At first we wondered how we had forgotten he was alive. Yet it was easy to forget because his time was finished—was it not? That time which produced men like him, however rare their number. Before you could Google something you could Barzun it. Best take the Google results for the local dry cleaner, but the Barzun on Mephistopheles. Of course we weren’t alone in forgetting. We were probably closer to alone in even knowing to forget: knowledge of Professor Barzun was esoteric knowledge now, although once it was more general, like the snow over Ireland. Most of the obituaries will say, and so we need not, how he was a giant, that few now stride about possessed with such encyclopedic knowledge of history and literature, of hearts and happenings.
But there are myriad men and women of voracious intellect who today stride about just so, with the knowledge of the centuries at their fingertips, and minds as nimble as any yet in history. Like Barzun, they are wrong sometimes and right others. They frequently disagree. But their very existence refutes Barzun’s main but ultimately sad theme: that of Western Culture’s slide toward the tawdry and jejune. We should always and continually seek them out, make them general. Barzun decried man’s trip so far (Western man, that is, the professor’s broad scope nevertheless limited) as one from Dawn to Decadence. But he sure did hang around to make sure, dying at 104, so that if he never learned to love the decadence he saw some kind of detente. It’s a poorer world without him, and we praise his accomplishment even as we resolutely resist his conclusions. We have to. We’re still here.