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What It All Means

Why Jacques Barzun Is America's Greatest Teacher

FROM DAWN TO DECADENCE, 500 Years of Cultural Life, 1500 to the Present By Jacques Barzun; HarperCollins: 878 pp., $36

May 21, 2000|WILLIAM H. McNEILL | William H. McNeill is Professor of History, Emeritus, at the University of Chicago. He was president of the American Historical Assn. in 1985 and the author of numerous books, including "Plagues and Peoples," "The Pursuit of Power" and "A History of the Human Community: 1500 to the Present."

"The bulk of the book . . . is a delight because it presents a strong character full of surprises. He is learned but practical, unmistakably of his time . . . conservative but unconventional. His genius is in common sense . . . unusual judgments made by clear-eyed observation and couched in lapidary words." Jacques Barzun, distinguished historian, critic and academic administrator, uses these words to characterize Boswell's "Life of Johnson." They also constitute an apt appraisal of Barzun's own, and truly amazing, new book.

Like Samuel Johnson, Barzun is impressively learned, conservative and unconventional in many of his judgments, writes with an acute sense of the fuzzy and changeable meanings of words and treats his reader to innumerable lapidary bon mots. On top of that, he offers an admirably coherent and comprehensive portrait of the cultural achievements--"art and thought, manners, morals and religion"--of what we once confidently called "Modern," and more recently and accurately label "Western" civilization.

The deposit of a lifetime, this book is sui generis: likely--I am tempted to say certain--to become a classic. But, as Barzun is at pains to point out, taste changes, reputations rise and fall (even, or especially, Shakespeare's); and, because Barzun is thoroughly out of tune with the "decadence" he sees in European and American cultural accomplishment since 1920, this delightful and monumental book may, I suppose, be cast aside by contemporary arbiters of taste with the same deaf ear he turns to them.

Barzun's history is organized around "four great revolutions--the religious, monarchial, liberal, and social roughly a hundred years apart--whose aims and passions still govern our minds and behavior." Or, more exactly, "Three spans, each of approximately 125 years, take us, roughly speaking, from Luther to Newton, from Louis XIV to the guillotine, and from Goethe to the New York Armory Show. The fourth and last span deals with the rest of our century. If this periodization had to be justified, it could be said that the first period--1500 to 1600--was dominated by the issue of what to believe in religion; the second--1661 to 1789--by what to do about the status of the individual and the mode of government; the third--1790 to 1920--by what means to achieve social and economic equality. The rest is the mixed consequences of all these efforts. What then marks a new age? The appearance or disappearance of particular embodiments of a given purpose."

Cultural history, in short, is a matter of human consciousness and desires; and individuals who are able to express perennial human wishes in new ways are the agents of change, the shapers of styles and the molders of culture. Barzun accordingly decorates his pages with numerous, often brilliant, pen portraits and summary judgments of individual writers, musicians, artists, philosophers and the like. Some are surprising choices, being all but unknown--Finlay Peter Dunne or James Agate, for example; while others, like Luther, Voltaire, Goethe and T.S. Eliot, are utterly familiar and expected.

Barzun resorts to other unusual devices. One is to capitalize a dozen or so words that symbolize recurring themes in his history. Thus EMANCIPATION, PRIMITIVISM, INDIVIDUALISM, ANALYSIS and half a dozen other abstract nouns appear in full dress whenever Barzun resorts to them. He thus exploits typography to show how the same (or almost the same?) themes recur in surprisingly different guises across the entire span of the modern era.

A second device is to punctuate chapters treating more or less coherent cultural changes, like "The West Torn Apart" for Luther and the Reformation, "The Reign of Etiquette" for 19th century romanticism with what Barzun calls "Cross Sections." These are chapter-length miscellanies, only partially held together by sketches of "The View from Madrid Around 1540" or, as the case may be, from some other city at some subsequent time with which each "Cross Section" begins.

Then there are the boldface insets decorating many of his pages. They produce others' remarks, more or less relevant to the discourse on the rest of the page. Taken together, these insets constitute an extraordinary chrestomathy of unfamiliar quotations. A few samples must suffice:

"The public, the public--how many fools does it take to make a public?" -- Chamfort (an almost forgotten moralist "who committed suicide in prison to foil the guillotine").

"On John D. Rockefeller. He is a kind of Society f'r th' Prevention of Cruelty to Money. If he finds a man misusin' his money, he takes it away fr'm him and adopts it." -- Mr. Dooley.

And angry, impudent verse from Ernest Hemingway:

The age demanded that we sing

and cut away our tongue.

The age demanded that we flow

and hammered in the bung.

The age demanded that we dance

and jammed us into iron pants.

And in the end the age was handed

the sort of shit the age demanded.


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