Decline and fall

Jacques Barzun's new history of Western Culture is magisterial, but too soft on Nazi collaborators and too hard on the 20th century.

Topics: Books,

“From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life,” Jacques Barzun’s much-praised doorstop of knowledge, is probably the liveliest work any old fart has ever produced. Barzun isn’t boasting when he says he has been preparing for this book his whole lifetime. “From Dawn to Decadence” reads as if its author has spent every second of his 92 years amassing knowledge.

There are two basic reactions to a such a fluid display of erudition, and I’m not sure I’d trust anyone who didn’t feel at least a sliver of each. First, there’s awe at Barzun’s ability to retain and synthesize literally centuries’ worth of information. And second, there’s the inevitable urge to make fun of somebody who’s such a Poindexter. More than once as I made my way through “From Dawn to Decadence,” I thought longingly of Groucho, Chico and Harpo turning the classroom upside down in “Horse Feathers.” The book made me feel as if a battle were taking place inside me between the enthralled student carefully taking notes and the kid who sits in back goofing off with his buddies.

Barzun, on the other hand, has apparently never spent an idle moment in his life. He hints at feeling affection for some of the purely pleasurable pursuits that come under his consideration (British mysteries, the plays of Noel Coward and Philip Barry, the stage routines of Beatrice Lillie and Josephine Baker), but clearly he considers that affection irrelevant to critical or historical analysis. The knowledge on display here might make us envious, but the life it suggests doesn’t feel as if it’s been much fun. (I don’t suppose, for example, that it means much to Barzun that his book supplied me with the answers to several crucial questions on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.”)

I’m not saying that to be facetious. If art and learning don’t provide pleasure, then they become a chore. If you present history and art and culture as if they are a duty, you turn people off for good. And yet “From Dawn to Decadence” is, in its writing and design, more solicitous of the reader than any other fat Western history I can imagine. At 800 pages, the book isn’t fast reading, but it’s never a slog; I was never once tempted to skim. (A word of caution, though, to those who do a lot of reading on public transportation: you might want to save Barzun for home. Lugging this around for a few weeks will ruin your back. Trust me.)



The book’s design is a model of clarity. Instead of clogging up the pages with illustrative quotes and footnotes (a drain on your eyes as well as your patience) Barzun has set the pertinent quotes in neat little call-outs in the margins next to the text. Small degree marks alert you to endnotes, which have been very selectively chosen (only 25 pages). Cones followed by a page number refer you back (<) or ahead (>) to other places where the subject at hand is also discussed. And throughout the text, Barzun has included bracketed suggestions “[The book to read is ...]” that will guide the interested reader to further works on all sorts of topics.

Beyond the recurring themes Barzun finds in the last 500 years — individualism, emancipation, abstraction, secularism, scientism, primitivism — the great overarching theme of “From Dawn to Decadence” is the faultiness of received opinion. Barzun’s perpetual insistence that things are not what we have assumed them to be is the key to why the book is so stimulating and so irritating. Nobody — and certainly no writer — could make such a habit of this if he didn’t take at least some pleasure in annoying people.

Barzun the troublemaker is never far from Barzun the reasoned scholar. He’s a well-mannered bomb-thrower who states the facts — no matter how upsetting — with a politeness that belies the shock of his claims, and the deadpan assurance of his prose is the academic equivalent of suavity. “I do not expect the reader to be steadily grateful,” he writes in the note that opens the book. “Nobody likes to hear a rooted opinion challenged and even less to see good reasons offered for a principle or policy once in force and now universally condemned … Yet without exposure to this annoyance, one’s understanding of our modern thoughts and virtues is incomplete.”

Opting for understanding rather than judgment, Barzun is more interested in supplying the reasons for such policies as the divine right of kings, or outlining the compatibility of the Salem witch trials with the concerns of science in its infancy. Still, he can be detached to the point of inhuman coldness. Of the witch trials, he writes, “The facts are partly misconceived. The witches were not burnt but hanged.” Gee, I feel so much better.

When Barzun discourses on the fallacy of regarding “mankind” as a sexist term, referring back to Genesis (“And God created Man, male and female”) as well as the Sanskrit root of man, he’s persuasive. When he informs us that the word “turkey” is the incorrect one for the familiar fowl, he’s like those people who insist that the millennium actually begins next year, and you wish someone had informed him at an impressionable age that nobody likes a know-it-all. And that’s how the experience of reading “From Dawn to Decadence” goes, veering from the excitement of seeing cant and false assumption swept away to dismay at Barzun’s almost total willingness to suspend moral judgment.

He will include a stirring passage like this one:

The political history of the West has been a running battle between the “realistic” deniers of one freedom after another and the generous ones who gambled on another truth, that capacity is native to all and depends only on fair conditions for its development.

And then, like many conservatives, he proceeds to give the impression that he’s never met an authority figure he didn’t like.

It’s at those moments that Barzun’s abdication of moral hindsight is most egregious. A fairly recent historical example: Writing of Pierre Laval, leader of the French Vichy government under the German Occupation during WWII, Barzun writes, “To preserve the integrity of France, he battled with the German head of the Occupation, Abetz, to keep workers from being sent to German factories and Jews to death camps … His too was a resistance. He was shot as a traitor in 1945 but his record more justly classes him as a patriot in a post of double danger.”

What you won’t learn from Barzun, but can find in Alice Kaplan’s new book, “The Collaborator” (about the executed French newspaper editor Robert Brasillach), is that part of Laval’s “resistance” in order to “preserve the integrity of France” meant offering up foreign Jews to meet Nazi deportation quotas and urging the Nazis to deport the children of foreign Jews as well. Kaplan records that in 1942, at Laval’s instigation, more than 6,000 children under the age of 17 were sent to Auschwitz.

Lapses like that are even more irritating because — at least until he gets to the 1920s — Barzun is no reactionary. Readers assuming “From Dawn to Decadence” is an epic celebration of that absurd new term of loathing, Dead European Males, will be disappointed to find Barzun’s insistence that European culture is a mongrel one (“Unity does not mean uniformity, and identity is compatible with change”), and his consistent attention to women. Barzun believes (as I’m sure do many feminist scholars) that it would be the rankest sexism to assume that blinkered law and custom entirely crushed women’s influence and achievements. “For to suppose that from antiquity they have been uniformly oppressed, used as drudges by their husbands, as chattel by their lords, is to accept a stereotype and forget their possession of the very qualities women want to vindicate: intelligence, self-respect, and resourcefulness in exerting their native powers.”

Nothing challenges conservative orthodoxy more than Barzun’s defense of relativism, which comes toward the close of the book. The idea of applying one broad formula to different historical eras is, to Barzun, intellectually offensive because it’s so lazy. Of relativism’s current bad reputation, he says, “It has become a cliche that stands for the cause of every laxity; corrupt or scandalous conduct is supposed the product of a relativist approach. When linked with Liberal politics, it implies complacent irresponsibility.”

How disappointing then, that Barzun goes on to find other scapegoats for the “decadence” of modern times. He believes that all cultures run down sooner or later, but the evidence he finds of decline in our own is depressingly trite, reducing his intelligence to no more than the finger-pointing prognostication of countless interchangeable conservative whiners.

It’s a dispiritingly familiar laundry list: “the cruel, perverse and obscene [is] more and more taken for granted as natural and normal”; “film as well as novels keep teasing the mind with the unspeakable and possibly incite the young and old to reenact the deeds in real life”; “the attack on authority, the ridicule of anything established, the distortions of language and objects, the indifference to clear meaning, the violence to the human form, the return to the primitive elements of sensation, the growing list of genres called ‘Anti’ … have made Modernism at once the mirror of disintegration and an incitement to extending it.”

Some of Barzun’s complaints — one balks at dignifying them as ideas — are absurdly easy to dismiss: “Students now give their teachers good or bad marks annually and these are used in determining salary and promotion.” Shouldn’t students have some say in evaluating the professors whose salaries their tuitions pay? “The welfare ideal did not merely see to it that the poor should be able to survive, but that everybody should be safe and at ease in a hundred ways.” These frivolities include healthcare, pensions, workmen’s compensation, workplace safety regulations, laws protecting consumers against harm from foods, design control and inspection of appliances. Is it really necessary to point out that the absence of healthcare, pensions and workplace safety calls into question the survival of not just the poor but the working class and middle class? How does Barzun reconcile his praise for the standards of hygiene that Florence Nightingale introduced to nursing with his scoffing at laws regulating the safety of food?

This is where most of us will happily give up the idea of being Barzun’s dutiful students and revert to being the class clowns. And why shouldn’t we? If Barzun has such contempt for current culture, then he must be just as contemptuous of those of us who enjoy it or have had our lives made easier by it. Essentially, he’s telling us that modern times can only be enjoyed by those too debased to appreciate the finer things. To which, I think, the only appropriate response is “Screw you, teach!”

Some of Barzun’s peeves are nothing more than a fuddy-duddy’s tastes. If he doesn’t get a kick out of porn [the videos to rent are "Talk Dirty to Me" or anything with Juliet "Aunt Peg" Anderson]; if he can’t appreciate the playful joie de vivre of Marcel Duchamp [the book to read is "Duchamp: A Biography" by Calvin Tomkins]; and if rock ‘n’ roll, a predictable bogey, isn’t one of the sustaining joys of his life [the current CD to listen to is Sleater-Kinney's "All Hands on the Bad One"], well, then, that’s his loss.

But even a critic who rejects the spirit and works of an era must engage with that era rather than hold it at a sniffing, disdainful arm’s length, which is Barzun’s attitude toward most of the 20th century. Much of the best social and cultural criticism of the last 50 years — I’m thinking of books like Jane Jacobs’ “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” James Harvey’s exhilarating survey, “Romantic Comedy in Hollywood, From Lubitsch to Sturges,” and Jon Savage’s “England’s Dreaming” — is linked by the conviction that there is beauty and grace and poetry to be found in the casual style and rapid, even cataclysmic, pace of modern life. Barzun is blind to that beauty. Wisecracking, subversive energy is distasteful to him. He gives no evidence of finding the last 80 years anything more than the cultural equivalent of the “Before” photo in a weight-loss ad.

Was there no editor who could persuade Barzun to spare himself the embarrassment of this last section of “From Dawn to Decadence,” no one to explain that it made him sound like a crotchety crank? It seems very odd that someone possessed of the critical vision to see the last 500 years as a series of evolving ideas and developments sees nothing but pastiche and derision and desecration and empty technique in contemporary culture. Is that all he sees in Francis Bacon’s debt to Velasquez and Goya, or in David Hockney’s to Dufy? Is that all he hears in John Coltrane’s debt to Louis Armstrong? All he can recognize in D.W. Griffith’s debt to Dickens, or in Godard’s to Jean Renoir?

Fortunately, the reader needn’t make the same mistake as Barzun’s editor. If you stop reading “From Dawn to Decadence” right around when the author finishes with the First World War, you can give yourself the pleasure of ending with Barzun’s sweeping consideration of the legacy of Romanticism [The supplemental essay to read is "The Romantic Revolution" by Isaiah Berlin].

The irony of the snobbishness that ends “From Dawn to Decadence” is that it would never have been written if Barzun didn’t believe that it’s possible to write for average readers without talking down to them and to still impart vast amounts of knowledge. The book is that rare thing, a survey history intended for the general reader that locates its narrative momentum in the origin, development and dissemination of ideas.

Barzun’s faith would seem to be rewarded by the book’s presence on the bestseller lists. Here, I fear, through no fault of his own, the author may have run into one of the truly decadent aspects of our age: the shortcuts taken by people starved for time. For all the confidence he displays, Barzun has no desire for the last word. Like any good critic, he wants to spur readers to their own thought and discoveries. His constant recommendations of other books is just the most obvious example of that wish.

“From Dawn to Decadence” could wind up as unread as the untouched encyclopedias that gathered dust on many a family’s bookshelf, but I fear its fate may be more insidious. People may wind up reading the book in the way that the American tourists in Godard’s “Band of Outsiders” tour the Louvre in 12 minutes, as something to be gotten over with, an item to be checked off a to-do list. This enthralling and maddening book, as far-sighted as it is blinkered, deserves better than becoming to intellectual curiosity what Hamburger Helper is to chopped sirloin.

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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