Pushing Through the Decadence

When the historian and cultural critic Jacques Barzun died at 104 in 2012, he was not only full of years but full of honors. The honors started early. 

Born in Créteil, a suburb outside Paris, in 1907, Barzun came to the United States with his parents in 1920. His father, a cultivated man who welcomed such celebrated figures as Guillaume Apollinaire, Marcel Duchamp, Edgard Varèse, and Stefan Zweig to his home, determined that young Jacques should be educated in America. In 1927, he graduated with honors from Columbia University, where was valedictorian and president of Philolexian Society, one of the oldest university literary and debate societies in the United States. He went on to take a Ph.D. at Columbia and was a distinguished professor and administrator there for decades. (Together with the critic Lionel Trilling, he also presided over the once-celebrated course in Western civilization there.)

As the years and the books accumulated—Barzun was the author of more than 40 books on subjects ranging from history, education, and music to poetry, detective stories, and baseball—he scooped up all the recognitions: the Légion d’Honneur from his native country, the Presidential Medal of Freedom (bestowed by President George W. Bush), National Humanities Medal (Obama), and on and on. 

I believe the first thing that I read by Jacques Barzun was a short book called On Writing, Editing, and Publishing (1971). I cannot lay my hands on it at the moment, but I remember from it a good piece of advice for those young ’uns (and their name is legion) who think they want to be writers. 

It is important, Barzun noted, to decide whether you want to write or to have written. A little honest self-scrutiny on that point can save a world of heartache. Obviously, the point can be generalized for all the arts. (How many self-identifying waiters or waitresses have you met in trendy New York restaurants? They scarcely exist. But there are plenty of novelists, painters, and actors who just happen to be waiting tables until their genius is acknowledged.)

Jacques Barzun was a type of public intellectual that is rare in any age and is more or less extinct today. He was in but not of the academy. He wrote beautifully, for one thing, cared passionately about the life of the mind, and never succumbed to the dead-end of what is sometimes called “specialization” but really should be denominated arid irrelevancy. Barzun wrote for the general educated reader about the things that matter most: truth, beauty, the perennial challenges to the human spirit with which life confronts us. 

Barzun always had a teacher’s gift of dramatizing ideas and championing what, in Darwin, Marx, Wagner (1941), he called “the pluralism of the world of experience.” Although deeply immersed in intellectual matters himself, he seems never to have succumbed to the intellectual’s chief occupational temptation of mistaking abstractions for the realities they adumbrate. This resistance had stylistic as well as substantive consequences. Barzun once noted that “Intellect watches particularly over language because language is so far the only device for keeping ideas clear and emotions memorable.” 

Accordingly, his own success was due partly to responsible prose: clear, unpretentious, always favoring the homely concrete word over the fancy bit of fashionable jargon. His success was due to his ability to grasp what was really at stake in the intellectual and artistic currents he charted. In Barzun’s hands, intellectual history was less an academic than an existential pursuit; reading him, you understand that curiosity about the past is at the same time a species of self-interrogation. The questions with which intellectual history confronts us can be parsed as elements of that large, perennial question, “How should I live my life?”

Barzun’s magnum opus, published in 2000 when he was 93, is From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, 1500 to the Present. The book is a magnificent summa of Barzun’s concerns as a thinker and historian. It synthesizes as well as summarizes a long lifetime’s reflection about the fate of those distinctive energies that define Western culture: “the great achievements and the sorry failures of our half millennium.” I’ll devote the rest of this column to rehearsing its argument. 

Tackling From Dawn to Decadence

The first thing to be said about From Dawn to Decadence is that reading it is an exhilarating experience. I mention this partly to reassure those intimidated by the book’s length, partly to mollify those put off by its admonitory title. At nearly 900 closely printed pages, From Dawn to Decadence certainly is long. But it is also a rich tapestry of a book—the product, Barzun remarks, of accidents like “insomnia and longevity,” as well as of immense scholarship. Despite the book’s intimidating girth, I suspect that many readers will, like me, come to feel about it the way one feels about certain long novels. For the first 100 pages or so, a mixture of wariness and anticipation predominates: will the book really repay the time and effort it demands? These feelings give way, as one settles into the story, to eager excitement. Finally, as the end approaches, one finds oneself madly trying to prolong the experience and delay coming to the final page.

As for the title: while it accurately describes the book’s trajectory—from the dawn of the Renaissance to the decadence of the1990s—Barzun is justified in claiming that “the lively and positive predominate.” From Dawn to Decadence is not a work of lamentation but of historical investigation: I almost said “historical adventure.” Barzun did not hesitate to pass judgment on the failures, present as well as past, that he chronicles. He was convinced that our age, despite its extraordinary technological capabilities, is an Alexandrian age: a time of cultural sunset, depleted energies, and moral confusion. Barzun ended his story in 2000. It is interesting to speculate what he would have to say about the deformations of “woke” identity politics that play such a large role in contemporary life. I suspect he would not have been surprised. The malevolent frivolities of our age were after all already present in ovo in the de-civilizing imperatives of the 1960s. The same songs are playing, only louder.

Nevertheless, despite his forthright acknowledgment of the cultural shadows that surround us, the tenor of Barzun’s discussion is one of inexhaustible curiosity. His message is sobering but his tone is exuberant. Like the best travel writers, he manages to combine the authority of first-hand knowledge with the delight of discovery. Indeed, one of the most remarkable things about this remarkable book is the sense of freshness that Barzun brought to what inevitably is well-trodden ground. When one recalls that Barzun was comfortably into his 90s when he wrote the book, one’s admiration ripens into astonishment.

One of the things that distinguishes From Dawn to Decadence from myriad other cultural histories of the West is its structure. Barzun clearly expended a great deal of thought on the organization of the book. The result is an intricate verbal architecture with many interconnecting passages, points of entry, exhibition hallways, and impressive vistas. There is even a folly or two. On the most pedestrian level, Barzun divided his story into four large historical segments. The first segment takes us from Luther’s Protestant revolution to Newton—from the early 16th century to the end of the 17th century. Part two opens with the ascent of Louis XIV and the rise of the nation-state; it ends with the Enlightenment and the French Revolution (fittingly symbolized by its chief tool of emancipation, the guillotine). Part three, which opens with a section called “The Work of Mind-and-Heart,” details the Romantic reaction—that is to say, the Romantic reactions, for they were many and disparate—to Enlightenment rationalism. Here Barzun takes his story from the time of Goethe and Wordsworth to the pre-World War I period he calls the Cubist Decade. Part four brings the story up to the 1990s. 

The titles of the book’s last two sections indicate the tenor of the assessment: “Embracing the Absurd” and “Demotic Life and Times.”

Barzun shuttles deftly between religion, philosophy, literature, music, political intrigue, and the development of scientific rationalism and modern technology. He is as interested in Petrarch’s role in the rise of humanism as in the historical accidents that led to Madrid’s becoming a capital city in the 16th century (Charles V hoped that the air of the tiny village, which newcomers disparaged as “nine months of winter, three of hell,” might be good for his health). He weaves his story partly around a handful of recurrent themes: primitivism, individualism, emancipation (“the modern theme par excellence”), self-consciousness, specialization, abstraction, analysis, and scientism (“the fallacy of believing that the method of science must be used on all forms of experience and, given time, will settle every issue”). These are the leitmotifs that—expressed in different registers and with varying degrees of emphasis—have provided intellectual fuel for the development of modern Western culture.

For example, Luther’s challenge to Catholic orthodoxy can be seen as an expression of primitivism—a desire to recapture the essentials of Christian faith—together with strong elements of individualism (“the priesthood of all believers”) and emancipation. We forget that Luther started not as a revolutionary but as a reformer; in the beginning, Barzun pointed out, he “only wanted to elicit the truth about the sacrament of penance.” But events acquire a momentum of their own. Had it not been for the new technology of printing, which spread ideas with unprecedented speed, Luther’s 95 theses might never have ignited the soul of Europe. In the event, Luther’s reformation became a revolution: what Barzun called “The West Torn Apart.” Among much else, the Reformation illustrates the conundrum of contingency: the fact that a quantum of unpredictable novelty can always be counted on to baffle human complacency. Why here? Why now? Speculation is always confident, always inconclusive. Barzun observes, “How a revolution erupts from a commonplace event—tidal wave from a ripple—is cause for endless astonishment.”

And what a tidal wave:

Manners are flouted and customs broken. Foul language and direct insult become normal, in keeping with the rest of the excitement—buildings defaced, images destroyed, shops looted. Printed sheets pass from hand to hand and are read with delight or outrage—Listen to this! Angry debates multiply about things long since settled: talk of free love, of priests marrying and monks breaking their vows, of property and wives in common, of sweeping out all evils, all corruption, all at once—all things for a new and blissful life on earth. . . .

Voices grow shrill, parties form and adopt names or are tagged with them in derision and contempt. Again and again comes the shock of broken friendships, broken families. As time goes on, ‘betraying the cause’ is an incessant charge, and there are indeed turncoats. Authorities are bewildered, heads of institutions try threats and concessions by turns, hoping the surge of subversion will collapse like previous ones. But none of this holds back that transfer of power and property which is the mark of revolution and which in the end establishes the Idea.

The fact that this evocation describes many revolutionary periods besides Luther’s was of course part of Barzun’s point. It was one of his tasks in From Dawn to Decadence to remind readers of “the persistence of meanings within altered expressions of life’s mysteries.” History is not, as one wag put it, simply “one damn thing after another.” There are patterns to be observed and docketed even if they can never be entirely plumbed. At the same time, Barzun was right that “likeness is not sameness. In history everything wears its own dress and raises images peculiar to itself.” A prime test of an historian’s skill is the extent to which he does justice to these complementary forces, repetition, and novelty. 

It is a further testimony to Barzun’s nimbleness that he reserved a place for the action of whim and unpredictability in human affairs. Movements in art or thought, he observed, gain influence at the cost of variety: “Victory brings on imitation and ultimately Boredom,” surely one of the most underrated catalysts of historical change. It is part of an historian’s task to discern continuities in what had hitherto appeared random; it is also part of his task to recognize the limits of those continuities. “Age of . . . ” is a favorite historian’s shorthand: the Age of Reason, the Age of Faith, the Age of Science, the Age of Anxiety. Such phrases are probably indispensable; they are also, Barzun observed, “always a misnomer, except perhaps ‘An Age of Troubles,’ which fits every age in varying degrees.”

Digression as Progression

Barzun was a master of digression. One sign of his mastery was his knack of making digression serve the progression of his larger argument. Several times in the course of From Dawn to Decadence he paused to offer readers a digression on a particular word—on “esprit,” for example, or “romantic,” or “man.” (Bucking contemporary feminist orthodoxy, he continues to use “man” to refer to all of humanity—primarily, he tells us, for four reasons: “etymology, convenience, the unsuspected incompleteness of ‘man and woman,’ and literary tradition.” He has convincing things to say about all four.) Although plenty interesting in themselves, these linguistic detours also serve his larger purpose. Thus his meditation on esprit (together with “genius” and “Geist”) occurs in the context of his discussion of Pascal’s famous distinction between l’esprit de géométrie and l’esprit de finesse—two tendencies of temperament that, together, rule the world—and his “digression on a word” turns out to be the most economical way to set forth ideas he will return to repeatedly.

From Dawn to Decadence also offers readers a veritable commonplace book with a running series of what Barzun called “add-ins,” brief quotations from disparate sources in bold type and set apart from the text. Like the chorus in a Greek play, these quotations reflect on the main action; some are drawn from the authors being discussed, others form an ironical commentary. Discussing the classical sources of Renaissance humanism, he includes this “add-in” from Dean Briggs of Harvard College circa 1900: “The new degree of Bachelor of Science does not guarantee that the holder knows any science. It does guarantee that he does not know any Latin.” 

Some of Barzun’s quotations are merely amusing: Tycoon: “I need a man who can say ‘No’ when I talk nonsense. Are you that man?” Applicant for job: “No.” Others are knowingly ironical: “We cannot be wrong, because we have studied the past and we are famous for discovering the future when it has taken place” (Disraeli, 1851). Still others are painful home truths: “Democratic civilization is the first in history to blame itself because another power is trying to destroy it” (Jean-François Revel, 1970). And yet others are gems from the cabinet of world-weary cynicism: “Art is what you can get away with” (Andy Warhol, 1987).

History is the product of individual initiative aided or stymied by chance. “Above all,” Barzun observed, it is “concrete and particular, not general and abstract.” Reinforcing this conviction, he included scores of “pen-portraits” of people who helped make history: Luther and Leonardo, Rabelais and Rubens, Giordano Bruno, Oliver Cromwell, Shakespeare (twice), Bach and Mozart, Rousseau and Burke and Samuel Butler. Women are also well represented in Barzun’s gallery. Isabella of Castile, Catherine de Medici, Margaret of Parma, Elizabeth I, Marguerite of Navarre, Christina of Sweden (the “wondrous Christina”), and Florence Nightingale are some of the women he discusses. He quotes a marvelous conversation from Frances Trollope’s Domestic Manners of the Americans (1832). Talking about Byron and other poets with a city notable in Cincinnati, Mrs. Trollope asked: “And Shakespeare, sir?” “Shakespeare, madam, is obscene, and thank God we are sufficiently advanced to have found it out.”

Not all of Barzun’s personages occupy the first rank of fame. He gives as much space to the Renaissance philosopher and historian of science Joseph Glanvill (author of The Vanity of Dogmatizing) as to many better-known figures, and he includes a number of personal favorites: Walter Bagehot, the playwright Beaumarchais (author of The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro), and even the mystery novelist (and, it should be added, translator of Dante) Dorothy L. Sayers. 

Barzun is everywhere ready to rehabilitate a reputation unjustly diminished or to challenge received wisdom that unfairly pigeonholes its victim. About Beaumarchais, for example, he reminds us that, in addition to his literary achievement, he did as much as Lafayette to aid the cause of the American revolution by surreptitiously channeling money from the French government to the fledgling American army. He begins his discussion of Jonathan Swift by noting that “first one must clear the air of the conventional catchwords, namely that he was a misanthropist and a misogynist obsessed with scatology, and moreover a bigoted politician who never got over his failure to be made a bishop and died mad.” In fact, Barzun argues, Swift deserves to be called “a philanthropist of the most practical kind,” namely, one whose efforts were directed toward particular individuals, not that unreachable abstraction “the masses.”

Inevitably, readers will differ from Barzun in some of his judgments. I found him too kind to Cromwell, Rousseau, and that brilliant crank, George Bernard Shaw. What matters, though, are how many worthy figures he rescues from obscurity or semi-obscurity. He begins his discussion of the English critic William Hazlitt by quoting Robert Louis Stevenson: “We are all clever fellows, but we cannot write like Hazlitt.” Hazlitt’s sentences, Barzun observes, “feel hot from the forge.” They communicate the drama of ideas being worked out “live.” “In whatever his mind lights on, Hazlitt finds the deep source of the matter and traces its implications and ramifications; . . . it is not analysis, it is judgment encompassing its object, leaving it whole and illuminated.” He witheringly observes that this sort of criticism is out of favor today because “it follows no system, lacks a jargon, and affords pleasure when read.”

It is a pleasure to find an historian who does justice to literary pleasure. About the early 19th-century wit and clergyman Sydney Smith, Barzun writes that 

Smith’s discourse was conversational, often humorous; it dramatized ideas by describing situations and it could be eloquent at the right pitch and the right places. Here was a pamphleteer propounding what is just, humane, and tolerant without himself ignoring these virtues by writing like a fanatic.

Smith was an important reformer; he was also invaluable at the dinner table. When someone complained about the way Macaulay tended to monopolize the conversation, Smith agreed but noted that “he has occasional flashes of silence that make it quite delightful.” 

Reviewing some travels in South America, Smith describes the sloth hanging beneath a branch: “he passes his life in suspense, like a young clergyman distantly related to a bishop.” Many readers will also be grateful to know about the American satirist Finley Peter Dunne (1867–1936), creator of Mr. Dooley who once described John D. Rockefeller as a kind of “Society f’r th’ Prevention of Croolty to Money. If he finds a man misusing his money, he takes it away fr’m him and adopts it.”

Even Homer nods, and it is only to be expected that a book of this scope will contain a few slips. It was Terence, not Plautus, who said, “I am a man. Nothing human is alien to me.” The builder of the Crystal Palace in London was called Joseph Paxton, not James Parton. Hamlet told his mother that “Use almost can change the stamp of nature,” not “Use can almost . . . ,” etc. But these are small things, easily rectified. Barzun’s book triumphs marvelously in its two main purposes. One is to exhibit the sheer richness of that cultural explosion we summarize in two words as “the West.” The picture of the West promulgated by its enemies—“a solid block having but one meaning”—cannot survive scrutiny. It is central to Barzun’s task to show that the West has in fact been “an endless series of opposites—in religion, politics, art, morals, manners.” Moreover, to denounce Western culture “does not free the self from what it hates, any more than ignoring the past shuts off its influence.”

Even the terrorist who drives a car filled with dynamite toward a building in some hated nation is part of what he would destroy: his weapon is the work of Alfred Nobel and the inventors of the internal combustion engine. His very cause has been argued for him by such proponents of national self-determination as President Wilson and such rationalizers of violence as Georges Sorel and Bakunin, the Russian anarchist.

Barzun wrote before the attacks of 9/11. Obviously, the same point applies to the Muslim fanatics who mobilized Western technology to attack the West. 

A Celebration and Elegy

If From Dawn to Decadence is partly a celebration of the West, it is also an elegy for its passing. Barzun’s second large purpose is to delineate the evolution of that decadence his title announces. Early on he tells us that the word “decadence” is “not a slur; it is a technical label.” But that is not entirely candid. For one thing, being a slur is not incompatible with being a technical term. For another, Barzun’s summary of what he calls “our present decadence” shows that he does not regard decadence as a neutral historical fact but as a cultural, moral, and political disaster of the first order.

As one would expect, the sources of decadence are many and varied. Barzun shows how, from one perspective, the symptoms of decadence can be understood as resulting from the hypertrophy of those very traits that defined the West: primitivism, emancipation, self-consciousness, individualism, and so on. What appear as motors for cultural development can, when pursued ruthlessly and without regard to other virtues, degenerate into engines of decadence and decline. Barzun devoted the last sections of his book to showing how decadence has triumphed in various facets of modern life. There is, first of all, the spiritual paralysis that results from willing contradictory things. These days, Barzun observed, “any doctrine or program that claims the merit of going against common sense has presumption in its favor.” 

Western nations spend billions on public schooling for all, urged along by the public cry for Excellence. At the same time the society pounces on any show of superiority as elitism. The same nations deplore violence and sexual promiscuity among the young, but pornography and violence in films and books, shops and clubs, on television and the Internet, and in the lyrics of pop music cannot be suppressed, in the interests of ‘the free market of ideas.’

The confusion generated by such contradictions attends every aspect of cultural endeavor. In the arts, it leads to the rise of anti-art, embodied on one side by the nihilistic pranks of Marcel Duchamp, on another by Picasso, who devoted his immense talent to creating an art that raged against and competed with nature. When the composer Pierre Boulez said that he was bent on “destroying everything,” he merely gave voice to a current of feeling that has animated a great deal of “advanced” art since Rimbaud articulated the doctrine of the “dérèglement de tous les sens” in the 19th century.

The transformation of art into anti-art could not have succeeded on its own. It required the collusion of institutions that certify artistic achievement as well as the audience whose interest ultimately sustains it. Barzun is right that “When people accept futility and the absurd as normal, the culture is decadent.” But futility and absurdity only seem normal to a damaged sensibility. That damage has been wrought by a progressive loss of resistance to humbug. One then becomes susceptible to all manner of cultural viruses. This lowered resistance has affected critics, teachers, and connoisseurs; it has led to a situation in which scholarship is “the pretentious garbed in the unintelligible.” It has also affected the public at large, whose healthy rejection of absurdity one used to be able to count on. No more. As Barzun observes, “One notable death that occurred in the Great War has gone unsung, indeed unrecorded: the death of the philistine.”

By 1920, any that survived had been miraculously transformed, not into esthetes but into trimmers and cowards. To this new breed anything offered as art merited automatic respect and grave scrutiny. If a new work or style was not easy to like, if it was painful to behold, revolting, even, it was none the less ‘interesting.’ Half a century later unless the reviewer finds it ‘unsettling,’ ‘disturbing,’ ‘cruel,’ ‘perverse,’ it is written off as ‘academic,’ not merely uninteresting but contemptible.

The stolid bourgeois used to aid culture by resisting it; by the late 20th century, he had been transformed into a “docile consumer” for whom the avant-garde achieves “the status of a holy synod.”

Of course, it is not only in the realm of culture that confusion reigns. The realms of social relations and politics are equally beset. One result is what Barzun refers to as the “Great Switch,” “the reversal of Liberalism into its opposite.” If Liberalism originally “triumphed on the principle that the best government is that which governs least,” today “for all the western nations political wisdom has recast the ideal of liberty into liberality.” The universalization and extension of the welfare state has nurtured a culture of entitlement. What began in an access of largess ends in an explosion of regulation and hectoring scrutiny. Motives that had once encouraged unity and social comity—emancipation, self-consciousness—now act as centrifugal forces: forces of decadence. By the late 20th century, Barzun noted, “the ideal of Pluralism had disintegrated and Separatism took its place.” We see its effects everywhere.

Although the picture Barzun paints is one of cultural desolation, he nevertheless managed to end on a note of cautious optimism. Even if present trends continue and society becomes more routinized and culturally sterile, human ingenuity surely can be counted upon to precipitate a rebellion against the spread of bureaucratized futility. Sooner or later, some few intrepid souls will turn with new curiosity to the neglected past and use it “to create a new present,” discovering along the way “what a joy it is to be alive.” 

The forces of decadence that Barzun described are formidably potent. But decadence is no more inevitable than progress. Myopia is perennial, despair a temptation to be resisted. One never knows what reparations await the touch of fresh energies. Eugène Delacroix put it well: “Those very ones who believe that everything has been said and done, will greet you as new and yet will close the door behind you. And then they will say again that everything has been done and said.”

About Roger Kimball

Roger Kimball is editor and publisher of The New Criterion and the president and publisher of Encounter Books. He is the author and editor of many books, including The Fortunes of Permanence: Culture and Anarchy in an Age of Amnesia (St. Augustine's Press), The Rape of the Masters (Encounter), Lives of the Mind: The Use and Abuse of Intelligence from Hegel to Wodehouse (Ivan R. Dee), and Art's Prospect: The Challenge of Tradition in an Age of Celebrity (Ivan R. Dee).

Photo: Getty Images

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