I knew of Barzun as one of one of the New York intellectuals of the fifties and sixties, but only knew of him; I’d never read him.
But after reading an essay by someone who knew him (I can’t remember where I read; some right leaning publication, I believe, but one of those who mostly try to ignore Trump and assert some intellectual legitimacy to the right), I thought I should rectify that.
For better or worse, all the library had was his immensely long, late in life, magnum opus.
A couple of things struck me while reading it.
First, a fascinating aside about Hamlet within another aside about Shakespeare. He points out that it is a modern understanding to think of him a vacillating. In fact, Barzun argues, he was being judicious in a difficult environment. It is no small thing to kill a king and dangerous if you fail; also dangerous if you succeed, because you are vulnerable in the short term to popular unrest or the ambitions of nobleman who sees opportunity in the inevitable chaos. That he was not indecisive is proven, he writes, by Fortinbras saying, upon finding the scene of slaughter at the end (I am giving nothing away, I hope), that Hamlet would have made a great king. Surely, if Hamlet were the waffling type, this would not be the case. He also suggests that Laertes is included to point out the contrast between an impetuous character and a careful one; Laertes’ recklessness makes him an easy tool for Hamlet’s uncle. It also nicely matched an interesting (but not great) production of Hamlet that I saw at the Folger, where the director challenged the actors and audience not to focus on psychology, but on the actions of the characters.
Second, I am an elitist. I already knew this. But Barzun is writing elite, cultural history. He is not Braudel. He’s not even a Durant. He is an apostle of high culture. And, well, I like reading about that. That said, his brand patrician elitism can elide decency and slip into something distasteful, as in his off hand, Malthusian remark about “the rapid increase in people as hygiene and medication recklessly prolong life.” He was in his nineties when he wrote this book.
What did I learn? Well, it is the sort of magisterial, grand work one doesn’t find so much anymore, so one does learn a lot. Too much to sum up. But…
I’m not sure that counts as learning, but his thesis that monarchism is the key to unlocking an understanding of the baroque was fascinating, even if I am not qualified to judge it.
His portraits of cities as exemplars of particular times – Venice in the mid seventeenth century or London in 1715 – are as masterful as they delightful, until they are not. Paris in 1830 is oddly, mostly about German thought. His pastiche of 1895 showed an unsurprising indifference.
It feels like, and this especially struck reading his reading of the twentieth century, that the figures he most enjoys are more contemporary ones whose style harkens back to the witty and learned diaries, essays, and criticisms of Samuels Pepys and Johnson and the men who filled the pages of the Tatler and its siblings of the eighteenth century. But he does namecheck Garbage, one of the great bands of the nineties (the 1990s, that is), even if disparagingly (in the context of band names that are… bad? Dirty? Filthy?)
Should you read Barzun? Probably. He is Eurocentric and not terribly interested in non-white cultures, but these deep flaws don’t make him unreadable. Indeed, he is a witty writer. Lines like “a thin slice of antiquity for a large spread of modern butter,” in reference to French baroque culture’s preference for Roman over Greek antiquity struck me very nicely.