The Book Club

The Aristocrat Within

Dear Judith,

We’ll never know, will we?–I mean about the question of whether this is a book that people buy to read, or to flip through, or to put on display. But let me counter your question about whether I would have read it through if I weren’t reviewing it with a question of my own: Would you have lugged it to Venice as your travel guide? (I can see that taking it along was a good move, since Barzun’s discussion of Venetian culture, especially music, is one of the virtuoso passages in the book.) As for me, no, frankly, under other circumstances I don’t think I would have spent the several days required. The pattern that I called fragmentation followed by consolidation is repetitive enough so you get the idea pretty quickly and–though, believe me, I feel genuinely overwhelmed by his breadth of knowledge compared with my own–the fact is that when I come to topics I do know something about (Puritanism, the American Revolution) I am not surprised or shaken in the way one hopes to be by a major book. In fact, there are moments when Barzun’s very self-confident tone covers over some pretty shaky claims–as when he proposes (about the Revolution) that the colonies were short on “revolutionary ardor,” or (about the Calvinist doctrine of predestination) that Luther and Calvin were forebears of those who today would blame criminal behavior on the criminal’s genes or childhood abuse or on social inequities. I think he really misses the central paradox of the Calvinist idea of determinism–that people, though helpless in many respects to determine their own destiny, are nevertheless responsible for who they are and what they do.

In this connection, allow me one irritable comment. When Barzun makes big statements (in this case, about the present) like “public opinion in the main agrees: the criminal is not responsible for his acts,” don’t you think he owes his reader a little more? I’m not a footnote-monger, but on what basis does he say this? And if it’s true, and if it’s also true, as he believes, that we live in an age of rampant democracy, how does one explain that this same sympathetic public stands by, apparently unconcerned, while some 2,000,000 people in the United States are locked up in a prison system long on punishment and short on rehabilitation? Something’s off with this analysis. The fact is that because of its scope and ambition and laudable readability, this is the kind of book that is best at conveying a panoramic sense of activity, contention, and intellectual turmoil. When one slows down the reading pace, and zooms in to get a closer look at a particular movement or figure or idea, the results are often disappointing.

But back to your other comments and questions. You provoke many thoughts, which I’ll try to keep from becoming too scattered.

First, you’re certainly right that there is in Barzun a current of hostility to democracy. He nods a few times to Tocqueville, who shared some of his wariness about what he calls “demotic” culture; I’m a little surprised that he didn’t invoke Brooks Adams’ phrase, “the degradation of the democratic dogma” as a chapter-heading toward the end of the book when he really gets humming in his denunciation of the mediocrity, herdishness, and the pursuit of trivial pleasures that he finds deforming in contemporary life. There are signs of this attitude early on in the book–as when he remarks that in the 16th century the literate clergy were a force for intellectual progress and church reform while “the people” tended to be in thrall to received doctrines and practices. This reminder is well taken that populism of one sort or another is not necessarily progressive and good.

Since you ask, and since we’re talking here about Barzun’s style and manner of apprehending the world, let me say that no, I’ve never met him (I came to Columbia in 1985, 10 years after he retired), though he’s been pointed out to me a couple of times–a silver-haired figure of impeccable regality walking across campus with a very non-octogenarian stride. Despite my wish to guard against my predilection for Golden Ageism, he made, and makes, me pine for the days when high university administrators (he was Columbia’s provost for many years) read lots of books and had a real sense of engagement in humanistic education, not just in fund-raising and budget-balancing. I have a sense of personal connection to him because of his contemporaneity–and, in some respects, his like-mindedness–with two of my intellectual heroes, his Columbia colleagues Richard Hofstadter and Lionel Trilling. He shares with them the quality you describe very well with your phrase–a “preference for … thinkers too honest to dress up their powerful but partial insights as theories of everything.” He and Trilling must have made an astonishing team when they taught a small seminar for college seniors together. Thinking about that, I dug out this description of Barzun and Trilling from Diana Trilling’s memoir: “Jacques the French-born rationalist, cool, precise, carefully insulated from the movements of contemporary culture; Lionel the New York Jewish intellectual who, when he first taught with Jacques, had only recently returned from his brief flirtation with Communism.” Like any sketch, this is doubtless reductive–but I suspect there’s a key here to what we’re talking about in her hint of Barzun’s self-conscious detachment from the turmoil of his times. Trilling took it to heart–sometimes, perhaps, too much so–while Barzun, the Old World sophisticate, waved it away as another manifestation of this or that recurrent human tendency.

So that I won’t go on too long, let me get to what I think is the heart of what you’ve said. You speak of Barzun’s “declinism,” and of his giving in to the grumbling aristocrat within himself who sees the world falling into the hands of the mob. And you’re right. But there’s something odd here–even disturbing. Where are the real mobs in this book? As you point out, he devotes only one page to World War II, treating it as merely a sequel (with the contending sides slightly re-arranged) of the First World War. He speaks of fascism–that satanic movement that fed on and focused the discontent of mobs–as “the enemy for the right-thinking to combat,” almost as if he were slightly contemptuous of the opposition. I don’t mean to get on a high horse here; I have no right. Barzun lived through the horrors of the 20th century, which you and I mainly know about from history books and family lore. But I find it remarkable that nowhere in this long, capacious book is there a strong acknowledgment that one of the ideas that he traces and deftly illustrates, and on which he blames our current self-indulgence and aimlessness–namely, INDIVIDUALISM–has also been the great bulwark against mass totalitarian movements that tried to reduce human beings to disposable things and to ash. 

For tomorrow, I want to think more about Barzun’s account of our own time and see if I can figure out a little more about his peculiar combination of cheerfulness and disgust.