gentle rereader

. . . rediscovering Jacques Barzun

Archive for the tag “Columbia University”

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”.
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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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Ping-Pong with Mortimer Adler

Michael Murray’s splendid new biography of Jacques Barzun recounts an unexpected instance of frivolity in a Columbia University psychology course taught by young Mortimer Adler.  Although working on a Ph.D. in psychology, the inexperienced instructor (a philosopher by predilection) had trouble filling class hours with appropriate content.  Teenaged Jacques one day proposed that the class step down the hall to finish the hour by playing ping-pong.  Adler acquiesced, and the lark turned into a frequent amusement.

Their rallies became more purposeful during the decades ahead.  By the time Adler moved on to the University of Chicago in 1930, Barzun was himself a Columbia graduate student and instructor.  Ten years later, Adler published How to Read a Book and Barzun drew attention to it with a critique in the Saturday Review, “Read, Do Not Run” (March 9, 1940, p. 6).  While praising Adler’s effort to make the riches of literature more accessible to the public – which turned the manual into a bestseller – Barzun finds the author inconsistent:

Curiously enough, what Dr. Adler rejects as a possibility for the living, namely, “two or more sides to a question,” he accepts for the great  dead of the European tradition, since he asks us to read with sympathy a grand list of great books from Homer to William James—a list that expounds at least half a dozen irreconcilable views of the world.

Adler’s capitalized “Great Books” would stir up trouble later, but his original goal was to include more people in what Jacques’ former teacher Mark Van Doren called the “great conversation.”  Barzun was a colleague in 1940, and in his sixth year of team teaching with Lionel Trilling a Columbia honors seminar with the more accurate, less contentious, even modest title of “Colloquium on Important Books.”

Three years later Adler conceived the idea of compiling Great Books of the Western World.  The 54-book set debuted in 1952 and also merited a Barzun review, this time in The Atlantic Monthly (December 1952, pp. 79–80, 82, 84).  He gives highest praise to the unifying Syntopicon, the first two volumes that cross-reference the rest of the collection, calling that pair “miraculous” and “a stupendous achievement.”  The Aristotelian Adler’s classification system permits readers to quickly find what the assembled authors have to say on a particular topic.  Those come from 102 “Great Ideas” (also parsed into thousands of subdivisions) which bring the authors to grips with each other.  The contents were another matter.

Barzun concludes – after presenting varied, ample and humorous evidence – that “the great books here gathered with so much love and care and public spirit betray a high-minded axe-grinding in the direction of intellectualism.”  The future author of The House of Intellect did indeed write those words, but only after regretting that the first edition of Great Books missed the opportunity to “unite a great variety of intellectual interests by choosing from the recent times not only Freud but Shaw.”  Barzun considers the collection unbalanced in a rationalistic direction:  “Shouldn’t we have had … Balzac and Henry James—instead of Hippocrates on Hemorrhoids and Archimedes on Spheroids?”

Barzun recalls Pascal’s distinction between “the spirit of geometry and the esprit de finesse” before offering these closing words on the first edition of Great Books:  “The search for geometrical propositions is admirable, but it would be disastrous if the unchecked desire for a canon of truth were to give us neither Montaigne’s humanist, ‘ondoyant and divers,’ nor Emerson’s American Scholar or ‘man thinking,’ but some sort of joyless, dehydrated western man in canonicals.”

Lesser men might have become sworn enemies after such a review.  Yet Adler would call Barzun a lifelong friend, with good reason.  Instead of abandoning Great Books of the Western World, Barzun worked to improve the second set (1990).  Editor-in-Chief Mortimer Adler later recognized the new edition’s Board of Editors – “especially Jacques Barzun” – who “made many recommendations of authors and works to be included or eliminated.”  Which works those were might be quickly determined by someone with access to the University of Chicago’s Mortimer J. Adler Papers (try boxes 26, 46, and 128).  But why let the mere likelihood of those letters’ existence spoil the fun of speculation?

Barzun almost certainly championed Balzac’s Cousin Bette, most likely for its portrayal of an artist’s life – and the conditions of making great art – woven into the story of unlovely Bette’s loss of him followed by vengeful machinations against her extended family.  Barzun’s pairing of the great French novelist with Henry James in the 1952 review hints that he would campaign later for William’s younger brother.  And I feel sure that Barzun pushed for Alfred North Whitehead’s Science and the Modern World.  Barzun’s reply to a National Book Award Foundation query about books that have influenced his work names Whitehead’s Science with four others, including Berlioz’s Memoirs and Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi.

Certainty, that elusive prize, does attach to at least one Barzun service to the second edition of Great Books of the Western World.  His 1952 review criticizes the first edition’s “conspicuous absence of any concern with the fine arts.  Except for misleading references among the ancients, one would not know that the west had seen the tremendous development of music and initiated the art of discussing it.”  Volume 34 now offers an imaginative work from the encyclopedic mind of Denis Diderot, Rameau’s Nephew, as translated by Jacques Barzun.  The title character’s uncle, Jean-Phillipe Rameau, was a leading Baroque composer whose treatment of harmony broke new ground.  The uproar it produced at first was forgotten as his innovations were gradually adopted and became part of the musical tradition.  Diderot’s characters take on music, genius, convention, criticism and many other topics in a satirical conversation of less than fifty pages – a joy to discover in the more easily read single column layout.

Barzun and Adler’s back-and-forth lasted for over half a century.  Not until the United States sent Forrest Gump to compete in China would table tennis have such import as when Jacques and Mort played Great Books ping-pong.

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