Review Of From Dawn To Decadence, by Jacques Barzun

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 1/13/06


  From Dawn To Decadence, by Jacques Barzun, a cultural critic, historian, and former Columbia College provost and professor, was published at the height of the pre-millennial Y2K fever and purported to be a detailed analysis of the last five hundred years of civilization, or at least Western Civilization. Its subtitle is 1500 To The Present, 500 Years Of Western Cultural Life. It is, however, nothing of the sort. It is a shapeless, formless hodgepodge of ideas and incidents, biographies of the usual suspects, like Luther, Erasmus, Cromwell, Mozart, Rousseau, Montesquieu, Shaw, and Byron, and preenings, that offer no coherent view nor explanation for the last half eon. He also tries to elevate forgotten Ďnamesí, such as James Agate, that were forgotten for a reason, although obviously favorites of Barzun, while barely mentioning titans like Shakespeare- save for a great quote from Samuel Pepys dissing the Bardís plays, Newton, Picasso, and Einstein. Barzun is not insightful enough to knock a person off their pins with a startling premise, as Jared Diamond did in his 1998 tome Guns, Germs, And Steel, nor is he the prose stylist that Daniel J. Boorstin is in his classic 1983 and 1992 books The Discoverers and The Creators. In those works, Boorstin made history fun again, by bringing a novelistic technique to stodgy historical tomes.

  Barzunís tome, which he claims took a lifetime to write (he was born in 1907 and the book hit print in 2000), is simply a giant, frustrating muddle. And itís not just the text of what he says, but his presentation on the page. The book has numerous sidebars in the text that distract visually, but even worse, offer nothing intellectually, with some of them being patently ridiculous quotes from vapid pseudo-celebrities like rapper Ice T and comedian Bill Murray. Ironically, this is the sort of shortcut literary and intellectual technique pioneered in glossy magazines of the sort that Barzun contemptuously dismisses as decadent, and without merit. Read Edward Gibbonís Decline And Fall Of The Roman Empire or Winston Churchillís History Of The English Speaking Peoples for a real sense of what true historical inquiry is about and written. Yet, the biggest defect of the book is that it simply adds nothing to the known facts it recounts, does so with no grand style, and leaves one asking what purpose did the book serve?

  Presumptively, the book divided the last five centuries into 4 sections, each kicked off by a revolution, even though Barzun states early on that there are no real revolutions contained within (by his own definition of the termís overuse). He charts the rise of Protestantism, Industrialism, Colonialism, Communism, and their passings, but, again, with no overall thesis. Unless, one considers labeling the present as a decadent age. Iím not arguing with Barzunís claim of such, only that itís not a conclusion that an 800 page book was needed for. The book reads more like an old manís lashing out at all that he sees wrong with life than a coherent worldview. How else to explain damning the rise of sports professionalism while defending Surrealist art? Or seeing no link between religion and modern capitalism? Or his defense of morality, while not even realizing it differs significantly from ethos? He writes, ĎThe truth that religion and morality are at odds with each other is rarely acknowledged, probably because the two desires are equally strong in the human breast, reflecting there the respective demands of society and of the self.í In actuality religion and morality are kissiní cousins, and spring from the same external source- the outer society, whereas secular ethos is that which springs from the human breast. Or seeing the 16th Century as being a time of emergent female power? This may seem laudable, if not PC, but to downplay the subjugation of the masses of women for a few exceptional cases is just silly. Is it any wonder the aging Barzun condemns the modern world as decadence come into full bloom- Balkanism in all arenas, democracies that are corrupt and filled with ennui-laced voters, art that is commercial and amoral, the decline of science, the mechanization of daily life leading to a loss of identity, etc.?

  Yes, Barzun ends with the predictable optimism, but it feels forced as he tries to posit decadence as the birthplace for future creativity. Almost as forced as his demarcations of the last five centuries into four epochs. The first was the religious revolution of the 16th century, Luther and the Protestant Reformation and the subsequent diminishment of the church in everyday experience. This covers 1500 to 1660. The second was the monarchal revolution of the 17th century, with the recognition of the nation as a meaningful entity. This goes from 1660 to 1789, and the French Revolution. The third was the liberal revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries, and the rise of individual liberty. This takes us through the Great War and Communist Revolution in Russia. The fourth was the social revolutions of the 20th century. All other revolutions pale to these.

  Would that life were so simple. In Guns, Germs, And Steel, Jared Diamond blends science and history powerfully to argue the reasons for white Europeans temporal supremacy of the last five centuries. Barzunís posits, by comparison, are flaccid and lazy, and some flat out wrong and preposterous. His ĎViewí chapters, which visit certain cities at certain times in history, read more like pallid tourist documentaries than convincing arguments. The narratives get anomic, as if Barzun himself has thought better of the initial posit. This only adds to the turgidity and turbidity of the writing and dialectic. Far better would the book have been had Barzun been more focused and detailed, choosing better examples, rather than trying to overwhelm the reader with his nine decades of learning. The real keys that may or may not exist to decode Westernism are probably buried under the mounds of trivia that Barzun exults in. While the American, French, and Russian Revolutions have been done to death, it serves no purpose to short shrift them, as if all readers are aware of their import. Instead, Barzun should have tried to see analogs that could connect the three in vital ways heretofore unseen. That he didnít or couldnít is at the heart of this bookís failure- itís just a generic catalog of familiar facts that others have done far better with, such as The Story of Civilization, by Will Durant. Worse, he sees almost no linkage between the three, especially the American Revolutionís profound influence on the French Revolution.

  And his grasp of science and technology is absurdly anemic, often confusing specific terms that have no relation to one another, or treating pseudoscience, like homeopathy, with the same gravitas as real medical breakthroughs. He feels real poetry ended with W.B. Yeats and real art with Cubism, and has no idea as to what constitutes a novel or romance. His misreads of quantum mechanics and modern physics should never have been published by a good editor- itís an outright embarrassment. As is his ceaseless neologizing without purpose, substituting techne for technology or eutopia for utopia. He also claims we mean demotic when we say democratic, Louis XIV never said ĎLíťtat, c'est moií, Rousseau never urged a return to nature nor admired noble savagery, and many other minor historical corrections that, even if so, are pointless. And this all after often criticizing others for their pedantry. Worst of all may be his utter lack of understanding the bases of capitalism and economic, as well its importís spillage over into other areas. Karl Marx, love him or hate him, deserves more than the dismissal that Barzun gives him in a page or so. The problem was not that Marx was wrong with his idea of the Labor Theory Of Value, he just was not able to formulate a just and pragmatic remedy for it, and those applications by later practitioners of his ideas bastardized it to monstrous ends. In fact, all human wealth comes from human activity admixed with human desire. Without the human element there is no inherent value. It is the essential and probably first human fiction.

  That the book ends with the typical reactionary crap that Harold Bloom has mined a career of in the writing field is too typical, and sad. Nudity is wrong, tv sucks, opera is dying, manners are in decline, church attendance is down, ho hum. As bad as things have gotten in the last fifty or so years it is clear that World War Two was the peak of human violence and by every measure- wars, crime, etc., human violence is on the wane. That he once argued forcefully against the very sorts of ideological nonsense he now burnishes, as in his 1938 book Race: A Study in Superstition, only bolsters the idea that heís an old man whoís run out of intellectual gas, and it shows.

  Unwittingly, Barzun often undermines his own claims. For example, he states, Ďthe demand for genius has died out,í then proceeds to write a book that demonstrates this fact. Or, he writes, ĎBad writing, it is easily verified, has never kept scholarship from being published,í and writes a book laced with egregious spelling errors (incredibly, he even misspells Samuel Butlerís dystopian classic Erewhon as Erehwon so that it spells Nowhere backwards!), worse grammar, poor punctuation, and ill-parsed sentences. Or, he claims, ĎThe West has been the mongrel civilization par excellence,í as if it were a gift from the gods bestowed first and only to himself. Not that he does not have some bright spots- such as logically and semiotically defending the use of Man in the non-sexual sense of the word, or giving the most cogent definition of scientism Iíve ever read- not bad science, but science misapplied to areas it has no sway over- the law or ethics, but these are too few and far between.

  In short, Diamond had a great idea, and Boorstin the writerly gift to excite. Barzun lacks both insight and the ability to convey knowledge well. When he claims that Ďthe peoples of the West offered the world a set of ideas and institutions not found earlier or elsewhere,í itís as if he believes heís said something new and pristine, where others have said it before and better- or did I say that already?

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