Skip to main content

I hardly ever spend time reading books that I'm likely to agree with. In an America where liberalism has been actively hunted for so long, I figure it's more important to know what the other guys are saying and arguing. At the very least--listening to the way that American conservatives think and argue will confirm you in your liberal or progressive worldview. And the views they represent and the justifications they give for them represent a warning. I always appreciate a warning.

Jacques Barzun (who died the other day at the age of 104) received the embrace of American conservatives late in life. Barzun was an American scholar (born in France) who had become one of the leading historians of Western culture by the 1950s. I'm not going to list all his achievements here (a link to his obituary appears below.) But when he reached his nineties he wrote a book summarizing his observations and conclusions about his lifelong study of the cultures of the West (Europe and America.) The book was called "From Dawn to Decadence," and I'm sorry to say that I bought it on remainder. It's a book I thoroughly enjoy, even though I think Barzun's conclusions are wrongheaded.
(CONCLUDED)

The structure of book is the story of the ideas, art, and worldviews that Barzun believed were essential for an understanding the development of Western culture over the past 500 years. The order of presentation is basically chronological. But Barzun is willing to leave strict chronology from time to time when doing so makes for clearer explanation. Along the way, he identifies key works to readers who want a deeper understanding of a particular topic or personality. (These aren't footnotes; they're recommendations for further reading that appear in the body of the text.)

Barzun identifies recurrences in Western history in capital letters (so you know that he believes them to be the key recurrences.) These are societal trends, trends in the thinking (such as SELF-CONCIOUSNESS, PRIMITIVISM, and EMANCIPATION) that fall into favor and rise in political and social importance during different historical periods. But the tone of the book is not heavy--it's very readable, enjoyable, and filled with "luminous detail."

I've been reading it for a couple of years. That's what I do when I find a book that I enjoy very much. (The last time I did that was with Gibbon'a "Decline and Fall.") When the subject matter of a book is so rich and so rewarding, and the telling so enjoyable--you don't want it to end.

It's also a frustrating book, and here's the issue. One of the historical experiences that seems to have influenced Barzun's thinking on Western culture was one he lived through personally. This was the crisis of student revolt in the late nineteen-sixties on college campuses across the country--in particular, Columbia University in Manhattan where Barzun was a revered and authoritative figure.

How dare they--how dare these ignoramuses and philistines in their twenties revolt against the experience and authority and knowledge of liberal scholars such as Barzun? I don't think he ever got over it. The very nerve, that they would oppose the Viet Nam war and the draft--and take active measures to take over the campus, taking a dean hostage. The clowns, running the circus! Barzun had chronicled similar incidents in European history, in 1830s France and 1848 Europe--but the idea that such an incident could occur in his lifetime and on his intellectual watch seemed to scare the shit out of him.

And the feeling of persecution of the informed Western mind stayed with him, right through the end of his career. Persecution by philistines and left-wing populists--who wanted to overthrow the genius and advances of Western culture and replace Goethe and Beriioz with pandering crap and comic books. Barzun found kindred souls in Bloom and other conservative academics, who swore up and down that the new academia and Dinesh D'Souzas "tenured radicals" wanted to discard five hundred years of Western culture and replace it with substandard garbage that appealed to the students' life experience.

And that's the flaw in Barzun's take on the fate of the West. The threats to the legacy of the West come from what he called the PRIMITIVISM of the world's fundamentalists--the evangelical fundamentalists of America who would subordinate empirical findings of science to their own religious doctrine; who would subordinate the vision of individual artists to their twenty-first century conservative religio-political interpretation of the Bible. The threats to the Western legacy consist of the twenty-first century conflation of Chinese market reform with their Western philosophy of Marxism and Soviet totalitarianism.  The threats to the Western legacy include its rejection by fundamentalist Islam.

But Barzun's identification of threats to the Western legacy (with the modern liberal state, "the tyranny of students," the demand for political correctness) is late twentieth century academic provincialism; a localized joke. Those "forces" are among the weakest in modern cultural life. They're what he saw in the groves of American academia. But they're nothing compared to the conservative media that tend to support Barzun's siege mentality about the questioning of priority for "dead white European males."

Barzun cites Edmund Burke as the greatest political thinker of the late eighteenth century. Edmund Burke was not the greatest political thinker of the late eighteenth century. Edmund Burke was (as we say in New Jersey) a fuckin' douchebag who said true and penetrating things on occasion. No one outside the conservative movement cites Burke or his thought as an inspiration for practical governance or a model for the modern Western nation/state. The greatest political thinkers of the eighteenth century West were found in pre-Revolutionary America: Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton (and possibly James Madison.) They combined a passion for reform, liberty and popular representation with practical statesmanship.

Those are still the goals of the modern Western state and its propaganda. Propaganda is not necessarily a bad term. Propaganda that aims at inclusion of the views and interests of political minorities (and majorities in some cases) is a good thing. it's not a sign of decline. It's a sign of Western progress. It's a sign of increasing faith in the power of representative democracy to improve the lot of humanity.

At one point Barzun identifies democracy as "majority rule," but it's not that simple. Western democracy (in particular American democracy) calls for majority rule while at the same time protecting the maximum rights of the individual to pursue his or her expression or happiness. It's not simple, it's complicated--and the practical results are often ugly and unjust. But it's time-honored and thoroughly contemporary; it's a goal that's still worthy of pursuit--not a sign of "decline."

As more people struggle for inclusion in the Western democratic model, cultural xenophobia rises. Will these people who want their views heard and enforced "ruin" the Western experiment? Maybe so, if your view of the apotheosis of Western culture is Mozart and Berlioz and the Romanticists--Western culture as the object of rebellion within the existing parameters of the Western culture.

But to a large degree, Western culture is "about" rebellion against existing Western culture. Barzun's magnum opus looks at Western culture and sees decline in the twentieth century...because at the end of the end of that century Western academia and culture begin to voice doubt about the value of the legacy of the past five hundred years.

Barzun didn't have confidence in the West and its pluralism to produce a new and vital culture, based on inclusion of voices that the Western cultural elites had intentionally ignored in his lifetime (for alleged lack of technique or relevance.) He didn't see vitality or intelligence in the modern West's acknowledgment of its boredom. He didn't see the vitality in the modern West's quest for political stability and economic security for its citizens. He didn't see vitality in the attempts of minority cultures to preserve and honor their own legacies. He didn't see the vitality of the struggle for inclusion and relevance by people whose interests and voices had been marginalized during the five hundred years he analyzed--and how that struggle persists in the present day.  

Those goals are all worthy goals for humanity. You weigh those goals against Barzun's identifications of the greatest achievements of the greatest minds in Western culture--and you find them just as worthy, if not more. They're not a sign of the "decadence" of Western culture. They're a sign of its advance.

LINK: NYT's obituary for Jacques Barzun: "Jacques Barzun Dies at 104; Cultural Critic Saw the Sun Setting on the West"
http://www.nytimes.com/...

Originally posted to Bill Prendergast on Fri Oct 26, 2012 at 07:54 PM PDT.

Also republished by Progressive Friends of the Library Newsletter, Readers and Book Lovers, and J Town.

EMAIL TO A FRIEND X
Your Email has been sent.
You must add at least one tag to this diary before publishing it.

Add keywords that describe this diary. Separate multiple keywords with commas.
Tagging tips - Search For Tags - Browse For Tags

?

More Tagging tips:

A tag is a way to search for this diary. If someone is searching for "Barack Obama," is this a diary they'd be trying to find?

Use a person's full name, without any title. Senator Obama may become President Obama, and Michelle Obama might run for office.

If your diary covers an election or elected official, use election tags, which are generally the state abbreviation followed by the office. CA-01 is the first district House seat. CA-Sen covers both senate races. NY-GOV covers the New York governor's race.

Tags do not compound: that is, "education reform" is a completely different tag from "education". A tag like "reform" alone is probably not meaningful.

Consider if one or more of these tags fits your diary: Civil Rights, Community, Congress, Culture, Economy, Education, Elections, Energy, Environment, Health Care, International, Labor, Law, Media, Meta, National Security, Science, Transportation, or White House. If your diary is specific to a state, consider adding the state (California, Texas, etc). Keep in mind, though, that there are many wonderful and important diaries that don't fit in any of these tags. Don't worry if yours doesn't.

You can add a private note to this diary when hotlisting it:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary from your hotlist?
Are you sure you want to remove your recommendation? You can only recommend a diary once, so you will not be able to re-recommend it afterwards.
Rescue this diary, and add a note:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary from Rescue?
Choose where to republish this diary. The diary will be added to the queue for that group. Publish it from the queue to make it appear.

You must be a member of a group to use this feature.

Add a quick update to your diary without changing the diary itself:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary?
(The diary will be removed from the site and returned to your drafts for further editing.)
(The diary will be removed.)
Are you sure you want to save these changes to the published diary?

Comment Preferences

  •  Wow! Thanks! (8+ / 0-)

    I read the book many, many years ago and remember liking lots of it.  I read it from the library and then bought it to re-read with leisure.

    I guess I didn't read it very well.

    What I remember was he gave women a lot of credit.

    I will need to re-read my copy now since I never got around to it, with your criticism in mind.  

    I remember crying about an early passage where he showed the church having a big meeting and defeating those who might have reconciled science and progress with the church.

    I will republish you right now to Readers & Book Lovers to put you in more than 1000 streams and add tags.

    Join us at Bookflurries-Bookchat on Wednesday nights 8:00 PM EST

    by cfk on Fri Oct 26, 2012 at 08:41:02 PM PDT

  •  I've started reading 'Darwin, Marx, Wagner' (5+ / 0-)

    several times, but I've never been able to finish it.

    "We *can* go back to the Dark Ages! The crust of learning and good manners and tolerance is so thin!" -- Sinclair Lewis

    by Nespolo on Fri Oct 26, 2012 at 08:45:23 PM PDT

  •  Thanks for this -- Beautifully written (11+ / 0-)

    I was a student at Columbia from '64 to '68, and I'm still fascinated by that time. Barzun was the Provost then (a job whose duties I'm still not sure of), and I can see how he, like the tragic figure of David Truman (popular Dean, University President heir apparent but brought down by '68) can channel their bitterness into leaning somewhat right.

    At least Barzun didn't slide completely down the rabbit hole in rabid rightism like contemporaries Irving Kristol, Norman Podhoretz et al.

    This is just another example of how the '60s are such a huge flashpoint -- the crucible of liberation -- civil rights, women, gays, third-world; and yet the crucible of reaction -- the 50-year battle to keep this liberation bottled up.  Barzun died just before an election that could not symbolize this struggle better.

    I haven't read the book, but based on your summary, it's sad that a scholar as brilliant as Barzun could not see that changes in culture are not a zero-sum game.

    Thanks again.

    The GOP: "You can always go to the Emergency Room."

    by Upper West on Fri Oct 26, 2012 at 08:47:42 PM PDT

    •  We called him "Frenchie Barzun." (9+ / 0-)

      And President Kirk "Worky Kirky." We held them in contempt for not understanding the reasons their world was crumbling around them. We did not have the patience we should have with the men who ran the institutions that were contributing to the destruction of our society. We didn't understand enough then, and they didn't either. Some of them never did.

      "It doesn't matter what I do....People need to hear what I have to say. There's no one else who can say what I can say. It doesn't matter what I live. --Newty

      by Vico on Fri Oct 26, 2012 at 09:09:17 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  No, he didn't buy the neo-con thing (8+ / 0-)

      wholesale. But his book found a welcome on the right, and those guys are the pits--fearful of a future where they are not the center.

      As a previous commenter noted, Barzun chronicles the efforts of outstanding women to a voice in the ideas of the West of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. He's not a cultural critic who longs for a return to a world without the 'stress' of feminism.

      And I love the book, at the same time I hate his conclusion for its provincialism. I can't dismiss the culture of the world outside the West, or the postmodern revolution and subversion of narratives as "signs of decadence."

      I've seen interviews of Barzun conducted after the publication of the book; his life's conclusions. I was sorry to find him presenting contradictory (not necessarily complex) rationales and qualifications for those conclusions. I really believe that his conclusions were informed by his feeling that he was "under siege" by a new world of inclusion that he didn't want to try to understand.

      It seems that he thought that by the middle of the twentieth century the West had the legacy of "the porridge that Goldilocks ate" (relative to other cultures)--and that this was was being mindlessly discarded by Western ignorami after the sixties and seventies.

      It simply wasn't true, because Western culture doesn't belong to elites. It comes from the visionaries, rebels and outcasts that Barzun purports to admire.

      Co-author of the first political biography of Michele Bachmann: Michele Bachmann's America

      by Bill Prendergast on Fri Oct 26, 2012 at 09:12:32 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Kind of ironic (4+ / 0-)

        These intellectuals are the darlings of the right, which is grotesquely anti-intellectual.  Or to the extent that it is, it's in the service of reactionary ideas like Strauss.

        The central dilemma of the '60s rests on hindsight versus the reality at the time.  In hindsight, Columbia et al. did contribute to Nixon's election and the 40 years of reaction that followed.  But it also ushered in the liberation and expansion of culture the has transformed us so much.

        The GOP: "You can always go to the Emergency Room."

        by Upper West on Fri Oct 26, 2012 at 09:26:45 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  The right *hates* the sixties... (5+ / 0-)

          and the center despises the decade, based on the little they know about it.

          The surest way to election time disaster in most of the nation is to announce that you embrace the 'questioning of the status quo' trend of the mid and late sixties. The last time the values of the late sixties were politically powerful in the US was the Church Committee. After Reagan came in--pfft.

          The view of the right seems to be that there was no widespread fucking for recreation until the mid-sixties. Barzun knew that that was ridiculous (he'd done the homework) but he preached the idea of "decline" nonetheless. Not necessarily moral decline, but intellectual decline--which he considered worse and more dangerous.

          So Barzun's conclusions weren't controversial. They represented preaching to an audience that was largely 'converted" by 1976. The right and the center seem to conflate moral decline with intellectual decline (to the extent they care about "the life of the mind" at all.)

          Barzun's conclusion was welcomed by these people, but his worst nightmare would be to have lunch with them on a regular basis. He would recognize them as xenophobic philistines, and they would think he was a liberal weirdo.

          Co-author of the first political biography of Michele Bachmann: Michele Bachmann's America

          by Bill Prendergast on Fri Oct 26, 2012 at 09:45:14 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

          •  Good discussion (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            Bill Prendergast

            and welcome first hand observations. My academic career started a short time after that at a small Eastern liberal arts college. We were taught through evolution rather than revolution and ended up getting very little from either traditional sources or newer thinkers. I went out into the work force and didn't return to university until the '90s and then found out what all the brouhaha had been about.
            If I could propose a criticism from a relatively uniformed standpoint, it would be that academia turned inward upon itself, and liberal arts faculty and technical faculty went their separate ways. Paraphrasing François Cusset, the postmodernists took over English departments while Reagan took over the White House. In the end

            Those "forces" are among the weakest in modern cultural life.

            "There's a crack in everything; that's how the light gets in". Leonard Cohen

            by northsylvania on Sat Oct 27, 2012 at 03:54:42 AM PDT

            [ Parent ]

      •  You mention Mozart & Berlioz (8+ / 0-)

        as Barzun's idea of the apotheosis of culture.

        I will not speak to Berlioz...but although Mozart had (as all major musicians required at the time) the ears of the powerful -- kings and such -- his music was popular.

        I was reading a cultural critic in the NYT (Tommasini, maybe?) a year or so ago, and he was talking about pre-20th-century audiences for music.  Hint:  They did not sit silently and reverently listen.  They wandered around the galleries; they gossiped; they probably danced (I think he mentioned dancing).

        My point is, no cultural period ever knows what will survive.  We can make educated guesses -- Mozart's talent was apparent, but his father also did a lot to market him -- but we never really know.  I'm pretty sure Dan Brown will be forgotten very quickly, but I couldn't say who our contemporary Dickens is.  Dickens was popular in his lifetime; but so were other writers who have been forgotten.  Most especially including Bulwer-Lytton, one of the most popular writers of him time, and remembered now mostly for his astounding awful purple prose.

        http://www.dailykos.com/...

        So Barzun is showing perfect 20/20 hindsight by naming those who have already proven their classical chops while denigrating everything contemporary.  I wonder what he thought of Rhapsody in Blue.

        To make the argument that the media has a left- or right-wing, or a liberal or a conservative bias, is like asking if the problem with Al-Qaeda is do they use too much oil in their hummus. Al Franken

        by Youffraita on Fri Oct 26, 2012 at 10:10:23 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  I don't know that he denigrated everything (5+ / 0-)

          contemporary. But I watched Arthur Schlesinger interviewing him about the book (a video from twelve years ago) and he asked Barzun: "You think the novel was the preeminent literary form of the 19th century. What do you think the major literary form of the 20th century is?"

          Barzun hemmed and hawed for a bit, saying that if it was someone else speaking, he'd answer "the film." (I think that's a good answer.) But then he went on to say that that he thought the preeminent literary form of the 20th century was capsule observations and terminology (he gave the example "high brow" and "low brow," which date back at least to Virginia Woolf's day.) He added that if he had to identify a strictly literary form defining the 20th century, it would be "the comics."

          So he wasn't very impressed with 20th century literary forms. As for Mozart, what you say is true. And Berlioz--according to Barzun, he was unappreciated in his lifetime as a composer (except by some students and some other great composers of the 19th century.) He got a kind of renaissance in the 1960s, in part thanks to an effort to revive appreciation for him by: Jacques Barzun, via a book he wrote in the 1950s lauding Berlioz' innovations and genius. (In contrast: Wagner, who appreciated Berlioz, was never entirely out of critical fashion after he gained fame.)

          So we are stuck with these ur-stories about recognizing some geniuses and innovators only with the benefit of historical hindsight. There are many similar stories about great Western artists and thinkers; Barzun tells some of them in the book. I'm looking forward to the end of the book, to see who Barzun thinks is great, "now" (at the time of the writing of From Dawn to Decadence in the early nineteen nineties.)

          Co-author of the first political biography of Michele Bachmann: Michele Bachmann's America

          by Bill Prendergast on Fri Oct 26, 2012 at 10:58:39 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

          •  I think (5+ / 0-)

            (and it is here that I'm vulnerable to scholarship, but I still believe this) that Jane Austen invented the novel as we know it -- there were prototypes before, but she was the first master of the the novel.

            Emma is a brilliant work.

            The novel as a form was honed and refined during the century after Austen's work...but few could do what she did in turning a phrase or characterizing a scoundrel oh so archly.

            (Dickens got paid by the word...not quite the same thing...but you have to get to Twain to find another writer as beautiful as Austen.  I like George Eliot, but...no.  Not as good.  And don't even get me started on Henry James!)

            Ack!  Now I'm stuck in the 19th century.

            OK, I am only talking books:

            Virginia Woolf, whom you mention, was brilliant.  The Waves blew me away, and it isn't even considered one of her best, although I disagree.

            I have yet to make my way through Ulysses and possibly never will (I am curious about the most recent version) but Molly Bloom's soliloquy is brilliant writing.  I suspect Barzun hated Joyce.  Too modern.

            Let me say that I never claimed to be anything more than middlebrow when it comes to the arts.  It's just...I think we middlebrow people are probably the definition of the art lovers who, by attending the symphony or buying books or going to plays...ensure the popularity to keep said artistic endeavors on stage or in bookstores.

            Just a hunch.

            To make the argument that the media has a left- or right-wing, or a liberal or a conservative bias, is like asking if the problem with Al-Qaeda is do they use too much oil in their hummus. Al Franken

            by Youffraita on Fri Oct 26, 2012 at 11:28:21 PM PDT

            [ Parent ]

  •  I read the obituary this morning (8+ / 0-)

    I think I like your take on Barzun better. I was one of those DFH students, only at Cornell, where we apparently made the (may he rest in peace) douchenozzle Allan Bloom decamp to the University of Chicago.

    I guess he didn't like postmodernism much either.  Thanks for publishing this.

    -7.75, -8.10; All it takes is security in your own civil rights to make you complacent, and we are all Wisconsin.

    by Dave in Northridge on Fri Oct 26, 2012 at 09:01:49 PM PDT

  •  The most memorable college class I ever attended (8+ / 0-)

    in the mid 1970s was an unplanned (not on the syllabus) personal reminiscence by a professor and his analysis of his days at Columbia University and involvement in Students for a Democratic Society.  It seemed to almost be a means of catharsis for him as he shared the hopes, goals, dreams of a movement while dissecting the reasons for an opportunity lost...moving and fascinating!  

    Your diary made me read more about those days at Columbia...interesting times and many parallels to today.

    Robber Baron "ReTHUGisms": John D. Rockefeller -"The way to make money is to buy when blood is running in the streets"; Jay Gould -"I can hire one half of the working class to kill the other half."

    by ranton on Fri Oct 26, 2012 at 09:04:05 PM PDT

  •  I too enjoyed Barzun's book but found much of (7+ / 0-)

    his criticism primarily crotchetiness.  This was disappointing since I had always highly valued his "From Classical to Romantic" (at least I think that's the title -- my books are still packed from a move), which I read in college  back during the '60's student kerkuffles that seemed to bother so much many intellectuals of Barzun's age & ilk.

    This reaction always puzzled me because it seemed as though we were very much acting out of ideals derived directly from what we had been taught by those intellectuals.  I also have to say that, from their rather histrionic pearl clutching in reaction to even basically non-violebt protest, you would have thought that we were really re-enacting 1848, 1870, or 1918.  

    There were certainly a few extremists among us who wished that we would do exactly that, some of whom actually perpetrated violence on other people or occassionally on themselves by accident.  But all in all it seems to me that it was basically a rather mild-mannered and good-spirited "revolt" and that the bulk of the violence at the time was perpetrated by the "establishment.". But You'd have thought from the reactions of intellectuals like Barzun that they were totally ignorant of the history of abolitionism and the American labor movement to have reacted with such abhorrence to a movement that relied primarily on non-violent civil disobedience at worst.  Somehow they seemed to have had trouble discriminating the Berrigans from the Weathermen and reacted as though the latter were more characteristic of the "counter-culture" than the former.

    As for all the dramatic despair by people like Bloom & Barzun over the supposed divorce of the young from Western high culture, it cannot be that such erudite people weren't aware that they were re-enacting -- even parodying, apparently unconsciously --  the previous reactions of cultural conservatives to Romanticism and then modernism.   They would've been more on target to have been alarmed at the attachment of the young of the time to TV than at their enthusiasm for the Beatles, Dylan, and Allen Ginsburg.

    •  "Crotchety"... (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Monsieur Georges, Upper West

      ...I can't offer any personal take on what was actually going on at college campuses from the mid-sixties through the early seventies. I was just a little boy at the time, and all I know is from reading literature and history.

      But based on what I have read, I have no reason to doubt your claim that the establishment tended to lump in the Berrigans with the Weathermen. I've read about COINTELPRO and about other evidence of how threatened the political establishment of the day felt due to a wave of youth protests. (The Weathermen? Yeah, police surveillance and intelligence gathering on them; they're preaching and practicing terrorism. But sending agent provocateurs to infiltrate non-violent anti-war protesters? People who authorize that are confirming the suspicions of the counterculture about the status quo.)

      "Crotchety": I'm sorry to say that you're right, those kind of remarks appear throughout the book when Barzun draws parallels between enemies of culture in the past and those he sees as enemies of Western culture at the end of the twentieth century. They're annoying and distracting, if you don't take his premise about decline into decadence for granted.

      In his defense, we have to note that he saw those analogies and warnings as imperative. "Giving the warnings" was one of the chief reasons he wrote a book intended to summarize his life's work. I think he was sincere and sincerely frightened, even though I think he was wrong. (And his "big message"--the proposition that Western culture is essentially "over" and sterile, and that a new birth for the West is only possible if people of genius rise to reject the "sterility" and create new vitality--that's the cutting edge idea of the 1870s; Friedrich Nietzche.)

      A lot of the twentieth century was horror, but a lot of it was also triumphs over horror. I think he lost sight of that. And his attempts to identify some of the least powerful actors in Western life as "the villains" is the weakest part of the book.

      Co-author of the first political biography of Michele Bachmann: Michele Bachmann's America

      by Bill Prendergast on Sat Oct 27, 2012 at 03:23:58 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Enjoyed your critique, and tend to agree. (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Youffraita, MT Spaces, cfk

    I think this longing for rejected concepts will always have
    a small basis in truth. The intellectuals apparently were
    much more respected in academia and elite culture of his day.

    It is good to see that others recognize the irony of such
    rear guard apologists of status quo defense being so
    fully adopted by the many actual forces Barzun decries.
    Who knew John McCain was an ersatz intellectual?

    I see it as the main task of the young to ever challenge
    and if possible, firmly reject any and all that came before  
    if it does not 'speak to and for their times and days'.
    We see this constantly in the arts, culture, etcetera.

    These are just the natural forces of selection and adaptation
    at work responding to the always changing environments.
    Natural language, written thought, the pursuit of
    knowledge and understanding as avocation, all of
    these change rapidly compared to say, geological time.

    In this, I fully comprehend anyones fervent desire for
    consistency and permanence in any realm, sadly unfound
    even unto the cosmological scale, where eternal and
    violent change, cycles of creation and destruction, now
    appear to be more and more the natural order of things.

    I find his derision of the acceptance and embrace of
    primitivism the most interesting and problematic. To me,
    such represents a repudiation of the very foundations of
    so much of Western culture, except as you note, our own,
    which I consider a struggle between these opposing views.
    Or perhaps even a dance of sorts, or prose dialogue, even
    if frenzied and incoherent as it may often appear at times.

    In Barzun's world, the elite were the culture. They
    defined its parameters, in- and excluding as they saw fit.
    To actually see value and worth in individuals and the masses
    that can be studied and verified scientifically, must have
    shocked and awed intellectuals as much as motion pictures
    did those who were not even literate in their own age.

    Certainly this means that previously rejected canons
    may be resurrected, perhaps wrongly, only to be soon
    discarded once again. Steps forward, backward, not all
    adaptations will be successful or aesthetically pleasing.
    Or pass the truly exclusive and discriminating test of time.

    Thanks for all of your efforts.

    •  Lars, Lars... (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Larsstephens, Diana in NoVa

      Luv ya, man.  But I gotta say:

      Everyone knows that  John McCain is now and has always been an ersatz intellectual.

      Sorta the way Mitt's whole crew (including Mitt) are ersatz thinkers.

      They claim to have thoughts...but proof of this has never been shown to anyone with a brain.

      To make the argument that the media has a left- or right-wing, or a liberal or a conservative bias, is like asking if the problem with Al-Qaeda is do they use too much oil in their hummus. Al Franken

      by Youffraita on Sat Oct 27, 2012 at 12:50:40 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  Brings to mind the song in the Mikado (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Larsstephens, Monsieur Georges

      from the executioner who's popular because he won't execute anyone. But he notes that if he ever does get around to executing some people, he's got "a little list" of annoying people "who never would be missed..."

      "As some day it may happen that a victim must be found,
      I've got a little list — I've got a little list
      Of society offenders who might well be underground,
      And who never would be missed — who never would be missed!"
      Among those listed:
      "...the idiot who praises, with enthusiastic tone,
      All centuries but this, and every country but his own..."
      Now Barzun wasn't an idiot. But what you wrote raises the issue of whether he was aware of the irony in his own behavior--denouncing the rebellion against the cultural elite of his own day, after a life spent praising the anarchic heart-and-mind rebellion of the Romanticists.

      I think he was very aware of the irony in his position. But he seems to have reconciled it with his belief that the twentieth century rebellion was sterile, producing practically nothing worthwhile for the culture.

      That's simply not true. But it would undermine his personal take to acknowledge merit in the achievements of the modern liberal democracies. So he's looking backwards for greatness...

      Primitivism: I may have given you the wrong impression about Barzun and primitivism. Primitivism is a theme identified by Barzun in identifying a trend that surfaces in history as a societal trend that causes change. Primitivism is a longing for a return to an earlier set of values, to a time when things were better, simpler, less corrupted. For example, Martin Luther believed that the Roman church of his day had become hopelessly corrupted and false--and longed for a return to the values of the earliest days of Christianity. In other times other thinkers and movements longed for a return to what they imagined to be better, less corrupted value systems.

      Primitivism isn't a necessarily conservative theme (though the evangelical right markets it now)--people on the left have also occasionally invoked the desirability of primitivism. It's a feeling rooted in a (sometimes unfounded) view of the virtue of a lost and not-yet-corrupted  past.

      So I don't think Barzun "embraced" Primitivism, even if it's fair to accuse him of falling under its spell (because of his belief that West has finally become decadent and sterile.) Primitivism was just one of many recurring themes and forces he identified as useful in explaining five hundred years of ideas in the West.

      Co-author of the first political biography of Michele Bachmann: Michele Bachmann's America

      by Bill Prendergast on Sat Oct 27, 2012 at 11:50:53 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Yes, I guess I was widely defining primitivism, (2+ / 0-)

        rather than the narrower, or more commonly used,
        formal descriptions applied generally to culture and art.

        The fact that such emerged at the pinnacle of empire
        and industrialism, is not surprising to me, considering
        that similarly themed 'movements', even those that
        then lacked the benefit of codified taxonomies, have
        long erupted whenever rapid social, political, or economic
        environmental changes overwhelmed the conceptual abilities of those
        who experienced such firsthand, and then sought solace in past glory.

        The greatest irony is that a mind such as Barzun's was
        unable to see the continual re emergence of such basic
        human responses over the course of written history, save
        for when it served the narrative of he and his contemporaries
        interests. Which continues now in our own times.

        Our own side of the political spectrum is not immune.
        Such willful blindness, and an eagerness to reject clear
        and present evidence in favor of accepted successful
        past ideologies may be a natural human trait. It is no
        accident that many of the arguments around here concern
        the validity and truth of modern data,  and its actual
        adoption and or rejection, and persuasion for such either way.

        Thanks for all of your efforts.

  •  For example: (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    MT Spaces, Nespolo, Bill Prendergast

    Is Elaine Stritch not fabulous?

    The lyrics are wonderful.  The subtitles are fuckin' BRILLIANT.

    To make the argument that the media has a left- or right-wing, or a liberal or a conservative bias, is like asking if the problem with Al-Qaeda is do they use too much oil in their hummus. Al Franken

    by Youffraita on Sat Oct 27, 2012 at 12:46:33 AM PDT

  •  Great diary (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    northsylvania, Bill Prendergast

    There are elements here of how the current Pope's experience with student radicalism in the 60s despite being, like Barzun, a liberal at the time. THese men caught sight of something they did not lie and tried from that time own to close what they considered Pandora's box.

    •  That's a story that a lot of conservative (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Monsieur Georges

      thinkers like to tell about themselves; you hear it over and over again from different writers on the Right: "When I was young, I wanted rapid change for social justice--but as I grew older I saw that that approach could only lead to threats and chaos and social breakdown that were even worse than the injustices I was originally upset about. And so I became a conservative..."

      A lot of conservatives tell that story about themselves: Depression-era Marxists who wound up helping William F. Buckley revive conservatism in the 1950s, sixties liberal academics and writers who became the first wave of neo-cons in the seventies.

      I see no reason to trust these guys. They're smart enough to know that that America depends on the liberal state for its survival as a democracy. And they're smart enough to know that movement conservatism is rooted in lies and practices deception. But they side with the lies and deception movement anyway, helping it stay in the mainstream of political discourse.

      Co-author of the first political biography of Michele Bachmann: Michele Bachmann's America

      by Bill Prendergast on Sat Oct 27, 2012 at 11:14:50 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Thoroughly enjoyed this, Bill (3+ / 0-)

    Fascinating exposition of a work I've never read, although, of course, I've heard of Jacques Barzun.  Thanks for writing this diary!

    Must say I really admire your open-mindedness.  I tend to read books that I know won't upset me.  Tried to read Half the Sky and got so upset had to stop in the middle.

    I also really like your lively writing style!

    "Religion is what keeps the poor from murdering the rich."--Napoleon

    by Diana in NoVa on Sat Oct 27, 2012 at 04:30:33 AM PDT

    •  I admire your self-discipline; trying to find (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Monsieur Georges

      and read books that won't upset you. As I said--that strategy's not for me, but as I get older I see more wisdom in your approach. (...that we should allow ourselves to be upset about a limited number of very important things.)

      Anyway--I recommend this Dawn to Decadence book to you if you're interested in the "What is the Western culture, and how did it end up like this?" question. The stories and anecdotes and examples he collects are great reading.

      Co-author of the first political biography of Michele Bachmann: Michele Bachmann's America

      by Bill Prendergast on Sat Oct 27, 2012 at 11:03:52 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Everything you have to say about Barzun (0+ / 0-)

    is wrong.

    Los Angeles Times, Forgotten treasures of the last century, from 25 writers

    Jacques Barzun: "Practical Agitation" by John Jay Chapman

    Read Michael Murray, Jacques Barzun: Portrait of a Mind (2012).

    •  Thanks for straightening me out. eom (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Monsieur Georges, Upper West

      Co-author of the first political biography of Michele Bachmann: Michele Bachmann's America

      by Bill Prendergast on Sat Oct 27, 2012 at 05:36:56 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  It would take more than me. (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Bill Prendergast

        Here are some voices from three persons who, like me, were actually at Columbia in 1968:

        With students ensconced in several Columbia buildings while the New York City police ominously assembled nearby in preparation to eject them, many luminaries of the Columbia professoriate descended from their ivory tower to wade into the boisterous debates that reverberated throughout the campus. They lined up on both sides of the barricades, some loudly denouncing the students as spoiled children of privilege who were interrupting the vital work of the University, a few others endorsing the students' case against Columbia and even expressing tolerance of their disruptive behavior. I vividly recall that, in spite of what one would assume to be the former provost's opposition to the actions of the demonstrators, Jacques Barzun was unfailingly courteous to those of his students who declared their support -- some with unbridled enthusiasm, others with many caveats -- for the occupation. Amid this Sturm undDrang he offered an alternative model of serenity and rationality, behaving as someone who, unlike many of his colleagues, had never lost his bearings. -- William R. Keylor, PhD Columbia '71, Columbia Magazine, Fall 2007

        I took Dr. Barzun’s seminar for a year, 1968-69. Just five people. I’ve read so much about his reserve that I have to say, Dr. Barzun was only dignified – not cold or arrogant. He was always smiling. Didn’t make jokes, but laughed at ours. I sent him a mss and asked him to read it 20 years after our seminar and he said, “Sure.” He always let his students disagree with him. I felt so safe with him I actually criticized him for some slang idiom he used (can you imagine?) and he only said, mildly, “Well, I didn’t really speak English till I was 12.” I’m still embarrassed but he didn’t get mad at Angry Young Men. One revealing moment: I remember exclaiming about some idea of his, “I’ve read the critics, and you’re the only one who believes that!” He took that in, and exclaimed in return, as if I’d given him the final evidence he’d needed, “Then I’m sure I’m right!”  -- George J. Leonard

        Which living person do you most admire?
        Among my personal friends, Jacques Barzun. Among the more distant, Nelson Mandela. -- Eric Bentley, 2009

        But as Burckhardt said, you must know how to read.

        •  I'm sorry, I don't understand how what you just (2+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          Monsieur Georges, Upper West

          sent tends to prove your assertion that "everything I have to say about Barzun is wrong."

          Your tone seems kind angry. I'm willing to listen to why you think everything I had to say about Barzun here is wrong, I'm certainly not an expert on his life and thought.

          But I don't understand how reached the conclusion that everything I had to say about him here, is wrong. For example, one of the "things I said about Barzun" in this piece was that he was at Columbia. Is that wrong/incorrect?

          Co-author of the first political biography of Michele Bachmann: Michele Bachmann's America

          by Bill Prendergast on Sat Oct 27, 2012 at 06:18:59 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

          •  I'm not angry, not at all. (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            Bill Prendergast

            If your argument is that 1968 was central in determining Barzun's judgment of the course of Western culture, then your argument is wrong.  Not everything you say about Barzun is wrong. You are right, for example, that From Dawn to Decadence is an enjoyable book.  But everything you have to say--your attempt to contribute to an understanding of Barzun's thought--is wrong.  But perhaps the distinction is too subtle.

            Anyway, I'm not angry, but I did talk as I did in my days at Columbia arguing with my friends radical and otherwise.  Apologies and best wishes.

            •  Thank you for apologies and best wishes. (2+ / 0-)
              Recommended by:
              Monsieur Georges, Upper West

              I guess I thought you were angry because you were "talking as you did during your days at Columbia."

              I don't have any difficulty in recognizing the 'distinction' between the claim 'everything Bill has to say about Barzun is wrong' and the claim 'everything Bill has to say in his attempt to contribute to an understanding of Barzun's thought is wrong.' There's no subtle distinction between the two claims. The difficulty was that you wrote the first when you meant the second.

              If your argument is that 1968 was central in determining Barzun's judgment of the course of Western culture, then your argument is wrong.
              No, that wasn't my argument regarding From Dawn to Decadence. I don't think Barzun's experience of Columbia in 1968 was "central" in determining his judgment that Western Civ was entering decline. What I think is what I wrote above--that that event "seemed to influence" his thinking on Western culture. I still think that, after having read your excerpts about his personal politesse during the events. I'm not alone in thinking Columbia 68 influenced the development of Barzun's views. Here's a line from the NYT obit:
              If Mr. Barzun kept the political issues of the day at arm’s length, he nonetheless developed a reputation as a cultural conservative after the student protests at Columbia in the late 1960s.
              So I do believe that Columbia demonstrations informed his thinking about decadence. But I also know that many other events and trends convinced him that the West had finally entered decadence/sterility: because Barzun points to those "objectionable" behaviors and trends in the book. In the diary I reference his dismay with other post-Columbia trends in late 2Oth century culture. And experiencing Columbia demonstrations isn't "central" or necessary to develop the opinions that Barzun gives in FD2D; he (for one) saw evidence everywhere else to support his thesis.

              I don't think my description of Barzun's warning (that great values and legacies were being turned on their head or discarded in favor of comparative garbage) was "wrong." And I don't see how I was wrong to tell readers that Barzun believed that 'clowns were now running the circus.' (That wasn't his phrasing, but I'm sure he believed that with regard to Western culture and the life of the mind.)

              My source for that understanding of Barzun in FD2D, is Barzun. Before I wrote this diary, I was watching two interviews with him online. (One was with Arthur Schlesinger after the publication of FD2D, that one is archived at C-SPAN.) So views I expressed here about what Barzun said and meant in FD2D, are based not just on my reading of the book, but also on Barzun statements about about the book and Western cultural decline.

              Again--I'm not claiming any expertise on Jacques Barzun. I'm just taking him at his word, in FD2D and in the interviews. There I see resentment: resentment of a cultural life he viewed as populated by modern second-raters passing themselves off as intellectual and artistic lights, and resentment of poorly educated types who accepted them as such. (I disagree with that view of the late 20th c. and I said why--but I don't see where I misunderstood B's views, or gave the readers here the wrong impression of what he argues in FD2D.)

              Best wishes to you too, and be well.

              Co-author of the first political biography of Michele Bachmann: Michele Bachmann's America

              by Bill Prendergast on Sat Oct 27, 2012 at 08:01:42 PM PDT

              [ Parent ]

  •  Thanks for a great diary! (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Bill Prendergast, Upper West

    And thanks, cfk, for repubbing it on R&BLs.

Subscribe or Donate to support Daily Kos.

Click here for the mobile view of the site