From Distingué to Demotic

Distingué: adjective

having a distinguished manner or appearance

Demotic: adjective

denoting or relating to the kind of language used by ordinary people; popular or colloquial:
synonyms: popular · vernacular · colloquial · idiomatic · vulgar · common

Well, I knew it didn't really mean "demonic" but I suspect that was the impression that Jacques Barzun wanted to give in the final pages of his 800+ page magnum opus From Dawn to Decadence: 1500 to the Present: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life , especially to idiots like me who had to look it up. "Demotic" sounds so much scarier than "vulgar."

Barzun is convinced that Western Civilization has run its course. The previous 795 odd pages were devoted to a history of a few overriding principles, the importance of which were emphasized by capital letters whenever they were summoned as illustration: EMANCIPATION, PRIMITIVISM, ABSTRACTION, ANALYSIS, REDUCTIVISM, SECULARISM, SELF-CONSCIOUSNESS, SCIENTISM, and SPECIALISM.

These pages also introduce people most of us have never heard of, important contributors to the ideas that make the world we have inherited. Kaspar Schwenkfeld, an eccentric of the 16th century who argued that each person was entitled to be his or her own kind of Christian; Tasso, a rock-star poet; Vauban, a 17th century French military engineer, who wrote, I fear for the state of the monarchy when I see garrisons made up of companies of children or other poor little wretches who have been snatched from their homes and subjected to all kinds of ill-treatment and who are commanded for the most part by officers who are as badly off as they are - lodged like pigs, half-naked and half-dead of hunger.

Beaumarchais, an 18th century playwright, without whom, Barzun argues, the American war of independence might have taken another turn; Hazlitt, a 19th century essayist, who wrote, Those who would proscribe whatever falls short of imaginary perfection do so, not from a higher capacity of taste or range of intellect than others, but to destroy, to "crib and cabin in" all enjoyments and opinions but their own, and Walter Bagehot, a 19th century journalist who, In any conflict of persons or of ideas ... was always able to see that neither side was perverse or stupid, but had reasons for militancy...[and] could always state the reasons for his choices with the utmost clarity.

Barzun wrote, of his themes, that:
The clue to the fallacy of SCIENTISM is this: geometry (in all senses of the term) is an ABSTRACTION from experience; it could not exist without the work of the human mind on what it encounters in the world.

...the theme applicable to revolution is EMANCIPATION and not Freedom. Old shackles are thrown off, tossed high in the air, but come down again as moral duty well enforced.

Now, ANALYSIS, the breaking of wholes into parts, is fundamental to science, but for judging works of art, the procedure is more uncertain...Depending on the particulars of its effect, it can also be designated REDUCTIVISM.

The last chapter, entitled "Demotic Life and Times," confuses me, because reading other reviews in preparation for this one, I seem to be missing the optimism. The man who seemed to be giving many things at the start of the 20th century - art, literature, music - a proper place as valid responses to the times - seemed to me to make little of the three themes he saw defining the decadence of the end: Compassion, Irreverence, and Creativity. Note that each of these themes rate only a first letter cap.

Grouping Compassion with the welfare state and various civil rights movements, he cites a 1999 New York law making breast-feeding in public a civil right.

Of Irreverence, he says, It was rarely noticed that when nothing is revered, irreverence ceases to indicate critical thought.

As for Creativity: But the most endearing idea in the demotic mind was surely that creativity dwells or lurks in every human being.

It is this that he designates the culture of the demotic - which can be read as the culture of the common people, popular culture, or - and this is the definition that I get from his examples - just plain vulgar. There was a lot I liked about Barzun, many of his prejudices that I share to one degree or another, and as one who shares in the current culture of the demotic, there are some similar concerns I have for the future, similar appreciation for our distinguished past. But I also hold out hope, for Western and Eastern civilization, and what they may, eventually, accomplish together.

Barzun finishes with what he calls a "Prologue" to the future, a future in which he assumes that the worst excesses of Compassion, Irreverence, and Creativity will lead inevitably to Boredom and the Corporate State. His last paragraph, however, holds out the promise that the Bored might rediscover the glorious past of the written word, the painted picture, and the orchestra of sound, and that this rediscovery will also resurrect enthusiasm in the young and talented, who keep exclaiming what a joy it is to be alive.

It may be a long time coming, but nothing is impossible in this best of all possible worlds.

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