Jacques Barzun’s From Dawn To Decadence

From Dawn To DecadenceI am in awe of Jacques Barzun, as surely anyone who has just finished his magnum opus From Dawn To Decadence: 500 Years Of Western Cultural Life must be. Simply put, this book is an anachronism: it belongs not to our century but to the era of the Enlightenment, alongside works by the likes of Gibbon or Burton. If I had not just burned through it, I would not believe that anyone alive in our time could be capable of so expansive, so ambitious, so erudite a work. The trend in modern scholarship is towards specialization, carried to such an extreme that it has become difficult even to parody. Today’s historians or sociologists or professors of literature mistakenly believe they are examining their subject matter through a microscope when, in fact, they are merely peeping at it through a keyhole. The result is an inward-looking academia, unaware of its increasing irrelevance and still somehow able to act incredulous when the wider world responds by turning its back.

Against this lamentable trend, Barzun has blazed his own path, and From Dawn To Decadence‘s tenure atop the New York Times bestseller list vindicates his approach. He takes us through the last five century’s of Western culture, locating artistic and philosophic trends in history and tracing the ebb and flow of their popularity across time. The experience of reading the book is akin to sitting in on a lecture by a particularly strong professor, not only in the depth of what is covered but in the subtle encouragements to pursue a different course of learning. Almost every page comes with one or two quotations distinct from the body of the text but apropos of what is being discussed, and Barzun frequently includes book recommendations (covering everything from the French Revolution to pottery and woodworking) for the reader interested in a greater understanding of the topic at hand. My own to-read list, already overwhelming, doubled in size.

There is, in the very title, a thesis, an empirical claim that hints that this book will do more than straightforwardly report on our cultural history. Are we living in a decadent age, and if so, what does that entail? The historian in Barzun limits his conjecturing to the final 100 pages, but these are among the most interesting and perceptive. Politics, pornography, education, entertainment and “pop” culture – nothing escapes Barzun’s commentary. Here he is discussing the predicament of modern man:

The common man all the while remained a working member of the institutions that his needs and rights compelled him to approach. His very existence generated forms that he had to fill out; he was an unpaid clerk who wrote his name and address three times on one page. When he had to thread his way among the gears of an institution, he began a collaboration with an indefinite number of its representatives, amiable or grudging, but all armed with computers, who helped or delayed his rescue from entanglement. […] The point at which good intentions exceed the power to fulfill them marked for the culture the onset of decadence.

“His very existence generated forms he had to fill out” – Kafka, in a nut shell. As an educator and lifelong professor, he is particularly well-placed to discuss the decline of education. What makes a nation, he asks? “A large part of the answer to that question is: common historical memories. When the nation’s history is poorly taught in schools, ignored by the young, and proudly rejected by qualified elders, awareness of tradition consists only in wanting to destroy it.” This is the relationship so many of my peers have towards tradition; it is viewed as something to be cast aside, rejected for the greater moral good. The history of the West, as taught in modern universities, is a calamity, a series of oppressors endlessly victimizing one group or another. What truth there is in this is stripped of all proportion and the gifts of history, literature and culture are passed over, rendered suspect by association. And individuals, who have always defined themselves in relation to their culture and history, are left stranded, caught between the Scylla of a tainted past and the Charybdis of constructing an identity in a void:

Finding oneself was a misnomer: a self is not found but made; and the anti-hero, anti-history bias was an obstacle to making it, because a starting point from the past was missing; it had to be made from scratch.

His cynicism doesn’t abate when discussing the career paths thrust upon the young and ambitious:

Individuals of ordinary talent or glibness were encouraged to become professionals and thereby doomed to disappointment; and too many others, with just enough ability to get by, contributed to the lowering of standards and the surfeit of art. The error was to suppose that art is made by innate skill combined with acquired technique. These will turn out only conscientiously imitative art. Creation requires an uncommon mind and strong will serving an original view of life and the world.

There is, unfortunately, more than mere cynicism in these words: there is insight, and it is painful.

From Dawn To Decadence was published in 2002, ten years after Barzun began work on it and ten years before he passed away at the age of 104. His remarkable life spanned dozens of books across subjects as various as crime and supernatural fiction, science, politics, biography and music. I hesitate to deploy the “last of a dying breed” cliche, but that is what he was, a relic of a different time stubbornly devoted to exposing the folly of our own. A more beautiful, more informative, more necessary book I am not likely to encounter this year.