Friday, October 26, 2012

Barzun on intellect

Jacques Barzun has a died at the age of 104. Over at Literary Commentary, I have written a short obituary of a man I greatly admired.

After writing the obit, I sat down to thumb through my old copy of The House of Intellect (1959), one of my favorite Barzuns. I found that I had underlined it heavily. In my appreciation of him, I’d questioned whether Barzun can rightly be described as a “public intellectual.” The House of Intellect is a critique and an apologia for the role. Here are some of the best sentences in the book:

• “[T]hough Intellect neither implies nor precludes intelligence, two of its uses are—to make up for the lack of intelligence and to amplify the force of it by giving it quick recognition and apt embodiment.”

• “A man cannot help being intelligent, but he can easily help become intellectual. Intellect is an institution; it stands up as it were by itself, apart from the possession of intelligence. . . .”

• “The truth is that Intellect can be diminished in its own eyes only with its own consent. . . .”

• The “vice of specialization” entails the denial of intellect. “It is a denial because it rests on the superstition that understanding is identical with professional skill. The universal formula is: ‘You cannot understand or appreciate my art (science) (trade) unless you practice it.’ ”

• “The professional’s fallacy, in short, is to make no distinction between knowing the subject and knowing the craft.”

• The contemporary writer or artist “makes clear that regard for the works of the dead does no good to him, who is living, or rather starving, and that if our age wants a good name hereafter, it must give him the means to create.”

• “Being intellectually feeble, these complaints cannot lead to action; they merely poison the air and the lives of those that breathe it.”

• “[T]here is a difference between the artist and the refugees from life who hide their nakedness in artistic toggery; there is a parallel difference between criticism which is the gateway of understanding and that which is a substitute for artistic work.”

• “A truly modern dictionary would add an entry under ‘human’: ‘the opposite of admirable’. . . .”

• “To admire is an expression of freedom that is denied by envious equality, and admiration depends on fame.”

• “[W]henever an effect cannot be related to a clear cause superstition thrives.”

• “Criticism is supposed to demonstrate an opponent’s error or the merits of a better idea—intellectual work par excellence.”

• “[M]anners are minor morals which facilitate the relations of men, chiefly through words.”

• “Education in the United States is a passion and a paradox. Millions want it and commend it, and are busy about it, at the same time as they are willing to degrade it by trying to get it free of charge and free of work.”

• Our colleges and universities graduate “young men and women of unquestionable gifts, energy, and zest, whose fine intelligence is not matched by strength of intellect.”

• “Without the power to articulate there can be no sustained thought.”

• Barzun disliked school “activities,” especially “group projects,” which are devised to relieve students of the “menace of drudgery, that is, of work.” “The intention, one may suppose, is to inure the young to the ways of collective journalism.”

• “[T]he simple but difficult arts of paying attention, copying accurately, following an argument, detecting an ambiguity or a false inference, testing guesses by summoning up contrary instances, organizing one’s time and one’s thoughts for study—all these arts . . . cannot be taught in the air but only through the difficulties of a defined subject [and] cannot be taught in one course or one year, but must be acquired gradually, in dozens of connections. . . .”

• “The truth is that dealing with the contemporary prepares the mind poorly for a thoughtful life, shortening judgment and distorting perspective.”

• More often than not, the teacher’s relation to the student “is no longer one of legitimate authority met by willing submission, but one of popularity-seeking met by patronizing tolerance.”

• “Of all the deprivations that modern life imposes on intellectual man, the abandonment of work is the cruelest, for all other occupations kill time and drain the spirit, whereas work fills both, and in the doing satisfies at once love and aggression.”

• “In turning individual militant liberalism into socially protective liberalism, they idealized all downtrodden minorities, including children, and instead of ‘liquidating ignorance’ hunted down Intellect as an ogre to destroy.”

• “A believer in a system, or as we say today, an ideology, supports it with all his gregarious instincts—he is no longer alone in his struggle against the world. . . .”

• To think is not the same as “merely prospecting among ideas.”

• On contemporary fiction: “Meaning has evaporated because clear thought is no longer considered an important constituent of art.”

• “[T]he ethics of the intellectual must be those, not of worldly habit, but of deliberate scruple. His only models are the Just Man and the Magnanimous Man. These are distinct technical terms which must not be taken as roughly synonymous with saint. They mean nothing more than what they say: the just man is he who puts his whole strength in seeing the object or idea as it would appear if he had omniscience; and the magnanimous man is he who puts his pride in declining mean advantage or easy victory.”

• On literary scholarship. “It seems odd that a profession whose exercise requires the making of fine distinctions should fail to make one between significant knowledge and insignificant scribbling.”

• When a critic “applies” a method—or what would now be called a theory—he is hoping “to find out what intuition and reflection fail to disclose. Once again, judgment is abandoned or disguised in favor of an objective gimmick.”

• The only question to ask of any intellectual work. “What do we know afterward that we did not know before?”

• “The language which modern pedantry devises is an imitation of jargon, a pseudo-jargon, in which the terms are not fixed and not necessary.”