Saturday, April 07, 2007

Tidbits from Dawn to Decadance

Such time as I'm finding to read right now is being divided between War and Peace and Dawn to Decadance. Tolstoy was moving along quickly for a good while, in spite of the death of a major character, until I got to the question of how and why the Russians defeated the French after the capture of Moscow. Tolstoy's one-line answer is pretty much summed up by "it was inevitable" (shades of The Matrix!), but he takes a good many chapters to explain all the causes that are not the reason that the French were put to retreat rather than just saying "it was inevitable" and getting on with the story. I know War and Peace is a novel--supposedly one of the grandest ever written--but sometimes it feels more like a treatise on history than Dawn to Decadance, which is a treatise on history.

I am incapable of summarizing or encapsulating Barzun's book into a few all-encompassing sentences. There is just so much in there. There is a reason I decided to make reading this book a year-long project. I'll content myself with sharing a few random thoughts from this week's reading.

In the prologue, Barzun explains that he chose to use the brief form "16C" or "18C" to name his time periods, rather than "16th century" or "18th century" or even "sixteenth century," because he uses the words so often that across 800 pages it take a lot of space. He uses some of the space saved by the cryptic "16C" to describe Queen Elizabeth I's physical appearance, which included painting her face chalk white and plucking her eyebrows out of existence, as well as throwing in the occasional editorial comment.

For example, at the end of a lengthy discussion of Utopian literature (which he spells Eutopian, for reasons I cannot elaborate right now), he says
Eutopian models show how mistaken are the critics who keep complaining that science has made great progress in improving material life but has lagged in doing the same for the the ethical. There was no progress to make. Men have known the principles of justice, decency, tolerance, magnanimity from an early date. Acting on them is another matter--nor does it seem easier for us to act on our best scientific conclusions when we deal with bodily matters: an age that has made war on smoking and given up the use of the common towel and the common cup should prohibit shaking hands.

Throughout the text of Dawn to Decadance, Barzun inserts parenthetical suggestions for further reading. Sometimes he says, "The book to read is...," and sometimes only "The book to peruse is...," meaning that it isn't worth a close, detailed reading, but might be worth looking into. So far, I have added six or eight things to my to-be-read-sometime list because of these notes, and I do not think I have run across any suggestions for books that I have already read. Until this week. (Finally!) Concerning the inaccuracy of Thomas More's historical record of Richard III, Barzun notes that the "book to read" is Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey. And I have already read that one! I wonder how many more "already read" books I'm going to encounter before the end? Not too many, I suspect.

In a weird synthesis of unplanned connections, Barzun mentioned War and Peace in my reading this week, citing Pierre as an example of literary picaresque, a sub-genre initiated by the anonymous Spanish author of La Vida de Lazarillo de Trmes. I have actually been surprised by the amount of literary criticism Barzun includes in this discussion of history, but of course, literature has been closely entwined with history from the beginning. Literature both reflects the time in which it was written, and sometimes influences the thinking of readers.

Let the record show that I've read all the way up to page 130. I'm in the midst of a discussion about Rabelais, an author I once made a feeble attempt at reading. All the praise for drinking and drunkenness wasn't at all to my taste, so I set it aside after probably no more than a few pages. Barzun tells me that Rabelais's bottle is like Pandora's box, so perhaps it is intended to have some kind of meaning, but I don't know if I'll be convinced enough to add Rabelais to my "to be read" list. Even if I did, I know it would be way, way down at the bottom.

I'm running out of time, or I would share what Jacques Barzun has to say about the "spirit of inquisition," which he assures us is alive and well and always has been, but you know I'm not telling you everything. I would suggest every thinking adult make a point of reading this book sometime.


At 6:17 PM , Blogger Ruth said...


Thanks for visiting my blog! I've looked at your book reviews before, from the Saturday Review of Books, but never commented here yet. As a fellow expat, I enjoy your comments on being a foreigner. I think you should read The Namesake!

Which translation of War and Peace are you reading? I have the Modern Library edition. I'm fascinated by all the references to people speaking French, or switching back and forth between Russian and French. I wish I could read Russian, because I can read French, and it would be really interesting to see how they actually talked in the original.


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