Jacques Barzun was one of the premier humanists of the twentieth century. From Dawn to Decadence, published when the author was 97, is the distillation of his career in cultural history. In nearly 900 pages, Barzun narrates Western culture from 1500 to the new millennium. This erudite, gripping, delightfully idiosyncratic work is a window not only into our history, but into a great mind.
Barzun divides the modern era (after 1500) into four cultural ages: “The first period—1500-1660—was dominated by the issue of what to believe in religion; the second—1661-1789—by what to do about the status of the individual and the mode of government; the third—1790-1920—by what means to achieve social and economic equality. The rest is the mixed consequence of all these efforts” (xvii).
Despite the pessimistic-sounding title, the narrative is not one of unmitigated decline. Rather, significant progress was achieved on many cultural fronts. The predicament of contemporary culture is not how to climb out of a pit but how to proceed farther up a mountain:
All that is meant by Decadence is “falling off.” It implies in those who live in such a time no loss of energy or talent or moral sense. On the contrary, it is a very active time, full of deep concerns, but peculiarly restless, for it sees no clear lines of advance. The loss it faces is that of Possibility. The forms of art as of life seem exhausted, the stages of development have been run through. Institutions function painfully. Repetition and frustration are the intolerable result. Boredom and fatigue are great historical forces. (xvi)
Barzun incorporates a number of useful features into the book. He garnishes the margins of the book with choice quotations from his subjects. They illuminate the narrative and could stand on their own as an anthology. Certain recurring themes, such as EMANCIPATION and PRIMITIVISM, are placed in all capitals to underscore their importance. This convention helps the reader follow the themes through despite the size of the book. Also, each age holds a chapter called a “Cross Section.” For example, “The View from Madrid Around 1540” sketches how a cosmopolitan Spaniard would have thought and felt about his world and its near future. These snapshots flesh out the chronological chapters and demonstrate Barzun’s intimate acquaintance with is material. As a bibliophile, I especially enjoyed his frequent bibliographical suggestions, placed into the body text in brackets.
Barzun is a relentless educator. Along the way are many digressions, sometimes exploring the etymology of words or reprimanding contemporaries for unjust treatments of historical figures. He delights in overturning stereotypes, offering independent judgments, lavishing space on “under-appreciated” figures, and imparting general good-natured advice. Thus, the book is very personal. The material is dictated by his idiosyncrasies, interests, and tastes. Dorothy Sayers receives four focused pages, as does Hector Berlioz. Isaac Newton and the founding of the United States are mentioned in passing. Also, the French get all the really well-written narratives. However, the singularity of Barzun’s treatment is an asset. There are plenty of textbooks for college freshmen. Dawn to Decadence is a highly organized Table Talk, an opportunity to listen to a genius reveal his mental process.
The book does have some flaws. At times, the narrative loses force and degenerates into encyclopedic meandering. This is especially true in the cross-section chapters; Barzun’s sketches vary considerably in crispness. Some digressions Barzun announces ahead of time, but others the reader blindly rushes into. The capitalized keywords help point out recurring themes, but a general lack of summaries and inter-chapter analysis leaves the reader to play connect the dots concerning the big picture. Some of the discussions of music and literature are difficult to follow if the reader does not already have introductory knowledge of the period’s contents.
However, a few slight inclusions do not disqualify this book from being a sparkling diamond. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and will likely refer to it often in the future. Several of the digressions—Barzun’s guidelines for interpreting history or his explanation of the plight of the humanities—are alone worth the time and money spent on this book. I heartily commend From Dawn to Decadence to anyone interested in cultural history.