a curious Yankee in Europe's court

blog about living in Europe, and Italy

Reading Barzun: decoding today’s headlines

Posted on the February 25th, 2010

This morning, I read in the New York Times that the banks who helped Greece hide its massive debt  may actually now be pushing the nation closer to the brink of financial ruin (“Banks Bet Greece Defaults on Debt They Helped Hide” Feb 24, 2010):

…credit-default swaps, effectively let banks and hedge funds wager on the financial equivalent of a four-alarm fire: a default by a company or, in the case of Greece, an entire country. If Greece reneges on its debts, traders who own these swaps stand to profit.

“It’s like buying fire insurance on your neighbor’s house — you create an incentive to burn down the house,” said Philip Gisdakis, head of credit strategy at UniCredit in Munich.

Crazy, right? Legal, oh yes. Perfectly. These days. (see here)

As I wrote about in an earlier post, I’m reading Jacques Barzun’s history of our past five hundred years (“FROM DAWN TO DECADENCE 1500 to the Present/500 Years of Western Cultural Life”).  Today, reading the Times story, I recalled something I just read in the Barzun book.

He is describing the 16th century Protestant Reformation,  a revolution against the widespread (Perfectly. Legal.) institutional decadence of the time:

The system was rotten. This had been said over and over; yet the old hulk was immovable. When people accept futility and the absurd as normal, the culture is decadent. The term is not a slur; it is a technical label.

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His clarifying vision of who we are: Jacques Barzun

Posted on the February 17th, 2010

Here at my Passing Comments blog, my mission (usually) is to write about news events, and ideas, and people that express human potential at its most intelligent and creative. I avoid (usually) focusing on the negative for its own sake, primarily because it’s done far better in so many other places than I ever could (not sarcasm). If that sounds Goody Two-Shoes, so be it.

Even in blogging recently about the current financial crisis (seemingly) threatening the European Union and its monetary system, I’m digging for the pony buried beneath all the shit (the expletive fits precisely).

And in this post you’re reading, I have to say I’m as pleased with my book find as with any other person, place or thing I’ve featured. I know I’m a little late in my discovery —  it was first published in 2000. But I have to say I feel a bit sorry for those who read it (way) back then, because it seems to me to be an even richer experience to travel through its pages exactly now in 2010.

The book I’m referring to is the magnificent…exhilarating “FROM DAWN TO DECADENCE 1500 to the Present/500 Years of Western Cultural Life” by Jacques Barzun.  I’m only in the first pages of this opus so I won’t rush to description. But so far I’ve found no pointers toward despair, only clarity and some praise.

Barzun was in his eighties when he wrote the 877-page history. In an interview with Roger Gathman, Barzun explained why he wrote the book so late, and described it (“The Man Who Knew Too Much” The Austin Chronicle, Oct 13, 2000):

It is a history, a plain cultural history, with no special theory or gimmickry about it. When I was just beginning to teach at Columbia, after my dissertation, I thought I would write a history of European culture from 1789 to the present. I was dissuaded from it by a friend of my father’s who was the director of the Bibliotheque Nationale. I was doing research there and he asked me what I was doing, and I told him, and he said, “Oh, young man, please don’t do any such thing. You’ll write about things that you know at first hand, and you will fill the rest out with things you get out of secondary texts. There’s no need of that at any time.” So I said, “How long should I study original works before I begin?” He said, “Well, why don’t you wait until you are 80.” I think I waited until I was 84, 85.

From the book, excerpt one:

“Borrowing widely from other lands, thriving on dissent and originality, the West has been the mongrel civilization par excellence. But in spite of patchwork and conflict it has pursued characteristic purposes–that is its unity–and now these purposes, carried out to their utmost possibility, are bringing about its demise. This ending is shown by the deadlocks of our time: for and against nationalism, for and against individualism, for and against the high arts, for and against strict morals and religious belief.”

And excerpt two, explaining why we are in decline:

“But why should the story come to an end? It doesn’t, of course, in the literal sense of stoppage or total ruin. All that is meant by Decadence is ‘falling off.’ It 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.

It will be asked, how does the historian know when Decadence sets in? By the open confessions of malaise, by the search in all directions for a new faith or faiths. Dozens of cults have latterly arisen in the Christian West: Buddhism, Islam, Yoga, Transcendental Meditation, Dr. Moon’s Unification Church, and a large collection of others, some dedicated to group suicide. To secular minds, the old ideals look outworn or hopeless and practical aims are made into creeds sustained by violent acts: fighting nuclear power, global warming, and abortion; saving from use the environment with its fauna and flora (‘Bring back the wolf!’); promoting organic against processed foods, and proclaiming disaffection from science and technology. The impulse to PRIMITIVISM animates all these negatives.

Such causes serve to concentrate the desire for action in a stalled society; for in every town, county, or nation, it is seen that most of what government sets out to do for the public good is resisted as soon as proposed. Not two, but three or four groups, organized or impromptu, are ready with contrary reasons as sensible as those behind the project. The upshot is a flaming hostility to things as they are…”

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