From Dawn to Decadence
Written by Jacques Barzun
There are times where it can be difficult to attempt a review; times when you feel as the critic that you cannot do justice to that which you are attempting to summarize; times when a work seems beyond your judgment, as though your pithy criticisms and comments are beneath it.
There are two forces at work in creating these sensations, outside the body of the work itself. For one, in recent times the constant presence of criticism, an art in its own right which too often now plays the part of a hype machine, has led to a diffusion of its impact. When we are surrounded on all sides by individuals spouting their opinions as though they matter, and I do include myself in this tangle -we all have to start somewhere-, it can become numbing, and when someone tells you that a work has gone so far as to truly impact their life on some level, we nod it off as momentary over-enthusiasm. Merriweather Post Pavillion, by Animal Collective, will have passed by most of you, undoubtedly assigned the mental tag of "Oh, yes, I heard good things," which is a shame; it is an album which has expanded for me the definition of music, and has shown that new things are possible even in this age of plenty.
This leads to the second force contributing pressure, the abundance of media. So wide-spread is the human urge to create, and so profitable has it proven, that the fields of literature, cinema, television, and music are positively flooded with material. It is frustrating to live in a time where there is so much of it, and yet we are often left feeling empty; when a work of truly great stature comes along, I am faced with resignation to the fact that it will be buried towards the bottom of everyone's To Do lists, be that To Read or To See or To Hear. There is an urge to try to listen to all of it, to see all of it, to read all of it, but that is impossible without sacrificing the deeper levels of understanding which the great works seem to only reveal with time; as Nabokov said, "There is no reading, only re-reading."
Jacques Barzun's From Dawn to Decadence is the culmination of a lifetime spent pursuing the deeper levels of understanding. He started the book when he was in his early eighties, and published it at the age of ninety-three. When he began writing the manuscript, he was already a well-respected expert in Western Culture, having devoted his life to its study. He had reached an age when most would have already retired, an age when most couldn't have conceived of, let alone executed, a work of this magnitude. The end result of his life's work, it could be argued that Barzun was born explicitly for the purposes of writing this.
If that were the case, it would have been a life well spent. I cannot over-emphasize to what few readers I have the impact of this book. It is a lengthy read, at a very full 800 pages, but Barzun uses his space, and your time, wisely. The scope of this book is the last 500 years of Western Culture, from top to bottom, left to right, from music to government. Barzun has picked the perfect brush size to fill his canvas; we are neither overwhelmed with pointilist details, nor left with the ambiguity of a broad stroke. The author fosters a curiosity in the reader that is born out of something even more remarkable; an understanding. Reading this book does not leave you with the impression of having had a large number of facts stuffed into your head; you do not walk away feeling as though you just learned trivia. Barzun explains the way the culture evolved and changed, cross-polinated and self-destructed, with a thoroughness that leaves you understanding it yourself, and even forming your own opinions.
Obviously, as a one-man show, there is opinion present here, as well as a very dry, fleeting, but definitive sense of humour, but it would be a very dull trudge if that were not the case. Barzun has written the book in an eloquent yet conversational tone, so you do not feel that you are reading a textbook; indeed, everytime I began reading, I felt as though I were walking in on a very thorough college lecture. It is not, suffice it to say, a thrilling read, but it is as intellectually involving as anything. It took me, all told, around forty hours to read this book, but I walked away with an understanding of culture that made it well worth the effort.
So, then, it is a book well above my criticisms, as I have none to offer. Is it long? Yes, but I would never use the word "too." Barzun doesn't waste a moment. Is it thrilling? Not in the vulgar sense, but you will find that history can only be immediately thrilling when you are reading it from one point of view or another, not when you have a balanced perspective. It is no more thrilling than life itself, which I mean as a high, high compliment. Most of you will not put this on your To Read lists, as it is a daunting, uninvited façade, and those who do will, by necessity, put it at the bottom.