Prologue: An Idiot is a Genius to Another Idiot
Intelligence is boring, idiocy is bottomlessly fascinating. There are only so many statements about the world that can be true. But there is no limit to the ways in which people can be wrong.
For the last two years, I have been diving in and out of one of the most fascinating books I’ve ever had the privilege of reading. It is a 500 year cultural history of the Western World. It is called From Dawn to Decadence. A masterpiece of brilliant idiocy.
I am writing this whole ‘essay’ with Barzun’s book next to me. I suppose I can’t claim this essay to be anything more than a calling to account of his writing. The end of From Dawn to Decadence is a thirty-page rant about the utter terribleness of our time from the point of view of a brilliant French aristocrat who’d never experienced the necessity of coming into contact with real life. For all the scholarship that graces the other pages, there’s nary statistic to back up his point of view, or provable statement, or a kind word for the time in which he lives. All the careful scholarship with which he assembles the book utterly deserts him in the end. The book a scholarly masterpiece ruined by a rant.
In my own words, I guess I’m trying to repeat every one of his complaints with an additional layer of interpretation - trying to give some sense to it. My first reaction to this passage was hilarity, the very fact that someone can actually believe so many of the things he writes here defies belief. But then my inner aristocrat/disgruntled intellectual/prudish hauteur speaks up, ‘some of this makes a lot of sense.’ Well, of course it does, in the vacuum which nature abhors. There are many thinkers you can read whose writing seems make total sense until held up to reality’s unforgiving mirror. Of course the world would be a better place without taxes, abortion, war, religion, crime. But those things exist, and as he points out on every other page of the book - they always did. Usually, I throw out a book like this after thirty pages. It’s what I’ve done to Bertrand Russell, Noam Chomsky, Nietszche (though he got me more than thirty pages in), Rousseau, Richard Dawkins, Susan Sontag, Pierre Boulez....But the thirty pages of idiocy came at the end, so how was I to know what I was to find? And the mere fact that one can speak of Barzun in this exalted class of idiots is a testimony to how convincing he can be.
In its way, this book is an absolute masterpiece. It covers 500 years in 800 pages and took nine years to write. It is a piece of staggering erudition - portraying all the most important developments of each era’s politics, culture and science in prose so agile and interpretations so convincing as to make you wonder how academics ever thought they could ever get away with sloppiness. If this book were not a masterpiece, then the word ‘Masterpiece’ has no meaning.
(Scarily lucid for 103)
When Barzun began the book in 1991, he was eighty-four. That was twenty years ago, and he’s still alive today. I’ve developed a picture in my mind of him like that King from Greek Mythology who forgot to ask for eternal youth when he asked for eternal life, forever becoming still more of an anachronism. But what this book makes abundantly clear is that this writer, a scholar who witnessed nearly the entire twentieth century transpire, was obsessed by the desire to live in a different century. It would seem he’s gone through a entire century without any desire to experience it, and while there’s no doubt that such aloofness is a great help in living to 104, there’s equally little doubt that it made him cut a distinct figure from the past who’s in no way equipped to deal with the problems of his own day. The critic Alfred Kazin once wrote in his diary that he could not imagine Barzun going to bed without wearing a suit.
From a certain point of view, I can’t deny that this whole essay of mine is total, utter, comically obvious plagiarism; the kind that would get me kicked out of a university and barred even from a community college - exactly the kind of decadence which Barzun warns against. On the other hand, standards weren’t nearly so strict in the ages which he longs for. It’s not a simple matter of the TS Eliots or Ezra Pounds who freely steal from older writers in the midst of a decadent age he so deplores. To follow his logic would be to indict the ages of Shakespeare and Oscar Wilde to. Except for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, there weren’t many Shakespeare plays whose plot he seemed to conjure from the ether. I’d like to picture him writing The Merchant of Venice with a copy of Marlowe’s Barabas Jew of Malta sitting in his lap, gleefully lifting lines, shifting them around and improving them as a way of showing Marlowe exactly what the senior writer did wrong. We all have such conversations in our heads with artists we like - even if it’s the director of Karate Kid II (why do all Japanese people converse with each other in horrible English?).
Even in my most delusional moments, I‘m obviously not, will never be, nor shall ever presume to compare my dumbass ramblings to Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde, or their idiot brothers. But what’s good enough for them is quite more than good enough for me. I’d like to think I’m improving on Barzun. I’m not one of the great scholar/intellectuals of the twentieth century. I’d be lucky if I ever became a mediocre one of the twenty first. On the other hand, I’m not an idiot.
…..does anybody believe that?