gentle rereader

. . . rediscovering Jacques Barzun

Archive for the tag “Victor Hugo”

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.

father and son

Last year an unsuspected bit of Barzuniana flickered into view.  Fairly often in the past it has taken the self-interest of used booksellers to reveal that a piece by Jacques Barzun has been anthologized.  Their willingness to list the contents of a book improves their prospects for a sale, and affords me an opportunity to discover an editor’s reasons for choosing a particular Barzun work.  One of the most satisfying examples came from the introduction to Barzun’s “The Romantic Ethos” (a 30-page slice from Berlioz and the Romantic Century) given by editors Norman F. Cantor and Michael S. Werthman in The Making of the Modern World, 1815–1914.

The latest find came under similar circumstances.  Another used bookseller advertised a title from the Orpheus series of Henri Martin Barzun that listed an essay by his son Jacques.  Since there was no mention of the piece in Virginia Xanthos Faggi’s selected bibliography (From Parnassus, 1976), I asked the seller for confirmation.  The affirmative reply included the title and a promising length of 10 pages.  The contents proved to be even more substantial, with 11 double column pages needed for a three part critical survey of modern poetics.

Henri Barzun’s 34th volume of Orpheus is dedicated “To ANNA ROSA and JACQUES” – his wife and son.  Choric Education: A Record of Labors and Achievements, 1920–1945, was published the same year as his son’s first bestseller, Teacher in America (Little, Brown, 1945).  Jacques Barzun was vested as a full professor that year, too, so omission of his “Transition or Creation? An Essay on Modern Esthetics” from the 1976 bibliography presented a puzzle.  The title alone sounds significant.

The contents reflect Jacques’ panoramic vision and familiar concern with synthesis.  Part I describes “Contemporary Chaos,” finding parallels in other periods of turmoil and launches the question, “Is there, at the present moment, a constructive force strong enough to create order out of chaos?”  Dissatisfied with the scouting of other critics, Jacques searches for visionaries among young English and American poets and closes with expatriate Ezra Pound’s disclosure of a French innovation.

Part II, “Problem and Solution,” resumes with quotations from Pound’s 1913 announcement in Poetry: A Magazine of Verse of a new form which he thinks may be “the true medium for democratic expression, the fitting method of synthesis.”  The innovator Pound spoke of was Henri Martin Barzun, whose creation of “simultaneity” (also called orchestral or polyphonic poetry) would be curtailed by the Great War’s cataclysm.

Part III, “Men and Works,” sees Jacques reviewing early performances of simultanist poetry by French pioneers and American practitioners without losing his critical balance, or opening himself to accusations of gratuitous nepotism.  Reversing the usual order, Jacques concludes his essay with “the founder,” his father.  That arrangement of parts falls beautifully into place – with the puzzle of bibliographic omission solved – by the attribution that follows:

Reprinted from The Columbia Varsity
Part I—February, 1927
Part II—April, 1927
Part III—June, 1927

 

Henri Martin Barzun sketched in the Columbia Varsity

Henri Martin Barzun sketched in the Columbia Varsity

Nineteen-year-old Jacques Barzun, Varsity editor, had honored his father as Columbia University’s June 1st commencement arrived.  Henri Barzun honored his son eighteen years later by seeking permission to reprint the undergraduate essay that elucidates his creation.  Full professor Jacques acquiesced in 1945.  Three decades later he chose not to include it with the only two Varsity essays in his selected bibliography:  “Textbooks and Tediousness” and “Irrelevant Maturity.”

Henri Martin Barzun, 1942

Henri Martin Barzun profile sketch by Clayton Spicer appears in Orpheus XXXIV, Choric Education: A Record of Labors and Achievements, 1920–1945, New Rochelle, NY: French Forum Publications, 1945.

Jacques Barzun drawn by Polly Thayer 1945

Jacques Barzun, drawing by Polly Thayer from dust jacket of Teacher in America, 1945

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