Jacques Barzun, 1907-2012


Ours is a time of severe specialization. Of having access to more information than ever, yet thinking it’s wise to crunch extremely complex ideas or feelings into 140 characters. Of being impatient with third sentences that still aren’t getting to the point.

And so it seems almost intentional that Jacques Barzun waited for this exact moment to die, just to remind us of the virtues of being a cultural polymath. The “distinguished historian, essayist, cultural gadfly and educator who helped establish the modern discipline of cultural history,” as the New York Times put it, died Thursday. He was 104.

Barzun will be remembered for many things, perhaps most sensationally for his hunch that Western civilization was slouching toward self-satisfied ruin. He dug into a panoply of subjects, including race, Romanticism, education, Auden and politics.

He was also a source of otherwise-unavailable cultural perspective for many a budding music critic. He championed Berlioz, of course. But his essay Music into Words was highly influential, and, still today, sparkles with more relevance than even in 1951, when it was delivered as a Louis C. Elson Memorial Lecture under the wing of the Library of Congress.

As the title suggests, it’s a discussion near and dear to the heart of anyone who writes about music: how, and whether, the experience of music can be translated into meaningful prose description. More than that, though, it’s an essay for anyone who thinks about music, which is to say, all of us.

Like a lot of Barzun’s writing, it is about one thing, but really about another. In this case, he addressed “the fluid phenomenon named Art, which we try to decant into our little individual flasks of consciousness with the aid of words.” But in doing so, he gets around to the beautiful business of defining art itself. This quote is well worth following through to its end, and serves, I think, as a nice epitaph for the kind of thinker who, as of Thursday, we find in startling short supply.

…a great work resembles an animated world that is perceived and inhabited by the beholder. It is various, extensive, treacherous, perfectly still and yet in constant motion. Like the moon seen from a vehicle, it follows one about while looking down with indifference. The masterpiece mirrors the mind of one man and of all men; it annoys, delights, instructs, and sometimes preaches, though it contradicts itself and other revelations equally true; it shapes the conduct of multitudes who have never so much as heard of it, and it is often powerless to improve the behavior of those who study and believe its messages. It was created out of nothing, but pieces of other worlds lie embedded in it like meteorites; it is the cause of endless unimaginable creations after itself, yet its own existence is so precarious that its survival often suggests miraculous intervention through the agency of fools and thieves.

Anyone laboring in the arts can print that out and keep it tucked in breast pocket, a ready reminder at tough moments of why we do what we do.