Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Jacques Barzun

The Japanese became civilized with the indispensable aid of the Chinese characters. The love of the Chinese classics and the faith in Chinese political science produced a class of Japanese scholars who acquired importance in their own government. But thanks to a general illiteracy and the exclusion of women from higher education, the native tongue retained its purity and strength. Soon it was found cumbrous to write the complex Chinese ideograms in order to spell Japanese, and the monosyllabic Chinese tongue seemed less and less congenial to the ear. A simplified syllabary was devised, permitting the Japanese to write the vernacular quickly and as quickly to abandon the use of Chinese for high art. The women led the way and it is notable that the two great masterpieces of the Heian period, Genji and the Pillow-book, are the work of women. — Jacques Barzun, The Esthetic Society: on George Sansom's A History of Japan to 1334.

What, if anything, has this got to do with you? You tell me. But if Professor Somiya was interested in List and Liszt in 1949, then perhaps his daughter's children and grandchildren might be interested enough in Barzun and Berlioz to read Michael Murray's Jacques Barzun: Portrait of a Mind, which Frederic C. Beil will publish in fall 2011. At least, one is permitted to dream. And after all, am I not writing this Pillow Book?

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