gentle rereader

. . . rediscovering Jacques Barzun

Obiter Dicta

proof of purple fish

“Obiter Dicta: A Less Tragic View of the Artistic Puddle and of Some Fish That Swim Therein”, The Columbia Varsity, volume 7, number 2 (May 1926), pages 11–12.

The second issue of The Columbia Varsity to which Jacques contributed includes a burst of Barzun unlike the first.   In addition to his critical essay “Obiter Dicta”, Jacques submitted a book review and a powerful, introspective piece of fiction.  The versatility and strength of these works would be enough to account for the announcement of his election as Varsity‘s Editor-in-Chief for the following year, though his personality must have counted, too.

JB’s “passing remarks” run to six columns in the large format magazine, kindly furnished to me as ledger sized photocopies by Ms. Jocelyn Wilk of the Columbia University Archives.  The Barzun scholars of tomorrow will do well to search out volume 7 of Varsity, for the outlines of his life’s work are already apparent.  In “Obiter Dicta” he serves as a cultural critic – evaluating art for life’s sake – sweeping across the panorama of literature, theatre, architecture, and the fine arts.

Barzun’s broad outlook is far from abstract, however.  Replete with particulars (that have on occasion driven his critics to distraction), this article gets a tagged post in addition to this summary page.  JB opens with a theme familiar to his readers:

“We live in a self-conscious age.  To state it as a fact is partly to prove it.  To labor under it as an illusion is to add to the probability of its truth.  Past eras have had their isolated seers, whose singular interest in their own time has constituted their major claim to fame.  But never, I believe, before our day, have we been so universally concerned with our minds, our motives, our collective significance,—or the lack of all three.”

Barzun marks the rising tide of popularized Freudianism, characterizing psychoanalysis as “a semi-scientific method of introspection.”  More significantly, Jacques notes that “it is the garbled notion which really counts as a tangible factor, a notable symptom in what we pompously call contemporary thought.”  He diagnoses “a rather morbid interest in the individual and his idiosyncrasies”.

His literary exemplars run from Henry James to James Joyce, while pointing out they were “only exploiting the formulas contained in Stendhal and, perhaps, Meredith.  In any case, they systematized an aspect of method into an exclusive philosophy.”  Barzun’s opinions of particular authors may seem like heresies to those who stop short of his point:

“It must be sufficiently apparent that a summit has been reached in the psychological analysis of the individual which it would be presumptuous and foolish to try to surpass.  Besides, there is something ponderous and inert about mere physical expansions of a method that has been embodied in numerous masterpieces.  The resultant documentary report fits ill into our industrially conditioned habits of life.  It is distinctly anachronistic. … Years move with a speed proportionate to that of subway express trains, and events pack them equally full.”

Barzun’s survey continues after stating that “usable literary and artistic materials have increased tremendously and … traditional art forms are inadequate to contain them”.  Mentioning work by Sherwood Anderson and Theodore Dreiser in novels and Firmin Génier and Max Reinhardt in theatre, he then arrives at “the Orchestral Poetry of the French” and the Cubism of Albert Gleizes.  Barzun returns to the implications for culture: “But Orchestral Poetry and Cubism, however, have influenced the world of art by osmosis, adaptations of their principles creeping surreptitiously here and there into all sorts of printed and painted matter, from magazine covers, through misnamed ‘new poetical forms,’ to pretentious advertisements.”

Jacques derides bohemia’s “verbose recruits” who are “supplied plentifully with notions, but possess scarcely a thought among them.”  He similarly denounces “the profiteers of art”“clever artificers whose knowledge of the snobbish market is equaled only by their skill in supplying it.  They furnish, it must be said, a good deal of temporary entertainment which keeps the public interested while the real artist works.”

Barzun finishes with “the most practical of the fine arts—architecture” and a word about “the chaos that prevails in the realm of music”.  They return his essay to the arts, but only after a long paragraph prefiguring an essential aspect of his life’s work:

“Somewhere between the creative artist—whose work receives attention only when his mind begins to lose its powers—(if he lives that long) and the host of jobbers who capitalize half-perceived ideas and, as it were, pre-digest them for mass-consumption, stands the indomitable Critic.  This genus also has subdivisions corresponding to the various grades of artistic purpose noted above.  At worst, he justifies certain commonplaces invariably uttered when the term criticism comes up in drawing-room small talk.  By stooping to press-agentism and by being infallibly aware of the side on which his bread is buttered, he forfeits the claim to the title of critic while retaining the name.  At best, however, his function is all the more useful and meritorious because considered destructive and base.  Examples in the history of literature and art need not be adduced as proof.  Today, George Jean Nathan, Sinclair Lewis, H. L. Mencken are performing a most necessary task and performing it remarkably well.  Their strictures may often sound like the sour cacklings of ill-fed geese; and their well-directed assaults may seem nauseatingly repetitious; but it should be remembered that it is only under the impetus of lashes and kicks—as our ever-ready psychology explains—that the most intelligent of us absorb a new idea and readjust old ones to embrace it.”

Responses welcomed. Courtesy appreciated.

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