Wednesday, 9 April 2008

On finishing Barzun's 'From Dawn to Decadence'

Update: turns out there is a Barzun blog (not by him!), here.

I have just finished reading Jacques Barzun’s monumental From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, and find myself with mixed feelings of triumph and despair.

The triumph is over the sheer size of the book: 802 pages, which I must admit defeated me on the first attempt, about four years ago. This time I started a bit before where I thought I’d left off, at p307 (‘The view from London around 1715’), but even then it has taken several days to complete the task (‘The view from New York around 1995’).

The despair is from being forced to admit the accuracy of Barzun’s title: from dawn to decadence.

His achievement is astonishing. The book seems almost an effortless ‘stream of consciousness’, as if he had been asked to describe, over dinner, what had been happening in the last few hundred years, and had simply reeled off an answer which just happened to include every famous character you’d ever heard of, and quite a few you hadn’t. (By my estimate, the Index of Persons contains around 2,000 names.)

Inevitably there are lapses: John Harrison’s clock for measuring longitude was not made of wood (although some of his household clocks were), the title of a painting is misquoted. But these are surely insignificant, compared with the overall magnitude of his achievement. (In any case, Barzun himself emphasises the importance of reading histories, not just one book.)

Yet the overall effect is depressing for, as he writes towards the end, in our present era it is “hard to find a figure of the intellectual world to put side by side with those singled out earlier.”

The same might be said also of the world of the arts generally. Indeed, an hour or so before reaching the last page, I realized I could name hardly any contemporary composers, painters, poets or playwrights. Back in the 1960’s, my parents took The Studio art magazine every month (and kept all the back copies), so that for a child I was remarkably well informed about what was then ‘modern’ art. Later, as a student, I bought and read my own copies of the Penguin poets — Ginsberg, McGough and so on. Did I lose interest, or did the subject cease to be interesting?

Overall, the effect of Barzun’s work is, by surveying the past, to open one’s eyes to the present. The view, however, is not reassuring. You realize, for example, that we do not live in a ‘democracy’ in the strict (and proper) sense of the word. (What we have is rather representative government, elected by a universal, though often neglected, franchise.) Moreover, the term ‘Liberal’, as in ‘Liberal Democracy’ is equally inappropriate, thanks to what Barzun calls the Great Switch, whereby Liberalism changed from denoting ‘hands off’ government to characterizing governmental involvement in the minutiae of life. This is coupled with what Barzun calls a ‘demotic’ culture — one in which the ‘popular’ provides a kind of ‘lowest common denominator’ set of standards.

Barzun’s work reminds me of what H R Rookmaaker did a few decades ago with his Modern Art and the Death of a Culture, tracing the revolt against the past which has run out of steam in the present. Rookmaaker wrote from a Christian perspective and thus, unlike Barzun, was able to offer an ideological alternative. The one disappointment with Barzun’s book is its ‘epilogic’ closing scene, hoping for a popular revival of interest in past culture in reaction to a dystopian future However, I find myself unable, at this stage, to feel any sense of hope comparable to that of either the Humanist or the Christian author.

It’s not that I feel there is no hope. It’s just that I can’t see that hope being brought to bear on society — certainly not through the church (or at least the Anglican church). My own perspective is that of ‘Conservative Evangelicalism’. That is one viewpoint. Go to the forums on Anglican Mainstream, Thinking Anglicans or Fulcrum, which represent other viewpoints, and ask yourself whether such a divided church has a message for a confused world. We are too busy suing and abusing one another!

A hundred years ago Matthew Arnold got it right.

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

A society which cannot say, ‘It is not so,’ will never produce a culture to rise above this picture of despair and denial. But a church whose members cannot be ‘true to one another’ or to its own founding principles has little reason to feel superior.

Revd John P Richardson
9 April 2008

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  1. I agree with your general assessment of his work and wish it could somehow be made required reading for every High School(ambitious!) and/or College student.
    the two most striking observatrions I took from his..opus? were;
    1. The continuing multi-century battle between reason and faith and,
    2. The rise of the "Machine age" and its implications for our fundamental structuring of society and culture (in its broadest sense).
    Truly one of the greatest treatises on modern society of our time, in my estimation.

  2. I would disagree with your assessment of the poem. To cherish and feel ones self to be cherished is our refuge from this world.