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jacques barzun from dawn to decadence

independent on sunday, 21 february 2001

Jacques Barzun is an old-fashioned kind of historian and From Dawn to Decadence is an old-fashioned kind of book. That is not meant as a criticism - at least not of Barzun or his book. But it does say something about our age that such a thrilling, magnificent work as this should be considered as old-fashioned and that one can only imagine it written by a thinker with as conservative a sensibility as Barzun. In this sense the book may be an expression of the decadence of which the title speaks. Yet in another sense, From Dawn to Decadence defies Barzun's description. For how can we define as decadent an age in which an 800-page blockbuster, that makes little allowance for fashion or public taste, can top the New York Times bestseller lists?

It is not difficult to see why From Dawn to Decadence should make such an impact. Even in an age in which historical blockbusters - from Norman Davies' Europe to Roy Porter's Enlightenment - have become something of an art form, Barzun's work is exceptional. It is panoramic in scope yet its delight lies in the detail. It is scholarly yet conversational, erudite but never intimidating. Asked how long it took him to write the book, Barzun replied, 'A lifetime'. From Dawn to Decadence does indeed have the feel of an elegy to the 93-year historian's life work. It is a highly individual history, iconoclastic and, at times, inspirational. It is also, especially in its final section, flawed.

There is more than a touch of the Blooms - Allan and Harold - about From Dawn to Decadence. Like the authors of The Closing of the American Mind and The Western Canon, Barzun has set out both to defend the idea of a Western civilisation, and to lament its decline. The twentieth century, he believes, was the theatre of the absurd. His litany of complaints is a familiar one: 'the cruel, perverse and obscene [is] more and more taken for granted as natural and normal'; '[Western] 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 attack on authority, the ridicule on 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 lists of genres called "Antis"… have made Modernism at once the mirror of disintegration and an incitement to extending it.'

And yet, Barzun cannot simply be pigeon-holed as a 'conservative', for there is an all-too-rare subtleness and freshness about the book. While Barzun insists on celebrating Western civilisation, for instance, he also insists that 'European culture is a mongrel one.' 'Unity does not mean uniformity', he writes, 'and identity is compatible with change.'

Or consider his argument about relativism. For Barzun it is not so much relativism, as the knee-jerk attack upon it, that is the embodiment of contemporary decadence. Anybody who thinks, Barzun argues, 'uses the relative standard continually'. Of relativism's current bad reputation, he writes that 'It has become a cliché that stands for the cause of every laxity; corrupt or scandalous conduct is supposed the product of a relativist approach'. The real problem, he points out, is not relativism but the idea that one can possess absolute standards, viable for all times and in all places. The idea of applying one broad formula to different historical eras is intellectually offensive because it's so lazy.

The structure of From Dawn to Decadence reflects Barzun's idiosyncratic approach. The narrative is broadly arranged around four 'revolutions': the religious, the monarchical, the liberal and the social. The first runs from the Reformation to the scientific discoveries of Isaac Newton in the 1660s; the second from the ascent of Louis XIV, the Sun King, to the French Revolution in 1789; the third from the French to the Russian Revolutions; and the final period covers the tumultuous history of the 'short twentieth century'. Both the periods and the titles are typically Barzunian. The first period, for instance, which we might more conventionally see as the rise of Renaissance humanism, or the flowering of the Scientific Revolution, Barzun views as a 'religious revolution'. It is similarly telling that the second period, which covers the Enlightenment, Barzun should view as a monarchical revolution. Such idiosyncratic, counter-canonical arguments run throughout the book, and adds to the pleasure of reading it
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Across these four revolutions, continuity is given by what Barzun regards as the key themes of Western civilisations, themes that keep recurring time and time again: emancipation, primitivism, self-consciousness, individualism, abstraction, secularism, scientism. Throughout the text, the reader is continually directed to other pages where the discussion of a particular theme is continued or anticipated.

Barzun is a master of digression. Every so often he breaks the narrative with a number of 'cross-sections' which present the view from a particular city in a particular age: 'The view from Madrid around 1540' or 'the view from Chicago around 1895'. These more-or-less freestanding essay allow him 'to survey events and ideas as they might have been noted or heard about by an alert observer at a given time and place.' He also intersperses the text with a large number of wonderfully-drawn biographies, not simply of the major figures in history, but also of minor, almost-forgotten names.

The result of all this is an intricate conceptual architecture, almost Web-like with its mass of interconnections and myriad points of entry and departure. Barzun shuttles deftly between art, music, literature, philosophy, religion, science and technology. Inevitably, he has better grasp of some subjects than of others. So, while his exposition of Romanticism, for instance, is little short of brilliant, his understanding of Darwinism leaves much to be desired. In politics, his own preoccupations often get the better of him. Marx, for instance, is curtly dismissed in less than a page. Whatever one may think of Marx's political and cultural legacy, the very existence of that legacy surely requires a more considered approach.

The biggest problem, however, lies in Barzun's discussion of Modernism, and particularly of contemporary decadence. By decadence, Barzun does not mean a fall-of-Rome type of hedonism. There is today, he acknowledges, 'no loss of energy or talent or moral sense.' On the contrary, ours '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... Repetition and frustration are the intolerable result. Boredom and fatigue are great historical forces.'

There is much truth in Barzun's analysis. His claim that in the past half-century 'it is hard to find a figure of the intellectual world to put side by side with those singled out earlier' is particularly apposite. Yet, like many conservatives, while Barzun has an acute sense of something wrong, he is unable to understand why it is so. For Barzun, the problem lies in the democratisation of culture, which he sees as the heart of Modernism. Modernist artists railed against the Western cultural tradition, in the name of democracy, and in doing so produced 'anti-art'. By the end of the First World War, Barzun writes, 'The impetus born of the Renaissance was exhausted.' Today, 'Ridicule, denial, anti-art and sensory simplicity mean that culture and society are in a decadent phase.'

The history of the twentieth is, of course, far more complex than Barzun allows. The First World War was certainly a watershed in European history, bringing to an end the easy belief in liberalism and the possibility of social progress that had characterised the Victorian era. But if conservatives, such as TS Eliot, viewed the era as one of moral and social dislocation, many others saw the turmoil as pregnant with new hopes and possibilities. There were dramatic and far-reaching political changes - the coming of mass democracy, the creation of new labour movements and communist parties, the emergence of independence struggles. In the cultural sphere, Picasso and Braque, Brecht and Weill, Le Corbusier and El Lissitzky, Stravinsky and Schoenberg, Joyce and James all seized upon the moment to refigure artistic expression. What Barzun calls contemporary decadence is the product of the failure of the revolutionary opportunities thrown up by the early Modernist era, not of its success. It is the exhaustion of the promise and energy - both political and cultural - that was embodied in the Modernist project that has led to what Barzun calls 'the loss of Possibility'.

Barzun fights shy of this argument because he has an ambivalent view of democracy and equality. He recognises that both are key themes in the development of Western culture. But he also fears that democracy might undermine social order. His ideal would seem to be a liberal society, but not necessarily a democratic one.

Barzun's distaste for democracy leads him to conflate political and cultural egalitarianism. He rightly suggests that one sign of contemporary decadence is the belief that 'creativity dwells or lurks in every human being'. All human beings, Barzun acknowledges, 'feel the urge, and a great many have the ability, to make something with their hands or think a new thought.' True creation, however, 'requires an uncommon mind and strong will serving an original view of life and the world.'

Such cultural egalitarianism, he suggests, is the inevitable product of the over-extension political egalitarianism. The problem he suggests is 'the tyranny of the majority' in both politics and culture. The irony of this argument is that it exactly mirrors those of his opponents. The Blairite notion of 'social inclusion', by which all cultural production from the Tate Modern to TV dramas is to be judged, reduces art to the lowest common denominator in the name of democracy. Barzun, on the other, in attempting to rescue the idea of an elitist culture, feels compelled to ditch the notion of political equality. It's time for someone to make the case for political equality and cultural singularity.