I reviewed Jacques Barzun's book From Dawn to Decadence: 500 years of Western Cultural Life 1500 to the Present (New York: HarperCollins, 2000, 877 pp.), when it came out in 2000. He died yesterday, at age 104.
Aware that some people use the word decadent exclusively to mean "sordid" or "depraved," Jacques Barzun defines the term more neutrally for his readers as "a falling down." "When people accept futility and the absurd as normal, the culture is decadent," he writes. When members of the "stalled society" search in all directions for a new faith or faiths, that's another sign of decay. When they confess openly to feelings of intractable malaise, they are themselves decadent. "The term is not a slur," he advises; "it is a technical label. A decadent culture offers opportunities chiefly to the satirist," because no one and nothing is taken seriously anymore.
What has led us to "our present disarray," which includes things like the theory of literary deconstruction? One answer Barzun gives is scientism, another term he defines for us, as "the fallacy of believing that the method of science must be used on all forms of experience and, given time, will settle every issue." Scientism has led to the overvaluation of reason, rationality, abstraction and analysis, and to the polite (or sometimes not so polite) dismissal of non-scientists--artists, philosophers, theologians, historians, and the like--as "dabblers in the suburbs of truth." The witch trials of Salem were rooted in "the work of reason upon fragments of experience," Barzun notes. Marx, too, fell prey to scientism: he thought he had "formulated the mechanics of history and could predict the future scientifically."
Moralism is another reason why our culture is drawing to a close in "disenchantment," according to the distinguished nonagenarian, whose political views cannot be described as other than rightist. (He is anti-affirmative action, a Jefferson apologist, and a defender of Columbus who believes that blaming the Italian explorer for the Native Americans' plight is a case of "retrospective lynching." Not only that, he dares to breathe the sensible words that "a long tradition develops a cultural type that looks genetically produced.") Like Gertrude Himmelfarb, another conservative cultural critic, he defends--and redresses--the popular image of the Victorians. ("Self-control at least develops a self.") A response to the disorder that followed the French Revolution and its sequels, moralism set in long before Victoria's reign--indeed, twenty years before her birth--and is not morality per se but a poor substitute for it, comprising attitudes "ridiculously pompous and dangerously repressive." Think of Louis XVI, Barzun suggests, but also religious fundamentalists of today.
The fragmentation of faith is, in fact, the most basic of all reasons for the decay of civilization. (Less original thinkers, by contrast, consider it a symptom.) The shattering began when Martin Luther nailed his ninety-five propositions on the Wittenberg church door. "A common faith is a necessity for any society that wants internal peace and decent government," Barzun says, quoting G.B. Shaw, one of his intellectual idols. Not even the new religion of science can supply it.
Barzun ascribes some of the credit (or blame) for the success of the Protestant Reformation to Gutenberg, since the printing press made more copies of Luther's proposals than human copyists ever could. This, he says, had implications for the general search for verities on the planet: "The one drawback to print is that the uniform finality of black on white leads the innocent to believe that every word so enshrined is true. And when these truths diverge from book to book (for the incentive to write and publish is also increased), the intellectual life is changed. From being more or less a duel, it becomes a free-for-all. The scrimmage makes for a blur of ideas, now accepted as a constant and fondly believed to be, like the free market, the ideal method for sifting truth."
Showing the connection between moveable feasts and moveable type--and making multitudes of other links--is Barzun's special gift. But unlike our faltering western culture, the book is not a pastiche. If a literary masterpiece must be, as he says, "a comprehensive vision of the world," this is one, and a reader does not need to agree with his prognosis to be swept along by it.
The book's blackest, angriest chapters are those about the Great War of 1914-18, later renamed because it had a sequel. World War I was "the blow that hurled the modern world on its course of self-destruction," asserts the man who, born in 1907, spent the duration of his childhood in wartime France, and like so many others was permanently scarred by the experience. He seems to have spent the rest of his life trying to figure out how such a cataclysm occurred. If books are written because authors are driven to explain something to themselves, From Dawn to Decadence is his exegesis of the event that gave us tanks, mobile cannons, wide-ranging submarines, blimps, various types of airplanes, gas masks, and "Big Bertha," the large-bore gun that could fire a shell at a target seventy-five miles away. Ten million dead is one estimate of the toll. At the Battle of the Somme, where tanks were first used in warfare, the British losses alone were 60,000 in one day. (American dead in all the Vietnam years were 57,685.) But, as Barzun notes, a war's losses of all kinds is a far wider category than "mere" mortalities: "The maimed, the tubercule, the incurables, the shell-shocked, the sorrowing, the driven mad, the suicides, the broken spirits, the destroyed careers, the budding geniuses plowed under, the missing births were losses, and they are incommensurable."
After the Great War, developments in the arts helped destroy the culture, Barzun argues. In the 1920s--long before the cultural rebellions of the 'sixties--elders were judged untrustworthy (after all, what a mess their war had been), and artists were the first to proclaim it. Thus began the attacks on authority, ridicule of anything established, distortions of language and objects, indifference to clear meaning, and the list of genres that begin with the prefix "anti." For the previous four centuries art had been inseparable from virtue. No longer: its moral and social purposes were buried along with doughboys.
Although his erudition is beyond question, Barzun can himself be a quirky reasoner at times. Perhaps not purely in jest he longs for a return of the duel, since it settled matters that now clog courts--personal insults, for example. He also likes to tweak all manner of noses, calling Harvard in its earliest years "a sort of high school." Most inflammatorily, he writes that feminists are the ones who push the damaging female stereotype, for they, not their supposed enemies, characterize women as chattel and drudges. In his opinion, "the notion that talent and personality in women were suppressed at all times during our half millennium except the last fifty years is an illusion."
Quirky, too, are his suggestions for further reading, many of them older titles. ("It is a false analogy with science that makes one think latest is best.") If Barzun were Oprah, there would be a run on some authors who have not enjoyed wide readerships in years, if ever. This reviewer was gratified to see one of her own underrated favorites mentioned, the essayist John Jay Chapman. (It would take the politically incorrect Barzun to make such a recommendation, for Chapman had his regrettable, anti-Semitic moments.) Finley Peter Dunne, an 1890s Chicago newspaper columnist, he calls "a literary genius" and "only one of the great native sons whose neglect is a reproach to the American mind, that is to say the academics and the critics." Dorothy Sayers is the biggest surprise in his pantheon, but the British mystery writer also wrote on theology, and the book of hers that he recommends (twice) is The Mind of the Maker.
These titles, as well as many of the familiar classics, are our hope, Barzun says in the closing section of the book. What may save future generations from their own "brutishness" is a good deal of literature and history from the past 500 years of western culture, "mingled with a sizable infusion of the eastern." He predicts they'll start to read them when they're finally bored to tears by the decadent offerings of their own closing culture. The old texts will be "in odd shapes"--formats he doesn't dare to imagine--but they will lay the foundation of the "renascent" ethos (his preferred word), Chekov's words among them, who wrote in a notebook a century ago, "How pleasant it is to respect people!" (For by the fin-de-siècle, such a sentiment had already fallen out of vogue.) Thus reborn, they'll start to imitate their elders, but quickly move on from there, and, with resurrected enthusiasm, invent a new civilization. True, it's a reckless prediction, given his chronicle. It's a measure of his mastery--and his faith--that he makes it seem almost believable.