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Jacques Barzun (1907 – 2012)


French-born American scholar, historian, critic, teacher and editor.
Jacques Barzun
He sent me a letter from India, where I think he got a fellowship to spend a year or so. He sent me a letter that read, I've just met a wonderful guru who can read minds. "I want you to" — Allen had a way of saying "I want you to do this, I want you to do that" — "I want you to get him a position in the Philosophy Department." I wrote back, "Dear Allen, the members of the Philosophy Department want nothing so little as to have their minds read."
Barzun quotes
Strangers who have seen Shaw face to face are wont to report their surprise at his gentleness and consideration, his willingness to listen and his complete lack of pose.
Barzun
For Shaw as for Goethe, the obligation to strive is a primary feeling: reason initiates nothing and would stop everything. Its use is to come after the fact and devise helpful justification of action. Culture, humaneness, spiritual grace, are not forced upon us by logic: they either are self-evident or pointless. There is, Shaw reminds us, no argument in behalf of moral conduct which would not equally well support immoral. But it is clearly impossible (and immoral) to exact moral conduct, cultivation, and grace from those whom circumstances force to lead sub-human lives. Therefore society must be reformed.




Barzun Jacques quotes
The only political ism surviving in full strength from the past is nationalism. This was partly to be expected from the liberation of so many colonies simultaneously, beginning in the 1920s. But this nationalism differs from the old in two remarkable ways: it is not patriotic and it does not want to absorb and assimilate. On the contrary, it wants to shrink and secede, to limit its control to its one small group of like-minded-we-ourselves-alone. It is in that sense racist, particularist, sectarian, minority-inspired.
Barzun Jacques
I have always been — I think any student of history almost inevitably is — a cheerful pessimist.
Jacques Barzun quotes
Criticism will need an injection of humility — that is, a recognition of its role as ancillary to the arts, needed only occasionally in a temporary capacity. Since the critic exists only for introducing and explaining, he must be readily intelligible; he has no special vocabulary: criticism is in no way a science or a system.
Jacques Barzun
The danger is that we shall become a nation of pedants. I use the word literally and democratically to refer to the millions of people who are moved by a certain kind of passion in their pastimes as well as in their vocations. In both parts of their lives this passion comes out in shoptalk. I have in mind both the bird watchers and nature lovers: the young people who collect records and follow the lives of pop singers and movie stars; I mean the sort of knowledge possessed by “buffs” and “fans” of all species—the baseball addicts and opera goers, the devotees of railroad trains and the collectors of objects, from first editions to netsuke.
They are pedants not just because they know and recite an enormous quantity of facts—if a school required them to learn as much they would scream against tyranny. It is not the extent of their information that appalls; it is the absence of any reflection upon it, any sense of relation between it and them and the world. Nothing is brought in from outside for contrast or comparison; no perspective is gained from the top of their monstrous factual pile; no generalities emerge to lighten the sameness of their endeavor.
Barzun Jacques quotes
History, like a vast river, propels logs, vegetation, rafts, and debris; it is full of live and dead things, some destined for resurrection; it mingles many waters and holds in solution invisible substances stolen from distant soils. Anything may become part of it; that is why it can be an image of the continuity of mankind. And it is also why some of its freight turns up again in the social sciences: they were constructed out of the contents of history in the same way as houses in medieval Rome were made out of stones taken from the Coliseum. But the special sciences based on sorted facts cannot be mistaken for rivers flowing in time and full of persons and events. They are systems fashioned with concepts, numbers, and abstract relations. For history, the reward of eluding method is to escape abstraction.
Barzun
Being law-abiding means filing a paper on time, not parking near a hydrant, and getting a zoning variance before moving a fence on one's own property. A world continually tighter in these ways intensifies the search for loopholes, tempts the unscrupulous to invent them, hardens the cynic, and keeps alive the urge to break loose. Such pulses of thought and feeling are bound to take away the ease and pleasure of ethical conduct. Habitual morality is baffled by the stop-and-go, and people's disregard of injunctions causes no surprise; it seems rather to show firmness of mind.
Barzun Jacques
We seem to live mainly in order to see how we live, and this habit brings on what might be called the externalizing of knowledge; with every new manual there is less need for its internal, visceral presence. The owner or user feels confident that he possesses its contents — there they are, in handy form on the handy shelf. And with their imminent transfer to a computer, that sense of possession will presumably attach itself to the hard disk or the phone number of the data bank.
To say this is also to say that the age of ready reference is one in which knowledge inevitably declines into information. The master of so much packaged stuff has less need to grasp context or meaning than his forbears: he can always look it up. His active memory is otherwise engaged anyway, full of the arbitrary names, initials, and code figures essential to carrying on daily life. He can be vague about the rest: he can always check it out.
Jacques Barzun
The one thing that unifies men in a given age is not their individual philosophies but the dominant problem that these philosophies are designed to solve.




Jacques Barzun quotes
My notion about any artist is that we honor him best by reading him, by playing his music, by seeing his plays or by looking at his pictures. We don't need to fall all over ourselves with adjectives and epithets. Let's play him more.
Jacques Barzun
Everybody keeps calling for Excellence — excellence not just in schooling, throughout society. But as soon as somebody or something stands out as Excellent, the other shout goes up: "Elitism!" And whatever produced that thing, whoever praises that result, is promptly put down. "Standing out" is undemocratic.
Barzun quotes
When plugged in, the least elaborate computer can be relied on to work to the fullest extent of its capacity. The greatest mind cannot be relied on for the simplest thing; its variability is its superiority.
Barzun Jacques
Shaw knows at any moment, on any subject, what he thinks, what you will think, what others have thought, what all this thinking entails; and he takes the most elaborate pains to bring these thoughts to light in a form which is by turns abstract and familiar, conciliatory and aggressive, obvious and inferential, comic and puzzling. In a word, Shaw is perhaps the most consciously conscious mind that has ever thought — certainly the most conscious since Rousseau; which may be why both of them often create the same impression of insincerity amounting to charlatanism.
Yet it is by excess of honesty that Shaw himself lent color to his representation as an inconsequential buffoon bent on monopolizing the spotlight.
Barzun Jacques quotes
Many of us affect a tone of irony about gadgets, as if we lived always in realms above and dealt with trifles only during rare descents from sublime thoughts. The truth is that more and more of the important things in life turn on pinpoints. Our frustrations begin in trivialities — a telephone out of order, a car that will not start, a claim check whose number has been misread. The thing in cellophane that cannot be got at — plain to the sight but sealed like an egg — is the modern version of the torture of Tantalus. Catastrophes we will deal with like heroes, but the bottle top that defies us saps our morale, like the tiny arrows of the Lilliputians that maddened Gulliver and set his strength at naught.
Jacques Barzun
On the one hand, society needs a common faith and vigorous institutions with the power to coerce; and on the other, the individual as a human soul or as the bearer of a new and possibly saving heresy, must be free. It is difficult enough to reconcile these two needs, but the problem holds another hazard: the need of action under the pressure of time.
Jacques Barzun quotes
If they leave college thinking, as they usually do, that science offers a full, accurate, and literal description of man and Nature; if they think scientific research by itself yields final answers to social problems; if they think scientists are the only honest, patient, and careful workers in the world; if they think that Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Lavoisier, and Faraday were unimaginative plodders like their own instructors; if they think theories spring from facts and that scientific authority at any time is infallible; if they think that the ability to write down symbols and read manometers is fair grounds for superiority and pride, and if they think that science steadily and automatically makes for a better world — then they have wasted their time in the science lecture room; they live in an Ivory Laboratory more isolated than the poet's tower, and they are a plain menace to the society they belong to. They are a menace whether they believe all this by virtue of being engaged in scientific work themselves or of being disqualified from it by felt or fancied incapacity.
Jacques Barzun
Shaw's emotional development was one with his intellectual strength. His path led him into the thick of the scrimmage, where more spontaneous natures defend themselves with the usual weapons of malice, humility, bad temper or conceit. But Shaw used the death ray of imperturbability. His feelings were never hurt, his envy never aroused, his conceit was a transparent fiction, he never quarreled.
Barzun Jacques
We are accustomed to the artist scoundrel or specialist in vice, and unaccustomed to the creator in whom passion and reason and moral integrity hold in balance. But greatness of intellect and feeling, or soul and conduct — magnanimity, in short — does occur; it is not a myth for boy scouts, and its reality is important, if only to give us the true range of the term "human," which we so regularly define by its lower reaches.


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