I was very engaged in this year’s Jane Austen July, with a TBR that attempted to cover all the prompts (even if loosely) and not very much with Victober (although I did read one Victorian novel, Trollope’s Phineas Finn, for which I will post a review later this month). That’s completely opposite to what I did last year, when I ignored Jane Austen July, but read a lot of Victober books. Now it’s November and, like last year, I’m reading a non-fiction tome. I’m not following any of the prompts provided by abookolive (who’s the booktuber who created Non-Fiction November – I love her channel). Last year I also didn’t follow the prompts and just read Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, which was great. I wanted to find something of similar length (to last me the whole month) and interest and I hit on Jacques Barzun’s cultural history, From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, 1500 to the Present.
The book came out in 2000, when Jacques Barzun was 93. Barzun, who died in 2012 at 104, was a historian of ideas and culture at Columbia University. He had a very wide range of interests and studied and wrote on many topics, including popular culture. After his retirement, he started work on From Dawn to Decadence at 84 and took almost a decade to finish it. It was hailed as a masterpiece. I’ve had it on my radar for a long time and now’s the time to finally read it.
Here’s what Barzun says he sets out to show in the book:
By tracing in broad outline the evolution of art, science, religion, philosophy, and social thought during the last 500 years, I hope to show that during this span the peoples of the West offered the world a set of ideas and institutions not found earlier or elsewhere.
Jacques Barzun, From Dawn to Decadence, Harper Perennial, New York, 2001, p. xix.
Barzun shows several themes (around 10 or 12) that come up again and again, such as emancipation (gaining individual rights) and primitivism (a desire to return to simpler times and values) and others that are introduced during the course of the book (I’ve only read about 140 pages, so haven’t come across all the themes yet). He divides the book into four parts:
- From Luther’s Ninety-five Theses to Boyle’s “Invisible College”
I’ve never heard of Boyle and have no idea what the “invisible college” is meant to be as I haven’t finished the first part yet.
- From the Bog and Sand of Versailles to the Tennis Court
- From Faust, Part 1, to “Nude Descending a Staircase No. 2”
- From “The Great Illusion” to “Western Civ Has Got to Go”
At the moment I’ve read a just little more than half of the first part and I’m loving it. A lot of the historical events are familiar to me, from school and university and books, but the cultural perspectives and the way Barzun shows various overarching themes is new and fascinating. Sometimes he points out connections that seem obvious once pointed out, sometimes he makes judgements that I don’t entirely agree with. But it’s all fascinating and written in a very fluent and readable style without academic jargon.
The book is from the “dawn” of the modern Western era at around 1500, which is the traditional starting point with the Protestant Reformation and the Renaissance. The “decadence” of the title points out Barzun’s theory that “… in the West the culture of the last 500 years is ending” (p. xiii). I don’t know yet if I agree with the premise. Decadence is, however, not viewed as particularly negative:
But why should the story come to an end? It doesn’t, of course, in the literal sense of stoppage or total ruin. All that is meant by Decadence is “falling off.” It implies in those who live in such a time no loss of energy or talent or moral sense. On the contrary, it is a very active time, full of deep concerns, but peculiarly restless, for it sees no clear lines of advance. […] The forms of art as of life seem exhausted, the stages of development have been run through. […] Boredom and fatigue are great historical forces.
Jacques Barzun, From Dawn to Decadence, Harper Perennial, New York, 2001, p. xx.
I’m not sure that I will agree with Barzun about the ending of Western culture once I have read the book. So far, his reasons for seeing a time of decadence in our times don’t seem completely persuasive. I don’t know if it is even possible to judge such a thing accurately while living during the times. It’ll be interesting to see if Barzun touches on topics like digitalization and climate change which are of such concern today, but as far as I remember weren’t as prevalent in 2000, when the book was published. I can see some of his themes still working today (primitivism, for instance, the urge to return to a simpler way of life).
The book full of interesting tidbits. Quotes from famous or less well-known historical figures on almost every page, short biographies of influential persons, a zooming in on certain places and societies at certain times to illustrate the effects of developments. This makes for a varied reading experience that keeps the reader interested throughout this hefty tome. Barzun points out books to read if the reader wants more details on certain subjects. He also mentions where topics will be revisited in later parts of the book – you could keep jumping back and forth in the book but for this my first read I’m going to stick with reading it straight through from beginning to end.
Are you enjoying Non-Fiction November as well?
Keep safe, world