At the outset of Jacques Barzun's colossal book From Dawn to Decadence 1500 to the Present: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, the author admits that when asked by friends how long he has been writing his book, he can only answer-a lifetime. The book is worth the wait for its extraordinary energy and intellectual range. Barzun begins by arguing that "by tracing in broad outline the evolution of art, science, religion, philosophy and social though during the last 500 years, I hope to show that during this span the peoples of the West offered the world a set of ideas and institutions not found earlier elsewhere." In the process Barzun adroitly guides the reader from Luther's Ninety-five Theses and the religious revolution of the 16th century, through what he calls "the monarchical, liberal and social" revolutions of the subsequent 400 years that have shaped the culture of the modern Western world. All of Western life and thought can be found somewhere in From Dawn to Decadence. Portraits of Martin Luther, Shakespeare, Descartes, Florence Nightingale and James Joyce jostle alongside snapshots of cities at turning points in history-"The View from Venice Around 1650", "The View from Paris Around 1830", and finally "A View from New York Around 1995". Barzun's central argument is that "after a time, the Western mind was set upon by a blight: it was Boredom." This does lead Barzun to some more curmudgeonly comments towards the end of the book, where he deals with the cultural exhaustion of the last decades of the 20th century, but over 800 pages he offers more than enough insight into an incredible sweep of history to make this a riveting and rewarding book. - Jerry Brotton
In the last half-millennium, as the noted cultural critic and historian Jacques Barzun observes, great revolutions have swept the Western world. Each has brought profound change--for instance, the remaking of the commercial and social worlds wrought by the rise of Protestantism and by the decline of hereditary monarchies. And each, Barzun hints, is too little studied or appreciated today, in a time he does not hesitate to label as decadent. To leaf through Barzun's sweeping, densely detailed but lightly written survey of the last 500 years is to ride a whirlwind of world-changing events. Barzun ponders, for instance, the tumultuous political climate of Renaissance Italy, which yielded mayhem and chaos, but also the work of Michelangelo and Leonardo-and, he adds, the scientific foundations for today's consumer culture of boom boxes and rollerblades. He considers the 16th-century varieties of religious experimentation that arose in the wake of Martin Luther's 95 theses, some of which led to the repression of individual personality, others of which might easily have come from the "Me Decade." Along the way, he offers a miniature history of the detective novel, defends Surrealism from its detractors, and derides the rise of professional sports, packing in a wealth of learned and often barbed asides.
Never shy of controversy, Barzun writes from a generally conservative position; he insists on the importance of moral values, celebrates the historical contributions of Christopher Columbus, and twits the academic practitioners of political correctness. Whether accepting of those views or not, even the most casual reader will find much that is new or little-explored in this attractive venture into cultural history. - Gregory McNamee