From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, 1500 to the Present by Jacques Barzun

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A 19th-century French writer – ever vigilant, like all that tribe, against philistinism – declared loftily: “Art should aspire to be something more than recreation for the tired businessman.” True; but surely the tired businessperson, along with all the rest of us who are not lucky enough to be artists or professional critics, has his/her claims.

In particular, I’d say we deserve an occasional comprehensive, judicious, witty, well-written survey of Western cultural movements and achievements since the beginning of modern times, full of vivid portraits, amusing digressions, and forthright opinions. Obligingly, and very successfully, Jacques Barzun has stepped forward to meet this need.

Barzun, 93, spent his long and prolific career as a cultural historian at Columbia University. He has apparently spent his long retirement just as productively. To judge from his encyclopedic familiarity with the painting, sculpture, music, poetry, drama, fiction, philosophy, science, and politics of the last 500 years, it has been an enviable life.

“From Dawn to Decadence” has an argument but does not insist on it. Barzun sees the modern era as a sequence of four periods, each inaugurated by a revolution: a 16th-century religious one, a 17th-century monarchical one, an 18th- and 19th-century liberal/individualist one, and a 20th-century social/collectivist one. “The first period – 1500-1660 – was dominated by the issue of what to believe in religion; the second – 1661-1789 – by what to do about the status of the individual and the needs of government; the third – 1790-1920 – by what means to achieve social and economic equality. The rest is the mixed consequence of all these efforts.”

This is a plausible and useful scheme but hardly an original one. The book’s great merits lie elsewhere: its brisk pace, colorful detail, authoritative tone, idiosyncratic judgments, and lively prose, not to mention innumerable linguistic asides in which Barzun discusses word origins or corrects contemporary usage. In small ways, too, “From Dawn to Decadence” is exceptionally reader-friendly. Helpful typographical marks cut down on trips to the index. Suggestions for further reading are ubiquitous but unobtrusive, fenced off by brackets. Best of all, most pages contain in the margins one or more boldface quotations from primary sources. These are invariably piquant and add up, as Barzun suggests, to “an anthology of choice morsels.”

Another typographical device is less successful. A handful of words appear in capital letters throughout the book: abstraction, analysis, emancipation, primitivism, reductivism, secularism, self-consciousness, scientism, and specialization. These are said to be the leading themes of modern cultural history. I suppose they are; and the device yields some illumination. But the keywords are not defined clearly enough, expounded rigorously enough, or illustrated copiously enough. Perhaps Barzun forbore, to avoid seeming heavy-handed. And perhaps he was right: we are all as wary of categorizing as we are receptive to storytelling.

There certainly are plenty of good stories in “From Dawn to Decadence.” There are dozens of biographical sketches, from Luther and Erasmus to Dorothy Sayers and James Agate, and accounts of curious episodes like the Dutch tulip mania, the Mississippi and South Sea financial bubbles, and the origin of the condom. Barzun regularly discusses the evolution of literary and musical forms and of styles of painting and architecture; these recurrent discussions, individually and together, also have the feel of a narrative. At a few key times and places – Madrid in 1540, Venice in 1650, London in 1715, Weimar in 1790, Paris in 1830, Chicago in 1895 – he pauses for a tour of the social and intellectual horizon. This is yet another expository inspiration.

Barzun is, in general, admirably scornful of contemporary fads. But he seems to have indulged in a minor one himself: the craze for alliterative titles. The word “decadence” raises expectations which the book does not fulfill. There are passing references to that notion, and a grumpy final section in which Barzun sounds, for once, like an elderly neoconservative. But on the whole, “From Dawn to Decadence” is no Spenglerian or Bloomian tract. Barzun is a historian, not a philosopher. “The Closing of the American Mind” drew its extraordinary power from Allan Bloom’s passionate lack of sympathy with everything outside his favored tradition. Imaginative sympathy is the historian’s native gift, and Barzun is too abundantly endowed with it to be capable of anything like Bloom’s singleminded fervor. For a more sharply focused but still wise and balanced critique of modern decadence, see Barzun’s little gem “Classic, Romantic, and Modern” (1960).

“From Dawn to Decadence” will be widely read and influential, so a little nitpicking may be in order. Barzun is fond of puncturing modern pretensions to superiority, so he will now and then liken some supposedly enlightened contemporary belief to an allegedly exploded traditional superstition. This can be overdone. Yes, Calvinist predestination and scientific determinism both insist that “free will is an illusion.” But that’s not what’s important; what’s important is the doctrine of Hell and the immense moral discredit it has brought on Christianity. Likewise, it is merely provocative to say that “popular sovereignty is but a transfer of monarchical absolutism from the One to the Many.” The difference between the rule of One over the Many and of the Many over ourselves is a pretty big difference. Maybe we are more enlightened in some ways than our ancestors.

A few more quibbles. The meaning of turn-of-the-century Populism is not that “the emerging masses swamped the individual.” On the contrary, American Populism was a final, doomed assertion of democratic individualism against industrialism and mass society. Bertrand Russell did not “extol Communism”; on the contrary, Russell was one of the first Western intellectuals to denounce it and never changed his mind. A few careless expressions of Barzun’s may leave readers with the impression that Marx bears some responsibility for 20th-century totalitarianism. Of course Barzun cannot really believe that ridiculous canard. Finally, Barzun praises Nietzsche, but less than rapturously. This is inexplicable. Perhaps some paragraphs were mislaid by the typesetter.

These small flaws apart, “From Dawn to Decadence” will prove invaluable. And not just to humans. While I was reading it, the American intellectual airwaves were humming with discussion of a shorter but equally ambitious essay, in prospect rather than retrospect. Bill Joy, a leading computer scientist and entrepreneur, revealed in “Wired” Magazine that he and many illustrious colleagues expect human beings to be supplanted as earth’s dominant species by intelligent machines before the end of the 21st century, unless we pull our collective socks up. If we don’t, and if our successors are curious about their wild and crazy forebears, they will surely want to spend a few nanoseconds uploading “From Dawn to Decadence.”



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George Scialabba