Friday, October 26, 2012

`The Whole of Human Life in All Its Variety'

Jacques Barzun, who happily for us lived a preternaturally long and productive life, has died in San Antonio at age 104. My favorites among his many books are probably God's Country and Mine: A Declaration of Love, Spiced with a Few Harsh Words (1954) and A Stroll with William James (1983), though I might come up with a fresh list tomorrow. At the end of the latter volume, Barzun appends an “Epilogue-Anthology,” a commonplace book of quotations from James’ precursors, some of his “predecessors in the Great Conversation.” Among them is an extract from a conversation Dr. Johnson had on July 5, 1763, as reported by Boswell:

“I have often amused myself with thinking how different a place London is to different people. They, whose narrow minds are contracted to the consideration of some particular pursuit, view it only through that medium. A politician thinks of it merely as the seat of government in its different departments ; a grazier, as a vast market for cattle ; a mercantile man, as a place where a prodigious deal of business is done upon 'Change ; a dramatick enthusiast, as the grand scene of theatrical entertainments ; a man of pleasure, as an assemblage of taverns, and the great emporium for ladies of easy virtue. But the intellectual man is struck with it, as comprehending the whole of human life in all its variety, the contemplation of which is inexhaustible.” 

For “London” substitute “the world,” and replace “the intellectual man” with “Jacques Barzun,” and you have some sense of the sensibility of this great generalist and master of prose clarity. For more about Barzun go here, here, here, here and here.

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