Thursday, November 22, 2007

The New Yorker, Oct 22 2007

from Arthur Crystal's profile of Jacque Barzun, historian and cultural critic:

He demanded . . . that historical narrative include "the range and
wildness of individuality, the pivotal force of trifles, the manifestations of
greatness, the failures of unquestioned talent." His models were Burkhardt,
Gibbon, Macaulay, and Michelet, authors of imperfect mosaics characterized by a
strong narrative line. As for philosopher-historians like Vico, Herder, and
Spengler, Barzun held that they did not, despite creating prodigious works of
learning, write histories at all: "It is not a paradox to say that in seeking a
law of history those passionate minds were giving up their interest in
history."

*

Like William James (his favorite philosopher), Barzun believes that feeling
is at the root of all philosophy and art. "The greatest artists have never been
men of taste," Barzun wrote, with Berlioz in mind. "By never sophisticating
their instincts they have never lost the awareness of the great simplicities,
which they relish both from appetite and from the challenge these offer to skill
in competition with popular art."

*

[Barzun writes:] History, like a vast river, propels logs, vegetation,
rafts, and debris: it is full of live and dead things, some destined for
resurrection; it mingles many waters and holds in solution invisible substances
stolen from distant soils. Anything may become part of it; that is why it can be
an image of the continuity of mankind. And it is also why some of its freight
turns up again in the social sciences: they were constructed out of the contents
of history in the same way as houses in medieval Rome were made out of stones
taken from the Coliseum. But the special sciences based on sorted facts cannot
be mistaken for rivers flowing in time and full of persons and events. They are
systems fashioned with concepts, numbers, and abstract relations. For history,
the reward of eluding method is to escape abstraction.

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