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Lunch » Tags » Book » Reviews » From Dawn to Decadence: 1500 to the Present: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life » User review

Draw up a chair; Jacques Barzun has a treasure map to share

  • May 28, 2012
The treasure is the inheritance of the 500 years of Western cultural life of Barzun's subtitle that is at my fingertips today.  The map is Barzun's lifework documented in 800-plus pages of hard-learned and hand-drawn (as it were) survey marking the the routes to the treasure caches that have been created, assembled, saved, and lost over the five centuries of modern Western culture.

While this is a survey in the grand professorial style (for example, Barzun will define each of those terms ending the previous paragraph), this is no mere textbook.  At age 93 when this book was published in 2000, Barzun has lived through almost 20% of the period he covers, and he approaches the topic with the personal knowledge and style that his eminence has earned.  He has done his research, he has drawn the map himself with a craftsmanship all his own, and he is going to share it with us with his own style as well.

As he unfolds the map in front of us, Barzun is going to define the term "decadence" lest we question his relevance and attempt to pigeonhole him as a sour old man intent on preserving the way things used to be.  Decadence is not a slur, it is a technical term defined as:  "When people accept futility and the absurd as normal. . . . A decadent culture offers opportunities chiefly to the satirist" (p. 11).  As his finger traces the path to today's landscape, it lands in a spot where art is "intended to be uninspired. . . . The ridicule mocks itself as well as its object" (p. 731).

No mere transcriber, Barzun brings a method and a plan to his map of Western cultural life. It advanced (yes, that term will be defined as well) through four revolutions roughly 125 years apart:  
  1. The 16th Century religious revolution known as the Protestant Reformation
  2. The 17th and 18th Century monarchical revolution represented by the English and the French civil wars
  3. The 19th Century liberal revolution that enthroned the individual and individualism represented by Evolution (more definitions ensue) in the sciences and Romanticism in the arts.  
  4. The 20th Century social revolution that established collective individualism, a working out of the effects of the first three revolutions that is still underway, even after the establishment and partial dismantling of massive socialism in political organization.

Throughout these revolutions, Barzun traces the interplay of major recurring themes (highlighted in caps in his text):
  • emancipation, or universal independence
  • primitivism, or reversion to the beginning to cleanse current culture
  • individualism
  • secularism, which emerged from humanism, or "dealing with the affairs of the world in a man-centered way" (p. 44).
  • self-consciousness, or awareness of the individual as distinct
  • specialism
  • analysis
  • reductivism
  • scientism, defined as using the methods of science in all forms of experience to solve every issue
  • abstraction

With his craftsmanship Barzun brings his own unique formatting to this book, which includes the references to the major themes in caps throughout the book.   Introductions to the biographies and ideas of key participants are announced by bold and centered headings.  Representative quotes from these and other contemporaries are placed in bold in marginal sidebars that intrude on the left or right margins of the main text.  Further reading (a full curriculum of great literature) is called out in the main text by short parenthetical references to author/title instead of footnotes or endnotes.  The one formatting choice that I felt an unnecessary oddity was his decision to abbreviate Century to C, so 16th Century becomes "16C", ostensibly to save space (in a book that totals nearly 900 pages?!).

So, we are seated around the map laid out on the table in Barzun's study, and we see the outlines of the map.  Now, in the manner of a Sherlock Holmes, Barzun takes his time lighting his pipe, leans toward us over the map, and traces the routes through history to today in detail, again in a style all his own.  This is fine writing by a powerful and opinionated mind.  I found myself taking notes of ideas, turns of phrase, and sources i I wanted to followup on.  Just a selection of those notes:
  • p. 23:  Disbelief can be explained as "perverse wickedness".  Unbelief is different and far more unsettling.  The Protestant Reformation destroyed the possibility of "single truth".  Now believers are surrounded by unbelievers--and believers in different things.
  • p. 134-135 (in reference to the Stoics):  Are we learning how to live, or learning to die (philosophy vs. theology)?
  • p. 153:  In art we have progressed from epic hero to tragic hero to common hero to anti-hero. 
  • p. 348:  As Barzun discusses why a writer who was considered the best by his contemporaries but completely forgotten by history, I wonder which very well known current writers, artists, directors, musicians will be completely forgotten in future generations?
  • p. 355:  "The good sentence is the clockwork put back together again after careful analysis . . . but it is not natural.  it is a product of extreme SELF-CONSCIOUSNESS."
  • p. 511:  A quote from William Hazlitt:  "If we are more catholic in our notions and want variety of excellence and beauty, it is spread abroad for us in provision in the variety of books."  This is exactly the sentiment that led me to name my lunch.com blog "The catholic reader."!
  • p. 588:  Das Capital is one of a class of (long, turgid, unreadable) books that "every intellectual thinks he has read."
  • p. 689:  "Nowadays, a sensible voter should call himself a Liberal Conservative Socialist, regardless of the election returns."
With this final quote, Barzun has traced his finger close to our time on the map to a fork in the road he has called the Great Switch (caps by Barzun) which was triggered by the confluence of influences from the religious, monarchical, and individualist revolutions of the past 500 years, and the failure of religion, politics, economics, science, art, literature, and music to resolve or synthesize these influences into a workable pattern to live.  This failure is represented by the traumatic events leading to and culminating in the Great War of 1914-1918, which was surprising in its near-unanimous support by the intellectual and cultural leaders of the time (p. 700-703).  I have long found the period between the end of the American Civil War and 1914 the most fertile, fervent, and fascinating period of history, and Barzun's map reveals why in the detailed landscape of this period. 

If you can afford the time to read only one map to your world, make it this one.  It is a rare work of profundity and fun, depth and clarity, that needs to be read and rewards the reading.

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May 30, 2012
This sounds exceptional. Thank you for adding it to my "to read" list with your insightful and persuasive recommendation. Very well done.
May 28, 2012
Very detailed with interesting perspectives!
May 30, 2012
June 01, 2012
More From Dawn to Decadence: 1500 t... reviews
review by . November 23, 2006
Given the wonderful reviews below, it would be vain to summarize the structure of this magnificient book. Instead, I'd like to tell you what I think `Dawn to Decadence' can do for you.    * First, and maybe best, you get to spend 802 pages worth of your reading time in the company of a man who has thought long and hard about who we are and has the grace and talent to share it. Jacques Barzun is very good company.    * You'll get to expand your knowledge of …
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Todd Stockslager ()
Ranked #36
I love reading and writing about what I have read, making the connections and marking the comparisons and contrasts. God has given man the amazing power to invent language and the means to record it which … more
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In the last half-millennium, as the noted cultural critic and historianJacques Barzunobserves, great revolutions have swept the Western world. Each has brought profound change--for instance, the remaking of the commercial and social worlds wrought by the rise of Protestantism and by the decline of hereditary monarchies. And each, Barzun hints, is too little studied or appreciated today, in a time he does not hesitate to label as decadent.

To leaf through Barzun's sweeping, densely detailed but lightly written survey of the last 500 years is to ride a whirlwind of world-changing events. Barzun ponders, for instance, the tumultuous political climate of Renaissance Italy, which yielded mayhem and chaos, but also the work of Michelangelo and Leonardo--and, he adds, the scientific foundations for today's consumer culture of boom boxes and rollerblades. He considers the 16th-century varieties of religious experimentation that arose in the wake of Martin Luther's 95 theses, some of which led to the repression of individual personality, others of which might easily have come from the "Me Decade." Along the way, he offers a miniature history of the detective novel, defends Surrealism from its detractors, and derides the rise of professional sports, packing in a wealth of learned and often barbed asides.

Never shy of controversy, Barzun writes from a generally conservative position; he insists on the importance of moral values, celebrates the historical contributions of Christopher ...

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ISBN-10: 0060175869
ISBN-13: 978-0060175863
Author: Jacques Barzun
Publisher: HarperCollins

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