Saturday, November 03, 2007

Hart, Jeffrey. "Jacques Barzun at 100." NEW CRITERION November 2007.

Barzun became one of those unusual teachers and writers who is part of a permanent conversation in my mind, and certainly in the widely disparate minds of many others. I did not actually meet Barzun until 1957, when, after almost four years in Naval Intelligence during the Korean War, I returned to Columbia as a graduate student and assistant professor. At that time Jacques Barzun and Lionel Trilling were teaching their famous graduate seminar on major works in the development of the modern mind. Admission to the Barzun-Trilling seminar, as it was known, entailed an interview with the two professors, which took place in Trilling’s Hamilton Hall office. This turned out to be genial, indeed conducted with a tone that suggested that in some sense we were equals, gentlemen and professionals, and serious about goals the three of us shared. In that first interview I gained a distinct sense that what they wanted were seminar participants who not only would teach but had it in mind to write in a serious way, and to the extent possible be engaged in focused and shaping activity: No Waste Landers; no Bartleby the Scriveners; no William Steig figures curled up in protective boxes of sensibility. The course met once a week in the evening. Each week, the two-hour session began with the consideration of an essay written by a member of the class. Clean copies had been put on reserve for the class to read. At the seminar the author received his own work back with written comments by Trilling and Barzun. Then the group discussed the essay. The pretensions of my first essay were annihilated, especially by Barzun. One result was that, as I rose from the dead, he was able to praise my second effort as publishable. There can be no doubt that other students found the intense criticism of Barzun and Trilling invaluable to their writing. After spending at least half an hour on such essays, we moved on to the discussion of a major work. These included Mill on Bentham and Coleridge with an introductory essay by F. R. Leavis, Hegel’s Philosophy of History, Nietzsche’s Will to Power, Chesterton’s Victorian Age in Literature, Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy, Bagehot’s English Constitution, Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents, essays by John Jay Chapman, whom Barzun very much admired, and, because a subject of wide interest at the time, David Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd. Barzun and Trilling provided a useful contrast, Barzun clarifying, usually trying to cut to the indispensable core of a major thinker’s work, explicating, achieving an understanding, Trilling often pushing back at the text, viewing it as a locus of problematical energy. He was engaged to the point of feeling challenged and required to respond. He often said in one way or another, “It’s complicated, very complicated.” Certainly, it would be too much to say that Barzun and Trilling were Settembrini and Naptha up there in that sanitarium on their magic mountain, or Cassirer and Heidegger in their internationally famous 1929 debate at Davos in the Alps, but the paradigms do have relevance; Barzun, though romantic in his sympathy for particular energies of art, was also in his analytical approach what could be called a rationalist, or, as Sidney Hook once remarked, as possessing “luminous common sense.” His clarifications of Trilling’s complexities sometimes were essential. . . . Read the whole article here:

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