From Dawn to Decadence is one of those wonderful books that cannot be categorized. Some reviewers have compared it to The Education of Henry Adams, the great intellectual auto biography that seemed to sum up the last fin–de–siècle. The comparison does no injustice to either work. Jacques Barzun was born in 1907, and so has lived through a not insignificant slice of the period he covers, but even he did not know Descartes personally. And yet in some ways From Dawn to Decadence reads less like a history than it does like a personal memoir of the last half–millennium, with people and topics selected chiefly because the author is interested in them. The effect is delightful, though sometimes a little disorienting. Perhaps the one thing you can say for sure about From Dawn to Decadence is that it provides the most cheerful explanation you are ever likely to get for why Western culture is ending.
Jacques Barzun really needs no introduction. Anyone interested in William James, the great Romantic composers, the role of race in historical writing, or a dozen other subjects has already encountered him somewhere. (A book he coauthored with Henry Graff, The Modern Researcher, sticks in my mind after twenty–five years as a philosophy of historiography disguised as a reference guide.) In From Dawn to Decadence, he manages to touch on just about all his lifelong interests, and without turning the book into a mere anthology.
The format is loosely chronological, with the great era of the post–medieval, “modern” West divided into several lesser ages. The whole text is broken up into digestible chunks of commentary and biography. We get assessments, sometimes quite idiosyncratic ones, of almost all the great names of the modern era, but many of the biographies are of persons the author deems worthy–but–obscure. Some of these subjects really are virtually forgotten, such as the ingenious eighteenth–century polymath, Dr. Georg Lichtenberg. Others are just a bit neglected, such as the senior Oliver Wendell Holmes. (Barzun manages to praise this physician and essayist while barely mentioning his jurist son.) A particularly entertaining feature of the book is the brief, apt quotations set into the margins. Had it not been for From Dawn to Decadence, I would never have known that Thursday was bear–baiting day at the court of Elizabeth I.
From Dawn to Decadence has only a minimal amount of political and military narrative, which is something of a drawback since the author routinely makes unexplained allusions to people and events that may no longer be common knowledge. (Do undergraduates today know what Stanley said to Livingston? I’m afraid to ask.) And then there are the fact–checking lapses inevitable in a work of this scope. These will allow readers to entertain themselves by looking for mistakes. More than one reviewer has noted that modern calculus does not use Newton’s notation, as Barzun says, but that of Leibniz. However, this review may be the only place you will read that those long–range shells the Germans fired at Paris (and Barzun) during the First World War did not come from Big Berthas, but from Krupp’s Pariskanone.
Parlor games aside, the author corrects errors that are far more important than the ones he makes. He points out, for instance, that, no, M. Jourdain did not speak prose, and that Molière knew this as well as anyone. It is anachronistic, he reminds us, to suppose that Galileo was tried because the Inquisition believed the Copernican model threatened man’s place in the universe. Rousseau’s works cannot be made to say, he observes with a note of exasperation, that Rousseau was a revolutionary who wished mankind to return to a state of nature. Intellectual superstitions of this sort are probably immortal, but it is a good idea to try to correct them at least once every five hundred years.
While a book as genial as this one can hardly be accused of promoting anything as crudely Germanic as a theory of history, it does present a sketch of the last half–millennium. According to Barzun, the West has been working out a cultural impulse that it received in the Renaissance, an impulse that had become exhausted by the end of the twentieth century. This impulse was not an ideology or an agenda but an expandable list of desires, particular forms of which can be detected throughout all the cultural and political controversies of the great era. The names of these desires are helpfully capitalized wherever they are mentioned, so that Emancipation is graphically shown to play a role in every major controversy from the Reformation to the women’s suffrage movement. Another example is Primitivism, the perennial impulse to return to the original text, to the early constitution, to the uncluttered state of the beginning. Other trends of the modern era have been informed by the desires for Abstraction, Reductivism, and Self–consciousness. Ideas like these can hardly be said to have been the motor of Western history, but looking for their various incarnations over the centuries does make it much easier to view the era as a whole.
Barzun laconically informs us that late medieval Europe was a “decadent” society. I myself had thought that Richard Gilman had permanently retired that word with his study Decadence: The Strange Life of an Epithet, but Barzun may persuade readers that “decadence” is neither a moral category nor a bit of implicit vitalism. Rather, Barzun says, the term “decadent” may properly be used of any social situation that is blocked, where people entertain goals for which they will not tolerate the means. Decadent societies tend to become labyrin thine in both their cultures and their styles of government, as people create small accommodations within a larger unsatisfactory context. Decadent periods can be sweet, as Talleyrand remarked of pre–Revolutionary France, but partly because they are obviously ephemeral.
Decadence may end in the explosion of a revolution, by which Barzun means the violent transfer of power and property in the name of an idea. Revolutions are great simplifiers that pave over the labyrinths and open up possibilities that were unimaginable just a few years previously. There have been four of these revolutions during the modern era, each more or less defining an age. There was the religious revolution of the Reformation, which first stated themes that would recur through the rest of the era. There was the monarch’s revolution of the seventeenth century, in which the aristocracy was tamed and large, centralized states began to appear. The monarchs, of course, got their comeuppance in the liberal revolution at the end of the eighteenth century. Most recently, every throne, power, and dominion was shaken by the social revolution at the beginning of the twentieth.
Barzun seems to believe that the twentieth century was so traumatized by the First World War that it was never able to fully exploit the positive possibilities in what he calls the “Cubist Decade” that preceded the war’s outbreak. Rather, the Age of Modernism (not to be confused with the modern era) largely confined itself to analysis and destruction. Thanks to the First World War, the more distant past became unusable: the sense of living in a completely new age left the past with nothing to say. No restraints remained on the expression of the desires that had characterized the whole modern era. The result was that, by century’s end, the chief remaining impulses in Western culture had developed to a theoretical maximum. So ends an age.
This conclusion would be de pressing, were it not so reminiscent of similar conclusions in earlier eras. Barzun notes that at the end of the fifteenth century, some people held that the sixth millennium of the world was about to end—and history along with it. As is often the case with this kind of sentiment, the people who shared it were on to something, if the end of history is taken to mean the end of history as they knew it. Barzun ends the book on a note of hopeful speculation. He looks back from a more distant time on our immediate future, which he supposes will be an age when history will wholly disappear from even the minds of the educated. Indeed, so completely will the modern age be forgotten that its rediscovery will have an impact quite as revolutionary as the impact that classical culture had on the late medieval world. The result, Barzun hopes, will be another renaissance, when the young and talented will again exclaim what joy it is to be alive.
John J. Reilly is the author of Apocalypse & Future: Notes on the Cultural History of the 21st Century (Xlibris).