The Book Club

From Dawn to Decadence

Dear Andrew:

We could spend the week detailing the excellent qualities of this magisterial book. Luckily, we don’t have to. Its reviewers have done a thorough job, and the public is convinced. Jacques Barzun’s From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life has been on the New York Times best-seller list for 10 weeks as of July 22, ranked just above David Sedaris’ book of comic autobiographical essays. All we have to do is venture an explanation of this surprising fact, and then we’re free to talk about whatever we want.

I take the book’s commercial success as proof that Barzun is right: The way 20th-century historians write history–preferring statistics, sociology, and a narrow scope to individual stories and large narratives–has made reading it unpopular. Barzun, who was born in 1907, has correctively adopted a 19th-century approach. His notion of culture is highbrow; his history of it has sweep, a sense of progress and decline, pungent observations, big ideas, and great men and sometimes women (all of them white, needless to say). His model appears to be Macaulay, of whom he writes: “If one is well versed in the facts one may question the historian’s estimate of persons or deplore events that he celebrates, but these disagreements leave a vast edifice standing and not to be seen anywhere else.” How did Macaulay secure that edifice? Through style, of course: “Macaulay offers more than a point of view. He was a master of narrative, of portraiture, and of synthesis … his separate biographical essays show their subjects as living and thinking beings.”

A neat trick of Barzun’s is to embed in his appreciation of others an outline of the standards by which he wants to be judged. You can quibble with particulars–and I suppose I will, later in the week–but you have to grant him his triumph. No 802-page survey of anything has ever given a reader so much pleasure. It’s odd to say this about a man who has written so many books (he has published roughly 30 of them), but what Barzun really excels at is miniaturism. He’s brilliant at sketching in a few lines an entire intellectual milieu, so that the reader understands, for instance, why Martin Luther’s posting some theses on a church door–a common occurrence in his day–sparked so much elation and anguish. Barzun takes Macaulay’s mastery of narrative, portraiture, and synthesis and distills it into aphorism. Every page holds a gem such as this one, which describes the early days of Protestant passion: “Prayers were in order several times a day, like our hygienic ablutions, because the Devil and his minions were as ubiquitous as our viruses.” (Barzun underscores the virtue of terseness in his summary of the thought of Nietzsche, another of his heroes: “Art like man’s soul should be aristocratic, the signs of which are: directness and the brevity that comes from concentrated energy and rapid perception.”)

In structure the book seems unexceptionable, at least to this non-historian. Barzun divides the past half-millennium into four periods, each dominated by a revolution in thought that affected social, cultural, and political arrangements. (I suppose some people might challenge his faith in the supremacy of ideas over things, but not me.) These are: Protestantism in the 16th century; monarchical nationalism in the 17th century; liberalism and the French revolutionary ideal in the 18th and 19th centuries, and what he calls Russian collectivism in the 20th–the rise of the mass and the death of the individual. More interesting are the themes Barzun uses to tie these eras together. These he alerts the reader to by putting them in small capital letters: EMANCIPATION, PRIMITIVISM, SCIENTISM, ANALYSIS, ABSTRACTION, and so on. Almost every evolution in thought or craftmanship is said to advance one or another of these traits–the urge to liberate the individual from the church; the lust to escape the bonds of an onerous civilization; the need to reduce and abstract disparate phenomena, so as better to quantify and compare them; etc. With the clear exception of scientism, about which Barzun is deliciously mean-spirited, these are developments we’re used to thinking of rather vaguely as for the good. It is not till the end of the book that we realize that Barzun believes these habits of thought to have led to a state of decline.

This leads me to what’s most controversial about the book. In Parts I and II, Barzun keeps his critical distance. Ideas, social orders, churches, and movements rise and fall; he is undisturbed. In Part III, his equanimity is lessened, and his passion increases. Barzun soars when discussing the vigorous heroes of Romanticism–Johann Gottfried von Herder, Lord Byron, Hector Berlioz–whom he obviously loves. He sustains that intensity through the chapters on early modernism–from Paul Cézanne to William James, whom he considers a more significant psychologist than Sigmund Freud. Then we get to Part IV, which is a bitter screed, though a beautifully moving bitter screed. The best single piece of writing in the book is the chapter on World War I, which he lived through as a boy and which destroyed his family’s cultivated way of life (Barzun’s father was a friend and host to most of the eminences of turn-of-the-century Paris). Barzun devotes a great deal more time to the Great War than to World War II, despite its atrocities, and he dates to that great frenzy of destruction and rage all the negativity and absurdism that he sees as reigning in cultural life since.

But still. Almost every critic has quibbled with Part IV. What did you think of it? And of the last five pages of the book, a bit of science fiction winningly titled “Let Us End With a Prologue,” in which Barzun predicts the rise of “cybernist”-politicians; the death of citizenry and its replacement by identity numbers; and a rather appealing laissez-faire approach to global warfare, in which Brussels and Washington “decided to let outside peoples and their factions eliminate one another until exhaustion introduced peaceableness into their plans”?