gentle rereader

. . . rediscovering Jacques Barzun

Irrelevant Maturity

“Irrelevant Maturity” by “L. O. McDuff” [pseudonym of Jacques Barzun], volume VIII [8], number 2 (December 1926), pages 12–13.

During his junior year in college, Jacques Barzun contributed to both editions of The Columbia Varsity. As a senior he took the reins as editor-in-chief for the student publication’s eighth volume. Varsity published five issues during that 1926–27 academic year.

The new editor’s first number included his own “Textbooks and Tediousness” as well as three literary reviews (of a novel, three volumes of verse, and a criticism series) and the editing of Varsity‘s Theatre column. An impressive start considering all of his other activities (see chapter 5, “Valedictorian”, of Michael Murray’s biography). It must have generated at least a small buzz on campus, because the second number contains an editorial response to certain members of Columbia’s faculty.

“Irrelevant Maturity” appears under one of Jacques’ pen names, “L. O. McDuff” and begins: “No word, in my humble opinion, suffers so much abuse as ‘maturity’. It serves both as the sandbag of overbearing superiority in the hands of assumed Worldliness, and as the tantalizing bauble dangled before the eyes of Youth by supposed Experience.”

“In a commonsense view of this sore matter it is evident that maturity and immaturity, like all ping-pong epithets for blanket use, mean absolutely nothing. Maturity is not the magic word of a dubbing ceremony, nor is the application of its opposite to an individual or organization, anything more than a grossly qualitative measure of relation to an ill-defined norm of doubtful value.”

The Thane of Varsity then rises to defend his fiefdom: “There was a time when a Freshman, a prejudice, or a literary magazine could be exalted to empyrean heights by the appellation of ‘more mature’ (sic) benevolently bestowed by a peerless instructor or an omniscient adviser. And of the three objects thus sanctified, I dare say the magazine suffered most on the recoil. For Freshmen outlive their sophistication, and prejudices are the most impervious substance known to man. But that intangible entity, a literary magazine, can, if its components are weak enough, be led by the nose (figuratively) and moulded farther from a sincere mind’s desire (still more so) by the mere bandying about of meaningless pejoratives.”

Recognizing the natural desire of students to emulate “those members of the faculty whose gifts and attainments correspond to their own aspirations”, JB warns that their potent influence can go too far: “Unfortunately, the opinion is all too prevalent among the faculty that the best undergraduate is the one who is least an undergraduate.” He objects to similar expectations of Varsity expressed by some faculty members: “They assert openly enough, it is true, but still mistakenly, that an undergraduate literary organ can command interest and deserve consideration only when it ceases to to deal with undergraduate affairs. They mean of course their interest and their consideration. In other words, they are trying to put long trousers on the five-year-old, and when they succeed the result is no less incongruous.” Jacques would eventually call the shorts that he wore as a twelve-year-old immigrant kid ridiculous, but taken in the right spirit he has made his point.

“Any College literary medium, when let alone, will of itself treat sufficiently of the eternal verities to satisfy any ethereal conception of what is Good, True, and Beautiful. The scholarly essays and definitive critiques published in this kind of review supply that important element. But when it comes to fiction, articles on current topics, and editorial comment, it is undesirable, unreasonable, inconsistent, —not to say downright foolish, to expect or to wish that the subjects dealt with be of the same kind as those which only ‘mature, experienced men of the world’ (e.g. the faculty) can successfully handle.”

Those subjects turn out to be not dissimilar, however: “The things that interest the undergraduate are the things that are to him more or less immediately relevant: the rules he must obey, the courses he is taking, the thoughts and beliefs he entertains, the buildings he lives in, the institutions he bumps into, the men with whom he eats and studies and plays. Now do but turn to the so-called outside world and you will find that nothing else can or should interest any man. So that the undergraduate magazine, dealing with these topics, in stories, or articles or editorials, does exactly the same thing as the commercial, literary or political review, on a corresponding plane.”

Plangent as any Plantagenet, McDuff lays on: “If it be argued that it is precisely because the faculty are no longer undergraduates that they cannot find interest in college magazines, I am forced to point out that my interlocutor has not only shifted his ground, but has also dealt the faculty a damaging blow in implying that those whose mission it is to teach young men are unable to understand or sympathize with the latter’s views; and in suggesting that the teacher is so lazy-minded or so callous as to wish his charges to conform to his own petrification.” Master Barzun had a warlike shield of his own.

Leaving out young Jacques’ ironic crowing in the final sentence, his opening thought in the last paragraph deserves another airing: “I am quite willing to believe that this illogical attitude is not so much the result of a cynical tendency to debauch the young intellectually as of a very human desire to have others think and see as we do.”

Macbeth thought he was as ready for swordplay with Macduff as young McDuff was prepared for verbal fencing with Columbia faculty. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that Jacques had declaimed after publication … And damn’d be him that first cries “Immature!”

3 thoughts on “Irrelevant Maturity

  1. Bill Sweetland on said:

    Dear John Adams:

    Thank you, thank you, THANK YOU for posting “Irrelevant Maturity.” This essay, full of Dr. Barzun’s characteristic fully-thought-out ideas, holds many phrases the deftness and memorability of which anticipate Dr. Barzun’s “mature” prose.

    Did you post his entire essay?

    The essay reminds me of the work of the nineteen-year-old GBS. The diction and syntax, while they reveal a subtle and sincere mind, evoke a decorum that is perhaps a shade too formal, even stiff.

    Not that the ideas, the uncompromising common sense, the unshakable logic, the careful choosing of exactly the right position for the assault, don’t do their work well. It’s just that the agility, the exhilarating sense of motion, the dazzling compression of so many strands of complex thought in The House of Intellect seem a long way off.

    John, thank you for your rapid response to my first email. I’ve been so busy at this damned so-called job of mine to come home at night and do anything but sit in a stupor, uninterested in the thought of writing one more word.

    How wonderful it is, then, to observe the Barzun butterfly in its chrysalis state. How it restores one’s mind and soul! He is SUCH an unfathomably great man!

    Bill Sweetland

    • Your comment has been reverberating with me for days, Bill. Thank you for articulating some of what a great many Barzun admirers must feel.

      JB’s ability to lodge thoughts in my mind – made resistant to rote learning in big parochial classes with Dick-and-Jane memorization – continues to baffle me. How does he do it? I may be paraphrasing, but his thought sticks, ‘The prime virtue of prose is forward motion.’ Your phrase, “the exhilarating sense of motion,” captures that effect perfectly.

      Despite his insistence on the need for revision (for gods as well as mortals), it is impossible that he could have published so much without pressing forward, moving ahead, refusing to settle for aphorizing.

      His thought also sticks with me for reasons that have nothing to do with technique. Startling experiences tend to make more lasting impressions. In The House of Intellect, for example, Barzun stuns by naming Philanthropy as one of the three enemies of Intellect.

      That thought deserves a paper or a long conversation rather than this brief reply to your comment or a simple post, but the example helps to account for why Barzun, as Michael Murray points out, “never achieved a vogue.” JB challenges his readers instead of meekly seeking acquiescence. His bestsellers have nothing to do with Dale Carnegie.

      I experience the resistance to writing that you describe, especially after dispatching sacks of email to those who think clarity doesn’t count … right up until the time they send a check to someone like you who can conceive and articulate a message.

      Glad to see you fight off that stupor. I hope the effort was pleasurable. Your enthusiasm for Jacques reinforces my own.

  2. You’re very welcome, Bill. I’m a bit busy myself for a reply worthy of your comment. I’m about to board a ferry and will soon be out of 3G range. For now let me just say that it will be seldom, if ever, that I post an entire essay. I have too much respect for Jacques’ copyrights to do so. I do want to advertise the quality of what he calls his “hackwork,” though. More from Anchorage when I get a chance.

Responses welcomed. Courtesy appreciated.

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