Monday, October 25, 2021

'What Makes Humanity Other Than Animal'

“[W]e suffer from the illusion of change, which should contradict everything I have said. That illusion is a destructive fantasy. Count the instances when you hear or read that the world is changing so fast that that is why we feel so uncomfortable. It is a cliché, an obsession. And a great error.”


Just the other day I heard someone say with a straight face: “Change is good.” No exceptions, no qualifications, just a blanket faith in the benign power of a shift in circumstances. No thought that death constitutes change, as do metastatic cancer and tertiary syphilis. Of course, the idea can be chalked up to carelessness, loose language. But underlying the sentiment is the understanding that the present is somehow unsatisfactory and must be changed, and not merely for oneself but for all. It recalls Trotsky’s disastrously crackpot notion of “permanent revolution.”


The passage quoted above by Jacques Barzun is from a lecture he delivered in 1969 that remained unpublished for fifty years. His grandsons explain how “Is Life Worth Living?” was rediscovered. The title is borrowed from one of Barzun’s heroes, William James. As always when reading Barzun, the quality of his thinking and prose that most impresses me is calmness of tone. He never raises his voice. There’s no self-indulgent melodrama. Thought and emotion are in balance. One suffuses the other. Ever the historian, Barzun puts our besottedness with change in context:


“[T]he underlying forces and their effects, the things that make up the quality of life, have not changed since the latter days of Thomas Carlyle or John Ruskin. They, and others with clear minds, described and predicted our misery. It was Ruskin who first pointed out that the conditions of modern work would induce self-contempt. It was Carlyle who foresaw the paralysis of social action. The bulk of their contemporaries may not have known what they meant; we do now.”


Today, Carlyle and Ruskin often read like uncanny prophets. So does Barzun. In retrospect, 1969 seems like an age of pastoral bliss. In his final paragraph Barzun writes:


“[There is] the likelihood that we are in a period of well-nigh total dissolution, and that before the wellsprings of a tolerable existence are tapped afresh, we shall go through even drearier times and more anguished moments. What the future will be is not the business of a historian to say.”


That sounds grim but Barzun finishes his lecture with not so much an obligatory gesture of optimism as an acknowledgement that even the most primitive humans are capable of surprising us:


“What is certain is that the desire not for life alone, not for brutish life, but for a special quality in life will not cease, even for the last shivering inhabitant of a devastated planet. That desire is planted deep, and it seeks its fulfillment, which is what makes humanity other than animal.”


Barzun died on this date, October 25, in 2012, five weeks short of his 105th birthday.

No comments: