One of my heroes, Jacques Barzun, passed away this week. He would have turned 105 in November.

I “discovered” him kind of randomly. I was always scanning for books related to pragmatist philosophy so I was mildly elated when I walked to the back of a used book store and found two — two! — biographies of William James on the tiny philosophy rack. I took both books off the shelf and looked at the best looking one first. Then the second, dowdier looking one: A Stroll with William James. The “stroll” metaphor seemed corny, and for a second I wondered if it was some amateur’s labor of love, but the mini-bio on the back cover sounded legit so I took it home.

But I didn’t like him at first. I read maybe ten pages and almost fell asleep (which isn’t unusual). It seemed good but it felt kind of dry, I think, and I never quite got my hooks into it. Then maybe a week later I was in a different used book store and happened to glimpse a familiar name on the bottom shelf. It was The Modern Researcher, by Jacques Barzun and Henry Graff.

JACQUES BARZUN, the internationally respected cultural historian and critic, was born and received his early education in France. Associated with Columbia University for his whole career, his service included twelve years as Dean of Faculties and Provost, and he has held the coveted title of University Professor. He has published some 40 books of history, biography, criticism, and methodology, as well as translations and editions of classic authors…

“Huh, funny coincidence,” I thought, “– this is the same guy who wrote that James book,” as I fanned through and carried on.

And then, a third incident: I noticed his name again out of the corner of my eye, in the history section of the library: A Jacques Barzun Reader.

Flipping through the Reader finally exposed me to Barzun’s stature and scope. As a historian and cultural critic he covered art, music, science, literature, philosophy, historiography, writing, and education (both as a practitioner writing for fellow teachers and students, and as a critic concerned with the place of higher education in society).

Although he wasn’t a professed specialist in any of those ‘verticals’ (let’s call them), Barzun brought to each topic a ‘horizontal’ mastery of research, thinking, and writing — not to mention vast erudition — that helped him transcend disciplinary boundaries, such that any specialist would be wise to respect his points of view.

I’m sure there are people who’d read Science: The Glorious Entertainment or Darwin, Marx, Wagner and think Barzun is anti-science. They would be failing to appreciate Barzun’s wide-angle, cultural critic’s view, which puts modern science as just one field of human endeavour among thousands of years of others, extremely beneficial in some ways but not beneficial by default or without question.

Barzun learned from James (and I learned from them) how to use ideas without being bound or limited by them.

[Pragmatism] is vigilantly aware that there are more ways than one of conceiving and reaching desired ends, and it is not satisfied until some kind of provision has ben made for those things or purposes that any single system leaves out…^

And further,

Words, ideas, conventions — these rigidities are as indispensable to the life of society as to the life of culture, but they become falsehoods and stumbling blocks as soon as it is forgotten that they are abstractions.’^

As I read more of Barzun I came to appreciate that approach through his rare combination of intellectual passion and discipline — more like the empowering mastery possessed by professional athletes and musicians than the constraining rigor that characterizes so much scholarship.

When reading almost any author there’s a point where you think you can grasp their general principles and automatically attribute a whole raft of other ideas to them through inference or induction; we put thinkers and writers into categories — or associate them with other individuals — based on patterns in their work, e.g. their influences and general attitudes; but you can’t do that with Barzun.

For example, you start reading almost anything Barzun wrote and you’ll notice he’s a great proponent of the “great books.” He taught the Great Books course at Columbia for decades. He uses and defends the use of the word “man” — as in “civilized man.” It might seem safe to infer, therefore, that Barzun is “a quintessential Dead White Male scholar,” as at least one  person put it, with a lot of stuffy ideas.

But Barzun isn’t a typical ivory tower academic, conservative or curmudgeon. Read his defence of amateurs, for example, in “The Indispensable Amateur.” Yes, Barzun was a cultural elitist in the sense that he believed there are some ideas and works of art more worthy of dissemination than others, but he wasn’t elitist about the means or reasons for doing so. Barzun’s pragmatism distinguishes him from, say, Allan Bloom, who believed not just that some ideas were more deserving of dissemination but that they represent absolute virtue, which few fortunate individuals could ever touch, and that the purpose of the university was to provide a cloistered setting for them to do so.

By comparison, Barzun started a book club; he wrote about baseball and detective stories. And as if to blow up assumptions about  people growing less creative with age, Barzun deployed a number of innovative typographical devices — essentially metadata, as clever as anything Twitter users have devised — to help readers navigate the thematic threads and cross-references of From Dawn to Decadence, published when he was 93.

Regardless of the issue, whenever I thought I had Barzun neatly placed and categorized, he’d inevitably proceed to break my schema. The man and his work both chafe against abstractions and inherited associations.

He dislikes the impulse to single out people, events, etc. as “the greatest,” but appreciates the need for historians and critics to disproportionately focus on exemplary individuals (witness his recurring references to Shaw, Berlioz, Delacroix, James, etc.) as a shared stock of references to convey meaning and cultivate shared understanding. The same attitude applies to classifications of ages, epochs, and movements. Barzun’s rich pragmatism is on display when he writes:

All historical labels are nicknames — Puritan, Gothic, Rationalist, Romantic, Symbolist, Expressionist, Modernist — and therefore falsify. But “renaming more accurately” would be effort wasted. Coming from diverse minds, it would re-introduce confusion. All names given by history must be accepted and opened up, not defined in one sentence or divided into sub-species.^

You can see this not just in his historical and critical work but also his practical manuals on writing and teaching. He’s constantly navigating compromises between polar ideas or methodologies, though he does it simply as a matter of intellectual discipline — seeing the nuances, drawing distinctions and developing suitable descriptions to represent them — rather than intellectual diplomacy.

As if in radical defiance of even this generalization, he’s not unwilling to come down firmly on one side of an argument, e.g. his unwavering use of “man.” Also consider his strong position in From Dawn to Decadence that Western civilization is in a long decline.

But then again, we must be careful not to infer that all technological and cultural changes happening now are necessarily bad. Unlike when I read other declinists, notably younger ones — I’m thinking of Mark Bauerlein and Andrew Keen — I get a sense that Barzun was always ultimately curious and content to see how things turned out, rather than miserable that we’ve lost some perceived state of perfection which could have been sustained, or that we need to get back to some arbitrarily chosen state of normalcy (or beholden to publishers to sensationalize his work to sell more copies).

Barzun described this attitude as “spirited pessimism,” an appreciation that “experience is neither fixed nor finished; it grows as we make it by our restless search for truth.”

In any age, life confronts all but the most obtuse with a set of impossible demands: it is an action to be performed without rehearsal or respite; it is a confused spectacle to be sorted out and charted; it is a mystery, not indeed to be solved, but to be restated according to some vision, however imperfect.^

As a child he witnessed the birth of Modernism and the outbreak of the First World War. I could imagine it would take a lot to get me worked up these days if I’d had those experiences (and witnessed everything in between — with his mind).

On top of everything else, Barzun’s pragmatism extends to the craft of writing. When he writes about writing, he doesn’t just advise us to follow rigid rules of English. For example, he’s refreshingly flexible about split infinitives, “who” vs. “whom,” and whether or not to use outlines for longer work. Only the individual writer can know what’s appropriate in a given context.

Barzun cautions against pedantry and over-reliance on formal rules and conventions; instead he urges us to become better critics and editors of our own work, learn to rationalize our choices rather than making them automatically or letting them be made for us. He admits that language is constantly changing but that doesn’t liberate writers from the need to exercise care; consciousness is required “both to simplify their task and out of courtesy to their readers,” as he argues in the introduction to Simple & Direct:

At every point there is a choice to be made… and behind the decision there must be a reason. For to acquire self-consciousness also means finding reasons for what you do with each word and being able to state them. Granted that after a while most of the choices are made by reflex action on seeing what the trouble is, that desirable speed and sureness come only with practice. And practice gets under way only when one has learned to see a choice wherever there is one.^

The knowledge and technique I’ve learned from Jacques Barzun has been invaluable, but as a role model he taught me two great lessons: the “life of mind” is worth living, and it’s truly a lifelong effort — even if you live to be 104. As he wrote of his own hero in A Stroll with William James,

He is for me the most inclusive mind I can listen to, the most concrete and least hampered by trifles… he knows better than anyone else the material and spiritual country I am traveling through.