One eminent bastard, illustration by Jean-Claude Floch
One Nov. 30 Jacques Barzun — famed critic, scholar and all-around intellectual juggernaut — turned 103. He is, apparently, still in good enough health to enjoy the occasional cocktail and I wish him the best.
This is a good moment to say that Barzun's work, especially his 2000 masterpiece From Dawn to Decadence, played a major role in the thinking about history and the future that led to this blog. If I had to make a Breaking Time reading list, he'd probably be in the top pantheon. For more on the exact nature of his critiques, read the Coilhouse piece I wrote on Barzun's work two years ago.
In an age that both wants to resort to nothing but recycled ideas and pretend history never happened, Barzun admirably chose to defy both, advocating instead for a balance of both intellectual discipline and passionate ardor. To read Dawn was to see how our own era exploded out from attempts to answer the utter breakdown of the old medieval order. It placed human struggles in uncertain times in a greater context, and gave both reassurance (times of turmoil have led to better days) and warning (sometimes you get a dark age). Add to that an ingenious structure (one possibly as close to hyperlinks as you can get on the printed page) along with a downright prophetic use of urban cross-sections to exemplify eras and you have required reading for understanding how the world got to its current state.
Barzun's genius has always been to see the strings of ideas pulling many things (technology, economics) that we view as inexorable forces. Those ideas can change — and will — because they've changed before, and our world will change along with them. Whenever I emphasize the way culture often drives technology, this blog owes a debt to Barzun.
“Let us face a pluralistic world in which there are no universal churches, no single remedy for all diseases, no one way to teach or write or sing, no magic diet, no world poets, and no chosen races, but only the wretched and wonderfully diversified human race.”
His other major influence was something I call militant eclecticism. While Barzun views the current age as decadent (in the sense of old ideas running out of steam), he's no ideologue and in his rigorous study of the past there's also reassurance: today may be drastically different, but we have beaten this before, and we can do so again. The previous medieval collapse birthed the Renaissance through a whole array of new ideas, often at odds with each other. Why is today any different?
“Reading history, one finds that there have been periods, say toward the end of the Middle Ages, the late fifteenth century, when everything looked very much as it looks now. And even though we may say their difficulties were lesser, their powers were less too. The interesting question is whether our greater powers and our greater knowledge — and by that I don’t mean our deeper knowledge, I mean our more extensive awareness of what’s going on everywhere at once — are going to be helpful or harmful. The possible harm of knowing too much is that it excludes possibilities that might work. You say: ‘Oh, we can’t do that! Look that the statistics!”
Happy Belated Birthday, Mr. Barzun, and here's to a plural future, statistics be damned.