January 22, 2010

From A Jacques Barzun Reader

Much interesting content in the book mentioned in the title. A few excerpts:
"I offer no unique nostrum. Let every temperament choose its image of the cosmic round. The scientist may like to look at his favorite exploding star in space. The Greeks used the make-believe of tragedy to inoculate their ailing spirits, and a modern soul may temper its steel by doses of contrived horror, as the king did his body against poison by swallowing it - in moderation."
And the following excerpt which sounds so much like what Tom of Disputations or Bill Luse has written, at least in the first line about celebrating life instead of denigrating it:
[We ought have] a just estimate of life itself. The modern dogma that art is the only redeeming feature of the much-pitied "human condition" rejects nine-tenths of life, and with it those not dedicated to the highest pursuits. Faulkner in that mood said that one of Keats's odes "was worth any number of old women." Such literary conceit is also bad logic. Life is good because it is the source and container of everything we value. It is old women, not Grecian urns, that have in their time borne Keatses and Faulkners.

I'm always seduced by learned sages with an encyclopedic view of history, few more so than Barzun. Another great line:

A permissive society acts liberal or malignant erratically; seeing which, generous youth turns cynic or rebel on principle.

Lot said in a little, and indeed we see a permissive society which can erratically provide good parking spaces for the handicapped and yet kill the handicapped in the womb.

Barzun's of a romantic sensibility so it's not too surprising he greatly appreciates Thoreau's masterful prose while at the same time disdaining his illogic and non-sensical political and social writings:
"Nor did Thoreau ever understand his own relation to society...When one is a hermit - or nearly - one fails to grasp the reason for the compromises demanded by life in groups...The position of conscientist objector is made possible by the great strength, the surplus wealth...in a lifeboat containing shipwrecked sailors, there can be no 'conscientious objector'. There is no 'different drummer' to listen to."
Thoreau, like Updike, seems to be one to read less for instruction and edification than for the beauty of the art itself.

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