It hardly came as a surprise last week when Jacques Barzun shuffled off the mortal coil. He was, after all, 104. But his legacy as an anti-statist is grand.
Barzun’s death presents a renewed opportunity to discuss his important contribution to cultural history. His magnum opus, “From Dawn to Decadence, 1500 to the Present: 500 Years of Cultural Life,” published in 2000, summarizes nearly 75 years of observations culled from in-depth and astute reading as well as rubbing shoulders with some of the best thinkers and artists of the 20th century.
By decline, Barzun wasn’t indicting primetime television fare, Occupy Wall Street and Tea Party protests, orStephen King novels. As he wrote in the book’s introduction, decadence:
implies in those who live in such a time no loss of energy or talent or moral sense. On the contrary, it is a very active time, full of deep concerns, but peculiarly restless, for it sees no clear lines of advance. The loss it faces is that of Possibility. The forms of art as of life seem exhausted, the stages of development have been run through. Institutions function painfully. Repetition and frustration are the intolerable result. Boredom and fatigue are great historical forces.
In other words, we may be as a dog chasing its tail at present, but all is not lost. This is a far more cheerful assessment of our contemporary culture than what one daily reads during, say, the current election cycle wherein editorial pages opine that election of this-or-that candidate or passage of one-or-another proposal will result inevitably, in the words of REM’s Michael Stipe, “The end of the world as we know it,” conveniently forgetting the final clause: “And I feel fine.”
As should we all rest easy with the knowledge of our shared accumulated culture despite the many missteps of government encroachment into our daily lives. The fabric may be worn and sometimes frayed, but, as Bogart consoled, “We’ll always have Paris.”
Or, for we fortunate enough to live in these times, the negative rights enshrined in the U.S. Constitution; the library shelves of books celebrating all that is honorable about the human race in the face of war, poverty, disease and the thousand natural shocks flesh is heir to; the art galleries trumpeting the pinnacle of human creativity; sanitary and medical advancements; the amazing technological achievements from the Guttenberg press to the Internet; and dedicated individuals willing to devote their time, efforts and sometimes entire careers to the preservation of all that represents the best of aesthetic accomplishments and governance.
Like my friend the late Russell Kirk, Barzun possessed a genius for providing a tonic against the premature assessment that our civilization was irredeemably consigned to eventual despair. In fact, rumors of the demise of our culture are greatly exaggerated.
However, Barzun and Kirk both recognized distinct disruptions in the cultural order. Barzun, for example, was among the first of the intellectual elite to identify government meddling in arts, philanthropy and education institutions as hindrances rather than remedies. Representative essays on these subjects can be found in his collections “The House of Intellect” and “The Culture We Deserve.” In the latter, he presents some of the most cogent arguments against public arts funding ever committed to paper, including the seemingly counterintuitive supposition that government-supported art may spur more art but of an increasingly diminished quality.
No commentary on Barzun can do his tremendous influence justice, as many more worldly scribes have attempted and fallen considerably short of the mark. Readers unfamiliar with his work should ferret out his many books and essays for a quick crash tutorial — but be warned, you may not be able to stop.
Those who know of his work would be well-served by a refresher course. The culture may not be dead, but it sure could use an invigorating jolt.
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