Commentary Magazine

The Energies of Art, by Jacques Barzun

The Critic’s Task
The Energies of Art
By Jacques Barzun
Harper. 355 pp. $5.00.


The opening essay of Mr. Barzun’s book is called “The Critic’s Task Today,” and I began to read with a marked alertness of interest: the critic’s task today in England—that phrase defines pretty well a main preoccupation of my own. An American critic would be contemplating a scene in some ways different from that familiar to me: I prepared to note the differences, and to find they had an instructive bearing on my own sense of the problem—the common problem, it ought (I assumed) to be. For the difference that Mr. Barzun seemed to be presenting me with by the time I had reached the bottom of the first page, I was, however, wholly unprepared, and I very soon settled down to the conclusion that, as the upshot of a perusal of Mr. Barzun’s book, I now have to report: between the problem as seen by him and as seen by me there is little or nothing in common.

Mr. Barzun quotes a characteristic despairing note of Henry James’s on Anglo-Saxon civilization: “Our huge Anglo-Saxon array of producers and readers—and especially our vast cis-Atlantic multitude—presents production uncontrolled, production untouched by criticism, unguided, unlighted, uninstructed, unashamed, on a scale that is really a new thing in the world. It is all the complete reversal of any proportion, between the elements, that was ever seen before—it is the biggest flock straying without shepherds.”

On this Mr. Barzun comments, to me astonishingly: “Were James to return today he would observe the reversal of that reversal. It is now the shepherds that are the multitude, busy even when unemployed by novelty. And production is everything that James found it was not: it is guided, lighted, instructed, and very much ashamed.”

If I were to take this seriously I should have to conclude that things are very different indeed in America from what they are in England—different in a way in which I cannot in fact believe it to be. In England—in the United Kingdom as a whole—it is impossible to marshal a public large enough to keep a serious critical review going. The task that the English critic has to propose to himself is that of getting recognition for the fact and for its significance. It is that of bringing home to the scattered elements, actual and potential, of an educated reading public the historical significance of the career of W. H. Auden.

I specify Auden as the unquestionable talent among the group that staged the “Poetical Renascence” of the early 30’s. Auden’s rise almost overnight to the accepted status of a major poet was the achievement of a coterie—a coterie that found itself in unchecked possession of the English literary scene. His arrest at an undergraduate phase of immaturity was also the achievement of the coterie—or the consequence of the conditions represented by unchecked coterie rule. In England today the coherent educated public, on the existence of which the critic’s effective appeal to standards depends, has virtually disappeared. For the literary world the essential public, the public of which it is conscious and whose response counts, is the literary world itself: the literary Etonians and their protégés and understudies; the reviewers practicing in the Sunday papers, the New Statesman and the Listener; the BBC professionals and hangers-on; the Third Program intellectuals—in a large measure these descriptions cover the same persons over and over again, for it is a very small world. Though it has no courage and no convictions, and can be intimidated by a determined challenge (it has, for instance, dropped Auden), it has the confidence of its solidarity and power, and makes the current reputations, erecting magazine writers into significant artists and ambitious academics into distinguished poets and critics.

I don’t doubt that things are in many ways different in America; I certainly don’t suppose that any such coterie system commands the scene as in the tight little island in which I write. I cannot, all the same, believe that the state of literary culture is very much healthier, or that Henry James would have judged the play of intelligent criticism to be more apparent. There are many more universities in America than in England; that I suspect to be the fact portended by Mr. Barzun’s vision of a myriadvoiced critical intellectuality playing upon literature. But does that intellectuality represent a strong, living higher culture, one that feels itself to be rooted in contemporary American life and fostered by the aspirations and interests that really move American civilization? What I seem to sense, rather, both in Mr. Barzun’s essays and in the critical activity to which he refers is the peculiarly academic academicism of something quite other; it is certainly not the play of criticism that arises out of, or promises, a vigor of life in contemporary literature.



Mr. Barzun, it is true, is ironical about his fellow critics: they are not, he judges, all that they ought to be. “A terrible vagueness hangs over all the pretended exactitude of the methods and systems.” The preoccupation of Mr. Barzun’s book is to recommend a remedy: duly attentive to censure and admonition, the intelligent critic “will conclude that the fundamental discipline for him is history, and that all embroidery must be on its strong canvas back.” What Mr. Barzun means by “history” he is explicitly illustrating in his essays, and I can only say that it seems to me to be neither a discipline nor, in its relation to criticism, anything but an enemy.

These are the opening sentences of his first essay: “Exactly fifty years ago Henry James returned to this country after a long absence, and took the opportunity offered him—quite as if he had been a foreigner—of lecturing the American people. One theme on which he missed no occasion of preaching was the preeminence of Balzac. Obviously concerned for his own place as an artist, James tried in the teeth of disbelief to show by whom the modern novel had been begotten. If he could teach the lesson of the master, his hearers might come to see both the character of creativeness and the importance of criticism.”

It would be difficult to contrive a completer critical misdirection than Mr. Barzun, in a characteristic manner of his, issues here as “history” (one must suppose). James had indeed a great fund of piety toward Balzac (as toward Flaubert), and he marveled at the prodigious massiveness with which Balzac exemplified the “novelist as historian.” He was capable in his very late years of expressing with portentous idiosyncracy his sense that the completeness and scale of the demonstration, together with its fame, made an incalculable difference to later novelists (as did Flaubert’s martyrdom to perfection of “doing”) even when the novelist had no Balzacian (or Flaubertian) affinities. To take, however, any such utterance as warrant for the view that Balzac is the source of the “modern novel” is notably not to promote the kind of critical opinion that is “capable of giving an intelligent account of itself.” Does Mr. Barzun mean that Balzac is the source of Henry James? No one who understood the nature of James’s achievement in the novel could suggest that. James himself, in (to take a very accessible place) the essay included in Mr. Morris Roberts’s useful selection of James’s criticism, The Art of Fiction, gives the reasons why, for all his admiration, he could not have incurred the kind of indebtedness that Mr. Barzun implies. The reasons are summed up in the observation that Balzac’s “doom” was the “want of a private door”: the “obsession of the actual under so many heads,” says James (and what he means by this he has made very plain) amounts for the spirit to a “denial of escape.”

If we are really interested in James’s art, we shall have, if asked to point to a “source,” to name the utterly un-Balzacian Hawthorne. We shall know, of course, that there were other major influences. The Europeans, that early masterpiece, while confirming the radical indebtedness to Hawthorne, shows Jane Austen to have been a decisive influence too. Dickens (as can be clearly seen in Roderick Hudson and The Bostonians, for instance) counts for a great deal; but the profound determining influence yet to be mentioned is George Eliot, James’s salute to whose genius went with the explicit recognition that he himself was essentially a novelist of the English language, and that the sources of life for his art were certainly not to be found in Paris or France. Hawthorne, Jane Austen, George Eliot, James—of none of these can Balzac be plausibly alleged to be the “begetter” or source, nor can he be more plausibly of any of the other great novelists who make the achievement of the English language in fiction down to Lawrence one of the transcendent creative chapters of human history. Mr. Barzun’s “modern novel” would seem to be a very arbitrary conception.

It is a vague one too, like those other large abstractions—Realism, Romanticism, Symbolism, Modernism, Melodrama (though what he means by this in the case of James he makes, we shall see, sufficiently plain) which figure so prominently in Mr. Barzun’s discourse. The play of them appears to be a major part of what he means by the discipline of “history.” I have all the same to judge that they neither resume real particular perceptions and judgments in the field of literary criticism nor conduce to such. Whenever Mr. Barzun comes close enough to particular works or authors to be critically challenging he almost invariably gives us a disconcerting demonstration of this truth. This, for instance, is what he does at poor James’s expense:

The wickedness of being cold, of deliberately sacrificing others to one’s lusts, of taking advantage of another through legal, social or emotional privilege, obsesses James. Washington Square is an example which in our day reached the melodramatic stage and in which Dr. Sloper’s remark to his daughter, ‘You will do what you like’ is as terrifying as the crack of a whip. And its force is derived from the essentially melodramatic situation of a motherless daughter victimized by a subservient aunt and a selfish father—a being for whom the melodramatic epithet of ‘fiend in human form’ is no longer sayable but still just.

It would be impossible to misrepresent James’s exquisite and profound masterpiece more brutally and completely. The point of Washington Square depends on our perceiving that Dr. Sloper, so far from being a wicked and selfish father who cruelly victimized his daughter, is himself as much a victim as she. Brilliant, witty, and sensitive, carrying within him the unhealed wound caused by the death of his beautiful and gifted wife, he finds he can’t communicate with his reverse of brilliant daughter (for whose happiness he is painfully solicitous) except in terms of a dry irony—which means that communication is virtually impossible: that is the poignant tragedy of the situation. The impasse, with the consequent suffering for him as well as her, is not the less terribly conveyed because of the comedy and the wit.



But for Mr. Barzun Washington Square is a melodrama, and Dr. Sloper the villain—instructed by “history,” the literary critic will join in applauding that unforgivable “dramatization” offered us in the theater as James. To make Mr. Darcy a “Byronic figure” might, perhaps, not seem necessarily at first sight to entail so utterly calamitous a total misreading at Jane Austen’s expense; yet we can have nothing but disbelief in the critic who goes on to offer us this as “history”: “Darcyism turns sinister in Charlotte Brontë’s Rochester and demonic in the hero of her sister’s Wuthering Heights.” With this wholly indefensible assimilation Mr. Barzun, far from throwing light on anything (except the nature of the “history” he recommends), merely distracts from the perception of the immense and essential differences that distinguish the three authors. It would take less than half-a-dozen such demonstrations to finish off any hope one might have had of profit to be derived from Mr. Barzun’s kind of generalizing, and the book contains many times that number. I have noted marginally so many instances that I exemplify almost at random. We are told of English Bards and Scottish Reviewers that it is a “witty excoriation in the style of Pope’s Dunciad”—a proposition that can only make us wonder whether the critic has read either. He discusses “Swift or Man’s Capacity for Reason” without appearing to question the conception of the ideally rational being that is given us in the Houyhnhnm, that betraying figment whose rationality is an emptiness of impulse, instinct, emotion, and essentially of life, or to perceive that Swift’s misery was not something brought on a supremely sane and intelligent man by a wicked, stupid, and unclean world, but an inner defeat of life, a tormenting and stultifying disharmony in himself. On the other hand Mr. Barzun commits himself to an astonishing implication about Mark Twain. Discussing the view that Shaw was not a genius, but merely clever, this, he says “is to exclude the comic philosopher from the class of genius and to argue from a lack of mental instability to a lack of high imagination. By this rule, of course, not only Shaw lacks genius, but so do Montaigne, Mark Twain and Byron.”

If Mark Twain is to be bracketed with Shaw, it can’t be on the ground implied. That he was a humorist we all know, but to be able to suggest that he wrote his great work out of a confident and imperturbable “normality” in the face of life is to have missed the greatness and the genius. Mark Twain was (unlike Shaw, in my opinion) a great creative writer, and an essential condition of the creative genius in him was his capacity to be profoundly disturbed—disturbed in such a way as to be incapable of the complacent sense that, in his secure adequacy to the complex challenge of experience, he could give the world the confident right answers and the right prescription. The fact is apparent in Huckleberry Finn, the poise of which is alive with that potential (and quite un-Shavian) “instability” which we have to recognize as actually and terribly that in the private history of the author’s later years. The only further illustration I will permit myself is Mr. Barzun’s exhorting us to “compare the public response given to the deaths, a century apart, of two ‘accursed poets’—Baudelaire and Dylan Thomas.” These two writers in Mr. Barzun’s view (one gathers) are seriously comparable in kind and magnitude, representing—both of them—“rare faith and severe art.” A French-born critic, inward with both languages, who can do that with Baudelaire is a portent.

Asking myself what kind of social-intellectual milieu lies behind Mr. Barzun’s essays (for they certainly seem to imply one), I have to conclude that, for all the differences in manner and idiom between Mr. Barzun and what I take to be the equivalent English intellectual, it is not essentially different from that which lies behind the literary articles in the New Statesman and Nation, the weekly that, on the literary side, gives the measure of that English “literary world” of which I have spoken.


About the Author

Pin It on Pinterest

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
for full access to
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
Don't have a log in?
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.