FROM DAWN TO DECADENCE: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, 1500 to the present

From Dawn to Decadence by Jacques BarzunJacques Barzun
Harper Collins ($36)

by Eric Iannelli

Encyclopaedic in scope, engaging but demanding in its account, From Dawn to Decadence is a brilliant synthesis of five centuries of cultural development from the keen mind of Jacques Barzun, a highly respected critic and historian with nearly thirty books to his credit.

Beginning with the a look at the post-Renaissance ("a moveable feast") zeitgeist and Martin Luther's posting of his 95 Theses in 1517, the author sets out to trace dominant trends in cultural history. During this process he simultaneously aims to curb the excesses of revisionism, clear up common misunderstandings, and exhume words--particularly "culture" itself--that have been reshaped through successive generations. This grand task involves rescuing the Victorian Era from its putative prudery, as well as the Medieval Era from the misconception of it being wholly unenlightened and artistically stagnant. Farther on, Barzun untangles the twisted net of Darwinism and awards Lamarck his rightful place in the evolutionary debate, then examines the political correctness and multiculturalism our own time holds so dear.

With the authority and confidence of Dante's Virgil, Barzun guides the reader through these conflicting views of history, highlighting the existence of particular themes in the last five hundred years of Western cultural life. Some of these include SELF-CONSCIOUSNESS (he uses the capitalisation himself), a "mental state" of individuality without limits; ANALYSIS, or "the breaking of wholes into parts," a fundamental process of science but new to art; SPECIALISM, with its threefold appearance in intellectual, scientific and educational circles; EMANCIPATION, "indeed the immediate appeal of all revolutions"; PRIMITIVISM, the desire for a break from the demands of urban life and technology and a return to simpler modes of living; and INDIVIDUALISM, an effect of emancipation and cause of self-consciousness. Unlike historians with an agenda, Barzun does not force his account to conform to these themes, as a statistician might skew data to support a hypothetical trend. Instead he notes their reappearance and discusses its relation to precedents.

Contrary to most platitudes, Barzun suggests it is ennui--that is, "boredom and fatigue"--which is the driving force of change. He also has no reservations in correcting things he finds to be absurd or simply mistaken, such as personal attacks levelled at the Irish-born satirist Johnathan Swift or the multitalented William Hazlitt, who he describes as "Criticism personified." These short biographical sketches found at various intervals within the text help to illuminate the outstanding figures in Barzun's narrative. They also expose the reader to important names that have been eschewed by the frivolous curriculum now in place in most Western schools, grammar and graduate alike.

As always, in a work of this size and scope, certain details are bound to go missing. Barzun's selections for persons who merit inclusion are excellent, but I do question the elision of some names, particularly those around the fin-de-siécle. Eugéne Atget, a failed actor turned photographer in Napoleon III's France, is one of these because of the duality of his work. Some two decades of work in the form of 2500 negatives was sold in an official capacity to the Caisse National des Monuments Historiques, in which he used this new medium to document the existing Parisian cityscape as the drive for "progress" and cultural superiority engendered radical architectonic changes. Atget's photography received formal recognition from Man Ray and Ansel Adams, giving his work the artistic status it had been lacking.

Similarly, there is Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase, No.2, which appeared for the first time at the New York Armory show in 1913. But an exhibition four years later featured the "fountain," a wall-mounted urinal, presented by the enigmatic R. Mutt (also Duchamp). More than the motion he had captured on canvas, the urinal was an overt attack on the conservative, or "philistine," sensibilities of the crowd. The ironic Fountain perhaps speaks more to the goals and outrageous effects of the combined Modernist-Surrealist-Dadaist movements than motion in Cubist painting.

In his essay on the Edwardian Age, Stefan Collini writes in the January 19 issue of the Times Literary Supplement: "It is always difficult to distinguish fact from fantasy in narratives of cultural decline, since tendentious selection and culpable exaggeration usually combine to misrepresent the nature and scale of actual changes, until all the delicate shadings of grey are crayonned over in deepest black." That particular caveat, summed up rather nicely, is wholly applicable to the closing pages of From Dawn to Decadence. Barzun sees the effects of emancipation as leading to a sort of social entropy, or a chaos theory as applied to mankind.

The author's commentary about the late 20th Century is especially unsettling because of the strong degree of truth--not, as some might argue, academic indignation or cynical senility--within the observations. He argues that the same agencies once established to protect individual rights (the ACLU comes to mind, as do the infinite divisions and sub-divisions of modern bureaucracy) now hinder the same individuals they sought to protect, operating at the expense of good sense and efficiency. Contemporary education, based on the suggestions of Dewey and Campell, has gotten rid of the fundamentals (Latin, Greek and classic literature, for example) in order to concentrate on practical application and determined egalitarianism, the latter of which results in attempts to teach the unteachable and make schoolwork entertaining. The subject was covered well in the late Allan Bloom's socio-academic polemic The Closing of the American Mind, which Barzun unfortunately does not mention. Similarly, Will Durant's The Story of Philosophysupplements the general narrative of From Dawn to Decadence well, but receives no formal recognition.

One may apply Barzun's theoretical analysis to other aspects of modern life. Because of its obsession with emancipation and individualism, the Western world has become not anti-historic--which implies some knowledge of history--as it is a-historic, much like the Dadaist declaration that "I don't want to know if any man lived before me." Contemporary artists, for example, attempt to explore new territory without a solid grasp of the old. Their output is of superficial quality, isolated from the context offered by tradition. On a more general level, the very notion of rights in Western society has devolved into farce, with everyone demanding his voice be heard. All this takes place under the rousing rebel yell of democracy, when the fundamental principle of democracy is majority rule. This last advent, socially speaking, creates a tyranny of the common man over his gifted counterpart--in short, it is the lamentable rise of the "demotic," not "democratic," in fashion, music, and the arts--a decline expedited by the Lowest Common Denominator strategies propagated by the monolithic advertising and television industries. Barzun offers a very stunning prognostication of the year 2030, one in which a corporate-controlled future parallels the Middle Ages in terms of socio-political structure and general creative lethargy. Decades, maybe centuries, later a new Renaissance will occur with the discovery of our current texts, by then "classic" literature.

The poignancy of this dystopian prediction is heightened because it arrives in 2001, which has been declared the European Year of Languages by the European Union and Council of Europe. This event celebrates Europe's multilingualism in light of current studies indicating that English will soon become the dominant tongue of the Western world. Not only does this suggest the gradual displacement of other major languages, rich in words that have no Anglophone counterpart, it also hints towards an additional drawback in which the dominant English tongue will be the inarticulate, antiseptic version found in the business world and the "techspeak" of computer gurus.

Barzun also prefers to focus on classical music, which seems a bit misguided in his treatment of early 20thCentury. This is a time when jazz emerged out of New Orleans, Chicago and New York and set the United States dizzy during Prohibition. The innovation of jazz, with its back-alley origins and apparent absence of structure, captures the spirit of the times (justifiably termed the Jazz Age) better than Mahler, Debussy, Ravel and Tchaikovsky. Yet the ignorance of classical music among a large percentage of the Western population possibly calls for a greater treatment of the subject, in which case Barzun would be undeserving of such criticism.

And, yes, one could rightly say with Barzun that homosexuality has enjoyed a greater degree of freedom beginning in the early 20th Century. Yet one must also remember that as late as 1960, whole paragraphs in J.R. Ackerley's novel We Think the World of You were bowdlerized because of their homoerotic content. A recent reissue of the so-called "definitive edition" still excludes many of those passages. Thus the certainty of social progress and acceptance is still dubious. Similarly, the author owes a large debt to the American philosopher William James, who is cited four times by page 25, and receives a fair amount of attention as his chronological place in history approaches, but Barzun also might have benefited from the insightful quips of Eric Hoffer, another straight-talking American philosopher who possessed an acute understanding of human nature and life in the 20th Century.

In spite of these minor quibbles, however, From Dawn to Decadence remains one of the most instructive books of its kind; neither blinded by academic haughtiness, nor softened by the wish to please everyone at the expense of accuracy. The index alone is a remarkable achievement. One section is devoted to proper names, complete with dates of birth and death, and bold page numbers to indicate a higher degree of concentration on the subject instead of a casual reference. The other section lists places, events and themes in acute detail. Some forty pages of endnotes serve as superb guides for further research and historical disclaimers. Furthermore, the text margins are peppered with quotes from central personalities and Barzun's own bracketed suggestions of books to read for better understanding. One might add that he is not above recommending his own work where appropriate.

From Dawn to Decadence opens with a dedication "To All Whom It May Concern." It would be a shame if this did not include even the casual reader. The revelations found within these pages are no less than essential for anyone who seeks a better understanding of the socio-political development and, equally as important, one's own place in history. Few books in recent memory are as accessible, interesting, and unashamed of controversy.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2001 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2001