Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Mark Halpern

Mark Halpern initiated The Jacques Barzun Centennial project. I hope he will write a piece about his favorite living author.

What so many new doctors of philosophy do . . . is to go on writing doctoral dissertations for the rest of their careers: irreproachably documented articles and books on points that no one has written on before. . . . What was so hard to do when one was a graduate student is now the easy thing, at least as compared with the alternative, and by far the safer thing. The continued production of papers and books modeled on the journeyman’s project that won the doctorate for the professor when he was a graduate student is doubly attractive: it is something he knows how to do, and it is something that, done with ordinary competence, cannot hurt his professional reputation. On the other hand, the writing of a large-scale book that cannot be justified on the grounds that it contains hitherto unpublished facts, but offers instead a coherent, plausible account of known events, is risky all around, perhaps most so when it is by publishers’ standards successful; such success brings with it whispered accusations of abandoning real scholarship and selling out to the bitch goddess Success.

But to fail to move on from journeyman’s projects to works with much higher aims is to stultify himself, condemn himself to perpetual professional adolescence. The newly credentialed doctor must, if he is not to remain a graduate student until the day he retires, move on to papers and books that do not depend for their justification on the claim that they contain information up till now unavailable (if only because no one cared whether it was available or not), and that are written not to impress one’s advisors, mentors, or examiners, but rather the cultivated world outside the academy.

The hardest thing to do in any humanistic study, and the most risky, is to produce a plausible and lucid account of some complex human event or process. This requires not only that the author have read and thoroughly absorbed all the source material relating to his topic, and at least the cream of the secondary material, but also — and most important — that he have a vision of his subject that enables him to give a coherent account of it to intelligent, educated nonspecialists. This is a task many degrees more difficult, and potentially more rewarding, than the adding of some more inert facts to the enormous piles of them already crowding the shelves of research libraries. It would mark a great advance in our conception of humanistic studies if we honored those who have tried, even if not entirely successfully, to provide us with the understanding that only such interpretive studies can offer, and regarded the busy beavers who keep piling up undigested facts as the superannuated graduate students and journeymen they are.

— Mark Halpern, Three Reflections on American Humanistic Scholarship (requires subscription to The Vocabula Review).

See also Mark Halpern.


Sunday, May 27, 2007

On Not Reading Jacques Barzun

Unreadable. No, really.

Paintings and relatives

On reading Jacques Barzun:

Jack Faber, Jacques Barzun

Ask Dr. Ira, Friend or Foe?

profundus ignarus, Overture In Light of Prolonged Disuse

Experimental Theology, A Walk with William James

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Felicitations at 95

Barzun and Chesterton on Pragmatism in Practice

Chesterton gives a stunning example in his Autobiography. People in his small town wanted to put up a war memorial. After raising the money, some decided it would be “more practical” to build a meeting hall. The new proposal split the community. Chesterton comments:

If people thought it wrong to have a memory of the war, let them say so. If they did not approve of wasting money on a War Memorial, let us scrap the War Memorial and save the money. But to do something totally different which we wanted to do, was unworthy of Homo Sapiens. . . . I got some converts to my view: but I think that many still thought that I was not practical; though in fact I was very specially practical, for those who understand what is really meant by Pragma. The most practical test of the problem of unmemorial memorials was offered by the Rector of Beaconsfield, who got up and said: ”We already have a ward in the Wycombe Hospital which was supposed to commemorate something. Can anybody here tell me what it commemorates?”

The case is worth a moment’s attention to the pattern it reveals. Discerning the pragma usually requires that we pull apart old links: the townspeople thought of a meeting hall as practical (because you can meet there endlessly) and of a war memorial as unpractical (because you can only look at it). But a monument does memorialize and a hall does not; therefore the bronze group of soldiers (“with an officer about to hurl his binoculars at the post office”) is practical for the stated purpose.

— Jacques Barzun, A Stroll with William James, 1983, 98

Compare Romano Amerio in the blogpost New Friends.

Friday, May 25, 2007

More Stumbling Upon

Someone added The Jacques Barzun Centennial to the History topic in StumbleUpon, and as a result the site had several hundred “hits” today.

Grand Théâtre de Genève

Dear Mary, Leo and all cheering the Barzun Centennial,

John wishes you to know that the Geneva Grand Theatre will agree to putting in the program that the performances of LES TROYENS, Sept. and Oct. ’07 with John conducting, will be dedicated to Jacques Barzun. How wonderful! There will be a statement on the announcement page of the program. We are grateful and excited.

John and Anita Nelson

John Nelson


59th ANNUAL GREAT TEACHER AWARDS GALA DINNER, Thursday, October 18, 2007

Friday, May 18, 2007

Jacques Barzun’s Century

Rafe Champion’s article with this title in Quadrant: Australia’s independent review of literature and ideas, April 2007, is based on Mr. Champion’s Review essay on Jacques Barzun.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Counting Down

See Gene Expression.

But note that for Catholic families the name day was often more important than the birthday:

We take little account of birthdays; we celebrate name days; after all, we are Catholics. The first time I really made a firm note of my father’s birthday was when he was sixty; and then we did celebrate the day, as is appropriate.
— Josef Pieper, No One Could Have Known

That this was the custom in Mr. Barzun’s family was confirmed by a letter to me about the dates of H. M. Barzun.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Words of a Teacher

It is one of the pleasures of teaching to discover what trivial things, unremembered by the speaker will effect unpredictable revolutions in the mind of a student. One recent instance comes to my mind, from the mouth of a particularly brilliant person, and hence doubly gratifying: Do you know what changed my whole attitude to study? No. Well, when I was a freshman, you assigned some readings in Samuel Butler, and when I came back to report, I began telling you what I had learned. But you broke in and said Yes, yes. What I want to know first is, was it fun?
— Jacques Barzun, Teacher in America


Many a teacher, and we ourselves, would probably be surprised if it came to light what precisely — of all the things we say — has made the proverbial deep impression on our pupils or sons. Thus, for a while we were taught Church history by Paul Simon, the friend of Heinrich Brüning, doubtlessly an extraordinary man; soon afterward he became professor in Tübingen and even Rector of the University shortly before the seizure of power by the Nazi regime. Later, he used to exaggerate and mislead people somewhat by referring to me as a pupil of his. But what, of all his erudite wisdom, have I consciously retained? Nothing whatsoever, apart from a single, incidental comment: when his mother died, one or other of us expressed the class’s sympathy, in more or less formal terms, as was the custom; evidently he was not expecting it and, for once caught off-balance in a way that revealed his more human side, he said spontaneously, You only know what a mother is when you have lost her.
— Josef Pieper, No One Could Have Known


Thursday, May 10, 2007

James O’Toole

On a Great Human Being

Jacques Barzun’s hundredth birthday is being celebrated enthusiastically by so many people not just because he is a great scholar, writer, and teacher, but because he also is a great human being. . . .