Jay Ambrose - Jacques Barzun was a man of the century

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Thanks to Jacques Barzun for a life of teaching that began at age nine and erupted in an unbelievably great book at the age of 92. He died this past October at 104, leaving thousands grateful for all those years of giving.

I am among those thousands, happy as can be that he left France in his youth, becoming an American citizen who embraced the greatness of Western civilization just as he understood some of its weakening ways.

Though I first encountered some of Barzun's books in my teens, it was not until its publication 12 years ago that I could peruse my favorite, "From Dawn to Decadence: 500 years of Western Cultural Life." It was written in San Antonio. A New York Times obituary says Barzun moved there in his late 80s out of love for the Texas landscape. For much of his life, he had been a New Yorker, a valedictorian as a student at Columbia University and later a professor, provost and dean of faculty there, helping to design its curriculum.

The obituary tells us how upset he was at the student protests at the school in the late 1960s and how he became dismayed, as well, at something else -- how so many university curriculums had disintegrated from a focus on the best of the Western thought and literature to a "bazaar" of this, that and the other. In Dawn to Decadence, he shares still other regrets after first telling us about major revolutions in Western history, persistent cultural themes that accompanied them and extraordinary achievements that then banged into the Great Illusion.

We're talking here about World War I, which is why Barzun became a teacher of younger children as a child -- many of the adult instructors of his French school had taken off to fight. The war was an illusion initially thought by all sides to be a wondrous glory, although, from 1914 to 1918 it took maybe 10 million lives. There were other losses described by Barzun as the "maimed, the tubercular, the incurables, the shell-shocked, the sorrowing, the driven mad, the suicides, the broken spirits the destroyed careers, the budding geniuses plowed under, the missing births ... " All of this and more "hurled the modern world on its course of self-destruction" as people became disenchanted with past ideas, Barzun writes.

The book's description of the 20th century isn't all bad, but it is hardly encouraging. And here is an intellectual who gets down to earth, as when he talks about a liberal welfare ethos that supplanted the original liberal emphasis on liberty. The state aimed to dictate a kind of perfection with rules applying to just about everything, and all of this became unbelievably costly, especially as sooner or later almost everyone signed on as a victim in need of help.

Meanwhile, when legislation runs thousands of pages, it's not elected representatives who decide details as much as behind-the-scenes technocrats. Debate goes unreported in the press, and polls get more attention than analysis by the politicians who collect millions from lobbyists to elucidate issues through TV sound bites and attacks on the character of their opponents.

The supposedly clever are always irreverent because there is nothing left to be reverent (or clever) about, and everyone is always in a hurry, mostly for entertainment. Let someone get in the way and you've got rebellion on your hands, for who respects any kind of authority anymore? People want to find themselves, forgetting, the author says, that you don't find yourself -- you make yourself. Image, he says, is what counts today, not real worth, and self-contempt runs rampant. Everybody is an amateur psychologist, and the diagnoses are all nonsense, as are dominant philosophies specializing in absurdity.

There's much more, but Barzun is not a pessimist. The consequence of this decadence, he says, is boredom, and the boredom will breed a search for past Western enthusiasms that are waiting to be rediscovered, causing people to pronounce what Erasmus and Wordsworth once said: "Oh, what a joy to be alive."

For that thought, I give Barzun thanks once again.

(Jay Ambrose, formerly Washington director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard newspapers and the editor of dailies in El Paso, Texas, and Denver, is a columnist living in Colorado.)

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