“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.” -Jacques Barzun
Last night Jacques Barzun died. He was 104, and remained active past the century mark as an incredible public thinker. Six years old when the lights went out across Europe, he endured the shelling of Paris and began his academic career when Calvin Coolidge was in office. In the years of upheaval that followed, he taught Allen Ginsberg and a score of other thinkers, wrote 30 books along with countless essays, and wrapped it all up with his masterwork, Dawn to Decadence, still one of the best sweeping histories I've ever read.
He ended his life as the last living link with the intellectual ferment of the Belle Epoque and the Roaring '20s. I wrote in more depth about his contributions a few years ago on Coilhouse.
Personally, Barzun's work was among the inspirations for the Breaking Time. His relentless embrace of pluralism — of history and culture with all the mess intact — is one of the best approaches I've seen to understanding a time of upheaval.
Above all, in my mind Barzun represented the balance between discipline and passion that makes civilization beautiful. He thought a lot, and made all the mistakes that come with over eight decades of mental engagement with the world. Still, he was frequently prescient, and never lost his faith in humanity's ability to define itself, noting in Dawn that "finding oneself was misnomer; a self is not found but made."
Barzun diagnosed "decadence" not as a loosening of mores but a loss of motion, a refusal to face the future. But renaissance is always waiting to break out, this day or the next.
“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."