Jacques Barzun and Culture’s New Face

My Coilhouse piece on the coming future and the curmudgeonly scholar who’s (mostly) called it is up:

“Let us face a pluralistic world in which there are no universal churches, no single remedy for all diseases, no one way to teach or write or sing, no magic diet, no world poets, and no chosen races, but only the wretched and wonderfully diversified human race.”

“Finding oneself was a misnomer; a self is not found but made.”

-Jacques Barzun

Last November, historian and cultural critic Jacques Barzun turned 100. In his time, he’s written 37 books on a wide range of topics (38 is in the works), led a prestigious university and received a warehouse full of accolades. He is one of the world’s last living links to the intellectual life of the Belle Époque and the Roaring ’20s (he began teaching when Calvin Coolidge was in office). The word eminent is usually attached to any description of him, no matter who’s writing. It seems to fit.

He thinks the current time is decadent. Not just any decadence, but the sort that ends eras. But it’s not in the signs the usual staid wielder of that word might see: sex, uppity women, kids on the lawn. No, Barzun’s decadence is the end of motion, it is when scholarship becomes “the pretentious garbled in the unintelligible” and “the feeling of being hemmed in by rules matched that of being hemmed in by people.” Above all Barzun’s decadence is a failure of nerve: an unwillingness to face the future and what it demands of us.

For these observations and others, he has been often dismissed as a relic, a snobbish champion of the dead white male tradition. Even among his admirers, he might well go down in history simply as the guy who said that thing about baseball.

But it’s worth taking a look around, at the constant stream of imitative art, at politicians with heads firmly planted in the same tired sand — and at philosophies that serve mainly as elaborate excuses for doing nothing.

So, when Barzun sees things finally running down, with the grand ideas that have driven our culture since the Renaissance crumbling, it’s time to consider something else: he may be a curmudgeon, he may be old-fashioned, he may even be out of touch. He may also be right.

I’m pretty proud of this particular rant of mine and hope it sparks some interesting discussion.

Also, Coilhouse’s first print issue is going on sale very, very soon. You should get one.

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