A week ago Dr. Anthony Fauci renewed a suggestion that our custom of handshakes should end. Twenty years ago Jacques Barzun wrote: “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.”
Barzun’s healthful warning comes early in From Dawn to Decadence (p. 127), his turn-of-the-millennium history of the West’s last five centuries. Some may wonder how 800 pages peppered with such cultural criticism could become a bestseller. I hope so.
Classic Barzun can overturn conventional thought. He titles the chapter that calls for an end to handshaking, “The Eutopians”. Why would an acknowledged master of English usage do that? “The title of this chapter will cause the open-eyed reader to think: ‘a misprint,’ or worse: ‘a misspelling.’ It is neither. The slight shock is intended to fix in the memory a point of interpretation that has a cultural bearing and is moreover a point of literary criticism.”
Barzun takes Sir Thomas More’s Greek prefix in U-topia meaning “no place” and substitutes a better Greek prefix Eu-topia “to mean the good place.” Noting the drift of language, Barzun says, “The adjective utopian has acquired the further meaning of ‘unworkable’; but that implication has not kept writers since More from designing happy societies.” Conventions can be improved upon, even in orthography.
Among the delights of From Dawn to Decadence are the Cross Sections, chapters with perspectives viewed from a particular place and time. “The View from Venice Around 1650” discovers the city’s politics, trade, diplomacy, and innovative maritime law. The broader view follows: “As the Venetians who lived around 1650 could see for themselves or heard from visitors or their own ambassadors, the world outside was full of novelties other than westward explorations for trade.”
Barzun studs his Cross Sections with literary, mathematical, scientific and musical gems. “It was the love and nurture of opera in Venice that made it a genre of endless possibilities.” Daily living is subject to review, too. “The sole touch of refinement in dining was the customary washing of hands before and after the meal.” Twenty years ago that sentence drew mild amusement. Now ears prick up.
“That washing of the hands at meal times was the one recurrent act of hygiene in the whole of life. The body was washed at birth, before marriage, and after death. The century that laid down the fundamentals of science is the one that got rid of public baths and of the very idea of regular bathing. In the Middle Ages and Renaissance even small towns had bathhouses.” How the fear of disease led to the decline of bathing – without stopping the plague – is among the historical curiosities that make Barzun’s narrative so fascinating.
Hand washing now is more common than ever before … and becoming tiresome. Reading From Dawn to Decadence can strengthen the resolve to continue. Plagues return. Viruses mutate. We count on innovators to fight new diseases.
Barzun goes back further than men of science like Jenner and Pasteur to include a daring woman: “Early in the 1700s Lady Mary Wortley Montagu was carrying on a crusade that did not let Londoners forget their health: she had the paradoxical idea that inserting a bit of matter taken from a smallpox patient under the skin of a healthy person would fend off the disease. Inoculation (later, vaccination when cows were used for the purpose) won over a few daring citizens and physicians; they proved her case and George I had his grandchildren inoculated.”
This novel coronavirus that keeps us at home presents an opportunity to do more than read plague novels or binge-watch television. Time-travel through Barzun’s Cross Sections in Madrid (circa 1540), Venice (c. 1650), London (c. 1715), Weimar (c. 1790), Paris (c. 1830), Chicago (c. 1895) and finally arrive in New York … without fear of infection.
A word of warning, though: Barzun’s thought can be “like a nasty germ in a healthy organism” and you may “come down with the disease of seeing things differently.” First infected as a teenager, I managed to live on and risked shaking his hand.
I wish that I could link you just as easily to e-reader versions of From Dawn to Decadence: 1500 to the Present, 500 Years of Western Cultural Life. There is none. Barzun’s innovations gave book typesetters trouble enough. Some 400 quotations set in the margins would need to float freely as e-readers alter text size. On the other hand, his “additional help to seeing wholes” would be perfectly suited to e-reading’s internal links. The excerpt from his “Author’s Note” in the best edition (paperback) will give a better idea of what Barzun offers those seeking refuge … and (spoiler alert) renascence.