Barzun: From Dawn to Decadence

February 23, 2010

From Dawn to Decadence
500 Years of Western Cultural Life

Jacques Barzun (HarperCollins, 2000)
890 p.  First reading.

Jacques Barzun, whose pen has been dispensing sweet reason for a long time now, poured a lifetime of learning and critical judgement into this monumental overview of the Modern period in Western history. It is an ambitious attempt to survey and evaluate the huge sweep of our cultural history over the past half millennium, with principal reference to political, social, and artistic history.  He believes that the cultural changes which began, roughly speaking, about five hundred years ago have now run their course, and he therefore sees our time as an appropriate one to review “the great achievements and sorry failures of our half millennium”.

The book is far too large for me to attempt anything like a detailed summary or appraisal.  Let me say a few words about the title instead.  The “dawn” imagery might lead one to suppose that Barzun believes that the modern period arose like the sun from the shadowy murkiness of the Dark Ages.  Fortunately, he does not, and in fact takes some pains to correct such misunderstandings of history.  He acknowledges the achievement of the medieval era, which built a civilization from hard beginnings, and acknowledges the many debts which the modern period owes its predecessor.  He admires many of the social institutions of medieval Europe, especially the universities and their educational programmes, and also the feudal system and principles of governance.  (The dominant rule in medieval politics, he says, was “no rule was held valid if not approved by those it affected”.  That’s a provoking way of putting it, and I need to think it over.)  Having said that, he rejects the idea that the distinction between the medieval and modern periods is a fiction; there really were significant changes, beginning with a religious revolution, that warrant the historian’s inauguration of a new age.

As to “decadence”, he contends that we are surrounded by it.  Barzun is not a curmudgeon, and, though he is a kind of moralist, he is not of the shrill or scolding variety.  His assessment of the decline of our times is sober and matter-of-fact.  The word “decadence” literally means “falling off”, and Barzun perceives in our time an exhaustion of social institutions, education, and art.  We live in a time that cannot see its way forward, and casts about for something new.  Decadence is characterized by “boredom and fatigue”, by “open confessions of malaise”, by “a floating hostility to things as they are”.  To say that our culture exhibits such symptoms is obvious; to show that they are characteristic of our times requires a longer argument, and this book supplies it.  But if you want to hear the argument, you’ll have to read the book.

A few words about the structure of the book, which is quite creative:  Barzun recognizes that something as complex as culture cannot be divided into neat little boxes, each to be discussed separately.  On the contrary, everything is connected.  He therefore incorporates into the text a series of “hyperlinks”, pointing the reader forward and backward to sections to which the current topic of discussion relates.  These links make it possible to read the book in an order that completely ignores the sequential page numbering, but I have not tried this.  He has also woven his narrative around a number of strong cultural threads, recurring tendencies of our period such as Analysis, Abstraction, Self-consciousness, Secularism, Individualism, Scientism, Primitivism, and — the modern theme par excellence — Emancipation.  Such themes provide a backbone to the story he tells, giving it structure and intelligibility. His period is punctuated by four different revolutions, separated from one another by roughly a century: first religious, then monarchical, then liberal, and finally social; this too lends shape to the story. The book is peppered with potted biographies of interesting or important figures.  I didn’t count these, but I would not be surprised if there were roughly one hundred of them all told.  The prevalence of these little biographies doesn’t mean that Barzun subscribes to the “great man” theory of history; it means only that some especially interesting people have lived interesting lives.  The main text of the book is also enlivened by the addition of many marginal notes, mostly quotations from across the centuries that illustrate the points being made.  Together, the links and themes and biographies and marginalia make for a richer than usual reading experience.

The really substantial richness, of course, comes not from the format of the book but from its content.  Barzun has himself been alive for about one-fifth of the period he covers, but he also brings his immense learning and finely balanced critical acumen to his subject, and the book is replete with canny observations and fruitful insights.  He wears his learning lightly, and writes in an accessible and conversational style, with “a touch of pedantry here and there,” he wryly remarks, “to show that I understand modern tastes”.  The title of the book might sound broadly polemical, but Barzun is not polemical.  He is so fair, in fact, that his sympathetic understanding of ideas now out of favour are, he says, “bound to offend the righteous”, and the book is all the better for it.  Apart from an occasional turn of phrase which might indicate a bit of dry humour at play, he is patient and restrained even when his story throws up some outrageous characters and ideas. There is usually a reason for such things, and he simply tells us what they are.  But I found myself wondering what he himself thinks about his subject.  It is plain enough when he likes something, but less plain when he does not.  In any case, it is a wonderful and endlessly interesting book, the likes of which does not get written very often.

A final word of caution: throughout his text Barzun has dropped parenthetical suggestions for books an interested reader might peer into on a given topic.  In consequence, reading this book may very well cause your reading list to grow uncontrollably, with concomitant damage to your financial security.

[Modern humour]
Modernist works of derision did not provoke laughter and were not meant to.  They were mock-funny, which means serious, and those called “amusing” are designed to leave one hardly smiling but moved to reflection… This muted elation is what the people of the period [between the wars] urged upon one another and boasted of possessing but misnamed “the sense of humour”.  It was not the ability to see life as comedy, which needs no special recommendation.  It was the readiness to laugh at oneself when among others, a feat that rarely sparks explosive laughter; it is only Self-Consciousness made into the habit of self-depreciation.  It requires no reform, but has its use in forestalling criticism.

The book, like the bicycle, is a perfect form.

[Book trouble]
The book has weakened the memory, individual and collective, and divided the House of Intellect into many small flats, the multiplying specialties.

[Art and morals]
Virtue is inseparable from good art.  It is taken for granted [in the sixteenth century] that a work reveals the artist’s soul as well as his mind.  But what is more important, the work of art must by its order mirror the hierarchical order of the world, which is a moral order… That all art must be moral is the rule until the 19C, when it cuts loose from moral significance, from regard for virtue in the maker’s character, and from the expectations of the public.

[Status of women]
One standard for judging the status of women is the contemporary status of men.  In the hierarchical society of the 16C and later, they too were deprived — of education, or openings for talent, of the means to leave the narrow space in which they toiled — hence there was little or no lateral mobility, let along vertical.  In the Renaissance this constriction was greater than before because of the diminished prestige of the clergy.  The Middle Ages had offered the humblest boy a chance to be educated and to rise to high posts in church and state.  After the Reformation, laymen more and more filled these places.  What John Stuart Mill in the 19C chose to call the subjection of women was thus matched for a long time by the subjection of men.  And since Mill had in mind his own day, in which a good many women did emerge into public notice and power, a second mode of comparison might well be to measure their status against that of women in Mohammedan countries.

[Innovation and resistance]
Not all, but many of the great achievements of western man have followed [a] tortuous course, visiting more or less harsh punishment on the doers.  This “tradition” is not the result of perversity.  It is not the clash of stupid men opposing an intelligent one: Columbus’s interviewers were right to question his calculation of the distance to India: he made it 2400 miles short of the actual 10600.  And it is true that the promoters of the really new more often than not look and talk like cranks and mis-state or mistake their goal.  Their behaviour is often arrogant or seems so from their impatience with cautious minds.  The upshot — humiliation and penury — is disproportionate to the offense, but it expresses the culture’s need to defend its rational ways, to ward off the genuine cranks, and to avoid moving too fast into the untried.

The road to the present was hard and long because the old systems were good.

[The rise of science]
For science to arise from previous speculations, a strange idea had to become clear and fully accepted — the idea of body as such, the purely physical, devoid of qualities so as to be capable of quantity.  Earlier conceptions were not sufficiently geometrical; their truth was pictorial and poetic.  They mirrored the universe clearly but symbolically, which is to say full of meanings; whereas the purely physical has no meaning; it just is.

Scientism is the fallacy of believing that the method of science must be used on all forms of experience and, given time, will settle every issue.  Again and again, the bright thought has occurred, “If we can only define our terms, if we can only find the basic unit, if we can spot the right ‘indicators,’ we can then measure and reason flawlessly, we shall have created one more science”…
The motives behind scientism are culturally significant.  They have been mixed, as usual: genuine curiosity in search of truth; the rage for certainty and for unity; and the snobbish desire to earn the label scientist when that became a high social and intellectual rank…
The clue to the fallacy of scientism is this: geometry (in all senses of the term) is an abstraction from experience; it could not exist without the work of the human mind on what it encounters in the world.  Hence the realm of abstraction, useful and far from unreal, is thin and bare and poorer than the world it is drawn from.  It is therefore an idle dream to think of someday getting along without direct dealings with what abstraction leaves untouched.  The meaning of this contrast is that the enterprise of science has its limits.

Toleration — allowing freedom of expression — has no logical limits.

Dessert without cheese is like a pretty girl with only one eye. (from Brillat-Savarin, Meditations (1825))

Sustained dieting is something bureaucracies find as hard as individuals.

When nothing is revered, irreverence ceases to indicate critical thought.

[Modern conveniences]
It has not been noticed that mechanizing the home had laid another load on the laborer’s back: it has made simple poverty impossible.  No household today can remain without the conveniences, beginning with the telephone and other utilities (as they are called), and going on to the car, radio, and television.  Needed for holding one’s job or socially imposed by the neighbors and one’s children, they are part of an oppressive ‘standard of living’.  For some families this means moonlighting or perpetual debt; for others, who refuse the struggle, it is abject poverty instead of the tolerable life that an earlier age might have afforded.

2 Responses to “Barzun: From Dawn to Decadence”

  1. Bruce Henthorn Says:

    I am reading this book for the second time. Not sure what you think but I believe that Barzun might well have changed “decadence” to something more positive had he finished this book a little closer to the present. The immense technological revolution, opening of China and the downfall of the Soviet Empire have invigorated us all. The “malaise” was momentary!
    I enjoyed your observations.

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