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With his latest book, From Dawn to Decadence, eminent historian and public intellectual Jacques Barzun, in his usual daring style, has attempted nothing less than a synthesis of the past 500 years of Western culture. But this text is, despite its massive scale, a charmingly personal and unfailingly readable approach to the questions that pervade our particular millennial moment: Where have we been? What next?

Beginning with the Protestant reformation in the 16th century, Barzun finds in the revolutionary imagination the origins of modernity with its attendant tropism toward achievement and self-destruction. He writes: "How a revolution erupts from a commonplace event -- tidal wave from a ripple -- is cause for endless astonishment. Neither [Martin] Luther in 1517 nor the men who gathered at Versailles in 1789 intended at first what they produced at last. Even less did the Russian liberals of 1917 foresee what followed. All were as ignorant as everybody else of how much was to be destroyed. Nor could they guess what feverish feelings, what strange behavior ensue when revolution, great or short-lived, is in the air."

Barzun thus recognizes that there exists in the texture of the Western ascent, a dark thread of tragic consequence. This is, of course, merely a point of departure for his exploration of the hidden relationships among Western culture's critical eras and errors. He correctly perceives, for example, that mid-19th century painting could not validate the philosopher Schopenhauer's call for a "lasting satisfaction of restless desire" and, therefore, precipitated a resurgence of neo-classicism. But realism would survive these roguish mythologists on two fronts: the operatic stage and the horror of the Civil War. Moreover, that the war was recorded in photographs makes it a giant movement toward the self-consciousness of the 20th century.

Barzun's fascinating history demonstrates, first, that an intellectual in the old style can rethink received opinion from within his own tradition and still create great scholarship and, second, that the construct of the West, if it is anything at all, is a sense of having been there and done that.

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