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Handling Life’s Difficulties

“History is concrete and complex; everything in it is individual and entangled. Reading it, mulling it over does not weaken concern with the present, but it brings detachment from the immediate and thus cures ‘the jumps’ – seeing every untoward event as menacing, every success or defeat as permanent, every opponent as a monster of error.”

– Jacques Barzun, “Toward A Fateful Serenity”

Is there a truth or principle on which the edifice of a human identity can be built? A truth, that is, which attenuates the recurring feeling that life is ultimately pointless and vain?

This was the question that confronted the essayist and historian Jacques Barzun, who passed his early years during the first world war – a time when the sense of the meaninglessness of life was as acute as any other. “The nightmare that ensued,” Barzun relates, “put an end to all innocent joys and assumptions…News of death in every message or greeting, knowledge that cousins, uncles, friends, teachers, and figures known by repute would not be seen again; encounters at home and in the street or schoolyard with the maimed, shell-shocked, or gassed, caused a permanent muting of the spirit.”

Though harried for many years by thoughts of suicide, Barzun eventually happened upon an answer to his problems. His raison d’etre consisted of a “resolve to fight the mechanical,” by which he meant not machinery or technology but the abdication of human judgment, the acquiescence of the spirit in routines and norms that are hostile to truth and meaning. He enlisted the study of history in this fight, which offered not only perspective but the revival of “the lost faculty of admiration.”

He takes up these ideas in his essay “Toward A Fateful Serenity” (1990). An excerpt from it follows and can be found in A Jacques Barzun Reader (New York: Perennial Classics, 2002), ed. by Michael Murray, pp. 5-7.

In any age, life confronts all but the most obtuse with a set of impossible demands: it is an action to be performed without rehearsal or respite; it is a confused spectacle to be sorted out and charted; it is a mystery, not indeed to be solved, but to be restated according to some vision, however imperfect. These demands bear down with redoubled force in times of decay and deconstruction, because guiding customs and conventions are in disarray. At first, this loosening of rules looks like liberation, but it is illusory. A permissive society acts liberal or malignant erratically; seeing which, generous youth turns cynic or rebel on principle.

“Either option is almost certain to end in waste and regrets; and anyhow, disillusion should be a one-time misadventure, not a lifelong grievance. But to avoid resentment requires a clear alternative, some purpose to turn the aggressive reaction away from the self or from the image of the world as Grand Conspirator. The purpose I gradually fashioned took the form of a resolve to fight the mechanical.

“Such a struggle has nothing to do with the popular cursing of machinery. Machines are admirable and tyrannize only with the user’s consent, absent-mindedness, or laziness. Yielding to the mechanical is still more culpable when it comes from ignoring the fact that Nature, which we are taught to see as a machine, contains the unmechanical mind of  man – which it is a disgrace and a danger to let lapse into automatism.

“Where, then, is this enemy? Not where the machine gives relief from drudgery but where human judgment abdicates. Any ossified institution – almost every bureaucracy, public or private – manifests the mechanical. So does race-thinking – a verdict passed mechanically at a color-coded signal. Ideology is likewise an idea-machine, designed to spare the buyer any further thought. Again, “methods” substituted for reading books and judging art are a perversion of what belongs to science and engineering: “models,” formulas, theories. Specialism too turns machine-like if it never transcends its single task. The smoothest machine-made product of the age is the organization man, for even the best organizing principle tends to corrupt, and the mechanical principle corrupts absolutely…

“The source of my antipathy to the mechanical was not itself an abstract idea. It arose from an attachment to the matter and manner of history. This is not a popular addiction. Far from a welcome heritage, history today is only the intruder at the door and the past is – passe. By a fortunate accident, my mind was given a different turn early in life. I had a great-grandmother, born in 1830, who talked to me of the world in her young days in such a way that her memories became part of my imaginative life. Enchanting vistas of the nineteenth century, and tragic ones also, shone for me with the light of present fact. I trace to this privilege my choicest pleasures and clearest convictions, my conception of existence, and not solely my life’s work.

“History is concrete and complex; everything in it is individual and entangled. Reading it, mulling it over does not weaken concern with the present, but it brings detachment from the immediate and thus cures ‘the jumps’ – seeing every untoward event as menacing, every success or defeat as permanent, every opponent as a monster of error.

“A sense of ‘how things go’ in history – how they come and go – also protects against the worst among machines: the bandwagon. To keep from climbing on is harder than ever since that other machine, the media, has been installed. So many projects, attitudes, and ‘concepts,’ as they are quaintly called, are launched with all the trappings of true ideas that holding aloof looks like egotism or the sulks; but it is not sulking to stare as the lemmings rush by; it is self-defense.

“Happily, the historical outlook serves other than defensive ends. Its best reward, as I think, is the positive good of reviving the lost faculty of admiration. The past is full of men and women (and children too) whose lives and deeds are worthy of honor, wonder, and gratitude, which I take to be the components of admiration. That talents and virtues graced the least favorable ages is a tonic fact, and it keeps alive the belief in a similar (even if hidden) provision of merit in our own bad times. Admiration also makes one want to amend careless Posterity and draw fresh attention to the forgotten or misknown. I for one have felt that this effort helped justify my existence when I was writing about such figures as John Jay Chapman, Samuel Butler, Walter Bagehot, or Berlioz.”

(March 12, 2016)

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