gentle rereader

. . . rediscovering Jacques Barzun

Archive for the category “Science”

Eutopias for Euphoria

A week ago Dr. Anthony Fauci renewed a suggestion that our custom of handshakes should end. Twenty years ago Jacques Barzun wrote: “an age that has made war on smoking and given up the use of the common towel and the common cup should prohibit shaking hands.”

Barzun’s healthful warning comes early in From Dawn to Decadence (p. 127), his turn-of-the-millennium history of the West’s last five centuries. Some may wonder how 800 pages peppered with such cultural criticism could become a bestseller. I hope so.

Classic Barzun can overturn conventional thought. He titles the chapter that calls for an end to handshaking, “The Eutopians”. Why would an acknowledged master of English usage do that? “The title of this chapter will cause the open-eyed reader to think: ‘a misprint,’ or worse: ‘a misspelling.’ It is neither. The slight shock is intended to fix in the memory a point of interpretation that has a cultural bearing and is moreover a point of literary criticism.”

Barzun takes Sir Thomas More’s Greek prefix in U-topia meaning “no place” and substitutes a better Greek prefix Eu-topia “to mean the good place.” Noting the drift of language, Barzun says, “The adjective utopian has acquired the further meaning of ‘unworkable’; but that implication has not kept writers since More from designing happy societies.” Conventions can be improved upon, even in orthography.

Among the delights of From Dawn to Decadence are the Cross Sections, chapters with perspectives viewed from a particular place and time. “The View from Venice Around 1650” discovers the city’s politics, trade, diplomacy, and innovative maritime law. The broader view follows: “As the Venetians who lived around 1650 could see for themselves or heard from visitors or their own ambassadors, the world outside was full of novelties other than westward explorations for trade.”

Barzun studs his Cross Sections with literary, mathematical, scientific and musical gems. “It was the love and nurture of opera in Venice that made it a genre of endless possibilities.” Daily living is subject to review, too. “The sole touch of refinement in dining was the customary washing of hands before and after the meal.” Twenty years ago that sentence drew mild amusement. Now ears prick up.

“That washing of the hands at meal times was the one recurrent act of hygiene in the whole of life. The body was washed at birth, before marriage, and after death. The century that laid down the fundamentals of science is the one that got rid of public baths and of the very idea of regular bathing. In the Middle Ages and Renaissance even small towns had bathhouses.” How the fear of disease led to the decline of bathing – without stopping the plague – is among the historical curiosities that make Barzun’s narrative so fascinating.

Hand washing now is more common than ever before … and becoming tiresome. Reading From Dawn to Decadence can strengthen the resolve to continue. Plagues return. Viruses mutate. We count on innovators to fight new diseases.

Barzun goes back further than men of science like Jenner and Pasteur to include a daring woman: “Early in the 1700s Lady Mary Wortley Montagu was carrying on a crusade that did not let Londoners forget their health: she had the paradoxical idea that inserting a bit of matter taken from a smallpox patient under the skin of a healthy person would fend off the disease. Inoculation (later, vaccination when cows were used for the purpose) won over a few daring citizens and physicians; they proved her case and George I had his grandchildren inoculated.”

This novel coronavirus that keeps us at home presents an opportunity to do more than read plague novels or binge-watch television. Time-travel through Barzun’s Cross Sections in Madrid (circa 1540), Venice (c. 1650), London (c. 1715), Weimar (c. 1790), Paris (c. 1830), Chicago (c. 1895) and finally arrive in New York … without fear of infection.

A word of warning, though: Barzun’s thought can be “like a nasty germ in a healthy organism” and you may “come down with the disease of seeing things differently.” First infected as a teenager, I managed to live on and risked shaking his hand.

I wish that I could link you just as easily to e-reader versions of From Dawn to Decadence: 1500 to the Present, 500 Years of Western Cultural Life. There is none. Barzun’s innovations gave book typesetters trouble enough. Some 400 quotations set in the margins would need to float freely as e-readers alter text size. On the other hand, his “additional help to seeing wholes” would be perfectly suited to e-reading’s internal links. The excerpt from his “Author’s Note” in the best edition (paperback) will give a better idea of what Barzun offers those seeking refuge … and (spoiler alert) renascence.

amor fati?

There is no place for fiction in the From Parnassus template for Jacques Barzun’s bibliography. Since there are only two examples I am sure of, I won’t add another Part for fiction yet. For the time being, undergraduate Jacques’ short story will remain an orphan, or rather Columbia’s foundling:

Fantastique: ‘Not Poppy nor Mandragora’ But the Hallucinations of La Grippe”, The Columbia Varsity, volume 7, number 2 (May 1926), pages 16–17, 31.

Because the page for this entry is not linked to another part (and this post will gradually sink to the bottom), please either click on the word “Fantastique” above or go to the bibliography’s main page SCANNED for future access.  The Search box will also retrieve Barzun’s short story if you use the short story’s title or keywords like “Chatterton”.

Barzun on Whitehead

Jacques Barzun refers to conversations he had with the mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead in A Stroll with William James (1983).  Ten years after that masterpiece was published I finally found the courage to send a letter to the great man.  I was amazed that Barzun replied, and even answered several questions.  He described his first encounters with works by William James, and then added something unexpected:  “At the same time I ran into Whitehead’s Science and the Modern World by doing some hackwork for Keller’s Digest of Books.  The two great men together effected my immunization against the chief errors of our time.”

The single paragraph format of The Reader’s Digest of Books allows precious little room for more than a synopsis, but Barzun stretches his paragraph on Whitehead’s 1927 work to a page-and-a-half.  Whitehead and James had launched Barzun’s lifelong campaign against mechanistic materialism.  His knowledge of Whitehead’s work must have brightened the conversation when they met less than a decade later in the home of Isabel Shaw Lowell, the widowed mother of Jacques’ wife Mariana.

Fortunately, we need not rely on Keller’s Digest for Barzun’s view of Whitehead.  The University of Chicago Press published a small booklet in 1980 “as a keepsake for friends of the Press” that begins with Barzun’s foreword, “Whitehead on ‘Life’,” and reprints Whitehead’s 1934 essay “Nature and Life.”  Barzun’s familiarity with the man as well as his philosophy allowed a recollection from their talks in the Lowell family’s Nine Acre Corner home in Concord:  “As Whitehead once remarked in my presence, the spectacle of scientists going every morning to their laboratories for the purpose of demonstrating the purposelessness of the universe is a piece of high comedy.”

Barzun sets the stage for Whitehead’s philosophical entrance by briskly marking the outlines of science and philosophy’s progress up to Science and the Modern World.  Barzun describes the philosopher’s concept of “mutual immanence” and then takes stock again:  “How does Whitehead’s act of fusion between Life and Nature leave science?  Just as powerful and admirable as before, but possibly less imperialistic.”  Barzun notes the influence that James had on Whitehead and provides an example of their way of thinking:  “Consciousness is not a thing like a photographic plate; it is a function like walking, in which the muscles, the ground, friction, fatigue, gravity, forward motion (and much else) form one whole.”

Barzun accomplishes much in less than eight pages, and his deft touches along the way are a pity to overlook.  The concluding paragraph, however, may entice others to seek out his witty supporting arguments before the pages fade to illegibility (like the Cheshire Cat “Publisher’s Note” vanishing in my copy):

“Actually, Whitehead’s metaphysics is no farther from the experience we all live out than science is from common sense.  For when we scan that experience rigorously we see how far common sense departs from it.  Once again, go back to James’s Psychology and discover the ways in which our familiar ideas distort sensation and go beyond the data—for good reasons, like those of science.  All thought is purposive in that same way and is justified so long as we do not confuse different purposes or mistake as if for as is.  When we do, it is the duty of philosophy, incarnated in James, in Whitehead, to make us face again the living experience we deny at our peril.”

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