A City of the Mind: Jacques Barzun, 1907-2012

Jacques Barzun on the cover of Time Magazine, 1956I woke up this morning to learn that Jacques Barzun, born in Paris 104 years ago, died last night in San Antonio.

Barzun was old (and European) enough to remember the Great War as a “shattering experience,” and to have published books denouncing racism and authoritarianism before the Second World War came to America. He was also old enough to have witnessed (and questioned) all three of the great twentieth-century transformations in the American academy: the rise of a new breed of leftist public intellectual, the integration of the university system into the total-war state, and the half-subversive, half-therapeutic insurgencies of the New Left and New Right, which challenged that entanglement.

He was also old enough to have appeared on the cover of Time, accompanied by the lamp of learning, its flame burning like the tail of a rocket, fifty-six years ago.

I have to admit that I have mixed feelings about the kind of romantic intellectualism Barzun championed. On the one hand, I strongly agree with his condemnations of brutish partisanship and technocracy in the academy. I think it’s a little bit disgraceful that universities offer degrees in business — and I hold one — or operate graduate training schools for government functionaries — and I’m earning my doctorate from one.

On the other hand, I’m also the kind of outsider who never would have had a place at the academic table if ugly things like the SAT and GRE didn’t exist. And I just don’t have any inclination to support the conceits of metropolitans who confuse proximity with merit. To his credit, Barzun believed he had a high public calling and wished to make the life of the mind available to ordinary Americans. But there’s also more than a trace, in his record, of the notion that ideas are something ordinary people receive, not something they generate or resist. So when I read Barzun and people like him, I’m left feeling uneasily inspired, trying to sort out the romanticism of sanctity from the romanticism of privilege.

What is certain is that I will continue to draw inspiration from them.