For non-fiction November, I wanted to read a large and hopefully fascinating tome that would last me all month, like I did last year. I chose Jacques Barzun’s From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Year of Western Cultural Life: 1500 to the Present. I’ve known about this book for years, but never got around to read it, so I thought this was a good time to tackle it.
I enjoyed the book very much, although I didn’t agree with every judgement of Barzun’s. Some topics I know almost nothing about (such as music) and therefore can’t tell whether Barzun gets it right or not. But that didn’t matter to me because I don’t need to judge everything. I don’t think I’ll ever know very much about the cultural history of music as that’s not a topic I’m particularly keen on, but reading about it in this book was interesting, even for a clueless reader like myself. Other topics I am more familiar with, such as literary history and general history. I still had a lot of aha moments where subjects were presented to me in a way I had never thought of before, but which I found compelling.
One subject on which I felt Barzun got it wrong was when he argues that women were historically in practice not oppressed much more than most men, because the common man used to have very few rights, too. Quite a few men and women did manage extraordinary feats despite being oppressed, I agree, but that’s only true for exceptionally talented people. It’s true that for centuries common people, men and women, were not very free, but the common man could always deem himself the master of the common woman. So, when oppressed lower class men struggled to achieve something they had to fight against all sorts of prejudices and hindrances from the ruling classes, while women always had to struggle in addition against men from their own class and against general prejudices against all women (such as that women were supposedly unfit for leadership or learning). And while men gained more and more freedom and rights as the centuries passed, these rights were not automatically extended to women. He’s also at one point rather dismissive of women’s complaints about sexual harassment in everyday life – a very male point-of-view (I guess the book was written before the #metoo-movement).
The book is a hefty tome at 828 pages with small print, but it covers a large scope and is full of variety so that it never gets boring. The style is clear and engaging without academic jargon. Barzun looks at historical events, at literature, the arts, music, and science. There a many short biographical sketches of important and interesting men and women and numerous quotes appear as small textual inserts. There are many instances where Barzun mentions other books to read if one wants to learn more about certain developments that can only be sketched in a large overview.
I also like the themes that Barzun returned to again and again at different points in his narrative. Themes like emancipation, primitivism, scientism, self-consciousness. For instance, primitivism means the desire to return to a simpler, more authentic life – this comes up very often at different periods between 1500 and 2000. One early instance was the Protestant Reformation, where one of the aims was to return to a simpler Christianity as practiced by the early church without all the hierarchies and rules that had been accumulated by the Catholic Church. Primitivism is a romanticized view, as life in earlier years had its own complexities and issues that are ignored by the rose-tinted view from the future. It arises for various reasons and in different forms during quite a few later periods right up to the present. Whenever there’s a yearning for simplicity, primitivism is involved (which can be fruitful or a dead-end, depending on the results). Here’s what Barzun wrote about Tolstoy, who, after writing masterpieces like War and Peace turned to the simple life, a kind of primitivism:
To Tolstoy the natural man he respects is simpleminded in the good sense and ignorant in the eyes of the world. Such a man knows how to do his work and is faithful to his duty. He is humble and a Christian, but not as the Orthodox church understands the believer. The words of Jesus suffice. Tolstoy proved his integrity by ending his days living like a peasant among his former serfs, without comforts, good clothes, hygiene, or fine food.
Jacques Barzun, From Dawn to Decadence. Harper Perennial, 2001, p. 672.
Near the end of the book when Barzun started making judgements about the situation of Western culture during the second half of the 20th century, I found some of his ideas well-argued but others I couldn’t agree with in all or even any points (for instance, Barzun is quite critical of “the welfare state” while I feel that social security is a positive achievement). In this last part of the book, I scribbled a lot of question marks in the margin, when I found statements that I wasn’t sure about or was of a contrary opinion. I think it’s harder to make valid judgements of the times we live in as opposed to past eras (though who knows how appropriate people from the past would find our view of their culture). But these differences of opinion were stimulating. They made me think. Often, I didn’t reach a final judgement for myself on an issue, but I enjoyed getting a point-of-view about various topics that I would not otherwise have encountered.
The book has an index of subjects and one of persons. These are very useful to look up topics when I can’t remember what I’ve read and which I want to revisit (also to find the useful references to other books sprinkled throughout the text). If I read all the books recommended in the text that interest me, I’d probably be busy for the next decade. So, the book is a great resource to dip into as well as a good read from beginning to end in one go. If you are interested in cultural history, you’ll probably enjoy this work. I thought it was great.
Fun fact: Barzun wrote this book when he was in his eighties and published it in his early nineties. That’s an amazing accomplishment. I hope very much that I will stay mentally agile in old age, too (although the likelihood of me publishing such an amazing tome at any age is rather low).
Keep safe, world.