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Editorial: Harper Collins.
Highly regarded here and abroad for some thirty works of cultural history and criticism, master historian Jacques Barzun has now set down in one continuous narrative the sum of his discoveries and conclusions about the whole of Western culture since 1500.
In this account, Barzun describes what Western Man wrought from the Renaisance and Reformation down to the present in the double light of its own time and our pressing concerns. He introduces characters and incidents with his unusual literary style and grace, bringing to the fore those that have “Puritans as Democrats,” “The Monarch’s Revolution,” “The Artist Prophet and Jester” — show the recurrent role of great themes throughout the eras.
The triumphs and defeats of five hundred years form an inspiring saga that modifies the current impression of one long tale of oppression by white European males. Women and their deeds are prominent, and freedom (even in sexual matters) is not an invention of the last decades. And when Barzun rates the present not as a culmination but a decline, he is in no way a prophet of doom. Instead, he shows decadence as the creative novelty that will burst forth — tomorrow or the next day.
Only after a lifetime of separate studies covering a broad territory could a writer create with such ease the synthesis displayed in this magnificent volume.
William R. Everdell
The Great Books are back, according to a report in The New York Times on Jan. 18; but thanks in part to Jacques Barzun they never did leave the curriculum at Columbia. Now, making timelessness timely, Barzun presents his account of all the great works of the Western mind in the last five centuries. If ”From Dawn to Decadence” is not a Great Book itself, it is certainly a great achievement. Encyclopedic without being discontinuous, the book hardly seems as long, as carefully constructed or as densely packed as it is. Though the ideas it explains are often complicated, the explanations it offers are limpidly clear, sparkling with biographical anecdote and counter-canonical observations, entirely free of those deserts of abstraction unrelieved by example often found in works of cultural theory. This is the American style, and Barzun owns it. Arriving from France as a teenager in the 1920’s, he became one of the leading lights of an exceptional generation of immigrant intellectuals. Now 92 and retired from teaching, he is no less the ”veritable Pic,” as French students call those classmates who remind them of Pico della Mirandola — that young man of the Renaissance who knew everything.
History is what this ”Pic” knows best, and Barzun’s two histories of the 19th-century intellectual world have become classics. But over the last half-century he has been focusing on a critique of scholarship and teaching. ”From Dawn to Decadence” will find many readers waiting, because it has been 17 years since Barzun last published an old-fashioned cultural history. ”Cultural” means it includes technology, sex and cuisine and both high and popular entertainments. ”Old-fashioned” means it relies on narrative, and instead of subscribing to a ”theory” it deploys dozens of them.
The book’s form, a gallery of remarkable profiles, from the once familiar Juan Luis Vives to the inevitable Mozart, is one of which the pioneers of cultural history, Germaine de Stal and Voltaire (also profiled), would have approved; and it allows Barzun to display his extraordinary facility for finding unfamiliar facts about familiar characters and teasing the expectations of all levels of readers. Thus Florence Nightingale and Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. get feature treatment under boldface subheads, while that fount of modernist poetry, Walt Whitman, is limited to a paragraph and Karl Marx to a page of very short (though very intelligent) shrift.
The shift of emphasis has deeper significance, suggesting one theory that Barzun finds almost universally applicable — a point of view that a historian of ideas might label aristocratic pessimism. Punctuating his narrative at regular intervals with ”Cross Sections” on cities in time, Barzun devotes the last of these, on New York, to a retrospect of what he sees as the decadent culture of 1995 from an imagined second Renaissance 300 years in the future. It is both a virtuoso performance and an epitome of what will surely be seen as the book’s major weakness, a curmudgeonly view of the century of the common man.
Despite his view that things in general are going downhill, Barzun is undiminished in his scholarship, research and polymathic interests. Like Diderot, one of his subjects, and unlike too many professors of literature, Barzun can keep up to date and comment intelligibly on almost anything human minds may light upon. A musical amateur who celebrates science and has made sense of nearly every art in several languages, Barzun even knows enough mathematics to defend Diderot’s (though it must be said that to cite Giuseppe Peano as the inventor of the Interlingua language instead of the axiomatizer of arithmetic is like citing Arnold Schoenberg as the designer of the 10-by-10 chessboard).
Barzun reconceives people, events and even words by rehistoricizing them. He deftly revises reputations as unsung as that of the Swiss liberal republican J.-C.-L. Simonde de Sismondi or as canonical as that of Bach. He also shakes up the meanings of words, like creationist, Victorian, bourgeois, pragmatic, gas and esprit (a quality he often displays). Even unobtrusive but significant social facts are here, including the invention of silent reading and the spoon. All this will delight readers who find none of these details in the popular media, and provide prima facie evidence that the decline of history has been exaggerated — even by Barzun.
The superb range and clarity of Barzun’s writing are also on display. His prose is fitting and never florid, full of lapidary judgments. He is willing to risk letting the authors of the Great Books themselves set him a standard, praising the hard work and deliberate art of prose in Pascal and Lincoln, and criticizing Flaubert’s syntax as ”often slovenly,” Gertrude Stein’s writing as ”stutterings” and Joyce’s language in ”Finnegans Wake” as a ”blur.”
Barzun’s own slips are minor (including an extravagant claim that Adam Smith’s economics has now been ”proved deductively”). More serious, I think, is the way Barzun writes the history of liberalism as if democracy had not improved it. Barzun’s Jacobins are totalitarian democrats, and his converts to liberal democracy (like Tocqueville), who created the Second French Republic, are portrayed as self-defeating. The democratic socialism of the later J. S. Mill dares not speak its name. Barzun does not even define ”democracy” explicitly until Page 773, by which point he has turned ”democratic” into the less political ”demotic,” and ”demotic” itself into a pejorative. Clearly, for Barzun, equality is not a good.
But here we are in what cannot but be a democratic era — Barzun’s own century — and it is here that the author’s aristocratic pessimism feels strangest. For one thing, both the 20th century and its modernism (which Barzun’s poet-father helped to found) have trouble getting started, then see their best cut off in youth by the first of two world wars. For another, they produce little of lasting value. ”The impetus born of the Renaissance,” Barzun writes, ”was exhausted, and the new start made in the years just before 1914 had been cut short. . . . Ridicule, denial, anti-art and sensory simplicity mean that culture and society are in the decadent phase.” A bit later, boldfacing Dorothy Sayers while relegating the work of Albert Einstein to a page and the man himself to a line or two, Barzun risks misconceiving the culture of the whole 20th century. If ”the confidence in science felt and voiced in the 19th century” is ”gone,” as Barzun claims, the news has not yet reached Brooklyn. After teaching the Renaissance to the early 20th century for 20-odd years, I cannot think of a student who ever concluded that ”the time of vast original conceptions that cause a readjustment of accepted ideas” is ”over.”
Might historical pessimists like Spengler, whom Barzun evokes looking back from 1900 on ”the decline of the West,” turn out to be right after all in 2000? At a time when intellectuals question modernization and even the very concept of ”civilization” (that time-tested term for cultures that grow enough food to support specialized nonfarmers in cities), can anyone still write a narrative about modern Western culture — even a modernist grand narrative — that predicts disaster instead of triumph? What can we do with so respectable a Cassandra?
The fact is, as Barzun knows, ”rise and fall” is an idea like all the others in his history, more a pattern in the mind than a pattern in the world. Optimism about our culture’s future is a lot to ask from a writer who has committed himself for almost 50 years to the reform of cultural evils, like clotted prose, bad taste and poor public education, that have stubbornly refused to be reformed. Nevertheless, in history few Dark Ages have ever come, and all of those that have come (so far) have gone. As the first 400 years of Barzun’s history are biased toward the best, the last 100, unfiltered by time, are colored by the worst. By Page 776 Barzun is extrapolating the ugly recent rise in the United States’ incarceration rate into a nonexistent rise in the overall Western crime rate. What a decline from Page 59, where he quoted the humanist Matteo Palmieri’s outlook on the violent, filthy, crime-ridden Renaissance cities he lived in: ”This new age, so full of hope and promise . . . already rejoices in a greater array of noble and gifted souls than the world has seen in the last thousand years.” Wouldn’t we think Palmieri’s paean to be truer of 2000, when it is a sober consequence of demography, than it was of 1440?
”From Dawn to Decadence,” in short, is peerless — on every century but the one of which Jacques Barzun can now say, like Sieyes, ”I survived.” His book will surely survive to provoke and delight readers of the 21st century, and cause even the readers of the 22nd to wonder at his anticipations of them.
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