Monday, November 19, 2007

Krystal, Arthur. "Age of Reason [on Jacques Barzun]." NEW YORKER October 22, 2007.

. . . At the Colloquium, books and ideas were thrown open to discussion; almost every approach was tolerated. “Cultural criticism” was Barzun and Trilling’s coinage for their lack of method, and it worked so well that, in the mid-fifties, Fred Friendly, an executive producer at CBS News, tried (and failed) to persuade the two men to offer a version of the Colloquium for television. “It was awe-inspiring,” the historian Fritz Stern, a 1946 alumnus of the Colloquium, recalled recently. “There I was, listening to two men very different, yet brilliantly attuned to each other, spinning and refining their thoughts in front of us. And when they spoke about Wordsworth, or Balzac, or Burke, it was as if they’d known him. I couldn’t imagine a better way to read the great masterpieces of modern European thought.” The class met on Wednesday evenings, and, as the decades passed and more specialized approaches to literature emerged, Barzun and Trilling remained committed to the essential messiness of culture. Neither the self-isolating pieties of the New Critics, nor the technical proficiency of the Russian Formalists, nor the class-bound shibboleths of Marxist writers held sway in their classroom. As a result, they were condemned, as Barzun recalled, “for overlooking the autonomy of the work of art and its inherent indifference to meaning; for ignoring the dialectic of history,” not to mention “the ‘rigorous’ critical methods recently opened to those who could count metaphors, analyze themes, and trace myths.” Basically, Barzun and Trilling cast themselves in the Arnoldian mold of relating culture to conduct. Matthew Arnold believed that judging books “as to the influence which they are calculated to have upon the general culture” would help realize man’s better nature and, thus, eventually improve society itself. Trilling and Barzun were less dreamy about the critic’s power, but, like Arnold, they saw no fissure between moral and aesthetic intelligence. They interpreted books liberally and wrote about them with a fluency and a precision befitting R. P. Blackmur’s definition of criticism as “the formal discourse of an amateur.” For all that, Barzun was never a 'New York intellectual.' He occasionally fraternized with the Partisan Review crowd, but he avoided the sectarian wars that seemed to fuel their lives and work; he appears only marginally in most accounts of the literary figures who rotated around the magazine. Yet, when a mid-century issue of Time came out with a lead article entitled “America and the Intellectual,” it wasn’t Edmund Wilson, or Lionel Trilling, or Sidney Hook, or Mark Van Doren whose likeness appeared on the cover (though all were mentioned inside); it was that of a man who hadn’t even been born here. . . . Read the entire article here:

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