The Book Club

What’s the Big Idea?

Dear Andrew:

Bingo! You’ve nailed the most jarring thing about From Dawn to Decadence, though I wouldn’t describe it as Barzun’s failure to deliver on his promise of decadence, exactly. I’d call it tension between Barzun’s grand overview of Western culture as a burgeoning movement toward liberation that contains the seeds of its own dissolution–the old decline-and-fall song-and-dance–and his critical sensibility, his clear preference for fresh ideas and direct perceptions and thinkers too honest to dress up their powerful but partial insights as theories of everything. The highest praise Barzun can bestow on an intellectual is that he (less often she) shows “no desire to make a system.” He writes that about Michel de Montaigne and William Hazlitt and William James and George Bernard Shaw and Dorothy Sayers and a bunch of others I forgot to write down, each one a master of the devastating aperçu and each an obvious culture hero for Barzun.

So why did a finicky professor who hates to see a small but good idea trampled by a big and stale one succumb to cultural and historical pessimism, two of the biggest and stalest ideas there are? I don’t have a clue, frankly, but the question gives me an excuse to digress and act on a request from my boss, the aforementioned Kinsley, who wrote last night to ask that we tell the reader who Jacques Barzun is, anyway. All I can offer is what I’ve read on the book-jacket flap and dug up on Nexis: He was born near Paris in 1907, which makes him an astonishing 93. (If you compare From Dawn to Decadence with Saul Bellow’s Ravelstein, which is the work of a man in his late 80s and reads like it, too, you gain more insight into the magnitude of Barzun’s accomplishment.) We’ve already talked about his father, a writer and diplomat who knew everybody who mattered, culturally, in Paris; after World War I, Barzun’s father advised him to get out of Europe and go to college in America. He enrolled at Columbia at the age of 15 and wound up teaching there for nearly 50 years, most famously the great-books class with Lionel Trilling. What this means, mainly, is that you’re the one who should be doing this, since you’ve undoubtedly had some contact with the man. Barzun’s two best-sellers before this one were Teacher in America (1945) and The House of Intellect (1959), neither of which I’ve read. If you have, take it away!

Now back to Barzun’s decadence, or as you could also call it, declinism. I have to admit to having a theory about this, though I lack direct evidence to defend it. The way I put it to my husband as I was reading the book was this: There are two Barzuns, the hard-headed optimist and the aging aristocrat, and by the end of the book, the aging aristocrat wins. You say Barzun’s villain is abstraction; I think it’s democracy, which entails abstraction as a tool of government. Part IV–the section of the book on the 20th century–is suffused with a nobleman’s disgust at the masses. Barzun the devotee of Romanticism shifts subtly into Barzun the follower of conservative Romanticist historians, particularly Leopold von Ranke and Jacob Burckhardt. Ranke was a professor of history at the University of Berlin in the mid-19th century famous for his warning against “present-mindedness”–seeing the past through the eyes of the present–but he also held a view of societies as living organisms that systematically undo themselves in their decline, rather as bodies do. Burckhardt, his student, considered modern democracy to be the principle of self-destruction par excellence; he predicted the rise of mass culture, which he thought led inevitably to the death of true cultural life as well as to totalitarianism and the military-industrial complex–though he didn’t call it that, of course. (Barzun mentions both of these men, but more or less in passing.)

Barzun’s last chapters positively ripple with Rankean and Burckhardtian despair. A Burckhardtian moment is this paragraph about Dadaism and its followers, which also strikes me as an apt critique of Dadism’s latter-day incarnation, Conceptual Art. The central contradiction of Barzun is evident in this passage, a set of observations that seem original and true up to the point where Barzun blames it all on democracy, rather than (as I see it) a most unpopulist urge to sneer: 

Modernist works of derision did not provoke laughter and were not meant to. They were mock-funny, which means serious, and those called “amusing” were designed to leave one hardly smiling but moved to reflection. … This muted elation is what people of the period urged upon one another and boasted of possessing but misnamed “a sense of humor.” 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 self-reform, but has its use in forestalling criticism. Such apologies and confessions should not be classed as hypocrisy. Their popularity corresponded to the postwar increase in democratic feeling, which demands that one continually show awareness of one’s limitations.

This passage, at the very end of the book, is purely Rankean:

The end of the half-millennium destroyed what the beginning had so painfully accomplished: put an end to feudal wars by welding together neighboring regions, assimilated foreign enclaves, set up strong kinds over large territories, and done everything to foster loyalty to something larger than the eye could see. A common language, a core of historical memories with heroes and villains, compulsory public schooling and military service finally made the 19C nation-state the carrier of civilization.Now all these elements were decaying and could not be restored.

You ask whether I think we should celebrate our “falling off” from nationalist/imperialist struggles, rather than deplore it as “bloodless”? Damn straight we should! Nineteenth-century nationalism looked good only if you viewed it from inside Europe, and even from there it was questionable. If I adopted the perspective of my ancestors, rather than Barzun’s, for instance, I’d have to observe that some Western and Middle European nation-states were good to the Jews, but the Eastern European ones emphatically weren’t, and the condition of workers and peasants throughout Europe was appalling. European imperialism looked pretty bad to Africans, Arabs, Chinese, Indians, etc.; and the whole shebang was translated handily into 20th-century nationalism, with the consequences Barzun lists in his account of World War I (and doesn’t list in his one-page treatment of World War II).

I have to confess to finding Barzun’s declinism seductive on one front, though: where it addresses the triumphalist march of science. Your characterization of the book as a “long lament for the decline and disappearance of a more complex sense of reality than science … allows” is brilliant, and you’re probably right that if From Dawn to Decadence shows anything, it’s that people won’t tolerate reductionism for long. Still, I’d love to know what signs you see for hope.

One last thing: I don’t agree with you that the people who buy this book will never read it. In general I’m dubious of that charge, Kinsley’s experiment notwithstanding; and this book is particularly suited to be flipped through and read backwards and forwards and in parts, as you pointed out (a tribute to the influence of hypertextualism on book design, observed the proud employee of a Webzine). Would you have read it cover to cover if you didn’t have to review it? Or would you have kept it around and consulted it on a needs-only basis, as they say here at Microsoft? Me, I’d have preferred to read it slowly and to have had to time to follow up on Barzun’s recommendations for further reading. I did have one moment with the book that showed me how it was meant to be used: My whole family read the chapter on Venice while in Venice two weeks ago, and the economical Barzun gave us in a few pages of insights into the political contributions of the 16th-century Venetian Republic I doubt we’d have found anywhere else, either in the estimable Blue Guide or in the great literary treatments of Venice.

That, to me, was worth $36.

Until this afternoon,