In Greek mythology, Cassandra was a prophetess with a particular curse. Her prophecies of tragedy are inerrant, but they are never believed. She is forever doomed to see each tragedy twice, knowing that without the curse, her prophecies could have been prophylactic.
In reading Jacques Barzun’s From Dawn to Decadence, I was struck that a historian is a kind of Cassandran figure. Barzun’s magnum opus condenses the last 500 years of the incredibly prodigious culture of the Western world in 800 densely-written pages. It is all there, he seems to cry. But nobody can hear him. The world is deaf to its own past.
This is the third time I’ve read this book; I come back to it every 4 or 5 years. I took it with me on a long holiday through North America, as companion and foil to the complete short stories of Borges.
Barzun’s particular gift is he can deftly navigate the reader along the unceasing, ever-broadening river of genius. And it is very much like a river. At time it was necessary to set the book down for a few days to let things settle in; I found myself marking pages frequently for future reference.
He is fearless in being idiosyncratic in his selection. Florence Nightingale warrants a bold header; Karl Marx is raised, summarised and dispatched in about a page. While his writing reveals a Burkean Cassandra, he is nevertheless happy to apply his own standards to history. Figures are promoted or demoted according to his own estimation. Current popularity doesn’t apply to his estimates. Consequently, for example, Shakespeare is barely present until some time after his death, when his works begin to make inroads on the Western mind.
It is in the final chapter that Barzun reveals the “Decadence” that his title alludes to. I am not so sure I agree with his conclusion that Western culture has passed into decline; at least not entirely. These treasures of culture that we can still see are preserved because, at the time, the elites embraced them. The “demotic” culture which Barzun is uneasy about is probably a constant. Great novels have been written for hundreds of years. But far more cheap pulp has ever been written than anything else. If Barzun lived in any other time, he could have made the same argument from the same inconsistent samples of past and present.
Possibly the most frustrating part of reading such a survey is that Barzun will hold out a shimmering jewel, turn it over once or twice, then move on. I was forever wishing he could linger for longer here and there. But as the book progresses this becomes, understandably, more and more impossible. The treatment of Luther, Rabelais, Erasmus and Montaigne is collectively about as long as the early 20th century, a time Barzun considers to hold the entire modern world in prototypal form. The worst of it is: each name brought up, each master, each body of brilliance … each of them can only be fully embraced and studied by someone with the time and position like Barzun’s. The rest of us will have to settle for horrible compromises. How much can be gotten to in just one ordinary lifetime?
It is an exhausting, exhilarating, terrifying and wonderful book. Highest recommendation.