Jacques Barzun
The Culture We Deserve

... the critic clears the path to the work and through the work by removing inner and outer causes of confusion.


There is truth in each of these propositions; and also room for error.


[regarding art:] the sensations they set off arouse our memories of living, add to them, and thereby extend our life... Annexing these portions of art-made experience, undergoing this stirring up of what we have felt, serves to clarify existence, complexify it, and sometimes falsify it.


[No] agreement is conceivable about Being and the ultimate meaning of life. Art and life are kindred kaleidoscopes, shifting even as we look at them; they do not impose a uniform pattern on all minds but may be "taken" in a myriad ways. In re-forming our view of experience through order and clarity, art brings out novelties and ambiguities no one suspected: it is a second life and an extraordinary one. That common words, and patches of oil on canvas, and vibrating strings are able to do this is a mystery, and though we "cannot hope to know what art is," we know that it somehow captures and holds up to our gaze the mystery of existence.


... the scholars who talked history and biography while pretending to discuss poems and novels were mostly dull men, who cared little for literature, whose sense of relevance was weak...


All the difficulties of life had turned into problems, from which it followed that the only worthy effort was to reach solutions. And nothing but science had solved or would ever solve a problem.


[Academics have a desire] to coerce— the wish for universal agreement based on methodical proof. To this wish is added the emotional spur that, with luck and hard work, MY theorem or solution will be right and yours wrong.


One reads a poem as one reads a face—with a great deal of attention, knowledge, and experience of reading.


the art of living consists in knowing how to discern conditions and weigh the probabilities of their unfolding.


efforts today seem violent rather than energetic and their goal appears to be no longer the making of things but their unmaking—by travesty, pastiche and parody, and the allusive kind of art that relies solely on design, sense-appeal, and shock.


Conscience is ruthless in its poetic power to make anything a symbol of righteousness.


When Henry James appealed to the "fundamental decencies," or W. H. Auden spoke of "a man of honor," they meant such things as the sense of obligation, loyalty, the security of the pledged word, the keeping of confidences and that form of self-respect which prompts the thought, This I do not do.


Greater choice in politics, economic life, in social and sexual intercourse were rational goals urged by some of the best men and women of their time. They foresaw and conquered difficulties, but not the consequences.


...the latest type of study in literature and the arts is purely technical. One studies poetry and fiction or art and music not to receive and enjoy a message, but to apply one or another complicated method, a method through which feeling and pleasure and meditation are pretty well excluded.


We cry aloud for "communication" and say we suffer from the lack of it. We ought instead to demand conversation, which pedants so seldom achieve.


The best claim that a college education can possibly make on your respect, the best thing it can aspire to accomplish for you is this: that it should help you to know a good man when you see him. - William James

... a philosophy, a meaning, is by definition a principle that does not accommodate exceptions. It is like a stencil laid over the map of events: only what shows through the holes can have significance, and unfortunately it is inevitable that what the stencil shuts out is often more important than what the philosopher needs in order to establish his principle or meaning.


the value of history does not consist in explaining by formula, in "revealing" some potent principle that governs one or twenty-one civilizations. The value lies in the spectacle itself... thick with the deeds and aims of many individuals. These are always tangled and their meaning or "lesson" is simply that to other human beings the scrimmage is intelligible.


It seems as if there were in most people a deep desire for more rules in the difficult art of saying what one means.


In writing, we see our thoughts begin to take the sharp outline that discloses the gaps between them and the flaws within.


In short, the mystique of "communication" is overdone. Among the peoples of the earth most of the trillions of words emitted every minute are not for communication; they are for self-expression. The speaker wants to utter and cares little whether the listener follows, as is shown by the fact that when the speaker stops he stays absorbed in his own train of thought, waiting for an opening to resume speech. That some communication takes place in the world is an intermittent miracle brought about less by free desire than by sheer necessity.


...the citizens of the modern industrial world do not habitually reckon with Providence or appeal to a deity. They appeal and reckon with machinery, medicine, money, and the forces of the unconscious. These are not gods: the relation of humble intimacy, sacrifice, and mutual love, is lacking.


Lately, scholarship has come to see that for half a century we have been living on the ideas generated during the two decades before that war, 1895 to 1914. In science, art, technology, philosophy, social and political thought, all the new principles were set forth, from aviation, wireless, and motion pictures to abstract art, city planning, aesthetic simultaneity, quantum physics and genetics, relativity and psychoanalysis.


Science... has little to say comprehensively. It is none too well integrated within itself. The proliferating specialties, each with its private language and its stream of discoveries, do not cohere and settle large subjects; it has become a matter of pride that science is never done. If that is so, science is not what its founders expected and promised: a solid edifice of knowledge soon to be completed. Rather it is for a few an absorbing activity whose results can never give its patron civilization a cosmos fit for contemplation.


As for the common man, he has been left more than ever at the mercy of his penchant for superstition.


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