual life,” he wrote in Teacher in America, “you cannot, most often, see the fruit of a day’s work. … It is invisible, and remains so, maybe, for twenty years.”

Five years later a Columbia Spectator headline read: “Columbia Begins $200-Million Drive With Ford Grants Totaling $35 Million: Largest Pledge Ever to a University Launches Central Fund Campaign”. Barzun modestly claimed no credit, saying that the Ford Foundation “had got wind of the changes at Columbia and decided, unsolicited, to award us one of the $25 million grants it was distributing in support of higher education in 1964–65.” Instead, Barzun blamed the Ford Foundation for causing him to postpone retirement as provost for another year and a half in order to administer the grants. Without having access to Ford Foundation files, I think that Barzun’s public efforts – Teacher in America, “Assets to Conceal” in God’s Country and Mine, his Time magazine profile, The House of Intellect, and even “The Advantages of Inconsistency” – contributed to turning the tide. JB also would be quick to mention the later work of his Columbia colleague Richard Hofstadter whose Anti-Intellectualism in American Life won a Pulitzer Prize in 1964.

The Ford Foundation money may have come in unrestricted funds, but the four-to-one matching requirement drove Columbia and Barzun hard. His extended tenure as provost required much additional travel, as he spoke to alumni groups from coast to coast and overseas. (These valuable talks are preserved in Columbia’s Rare Book & Manuscript Library.) Ending his days as an administrator, Barzun’s promotion to University Professor coincided with publication of The American University: How It Runs, Where It Is Going. Adopting Shakespeare’s cadence, Barzun addresses fundraising in the chapter titled “Friends, Donors, Enemies”. The year was 1968 and mischief was afoot already on American campuses. Over four decades later Barzun’s intellect and wisdom remain at our disposal, but only on the shelf … instead of being engraved in our tablets and available online. No wonder Google “Scholar” knows so little of Barzun, and nothing at all of “The Advantages of Inconsistency”.
______________________________
The quotations in my first paragraph come from The House of Intellect (pages 4 and 179). The concern expressed to Grayson Kirk by at least some Columbia trustees about Barzun’s 1959 bestseller (and National Book Award finalist) appears in Jacques Barzun: Portrait of a Mind, Beil, 2011, pages 175–176. The penultimate paragraph’s quotation comes from Teacher in America (1945, page 301; 1980, page 425). The New York Public Library Book of Twentieth-Century Quotations includes more than a dozen Barzun passages; that collection’s version of the “invisible fruit” quotation works like Barium in the gastrointestinal tract, enabling an Internet scan for teacher websites that skim reference works instead of drinking deeply from Barzun’s original.) JB’s characterization of the Ford Foundation grants appears in “How Columbia Was Restructured, 1958–1965”, Appendix A to Michael Murray’s intellectual biography of Barzun,  page 291. The 91st Congress invited the author to testify on student uprisings; Barzun’s insights – national and global – can be found in Campus Unrest, U.S. Government Printing Office, 1969, pages 765–781.

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Music in American Life

Between editing anthologies like his Pleasures of Music (1951) and The Delights of Detection (1961), Barzun also managed to produce two influential bestsellers, a volume of his critical essays, a research-and-report handbook (still in print with a sixth edition), and a little survey that’s easily overlooked:  Music in American Life. His essay of 117 pages was written from January–July 1955, soon after publication of his other American panorama, God’s Country and Mine.

Rereading Music in American Life after “Berlioz and Barzun” recalled my initial expectation that the work would be insubstantial.  I found instead that it is fundamental, an ear-witness account of “Music Unlimited”, as an early section title sums up the effects on daily life of ubiquitous broadcasts, canned music, and the mass production of vinyl records.  His attitude remains central: “Music shares my devotion with the other arts as well as with ideas and concerns remote from art; so that my aggressive passions and my lust for rationality disperse themselves (harmlessly, I hope) over a wide territory.

That passion for Reason shows how Barzun made his own the Enlightenment’s driving force.   Yet his defense of Romanticism led some to call him a Neo-Romantic.  Rather than seeing them as irrational worshipers of emotion, Jacques championed the Romantics for making ‘an intellectual point about the emotional life.’  (Please forgive the paraphrase and lack of a citation; I may add them later.) When first reading Music in American Life, the recognition of Barzun’s Modernist ways prompted this marginalia:

If Shaw’s generation got into the habit of using the inversion trick, it may be said that JB’s talent for showing many sides simultaneously belongs with the Cubists, helping the reader to move from the dogmatic single vantage where truth has a vanishing point and use the mind to hold multiple perspectives in a single pulse of thought.

There are many examples throughout his work of the long sentence or paragraph rapidly assembled from disparate elements that Jacques chose not to break down into a rat-a-tat-tat of simple declarative sentences.  There are better examples, but here is the Music in American Life paragraph (p. 82) on LP records (“discs”) that reinforced my view that Barzun is altogether Classic, Romantic, and Modern:

“The moral is simple:  any musical addict ought to make a point of balancing his diet. Discs sustain the musical life, but the vitamins of live music make it flourish.  To vary the image, the disc is to the amateur an introducer and a reminder; to the performer it is an aid to study; to the critic, a means of comparison and judgment; and to all a source of recreation and refreshment akin to a library of plays.  But its auditory and intellectual rigidities are esthetic limitations to be mentally corrected, just like the bad acoustics of a given hall, the bad fingering of a member of the string ensemble, the bad tempo of a manic conductor, the bad mood one may be in from a stomach ache.  Music is never perfectly heard or rendered, which is why it has to be ‘monitored’ by the receiving mind, even and especially after it has been monitored in the studio.”

§

This post marks the 105th anniversary of Jacques Barzun’s birth.

musical expression

San Antonio Symphony Music Director Sebastien Lang-Lessing asked guest of honor Jacques Barzun whether he would like to say anything about the evening’s Berlioz selections.  Barzun drew applause from musicians and audience alike by deferring to the orchestra’s imminent performance.  Jacques made way for the music as he rolled from front-and-center to wheelchair space along the left aisle.

Anyone there unfamiliar with Barzun’s criticism might suppose that the response to music he advocates – even after the last bar has been played – is silence.  Thanks to Michael Murray’s Jacques Barzun Reader, his answer to the question “Is Music Unspeakable?” can be heard in full (pages 323–337).  Barzun begins with the elemental: “After a concert there is a natural urge to talk.  Music is a strong stimulus that calls for outward release.  But there is also the wish to be safe, the fear of saying the wrong thing.  This awkward relation of words to music is what I hope may be made clearer by considering some neglected facts.”  Jacques inoculates listeners against the “snobbish and fallacious” malady of critics and musicians who treat music as “pure” or “mathematical” and beyond the help of words.

I know Barzun much better than Berlioz, so what I have to say about the concert may sound foolish.  Though I was attending the same performance as Jacques, his experience of “Berlioz and Barzun” must have been much richer.  His keen musical perceptions and profound knowledge of the composer would resonate throughout the performance.  The distance between our seats made a difference, too.  Jacques saw the back of Concertmaster Ertan Torgul who faced the orchestra; my view from the third row right showed Mr. Torgul in profile.  Barzun’s eyes and mine were below stage level so that we could not see many musicians beyond those downstage.

From the first beat of Le Carnaval romain overture I saw the truth of Barzun’s assertion, “That the response is visceral is vividly shown when we look at players and conductors in action.”  Lang-Lessing’s baton gamboled along with his entire being.  Torgul moved with vigor despite being constrained by the violin under his chin and confined to a chair.  Between the two I could clearly see Associate Concertmaster Bonnie Terry whose spirited playing showed both through her bodily motions and the expressions flashing across her beautiful features.

Bonnie Terry
Associate Concertmaster
San Antonio Symphony

Those who have read Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink may recall his last chapter, “Listening with Your Eyes.”  He relates the story of trombonist Abbie Conant’s blind audition for the Munich Philharmonic in 1980.  A screen made her gender invisible to the judges and her ability won them over.  Her unveiling prompted pay discrimination and later demotion to second chair. Eventually vindicated in court and in concert, Conant was a harbinger of the gender balance – through careers open to talent  – evident in orchestras like today’s San Antonio Symphony.  So I dismissed the lazy conjecture that Ms. Terry had been promoted for her loveliness, or denied the Concertmaster’s chair because of her sex.

Eventually I closed my eyes to her beauty, the better to attend to the entire orchestra.  Before then, however, I saw something extraordinary, a look that combined so many feelings that I still struggle to describe them.  Seriousness was there, as it had been since tuning her instrument.  Concentration focused her eyes like lasers.  If the moment had been filmed, I could pause the replay as the crucial passage approached and identify the measure about to move her eyebrows – not into a furrow or frown, but into some configuration of recognition, comprehension, an intense understanding of the composer’s meaning.  Remembering her complex expression months later, I better understand Barzun’s assertion: “What is stirred up by music lies below the emotions, or at least at the core of more than one at a time.”

Barzun elaborated his distinction between visceral and emotional responses to music in his 1951 Elson Lecture at the Library of Congress, “Music into Words.”  There he also explained by analogy how all true arts provide reverberation beyond their daubs of paint, stone shapes, or strings … of words.  Returning to Hamlet, the tragedy that helped to save young Jacques’ life, Barzun chose passages to show how art works after preparing the ground, “… art differs from workaday communication in that it transcends the literal—not excludes or denies it, for it contains it—but goes beyond.  If this is so, then another imaginary barrier between music and the other arts disappears: no art denotes or gives out information.”  The reflections on Yorick’s skull that follow – one page of twenty-seven devoted to music – should not be missed by anyone who cares about Art, especially literate artists.

No wonder that the final piece by Berlioz that Jacques wanted to hear live was the “Marche funèbre pour la dernière scène d’Hamlet” from Tristia (Opus 18).  The conductor gave his 21st century listeners advance warning that sounds of gunfire would come from the music – presumably not from the audience or a drive-by shooting.  Crackling like fireworks comes about two-thirds of the way through the funeral march, but I do not recall whether the selection halted there or whether the orchestra played the remaining third.

In either case, that was not the last Berlioz composition performed that night.  Lang-Lessing chose as an encore the piece that Jacques asked to be excluded from the program:  the “Marche Troyenne.”  Barzun had adopted the music as Columbia University’s graduation processional and told the conductor that he was tired of it, just as many teachers grow weary of “Pomp and Circumstance.”  I hope that this last lagniappe caused Jacques no worse indigestion than the prospect that his legacy may be boiled down to that of an “educationist.”

Barzun deserves a better fate.  He has been recognized as a Great Teacher and will remain one for as long as his works continue to be read.  That happy thought suggests that more of his works should be inscribed with digital ink.  HarperCollins may find it too great a challenge to translate From Dawn to Decadence into e-reader formats.  A Jacques Barzun Reader, however, is perfectly suited to Nook, iPad, Libre, Kobo and other devices. The Harper Perennial paperback is currently out of stock at Amazon, but we can encourage HarperCollins to digitize Barzun’s cross-fertilization of the arts by simply clicking on the “Tell the Publisher! I want to read this book on Kindle” link (right column, next to picture of e-reader).

Brief quotations of Barzun can be a disservice to reader and author alike.  The lines quoted here apply well enough to the occasion, but they are hardly nutshells of either lecture or essay.  I wish that I could link to complete texts of “Is Music Unspeakable?” (originally in The American Scholar, Spring 1996, pp. 193–202); to “Music into Words” (printed in The Score, December 1954; Music and Words: From Addison to Barzun, Jack Sullivan, ed., pp. 14–31) and to Critical Questions, pp. 3–29, as editor Bea Friedland also includes “The Meaning of Meaning in Music” (pp. 75–98; and in The Musical Quarterly, January 1980, pp. 1–20) where Barzun explains:

Music—and every other art—is expressive in the same sense as a cry or a gesture.  We say to the same effect a ‘facial expression’—it has no name, but it means.  Music is of course far more complex than cries, faces, or gestures, but like a brilliant pantomime its consecutive intention is immediately perceived and understood.  No need of mentally guessing, translating, converting its passing forms into another realm of abstract or concrete perceptions.  The better word for this power is not expression but expressiveness, which—to me at least—gets rid of the imagined second term that cannot be named but would be tacked on to ‘of’ if one could name it.”

a few words before the concert

Maecenas

The Express-News report on the “Berlioz and Barzun” concert came close to accurately quoting the honoree.  Jacques compared San Antonio Symphony benefactor Charles Butt to Horace and Virgil’s patron Maecenas, the “wealthy Roman who thought that his compatriots ought to have a more elevated pleasure than having gladiators kill each other.”

Whether an editor snipped column inches or the reporter chose to turn a deaf ear to Barzun’s next remark is impossible to say.  Jacques did go on: “I was trying to think of an equivalent of gladiators killing each other and I finally hit upon it,” then he paused before delivering a punchline.  He didn’t refer grimly to the UFC’s caged combatants locked in their bloody mixed martial arts. Instead, Barzun made the orchestra and audience laugh with his musical analog to a Colosseum spectacle: “rock and roll.”

Why not rap?  Public Enemy’s Chuck D claims that music education budget cuts in New York City during the 1970s deprived youth of Barzun’s “more elevated pleasures.”  The musical instrument vacuum was filled by hip-hop and rap.  Barzun named rock, though, and the Express-News may have left that out to avoid controversy.  Not Jacques.  Nor will I.

Free tickets to the Majestic Theatre performance drew a varied crowd, from blue jeans to suits, and from elders to kids.  Seeing children in the foyer before the concert reminded me of Jacques’ first public music experience, the premiere of Stravinsky’s Sacre du Printemps.  I have since recalled my own – another free concert – outdoors during the Strawberry Festival in Orange County, California, when I was around ten.  A band played the opening electric guitar melody of “Get Together” by the Youngbloods and I felt reverberation for the first time. Songs on the little plastic radio at home did not do that.  Popular music was all that I really knew until Barzun’s words opened my ears to Berlioz.  Then it was on to Furtwängler’s Beethoven and more.

Having grown up with rock, though, I can imagine how easily others might dismiss Barzun’s joke – especially in print – as the cranky humor of an elitist curmudgeon. JB’s jabs can startle, shove aside timeworn ideas, and create an opening for the unexpected.  His barbs are sometimes meant to serve that purpose, as suggested in an epigraph to his Energies of Art from John Jay Chapman:  “So long as a man is trying to tell the truth, his remarks will contain a margin which other people will regard as mystifying and irritating exaggeration. It is this very margin of controversy that does the work.”

Barzun achieves surer results when the occasion allows him to better develop his thoughts.  When rock-and-roll’s golden oldies were still recent releases, Barzun delivered “A Request for the Loan of Your Ears” (1961) to an audience about to hear for the first time compositions from the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center.  His listeners in the McMillin Theatre included lovers of classical music and, among the students at least, some fans of rock as well. Strangers to the new creation, Jacques first invited them to take pleasure in the effort to comprehend unknown works, but

“To understand in this fashion does not mean to accept passively because someone says that the stuff is new and therefore good, that many believe in it, that it’s going to succeed anyway, so it’s best to resign oneself to the inevitable.  This kind of reasoning has gone on about modern art for some thirty years and nothing has been more harmful to the arts. It is an inverted philistinism, which eliminates judgment and passion just as surely as did the older philistinism of blind opposition to whatever is new.”

Then by combining critical and historical insights with Jamesian psychology he alerted his listeners to their minds’ natural conservatism.  Openness and equipoise become the way to discover richer pleasures – old and new.

Barzun’s double-action thought reveals unknown art, delivering democratic access to the best that he’s discovered.  The Majestic Theatre audience – almost everyone hearing for the first time at least some of Barzun’s favorite Berlioz marches – included a cross-section of class and culture.  I thought of Maya Angelou’s complementary line, “No less to Midas than the mendicant.”  Then I heard the music.

Living Books

The inaugural meeting of the Jacques Barzun Book Club (JBBC) might not have occurred on Monday, 14 May 2012, if Mr. Eric Robert Morse had been unwilling to take a risk.  The conversation described in “Classic Barzun” was diverting for a time, but the chances of engaging in much anticipated “Jacques talk” were dwindling like my beer.

Then I recalled that to make coordination possible Eric had gambled and put his cell phone number on the Internet.  Now I wished that I’d captured it earlier, instead of trusting to an old-fashioned rendezvous.  Still, I managed (with the help of 1Password) to get my mobile to locate his number online.  Moments after making the call I shook hands with Eric who had a great table out on the patio.  All along we’d been just a hundred feet from each other.  His lookout had been over the other entrance to Citrus – at the top of the stairs leading up from Riverwalk.  (Take note, future participants in the San Antonio chapter of the Jacques Barzun Book Club.)  Thank you, Eric, for being patient and for taking the chance that made our first meeting happen.

We settled into adjacent seats, facing west and the river.  The first thing I noticed on the table was Eric’s paperback copy of A Stroll with William James, my old friend.  A well thumbed first edition remained in my backpack, along with the first volume of Berlioz and the Romantic Century (1969), and the bibliographic database of Barzun’s works.  Eric’s posting the day before suggested the possible value of bringing my laptop:  “We will probably discuss Dr. Barzun’s works in general and lay out a plan for future readings.”  I’m glad to report that we didn’t get to the planning that night.

Let the record show that Stroll was the JBBC’s first topic of conversation.  We quickly moved on to other favorites, and I glowed within.  Only the horizon showed signs of gloom as dark clouds piled upward.  The slowly advancing thunderheads stole none of the warmth.  Our talk did turn to the next night’s Berlioz concert and its curious ending with a funeral march.  I mentioned to Eric my recent exchange with Peter Bloom.  He had been struck by the marche funèbre closing a program meant to honor a 104-year-old man, considering it in questionable taste … unless Barzun’s strong preferences had governed the selection.

Recounting for Eric the powerful conclusion in each of Barzun’s several editions of Berlioz, I elaborated on the nutshell reply I’d sent to Professor Bloom:  “My response to the Berlioz selections was similar to yours.  My bet is that Jacques did ask for the funeral march, and at the brief concert’s conclusion.  There is a certain fitness to combining the personal importance to JB of Hamlet and HB’s funeral music to remind us of the horses bolting through the cemetery gates with Berlioz alone.”  Would the World War I survivor make a similarly dramatic departure the next night, expiring with the musketry at the march’s conclusion?  I dismissed the phantasm, deciding that Jacques would not allow himself such a breach of decorum.

Happier thoughts followed and we eventually ordered appetizers and antelope.  Already the author of several published works, Eric described his first reading of Barzun, saying that he discovered something needed that had been missing.  I poorly convey his meaning, and hope that he will take the first opportunity to correct and amplify what I only mention.  I also look forward to seeing what effect reading JB may have on his future work.  May Barzun’s influence be as salutary for Eric Morse as it was for Tony Hillerman at the outset of his crime fiction career.

Like any good book group we wandered off topic, covering our past residences in San Diego (his recent, mine ancient), his auspicious beginning in San Antonio, and when the Spurs’ playoffs run came up our shared enthusiasm for basketball.  (Barzunian orthodoxy is an oxymoron, cf. baseball.)  We also watched out for Eric’s friends who planned to join us after their conference broke up.  And the clouds kept coming.

We frequently returned to Barzun’s latest masterwork.  My recent rereading of From Dawn to Decadence had been unplanned.  I was about a third of the way into The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire when the almost inevitable thought occurred to compare Gibbon’s treatment with Barzun’s handling of the theme in From Dawn to Decadence.  The anticipated quick comparison turned into a renewed perusal of Barzun’s most complex work.  (Gibbon calmly waits for me to return as soon as I finish reading the third of Jim Lynch’s sparkling novels set around Puget Sound.)  I wondered aloud to Eric whether a couple of centuries from now From Dawn to Decadence will be as accessible as The Decline and Fall is to present-day readers.

The conversation that had been both humorous and serious tapered off when Eric’s guests arrived.  Introductions exchanged, his friend from northern California was hardly surprised but thoroughly delighted that Eric had started a book group during his first week as a San Antonio citizen.  We talked a bit about Barzun and then shifted the conversation to their conference and lives.  We felt a few sprinkles but remained outside, leaning forward under the table’s umbrella.  Soon thereafter, but after several wonderful hours, the inaugural meeting of the Jacques Barzun Book Club had to be called on account of rain.

Eric and I resumed play the next night, following the concert and reception, as we ate a less exotic but still delicious late supper at a riverside restaurant’s bar.  That’s when Eric brought up the question of which Barzun works to read next, asking me to send recommendations along as soon as I had the time.  I whipped out my pocket notebook instead.  I laughed when he said it was like getting assignments done in class in order to avoid homework.  True enough, though the context of our discussion provided the right preparation for the impromptu list I made.

I began with The Energies of Art, explaining how the commercial success of Teacher in America, praise for the first edition of Berlioz, and a recent bestseller also favored by critics, God’s Country and Mine, had created a market for Barzun’s work as scholar-critic in the collection of essays.  The earliest among them, “Truth and Poetry in Thomas Hardy” from The Southern Review (Summer 1940), recast for Energies as “Hardy’s One World”, shows Barzun as much more than a journeyman building up to From Dawn to Decadence.  The cultural historian lived in literature (as well as the musical and fine arts), and then turned his experience into cultural criticism, re-presenting art for life’s sake.

It’s hard to imagine a Jacques Barzun Book Club as a batch of Baker Street Irregulars or a Wolfe Pack, confined to a single canon.  When his admirers find themselves back at the beginning with The French “Race”, and no more of his books to read, there need not be an end.  The glory of Barzun is that his thought coruscates with others’ works that merit attention.  Those bring me back to Barzun’s brilliance, as his explorations discover what is most valuable – as well as disposable – in each of them.  A Barzun essay coupled with the work discussed would afford an excellent opportunity for rewarding conversation.

Anyone who cares to test the assertion might try reading Barzun and Stendhal “On Love”, and then savor “William James and the Clue to Art”.  Until the acidic paper turns to dust, the best version of Energies will remain the Vintage edition of 1962, despite a pair of reversed lines in the sharp new preface.  The good Greenwood Press printed five of Barzun’s books on paper made to last, but the 1975 reprint of the original Energies of Art, despite library binding, cannot preserve what it does not include.  Here is a brief sample from Barzun’s four-page credo in the Vintage paperback:

“I believe that criticism is a serious undertaking, but I do not believe that it is a technical process requiring rubber gloves and manufactured apparatus.  Works of art are complex, but that does not seem to me a valid excuse for making criticism complicated and leaving no room for the reader to enjoy art through fugitive, inexplicit response.  One would have thought that modern pride in subtlety would have prevented the manhandling of that fragile flower, Response, just as the devotion to the Work of Art should have kept criticism from being called ‘creative.’  But both abuses exist and indeed prevail.” (page ix)

I look forward to listening more than talking if FaceTime or Skype makes it possible for me to attend the next meeting of the Jacques Barzun Book Club on July 8th.

Eric Morse (on the left) launched the Jacques Barzun Book Club. John Adams joined him that first night and in this photo following the “Berlioz and Barzun” concert.

Classic Barzun

Some memories remain bright despite the passage of time. My trip to San Antonio for the “Berlioz and Barzun” concert is as vivid today as it was while living it. So the passage of a few weeks till I could find this time to preserve parts of the experience with words matters very little.

South Texas temperatures in the low 80s felt mild to residents, but caliente to anyone acclimated to coastal Alaska over the last dozen years. Remembering the summer heat of my childhood and adding a short-sleeved shirt to my long-sleeved wardrobe eased the abrupt transition. Just as fall weather on the Beaufort Sea coast is imprinted on my last trip to Barrow, climate clings to my spring experience of San Antonio.

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Making both weekend flights as far as Seattle, I expected the rest of the connections would be easy and Monday in San Antonio to be free. While waiting in the SEATAC terminal for the Austin flight, I took advantage of the free WiFi to post a reply to Eric Robert Morse’s 27 April proposal of a Jacques Barzun Book Club. In essence I said, ‘How about an inaugural meeting tomorrow night in San Antonio?’

Eric’s affirmative answer came in just twenty minutes, but I’d already shut down my devices. By the time I landed in Austin and boarded Amtrak, he’d come up with a great location perched above the city’s Riverwalk: the Citrus bar and restaurant in the Hotel Valencia. Just thirteen minutes after I saw Eric’s post about the venue and answered “Perfecto”, Leo Wong posted a freighted question: “You’ll tell the great man about this at the Berlioz and Barzun concert?” By that time, however, I’d left the Facebook site and was climbing into a taxi. So I didn’t see Leo’s question until the next day.

I expected no such opportunity to speak with Barzun, as I’d written to JB’s friend and fellow Berlioz authority Peter Bloom: “I doubt that I’ll get the chance to speak with Jacques. I imagine that many family members and close friends will attend and it would be inconsiderate for me to impose upon the grand old man. Simply attending the concert will spend much of his available energy, I suppose. It will have to be enough to hear Berlioz with Barzun, and lay eyes upon Jacques if I’m lucky.” Instead, the prospect of enjoying face-to-face conversation about Barzun was my sojourn’s delightful lagniappe.

I awoke Monday morning, sipped some coffee, and turned on the computer, wondering how to reply to Leo’s Facebook query. First I opened email and discovered something stronger than caffeine. A brief note from Leo contained this potent sentence: “Mrs. Barzun wants you to say hello to them and to attend the little party afterwards.” What a wonderful shock! My heart raced, believe it or not, like a teenager whose crush has just agreed to a date.

That Monday held other surprises. Whether walking to Rivercenter or dropping off a suit at the cleaner’s, I felt a deep contentment. Rather than euphoria I enjoyed a continuous feeling of rightness about it all: the improbable trip, the chance to “talk Jacques” that evening, and the opportunity to meet the Barzuns the following night. Almost twenty years earlier, in my first letter to Professor Barzun, I confessed a desire to shake his hand so I could say that I had once touched greatness. Since then, and before then, it has been a common experience to encounter blank looks when mentioning my favorite author. Any discussion that followed could only be rudimentary. Here, however, I was in the right place, at the right time, and among the right people for real conversation. I found myself looking forward to the inaugural meeting of the Barzun Book Club every bit as much as the audience with Jacques the next night.

The stroll from my hotel to the Valencia was delightful. The sun that still would be high in an Alaskan sky just five weeks from the summer solstice was dipping toward the Texas horizon. I entered from East Houston Street, climbed a flight of stairs, and glanced into the bar and restaurant for anyone resembling the working author of Mr. Morse’s Facebook avatar. Just one party of four sat in the dining room and the hostess did not see his name among the reservations. So I repaired to the bar for a pint of ice water poured by a genial bartender. Seeing the frequent glances I cast over my shoulder toward the hostess station, he agreed to help with the lookout. When asked the natural question about the reason for my travel I told him about the symphony’s “Berlioz and Barzun” concert. Still in his early thirties, he hadn’t heard of the author whose last bestseller made headlines a dozen years ago.

An older hotel guest took her seat a couple of stools down. She greeted the barkeep by name and chatted with him for a minute while I cooked up an analogy. A waitress still in her twenties had stepped up to the bar’s server station just to my left. As the bartender filled her order I asked who she thought was today’s handsomest actor. You can tell that I’m not making this up because she named Jason Bateman and Johnny Depp. I asked whether she had seen any of Paul Newman’s movies. She had not, but the bartender remembered the Oscar winning actor from “The Color of Money” (with Tom Cruise). The lady to my right recalled a younger Fast Eddie Felson in “The Hustler” (1961) and other films. Her smile and gleaming eyes were the best recommendation imaginable for a classic movie hunk. Reputations fade when audiences change, as Barzun often points out, but can be restored with the kind of appreciative critical attention he gave to Berlioz.


Looking again for Eric Morse without success, I sat back down at the bar and ordered a Shiner Bock. My next shot would be with a smartphone.

Media Mail

I am no friend of Facebook. Nor do I believe that brevity is the soul of tweet. Even tiny raindrops can turn into an extended deluge. More valuable things have come to me through Media Mail than all social media combined. And yet …

I did join Facebook in 2007, not coincidentally the year that Jacques Barzun celebrated the completion of his first century on this earth. Webmaster Leo Wong drove me to it. His Jacques Barzun Centennial Celebration website brought hundreds of JB admirers from all over the world together in a joyful chorus. Many of his visitors were simply appreciative listeners.

Until the centennial itself neared, I said very little. But I followed his leads, which I should call links. One of them sent me to Facebook, where Mr. Charles Huff had formed the Jacques Barzun Fan Club. The Facebook policy said Members Only, and I balked. But the lure of Jacques was too great and I joined a couple of days later.

That’s how I learned that the atomized distractions of social media were not for me. Why did I answer the persistent question – “What are you doing right now?” – with a sentence on the alluring smell of breakfast cooking? And why bother with the daily doings of the friend of a Facebook “friend”? So I unfriended all my friends, and even disowned my family (but only in the virtual world). I went on calling my loved ones, but kept coming back to the JB Fan Club – a quieter site than any English gentlemen’s club.

Within the last year I tried to help Leo with the seldom satisfying job of fishing the Internet for recent Barzuniana to post at the JBFC. I was glad to see Mary McCleary contribute, as I’m delighted that Mr. Christopher Reid pushed our membership past 200. Still, I admit to feeling a certain restraint about commenting when the new Facebook format pushes my sextant silhouette back into the spotlighted header for little more than clearing my throat. (Am I alone in this?)

Then about a month ago, on April 19 at 12:36 p.m. to be exact, Leo posted the tremendous news that the San Antonio Symphony would perform a special concert of Berlioz to honor Barzun. My current employment as a shipping agent made it next to impossible that I might attend. Still, I wanted one of those free tickets, though I hated the idea of taking a souvenir while leaving an empty seat that someone might have enjoyed in person. I rationalized that if no miracle occurred and Port business kept me home I’d return the ticket in time for some hopeful night-of-performance caller at the ticket window.

So I called the symphony box office and had a happy experience with the staff member who told me that tickets to the performance at the Majestic Theatre were still available. Aurora advised me about the relative merits of the remaining locations. There were open seats on the orchestra level, but they were tucked away beneath the balconies (about which see Mr. Mike Greenberg’s fine review of the concert). The bright young lady’s name prompted me to mention the late season display of Northern Lights that recently had shone over Valdez. We laughed about the warped pronunciation of Spanish place names like Los Angeles and Val-DEEZ as she took my mailing address (P.O. Box 1174, Valdez, AK 99686 … for those averse to Internet comments). To the nominal shipping charge I added a small donation to the San Antonio Symphony. Aurora and I said good-bye after she reviewed the details of my mezzanine seat.

Meanwhile, back in print, the San Antonio Express-News announced that the concert commissioned by Mr. Charles Butt would have as its guests of honor Mr. and Mrs. Jacques and Marguerite Barzun, PhDs. Attendance now seemed almost urgent. How many more opportunities would there be to get a first glimpse of my living hero? And then my ticket arrived in the mail:

Thank you, dear Aurora!

I would also love to give credit to my generous employer who found a way to say yes to my unusual request for three days off during a busy season. Unfortunately, corporate policy prohibits naming the agency, even as my benefactor. If word got out that I admire the radical empiricist – and a “Frenchman” to boot – Jacques Barzun, well the business consequences may be imagined. But I jest regarding Jacques, as I made no special request to headquarters to publish my gratitude to the company. Just following the policy, and the Internet detectives among my readers will have no difficulty figuring out which shipping agency I mean.

So with relish I made the reservations detailed in “Pilgrimage” and returned to the Jacques Barzun Fan Club. There, on April 27th, Mr. Eric Robert Morse proposed the formation of a Jacques Barzun Book Club, based in his new hometown of San Antonio. My journey to the Alamo city underway on May 13th, I suggested the following evening (the night before “Berlioz and Barzun”) for an inaugural meeting – a revelation of actual travel that would have incredible consequences.

hiatus

It has been nice to see how many of you have returned to check on the gentle rereader during the three weeks since my last post.  A fresh bit of Barzun has always seemed worth the wait to me, and I hope the page added today will make that true for you, too:

“Critical Appreciations”The Columbia Varsity, volume VIII [8], number 1 (October 1926), page 25.

For those curious about my hiatus, I’m happy to report that an unexpected promotion and a consulting deadline have precluded dedicating more time to Barzuniana.  Plus it’s springtime in Alaska, and we have to take advantage of the sun before the summer rains start.

Theatre Critic

Since its first publication in 1925, Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy has gone from a novel to a play to the movies and the opera.  Jacques Barzun reviewed the new book’s adaptation as a play directed by Patrick Kearney for “At the Theatre”The Columbia Varsity, volume VIII [8], number 1 (October 1926), pages 16, 28.

Editor-in-Chief

Looking for early hints of Jacques Barzun’s later greatness, glimpses can be caught in the eighth volume of The Columbia Varsity.  Pulling the Editor-in-Chief feather from his cap, he turns it into a busy quill.  The first issue (October 1926) contains no fewer than five articles bearing his imprimatur.  Thanks to the sharp eye of Jocelyn Wilk of the Columbia Archives, I have copies of the unsigned editorials, as well.  (They may not all be JB’s work, but the congratulations to Nicholas Murray Butler on the 25th anniversary of his inauguration as Columbia University President and the piece on Columbia’s newly established School of Library Service – with criticism of CU’s own libraries – are leading candidates for attribution.)  So, Barzun’s productivity must be noted first.

The cover price of “The Official Literary Magazine of Columbia University” was 25¢.  The previous academic year saw just two issues of Varsity, but Jacques promises to return to the standard of five issues per year by advertising an annual subscription for a dollar.  Offering subscribers two bits in savings might help the magazine’s finances early in the year, while preparing for the costs of publishing future issues … and capturing sales that might otherwise be missed later in the year as campus readers grew preoccupied with studies, papers, and exams.  His business sense was already apparent.

The magazine’s layout also changed.  JB and his staff replaced the previous year’s large format and graphic design focused cover with a handier size and simple decorative border, relying on words to arrest readers’ attention:  “WATERMELANCHOLIA”, “THE WOMAN CAUGHT IN ADULTERY SOLILOQUIZES AT HER WINDOW”, and Barzun’s own “TEXT-BOOKS AND TEDIOUSNESS”.  The future literary adviser to Scribner thought like a publisher from an early age.

There is also an interesting coincidence of a new department in the magazine that prefigures similar instances later in his career.  “THE WASTE BASKET” bears a title that suggests the brief, informal treatment of lighter subjects that would premiere in the April 1947 issue of Harper’s as “After Hours” – the same month that Barzun became the magazine’s chief book critic.  Less than a decade later a similar feature,“The Scholar’s Scratch Pad”, would be inaugurated by Jacques in The American Scholar (Winter 1954–55), pages 96–98.

Clifton Fadiman best described this particular Barzun gift:

“Among his deeply civilized talents is one for the light essay.  That adjective is imprecise.  For, whether Mr. Barzun writes on baseball (see pp. 159–163 of his God’s Country and Mine) or on Charles Darwin, he permeates his formidable analytic and generalizing power with such wit, grace and charm that the result contradicts physical law, and possesses weight without gravity.”

– from Fadiman’s introduction of Barzun’s “Trains and the Mind of Man” in Holiday, February 1960, at page 11.

New pages for Barzun’s signed contributions to the October 1926 issue of Varsity forthcoming as opportunity allows.

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