Bob Nardo's Reviews > From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, 1500 to the Present

From Dawn to Decadence by Jacques Barzun
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's review
Jan 02, 2008

it was amazing
Recommended to Bob by: Sara
Read in January, 2008

Colossal integration of art, culture, politics and thought over the last half millenium.

Update: I just finished the book. What a magnificent work. I will just add two notes.

1. From the prologue, for those who may be interested in Barzun's framework: "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 loss it faces is that of Possibility. The forms of art as of life seem exhausted, the stages of development have been run through. Institutions function painfully. Repetition and frustration are the intolerable result. Boredom are fatigue are great historical forces."

2. The penultimate section of the book has an interesting elaboration of what seems to me to be Tocqueville's notion of democratic despotism: "It was the eutopian imagination at work making corrective rules as the path to the good life. The welfare ideal did not merely see to it that the poor should be able to survive, but that everybody should be safe and at ease in a hundred ways." This was manifest in "the feeling of people being hemmed in by rules matched that of being hemmed in by people - there were too many of both... The suburban community dictated the color of your front door (777)." He later describes the feeling among many individuals as "a lack of room to breathe, oppressed by the rule book and by the mass of adversaries in the allocation of conflicting rights" (781). In short, then, our political efforts to make life more comfortable have resulted in a social situation that is increasingly oppressive and uncomfortable. I have always found Tocqueville's diagnosis or warning along these lines to be profoundly insightful about the modern condition.

After describing our times in this way, Barzun takes another step: he argues that this feeling of suffocation gives rise to the style characteristic of our period, which he calls the "Unfitting": our casual style is seen in our loose (even unkempt) dress and informal modes of address (e.g. bosses and the aged are called by their first names). After all, "since unfitness meant freedom" -- freedom from the suffocation of a regulatory society -- "conventions should be defied, notably those classes as manners (782)."

I found this latter discussion of our modern paradox quite poignant. The hippies I grew up around embraced primitivism and rejected standardization -- a style that I adopted in some ways. This is surely an understandable reaction to democratic despotism. Yet the disposal of cultural heritage (manners) seems a high price for resisting democratic despotism, and thus is a troubling signal of the aforementioned decadence.
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