FROM DAWN TO. DECADENCE. Years of Western. Cultural Life. to the Present. JACQUES BARZUN. Ha. HarperCollins/^/zs/rers. An outline biography of the life of the historian Jacques Barzun author of – From Dawn to Decadence – regarded as a classic cultural history review. Highly regarded here and abroad for some thirty works of cultural history and criticism, master historian Jacques Barzun has now set down in one continuo.

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From Dawn To Decadenceby Jacques Barzun, a cultural critic, historian, and former Columbia College provost frok professor, was published at the height of the pre-millennial Y2K fever and purported to be a detailed analysis of the last five hundred years of civilization, or at least Western Civilization.

It is, however, nothing of the sort. It is a shapeless, formless hodgepodge of ideas and incidents, biographies dcadence the usual suspects, like Luther, Erasmus, Cromwell, Mozart, Rousseau, Montesquieu, Shaw, and Byron, and preenings, that offer no coherent view nor explanation for the last half eon.

Barzun is not insightful enough to knock a person off dwcadence pins with a startling premise, as Jared Diamond did in his tome Guns, Germs, And Steelnor is he the prose stylist that Daniel J. Boorstin is in his classic and books The Discoverers and The Creators.

The age of entropy

In those works, Boorstin made bbarzun fun again, by bringing a novelistic technique to stodgy historical tomes. The book has numerous sidebars in the text that distract visually, but even worse, offer nothing intellectually, with some of them being patently ridiculous quotes from vapid pseudo-celebrities like rapper Ice T and comedian Bill Murray. Ironically, this is the sort of shortcut literary and intellectual technique pioneered in glossy magazines of the sort that Barzun contemptuously dismisses as decadent, and without merit.

Yet, the biggest defect of the book is that it simply adds nothing to the known facts it recounts, does so with no grand style, and leaves one asking what purpose did the book serve? He jaques the rise of Protestantism, Industrialism, Colonialism, Communism, and their passings, but, again, with no overall thesis.

Unless, one considers labeling the present as a decadent age. How else to explain damning the rise of sports professionalism while defending Surrealist art? Or seeing no link between religion and modern capitalism? Or his defense of morality, while not even realizing it differs significantly from ethos?


Or seeing the 16 th Century as being a time of emergent female power? This may seem laudable, if grom PC, but to downplay the subjugation of the masses of women for a few exceptional cases is just silly. Is it any wonder the aging Barzun condemns the modern world as decadence come into full bloom- Balkanism in all arenas, democracies that are corrupt and filled with ennui-laced voters, art that is commercial and amoral, the decline of science, barzhn mechanization of daily life leading to a loss of identity, etc.?

Yes, Barzun ends with the predictable optimism, but it feels forced as he fom to posit decadence as the birthplace for ot creativity. Almost as forced as his demarcations of the last five centuries into four epochs. The first was the religious revolution of the 16 th century, Luther and the Protestant Reformation and the subsequent diminishment of the church in everyday experience.

This covers to The second was the decadeence revolution of the 17 th century, with the recognition of the nation as a meaningful entity.

This goes from toand the French Revolution.

The third was the liberal revolutions of the 18 th and 19 th centuries, and the rise of individual liberty. The fourth was the social revolutions of the 20 th century. All other revolutions pale to these. Would that life were so simple.

In Guns, Germs, And SteelJared Diamond blends science and daqn powerfully to argue the reasons for white Europeans temporal supremacy of the last five centuries. The narratives get anomic, as if Barzun himself has thought better of the initial posit.

This only adds to the turgidity and turbidity of the writing and dialectic.

Far better would the book have been had Barzun been more focused and detailed, choosing better examples, rather than trying to overwhelm the reader with his nine decades of learning. The real keys that may or may not exist to decode Westernism are probably buried under the mounds of trivia that Barzun exults in.

From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, 1500 to the Present

While the American, French, and Frok Revolutions have been done to death, it serves no purpose to short shrift them, as if all readers are aware of their import. Instead, Barzun should have tried to see analogs that could connect the three in vital ways heretofore unseen. And his grasp of science and technology is absurdly anemic, often confusing specific terms that have no relation to one another, or treating pseudoscience, like homeopathy, with the same gravitas as real medical breakthroughs.


He feels real poetry ended with W.

Yeats and real art with Cubism, and has no idea as to what constitutes a novel or romance. As is his ceaseless neologizing without purpose, substituting techne for technology or eutopia for utopia. And this all after often criticizing others for their pedantry.

Karl Marx, love him or hate him, deserves more than the dismissal that Barzun gives him in a page or so. The problem was not that Marx was wrong with his idea of the Labor Theory Of Value, he just was not able to formulate a just and pragmatic remedy for it, and those applications by later practitioners of his ideas bastardized it to monstrous ends.

In fact, all human wealth comes from human activity admixed with human desire. Without the human element there is no inherent value. It is the essential and probably first human fiction.

Dan Schneider on Jacques Barzun’s From Dawn To Decadence

That the book ends with the typical reactionary crap that Harold Bloom has mined a career of in the writing field is too typical, and sad. Nudity is wrong, tv sucks, opera is dying, manners are in decline, church attendance is down, ho hum. As bad as things have gotten in the last fifty or so years it is clear that World War Two was the peak of human violence and by every measure- wars, crime, etc. That he once argued forcefully against edcadence very sorts of ideological nonsense he barzunn burnishes, as in jacqkes book Race: Unwittingly, Barzun often undermines his own claims.

In short, Diamond had a great idea, and Boorstin the writerly gift to excite. Barzun lacks both insight and the ability to convey knowledge well.

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