Saturday, November 13, 2010

The house of intellect

I was surprised to read the other day that Jacques Barzun is still alive, at age 102, with a birthday coming up soon.

For those of us who embarked upon the academic life in the 1950s-60s, Barzun was a presiding inspiration. His books Teacher in America and The House of Intellect were eagerly devoured guides to our new life, and Science: The Glorious Entertainment rattled the sureties of those of us who had chosen science for a career.

Intellectually, Barzun was all over the place, a polymath, a gadfly, with an opinion about everything, some of which made sense to me, others of which seemed merely petulant. The main thing I learned from his books is that science and the arts are mutually diminished by isolation. Every human activity is best understood when considered in the richest possible context. The house of intellect has many rooms but one foundation, and one roof covers them all.

Unfortunately, this was not a recipe for success as a physicist, which required -- at least for the average intellect -- going narrow and deep. Which pretty much explains why I had no sooner garnered my Ph.D. in physics than I began to drift to the broad and shallow end of the pool. I was interested in connections, and connections inevitably draw one to writing. I think it was Susan Sontag who said the great thing about being a writer is that nothing is irrelevant.

The thousand essays I published in the Boston Globe (the original "Science Musings") were all about dragging science kicking and screaming into the house of intellect, and introducing the reluctant newcomer to the sometimes unwelcoming inmates. That is to say, the essays were all about taking what was happening in science and weaving it into culture at large.

What science learns about the world enhances our understanding of who we are, where we came from, and why we are here, and the scientific way of knowing holds in check our inclination to mistake wishful thinking for reality. In the house of intellect science is the gal or guy who takes out the garbage, fixes the leaky sink, and mows the lawn.

But who wants to be a drudge, chasing the squirrels out of the eaves, never having fun? The arts provide the beer and pizza, bang out jolly tunes on the upright piano, make sure there's always something interesting to read in the basket next to the loo, and stand ready to fall in love with whoever needs a snuggle. The arts remind us of why we do science and art -- why we choose to live in the house of intellect.

That's what Barzun has spent his life doing, in dozens of books and hundreds of essays: Reminding us of the value of the examined life. He spent the latter part of his 80s on his magnum opus, From Dawn to Decadence: 1500 to the Present: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, a sprawling, idiosyncratic rumble through history that has something to please and annoy almost everyone. For all of the grim realities of the present, I believe we are better off than he gives us credit for, but I have nothing but admiration for a guy who can command such resources at so advanced an age.

Happy 103th Birthday, Jacques, and may you have many happy returns.