Our book today is that strange wonder from 1983, Jacques Barzun’s A Stroll with William James, and of course it’s down off the shelf for the saddest of reasons, the one kind of re-reading no author covets: Barzun recently died. We compulsively reach for the books of recently-dead authors in part, I think, to reassure ourselves that the books aren’t going anywhere, that the immortality their authors sought has, in fact, commenced; here are some of the best parts of their selves, kilned to a finer durability. Barzun wrote many books and was such a deep thinker that none of them feels at all improvised – he really did seem to be writing always with one eye on that steely eternity that enshrines shoddy work but never forgives it, so he was careful. And it helped that from very early on in his preternaturally long career, he wrote only about things that actually mattered to him. There’s so little in his writings of the workaday dross that’s otherwise inevitable in the life-work of any professional writer.
He tended to write about what he cared about, and in the realm of literature, he cared for few authors as much as William James, the Harvard professor, older brother of novelist Henry, and author of Pragmatism and The Varieties of Religious Experience. Barzun states right at the outset the huge debt he owes from ‘keeping his account open’ with James, and the book that results – this chatty, immensely erudite, entirely remarkable book – is one of the most inviting intellectual tributes on writer ever paid to another.
He delves deeply and exhilaratingly into James’ works, which I’ve always found as stimulating and incomprehensible as those of his brother, but any long-time Barzun reader will be here at least as much for the inimitable asides as for any strictly literary analyses. And A Stroll with William James doesn’t disappoint! Popping up every dozen pages or so are the oh-so-mannered little jeremiads we expect, on everything from feckless human nature to Barzun’s bete noir, the current day’s careless idiom:
The ladder of increasing generality is traveled up and down by the mind a dozen times in an hour without one’s noticing it. If from love of abstraction new conceptual terms are substituted for common ones, it often happens that the power of words to direct thought approaches zero. “Serious love affair” used to be a good enough phrase to indicate a whole range of feelings and actions. We have substituted “meaningful relationship,” which is so indefinite that it could cover the association of a hunter and his dog – or even that of oxygen and hydrogen in water.
In his mandarin refinement (when he writes something absurd like “One can suffer rhythmical indigestion from misconducted music and physical distress from daubs or muddy prose,” we actually believe him), he’s far more spiritually akin to Henry James than to William – indeed, in many ways this book is the closest we’ll ever come to reading the one brother on the other; there’s the same mixture of penetrating insight and snobbish digressions. And some of the roots of William’s pragmatism are probed with Barzun’s typical brisk brilliance:
Does this not mean that the end justifies the means? Yes. Horrors! No formula arouses greater indignation in moralists; it is the mark of the Evil One; it is the reason given for regarding avowed pragmatism as suspect. Anybody ho subscribes to the wicked notion in so many words has to explain himself, offer some excuse. Well, for a start, everyone without exception acts on it in ordinary life. For instance: a man takes a sharp knife and slashes a child. He is a brute, a monster. But just a minute! The man is Dr. X, about to remove the inflamed appendix. Immediately the cut in the abdomen becomes desirable, praiseworthy, highly paid. The end – and nothing else – has changed the moral standing of the violent act. The end justifies the means.
William James earned fame as much for being a psychologist as for being a philosopher, and the odd coruscations of his mind have attracted writers for a century. Here was a man who periodically withdrew from society, whose surviving siblings came to consider in many ways fragile, and yet was likewise famously bluff and no-nonsense. He’s a complex, shuttered lantern, and later biographers have tended to shine their own reflections onto him in their claims of kinship. In this Barzun – ever unruffled – is no different in principle, although in practice he’s of course ten times more readable than anybody less handy with an apothegm:
The surprise is that a facade-free personality should also be sensitive and possessed of genius. Long habit makes us want our geniuses scarred. The sign of their authenticity is their affliction. They must be disagreeable, self-centered, dissolute, unscrupulous, maniacal, enslaved to alcohol or drugs. The festering wound, like Philoctetes’, must be there or they can’t draw the bow.
It takes a considerable amount of will power to read as much about William James as Jacques Barzun did and then imply he wasn’t scarred, but Barzun was a great thinker, and as he writes: “Great thinkers are so confusing!” – so it’s his prerogative. It certainly doesn’t lessen the friendly majesty of A Stroll with William James, which I opened after Barzun’s death to find all my old marginalia – and to add more, for ninety blissful minutes fully and unaffectedly in the company of these lost mighty thinkers. This, too, is a variety of religious experience, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.