What Jacques Barzun Has Learned Over The Last 100 Years
November 14, 2007, 03:08 PM
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Cultural historian Jacques Barzun will turn 100 on November 30, 2007 at his home in San Antonio, Texas. His parents ran a salon in pre-War (that's pre-Great War) Paris where, according to Arthur Krystal's New Yorker essay

many of Europe’s leading avant-garde artists and writers gathered: Var?¨se played the piano, Ozenfant and Delaunay debated, Cocteau told lies, and Apollinaire declaimed. Brancusi often stopped by, as did L?©ger, Kandinsky, Jules Romains, Duchamp, and Pound.

Artistically, Barzun feels, it's been pretty much all downhill since the Archduke was assassinated, back when precocious little Jacques was six, and who am I to say he is wrong?

In his 2000 bestseller From Dawn to Decadence: 1500 to the Present,published when he was 92, Barzun suddenly stopped on p. 654-656 to briefly discuss what he's learned from a lifetime of learning:

"... history cannot be a science; it is the very opposite, in that its interest resides in the particulars."

Still, he goes on to list a dozen "generalities" to show "how scanning the last five centuries in the West impresses on the mind certain types of order." Here are five of them (I'll leave it to you to fill in examples):

  • An age (a shorter span within an era) is unified by one or to pressing needs, not by the proposed remedies, which are many and thus divide.
  • A movement in thought or art produces its best work during the uphill fight to oust the enemy; that is, the previous thought or art. Victory brings on imitation and ultimately Boredom.
  • "An Age of —" (fill in: Reason, Faith, Science, Absolutism, Democracy, Anxiety, Communication) is always a misnomer because insufficient, except perhaps "An Age of Troubles," which fits every age in varying degrees.
  • The historian does not isolate causes, which defy sorting out even in the natural world; he describes conditions that he judges relevant, adding occasionally an estimate of their relevant strength.
  • The potent writings that helped to reshape minds and institutions in the West have done so through a formula or two, not always consistent with the text. Partisans and scholars start to read the book with care after it has done its work.