I came across Jacques Barzun (see link below) in the late nineties as his book, From Dawn to Decadence – 1500 to the Present – 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, began to gain traction. I was still bogged down in an engineering career then, had divorced my first wife and 2.4 kids, and was in the early stages of re-marriage, but I felt compelled by the idea of this book and began to read it in what spare time I could summon.
What a book! And what a mind. Barzun was in his mid-nineties then, an age in which you – stereotypically – expect to listen to addled, semi-remembered stories from these elderlies and watch them hobble from bed to bathroom on a rickety walker. Not so with Barzun, as this book attests.
He had and eye on the past, to be sure, and he wasn’t about to be ensnared by the candy floss of modern culture. We in our age tend to dismiss the elderly, but in previous eras, younger folk sought out these aged ones, simply because they’d seen so much of life and consequently were expected to have a broader vision of where their society had come from, where it was going. Sometimes such views were a tad jaundiced, but it has always been hard to dismiss the views of someone who has seen so much of life.
Barzun’s book, Dawn to Decadence, gives us both ends of this personal spectrum. In it he traces western society’s evolution from its Greek and Roman roots, in which our understanding of the world we live in – and of ourselves – began to develop from the minds and experiences of a few. Subsequent cultures built on the ideas of these few individuals, then more collective ideas wrung from cities, then nations, each differing to a great degree in its approaches to life and culture based on what each had to work with, geographically and ethnically.
What seems to have troubled Barzun was the ephemeralization of culture as it began to manifest in the late 1800 and as it reached a crescendo in our modern times. Art, literature, philosophy, politics – all these and more – began to reach deep within the global hodgepodge to find some common, abstracted ground. This is where we seem logjammed today with our postmodern sensibilities (note that postmodernism isn’t a what-is; instead it’s a what-is-not), and this is where Barzun began to wring his hands. As tribal, national, and regional cultures interacted more and more, there were bound to be conflicts in habits and beliefs, and this has led to all of today’s “isms,” (Pick one or a pair: socialism, fascism, communism, Catholicism, Mormonism, evangelism, modernism, postmodernism…on and on).
A great deal of our current social angst has its roots in our clinging belief in practices that led to many of western society’s earlier stages: conflict, violence, war. These now are cultural norms – from the push-pull of regional conflicts to man-woman interactions – and Barzun was right to point this out. And he was also right in another thing: our urge for some abstract common ground begat superficiality: fashion, political correctness, compounding fantasies in politics and religion, and even science.
But is Barzun right? Will we look over our shoulders, just before we see the dark side of the sod, and see western society fallen to a smoldering piles of ashes? We can’t know, of course, because there are too many steps yet to take, too many possibilities yet unborn. All we can know is that we’re on the cusp of something. We at least owe Jacques Barzun a tip of the hat for bringing us up to speed on this realization.