from dawn to decadence

The strange coincidence of the death of Jacques Barzun and the coming ‘superstorm’ of Hurricane Sandy just occurred to me.

Sandy is likely to leave me without power for at least a day or two, and maybe without other services as well (we’ll see). In 2008, Hurricane Ike rushed up through the Gulf Coast and hit hard enough all the way up in Louisville, KY that I not only lost power, but it continued to be lost for over two weeks because of the strange fact that we lived in a tiny, isolated patch of the grid— not even our whole apartment complex was out more than a few days. (All this was exacerbated by all the crews that had been sent down South.) In those days, I not only learned what the watches of the night are, I also read (among other things) Barzun’s From Dawn to Decadence, a strange tour de force, intermittently thrilling and solipsistic. Even some of Barzun’s eccentricities were compelling; I still like his replacement of ‘technology’ with ‘techne’ (‘The word is short and exact; technology is neither’)— but, it is the sort of thing which can be respected and justified in a ninety year old man of letters that would be precious in my twenty–something hands. Despite the unrelenting pace of Barzun’s trip through five hundred years of cultural history, the book retains a remarkable amount of consistent organization.

Other than that barrage, all I’ve read of Barzun are some scattered essays, so perhaps my idea of From Dawn to Decadence as his Summa is unfair. In any case, it is a product of a lifetime with books—and one that began in a culture that could see value in such a life—that may not be replicable in the near–future. More’s the pity.

I won’t be reading From Dawn to Decadence during this storm, though; I have enough in the batting order.

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2 Comments

Filed under literature, film & tv, short posts

2 responses to “from dawn to decadence

  1. Splendid atmosphere for a first reading of *From Dawn to Decadence*! Please tell me that you were reading by a hurricane lamp.

    Looking at the Mencken quote below on truth versus “incurable romanticism,” you might enjoy another dip into Barzun by looking at the last chapter of his *Classic, Romantic, and Modern.* “‘Romanticism’ – A Sampling of Modern Usage” displays Barzun’s gift for translation (and not just from one language into another), in this case supplying the words that people intended but did not have at their command. Barzun, by the way, is an admirer of Mencken (his essay from the January 1946 edition of The Atlantic also appears in JB’s collection *A Word or Two Before You Go …*).

    Barzun’s *Stroll with William James* is another favorite.

    • Sorry, no hurricane lamp; I had candlelight and later—after a care package from my in–laws—an LED lamp.

      Thanks for the recommendation, though; it looks like used copies of Classic, Romantic, and Modern are nice & cheap, so I’ll put it on the list.

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