The Book Club

Grumpy Old Man

Dear Andrew:

“Grumbling” is the adjective juste. Cranky, curmudgeonly, and grumpy would suit, too. But oh, never underestimate the pleasures afforded by a grump! To anticipate your thoughts on the subject: I’m hopelessly divided about Barzun’s treatment of the recent past. My better self agrees with your ringing defense of INDIVIDUALISM and regrets the way Barzun the aesthete shrinks in horror from the American hordes, so middlebrow they don’t even realize they ought to be philistines, at least when faced with modern art–especially since I count most of my living relatives and myself among their ranks. My lesser self delights in his witty putdowns of everything I know I’m supposed to hold dear. What makes even his meretricious judgments memorable is the hilarious authoritativeness with which he makes them. Do you find rather brutal his dismissal of the second half of the 20th century as “the high tide of demotics” during which “it was hard to find a figure of the intellectual world to put side by side with those singled out earlier”? Consider whom he singled out earlier:

  • Finley Peter Dunne, a turn-of-the-century Chicago newspaperman who by the end of his career had written seven volumes of humorous political sketches in the Irish brogue of one “Mr. Dooley,” a saloonkeeper. “It is a disgrace to American scholarship that he is not studied, and thus republished and enjoyed on a par with Mark Twain and Ambrose Bierce,” thunders Barzun.
  • James Agate, a now-forgotten British theater critic of the 1920s and 1930s of the anti-Modernist variety, whose other merits included being “an excellent musician and steady concert-goer, [loving] good food and the best champagne, [playing] golf with scientific assiduity, and [taking] part in the staid racing of show horses,” and writing a Samuel Pepys-ish diary about these activities. Barzun devotes two pages to Agate, shortly after having dispatched Albert Einstein in less than two paragraphs.
  • Dorothy Sayers, the mystery writer and occasional Catholic theologian, whom he considers at least as great a writer as Henry James. Barzun’s case for Sayers as a stylist, a religious thinker, and a pioneering “pragmatist relativist” is compelling. Granting her more than four pages while dispensing with James Joyce, Thomas Mann, T.S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf, et alia, in barbed asides, is an act so defiantly idiosyncratic it almost warrants applause.

And on he saunters, godlike, through the late 19th and 20th centuries, strewing praise on figures you’ve never heard of but are immediately tempted to turn to (despite your suspicion that they can’t possibly be as interesting as Barzun’s paeans to them) and laying waste to everything that displeases him, whether or not it poses a threat to anybody’s cultural or material well-being. “Within Europe itself, more people were incited to travel abroad, and this to such an extent that Thomas Cook immortalized his name by inventing the guided tour and bringing to birth that feral creature, the tourist.” “The present addiction to using initials instead of names and to giving institutions long titles that yield a pseudoword acronym is the childish-absurd.”nbsp;

Happily, Barzun’s bugbears are not entirely predictable. He rails for three satisfying pages against the recent rash of American conservatives who have made it their profession of late to deplore the depradations of “relativism”: “Nine times out of ten, the outcry against Relativism is mechanical, not to say absent-minded,” points out Barzun, suddenly reasonable. “Reflection shows further that anybody who thinks at all uses the relative standard continually; it is the operation the mind goes through in all judgments.” Despite his service to the cause of Great Books at Columbia, he is no slave to the ideal of fixed literary or intellectual canons–how could he be, with his eccentric pantheon? When he denies that the generation of 1968 produced any statesmen worthy of the term, he makes an important exception–Daniel Cohn-Bendit–who is, indeed, a very sane and humane politician in Germany, certainly worthy of more recognition than he gets in this country. In short, whenever his obsessions coincide with my obsessions, my horrified amusement turns into enthusiasm.

Am I dismissing the man and his magnum opus as a crank and his rantings? I don’t mean to, at least not entirely. It’s true that Barzun is irresponsibly Nabokovian in his impulse to equate that which annoys or delights him with the failings or strengths of Western culture itself, but there’s something oddly appealing about that instinct. There’s much too much objectivity loose in the land. You’ve probably taught survey courses; did you ever come across those mealy-mouthed introductions to epochs or cultures in which everything is couched in the passive construction and nothing could possibly offend? I’d much rather assign From Dawn to Decadence than anything like that. You may object (actually, you would probably die before making this objection) that I’m overlooking the new subjectivism in academic writing–the movement a writer I know once named, obnoxiously but fairly, “moi-criticism.” But those folks are always inflating their uninteresting experiences as academics into allegories of meaning or some such nonsense. Give me Barzun over them too–he at least is as likely to unburden himself of a magnificent disquisition on the misunderstood qualities of so-called program music as he is to talk about how civilization came to an end after World War I.

As we were starting this debate, Tim Noah (“Chatterbox“) wrote me that he was looking to us to tell him whether to spend the money and the many, many, many hours required to read this book. I say go for it, Tim. What about you, Andrew? Before we sign off (and as I do I should probably confess, to Tim and to you, that discussing this book with you has been the greater part of the pleasure of reading it), wanna tell us your bottom line?