Decadence, East and West
The scholar Jacques Barzun provides our initial definition of decadence, taken from his brilliant survey of intellectual history, From Dawn to Decadence: 1500 to the Present, 500 years of Western Cultural Life (2000): “All that is meant by decadence is ‘falling off.’” His discussion ranges over Western art, music, religion, and literature, documenting and critiquing the many figures, changes, and evolutions up to the reigning vision of our time, which he succinctly epitomizes while defending the term of his assessment: “When people accept futility and the absurd as normal, the culture is decadent. The term is not a slur; it is a technical label.” Barzun goes on to explain how one can identify when a culture declines into decadence:
“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…. To secular minds, the old ideals look outworn or hopeless and practical aims are made into creeds sustained by violent acts….”
From this perspective, modern Western culture has been in free-fall for over a hundred years, arguably even longer. Whether high or low, such is the story of Western civilization, and, to the extent that it became modern civilization, its decadence has long been passed around the world, into the vitals of every regional civilization on the face of the earth. Together, we have all sunk into the dark pit of cynicism, frivolity, and despair, “fallen off” into nihilism….
Now available in
The Myth of the Enlightenment: Essays
Forthcoming, September, 2014.