From Dawn to Decadence. Jacques Barzun.

Barzun, Jacques. From Dawn to Decadence. Harper, New York, 2000. NF; 4/23.

It’s not easy to characterize the scope of this book. At least it’s one very bright and enormously informed person’s commentary on 500 years of cultural history. But although I read every word of it I – who never really took a history course in university – feel like I’ve been through an entertaining first-year introduction to the subject presented as a passing view over towering knowledge and detail flying past at 40,000 feet. So much more depth is suggested on every page. And this author wrote much of it in his tenth decade, published it when he was 92 and lived to 104. Quite a life and quite a story, even if that story generally has a sad and pretty tragic ending.

Thirty years ago I kidnapped my family and spent a year away in France. One of the things I hoped to do was to make in whatever medium a spreadsheet that covered historical eras or dates down one side and all the general areas of human endeavour across the top. I imagined making an overview (and gaining an understanding) of pretty much what’s in Dr. Barzun’s book. But, of course, I didn’t do it. Maybe partly because I couldn’t find or even imagine a big enough sheet of paper. But also because I was too busy eating, exploring, and smelling the flowers. Now these days Microsoft Excel offers two-dimensions with nearly 34,000 potential characters in each cell. I don’t have the same logistic excuse and there’s a wee bit less distracting hedonism going on.

But my electronic Western modern cultural history monster spreadsheet will have to wait a bit. Here I’ll see if I can whet anyone’s appetite for this book by tossing out a few generalities, bearing in mind that the title doesn’t just hint at but tells us things haven’t been getting steadily better…

Barzun was born and went to school in France but got his higher education at Columbia in New York. He is considered the father of the discipline of cultural history, was the Columbia dean of graduate studies for about 15 years, wrote more than 40 books on subjects including music, baseball, and general history, and was known for his indelible memory and critical ability through his long adult life.

I found nothing stodgy or predictable anywhere in these 800 pages. Scrupulous attention is paid to each era since 1500, but the commentary and selection of content shows a firmly humanistic, common-sensical, and at times a bit quirky point of view. There are references to page numbers looking back and forward, many hundred scholarly references to other works, marginal quotes popping up every other page to enlighten general discussion, and parenthetical references of “The book to read is…” at the end of many major topics.

The progression of chapters is more or less chronologic, but there are chapters entitled “Cross Section”, ”The View from London in 1715” for example. Chapter titles instead of giving start and ending dates refer metonymically to cultural events or objects. “From Faust, Part I, to the “Nude Descending a Staircase No. 2” “, for example.

Famous names (Erasmus, Luther, Shakespeare, Voltaire, Napoleon, Einstein) are dealt with under bold headings but a lot of more obscure historical characters (ones that I hadn’t heard of anyway) which Barzun respects are described like equals of the big names. General philosophical and cultural themes are treated with titles and small capitals within sentences: PRIMITIVISM, ANARCHY, SCIENTISM, EMANCIPATION for example.

I read a hardcover paper version and highlighted and made a lot of notes. A few examples (this does go on a bit…):

When people accept futility and the absurd is normal, the culture is decadent.

Since (Aristotle and Plato) the two parties – are they temperaments? – have carried on the same debate over Matter and Idea, but not on equal terms.

… What is (most) important, (a) work of art must by its order mirror the hierarchical order of the world, which is a moral order.

In the United States at the present time the workings of “political correctness” (is a) manifestation… of the permanent spirit of inquisition.

Shakespeare by emphasizing characters as types may have slyly invented psychology, which eventually took over from the physiology of the humours.

(Scientific) ANALYSIS has become a universal mode of dealing not merely with what is unknown or difficult but also with all interesting things as if they were difficult.

The reason for (the school’s) loss of vitality is that the school is a government on a small scale; it aims at forming a common mind as government aims at a common will.

About the law of inertia: it is a law not because objects “obey” it – that again is a skewed interpretation; the law is only a statement of regularity in behaviour.

ABSTRACTION is a calculated departure from experience… (t)he modern era has endowed the world with more abstractions than any other culture on record.

Scientism is the fallacy of believing that the method of science must be used in all forms of experience and, given time, will settle every issue.

It is a mistake to say that because fundamentalists suppress free thought they are anti-intellectual. On the contrary they over-intellectualize…

Toward the end of the 16C… The Renaissance spirit passes into the Baroque and the nation-state as a political form begins to look secure.

Like the Renaissance, the (18C) was confident that the new knowledge, the fullness of knowledge was in its grasp.

Locke vests sovereignty in the people. Since they cannot conveniently exercise it, they choose representatives.

Diderot confessed that he could not understand the passage from matter to thought, though it must exist if one did not suppose an invisible something not in space or time… The most fitting term (for him) is… radical empiricist.

JS Bach is according to Schweitzer tuneful, according to Barzun “visceral.”

(Sentimentality is) self-centred make-believe that shuts out real or potential action.

Are people created, or in any real sense, equal? There is but one conclusion: human beings are unmeasurable.

1790s German intellectual George Lichtenberg is Barzun’s idea of a renaissance man: “Everyone should study at least enough philosophy and literature to make his sexual experience more delectable.”

Of the romantic era (1790-1850): It is obvious that an age that left scores of masterpieces in every art and original ideas still current cannot have been populated exclusively by men and women weak in judgement and continually lovelorn and subject to illusion… Romanticism validated passion and risk.

Horace Mann (mid-19th century educator)… Should be judged in the light of the… conditions in the 1840s. (Clearly Barzun appreciates the silliness of moral-standard hindsight.)

Kant reverses Hume’s empiricism: the external world is shaped by the mind, not the other way around.

William Hazlitt early 19th century essayist tries to make you as good a reader is he is. And that means one who not merely knows more than the careless or unguided but enjoys more.

The 1890s featured chaotic irreverent reactions to Victorianism. The humanities gave up their “heart” to the “organized common sense” of science, in a setting of an explosion of “progress” which was mainly technical.

“90s” art itself, not this or that message, was to be the guide of conduct – art by its truth, harmony, and grace moulded the spirit; aesthetics was a form of ethics.

Like the would-be purest in art, the scientist takes a concrete experience and by an act of ABSTRACTION brings out a principle that may have no resemblance to the visible world. Thus the ideal of form in art resembles the idea of mass in physics: externals disregarded to reach essence. This entire system – if it deserves the name – helps to explain a large part of 20 C art that would otherwise be incomprehensible.

The “Cubist Decade” starting in 1906 was the reaction to the 1890s’ chaotic activity. Barzun takes it to be the last truly creative era in Western history. Since 1914, art has progressively changed from Constructionism … to Destructivism.

History is not an agency nor does it harbour hidden power; the word history is an ABSTRACTION for the totality of human deeds, and to make their clashing outcomes the fulfilment of some concealed purpose is to make human beings into puppets.

On pragmatism (William) James says: do not look back to the origin of the statement but forward to its consequences. Barzun says those who may be called the pragmatist generation belong to it by their fresh recognition, variously expressed, of the primacy of experience – in politics, social thought, aesthetics, and religion.

After WWI it became plain that Western civilization had brought itself into a condition from which full recovery was unlikely. The devastation, both material and moral, had gone so deep that it turned the creative energies from their course, first into frivolity, and then into the channel of self-destruction.

1920s: gaiety was the main item on the agenda, a taking hold of life with both hands, feeling tolerant toward human vagaries (including one’s own) and under stress, showing nonchalance.

1914-1939: Eliot’s Waste Land, Joyce’s Ulysses, Proust, Yeats’s Second Coming. Dada, freeform, surrealism. Ridicule mocks itself as well as its object. Not a joke but a jape.

Post WWII: The absurd marks a failure of nerve.

Barzun ends by attempting a sketch of a culture at its close around the year 2000. This features violence, empty sexuality, psychologizing, prose full of meaningless jargon and generalities, loss of sportsmanship in sports, collapse of work and order in schools, exaggerated political correctness in universities, editorial journalism, an internet dispensing error and misinformation while emphasizing the virtual over the real.

The 20C with its wars approximately spanned Dr. Barzun’s life and its second half and the start of the 21C covers the lives of us still alive born after WWII. I was guardedly admittedly naïvely a little optimistic in my comments on his The Use and Abuse of Art. It seemed to me that the age of the least humane and most negative thinking and art might by this time have passed. If you believe in great millennial sweeps of history (Greece and Rome, Dark Ages, the past 500 years) it’s easy to imagine we live in “a culture at its close”. This especially considering that things like incurable pandemic, artificial superintelligence running away, thermonuclear accident are potentially real.

So after reading this book it’s hard not to wonder is Western culture finished, ruined by murderous wars, now unable to come up with anything worthwhile having used up all its spiritual and artistic energy, split into opposing factions blaming one another and wallowing in absurd self-parody to cover up conviction of futility? Was WB Yeats prophetic and is something horrifying “slouch(ing) toward Bethlehem to be born?”

Maybe so. Jacques Barzun’s vision describes our culture from waking up from a millennium of chaos 500 years ago down to the present around 2000 which he describes as deplorably vacant and decadent. But then he ends with a prediction of “resurrected enthusiasm in the young and talented, who keep exclaiming what a joy it is to be alive.”

I cared for a very elderly man in a nursing home many years ago when I was exploring old people’s thoughts about whether life was worth living. To do this I would ask my patients whether, if they had a switch beside their bed which if they threw it they wouldn’t wake up in the morning, they would flick the switch? Most of them said they “wouldn’t mind popping off” but weren’t willing to make it happen. And this gentleman said, “No, absolutely not.” When I asked why, he said, “I might miss something.”

For me these days I guess I feel the same way. I’ve found that the future is unpredictable and that unexpected things happen all the time. A lot of people I know are still serious but joyful, troubled but eventually hopeful, and grateful after a long life like Barzun’s talented young people to be alive. I am too, and I’m going to do my best to stick around as long as I can just to see what happens.


About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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