gentle rereader

. . . rediscovering Jacques Barzun

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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.”

paradoxes, questions & answers

Publication by giving speeches is another way that Jacques Barzun’s influence spread.  There were many occasions when what began as a lecture soon found it’s way into print.  A dinner at the Institute for the Humanities at Salado (Texas) in the fall of 1988 supplies an example.  Barzun’s address, “The Paradoxes of Creativity,” went from spoken words to printed with the American Scholar‘s Summer 1989 issue (pp. 337–351).  Some of the original atmosphere is recovered when audience questions and Barzun’s answers follow his talk as published in Creativity: Paradoxes & Reflections (Chiron, 1991).

The Institute’s dinner/lecture series had a more inviting title: “Creativity, Alive and Well.”  Barzun’s challenge to complacency is reflected by some responses from the audience during the Q&A session: “Must one be a genius in order to create?”; “I was concerned about your comment that this was an end of an era of creators.”; and “Is it not true that the pedestrian and prosaic individuals end up historically defining who is a genius and who is not?”  Barzun’s replies make this publication of the “The Paradoxes of Creativity” preferable to those versions where the text stands alone, though Jacques has better company in Best American Essays 1990.

The examples given to amplify or clarify his points after the talk, like much of Barzun’s thought, can jar listeners or readers into reconsidering reputations and “accepted ideas”:  “I read Shelley, but I haven’t a single friend who thinks that Shelley was a good poet.  The whole Academy of Arts and Letters would sign a document saying he was not a good poet.  My good friend W. H. Auden abominated him.  He said there was no poet he detested more than Shelley, unless it was Racine.  Those are the real opinions, but, of course, in the schools and textbooks and conventional talk, Racine and Shelley are great names.  Somehow that doesn’t seem to me good enough.  I think the only real admiration consists of direct enjoyment.  Look at the way Mahler has come out of the ground after an unconscionable time.  I continue to dislike Mahler, but I am glad that he is out in the open to be shot at, as well as enjoyed.”  Dashing expectations in this way may be an impediment to Barzun’s popularity.  Critical conclusions aside, his ability to articulate his views provides me with direct enjoyment.  

Anyone who ponders “The Paradoxes of Creativity” (in any version) will find Barzun’s familiar – but still wondrous – gift for divining intended meanings.  He reviews the history of “creation” and discerns four layers of value in contemporary usage of “creativity.”  An amateur botanist’s hobby and the shortstop play of Ozzie Smith provide illustrations of attitudes that prompt the broader usage.  The consequences of loosely applying the word are significant:  “It has not only diluted the meaning of creative, but it has also glutted the market with innumerable objects and performances arbitrarily called art, thereby making it even more arduous for true creation to find a public.  Still, more generally, creative foolery has been distorting, denaturing, destroying the fund of culture amassed since the Renaissance.”  

Barzun had already come to the conclusion that he would pronounce a dozen years later in From Dawn to Decadence:

The impulse and the clever deeds [putting a mustache on Mona Lisa] are part of an irresistible historical sweep.  Some of us might prefer to live in a time of construction, which has a different kind of excitement.  Let no one repine, however.  Rebuilding is bound to come, because true creative power is a phoenix, and the forces of destruction are clearing the space for its new flight, none can tell when or where.  Meantime, if we are to recognize the bird when it appears, let us not forget that creation means making something new and making it out of little or nothing.

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