The Writing Life

Mark LaFlaur is a writer and editor living in New Orleans, where he is at work on a novel

It is difficult now to imagine an age when a weekly newsmagazine would print a cover story on “America and the Intellectual,” illustrated with 13 commissioned photographs by Alfred Eisenstaedt. The magazine was Time, the date was June 11, 1956, and the cover illustration was of a handsome, dignified man of 48 looking toward a lighted lamp of learning, the kind seen on college rings. Although more famous men (alas, they were all men) discussed in the article could have been shown on the cover (J. Robert Oppenheimer, for instance, or Frank Lloyd Wright), it was Jacques Barzun of Columbia University whom the editors chose to lead the piece, subtitled “The Reconciliation.” Education editor Bruce Barton Jr. found in Barzun an affectionate (though not uncritical) relationship between a thinker and his adopted country--indeed, one of Barzun’s best-selling books, published in 1954, was titled “God’s Country and Mine”--and, no less important in those days, an intellectual who had never been much interested in communism.

The publication 44 years later of Barzun’s “From Dawn to Decadence” is a remarkable occasion on several counts, among the most noteworthy of which is that, although it is the crowning work of a 92-year-old author with more than 30 titles in print, it has been taking shape in his mind for more than six decades. A cultural history of the last 500 years, a historical era from its birth to its dissolution--published in the closing months of a millennium might strike some as conveniently timed.

“From Dawn to Decadence” has been long in coming; indeed, this work has passed through probably one of the longest gestations ever, for in the early 1930s Barzun (in his 20s) was already planning a large cultural history of the West, but he didn’t begin writing it until 1992. As a Columbia doctoral candidate, he was in Paris for research on his dissertation when an elderly librarian at the Bibliotheque Nationale, a friend of Barzun’s father and an accomplished author, advised the young historian that a great survey must be done not at the beginning of one’s career but toward the end. The reason is that when a writer is young, his ideas tend to be derivative and half-baked, and his head half-empty, compared to the learning he will have acquired by his later years.


Barzun put off writing the big book until later and looked upon his other books as “preliminary studies, like sketches for a great mural.” The preliminary studies include such highly regarded works as “Romanticism and the Modern Ego” (1943), his best-selling “Teacher in America” (1945), “The House of Intellect” (1959) and “The American University” (1968). He oversaw the completion of Wilson Follett’s “Modern American Usage” (1966), has translated numerous works from the French and has written, edited and collaborated on such varied subjects as romanticism, music, teaching, language, science, race and crime fiction.

Born in the artistic community of L’Abbaye de Creteil near Paris in 1907, Jacques Martin Barzun is the son of Henri Martin Barzun, a writer and diplomat, and Anna-Rose Barzun. He was educated at the Lycee Janson de Suilly, Paris, and taught his first class at the age of 9, when the trench warfare of the Great War was taking all available young men. (“All I remember about it,” he recalls in “Teacher in America,” “is that it had to do with arithmetic and that the room seemed filled with thousands of very small children in black aprons.”) Before the war, Barzun had enjoyed a happy childhood in the company of some of the greatest artists of the Cubist Decade. Growing up in a “nursery of living culture,” he sat in the studio while Albert Gleizes painted his mother’s portrait, played in the garden while his father discussed modern art with Marcel Duchamp, Raymond Duchamp-Villon and Jacques Villon and was bounced on the knee of Guillaume Apollinaire while the poet amused him with stories. “Every Saturday and sometimes oftener,” Barzun writes in “The Energies of Art” (1956), “the stage [at home] was full: Marinetti acting and shouting, Archipenko making Leger roar with laughter, Delaunay and Ozenfant debating, Paul Fort declaiming his ballads, Varese or Florent Schmitt surrounded at the piano. . . . On view at close range were also: Ezra Pound, Cocteau . . . Kandinsky . . . Brancusi. . . .” As he has written elsewhere, growing up in that artistic milieu, it was his early impression that “making works of art by exerting genius was the usual occupation of adults. . . . The joy of being was the joy of being there; the zest for life was tied to the spectacle of good things being done with confident energy.” This was before August 1914.

After World War I he came to the United States to study at Columbia, which he entered at 15. (His father advised against the European universities, decimated and demoralized by the war.) He studied history at Columbia College and graduated at the head of his class in 1927, half a year before his 20th birthday. He had hoped to enter the French diplomatic service, but the war and his American education derailed him from that calling. He considered the law, but his advisors at Columbia persuaded him that he had a knack for narrative history. Barzun is widely known from teaching at Columbia for nearly five decades (1927 to 1975), where he and Lionel Trilling taught the famous colloquium on great books from the 1930s into the mid-1960s. In the 1950s and ‘60s, he served as dean of graduate faculties, then as dean of faculties and provost and as university professor before his retirement in 1975.

We caught up with Jacques Barzun recently at the New-York Historical Society, where we found him in a public conversation with Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. The following is an edited transcript of their talk.

ARTHUR SCHLESINGER JR.: “From Dawn to Decadence” is a remarkable book. Jacques Barzun seems to have read everything, remembered everything, and woven the history of the Western mind and sensibility together in a relatively seamless whole. Barzun is essentially a historian, but a most unusual historian because he is such a master of so many diverse forms of human expression--music, painting, philosophy, politics, war, statecraft, religion, science, morals, manners--and he understands them all, as a historian must, as revelations of the society that produced them.

I think we might begin by asking you what you have in mind by this word “decadence.”


JACQUES BARZUN: Decadence means “falling away, falling apart,” and it is something that happens over and over again in history. It may do so in a part of a culture, or in more than half, or pretty much in the whole of a culture at a given time. It comes when the idea of every activity begins to lose its force and its appeal because everything it contains has been worked out, and the more rapid the falling away, the happier the prospect because it levels the ground and enables the newcomers, the youth with bright new ideas, to get started and to establish the next phase of history, to which we give the name of another culture. The very beginning of the history that I undertake to tell in this book was an age of decadence. The 15th century found all sorts of institutions, and particularly the Catholic Church, in a sorry plight. Even the officials of the church said it needed reform from top to bottom. But one of the characteristics of decadence is that although many people see what ought to be done to move on, the institutions are so arthritic that they cannot.

SCHLESINGER: Is decadence irreversible?

BARZUN: Irreversible on the same track, yes. The engine cannot go back. Although very often the next phase--and this is also characteristic of the age of the Protestant Revolution in the 16th century--claims that it is a return. The Protestants wanted to go back to the primitive church, which had no pope and no bishops, no elaborate ritual, just believers huddling together and hoping for grace from on high. That phase is a recurring theme in the 500 years that I treat of, and I give it the name of primitivism: the desire to simplify civilization when it gets too complicated and, being too complicated, has reached a state of stagnation.

SCHLESINGER: You disclaim in the book any cyclical theory of the pretensions of Oswald Spengler or Arnold Toynbee. Yet is there not a cyclical element in your waves of recurrence?

BARZUN: No. I wouldn’t call it cyclical because that implies a return to the identical beginning, and the beginnings are all different. If you start looking at civilizations from Egypt through Greece through the Roman empire through the various stages of the medieval, you see that history doesn’t repeat except at a level of abstraction. That is to say, the acts of people are all different and all new, but you can say political action is very much the same now as it was in the time of Andrew Jackson, or you can find similarities. Just as you can find similarities in the faces of people you know, but each is individual, and I think each culture is individual.

SCHLESINGER: I well remember Alfred North Whitehead giving his last lecture at Harvard in 1936. His last words of his last lecture were, “Civilizations die of boredom.”

BARZUN: Oh yes, I’m a great believer in boredom. I’ve seen it and I’ve felt it. And it comes over a people when certain great important ideas are worked out. For example, I think that the resistance of many young people to European culture, saying that dead white European males and their books and their works ought to be thrown into the wastebasket, that is a rationalization of a feeling of boredom. We’ve heard it, we’ve seen it. Isn’t there a phrase, “Been there? Done that”? That is historical boredom.

SCHLESINGER: Would you relate the rise of fundamentalism around the world today--Protestant fundamentalism, Islamic fundamentalism, Hindu fundamentalism, Jewish fundamentalism--to the same impulse?

BARZUN: Yes. It reminds me of what was happening in 15th century Europe when the disaffection from the church began to intensify. There were all sorts of groups forming little cults. New schools were open to teach what was felt to be the true faith and so on. People look for something to believe in, and not only believe in the religious sense but believe in the institutional sense. Feeling that one belongs to a going concern and not to a dead old corporation that is static in routines. That is the situation of decay, decadence, demand for the new and the necessary destruction before the new can really arise.

SCHLESINGER: On this question of fundamentalism, there is a kind of urgent fanatic quality about it. Is this fanaticism a necessary accompaniment of boredom or an escape from boredom?

BARZUN: No. I don’t think that fanaticism arises from boredom, but it arises from despair. Despair about the particular concerns or the particular situation that a group feels is a threat or a failure to perform the right things that this new urge demands.

SCHLESINGER: But people in this state of exhaustion of old forms, old ideas, old institutions are searching for something new, and they find it perhaps in a kind of revelation.

BARZUN: Yes, and they have a sense--perhaps not put into words, but they feel it strongly--that the old cohesive forces have given way. For example, the great creation of the Western world in the last 500 years has been the nation-state. And the nation everywhere is falling apart. It’s extraordinary to think, for example, that England, which isn’t so big that it can afford to come into pieces again, has given Scotland and Wales parliaments. We take it for granted because we read it in the paper and hear it on television, but that’s an extraordinary fact. In France, after years of very tight nationhood and national feeling, the government is now subsidizing the revival of local dialects, of which there turn out to be many more than anyone thought.

SCHLESINGER: Isn’t this partly a consequence of globalization? The nation-state as you say is fading away. Daniel Bell once said that the nation-state is too big for the small problems and too small for the big problems. So it’s no longer the institutional unit of adaptation. At the same time, nationalism remains the most potent of political emotions.

BARZUN: The desire to be a nation often is accompanied by no notion of what it entails. For example, all these little states which dot the South Pacific are dependent on the old big powers, which used to own them. They can’t defend themselves, their economy needs continual injections. The Comoros Islands off the east coast of Africa are a wonderful example. The total area is nearly 840 square miles, and there are four islands, and for the last 15 years, at least one of them--the smallest, Anjouan Island--has fought the federal government of those four, and now it has achieved its independence. And the neighboring nations from Africa, and to the east also, celebrated that as a great feat of liberation.

SCHLESINGER: Globalization is upon us in the sense that the new technologies, the electronic and cybernetic technologies, elude national sovereignty. Cyberspace is beyond the control of individual states. Nations no longer have the power to decide their own economic destiny. But the people are plunged into this vast anonymous sea which they don’t like, they don’t fully comprehend, they can’t control, and they feel a great need for belonging. This need for belonging results in a return to smaller units of some kind, whether defined religiously or ethnically. So in a certain sense, the more the world integrates, the more it disintegrates.

BARZUN: Yes. Everywhere, everybody wants to belong to a small cozy group for protection which has a language of its own, traditions, religion, cookery, everything. “We ourselves alone”--Sinn Fein--is the phrase that describes that. And it is going forward in this country to a far greater extent than anyone realizes. It doesn’t mean that national government will fall apart and leave only a checkerboard of small regions, but it does show the mood and the tendency, and it is heightened, I think, by the fact that the modern world of technology makes the individual feel oppressed, badgered, unhappy, and it’s perfectly natural then to try to form a little family circle. And the family circle means the ethnic group, large or small.

SCHLESINGER: You say in your book that the novel was the characteristic genre of the 19th century. What was the characteristic genre of the 20th century?

BARZUN: The novel suited the 19th century peculiarly well because the 19th century was aware of something it called “Progress.” Science and industry seemed to prove the reality of progress, and progress was a historical fact. The 19th century was the century of history; people lapped up history the way they did novels. And the novel is a fictional history. It adopts all the tricks of narrative history--description of incidents, psychology of movers and shakers--and very often among the early masterpieces of the novel, the setting is actual. It happens here, there or the other place. And by the end of the century the novel has gone to such a pitch of historicity that the author is attacked if he misrepresents a particular detail, whether it’s important or not.

J.B. Priestley told me once that he would receive insulting letters if he had a character wandering about London and taking the wrong street from one place to another. That’s an extreme example of the feeling that the 19th century created about the novel form. It is also a very democratic form in two ways. First, it’s about ordinary people, every kind of person. Unlike the tragedy in verse, which is about princes and kings and warriors, it’s about you and me. In another way, the novel is democratic in being an incitement to envy on the one hand--you read about so-and-so and you wish you were situated the way they are, lucky as they are--and also it’s very snobbish. If you think back to any of the novels that you have enjoyed, care to reread, and look at the characters who are badly treated, you find that they have red hair, or a loud voice, or too much chin, or poor table manners--it’s pure snobbery that a novel distinguishes the people you are supposed to like from those you don’t like.

If I were someone else I’d probably say the characteristic genre of the 20th century is the film. But I don’t think the film is a literary genre, so I can’t give the proper answer. It’s difficult to say what strictly literary work is characteristic of the 20th century. Perhaps the kind of popular philosophy that is expressed in aphorisms, in sayings, in names and nicknames. For example, the term “highbrow and lowbrow,” that seems to me a characteristic form of thought and expression. You can gather from that that I think the characteristic genres today are very popular indeed in the sense of representing the thought of the people much more than the thought of unusual persons, highly gifted and also highly biased in one way or another. Perhaps we arrive through this fumbling of mine at the possible choice of the comics as the characteristic genre.

SCHLESINGER: You raise one question in your book which has always baffled me, and that is the way in which writers like Dickens could produce such a constant body of work without benefit of typewriters, without benefit of computers, and at the same time conducted extensive correspondence. How do you figure they did that?

BARZUN: I attribute it to the presence of a group of people who have been totally forgotten: servants. It’s perfectly true that we have no notion of the extent to which the world up to, say, 1920, to take a year at random, depended on the servant class. And of course they were well or badly treated--mostly badly, I suppose--but they helped the world’s work. For example, when Leigh Hunt, an early 19th century English poet, was at his lowest financially and was begging money from Byron and Shelley and other people, he and his wife and two children had two servants. Later on, I read somewhere, the admirals in the British navy were being cut back from an allowance of 20 to 14 servants. Now, in Dickens’ household or George Eliot’s, or any other writer’s, there would be four or five servants, and they did all sorts of things that now we do for ourselves, which liberated Dickens or Bulwer-Lytton or George Eliot from drudgery to write, to give lectures. Dickens was an amateur actor and he indulged in theatricals. He did a million things that we are prevented from doing because we have to go through the chores we all know.

SCHLESINGER: Your book is a brillant example of analytical history. What do you make of the current school of younger historians who think everything is a social construct?

BARZUN: They have no sense of history. They are rotten with abstraction, which is a great disease of the modern world and another sign of decadence. When abstraction, which of course is indispensable, gets to be to the third or fourth degree, the world recedes, and everything looks as if it had been made by the process of abstraction itself.