Tuesday, May 14, 2013

What It Was Like to be the Grandson of Jacques Barzun

Charles Barzun, a law professor at the University Virginia and the grandson of recently passed historian and public intellectual Jacques Barzun, has written a moving letter to his late grandfather at The Chronicle of Higher Education.  Here is just a small taste:

Years earlier when I had expressed an interest in going into your line of work, you actually tried to dissuade me: "The conditions of that life in the present-day university are intolerable for anyone with a love of truth and a sense of honor." But a decade later, when as a law student I voiced a desire to study the history and philosophy of law, you were much more encouraging: "I can't tell you how glad I am that your plan of a career is pushing you in that direction. I think you're taking all the right steps."

But you insisted that I must be sure to look the part: "It is my spontaneous judgment that on this score you could improve what you present to the world," you wrote as I approached graduation from law school. Wear a coat and tie, you advised—and cut your hair: "Its abundance without shape on top and thick uneven length down your neck do not give your features the proper frame. They blur your power and seriousness of thought and tend to reinforce the college-boy image."

OK--this letter is so good that it deserves another taste:

But, as you no doubt recall, I was not always preoccupied with such highfalutin thoughts. In 1997 I had taken a job in San Francisco at an Internet media company. For a while I performed well enough as director of product development, but then in the winter of 2002 I wrote to you out of a genuine crisis of identity. The crisis had been partly brought on by the events of 9/11 and partly by my own discovery that I could not have cared less about my job. I had started reading philosophy again for the first time in years and wanted to tell you this: "More than anything," I wrote, "I am trying to find that which is true, permanent, and enduring in myself—to find or create (which is it?) my life philosophy of sorts. So much philosophical inquiry has been devoted to deducing or discerning that which is true, timeless, or eternal in the universe. For me, merely finding the eternal for me, in my lifetime, would be sufficient!"

I will never forget your response. You immediately demonstrated that you knew exactly what I meant. Such a "spiritual search," you reassured me, was not at all unusual for someone my age: "It really had been brewing for some time and the event that triggered your new awareness was certainly of a magnitude to justify the ensuing disarray. You may be assured that it is not damaging or permanent, but fruitful of good things." You then continued:

"When you have worked through it, by further reflection and some decision as to the immediate future it will turn into something like a path marked on a map, to be followed for a good while and possibly for the rest of your life. To put it another way, you will have made a Self, which is indeed a desirable possession. A Self is interesting to oneself and others, it acts as a sort of rudder in all the vicissitudes of life, and it thereby defines what used to be known as a career."