Jacques Barzun:

A Chance Recovery

Esteemed Colleagues:

The nonagenarian Dr. Jacques Barzun has come out with his magnum opus From Dawn to Decadence this year [2000]. If ever the adage held true of respecting your elders, he would be the model. The last time I heard him lecture was in 1965 at Columbia University on the Romantics and the French Revolution. He seemed old then; in fact, he was then what I am now in age. Then, I lost contact with him for thirty-five years. What I particularly like about the person is his founding of the Reader's Subscription Book Club, as he makes available at popular prices priceless books. I just received a two-volume set at a 50 percent discount (making it affordable), of the total correspondence of Walter Benjamin, the renowned humanist Marxist and Hebrew Studies scholar who suffered a crisis of faith in his last year of life. What I appreciate about Professor Barzun is his tolerance; he would never let ideology, or even personal dislike, interfere with professional judgment about publishing works that are anathema to his norms.

He is a highly conservative thinker who believes the thrust toward the emancipation of the individual has been the leitmotif of history since 1500. He understands world history; but remember, history is a very idiosyncratic interpretation of a peculiar kind according to your worldview. The writer is a signifier for a “collective mentality” in the final analysis. The Renaissance and the Reformation, according to our author, were overlapping happenings in the sixteenth century that worked for the liberation of individual men and women from tradition. Barzun expresses problems with evaluating the Enlightenment and the Age of Reason, which he roughly equates with the year 1750 when England underwent an agrarian and mechanical arts revolution (the Industrial Revolution) in which the techne of mass production alienated men from themselves (their very human nature divided against the mode of production that threatens the extinction of the species); that is, capitalism itself objectified the product, the social activity and the surplus value of the workers’ labor. Labor, in its capitalist formation, persecuted men; men became an appendage of the machine, in the words of another thinker of the nineteenth century. It is in the course of this analysis that Barzun laments man’s loss of his spirituality to materialism. In short, there is a disenchantment with the world when you perceive that you can not only not grasp its meaning, but much less be a heroic participant in its making of events (is this the elitist Carlyle speaking through his twenty-first-century medium?). Man becomes the incubus of mindless consumerism to salve his alienation from an anomic world. However, I must point out that the Industrial Revolution made England, arguably, the preeminent power from 1750 to 1920.

So, in Barzun’s career of nearly seventy years, he remains the Romantic. I somewhat disagree with him that materialism precludes full emancipation. I believe that a certain standard of living, measured by quantitative indices, provides the baseline for enjoying life. He is more in the line of thinking that there is an inalienable right to property in a generic sense. If the worker does not enjoy it, then the state need not redistribute wealth to create equality of opportunity, such as Roosevelt did when he created the New Deal to spin out of the Great Depression, with World War II giving an extra impetus to productivity. The concept that property has a species origin, the means of production, is foreign to him. For him, the collectivity, in whatever form, threatens the liberties of men, and dampens reason and progress. So, he is on the freedom side of the freedom and equality continuum. Unfortunately, he believes the ultimate evil is boredom that comes from the acquisitive mentality of the West (he sounds like Weber and Tawney), which is an essential part of his definition of decadence. To the contrary, if scholars look at the macro-level, the monopoly practices of “late” capitalism trammel the development of democracy and hence the emergence of the sentient and social individual, who can rise above his narcissistic concerns to involve himself in changing the environment while finally coming to a self-understanding that the processes of history do have a cunning reason, with a Hegelian twist in which Barzun would be stood righted. My problematic would be his uncritically bonding conceptually and empirically democracy and laissez-faire capitalism as the ideal political economy.

He claims our civilization has been on the verge of collapse since the first world war. I find that claim highly disputable. Granted, the level of mutual annihilation was unprecedented because of innovations in technology and strategy--or the lack thereof. However, the leaders still fought for traditional foreign policy goals, although the three empires of the Central Powers disintegrated, but scholars can attribute that phenomenon to their internal contradictions in which there was a certain inevitability and even desirability to that outcome. The turning point was 1917, when our own ally, Russia, had been for all realistic purposes knocked out of the war. Lenin came to power by putsch in the October Revolution; then Mussolini and Salazar in the twenties, followed by Hitler and Franco in the thirties. Humanity then found itself faced with barbarism because whole populations became targeted for physical extermination in which politics changed from traditional and limited foreign policy objectives to limitless expansion and ethnic genocide. Why Barzun should worry about Oprah Winfrey corrupting our youth, I find bemusing. I worry more that there has been a revival of the cult of Wagner worldwide. History does repeat itself; humankind certainly has memory parapraxes. This repetition cult (a fixation in time of a mythic and hence imaginary imago of the neurotic mind: for example, Valhalla) in the medium of music certainly has thanatopsistic (sic) undertones that vindicate Freud’s construct of the Death Instinct. This displaced speechlessness from place defies progressive institutions working for the socialization of man. The forces of reaction ever again challenge the bases of civilization, born of Eros to deny man his “after-education.

—Ron Schindler