Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories from History and the Arts by Clive James
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Is it possible to ask, without sounding like a morbid troublemaker, why the death of Clive James last November was not greeted with the outpouring of vituperation that marked Harold Bloom’s demise the month before? Granted, Bloom celebrated Milton’s Satan and took a certain delight in playing the villain, as opposed to James’s avuncular televisual charm, but still—don’t the politically fastidious take politics seriously?
I used to be politically fastidious and to take politics very seriously. Like many American readers of my generation, I barely knew who Clive James was when Cultural Amnesia was published in 2007. We didn’t know he was an Australian ex-pat turned high-brow TV presenter and public poet-critic in the British media. We only knew he had produced a book wrapped in an irresistibly cool dust jacket, its design borrowed from an early-20th-century Art Deco ad for a German electrical company, and marketed as a collection of essays arguing for “a universal humanism”—a quality much needed after the previous half-decade’s so-called clash of civilizations.
Cultural Amnesia offered an alphabetical introduction to 106 artistic and political personalities as an antidote to what James diagnosed as the new century’s forgetting of the previous 100 years’ horrors, especially those presided over by Hitler and Stalin. All that and a blurb from J. M. Coetzee, too, a nod from Australia’s most distinguished literary import to one of its best-known exports. How could this fail to be a great book?
But the year, again, was 2007. George W. Bush had another year to go in office, and I was one year into graduate school. I styled myself an anti-imperialist, possibly even—I wasn’t quite sure yet—a communist, and I was a very severe ideological critic of the literary arts. So when I skipped to the end of Cultural Amnesia (I always skip to the end to see if a book’s worth reading) and found this right-Hegelian affirmation of history’s triumphant conclusion in liberal democracy, which struck me as if it might have come from the desk of Paul Wolfowitz or even of Dick Cheney himself, I was not amused:
The world is turning into one big liberal democracy anyway. Terrorism will punch angry holes in it, but in the long run nothing will stop the planetary transformation. Even if armed with a second-hand atomic bomb, an obscurantist can do nothing for the poor. Most of the poverty on Earth is caused by the number of people being born who would ordinarily have not been conceived. Prosperity gave them life. All too frequently the life seems not worth living, but when we cry out at the injustice we are asking for more democracy, not less. […] Hegel, when he said that we can learn little from history, forgot about Hegel, author of the best thing about history that has ever yet been said. He said that history is the story of liberty becoming conscious of itself.
Younger readers might not detect it now, but between the lines in 2007 the politically-fastidious critic could hear an undertone of apologia for the Iraq War, which James, in fact, supported.
I turned to James’s entries on figures from the grad-school canon, which tended to confirm my suspicions that I was dealing with an unsavory character. James judges Edward Said a slippery operator who should have been too cultivated and learned to confirm the victim mentality of the Arab world’s authoritarian regimes with his theory of Orientalism. What about Walter Benjamin? An incomprehensible mystic who hadn’t taken advantage of his academic exile to write clear prose for the common reader, says James, and moreover an addle-pated intellectual who culpably let Marxist totalitarianism turn his head. As for Sartre, he is, says James, “a devil’s advocate to be despised more than the devil,” the villain of the book. James thinks more highly of Hitler as a geopolitical strategist that he thinks of Sartre as a writer:
[H]e presents us with our most worrying reminder that the problem of amoral intelligence is not confined to the sciences. It can happen to culture too, which suggests that on some level being a humanist means not being like Sartre. His admirers might say that we are in no danger of that. But usually, when they admire him that much, they make his sort of noise. The tip-off is the sentence that spurns the earth because it fears a puncture.
Many other entries on intellectuals and philosophers focused, I observed, on figures from an entirely different canon: the anti-Communist pantheon, from Raymond Aron to François Furet, from Jean-François Revel to Leszek Kolakowski.
James’s “universal humanism” was neoconservatism with a human face, I concluded; the man was some kind of Antipodean Christopher Hitchens. I wasn’t the only one to notice this book’s troubling ideological tendencies either. Here is Garth Risk Hallberg writing at The Millions a few years before he made his own millions, in a review-essay whose very title is a shot at James’s politics, “Margaret Thatcher, Humanist Icon”:
The truth about Clive James is that he can’t entertain the idea that his triumphalist brand of capitalist liberalism might have its own flaws to be guarded against, its own totalizing tendencies, its own rolls of the dead. James is wonderful on artists whose lives and work are ideologically in harmony with each other and with him, but is much less tolerant than his bete noire Georg Lukacs of those whose ideas challenge a laissez-faire global political order. James frequently and rightly affirms that a right to dissent saves liberal democracy from becoming a totalizing ideology, but can’t conceal his resentment of the ungrateful few who exercise that right.
I had bought Cultural Amnesia in hardcover straight from the shelf at a now-defunct Barnes & Noble, and, after a year or so of discouraged browsing in its pages, I sold it to a used bookstore (happily still extant).
But recently, I found myself thinking about Clive James again. 2007 was a long time ago. Everything in politics has completely changed, almost unrecognizably. The very topics under discussion have altered, not to mention the attitudes people hold toward them. In the mid-2000s, for instance, the question, almost to the exclusion of all others, was religion, whereas now it is race-and-gender all the time. Many in liberal quarters now hail their old enemies, the aforementioned neoconservatives, as hedges against the populist revolts of left and right. Furthermore—and this is a slightly separate development—certain leftist ideas with an undeniably totalitarian lineage have escaped the sinking ship of the academic humanities and now dictate terms to public intellectuals, activist organizations, educational institutions, and mainstream politicians.
The rehabilitation of the neoconservatives is a step too far for me, but I have lately had my own second thoughts about the ethical viability of a politics rooted in Marxist assumptions about social struggle, self, and the state. So I bought Cultural Amnesia again, sometime last year, but didn’t look at it until James died in November. Since then, I have read it from cover to cover, all 800-some pages, give or take an eye-glazing passage or two on military strategy or jazz minutia, and have come away with a more mixed judgment than the one my righteous younger self formulated.
First, the good. This will sound like a back-handed compliment, but James’s intellectual enthusiasm is Cultural Amnesia‘s chief attraction. His many asides on book-hunting in the dusty stalls of far-flung locales and on picking up languages here and there—not just the intellectual’s customary smattering of French and German, either, but Russian and Japanese, too—can’t fail to make readers want to improve their own learning, even if we don’t have TV production duties from which we can abscond for the odd hour to a Buenos Aires bookshop or Petersburg café.
Furthermore, James seems to love nonfiction more than fiction—a useful corrective to a literary world largely consumed by novels. I share his taste for argumentative nonfiction, for essays and polemics, though I confess I am more lukewarm on another of his passions, history. It always seems to me that, since any body of facts can be made to say X or Y depending on the writer’s rhetorical gifts, I only ever encounter polemic even in the most stolid- or scholarly-seeming histories. With this easy skepticism, I excuse my laziness and ignorance, and I have largely come by my historical knowledge from the footnotes to classic literature (you can learn a lot of history that way, it should be said). James’s discussions of historians as writers, as prose artists, is fascinating either way, as when he disparages Gibbon’s sentences as unreadably stylized. I’m sure that when I do get around to reading history I’ll be grateful for his recommendations—he endorses Alan Bullock’s Hitler: A Study in Tyranny at least twice in this World-War-II-saturated book, and, though I haven’t had the pleasure, I pass on the endorsement to you.
James was also a poet, one unfashionably committed to formal verse. This might be the main reason the Twitterati didn’t dance as ardently on his grave as I might have expected; as he often conceded with comic embarrassment, James was said (usually by himself) to be near death for the whole decade before he actually died, and his twilight poems in The New Yorker—my own favorite is “Whitman and the Moth”—endeared him to a younger American readership. While we can quarrel with some of his specific judgments—he’s unreasonably hard on Rilke, for instance—he lights up the page every time he turns to poetry as craft and discipline, even when he’s being willfully contrarian:
The only serious epic that is entirely, lyrically successful from line to line is Eugene Onegin, which is really a verse novel. All the other entirely successful epics are comic; in English, they are The Canterbury Tales, The Dunciad, and—the pick of the bunch, and the Cullinan Diamond of poetry in English after Shakespeare—Byron’s Don Juan. An epic that mocks itself can make virtues of its own mechanisms. Otherwise it is doomed to creak forward like a siege engine in landscape short of citadels.
James’s lament over the decay of the English language is nuanced enough to be almost unanswerable. A populist who liked to communicate with a mass audience, he is hardly a prig castigating readers from on high for not speaking “proper English”; rather, he rightly mourns a broad knowledge of how language actually works, and insists, just as persuasively, that without such understanding, departures from custom will be thoughtless accident rather than creative improvement:
Writers don’t just read for the story: they read for the way the story is written, and the way the sentences are put together is the information that sticks. It helps, however, to have been taught in the first place what a sentence is: something that conveys information only by the rules it keeps. Grammar is a mechanism for meaning one thing at a time. Without it, you can’t even manage to be deliberately ambiguous, although to be ambiguous by accident is a result all too easily attained.
Above all, the air of utopianism that emanates from the aforementioned dust jacket, with its symmetrical radiance on a dark ground suggesting the light of intellect in a hostile world, almost makes up for James’s flaws. Can’t we all surely agree on values, if not how to implement them?
James begins with an “Overture” set in Vienna between the wars. There he celebrates the city’s Jewish diaspora as uncorrupted by the institutions—chiefly academic—they were prejudicially barred from, which forced them to champion, or at least to embody, liberal democracy as journalists writing for a popular readership.
Whole generations of Jewish literati were denied the opportunity of wasting their energies on compiling abstruse doctoral theses. They were driven instead to journalism, plain speech, direct observation and the necessity to entertain.
Such an update on the Enlightenment’s café society, its public sphere of the coffee house and newspaper, is a heaven many readers, if they are also writers, might like to ascend toward. Cultural Amnesia provides a roll call of café heroes, some familiar to Anglophone readers and some not: Egon Friedell, Karl Kraus, Alfred Polgar, Arthur Schnitzler. But the exclusions, corruptions, and instabilities that sustained this world—and James, to his credit, doesn’t fail to mention the anti-Semitism or poverty his subjects experienced—mean that we can’t ethically wish for its return, however we might mourn its passing. On that note, we might find James’s philo-Semitism discomfiting, a borrowed besiegement adopted by a certain generation of Anglo-American gentile intellectuals who apparently felt that their turn to the political center would be more palatable if done in the name of totalitarianism’s Jewish victims.
But the fate of the Jews, and its accompanying achievements, will be a recurring theme in this book for a good reason. There could be no clearer proof that the mind is hard to kill.
Cultural Amnesia is a political book before it is any other kind, though, and James’s politics at times disturbed me as much as they did in 2007, if for slightly different reasons. For one thing, James obsessively returns to the question of whether or not artists should be judged for their political behavior, which puts my opening question—why didn’t the Twitterati celebrate James’s death?—in an ironic light. Even as he several times cautions that heroism is rare in any era and under any regime, he denounces artists who failed to rise to their historical occasion—Borges, for instance, who did not lift his voice in time against the Argentine junta. While James disagrees with the thesis that poetry is impossible after Auschwitz, he introduces Auschwitz into almost every discussion of poetry.
This insistence on holding artists and intellectuals responsible for their political lapses was more a right-wing than a left-wing fixation back in the long-ago days of 2007. Note how Garth Risk Hallberg in his Millions review has to insist, against James’s often overweening moralism, that we must read the likes of Heidegger and Sartre carefully even to understand why and how their politics went wrong:
To the extent that they endorsed or excused (respectively) totalitarian regimes, Heidegger and Sartre could be seen to have fallen short of their own philosophies. But to reach this nuanced verdict, one has to have actually tried to understand the philosophies in question, and James can’t be bothered with philosophy (not a great quality in a cultural critic).
This is why those of us with long memories sometimes suggest that the neoconservatives—who used to say, “You’re either with us or against us”—taught the more militant among today’s advocates for social justice everything they know, or think they do, about art and politics.
James’s anti-intellectualism can simply be embarrassing. I admit I mostly excused myself from reading philosophy after graduate school, but even I am put off when James quotes abstruse passages from Sartre or Benjamin as a kind of boorish barroom joke, as if to say, “What are these ponces on about?” He maintains that empiricism—and an empirically-oriented poetry—will save us from totalitarianism’s obfuscations:
The great playwrights infused our language with a permanent awareness of the difference between desiccated eloquence and the voice of experience. English empirical philosophy began in the inherited literary language. That was how the English-speaking nations, above all others, were armed in advance against the rolling barrage of ideological sophistry in the twentieth century.
But such empiricism by its nature cannot answer the metaphysical questions almost everyone, including Shakespeare’s tragic heroes, asks from time to time. Here James’s hatred of philosophy and of serious epic literature converge: Virgil and Milton and Melville, Heidegger and Benjamin and Sartre—a passel of mystics leading their readers to Hitler-Stalin:
The occult and the mystically profound are perennial short cuts to a supervening vision: a world view without the world. Extreme authoritarianism is only a step away.
There really are persuasive cases to be made against certain leftist philosophies—James-like, I have always thought that Benjamin’s revered “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” for instance, would lead to the politics of Pol Pot if taken literally—but only those who try to understand philosophy in the first place are able to mount them, as Camus and Kolakowski among James’s heroes well understood.
Ironically, then, James’s liberalism conceals illiberalism. One must guard this liberalism so carefully that any philosophers or artists who stray an inch to right or left (or who drift upward even into apolitical metaphysics) must be whipped back into formation. If Brecht is too much the social agitator, sowing discontent among workers who ought to be grateful to live in a free society, then Rilke is too much the aesthete who poisons the republic with his perfumed airs. No wonder Hallberg observes that James is hardly less severe as an ideological critic than Lukács himself.
Sometimes in this long and deliberately haphazard book, though, James talks himself out of this illiberal liberalism. A sexist of the old chivalric school (“This is a book about a world men made, and it taught plenty of us to wish that women had made it instead”), James can be charmed into a moderating pity by this book’s admittedly few female figures. Of Anna Akhmatova, he argues:
It should be a mark of reasonable politics that a woman like her is not called upon to be a heroine.
Gender aside, I think this is right: one necessary good of a liberal society is that it harbors many spaces free of the political, areas of endeavor and development where people don’t need to be warriors for any cause but that of their own sensibility. You wouldn’t know it from this book’s other chapters, though, the ones that come down as hard on Ernst Robert Curtius or Paul Celan or Wittgenstein as I expected the Twitterati to come down on James.
James might rouse readerly ire for somewhat startling political reasons, too. Aren’t neoconnish liberals like him supposed to be above the worrisome trappings of populism? Many of James’s chapters are digressive—he devotes his entry on Sophie Scholl, for example, largely and somewhat tastelessly to an appreciation of Natalie Portman, whom he thinks should play Scholl in a Hollywood movie about the White Rose—and none digresses more than a piece ostensibly about the lyrical documentarian Chris Marker that becomes a passionate defense of Australia’s refusal to admit undocumented migrants. James believes that the migrants are both unfairly taking advantage of the legal immigration process and quite possibly coming from societies hostile to democratic values.
This rather unnerving chapter is like those compilations showing the Clintons, Obama, and other Democratic Party luminaries to have sounded like Trump on immigration policy until just a few years ago. As James says elsewhere in this vast book, a liberal democracy can only avoid nationalism by actually being a country; presumably, for him, too much uncontrolled immigration would fray the sense of social unity that makes such national identity possible.
James also notes twice that the greatest argument he’s ever read for open borders was written by Mario Vargas Llosa, which proves, he says, that the famously conservative Latin American novelist isn’t as right-wing as we’d thought. I looked up Vargas Llosa’s essay, though—it’s called “The Immigrants,” collected in The Language of Passion—and was amused to find that the main politicians the Peruvian novelist quotes in support of his open-borders advocacy are Steve Forbes and Jack Kemp, 1990s U.S. Republicans running against the more populist Democrats of the Clinton era. In other words, as Bernie Sanders once argued before being brought back into line by activists, open borders is not a left position but a libertarian one. That certainly doesn’t make it wrong, but it can be useful to clarify one’s terms.
The above paragraph illustrates my present sense of how books ought to be used politically—not as allies or as adversaries, but as aids to thought. We can throw them across the room or sell them in fury if they make arguments we find fallacious or monstrous, or we can measure our own sense of the topic and its complexities against their contentions. The former is more satisfying but less empowering, as it leaves us no wiser than we were before. James knows this. He goes so far, in an essay on Robert Brasillach, as to judge the French reprisals against collaborators after Vichy to have potentially exceeded the mandate of justice, as “bound to be questioned by anyone who believes in free speech, however foul it might be.”
Liberal democracies are no improvement on totalitarian states if they don’t sometimes err in the directions of tolerance and freedom. James’s own style commits this wholesome error inadvertently. A few online reviews complain that Cultural Amnesia is not actually an introductory text. James expects his readers to come to him with some prior knowledge of history and the arts. This does at times leave the reader stranded in James’s wake; I certainly skimmed—the readerly equivalent of the polite nod and noncommittal smile in face-to-face conversation—whenever James started going on about music or military history. But what from one perspective is an arrogant refusal to instruct readers is from a different vantage an exemplary practice of literary democracy. James doesn’t talk down but, at his best, invites us up. If only he had extended the same understanding to some of the writers he dismisses so hastily as obscurantists.
Now that I’ve read it closely 13 years after contemptuously getting rid of it, what do I think of Cultural Amnesia? I think it is flawed just where its author is most sure of himself, and often fascinatingly complex in spite of its desire to be simple. But don’t miss James on poetry—and on movies and TV, which I haven’t had time to mention. The book recommendations, too, are a good reason to read this book. Whatever you think of James’s canon, it is no other major contemporary Anglophone critic’s canon, and I for one will be keeping a used-bookstore lookout for Egon Friedell. Then there’s that dust jacket. I hesitate to get rid of a book with a cover this beautiful twice. Any other writer might take that as an insult, but James the consummate showman would, I hope, be gratified by praise for a polished surface.