Barzun sums it up: twilight of the West

May 21, 2000|By Craig Eisendrath | Craig Eisendrath,Special to the Sun

"From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life," by Jacques Barzun. HarperCollins. 816 pages. $35.

For decades, cultural historian Jacques Barzun, from his perch at Columbia University, epitomized the intellectual in American life. Coming to the United States from France in 1920, he wrote some 30 books, including perhaps his most famous, "The House of the Intellect" (1959), which raised the standards of cultural awareness in a country known more for its economy than its mind.

"From Dawn to Decadence," Barzun's rumination on the full sweep of modern Western history, has, in his words, been a "lifetime" in the making. It is "for people who like to read about art and thought, manners, morals, and religion, and the social setting in which these activities have been and are taking place."

The sweep of Barzun's interests is enormous. The book includes hundreds of capsule biographies, mini-essays, digressions on almost every conceivable subject from Martin Luther, military fortifications and publishing habits to dress codes, classical music and Pablo Picasso. Barzun also suggests books for the reader to browse or read, although his choices are highly idiosyncratic.

Although Barzun claims to organize the book roughly around four revolutions -- religious, monarchical, liberal and social, each occupying about a hundred years -- the book lacks an adequate structure upon which its mass of detail can be fixed.

In the 1950s, an American psychologist named G.A. Miller proclaimed that a human being could simultaneously entertain only seven bits of knowledge, plus or minus two, depending on his or her smarts. Beyond this, the brain needed larger categories, and then orders of categories, in a definable structure into which the bits could be grouped. Here we are presented with literally hundreds of bits, and while Barzun himself may have assimilated them through a lifetime, they can be defeating to a reader.

Generally, the writing is polished and evocative, although occasional lapses leave the reader guessing at Barzun's meaning. Barzun dwells in the shadowy area of opinion and sensibility, and while he is generally a good guide, he is quirky enough that the reader should be put on guard that recourse to other sources would be wise.

This is a book to be read at leisure, at many sittings, and to be supplemented by other material. If taken as good talk about the West by an exquisitely well-read man, it is an enjoyable and worthwhile experience.

As an advocate of the West, Barzun believes that Western culture has shot its wad and that today we are in a period of total decadence. His last chapter, "Demotic Life and Times," is one long cry of pain at what Barzun sees around him, from the breakup of nation states, to bad public education, to seamy sexual morals, to welfare legislation and bad fiction.

Here Barzun seems to be more crankish than wise, more an angry old man than a seer. He dismisses virtually everything -- "It is hard to find a figure of the intellectual world to put side by side with those singled out earlier." His disdain includes even efforts at disaster aid, not to speak of welfare -- "This ceaseless endeavor to aid and permit was a spectacle unknown to any previous civilization." His brief projection of the future -- an ugly blend of science and corporate culture -- is even more discouraging.

The tragedy of Barzun's final book is that the West has, in the end, so totally disappointed him, leaving him only memories to treasure. One might have thought that someone who has enlightened us for so many decades on the creativity of the human spirit might have seen, even in this period, more to admire, and in the future, more possibilities of hope.

Craig Eisendrath, who headed the Pennsylvania Humanities Council for 13 years, has just completed a study of Western thought, titled "Beyond Permanence: Toward a New Paradigm for the West." He has his Ph.D. from Harvard University in the History of American Civilization and served as a Foreign Service Officer.

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