The Book Club

The End of History–Again

Dear Judith,

Your first two sentences fooled me into thinking that maybe I had managed to provoke you into indignation or a spasm of outrage–but by your third sentence you make me feel ashamed at the thought. You’re right that Barzun’s haughty quirkiness is worth a hundred ponderous “survey” books; but since they’re usually worth next to nothing, I’m still not sure the multiplication comes up to $36.00. I’d say to Tim Noah, “wait for the paperback.” How’s that for fence-sitting?

Look–it’s a book full of delicious stuff. I loved learning that a descendant of Amerigo Vespucci (Signora America Vespucci) petitioned Congress for payment for the use of her name, that the Spanish used the codpiece for “carrying odds and ends,” and that the condom was named for one Colonel Cundom. But I really have trouble with the presumption that charm translates easily into wisdom. At the beginning of the book, Barzun declares that the “characteristic purposes” of the West have now been “carried out to their utmost possibility,” and thereby announces that we live at a time when intellectual energy has run out and we’ve got nowhere to go except deeper into some kind of Sartrean hell, ruled by Boredom–doomed to stay there until a new tribe of philosophes and aesthetes comes to the rescue. So who’s he talking to when he says, 800 pages after his opening pronouncement, that “the shape and coloring of the next era is beyond anyone’s power to define”? Himself, I hope.

What’s happened to me? I’m usually accused of excessive filiopiety, of looking to the past and preaching jeremiads–but Barzun has turned me into a defender of the present! Strange work, this “Book Club” business. Which prompts me to digress. In his discussion of Moliere’s Bourgeois Gentilhomme, Barzun makes a marvelous comment about the nature of prose. “Prose,” he says, “is the written form of deliberate expression. … Whereas speech is halting, comes in fragments, puts qualifiers after the idea, and often leaves it half-expressed, prose aims at organized thought in complete units.” By way of saying how much I’ve enjoyed our exchange, I have a confession: I was reluctant to do it because I’m a finicky writer, prone to revise a lot–and the idea of a flurry of e-mails going out to the world gave me pause. But Barzun’s definition helps me see that what I’m writing here (I speak only for myself) is not exactly prose. It’s something different and new, at least for me, and maybe will have some good effects on my normal writing rhythm. We’ll see.

Anyway, here I am rambling haphazardly in just the way that Barzun would expect from a creature come of age in the late 20th century. So let me try to sum up before I get really narcissistic.

I think this book constitutes a variation on the “End of History” theme we got a few years ago from Francis Fukuyama, who got it from Hegel, who got it from a long tradition of apocalyptic thinking in the West. If you think history has in some sense stopped–as Barzun seems to think when he argues that the intellectual capital of the West has run out–you can be either happy or appalled. A lot of what disturbs Barzun about modern life is worthy of his contempt–and, yes, there is wisdom in his analysis, as when he says, about the sexual revolution, with its strangely earnest and joyless pursuit of the perpetual orgasm, “It was apparently not known that desire must be dammed up to be self-renewing.” He’s on target when he talks about our culture of instant gratification. But I think he is not finally a trustworthy guide to the present. He fails to notice that the impulse toward separatism in its various forms is subsiding, and he fails to take seriously the arrival of globalism–doubtless an oversold and oversimplified term, but surely an inescapable one for a world linked by technology, language (English–the Esperanto of the future), and by a growing awareness that there are no merely national problems and therefore no merely national policies.

Toward the end of the book, Barzun remarks, retrospectively, that “the main merit of the nation-state was that over its large territory violence had been reduced.” Isn’t it just possible, now that an incipient global politics is beginning to take form, that the 50-plus years since World War II that have passed without a war between major powers could be an augury of good things to come? Isn’t it possible that war and the worst kinds of fanaticism have become obsolete in the West precisely because certain ideas (I mentioned individualism yesterday) have triumphed rather than expired? I don’t know. I do know that the power of science and technology is terrifying as well as promising, and means, among other things, that we need leaders with perspective and foresight more than ever before. So Barzun is deeply right to warn us against philistinism. But I’d like his book better if it had moved not toward a dismissive conclusion about the shallowness of contemporary culture, but had tried instead to evoke the complexity, contradictoriness, and unpredictability of the outlook for mankind.

Maybe we’ll meet again–