What Jacques Barzun Has Learned Over The Last 100 Years
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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.