On Barzun’s From Dawn to Decadence
Jacques Barzun once gave the keynote address at one of the Modern Language Association conventions I attended. In it he savaged those members of the Association—their name is legion—who had abandoned the teaching of the fundamental skills and great literature of the Western tradition in favor of the new idols of race, class, and gender, French literary theory, and political correctness. There was the most minimal possible applause of politeness at the end of his talk, but one person stood in enthusiastic ovation—only one. That person was yours truly, attending the convention in the vain hope of finding a full-time, tenure-track teaching position at some respectable college or university. The hope was vain precisely because I refused to worship the idols of the day, but only later did I fully realize how thoroughly the word “respectable” had already ceased to apply.
So I have been an admirer of Jacques Barzun for a long time. I have taught with his writing manual, tirelessly quoting its mantra: “be simple and direct.” I have read him on a variety of subjects and found it not possible to read his words without learning something valuable.
Recently I finished his long discussion of the culture of the modern West, From Dawn to Decadence . It is a remarkable accomplishment. One learns no end of interesting facts and gains a valuable insight on nearly every page. What follows is not a review of the book, however. It is a meditation on the heart of Barzun’s world view as expressed in the book, a view extremely fruitful yet ultimately disappointing.
I have just finished reading From Dawn to Decadence, and I now see what Barzun meant by “Dawn”: it is the Renaissance, which Philip Thompson (in Dusk and Dawn: Poems and Prose of Philip Thompson, p. 208) calls “on the one hand an enormous art school, and on the other the birthday of the secular beast.”
Barzun reveals his spiritual limitation in two key places: most importantly on pp. 756-57. There he indicts existentialism for being puny, and for a “submission to the absurd” from within “life,” which it is therefore “not competent to damn . . . permanently.” Fair enough, but he says so out of the assumption that “man and nature are one: nature is conscious of itself in and through man,” whose “links with the cosmos that men have celebrated in worship and song” are essentially man’s own creation, since nature is a “man-made construct” that sometimes gives “pure mindless joy.”
This is essentially the Wordsworth who Thompson says “doesn’t go far enough: the love of nature and the sense of nature’s holiness cannot exist if love and holiness are not the cause of nature’s being . . .” (Dusk and Dawn, p. 200).
In short, Barzun is a Romantic with an Olympian view of all permutations of man as permutations of nature. He is a kind of Lucretius with the wealth of 500 years of art to contemplate. He praises Dorothy Sayers on Dante and otherwise and then fails to take her refutation of the cliché that the Divine Comedy is just a journalist’s attempt to reward friends and punish enemies. On Barzun’s page 654 we had the “infinite diversity of human character” etc. and his rules of history, which are pretty good in their anti-dogmatism. Barzun imagines that he is himself nature contemplating itself without prejudice. Except that it is his own prejudice to assume that all spiritual vision is merely one aspect of the diversity of man’s nature, i.e., of nature itself. As Philip Thompson has said, “if the lower is the source of the higher, then the lower is the higher.” Apparently even a vision so Olympian as Barzun’s is bound by some kind of prejudice: either man is mere nature or nature is not all there is.
The other place in which Barzun reveals his limitation is his attack on relativism (pp. 760-63), which I think is a red herring. Of course he’s right about all the areas of life in which his word relationism would be a better one. But he makes the mistake that every high school student makes: thinking that because, for example, the laws against killing people are so various in the cultures of the world, therefore there is no absolute underlying them. “When the anti-relativist deplores the present state of morals he is judging it relatively to a previous state, which he believes was fixed and eternal.” This is too true about many people, of course, but it is not the real point.
The true anti-relativist (you and I, Philip Thompson and Mary Holmes, Dorothy Sayers and C.S. Lewis, et al.) is not measuring present relativism against any specific past but against eternal principles. Barzun asks, ah, but whose eternal principles? By which question he merely plops himself back into Lucretian nature.
Barzun ends the passage with the deification of tact, in art and society, in the determination to attack any “absolute formula.” Why tact should show itself incontrovertibly in one work of art and not in another, and how it is recognized as such, remains according to him, I suppose, a mystery of nature. As in history, so in art, formula is his enemy. And of course he is right to a point, since too many people have reduced too much of human experience to too narrow formulas. But his own formula, that there is no absolute but tact that transcends formula, is the blindness of Philip Thompson’s Fleet Astronomer (Dusk and Dawn, p.66), who
reads the night
As the honest fracturing eye
And studious hairs
Of the fly, cathedral stone.
Barzun’s view reminds me of Mary Holmes’ point that some people are given a spiritual gift and others not. It is as if Barzun never in his long life had an experience of the spirit that he could not reduce to nature.
The rest of the book is brilliant, even when a little off or reductive. He is best on the last 100 years, the late 19th C. to the end. His ability to connect things and unpack their underlying themes is little short of astounding, from the Grand Illusion (World War I) to the torn jeans.
But he makes me want to ask Wendell Berry’s question of him: “What are people for?” He would say the question is absurd, like asking what the universe is for. But I would respond by asking why human beings keep asking the question anyway, just as if they were meant to.